Flat blue sky.
Flat yellow earth.
Something races across the desert.
Small and slow from far away, fast and immense from up close. A great freight train, ten cars long, three stories high, its iron hide beetle-black and boiling hot, its pistons oiled in a tincture of human blood and fat, and pounding under a mad compulsion, producing momentum almost as an afterthought. A juggernaut enslaved to a track, with no choice but to charge on inexorably against the crushing heat, it drags in its wake an anvil of bruise-blue storm cloud as if by an invisible chain.
The rider in pursuit is not far behind.
His horse is almost dead. It’s been pushed to its limit and then beyond. Its gums are dry and cracked, its hooves frayed, its eyes fried white by the heat of the Sun, its intellect singed down to the singular instinct to not stop running from a death that already holds it in its teeth. The man clings to its spine like a jag of jetsam on a roiling sea. He laps at the sweat leaking from the seam between his forehead and his wide-brimmed hat, knowing better than to waste a single drop of moisture. Hurry, hisses the snake in his chest.
The man doesn’t need to be told. He goads the horse with his heels, milking it for that last dreg of energy. The track seems to arc closer by inches, bringing the caboose into tantalizing range. The man stretches his arm past his nameless horse’s head, gropes for the railing, and hooks it with his longest finger. As soon as his grip is sure, he lets the horse slip out from under him; it falls almost immediately once released from its final burden, dead before it hits the earth. For the Feathered Serpent, he whispers through clenched teeth. It is the most meager, most bare minimum of a sacrifice, but he knows better than to waste a single drop of blood.
The man hauls himself up over the railing and onto the rearmost platform. Well done, my vessel, the snake says. It coils contentedly within his hollowed heart-cavity, its scales rasping unpleasantly over his bare ribs. And now, the difficult part.
The difficult part, Vessel ruefully agrees, as a young man bursts through the door of the caboose.
He’s got a cape of leopard hide knotted by the paws around his neck. There are hummingbird feathers braided into his hair, and a freshly tattooed disk of black in the center of his face, all iconographic of the Smoking Mirror Cult.
The boy’s eyes go wide at what he didn’t expect to see, and what he sees is a man in black, the belt of bullets encircling his hips jangling like a rattlesnake tail with each jolt and judder of the train. The boy’s eyes crawl with horrified fascination the length of the inward-puckered scar that sidewinds from breast to navel, its lips crusted with overlapping scales like an iridescent infection. Someone’s told him what Vessel is. He hadn’t wanted to believe.
The kid is plainly terrified. Out of his element. Roped into a cause he’s only now realizing he doesn’t really believe in. Vessel doesn’t want to kill him. But the kid’s got a death-grip on an obsidian-tipped tecpatl, and he sticks it into Vessel’s chest just below the right nipple. A little close for my comfort, the neighboring snake dustily chortles. Vessel doesn’t even blink. Pain is just another thing that this quasi-dead body of his doesn’t feel. Hardly a drop of blood, black and thick as mōlli, oozes from the cut.
Kill him, the serpent hisses. He’s warrior enough.
Vessel obeys, as he must, sweeping the boy into his hands. Their grappling is terse; Vessel is older, stronger, numb. With ease he traps the boy in a headlock and then maneuvers the tecpatl between his ribs and into his heart. Lifeblood dyes his hand red, and he feels the snake in his chest shiver in pleasure, for while it prefers animals, blood remains blood. The boy’s life closes with the sigh of something ended too soon. There is a final motion in the young man’s sternum and then his throat; from between his teeth squirms a spit-slick hummingbird, which lifts off on palpitating wings from the perch of his nose. “For the Sun,” Vessel murmurs, watching it spiral upwards until it is a mole on the cheek of the sky, and then nothing.
Whatever little fuel that soul amounts to, Vessel muses, Huitzilopochtli will battle the dark that much longer, energized by the sugar of a short, sweet life. From his favored perch above Tenochtitlan, the blazing sun god brandishes his Flaming Serpent against the Stars, invisible behind the firmament yet eternally baleful, eternally ravenous, piranha teeming in cosmic waters. A worthy cause, to be sure. The most urgent of tasks. But is its demand truly absolute? Vessel wonders. Would the world end for want of a single heart?
