Joshua was in Pablo’s best guest room, but he was nowhere near sleep. When the knock came on his door, he was up to open it immediately.
Esmerelda came through the doorway, her expression one of regal calm. It struck him how different from his own emotions hers must be. She smoothed back the tossed covers of the bed and sat down at its foot.
He tried to wait for her to break the silence. “Well?” he said at last.
She turned her face full to him, and again he noticed the particular sweetness of her gaze. “Tell me, Josh. Do you think there is any hope that we will succeed in getting the girl from space back using the summoning of this spirit?”
Josh broke the glance and looked out the window, his eyes shadowed. “No, not really,” he said, after a painful pause.
“I don’t either,” she said. “But I do know how to get her back.” Josh pulled his eyes back to her face. “How?”
She looked at him, her gaze moving over his features, watching his reactions carefully. “Our usual rituals all fail to attract enough power because positivity here is fragmented and difficult to align.”
“So we need a ritual that is capable of alerting and then aligning a larger percentage of the discarnate mind.”
“We need one. But we don’t have one.”
“I have made one up,” said Esmerelda. “And it will work.”
“How could a new ritual work?” asked Josh. “The ones that we use now only work because certain segments have accepted them, through the centuries, as symbols of goodness. Without repetition, how could your ritual be any use?”
“This particular ritual,” said Esmerelda, “would not lend itself to repetition. But I believe it would alert a very large part of the positively oriented mind. The emotion it engenders is powerful enough to do what we need to do. Joshua, I want you to crucify me.”
He stared at her.
She went on. “It’s very simple, Josh. If we make this sacrifice, the positive force that I will be able to use will be more than we have ever gotten before.
And I think that with it, we can penetrate the lower astral planes and make a path of light, so that the spirit of the girl from space can use it to rejoin my spirit. I think that if we could focus that much power on those planes, there would be a great possibility that our consciousnesses would seek each other out instinctively, since we are parts of the same segment of total consciousness.
“No.” Josh uttered the single word, gripping her shoulders. He looked at her, realizing much about his feelings for her that he had never before admitted to his waking consciousness. Esmerelda might be right; her crucifixion might be able to alert enough astral power to rescue the space girl. But, although he had never claimed her, Esmerelda was his. He would not lose her. He could not give her up.
“No,” he repeated.
Esmerelda knew him too well to argue with his decision. His mind was set. He sat, eyes blank as rock, staring after her as she closed the door behind her.
She paused a few moments as though gathering her strength, then went down the hall to Theodore’s room and let herself in. She leaned over the soundly sleeping boy, and took one of his hands. Theodore came awake quickly, saw who it was, and pulled her head down to his to give her a kiss of greeting. “What is it?” he asked.
“Get dressed,” said Esmerelda. “There’s something we have to do.
Theodore was used to following her lead, and although he had no idea what she wanted, he found his pants and a shirt and was quickly dressed. Esmerelda took off her dressing robe, and Theodore was surprised to see that she had a white robe on under it, not embroidered with gold like the one she had worn for the previous ritual that he had witnessed, but pure white.
“Come,” she said. She led him through the door, down the stairs, and out of the house. They walked down the wagon road to the barn. The large barn door creaked open as Theodore pushed it back for them to pass through. Esmerelda took some matches and walked around the four walls of the clean-smelling, empty barn, lighting candles that she and Josh had carefully placed earlier in the day. As each candle added its feeble, flickering light to the vastness of the empty barn, Theodore became more and more aware of a feeling of subtle chill. When he had been part of the ritual in Joshua’s temple he had felt nothing but goodness and purity of light in the air; here there was something slightly wrong, something out of phase with the positivity they had wished to create. As the last candle was lit, Theodore thought he saw a vague shape move at the back door of the barn. His eyes strained to penetrate the darkness, but there did not seem to be anything there.
