(Finalist for Best Short-Form: Sidewise Awards for Alternate History 2008)
(Recipient of an Honorable Mention in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois)
On his sixth birthday, Totyoalli's parents took him to the holy city to see the Emperor Cuauhtemoc, but the plane ride proved the most exciting part. He kept his nose to the window, taking in the vast lands of the One World, from the snow-capped mountains of his home in the northern provinces to the open plains of Teotihuacan. He marveled at the miniature cities and cars passing below. All his life he'd dreamt of flying, ever since the first time he'd seen a bird gliding through the air.
From the airport, they took a cab to the royal palace on Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan, the single largest city in the world, sprawled around it for miles. The cab buzzed across one of the royal causeways, the water blue and shimmering in the hot sun. Inside the walled royal complex stood the Great Temple, meticulously maintained by a crew of thousands, its sacred Sun Stone keeping watch over the visiting crowds.
At the palace, two genetically-engineered royal jaguar knights escorted Totyoalli's family to the Emperor's gardens. Totyoalli watched their tails swish behind them, fascinated. Their heads looked so soft he wished to pat them between the ears, but when he tried to talk to them, they bared their fangs and gripped their spears a little tighter.
Ahead, a doorway opened onto a stone patio overlooking an expanse of grass and trees. Marigolds and birds of paradise choked the flower beds. Cranes stepped gingerly through the ponds while monkeys chattered in the trees.
The Revered Speaker stood at the crest of the nearest hill, his hands behind him and his back to them. "Good of you to come, Totyoalli." He didn't turn. "Let me take a look at you."
Unafraid, Totyoalli hurried to him. His friends claimed the Revered Speaker was seven hundred years old, that he'd been emperor when the Spanish Devil CortÃ©s tried to bring the One World to its knees. Some said Cuauhtemoc was the War God himself, or maybe the Fifth Sun incarnate, come to Earth to lead the Mexica through a thousand years of glory. Totyoalli had expected someone very old and wise.
But in fact the Revered Speaker looked hardly out of his teens. He wore green robes with the sacred day symbols embroidered in gold and silver thread, and his long black hair was tied back in a complicated knot. Blue, red, white, and black tattooed lines formed the profile of an eagle on the right side of his face.
Cuauhtemoc knelt and kissed the earth at Totyoalli's feet, quoting dedications and blessing him. He then took the boy's head in both hands and granted him the kiss of Divine Grace on his forehead.
"Now that we have the formalities out of the way, walk with me." Cuauhtemoc took Totyoalli by the hand and they moved down the hill, past the egrets, until his mother and father vanished from sight. They sat on a stone bench under a grove of willow trees. "So, how is calmecac?"
The Revered Speaker's smile widened. "Haven't much interest in studying?"
"I like the learning part, but the other boys say I should go to the telpochcalli with the rest of the poor kids, and they pick fights."
"You haven't told them you're the Night Wind?"
"Mother told me not to."
Cuauhtemoc nodded. "She's not pleased with your destiny."
Totyoalli shook his head. His mother wished he weren't the Night Wind; in fact, she'd gone to great lengths to plan a home delivery, so the priests and government augurs couldn't record the exact time of his birth. His father had thought her ridiculous, but respected her wishes, and studied the instructional books to prepare for delivering their baby himself. No doctor would attend; Totyoalli's mother suspected they were spies for the Temple.
But she couldn't fool the gods. After eight intense hours of screaming with no sign of the baby, Totyoalli's father lost his resolve and called an ambulance. Just seconds after midnight, surgeons brought forth their son through caesarian and his parents named him Night Bird. The next morning, the local priestâ€”dressed all in black and stinking of the rancid blood he smeared on his bodyâ€”came to inform them that the god Tezcatlipoca had chosen their son as His Teotl Ixiptla, to represent the god on earth for the Toxcatlâ€”the Festival of Drynessâ€”during his twenty-ninth year. Totyoalli's mother had cried almost daily since then.
"How do you feel about it?" Cuauhtemoc asked Totyoalli.
"It's always a great honor to serve the gods in such a personal manner," Totyoalli replied, quoting what his father had told him.
"You don't mind dying before you're thirty?" Cuauhtemoc pressed.
Death shadowed every aspect of life in the One World. People died daily at the sacrifices, usually broadcast on television, and Totyoalli and his friends played at death all the time, pretending the dog-god Xolotl was guiding them through the nine trials of the underworld to reach Mictlan. Those who ran home crying from scuffed knees or a bloody nose lost the game and the other boys teased them for days. "You'll open death's door and find Xolotl left only a pile of shit to guide you!" they'd chant mercilessly. Totyoalli's mother thought such games disrespectful and would he find it so funny when Xolotl sent him into the underworld alone?