Oh hardly. The words drip languidly from two fangs like stray dollops of venom. At this moment, hundreds are dying upon the steps of temples throughout the empire. The Sun will never taste this unfortunate little monkey. But ah, therein lies the paradox of sacrifice, for whence comes a river but from droplets? Should the rain cease to fall, well… best to keep the droplets flowing, I’d advise.
Vessel considers developing his own opinion but can’t see the point. He’s not even the hand that pulls the trigger, just the glove. He hurls the body overboard, watches it bounce along the receding tracks, the way a proper sacrifice should roll down the steps of a temple. He draws the revolver from his hip, plugs rounds into the two empty chambers, and then turns and kicks the door of the caboose off its hinges. A dozen or so Smoking Mirror cultists turn in surprise, and Vessel begins shooting.
He doesn’t miss once. The rest is done with fists and blades.
“Yours is a most dire mission, oh brave Vessel of Quetzalcoatl,” declares the exalted Moctezuma of the Triple Empire. “Indeed, it could be said that the survival of the Triple Empire depends upon it.”
The Moctezuma’s seat rises amongst vibrant greenery upon a ziggurat of solid gold. His throne room is glass-roofed jungle in a bottle, a feat befitting the god-anointed ruler of all that lies between North and South. The trees babble in the voices of quetzal and monkey; through the underbrush skulk coati, turkey, and yellow, furtive ocelotl, all fattened upon the Moctezuma’s leavings. The man himself has the proportions of a toad, his lungs laboring under the heft of his oiled breasts, his body having been neglected in favor of more convenient tools. The slave girl to his left waits on with a pitcher of chocolatl on hand. The rightmost is trimming the choicest morsels from the thighs of a dead man who, by the purple bruising of his hip, had on the ballcourt proven himself worthy of imperial consumption. Gobbet by gobbet she feeds him into the demi-divine corpulence of the Moctezuma.
Vessel has nothing to say. The scope of this assignment does not trouble him, apocalyptic as it may be. For years he has killed in the name of the Moctezuma, quieting voices that both boomed and whispered, and he would be a fool not to think that every bullet he ever placed into a skull did not ripple through a dozen more once his back was turned. He will do as he is told, not as a choice but as a condition of existence, and whatever dire consequences loom will evaporate like the foul smoke of a burnt offering. The world will clatter onward, its axles greased with that fresh blood, as it always does.
The Moctezuma gestures to the circular stone slab erected in the center of his throne-room. “Your target is known as the Holy Man of the North,” he says, as a boy-slave fiddles with the slide projector placed on a nearby table. He lifts a shutter, and a state-of-the-art light bulb beams an enlarged image into the slab. “These were all our spy could obtain before he was discovered.”
The photograph was taken at a strained angle, from over the cusp of some rock, where the aforementioned spy must have been concealed. In grainy chiaroscuro it depicts a scene of religious hedonism—men and women naked and entangled on the floor of a cavern or a mountaintop. In the center of them all, alone in that eye of the carnal whirlwind, must be the man in question. The spy captured him during some small motion, such that his features are smeared into a ghost-like mask, with ink blots for eyes, and a burn-scar for a mouth. One hand pulls taught the innards of a gutted jaguar as if to strum them with the black-bladed tecpatl he grips in the other. Vessel can all too graphically imagine what became of the photographer not long thereafter.
“The Northern savages proclaim him to be a magician of true power,” the Moctezuma intones. “A commander of the night and the wind. The agent of The Smoking Mirror upon the Earth perhaps, or perhaps not. What is true is that he preaches the death of the Triple Empire, and even now he skulks just beyond our reach, conspiring to make his prophecy a reality. Worse still, the savages listen to him. In this mad vision of his they perceive the illusion of escape from their rightful place in this world. They flock to his side, donning jaguar pelts and murdering at his command, all for the false hope of freedom.”
