It was another sultry, sweltering winter’s day, and the plaza around the City of London ziggurat was packed. Thousands clustered in the palm-fringed square itself, many of them having camped out overnight to be assured of a good view. Thousands more thronged the adjacent streets – Cheapside, Ludgate Hill, Paternoster Row – to watch the action on giant screens, close enough that they would just be able to hear the screams of the dying.
The atmosphere was, as ever, festive. Vendors did a roaring trade in heart-shaped hamburgers, gooey crimson-coloured iced drinks, and skull candy. Soon, when the sun reached its zenith, blood would flow.
The onlookers in the plaza were held back from its central avenue by a cordon of Jaguar Warrior constables. Resplendent in their golden armour and cat-head helmets, the constables stood with their arms folded, vigilant. Other Jaguar Warriors prowled in pairs, cradling their lightning guns. There were more of them present than was usual for such an occasion.
The avenue, which led to the base of the ziggurat, was reserved for the queue of blood rite participants. Most of these hundred or so souls looked patient, eager, serene as they waited. A few wore the glassy, dreamy expressions of people who’d taken the precaution of anaesthetising themselves beforehand, perhaps by chewing a paste of morning glory seeds or downing several stiff shots of pulque or tequila. Here and there a child shivered and wept and had to be comforted by its parents: It’s an honour to die at the priest’s hand. The gods love all sacrifices but they love the sacrifice of the young more than anything. A little pain, and then it will be bliss in Tamoanchan for ever after. Hush, dear, hush. Soon be over.
Animal din competed with the human hubbub. Parrots chattered amid the palm fronds. Monkeys hooted as they swung among the vines and creepers that coated the surrounding buildings like verdant fur. A quetzal bird screeched as it shot overhead in a sudden, brilliant flash of rainbow plumage. Those who saw it gasped in delight. A good omen. Quetzalcoatl himself watched through the bird’s eyes. He was putting his personal stamp of approval on the proceedings.
Once a Christian place of worship had stood on this spot, one of the largest of its kind, and one of the last. A century ago almost to the day, after Britain finally allowed itself to be subsumed into the Aztec Empire, St Paul’s Cathedral had been razed to the ground. The demolished stonemasonry, statuary and iconography had been dynamited and used to form the foundations and ballast of the ziggurat. The Empire was nothing if not thrifty. Nor was it averse to cannibalising.
In the steely-hot blue sky, three short-range aerodiscs hovered. Two bore the logo of Sun Broadcasting, the state TV network, and carried film crews who were shooting live footage of the event. The third, a Jaguar Warrior patrol craft, was keeping a no less beady eye on the public below.
At noon precisely, the officiating priest emerged from the low temple building that capped the ziggurat. He was accompanied by a flock of acolytes and flanked, too, by a pair of Jaguar Warriors serving as bodyguards. The two men, both sergeants, had been selected for this special sacred duty by virtue of their intimidating bulk, skill at arms, and unwavering willingness to die protecting their charge. With eyes like flint they scanned in all directions as the priest raised his arms and spoke.
“People of Britain,” he said, his voice relayed to the plaza’s PA system by a radio mike embedded in the ornate feathery folds of his headdress. “On this auspicious day we gather here to show obeisance to the gods, who have blessed us this solar year with fine weather, a bountiful harvest, and continued national wellbeing.”
Cheers erupted from the plaza and beyond. What the priest said was true. It had, almost indisputably, been a good year. The chinampas fields had yielded plenty of maize. A territorial dispute with Iceland had been resolved in Britain’s favour. The summer had blazed long and blissfully hot, the run of sunny days broken by just enough downpours to keep the reservoirs topped up and the crops irrigated.
“We have much to be grateful for,” the priest continued. “And as I see before me a long line of volunteers, civilians willing to shed their blood in the name of the gods, I know that the gratitude is felt universally. You, you brave ones, you blessed ones” – he was addressing the blood rite participants – “wish to convey how glad we are for all we have been given, by giving your all. You perish today not just for the gods’ benefit but for the benefit of your fellow countrymen. Your blood will nourish the soil and ensure our future happiness and prosperity.”
At these words the onlookers in the plaza started hurrahing like mad. They showered the blood rite participants with flower petals and praise. The participants lapped it up, beaming around them, some of them punching the air. Truly, there was no greater glory than this. Even the fretful children were placated. All these strangers insisting how fantastic they were – they must be indeed doing something worthwhile.