The Revered Speaker was awaiting an answer, so Totyoalli replied, "Do you fear death, My Lord?"
His face suddenly guarded, Cuauhtemoc said, "Why do you ask?"
"My friends say you're one of the gods. Is it true? Did you kill the Spanish Devil?"
"I've seen more than most men."
"But are you a god?"
Cuauhtemoc chuckled. "You're an inquisitive little boy, Night Bird. You do well in the sciences, don't you?"
"I'm very good at math," Totyoalli said unabashedly. "My teacher says I'm his best student, and someday I'm going to be an astronaut."
Cuauhtemoc raised his eyebrows. "That takes many years of work, perhaps more than the gods have granted you."
"I'm very good at math," Totyoalli insisted.
Cuauhtemoc patted him on the back. "Come see me again next year and we'll talk some more." He led Totyoalli back up the hill to where his mother and father waited. As they departed, Totyoalli looked over his shoulder and waved at Cuauhtemoc. The Revered Speaker waved back.
But his mother grabbed his hand and hissed at him, "I will not have you playing cute with the man who ordered your execution."
- - -
Totyoalli's father bought him a telescope for his tenth birthday, and he spent nearly every evening out on the back porch, studying the stars' steady progression across the sky. His father often sat with him, testing his son's growing knowledge and listening to anything new he'd learned. When cold weather moved in, Totyoalli merely donned his coat and hat for stargazing, if the skies permitted, and his father always had a cup of hot chocolate waiting. In the summer, they took the telescope along on camping trips and his father promised, "Next summer I'll take you to see a rocket launch at Yoatitlan." Totyoalli counted down the days on his calendar.
Then one night, on his way to the bathroom, he overheard his parents talking about him.
"It's not good for him to dream so much," his mother said. "He'll never go to space. Cuauhtemoc wrote his destiny the moment he was born."
"That's how it's always been," his father replied.
"I just can't bear to see him struggle for nothingâ€”"
"It won't be for nothing. He'll grow up to be man, perhaps have a family of his ownâ€”"
"Until Cuauhtemoc cuts his heart out in front of an audience of millions!"
"I'm not talking about this any more."
Hearing his father approach, Totyoalli hurried to the bathroom. Before returning to bed, he went to the kitchen and saw his father sitting outside on the porch, staring at the telescope and sipping a glass of milky-white octli mixed with soda water. He didn't come back inside for the rest of the night.
- - -
At the Revered Speaker's request, Totyoalli had been visiting the palace twice a year. His mother didn't come along again after that first trip; Totyoalli's father said she never would have gone at all if the Emperor hadn't insisted on meeting her. His father passed the hours with silent prayer at the Great Temple while his son spent the afternoons in the gardens with Cuauhtemoc, talking about his classes and interests. Over the years, the Emperor had come to seem something of a second father to the boy, but when Totyoalli arrived at the palace that summer, his mother's bitter declarations about Cuauhtemoc's intentions weighed heavy on his mind.
"Have they taught you the names of the planets yet?" Cuauhtemoc asked as they followed the winding brook to the south end of the gardens.
Unable to resist showing off his knowledge, Totyoalli rattled off the long list. "Piltzintecuhtli, Quetzalcoatl, Cem Anahuac, Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, Ometeotl, and Tlaloc." He was one of the few in his class who could recite the names from memory.
Cuauhtemoc smiled, impressed. "Your father tells me you're very handy with your telescope. You're still planning to be an astronaut?"
"Mother says I'm wasting my time. She didn't want father to get me the telescope."
"Knowledge is never a waste of time."
"She also says you're going to cut my heart out." Totyoalli hadn't intended to bring it up, but it just spilled out. He couldn't meet Cuauhtemoc's gaze. He hated that his mother thought so badly of his friend, yet he knew she spoke the truth.
Earlier that month, the priests had called him to the temple to watch the Toxcatl broadcast. "It's time you began learning what's expected of you," they'd said. He'd feigned illness and his father hadn't made him watch on television, but how much longer could he avoid it? He didn't want to see anything that might alter his friendship with Cuauhtemoc.
After a moment of silence, the Revered Speaker replied, "It's not a day I look forward to. I'd rather it never came."
"Then she's right. It's all a waste of time."
Cuauhtemoc set a firm hand on Totyoalli's shoulder. "Everyone meets Xolotl; you just know ahead of time the exact moment and place He will visit you. Eighteen years is a long time, and there are still many opportunities to pursue your passions. Living is not wasted time. Always remember that."
"I can still be an astronaut, then?" Totyoalli asked.
Smiling, Cuauhtemoc replied, "We'll discuss that when you've finished calmecac."
