Authors's note: due to illness the audio version of this chapter is delayed. I will be recording it this weekend. I'm truly sorry about any inconvenience. -Jim
Art by Annie Zhu, Story by James Wylder, Special help with the Itza language by Anne Wylder (thank you!)
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Chapter 11: NojPeten, k-in-k'äm-ik-ech! (Nojpeten, I Love You)
February, 1697 AD
Ajch'o' raised himself out of the water, and tried not to look back at the city, at his home. He failed. The Spanish banner flew high over the highest temple, and Ajch'o' could only turn his head away again. The flag was only so clear because of the flames, and the music to greet its rise was screaming.
“Ajch'o', come on!” He heard someone say. He kept moving forward, but he felt faint. It was hard to move his arm to run. Looking down, he saw he was bleeding. He'd been hit by something. A bullet? He wasn't sure. He could only keep on moving, trying to get as far away from the Spanish as he could. His vision was blurring. How had this happened? Today of all days, the last free Kingdom had fallen to the Spanish, and he had been there to see it crumble.
His friend Box-Keej had been killed, shot right through the heart. Ajch'o' had had to make a choice—try to avenge his friend and die from the next Spaniard, or one of their Mayan allies, or run. He saw his friend sputtering up blood on the ground, and he ran for the water. Most of the city did, they had fled. There was no one to come to their aid anymore, no one to fight with them. There had only been Nojpeten, the last great city. Not even a great city if he was being honest, it wasn't that big. But it had been home, and it had been theirs. What would have happened if they had all banded together to fight the Spanish? He pushed the thought out of his mind. It was not only too late, it was impossible. There were simply too many peoples, too many nations, and the Itza were just one of many who all had their own grudges and desires. He felt hopeless, and his strength gave out. He collapsed onto the ground, becoming deeply aware of how much blood he'd lost.
“Hey.” A voice said, “Oh man you are not in good shape. Don't worry, I've got some stuff for that.” He felt something slap onto his arm, where the bullet wound was, and his vision began to clear up.
“You're still missing a lot of blood, but that boost of adrenaline should kick you up now that your wound is being stitched up.” What was he talking about no one was sealing his wound there was just a weird blue blob on it. The owner of the voice slipped an arm under his shoulder and lifted him up.
“I'm sorry I couldn't come earlier. I can't say we didn't debate it, but in the end there was just no way we could predict where the timeline would go if we shifted it. Too risky, so we'll have to pull off our plan somewhere else in this universe. Probably the 2400's. Sorry this literally cannot make any sense to you, I just thought you deserved to know.” Ajch'o' turned his head to look at the man supporting him. He was wearing a strange gray garment, one he'd never seen before that covered his torso and arms with an opening in the front that had some sort of... metal teeth lining it on either side. It also had a hood with the crest of the sun right on the man's forehead at the peak of the hood.
“Who are you?”
“Just call me Vice, for now.” That was a weird name. The man's skin was even paler than the Spaniards, so maybe he was one of their kind. Was this a trap?
“I can't stay for much longer Ajch'o',” the man said as he set him down on a log. Ajch'o' got a glimpse of his back and saw that the sun was part of a pattern where it changed in phases down the hood and the spine till it became the moon.
“But I want you to remember Nojpeten. I want you to tell your children about it, and your children's children. A new Dawn is coming. You're just about 800 years off. You should have died here, that's about all I can change without getting noticed. You're welcome.” The man handed him a medallion, shaped like half a sun and half a moon. He turned it in his hand, it felt warm on the sun part and cold on the moon part. That was impossible. He looked up to ask the man a question, but he was gone.
“Ajch'o'!” He heard Tz'unu'un yell, she ran towards him, tears streaking down her face.
“They said you were dead, that you were shot!” She embraced him, he hadn't realized she was that worried about him... Cautiously he returned the embrace.
“We need to keep moving.” She said at last, and helped him up. The moved through the forest through the night, till the sun peaked over the horizon. There was a new dawn, and though he wouldn't live to see it to fruition, he'd lay the foundation.
July, 2495 AD
"That city used to be called Flores, before I became a Director at Centro Sytems. Now its returned to its old name, its real one. Nojpeten." The city was vast, starting on an island and sliding off it via huge bridges. At the center of the island was a gigantic skyscraper built in a similar shape to a Mayan Pyramid. "A long time ago my ancestors, the Itza people, ruled this land. But the Spanish took it from them. As is the way of the world." Graelyn stared out at the twinkling lights of the city, "Mayan-Futurism" maybe described the architecture best.