Vessel does not miss how the rightmost slave girl looks askance at the word savage. Her complexion, brown as mizquitl seed, marks her out as a Northerner as well. For centuries their kind has fed Tenochtitlan. Its needs, and hungers, and most of all, its thirsts.
She does not meet his eyes. If she were to, she might notice features like her own.
“By dint of chance or evil agency,” the Moctezuma continues, “this man has come by a certain artifact of unspeakable power.” A second photograph replaces the first–presumably the last before the spy was found out. The same angle, but now the Holy Man holds something aloft. A ball of stone, a large gem? Vessel squints. The mottled shadows conceal just enough. The Moctezuma bolts down a pink worm of muscle, slicks his jowls with a heavy tongue. “If he should transport this artifact to Tenochtitlan, throne of the Sun,” he says, with a belch as grave as can be, “the city would face destruction. And without Tenochtitlan, the rest of our Empire will surely fall. For what body can survive without its heart?”
The snake in Vessel’s chest, who has thus far lain in a silent, disinterested coil, delivers an arid chuckle. I can think of an exception.
“We foresee the arc of civilization turning down,” the Moctezuma says. “The Caxtiltecatl yet bide their time across the sea. Though we crushed the Pale Men once before, we failed to destroy them, and in peace they have grown strong again. Make no mistake—at the first sniff of weakness, they will come by sea to relitigate history, and I fear that we will not be victorious twice.”
Vessel’s gaze drifts to the stone reliefs that encircle the dome of the throne room, scenes of the same antiquities of which the Moctezuma is both so proud and yet so fearful of ever seeing again. The Pale Men, with their marvelous ships, their impossible metal weapons, alighting upon the Middle Country like invaders from another world. The battles that followed, the drama, the human bravery, obsidian clashing with harquebus. Hard-won victory at last, the Pale Men herded into the sea, their technology seized and made the steel backbone of an empire the likes of which the world had not then known.
Vessel jerks at a phlegmy grunt from the Moctezuma. There is a red speck of blood upon his cheek where his rightmost slave girl accidentally nicked him with her meat skewer. Annoyed, he swats her on the small of her back and sends her tumbling down the steps of his throne. Vessel hears her neck snap halfway to the bottom.
The impromptu sacrifice sparks a candle’s flame of some emotion in the cold gulf where he remembers passions once roaring. It is too dim to tell exactly what it could be, and in a moment without a heartbeat, it is gone again. It only occurs to him then that he could have caught her, if he’d so desired. It’s been so long since he’s felt the urge, and it would not have mattered if he had. The snake would not have let him snatch her life from the teeth of the Sun who loomed so opportunistically over the city. At the first whiff of rebellious urge it would bite the soft meat between his ribs, envenoming him with excruciating will, and he would surrender. It is much easier to want nothing in the first place.
The fallen slave girl twitches. Her face, so like his own, becomes a mask.
Her mouth overflows with green-blue feathers.
“Our champion, you’ve said nothing,” the Moctezuma observes. “We implore you now—find this Holy Man, slay him, and recover his weapon. Will you accept this mission?”
Say yes already, the snake hisses. His smell offends me.
“Yes,” says the serpent’s vessel.
Three cars later, Vessel bursts into a compartment that is not full of armed cultists. Adrenalin spigots out the many new holes in his body, and he collapses against the door, where he catches his breath and takes stock of his injuries. There are two bullets lodged in his chest, a third in his bicep, and an assortment of knife wounds in his arms and back. He experiences the pain as a tidy conspectus to be perused at will or ignored entirely. A half-alive body can only feel half as much.
The sky outside the window has darkened by degrees. In the time it took him to kill seventeen cultists, the train clattered on at least that many kilometers. Commandeered from a depot on the Empire’s northern frontier, the train is now en route to Tenochtitlan, with or without its crew. No way now to get word ahead. Within a matter of hours, it’ll plow deep into the city and unleash its devastating payload. Vessel hasn’t a clue what the artifact might be, but something surer than faith must have fired it into the heart of the Empire; Vessel can only trust that the Holy Man isn’t mad enough to draw on Tenochtitlan with an empty gun.