Esmerelda was staring down at the illumined patterns Joshua had drawn on the floor. She turned to face Theodore squarely in the moving shadows that the candles cast, and told him of her plan. She explained it to him just as she had to Joshua, but there was a great difference in her presentation of the idea. Josh had been requested to help; it was assumed that Theodore would help.
Half a dozen times, Theodore was on the verge of walking out of the barn, and yet he could no more leave her than stay. The most rational objection that he could think of was that he could see no real difference between having the genuine willingness to make the sacrifice, and actually doing it, as far as the world of thought was concerned. It seemed to him that the positive mind would unify behind the thought as well as the act.
“That’s not really so,” said Esmerelda. “It just doesn’t work that way. The only difference between discarnate mind and mind incarnate here is that minds on the mental planes don’t dwell within physical bodies. The biases and emotions of the minds remain pretty much as they were while they were incarnate, and high intellect is as rarely found there as it is here. Look at it this way, Ted. If I got up in front of a group of people and told them I was willing to die for what I believed, how many of them would care? Not many. But if I made a symbol of myself, and actually made the sacrifice in front of them, then I would have stirred their emotions. Isn’t that right?”
Theodore could only nod dumbly, as he watched the leaping shadows fall across her face.
“That’s why the actual physical crucifixion is necessary. There isn’t any other way to generate enough positive interest to rescue the space girl. Do you see?”
Theodore saw in her eyes the clear gleam of purpose, and knew beyond any doubt that she was determined. He felt the pressure of her will in his mind too, and in the end stood straight, and held out his hands to her. “OK. I’ll do what you want.”
Esmerelda took his hands, softly sure of the correctness of this plan. “If there were any other alternative, I would not ask it of myself, or of you.”
Theodore felt her mind’s certainty becoming one with his mind, smoothing his doubts.
Esmerelda broke the touch of their hands to bend over the intricate circles of design that Joshua had drawn to invoke the spirit. “Can we erase this?”
Theodore wanted it gone too; it seemed that the slight feeling of dead chill in the air came from there, as though the symbol of the spirit, not yet conjured, still brought evil into the place.
“I don’t want this here, Theodore,” said Esmerelda.
Theodore looked around. There was nothing in the barn at all to use; it was spotlessly bare. He rubbed at the paint with his foot; it smudged, but was wedded to the earthen floor, and would not be removed entirely. Esmerelda tried too, but to no avail.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It will not stand in my way.” She went outside the double barn doors and returned with a heavy hammer, huge nails, and an empty wooden soft drink case. She must have hidden them some time ago, thought Theodore. She handed them to him, and he set himself to do her bidding.
It took Esmerelda a full fifteen minutes to complete the ritual she had created. Theodore was swept up in the luminous beauty of her words and movements. At its end, he felt no longer like an executioner. Her will had become his own.
Esmerelda stepped up onto the small case, and leaned against the vertical member of the cross. She extended her arms until they were flush against the strongly bolted crosspiece. Theodore looked at her; she was nearly in silhouette in the dim candlelight, the flying shadows picking out light in her golden hair, licking along the bones of her finely drawn face. The wind outside was enough to stir the hair against Esmerelda’s shoulders, and strands of it blew across Theodore’s face. He felt immersed in her, and her will was his. He raised the hammer above his head for the stroke, and placed the nail against her cupped palm. But then he looked up at the longshanked nail, accepted so easily by Esmerelda’s yielding skin, and he broke away from the cross, lowering the hammer and backing away from her.
“I can’t,” he said.
He dropped the hammer and put his arms around her, and held her tightly to him for a long time. She was still and calm in his arms, and when Theodore had regained control of himself, she kissed him, and put her hands to his cheeks. Moving her fingers gently along his face, looking at him again with her purpose shining quietly in her eyes, she spoke. “I know. I know what your pain must be. And I know my own. But you know that we are losing. And we cannot lose.”
“Why can’t we lose? Let the planet go. We don’t belong here, anyway.”