"I find it highly unlikely you don't have Spanish ancestors as well." Graelyn mused.
"Well of course I do." Manuel laughed, and sipped his wine. "I'm fairly certain I have an ancestor from nearly every continent if you nosed around enough. I don't give a damn about 'racial purity.' But its not just the percentage of your genetics that hail from a culture that define your heritage, its who you chose to idolize. Its what your heritage means to how the world defines you, and how you define the world." The city began to slip beneath them as they slowed down, and Graelyn could see people and cars in the dark streets below, moving around in the form of pin-prick shapes.
"Nojpeten represents our freedom, the last holdout against the Spanish, the last holdout against this so called revolution."
Graelyn turned to him sternly, "Mister Salazar, you don't honestly think you can beat them?"
He smirked, "Not in a straight fight. Funnily enough, I'll be beating them the way Revolutions beat their foes for years-- cunning. I know what their next move will be, and I'm ready for it here..." He sighed as he looked out at it, "This was all just a land of poor workers. Centro took very little notice of it except to throw us in their factories. But look what I made-- I gave my home dignity, success, purpose."
"It sounds like you and the Revolution actually have a lot in common." He sneered at her.
"Alice MacLeod wants to take what we built with our own hands and give it to everyone. This city isn't just my work, its the work of the people who live there. I don't care if her ideology wants us to be equal, we've been kicked down by the rest of the world for centuries. I'm not going to give that up just so a little girl can pretend to be Che Guevara."
Graelyn adjusted her glasses. Her prison clothes were still uncomfortable, and she missed her real glasses. If only they'd had time to grab her belongings...
"Mister Salazar, I want you to understand, and this is coming from someone who Alice MacLeod tried to murder, that I respect both of you."
He lowered his wine glass, and set it down gently, as the view from the window showed they were almost on the landing pad.
"Both of us? Curious."
"I think if the two of you could talk instead of fight each other, you might be able to come to some sort of arrangement. I don't think you're as different as you both think you are."
The craft landed, and the doors were opened.
"I doubt it. Now Graelyn, welcome to the city of the old gods."
* * * *
For the second time in not that long, Arch found himself waking up without control of his limbs. The camera of his eyes rebooted, and he began to take in the world around him, blurrily. His microphones switched back on, and he listened.
"I think he's waking up." The world began to come into focus, and he saw a woman squatting next to him, her face leaning into view. Behind her was another woman nursing a bruised head with a beret, Chantelle, Jack, and the man with lots of stubble who'd captured him in the first place. The gangs all here.
"Welcome back, we thought we might have lost you." Arch tried to sit up, but found his motors were still rebooting.
"That energy wave effected you hard. Your heart stopped, technically you died, while out of your prison cell."
"Your guards let me out."
"Oh no, those weren't my guards. Salazar clearly was interested in talking to you, he set it up with his plants. The question is now, what am I supposed to do with you?"
"I need to find Graelyn."
"Yes, I thought you might say that. She's with Salazar." His processors put extra effort into restarting his systems, and he bolted into a sitting position.
"He captured her?"
"I'll be generous: He freed her from prison and she was smart enough to realize it might save her from execution. You don't like Salazar do you?"
His arms began to get motor function back, and he tested them, moving his fingers. "I have reasons to hold a grudge on him."
"I'm curious as to why. If this is a new reality for you like you told me, he's not the same person."
Arch trained his eyes on her. "And neither is Graelyn."
"Then why a vendetta."
"I need questions answered."
"Then we both have a reason to see him."
"What are you going to do to him?"
"Whatever the Council decides for me to do."
"That's less decisive than I imagined."
"I'm not into lying. I want you to come with me. I'm going to confront him. Laying seige to a city like Nojpeten will cost countless lives. This isn't like New York where there was no way in but invasion. Salazar is the only thing holding this resistance together. If I get to him, we can take the city with only minimal fighting."
"And what does the council want you to do?"
She stared at him, her mouth very nearly forming words.
* * * *
Chess Mistress Hex, aka Ariadne Moore, aka Leesa... Oh, she called herself by too many names to list, you get the picture, leaned back in a plush chair on her starship. It was still a long flight to Alexandria, the Index headquarters. She closed the view ports with a grimace of disgust. She didn't want to see Earth, even as a tiny dot. That didn't mean she didn't have a plan to take advantage of the situation, but she struggled to think of something half so frustrating as losing the entire planet Earth to Revolutionary Communists. At least she'd bought out some of their leadership. Too many of them were true believers for it to be a pure victory, but she'd shored up some decent support. All would not be lost.