That evening, they sat in the royal observatory, Cuauhtemoc telling tales of the stars, the planets, and the gods that named them, while Totyoalli gazed at Quetzalcoatl through the telescope's super-powered lens. He imagined a giant feathered serpent swimming through its swirling yellow clouds, His home since conflagrating Himself on a pyre of wood and snakes and ascending to the heavens as the Morning Star. Someday I'm going to visit Him
, he thought. If the gods will allow it
- - -
Totyoalli finished calmecac two years early, and, a few days after graduation, received an invitation to attend the Royal Academy in Tlaxcala.
The evening before classes began, his father called him, so distressed he could hardly speak. "She left."
"Mother?" Silence on the other end answered the question. "Are you okay?"
"She took all of her things and most of the furniture." He paused for a moment before adding, "I guess she thought she'd stayed long enough."
"Do you need me to come home?"
"No, of course not. I'm fine."
"You don't sound fine. I think you should come live here. We'll get an apartment in town."
- - -
That first semester, Totyoalli joined the Aerospace Corps, where, for beginner training, cadets parachuted out of airplanes high above the northern plainsâ€”an exercise he dreaded more the more he did it. Surely one day his fear would get the better of him and he'd refuse to jump, and that would end his space career before it ever began. That thought always made him jump when he hesitated, but he still worried he wouldn't pull his cord in time. Yet even the one time his first chute failed, he managed to deploy the emergency one.
Between the stress of finals and worries that he'd never pass his first-year requirements, he welcomed Cuauhtemoc's invitation for him and his father to celebrate the five days of Toxiuhmolpilia and the New Fire Ceremony at the palace.
Toxiuhmolpilia happened only every fifty-two years, when the ancient calendars aligned. Days of fearful apprehension preceded the New Fire Ceremony; would the gods end the world or spare it a little longer? At the end of the fifth day, every cityâ€”from the farthest icy northern towns to the tourist meccas at the tip of the southern continentâ€”extinguished their lights and broke the last pots made in the flames of that century's fire. Then, just shy of midnight, the jaguar knights would escort Xiuhtecuhtli's Teotl Ixiptlaâ€”the fire-god's representative on earthâ€”to the Hill of the Stars outside the city. If the priests observed the constellation Tianquiztli rising above them, Cuauhtemoc would cut Xiuhtecuhtli's heart out and light the New Fire in his chest. Then all the lights would come back on all over the empire and the masses would celebrate with feasting and sacrifices, to give thanks to the gods for granting another fifty-two years of mercy.
But first, Totyoalli had to meet his future wives.
Cuauhtemoc introduced him to the four young ladies before a modest dinner the day he and his father arrived. Like him, each had been selected at birth to represent one of the goddesses on Earth, and, according to tradition, he would marry each of them and they'd spend the last year of his life showering him in luxury and affording him every pleasure he could imagine. Then, on the evening of the Festival of Dryness, they would escort him to the temple where he was to be stripped of everything, beginning with his finery and ending with his life. The following year, they too would die at the various festivals honoring the goddesses they represented.
Most of the girls were curious about him, following him from a distance, giggling and whispering. But oneâ€”the maize goddess Xilonen's incarnationâ€”showed only polite interest and spent most of her time reading textbooks and scribbling in a notebook. Of everyone he met that holiday, hers was the only name he remembered: Zaniyo, alone. He felt sure the love goddess Xochiquetzal had planted every flower in the world just for her, and he concocted excuses to walk past her in the gardens as she studied.
One time, as he came across her studying near the flowerbeds, she suddenly muttered a curse and tossed her pencil down in frustration.
"Maybe I can help with something?" he offered and she looked up, startled at first, then blushing. He sat on the grass next to her. "Calculus, huh?"
"I hate it," she admitted. "But I need it to get into the Royal Academy."
"I attend the Academy."
"Obviously." She pointed to the silver badge on his chest, with the embroidered gold-feathered serpents Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca creating the stars. "Cuauhtemoc assures me he's reserved me a spot next semester, but that'll hardly matter if I can't raise my math scores."
"I can help you with the math," Totyoalli replied. "I'm really good at it."
Zaniyo set the textbook in his lap and smiled. "From what Cuauhtemoc tells me, you're good at everything."
"That's not true," Totyoalli said, his face flushed. "I'm sort of having a hard time with the Aerospace Corps."
"What about it?"
"Free fall makes me sick." When Zaniyo laughed, Totyoalli added, "It's not funny. If I can't pass the training, I'll never go to space."
She gave a dismissive wave. "The more you jump, the more your confidence builds, and eventually you might even enjoy free fall."
"How would you know?"