Quick, say the words, the snake implores. Before all that good blood starts to dry.
“For the Sun,” Vessel murmurs wearily. “And for the Feathered Serpent.”
Why thank you.
Vessel holsters his revolver—he’s got no bullets left to fill it with—and unsheathes his tecpatl before venturing deeper into the train. A cramped stairwell funnels him up to the car’s third story, where improperly fastened sconces cast dim, nervous light upon a grated floor. A faint smell tickles his nostrils—sweat, urine, blood—and then stabs itself like a stiletto into his brain. Masking himself with the back of his hand and ignoring the complaints of the snake that shares his nose, Vessel stoops to follow the odor to its source. Squinting through the perforations in the floor it becomes suddenly apparent what freight the train carries.
Men and women are packed tight as bricks within the cargo hold below. Nude, shaven, branded upon the base of the skull. A hideous commercial sagacity has fit their unique bodies together to maximize storage volume, matching contour to contour, buttock to belly, groin to cheek. They seem insensate, drugged perhaps for the long, hot trip, but feeble moans reach Vessel’s ears, nonetheless. Shackles bind the throng into a single, wretched amalgamation of flesh—
Flesh in the same earthen shade as his.
Vessel was on a train like this, once. The memory feels impossibly distant now—he must reach further back than he’s been alive to drag it back up. He recalls jaguar-spotted soldiers ravening through his village, recalls being tested, as all slaves are, and being dubbed unsuitable for labor. He went on one train, while his family—now a collection of blank faces and soundless voices—went on another, to somewhere else. In a coffin of other people, he was taken to Tenochtitlan and put into a line that serpentined to the top of a ziggurat where a cuauhxicalli awaited—a stone bowl stained deeply red.
His past is a torn and faded map. It goes blank where the blade carves into his chest, and continues at the foot of the temple, with the snake entwining with his entrails on the way to his vacant sternum. More clearly than the faces of his children he remembers the look of horror on the priest’s face when Vessel climbed back up the temple steps to slug him in the jaw.
That was the last bit of choice he had left in him. The last wisp of fire.
After that, the snake started talking, and its words were as cold and final as a grave beneath the desert.
“Snake,” Vessel says.
Yes? What is it?
An involuntary shudder at the tickle of its forked tongue against his vertebrae. “I want to know,” he says. “What stake does the Feathered Serpent have in the Triple Empire?” He rarely speaks to the snake, preferring to ignore the body nested strangely in his own, but this feels important. “Why not the Caxtiltecatl, or someone else?”
Simple. A shrug rolls through the length of the snake’s body. My interest is that mankind survives into the future. To that end, men must die, and die industriously. Blood keeps the Sun above Tenochtitlan, the Stars at bay, and the Triple Empire is a factory of sacrifices with no equal. Nowhere else do the lines stretch so far from the temple tops. Nowhere else are the cuauhxicalli so over-full with hearts.
The snake turns over inside of him, its sand-papery caress the loveless touch of a wife after the love has dried up. If this empire should crumble, that blood will cease to flow, the Sun will fall, and the hungry Stars will devour this world so painstakingly created by the god of which I am but a feather. You people really have no idea how much my greater self invested in humanity. Bridges were burned, I can assure you. I slit my penis open to birth your race from my blood. My tongue too, if you wondered why it has two points.
“Why me?” Vessel asks.
That is simple too, the snake replies. You were someone. There was a need.
“I hated the Triple Empire.” Of that he’s mostly sure. It comes easily to him, like the taste of a favorite food. It must have meant a lot to him, that loathing.
Oh, that didn’t matter. Really, it was that you were empty.
The snake tenses suddenly and then reorients itself, a small whirlwind of rasping scales.
“What is it?”
Vessel looks up. A man has appeared in the corridor where there was no man before, not even the sound of one approaching. So massive is he that his shoulders nearly touch both walls, and the cap of his shaven head casts a shadow upon the ceiling. Burn scars layer his bare hands in emulation of a jaguar’s spots; a butcher’s inventory of tecpatl hangs off his belt. In the center of his face is a disk of jet black, shiny with sweat, in which two wide eyes twinkle with amusement.