"Alexis, please give me a report on important events I've missed."
Alexis, identical in every way except for her docile mind, smiled as though she had won the lottery in getting to perform this task.
"Yes, Mistress Hex! The World Revolutionary Council has nearly secured the whole planet. The only real hold out is Nojpeten City, where Manuel Salazar has fled to along with Graelyn Scythes to make a last stand against the WRC."
Hex sat to attention so quickly her sunglasses went askew.
"Did you just say Manuel Salazar is still alive?"
"Yes Mistress, his escape plan went into effect before your agent could perform the assassination."
Hex stowed her sunglasses in her bag. Her face was placid, but something about her suggested she was preparing to tear out someone’s jugular.
"Alexis, order that agent to move immediately to Nojpeten."
"Of course Mistress. Also, your puppets on the WRC have informed us they are going to be voting on a plan to take care of the situation. What should I have them do?"
"Order them to..." She trailed off in thought and saw the solar system laid out like a chess board. She needed to kill a power piece, a piece that knew things about her she wouldn't like anyone to know now that the old rulebook had been thrown out... But wouldn't the best way to kill the piece to be to let another player play the match? To take that player off the board as well if they could?
"...order Alice MacLeod to make the assassination. She is the Songbird of Liberation. How fitting for her to make the final blow of their Revolution? And what a pity if she didn't come out of the assignment alive. Have my agent standing by in case she fails."
"Of course Mistress!"
"Oh, and Alexis, bring me a bottle of the 2227 Vintage. This has been a long week."
* * * *
Long-Knife Lazarus was the best killer in the universe, in his own opinion. It was easy to think that when he'd killed all of his targets he'd gotten in the same room as, and was still breathing. Working for the Index was easy money, go to exotic places, kill people, go home, get paid. He drank his margarita with relish, and waited for his contact.
"Lazarus." Chrometeeth slid into the seat at the table across from him. She wore a bright yellow sundress with moving images of a dancing cartoon mouse on it. Instead of eyes, she had a semi-oval band over her eye sockets he knew saw better than eyes ever could. Her hair was perfect. Her shoes were cute but practical. Her nails were pristine. She had a small matching handbag, and teeth made of metal that could rip a man's throat out. He knew her reputation very well: she looked 23, but she was far older than that now. She'd had more biological modifications than anyone he'd ever met, and he knew she could kill a room of normal people.
"Chrometeeth. I didn't realize you were still on earth."
"There's a lot of shit to fix up, this planet's been turned so upside down its head is red and its toes are blue. How's the alcohol?"
"Cheap and strong."
"Perfect." She ordered something intense, he knew her modified liver would make it the equivalent of drinking water for her.
"So then, I know you're here on a kill-job, and I'm here to facilitate it now that he origional plan fell through."
"Whose the mark?"
"Manuel Salazar, nearly the last of Centro's leadership." Sarah MacLachlan froze.
"You said you're here to kill Manuel Salazar."
"Orders right from the top, the Librarian himself." Well, herself, she thought, though that was need to know.
"Where's he holed up?" Lazarus pulled out a holoprojector and showed the layout of the main pyramid of Nojpeten.
"Nojpeten. His private city. Its basically a fortress, so gunning our way in won't work. It will have to be an infiltration job." She nodded.
"Any ideas before I chime in?" He expanded an area of the Pyramid to show the base.
"I think the best way would be via the direct exterior, there are cleaning robots that move along the outside in a strict schedule. I've found when one moves from the base to the crown during the movement. If I wear a camouflage cloak, it should be fairly simple. Its a security flaw that really wouldn't come up in peacetime." Chrometeeth smiled.
"Its a good plan." He smiled back.
"I'll take it." Her hand bolted forward like a bullet and grabbed Lazarus by the hair, slamming his head into the table. He moved to draw a gun, but he felt something jab into his neck.
"Shh, you'll be okay. You'll just be awful sleepy for a bit. You had so much to drink, and your mission has been canceled." She paid the tab, and slid out of the booth, carrying him like he'd passed out. She'd tie him up and lock him in a hotel room, disable any of his bio-mods that were built in weapons, and get to work. Sarah remembered her bones withering to mush, and the pain that could only be wiped away by enough drugs to numb her to the point of sensory deprivation. And she remembered Doctor Salazar.