"I did my first solo jump when I was ten," she told him. "My grandfather was an Eagle Knight and he took me up in his plane all the time. I started tandem-jumping with him at five. He taught me to fly, and I'm going to be an Eagle Knight. If the gods will it, I might even get to go to Quetzalcoatl and work on the space station."
For the next three days, Totyoalli spent every spare moment helping Zaniyo with calculus or lounging along the banks of the garden stream and recounting to her his misadventures with parachuting. They hid from the trio of giggling girls when they came looking for him, and on the evening of the New Fire ceremony, Zaniyo invited him to watch it with her from atop the palace wall.
When they crawled out of the hole in the floor of the southernmost bastion, a startled jaguar knight hissed at them, but let them run off down the length of the wall. They stopped halfway and leaned against the outer edge, gazing down at the dark waters of Lake Texcoco. Totyoalli savored the warm breeze ruffling his short black hair.
As the city grids fell dark one after another, Zaniyo said, "In the old days, everyone extinguished their fires at the beginning of the festival. Can you imagine? Five days lit only by the sun?"
"Sounds like a hassle," Totyoalli replied.
"The gods rarely make anything easy for us."
The land fell dark and silent. It was considered bad luck to speak during the dark time, and, although Totyoalli dismissed the whole spectacle as superstitious rubbish, he maintained the traditional silence. He and Zaniyo stood close together, watching the mountains for the first signs of fire.
When the flicker finally appeared, distant and dim, Zaniyo grabbed his hand and squeezed. "And so the world continues a little longer," she breathed with relief.
Tenochtitlan's lights came back on one grid at a time.
"Of course it will continue," Totyoalli said with a laugh. "Cuauhtemoc keeps the gods fat on blood. Why would they want the feast to end?"
Zaniyo sat with her back to the stone wall. "You don't really believe, do you?"
Totyoalli joined her. "I find it hard to," he admitted.
"How can you not? We've eaten dinner with the War God himself every night this week."
"You mean Cuauhtemoc? Why would you think he's Huitzilopochtli?"
"Have you ever noticed that he doesn't age?"
Totyoalli shrugged. "Good genetics."
"He doesn't get old because he's a god," Zaniyo declared and when Totyoalli chuckled, she laughed and said, "My father wouldn't like you. He'd say you're an affront to the gods with your disbelief."
"If Tezcatlipoca chose me as his Teotl Ixiptla, I must not be too offensive."
"No, the gods don't make such mistakes," she said, then kissed him. When she finished, he felt as if he'd drunk a whole bottle of octli, and his toes were numb. "I must fly home tonight, but will you write to me?"
"Every day, if you wish," he whispered.
- - -
Totyoalli wrote to Zaniyo not quite every day, but enough to irritate her father, who didn't approve of this attention, even from the man destined to marry his daughter. But soon enough she moved into her dorm at the Royal Academy and they spent every spare moment together, eating lunch in the cafeteria and helping each other with homework. On the short days, at the airfield, Zaniyo showed Totyoalli the controls of the single-engine planes, and by the beginning of the Hollow Days, she'd gotten him flying short distances. They took the zero-gravity simulation classes together and trained in the mock spacecraft, each doing their best to one-up the other.
Their playful flirting soon developed into Zaniyo staying over at Totyoalli's apartment for days at a time. Eventually, she moved in.
- - -
In the spring of his twenty-third year, Totyoalli went on a routine two-week lunar mission, to the base orbiting Coyolxauhqui's Head. Zaniyo went up three months later and when she returned, they got married, six years ahead of schedule.
They applied for positions on the expedition to Quetzalcoatl, but mission control turned them down for lack of experience, encouraging them to reapply in four years.
"But by the time it leaves, we'll both be twenty-eight," Zaniyo protested to the mission coordinator. "Each mission lasts five years; the government won't let us go if we can't be back in time for the Toxcatl. This is our one chance."
"You need more experience," he said. "If you'd done more missions to the lunar baseâ€”"
"We've taken every mission they offered us," Totyoalli said. "We just graduated last year. How can you expect us to have flown more than a mission apiece yet?"
"I wish I could make exceptions, but I'm afraid the rules are explicit. We require a three-mission minimum." The commander sighed. "I'm sorry."
Totyoalli wouldn't concede defeat. As soon as the next mission call came up, he signed them on, and they spent two weeks in orbit fixing a spy satellite. Back home on Earth, they enrolled in a series of deep-space crisis-training courses so they could take longer missions. The following summer, they went to the lunar colony for a two-year assignment. Totyoalli maintained the water recyclers in the geodesic dome while Zaniyo piloted biweekly supply transports to and from the orbital station.
When the applicant pool for the Quetzalcoatl expedition reopened, Totyoalli again added their names, but didn't tell Zaniyo. She found out when their commanding officer delivered the rejection notices and his condolences.