One of the Sun Broadcasting aerodiscs descended a couple of hundred feet, presumably to get a better view, a tighter camera angle.
“Come, then,” the priest said, beckoning. “Ascend the steps, as your souls will shortly be ascending to Tamoanchan.”
The first of the sacrificial victims stepped forward. He was a tlachtli player, captain of one of the most successful London premier-league teams, a national hero. His celebrity put him at the head of the queue. He, with all his fame and money, not to mention being in the prime of youth and health and recently wed to a glamour model, stood to lose more than most. It was only right and proper that the enormity of his unselfishness be recognised. Not all martyrs were equal.
The tlachtli player sprinted up the 300 steps to the apex of the ziggurat, displaying the fitness and fearlessness that had made him such a star of the ball court. To tumultuous applause from the onlookers, he threw himself flat on his back on the altar, all smiles. Naked save for a loincloth, he had ceremonially anointed himself beforehand with sweet-smelling oils. He offered his bare, glistening chest to the priest, who muttered ritual phrases over him, then took an obsidian-bladed dagger and raised it aloft.
With a practised, powerful stroke the priest pierced the tlachtli player’s torso. Blood exploded from the wound, and the young man died with a scream and a shudder that were as much ecstasy as agony. The acolytes then hauled the body off the altar and set about hacking the ribcage open and sawing out the heart.
They placed the still-twitching organ in a large iron basin which sat on a tripod over a bellows-stoked fire. The heart sizzled and sent a wisp of smoke up to heaven. Meanwhile the acolytes pitched the eviscerated corpse off the rear of the ziggurat. It tumbled into a fenced-off enclosure below, for later disposal.
The cooked heart was handed to the priest on a skewer. He took a bite, then tossed the remainder aside. He would do the same with every victim’s heart this afternoon, although the bites would become increasingly small until, by the end, they would be the tiniest nibbles. There was only so much meat one man’s stomach could handle in one go, and this particular cut of human flesh was a tough, tasteless morsel.
The next victims climbed the stairs, somewhat more slowly and reluctantly than the tlachtli player had, in a group. They were a quartet of high-ranking Icelandic diplomats who had been chosen by their country’s High Priest as the official scapegoats in the matter of the recent dispute with Britain over fishing rights around the Faroe Islands. The Great Speaker had decreed that the Faroes should be considered a sovereign British dependency. Iceland had no claim over their territorial waters and the cod stocks therein. Both countries’ navies had been on the brink of hostilities at that point, but the Great Speaker’s verdict was final and Iceland had wisely conceded.
The diplomats’ lives were by way of compensation for trouble caused. All four of them had drunk themselves into a stupor in order to appear calm in the face of death and not let the side down. Intoning slurred prayers to Tlazolteotl, goddess of purification, eater of sins, they presented themselves at the altar. There were moments of almost comic confusion as each, professionally tactful to the end, insisted that the others should go first. Finally they settled the matter by lining up in order of seniority. The priest despatched them with the rapidity and dispassionate efficiency that their status merited.
After that came an aristocratic family, three generations all wishing to die together. The dynasty was not completely extinguishing itself, however. An adult male heir had been singled out to be exempt from martyrdom. He would inherit the family wealth – minus the odd death duty – and carry on the lineage.
The Sun Broadcasting aerodisc dipped even lower until its bulbous underside was mere metres above the temple roof. The bassy throb of its negative-mass drive vibrated through the ziggurat’s stonework.
One of the Jaguar Warrior sergeants waved the disc away, but the pilot either didn’t notice or chose to ignore his irritable gesturing. The sergeant scowled. TV news people. They thought they were hot shit, especially when covering state occasions like this which garnered huge ratings and similarly huge advertising revenues. They thought themselves as important as, if not more important than, the law of the land.
By now the topmost of the ziggurat’s steps were slick with spilled blood, making them treacherous for the participants who followed in the wake of the initial wave of the great and good. Several of these people, middle-class professionals mostly, slipped and lost their footing as they neared the summit. They were bloodstained even before they reached the wet red altar and prostrated themselves on it.