* * * *
"The WRC ordered me to kill Salazar." Alice finished.
"I thought they were all about trials now?" Arch asked.
"They changed their minds."
"That doesn't sound like this is a normal decision."
"But you're doing it?" Alice sighed, and looked back at her team.
"Arch, how important is your freedom to you?"
He thought a moment, "Nearly the most important. Second to the freedom of my..." He struggled for a word, "Family. Friends. People."
"Then we understand each other. Arch, I'm not going to come out of this mission alive if I succeed." Jack looked horrified.
"Alice, you can't do this, your life is worth-"
"-more than the lives of the innocent people in that city? No. No its not Jack. I never thought I'd make it out of this war alive, and I've been proven right. But you Arch, you can help me get in there alive, rescue your friend, and ask your questions."
"How will I get out with her?"
"You're a walking army, I'm sure you'll figure something out."
"I'm surprised you trust me with this." She gave a sliver of a smile for the first time in their conversation.
"Do you know why we didn't cuff you Arch? Its not because we couldn't control you. If we wanted to, we could have knocked out your electronic systems. You're not invulnerable. I let you loose because from the moment you decided to negotiate with my soldiers instead of killing them that your appearance was not the sum of your character. You're not a walking weapon, you're a person who wants to protect a friend, who doesn't want to fight even though you'd be the best at it. Who doesn't like hurting people. I let you wander loose, and you trusted me to hold to me word in not killing you and your friend, and you never once tried to break out."
Arch rose to his feet, and dusted himself off.
"Okay, I'm in. I'll help. But on one extra condition."
"I get one of those hats." He pointed at Shona's beret.
* * * *
Graelyn had fallen asleep nearly as soon as she'd been shown her bed. She had no idea how long she slept, but she awoke to a full breakfast at her bedside, and a view from the high pyramid down across the city through her window. After she ate, there was a knock on her door, and a young girl, maybe 11 years old, the resemblance between her and Salazar was uncanny.
"Miss Scythes, good morning! My grandfather asked me to look in on you."
"Thank you, I'm feeling much better this morning."
"Would you like to change into something other than your prison garb?" Graelyn looked down at her ill fitting clothes."
"The shower and toilet are in the door right there." She pointed, "I'll go get some clothes for you while you shower." Given a chance to shower and change she threw herself into the task with a fervor, and after she spent plenty of time scrubbing the grime and blood out of her hair and skin, found herself with plenty of options for what to wear, as the granddaughter wheeled in an entire rack of clothes sizes for her perfectly. In the end she decided on a spun white dress with a black jacket cut so that its hem was only midway down the back as well as some matching sneakers, since she kept having to run through places in peril she decided she should abandon flats for the time being. When in Nojpeten, do like the Itza, she figured so she reluctantly agreed to let Salazar's granddaughter braid her hair. She went at it gleefully, her fingers working dextrously, and only occasionally causing Graelyn to wince when she pulled too hard.
"How does it look?" She asked Graelyn.
"It looks good Lizette." It really did, her hair looked fantastic, she wouldn't take the time to do this herself, but the new look made her feel refreshed after all the horror. She was finally stopped in one place, and the immeasurable weight of the last few days began to set in on her. She'd managed to end up in an alternate reality, watch herself die, get tossed between two skyscrapers, meet a woman who thought a city burning was nothing to get worked up about, lose the only person she knew from her own reality who she barely knew anyways, find out the other her had performed experiments on a living and unwilling person in her free time, get captured, went to jail, get broken out of jail, and then get flown to the prefecture of Guatemala.
"Your hail feels funny." Lizzette said, snapping her out of her thoughts.
"I mean, it doesn't feel like your hair." Graelyn touched her hair. It felt the same, if cleaner.
"Its not artificial or anything."
"I can't really explain it." Lizzette said.
"Right, well, how do you like living in Nojpeten?"
"Its really nice, people really respect Grandfather here. There are a lot of parades and parties throughout the year to." Graelyn smiled.
"That must be nice."
"Where are you from?"
"Moscow. Its colder there, a lot colder. It a very different sort of city. I still love it, in its own way. I never really felt at home there though."
"Do you have siblings?"
"Oh yeah, I have an older brother, and two older sisters. We weren't a very close family though."