“Are you the one they call the Holy Man?” Vessel asks.
The other man grins with teeth dyed red. “No, merely a follower,” he laughs. “The priest of a living prophet. You will never meet that great man.”
Be cautious, my vessel, the snake hisses. This one is different than the others. I smell power in him. I think that he has gazed into the Smoking Mirror and become Naguali.
Vessel stiffens at that word. Naguali; a magician; a shapeshifter; thing perpendicular to human.
“I can hear that little voice inside of you,” the Nagual says. “You’re the dead man with the feather of Quetzalcoatl in his breast. Oh, you poor, heartless creature. How tragic to be puppeteered by a thing with no hands.”
“If you know that much, then you’ll know to step aside,” Vessel replies. He’s wasting time here, but a brawl would waste more still.
Don’t bother, the snake says. Kill him, quickly.
The Nagual chuckles into tight lips. “Yes, little dead man, listen to your master. I won’t move. I have gifted my life to a greater purpose than living. My spirit has already reached the bright future to come. My body remains as a wall.”
“And what bright future would that be?”
The Nagual’s eyes narrow to half-moons. “The one that follows the death of the Triple Empire,” he says. “When all peoples of this land are liberated from the hunger of the Sun. That is what the Holy Man has promised us. The men and women beneath your feet? Once marked for sacrifice, now they are the first of the free.”
“You intend to let them go?”
That chuckle again. The laugh of a predator amused by its prey. “No, no. The plan requires them. All things of value cost a volume of blood. Your Mexica understand that best. But although they may not know it yet, their hearts will be the seeds from which a better world grows. How can anyone aspire higher? So, I say it is you who should turn back. Let us do what you know is right.”
“All I know is that I can’t,” Vessel says.
The Nagual shakes his head remorsefully, then claps his palm to his mouth. He shows Vessel the two dried mushroom caps the color of sand on his tongue, and then sucks them between his lips, chewing with relish as his pupils grow to eclipse his eyes. Teonanacatl, Vessel thinks. Rare and powerful. Ingesting a single stalk enables one to perceive the universe as the gods do, as a much-amended manuscript. Ingesting two allows one to scribble in the margins, add new language, cross out words.
“Snake,” Vessel says, but in this he and his passenger are of one mind, and the fangs of Quetzalcoatl’s feather puncture deep into him, pumping liquid divinity into his veins.
The effect is instantaneous; before Vessel’s eyes, the world unsimplifies. The constraints of singularity that bind all things fall away, allowing one to blossom into its infinite inner truths, to become everything it can be, could be, is not, but almost, and all at once. Paper pulls away from word, and the tecpatl in Vessel’s hand accordions into a pistol, a scorpion, a twilight-purple morning glory, all the possibilities once buried beneath layers of ontological revisions. All around him, the walls of the train dissolve into a desert of obsidian sand that stretches from one horizon to the other, in which mile-high saguaros creak in nonexistent winds.
The Nagual is there with him, and he too has unfolded like a paper fan into a compound thing that is as much a man as it is a bonfire, a song of braided screams, and most prominently a red-fanged jaguar, whose hands are murky with indistinct weapons. He bounds across the dunes like an inferno on four paws kicking sand up into gaseous shadows, but Vessel is a meagerness of flesh dispersed through colloidal abstraction, and the Nagual’s fangs snap shut on tumbleweeds and sun-bleached bones. Vessel is a limbless creature, a whirlwind of many-colored scales, a smirking lie slithering on its belly, the perfect quip. He is all these things that can melt through teeth, and a man squeezing off shot after shot from an infinite-chambered revolver, leaden emptinesses chipped off the heart-shaped cavity stabbed clean through every one of his interpretations like a knife gone through a deck of cards.