The sergeant waved yet again at the TV news disc. The aircraft was literally casting a shadow over the blood rite, and its engine thrum was making the priest’s words hard to distinguish. The sergeant flipped down his helmet mike and instructed the patrol disc to intervene. There was an edge in his voice. The Sun Broadcasting disc’s antics were making him very nervous. Was this what Chief Superintendent Kellaway had warned them to be on the lookout for? The suspicious activity that might herald a terrorist attack?
Wary, the sergeant unshipped and primed his lightning gun. Meanwhile the Jaguar Warrior disc drew alongside the Sun Broadcasting aircraft and hailed it over the aviation frequency. “By order of the High Priest of Great Britain, and in the name of the law, please ascend to a safe distance. This is your only warning. Fail to comply and we will open fire.”
At that moment, a shrill cry came from within the TV news disc. The sergeant spied movement in one of the hatches from which a camera protruded. He glimpsed a shape, a silvery silhouette, darting.
Next instant, a cameraman came flying out, fell flailing, and hit the temple roof with a bone-crushing thud. He was followed by an armour-clad figure who leapt nimbly down from the disc, landing on the roof and dropping straight into a crouching, catlike stance.
The sergeant swore softly.
Bold as brass. Clear as day.
Top of the Jaguar Warriors’ Most Wanted list. Public enemy number one.
The lightning gun was warm and humming in the sergeant’s hands, plasma generator charged. He raised it to fire, but the Conquistador reacted quickly – too quickly. He snatched up the injured cameraman and threw him forwards, a kind of moving human shield. A bolt of blue-white brilliance leapt from the l-gun and struck the hapless cameraman full on. He howled and writhed and burned, laced with crackling light.
The cameraman’s smouldering corpse tumbled towards the sergeant. The Jaguar Warrior twisted aside to avoid being hit. When he regained his balance, he found himself directly face to face with the Conquistador. Two implacable blue eyes stared out from slits in the terrorist’s face mask. A rapier flashed. The sergeant looked down to see snakes emerging from a gash in his abdomen. He tried to catch them but they slithered out of his hands, falling at his feet in coils. That was when he realised the snakes were his own intestines. He looked up again at the Conquistador, who opened the sergeant’s throat with a swift transverse stroke of his sword.
The sacrificial victim currently on the altar started screaming – not in pain but in alarm and horror as the sergeant slumped to the floor. The priest gaped, dagger hanging uselessly from his fingers. The other Jaguar Warrior sergeant sprang into action. It would cost precious seconds to prime his lightning gun, so he drew his macuahitl from its scabbard and lunged at the Conquistador.
The Conquistador countered the first blow with ease. The macuahitl’s obsidian blade glanced off the rapier’s steel. The sergeant went for the Conquistador’s neck on the back swing, but again the blow was deflected, this time rebounding off the rapier’s hilt guard. The two men thrust and parried. Metal and volcanic glass chimed as they met and met again. The sergeant managed to get a jab past his opponent’s defences, but it glanced off the Conquistador’s cuirass, leaving nothing but a scratch.
The Conquistador retaliated with a downward slash that cleaved the sergeant’s left arm almost all the way through at the shoulder. The limb dangled, flopping, at the Jaguar Warrior’s side. Shock greyed his face and turned his legs to jelly. He tried to lift his macuahitl for one last swing, but the sword’s weight seemed too much for him and he toppled sideways.
The Conquistador polished the sergeant off matter-of-factly, plunging the rapier deep into his armpit. Then he turned to the priest.
The priest’s face was a mask of pure panic. In a quavering voice he shouted at the acolytes, “It’s me he’s after. Don’t let him get me. Stop him! By the Four Who Rule Supreme, that’s an order!”
The acolytes obeyed, if a little hesitantly. They ran at the Conquistador, throwing themselves at him singly and in pairs. These were not fighting men, however. They belonged to a caste accustomed to luxury and soft living. Not one of them knew what it was like to land a blow in anger. The Conquistador scythed them like poppies.
The priest came to the realisation that if no one else could save him he would simply have to save himself. He bounded down the steps, barging aside the blood rite participants who were coming up. Down below, the onlookers milled about uncertainly. Disquiet was growing in the plaza. It wasn’t entirely apparent what was going on up there on top of the ziggurat, but the blood rite had been interrupted, that much was plain; people were getting killed who weren’t meant to be getting killed.