"So you're the youngest?" Graelyn paused, and pursed her lips. Sort of?
"Cause I'm the youngest to!" Lizzette said excitedly, and held Graelyn's hand.
"How long will you be staying with us?" Graelyn shook her head.
"I really don't know. It depends on a lot of things... Did another girl come with us? She would have been dressed in prison garb to. She was about my age, black?" Lizette nodded, let go of Graelyn's hand and ran out of the room, only to return with the Intern, who was wearing jeans and a black top with lace edges. Graelyn stood up happily, "You're safe! I'm relieved." They awkwardly moved in to hug, but then gave up and settled on shaking hands.
"Do you think we're going to be safe here?" the Intern asked.
"Salazar has a plan, so I can only hope..."
"Grandad won't let anything happen to you!" Lizette enthused, "You can count on him." Graelyn smiled, she wasn't sure she believed her, but it was nice to hear nonetheless.
"Thank you Lizette. I'm sure he won't. By the way, I can't just keep calling you Intern."
"Actually, I'd prefer that."
"Are... You sure?" That was frankly, pretty weird.
"Yeah, it makes me feel safe right now." Sure, whatever.
"Alright then, Intern, Lizette, what is there to do around here?" Lizette tugged on her dress, and the Intern's jeans, and took them to the elevator. They exited through he cathedralesque lobby onto the sunny streets of Nojpeten, as street vendors yelled in Spanish selling their wares, a street preacher yelled something unintelligible, a group of kids played soccer in a small park... They walked through an art show taking up the sidewalks, and bought lunch from a vendor selling some sort of dish with vat-grown meat packed in fried corn dough, washing it down with apple flavored soda. For all the city seemed like that day, it was like there wasn't a war going on. But Graelyn knew that would change tomorrow, and even as they walked the festive streets trucks of troops moved through the city. The city knew war would come tomorrow in some form, but not today. Today was their day of peace, and the city in unison had decided that they wouldn't let tomorrow hold them back today. Lizette bought them all some rice and cinnamon ice cream, and the three sat by the lakeside, watching the light dance on the water.
She wondered if she'd have a day like this again.
* * * *
Alice handed Jack a box, and he looked at it perplexed.
"Okay, you have given me a box."
"There is a cat in it."
"That is an awful underhanded way to give someone a cat."
"Its not yours, well, it will be. Its mine."
Jack squinted, "Don't you hate cats?"
"It was Graelyn's. I promised her I'd look after it. I don't break promises. Anyways, when I don't come back, he'll need to be looked after."
"No, if you don't come back. If. And, no, not if, you're coming back." Alice smiled, reasurringly. Sure, Jack, if you need to believe that.
"His name is Captain Fudgesickle." Jack looked down at the box and back up at Alice.
"That is literally the worst name for a cat I have ever heard."
"Then I'm glad you're so committed to the revolution you can carry this burden."
* * * *
Maria moved through the jungle, and slipped in through the city gates at dawn. She was no different than any of the other travelers coming in and out, but she knew things they didn't. She moved through the streets calmly, towards the central pyramid. She had business with Manuel, revolutionary business, and he would not deny her. The WRC didn't know the area like she did, or the situation here. She could deal with this on her own. She reached a seemingly blank stretch of wall, and pressing her hand to it spoke a long series of letters and numbers quickly. It scanned her eyes, and took a sample of her DNA. She waited.
"Welcome, Maria Salazar." The wall slid open, and she slipped in. It just as quickly shut closed.
It had been a targeted risk, but he knew how family mattered to that man. He'd never deny his home to his sister.
* * * *
Chess Mistress Hex looked out at the data laid out in front of her: The board was set. The pieces were in place. There were pawns and knights, bishops and rooks, kings and queens. Each moved in its own way, and she had mapped their movements out. No plan was without risk, but nothing could be gained without chance. The pieces were assembled thus, and the game would be played in Manuel's foolhardy endeavor of a city of Nojpeten. That backward, moronic, useless wretch. Still, she was clever enough to know to never underestimate her pieces. This game would need to be played with the appropriate finesse and respect. With Salazar and Songbird dead, she could easily hold carrots in front of the World Revolutionary Council. She already had enough of them in her pockets. She could still make this loss into a win.
The board was set. White moves first. A hand reached out, across the lake in front of Nojpeten, and picked up a pawn.
There was nowhere to go but forward.
Next week: the dramatic confrontation. You won't want to miss it.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.