“When this is all over,” said Esmerelda, “we will find each other again. The time will come, and we will be together again.”
She put her arms around Theodore, and they stood close for a long time, until her will was Theodore’s again, and they both had accepted the leave-taking, and had said good-bye.
Esmerelda walked back to the cross and placed herself against its vertical member once again, while Theodore tried to bring himself to walk the few steps to her side, and fulfill his part of the hard task. His thoughts worked to quiet his spirit, to make him accept Esmerelda’s sacrifice and become one with its purpose, and only a sudden noise made him look up.
Through his tears, he could see a figure coming through the door, holding a short rifle. Theodore had only a second to see the intruder before he was hit. It was impossible to tell whether Armstrong had intended to kill him instantly, or whether a glint from the hammer in Theodore’s hand caused the reflex action on the trigger. The carbine spurted fire. The stocky Sergeant controlled the gun with the ease of long practice, pressing down hard on the hand guard as it attempted to rise. He emptied the full magazine in one burst, spraying Theodore and the wall behind him. Death was almost instantaneous, and Esmerelda was able to see Theodore’s spirit separate from his riddled, torn physical body.
Then the Sergeant turned to her, his eyes hard and bright as he looked at her. He pointed the carbine at her and pressed the trigger, but the weapon was empty. He lunged, driving the bayonet through her and deep into the heavy wooden post. His thrusting lunge was professional, and the bayonet was imbedded in the wood of the cross. He tugged at it. It would not yield.
The sergeant put a heavy boot against the bottom of the cross and, as the life slipped from the girl, worked frantically to free the blade of the bayonet. As he wrenched the weapon up and down, blood began to run down the short barrel and onto his hands. He jumped back in horror, and carefully inspected his immaculate uniform. He was able to work his handkerchief out, and wiped his hands meticulously. The weapon was now slimy with blood. He could never hope to clean it. It was no longer an acceptable part of the uniform. He would leave it there. He opened the flap of his holster and took out the Match .45. His stubby thumb cocked the hammer. He walked out of the barn and started up the road towards the house.
As he approached the top of the rather steep rise that hid the house from the barn’s view, he suddenly saw headlights and heard the clever whine of a finely-tuned engine. Joshua had heard the shots, and had come to investigate. Armstrong leveled his pistol at the lights, and as soon as he saw the windshield of the car, he squeezed off a shot. Glass splinters sprayed past Joshua’s face, temporarily blinding him, so that he never saw the man that his car bumped harshly over as he started to brake. The car came to a lurching stop, and he was out of it and running back to the road from which it had veered. In the dim, red glow of the tail lights, Joshua could see a body. He took a closer look. It was Sgt. Armstrong, his face contorted, his eyes wide and fixed in death. The .45 automatic was still gripped tightly in his right hand.
Joshua straightened up. He looked towards the barn and saw for the first time its dim, dancing lights. His body grew cold, and he ran towards it. Inside the big room, the blowing candles tossed their little lights into long, fantastic shadows. The smudged diagrams on the floor had drops of blood on them, and Joshua saw that both Theodore and Esmerelda were dead. Theodore’s body lay near the foot of the cross; Esmerelda was pinned to the cross like a grotesque doll, held crazily half-vertical by the blade that had crucified her.
Joshua stumbled over to the wall of the barn and circled it, putting out the candles. He walked back to the big house. Pablo was on the porch. Joshua sat down, heavily.
Pablo seemed unable to move. “What happened?”
Joshua told him, as well as he could.
“We’ll have to call the police,” said Pablo.
“Yeah,” said Josh.
“The space man and the space girl have disappeared,” said Pablo. They’re nowhere in the house. Everyone’s gone.”
“Esmerelda succeeded, then.”
“You mean the space girl came back to her body?”
“Where’d they go, then?”
“They went home.”
Joshua and Pablo sat there until the sun came up, listening to the branches brush their sides together, watching the wind blow a few remaining leaves past them on the porch.