"I've accepted the fate the gods have handed me. Why can't you do the same and stop dwelling on dreams that we're never going to live to see?" She refused to speak to him for nearly three days.
- - -
Six months later, during an orbital mission, he watched Europe pass silently above his shuttle bunk and wondered whether he and Zaniyo could flee there and seek political refuge. But Zaniyo would never agree to go, nor could he leave her behind. She's right. Accept your fate and stop ignoring it.
So he took out the Toxcatl book Zaniyo always packed in his bag when he went away and finally started reading. He practiced the reed flute he would play during the ceremony, but he stumbled over the notes; his breath caught in his chest when he thought of being stripped naked and cut open on the altar like a frog being dissected.
- - -
Totyoalli returned home the day before his twenty-eighth birthday, and in the morning, after Zaniyo left for work, he drove to the palace to request an audience with Cuauhtemoc, to beg the Emperor to spare his life.
While waiting for a jaguar knight to escort him inside, he paced the courtyard, mulling over what he'd say. If he hadn't known Cuauhtemoc personally, he'd never have considered asking him this. Trying to weasel out of one's spiritual responsibilities was considered as dishonorable now as fleeing a battlefield had been back in the early days of the empire. If he were smart, he'd leave now and never tell anyone how he'd nearly dishonored his entire family.
But before he could settle on what to say or whether to leave, the jaguar knight returned and told him the Revered Speaker would see him. I'd be dishonoring myself not to fight for what I believe, he decided as they approached the Emperor's study.
Cuauhtemoc greeted Totyoalli with a firm embrace. "So good to see you again, Totyoalli. I trust your mission went well...."
Totyoalli nodded and accepted a cup of octli when Cuauhtemoc poured some. When the Emperor asked for details of the trip, he gave them, stuttering over nearly every word, and by the time he'd finished, he was sweating and the alcohol had soured his stomach.
Cuauhtemoc, now sitting behind his desk, scrutinized Totyoalli for a moment. "You seem nervous. Is something wrong?"
Just speak your mind, Totyoalli thought. He set his glass on the table at the end of the couch, then sat with his hands clasped, making himself hold Cuauhtemoc's gaze. "I don't wish to die, My Lord...especially for something I don't believe in."
Cuauhtemoc raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
"My father always told me there was no greater honor than to serve the gods like this, but I've never seen anything to suggest that the gods even exist, let alone that they care what we do one way or another. I've been to Omeyocan, where all our religious texts say they live, and yes, there are fabulous wonders out there in space, but no gods demanding blood in exchange for our passing through...."
"Certainly you've seen the prelaunch sacrifices?" Cuauhtemoc replied.
"I have," Totyoalli admitted, searching for hints that he should stop pushing his argument and shut up. But Cuauhtemoc's gaze was steady and neutral, so he continued, "It's not my intention to offend you, Your Grace, or to criticize our sacred ways, but they contradict everything science has taught me, everything I believe. Don't the gods deserve the blood of someone who actually reveres them rather than someone who questions their very purpose in our lives?"
Cuauhtemoc chuckled. "The gods hardly care about such trivial details as dedication and spiritual loyalty; they care about blood, and lots of it. But I understand your point. A growing number of people believe like you do." He refilled his glass and, after a slow sip, he said, "They sneak off into the night and hide, preferring to live their lives as outlaws rather than face death on the Eagle Stone. Just a few months ago, a young man killed a priest and a jaguar knight when they came to collect him. And a bunch of usually law-abiding citizens helped him escape the city afterwards. No, you're not the only one questioning the validity of forcing people to the sacrifice.
"But until now, no one has ever come directly to me and stated their dissatisfaction. You do realize that by doing so, you're committing treason against the gods, and I could lock you away in prison until the day of your Toxcatl?"
Totyoalli nodded, feeling numb.
"The jaguar knights who watch over the prisoners aren't known for their kindness. A year with them and you'd beg me to kill you. You'd be better off just running away like the others."
"But that won't get me the mission to Quetzalcoatl," Totyoalli said. "And frankly, I think I'd prefer death to throwing away everything I've worked for to go on the run. I belong in space or I don't belong in this world at all."
Cuauhtemoc's face relaxed into a proud smile. "You never cease to surprise me, Totyoalli. From the moment I first met you, I knew you were special. Do you remember what you asked me that day, when we walked in the garden and I asked you how you felt about being the Night Wind?" When Totyoalli shrugged, he said, "You asked me if I was a god."
"I was just a stupid child," Totyoalli said, shifting uneasily in his seat.