The Conquistador eyed the fleeing priest and, with something like a shrug, pulled out a pistol. This was no sleek, contoured weapon like a lightning gun but closer in appearance to a flintlock or an blunderbuss, with a flared tip to the barrel. It was old-fashioned in another way, in that it fired projectiles rather than a zap of ionised, superheated gas.
The Conquistador took careful aim. The pistol barked in his hand, spitting out a cluster of flechettes. The tiny brass arrows entered the priest’s back and exited through his chest in an expanding burst. His ribs erupted outwards so that, as he crashed to the steps, his body resembled any of the countless hundreds whose deaths he had presided over in the course of his career – hollowed, heartless.
Terror now gripped the people in the plaza. There would have been a stampede, only there was scant room to move and nowhere to go. The streets that fed into the plaza were crammed. All exits were blocked. The onlookers surged and swirled but stayed in one place. The Jaguar Warriors in their midst tried to reach the ziggurat but couldn’t forge a path through.
The Conquistador didn’t have long to survey his handiwork. As the priest’s corpse came to rest halfway down the steps – although his headdress bounced on all the way to the bottom – the Jaguar Warrior patrol disc loomed overhead. Its forward guns fired, left and right alternately, strafing the top of the ziggurat with coruscating, percussive blasts.
The Conquistador sprang this way and that, dodging the l-gun salvos. Stonework shattered. Sprawled bodies were incinerated. The altar was destroyed. Yet somehow the Conquistador managed to stay alive. He was fast on his feet, and a relatively small target. The patrol disc’s guns were designed for bludgeoning, not sniping. Ground vehicles and other aircraft were its principal quarry, not a lone man who kept scurrying about like a cornered mouse.
Then, perhaps inevitably, the patrol disc’s gunner scored a hit. The Conquistador had taken refuge in the temple doorway. The gunner let loose with both forward guns at once, and the temple more or less evaporated. Roof collapsed, walls crumbled, and when the smoke and dust cleared there was nothing but a heap of broken granite slabs. No sign of the Conquistador.
Whoops of joy echoed through the disc’s interior. Pilot and gunner yelled at each other, grinning from ear to ear.
“We did it!”
“The fucking Conquistador!”
“We’ll get medals for this!”
“A commendation from the Great Speaker!”
In the event, they were to be disappointed. None of the above would happen. But their moment of triumph, while it lasted, was sweet.
Jaguar Warriors took charge in the plaza, restoring calm and arranging an orderly evacuation. The streets emptied. People filed homeward, dazed and disturbed. The plaza was designated an official crime scene. The death toll was totted up. The remains of the ruined temple were combed through.
What the Jaguar Warriors unearthed among the debris was not, as they’d hoped, a mangled corpse in a suit of armour. They found armour all right. Portions of it were strewn across the apex of the ziggurat, here a gauntlet, there the morion helmet with comb crest and cheek guards. But no body. Nor was any of the armour pieces spattered with blood, as might have been expected.
The armour, it was obvious, had been discarded. The Conquistador, under cover of the obscuring haze of smoke and dust, had undressed himself and…
But where to? Where had he gone?
Into the crowd? But he wouldn’t have had time to unbuckle his armour and get down to the plaza.
A couple of hours after the blood rite came to its premature end, a flatbed truck arrived at the plaza to cart away the bodies of the sacrificial victims.
The Jaguar Warriors refused it access, and the workmen in the truck said that that was no problem with them, but… A pyre was already alight over at the burning grounds in Leamouth, building up heat. The clock was ticking. In this weather, the corpses would soon start to putrefy. Swift removal and immolation was standard procedure, as mandated by tradition. If the Jaguar Warriors wished that not to happen, then fine. But they would have to explain to the High Priest himself why they had interfered with proper religious observance. Good luck with that.
The Jaguar Warriors saw sense and allowed the truck through. Parking behind the ziggurat, the workmen donned filter masks and rubber gloves and aprons. Then they got busy scooping up the corpses in the enclosure and stacking them onto the back of the truck. They’d been expecting a hundred bodies but, in the event, it was a couple of dozen. Still, never mind. They were on a flat rate. Less work, same pay, and it meant a single trip from Leamouth and back rather than three or four.
The truck trundled out of the plaza with its gory load. The corpses in the back jogged and jiggled with every sharp turn and pothole.
The drivers were blithely oblivious when, while the truck stood stationary at traffic lights, one of the corpses got up, shinned over the tailgate, and sprinted off down a nearby alleyway.