Cuauhtemoc peered at him for a moment before saying, "There's something I want to share with you, something I've rarely told anyone else; then you can tell me whether your question was really stupid or not." He went to the glass and mahogany showcase behind his desk and took out a human skull, mildly yellowed with time. "Do you have any idea whose skull this is?"
Totyoalli shook his head.
"HernÃ¡n CortÃ©s'," the Emperor replied as he set it carefully into Totyoalli's hands. "I cut it off his neck when he and his men attempted to take the beach at Chalchihuecan."
"You did?" Totyoalli said, not sure he'd heard right.
Cuauhtemoc nodded. "I still remember the smell of the gunpowder, the shouting of the warriors. That night we celebrated our victory with song and dances around a huge bonfire on the beach; our victory against history. He would have destroyed everything we were, everything we had created, and we'd have vanished into time, virtually forgotten except as bloodthirsty, freakish monstrosities.
"But look what we've become: we're the most powerful nation on Earth, we've placed colonies on the moon and we're traveling to other planetsâ€”"
"Are you saying you are a god?" Totyoalli interrupted.
"That all depends on how you define a god. You're an engineer. Certainly you learned something about nanotechnology in those classes you took?"
"A little bit, though it's all still completely theoretical...." Realizing what Cuauhtemoc's question suggested, Totyoalli set the skull on the table next to his glass before he could drop it. "You're...you're a computer?"
"Artificial intelligence," the Emperor corrected. "At least that's what they called it where I came from."
"And where's that?"
"Somewhere that doesn't exist anymore," Cuauhtemoc replied. "They sent me into the past, in the body of a snake, and I bit one of the nephews of then-Emperor Motecuhzoma the Younger, which transferred my nanites into this body."
"To prevent the Spanish conquering us. The council elected me Revered Speaker after Motecuhzoma died in a freak palace fire, and, well, it's been a long seven hundred and thirty-three years, but I'm still the Emperor."
"And the nanites kept you young all that time," Totyoalli said, studying Cuauhtemoc with new fascination. "Zaniyo was right...well, not about you being a god, but about you not aging."
"I'd rather people think of me as a god," Cuauhtemoc replied. "People are less suspicious of gods. But you don't believe in gods; you're a scientist." Cuauhtemoc put the skull back on its glass stand in the cabinet, but then took out a flint dagger. "There's something I want to give you. Two things, actually."
"You don't have to giveâ€”"
"You could have gone into hiding like the others," Cuauhtemoc said. "But instead you risked everything and came directly to me. I admire integrity, and that's why I'm releasing you from your obligations. You're no longer the Night Wind. Go to Quetzalcoatl and take Zaniyo with you, because I'm releasing her too. Go study our most Precious Twin and bring home knowledge that will benefit us far more than your blood ever would."
For a moment, Totyoalli didn't know what to say. Excitement and joy washed over him like cool water relieving sun-blistered skin, but then he said, "Can you do that?"
"I am the Emperor," Cuauhtemoc said as he sat on the windowsill and turned the knife over and over in his hand. "Besides, there's always the alternate."
"Every Teotl Ixiptla has several. Misfortunes happen."
"But I can't send this other man off to die for me. It wouldn't be rightâ€”"
"Your alternate is very pious," Cuauhtemoc said. "A priest, in fact. He'll not only go to his death willingly, but with joy in his heart. By your own rationale, it's what the gods deserve."
Totyoalli sat in shocked silence for a moment before finally saying, "How can I ever thank you for your mercy, Your Grace?"
"Please, no more formalities," Cuauhtemoc replied. "I would rather think of us as friends, and there's still one final thing I want to give you." He closed his fist around the stone blade and dragged the knife through, wincing. When he opened his hand, he coated the blade with blood. He then held it out to Totyoalli.
After a brief hesitation, Totyoalli took the knife. Cuauhtemoc wrapped his hand in a length of cloth he took from one of his desk drawers and said, "In my many years, I've had a lot of sons, all of them mortal and quite foolish in their ambitions, and often not as dedicated to integrity as the sons of an emperor should be. That's why I stopped fathering children two hundred years ago. But my lack of a reliable heir has always weighed heavily on my mind. I haven't needed one yet, but even I could fall victim to an injury so severe that my nanites can't fix it, and then what will become of our empire? Will it fall to the priests, who will ban all scientific research because it might instill doubt about the gods? Or maybe the military would take over? Can you imagine what this world would be like run by jaguar knights? No, it must be someone I trust, someone with integrity. Like you."
Totyoalli nearly dropped the knife. "But I know nothing about running a government!"
"Minor details," Cuauhtemoc said, waving him off. "You'll have plenty of time to learn." He studied the bloodied rag for a moment, then said, "I've always thought of you as a son, Totyoalliâ€”the son I'd always wished I'd hadâ€”and that's why I offer you this gift. I won't make you accept it, but if you wish to, merely mix the blood with your own. The shadow of death will never again darken your thoughts."
- - -
Totyoalli didn't tell Zaniyo about his conversation with Cuauhtemoc; instead, he told her the priests had seen omens pointing to the gods wanting them to go to Quetzalcoatl. This, accompanied by a letter from the Revered Speaker himself, she accepted with little protest.
He never showed her the knife, either. He kept it in a lockbox at the bottom of his footlocker.
After a month at the lunar space station helping prep the cargo convoy, Zaniyo and Totyoalli finally boarded the ships for the three-month journey to Quetzalcoatl. When they arrived, they circled the planet for a day before meeting up with the ring-shaped space station in a polar orbit. That same night, Totyoalli stood at the tiny window in their quarters, gazing out at the turbulent yellow planet and silently thanking Cuauhtemoc for doing so much to get him there.
For the first several months, Totyoalli worked with the crews retrofitting the space station with the newly-delivered materials, but after that he worked on systems maintenance and collaborated on plans for upgrading the station designs. Zaniyo piloted shuttles, taking workers and supplies back and forth between the research satellites deployed around the planet. Fish, beans, maize, and squash lived in the self-sustaining bio dome, producing enough surplus to feed the convoys on their trips back to the One World. The station had a temple, but health and safety issues forbade bloodletting and allowed only fish and vegetables as sacrifices. Most of the crew preferred symbolic offerings of fine paper butterflies and snakes, which were easily reabsorbed into the bio-system and honored the god Quetzalcoatl, who most believed allowed them to orbit and study His sacred world only by the grace of His divine mercy. Zaniyo offered Him silent prayers every night.
For months, Totyoalli didn't think about the knife or Cuauhtemoc's offer of immortality, but on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he opened the lockbox for the first time since placing the blade inside. He lay on his bunk, holding it by the handle and poking the dried blood on the blade with his finger. It wasn't as hard as he'd thought it might be; it gave like a sponge under his prodding.
All it takes is a small cut
, he thought, tapping the pad of his index finger with the tip of the blade. But what about Zaniyo? Cuauhtemoc hadn't given him permission to share this immortal gift with her or anyone else, but Totyoalli couldn't imagine watching her grow old and die while he remained young. Or their children. Or their grandchildren.
Was this why the Emperor had offered it to him? Not so much out of fear of the end of the empire he had created, but because he'd grown tired of watching friends and loved ones come and go with the bundles of years while he went on and on with no one to share that eternity?
I owe him so much
, Totyoalli thought, pressing the blade a little harder, but still not enough to cut the skin. It's the least I can do for him
But hearing the door slide open in the other room, Totyoalli quickly stashed the knife away in the box and buried it under his clothes in the footlocker.
"We have no octli to celebrate with," Zaniyo said as she walked into their bedroom carrying a bottle and some small cups. "But there's this papaya juice." She sat on the bottom bunk next to him and poured him a drink. "To the mercy of the gods," she said, and they both drank their cups empty. "I made you one of those fish tamales you adore so much." She held the foil-wrapped food out to him with a smile.
The tamales smelled fabulous, but the enticing aroma couldn't overpower the longing he felt as he kissed her. He could decide about Cuauhtemoc's gift tomorrow, after he and Zaniyo had celebrated life.
- - -
The next morning, Totyoalli joined his engineering partner Etl at storage area sixteen to fix a window fractured by debris. The air in the storage area had slowly leaked out through the three-inch crack. "Real poor quality control on that piece," Etl noted as Totyoalli examined the damage. "I'm going to report this glass manufacturer to mission control, and we'll see if they ever get a contract again."
Totyoalli just replied, "Let's hurry. I'm having lunch with my wife in an hour." And hopefully Zaniyo wanted a little more than just fish and tortillas.
Totyoalli packed his tools and supplies into his belt pouch and headed for the airlock. He double-checked his pressure settings, then activated his magnetic boots. Before stepping out of the open airlock, he hooked his tether to the rings outside the door. This section had no protective outer plating yet, so he placed his feet carefully so as not to knock open any ducts or conduits.
Fifteen minutes later, he reached the window.
"You and your strolling, Night Bird," Etl's voice crackled from the foam pads against Totyoalli's ears. "Do you keep your wife waiting like this?"
Totyoalli unsheathed his utility knife and unscrewed the outer brace while Etl peeled back the seal around the inside. His tether was too short for him to reach the outer edge, and after contemplating going back to exchange itâ€”further irritating Etlâ€”he decided to unhook it from his suit, latching the end onto a conduit next to the window. He increased the power on his magnetic boots and finished unscrewing the brace. He then hooked the metal frame to a latch on his belt so it wouldn't float away.
"Have you cut the outer seal yet?" Etl asked.
"In a minute." Totyoalli started slicing through the gummy rubber coating over the gasket. A couple of minutes later, they carefully knocked the glass free of its moorings. Totyoalli handed it to his partner through the six-by-four opening. Etl handed the new pane through and Totyoalli set it into place. Once it fit snugly, each reapplied sealant on their side.
"Let's make sure it's airtight before you screw the brace back on," Etl said. Totyoalli waited while he went to the wall panel and pushed buttons and turned the dial. Etl then came over to inspect the seal while Totyoalli scrutinized his side.
At the far right corner, Totyoalli found the sealant bubbling and splitting. "We don't have proper seal," he said into his microphone.
"All right, I'll decompress the room again; meanwhile, you should step asideâ€”"
A crushing blow sledge-hammered Totyoalli in the stomach. The world spun around him, a blur of black, white, and yellow that turned red when he vomited blood into his helmet. He waved his arms, reaching for anything but finding nothing to grab. His headset buzzed with emergency alarms. "Etl," he coughed into his microphone, his chest throbbing. "Etl? Can you read me?" Nothing. He couldn't see anything beyond the veil of crimson coating his visor, and already the smell threatened to make him retch again. "Etl, come in please!"
"Totyoalli?" The voice of Azcatl, from station control, burst over his headset. "We lost contact with Etl. Are you okay?"
"I'm injured." Totyoalli cringed when he touched his side and pain shot through him. A quick feel of the front of his pressure suit found his control panel smashed. "The window blew out."
"I'm sending someone to retrieve you," Azcatl said. "You're out by section thirteen, right?"
"I can't see where I am. And...I took my tether off."
"What about your air-thrusters?"
"My control panel is smashed."
Azcatl sighed. "It's okay. We'll locate you by your transmission. Just hang on."
Totyoalli waited, his pain growing with each minute.
"Still there?" Azcatl's voice crackled over the radio again.
"Where else would I be?" Totyoalli coughed.
"Bad news first, friend." Azcatl took a deep breath, then said, "You're in a reentry vector with the planet and you've just passed out of reach of our longest tethers."
"And the good news?"
Azcatl's voice faltered for a moment before he managed to say, "You're leaking oxygen. You've got maybe a half-hour supply left." He tried to laugh as he added, "At least you'll die before you burn up."
Totyoalli stared at the thin crimson veil on his visor and said nothing. All I had to do was prick my damn finger.
Clearing his throat, Azcatl continued, "I've sent for the shuttle to retrieve you, but it's two hours away, at Satellite Number Three. We won't leave you out there. We'll make sure you get back to the One World, I promise."
"Thank you," Totyoalli whispered, numb.
"I'm going to get Zaniyo, okay?"
Totyoalli nodded, unable to speak.
After forever, Zaniyo finally came on the radio. "Totyoalli, what's going on?"
"An accident," he told her, his voice choked. "Death was my destiny all along." She didn't say anything, but he heard her suddenly-harsh breathing. "It's all right. Don't cry."
"How can the gods be so cruel?" she demanded. "To spare you from the temple altar just to steal you away like this? How is that fair? Will they come and take me too?"
"The gods didn't kill me, Zaniyo. I took my tether off."
"You're not funny," Zaniyo said, tears clouding her voice. She sniffled and muttered, "Why were you so careless?"
So I wouldn't miss a moment with you. He couldn't say it. "I'm so sorry. Forgive me."
"Of course I will," she whispered.
"There's something else," he said. "When you go back to the One World, return something to Cuauhtemoc. It's in a small lockbox. In my footlocker. Don't open it. Promise."
His breathing was seriously labored now. "Tell him I'm sorry. I wanted his gift. But I didn't.... I was afraid. Tell him I'm sorry." He couldn't think straight, and he felt sure he was forgetting something. Finally he sputtered, "And one last thing.... I love you, Zaniyo."
He didn't know whether she answered him or whether they talked any more after that. He did think of their first meeting in Cuauhtemoc's gardens and that first kiss that had left his toes numb, and how this morning he'd looked at her over their breakfast table and marveled that he was even alive to enjoy that meal with her.
But now he floated free, Quetzalcoatl spinning peacefully below him. He was Night Bird Soaring, racing away on outspread wings as he rode the light waves, skimming Quetzalcoatl's upper atmosphere while the clouds twisted and coiled below him, serpent-like. A large black dogâ€”the god Xolotl, his guide in deathâ€”watched from atop the space station, a smile on His face.
Come, Night Bird
, He said, so I may show you the endless bounds of the universe
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