Like gods in the heavens, like children in the schoolyard, they grapple and claw upon the black dunes of eternity. The sky has been flayed into its many layers of atmosphere and so they fight in the radiant hate of the Stars, the Tzitzimitil, manifested in their truest, most soul-blistering forms. Cosmic vultures incandescent with bilious light, they jostle at the bars of the Earth, maddened to a frenzy by the saccharine stench of mortal bloodshed.
Obsidian talons rake Vessel’s hollow breast; maize kernels fountain from the wound. The Nagual’s eyes spark—zinnias with hot coals in their centers. You are of my people too. The master you serve killed both our families. The Nagual speaks with a professor’s pity for an incapable student, calm, sad, even as feline yowls carve through the same gullet. Where is the wisdom in fighting me? We could have done so much more together.
Vessel’s eyes flail in their sockets, and whenever they should tip back into his skull, he glimpses faces without features, hears names that all rhyme with silence. The pieces left of what was taken, and not even the best pieces. I don’t have a choice, Vessel snarls through the film of man that trails from him like a half-shed snakeskin. I am how a serpent pulls a trigger.
The Nagual cackles—the sound of fat crackling over a fire. When you tell yourself that lie, is it in your voice, or one with a forked tongue? We always have a choice—they just aren’t always easy. You could have chosen to blow your brains out and let that snake starve inside you. Instead, you chose to be a dog that hunts wolves.
Vessel smothers his foe in lengths of himself, but the Nagual seems to revel in the struggle, a cat at play in the water. I beg you, my cousin, the man-beast implores, throw down your wretched life already. Let me kill you. I promise that I will make it a mercy.
For a moment Vessel is tempted, but he has no heart to lurch towards that kindness. What the Nagual can’t know is that the name of his curse is apathy. In truth, it has been years since the snake compelled him to do anything at all. It is no longer the whiplash bite of the snake that makes him ride out to disappear the Moctezuma’s enemies, but the threat of it. If he can’t resist, why bother trying? The difference in outcome is measured in how much he’ll suffer.
The Nagual is right. Vessel did have a choice, once; not to struggle, no, but to care regardless, in the face of futility. He remembers the slave girl lying broken on the ground, beseeching him in her final moments just to pity her, to let her wasted life affect something. It would have cost him nothing, and he could not give her even that.
There’s that candle-flame again, only this time it doesn’t go right out. A sensation emanates from it that he pegs as burning.
It’s anger. He’s mad.
Mad, to be a vehicle.
Mad, to have a mind so numb that it can’t keep grip on his memories.
Mad, to have his shame reflected back at him as if by a smoking mirror.
Vessel bares his underbelly and invites the Nagual into his spiraling depths. He lets those rail-spike incisors cut through a hundred of his selves, all it takes to stick him fast and bind the Nagual in gusty coils. Vessel’s fangs plunge deep into the core of throat that riddles the Nagual’s manyances; venom flows as welcome as breath into his bloodstream. He holds the other man dearly as the Nagual howls and dies.
Vessel comes down from the realm of the gods slow and hard, squashed between the folds of the universe as it packs itself back into three claustrophobic dimensions. It’s the rolling of the slave car that eventually shakes him awake into hide too small, a skull too tight, and a puddle of crusted vomit and blood he shares with the Nagual’s corpse. He tries to stand, gets most of the way up, but his skeleton hitches on a foreign object. He’s got a tecpatl wedged deep behind his clavicle.
“Snake,” Vessel says, “I need patching up.”
The feather of Quetzalcoatl says nothing in reply. Vessel isn’t so naïve to think it dead. Merely drained. He can feel it stirring in its slumber.
The silence in his head is novel. Heady. He hasn’t been alone with himself since he died. He glances back at the Nagual. The usual words leap onto his tongue—for the Sun—but this time he bites them back, for no other reason than the realization that he can. He forces himself to watch the hummingbird squirm from between mortified jaws and then flit about if unsure of where to go. Finally, it bumbles its way to an open window and flies off to where it will.
Vessel breathes out when the world does not come crashing down.
He cradles that flame of anger inside him as he staggers on towards the cab, stoking it with scraps of indignation. No sense in questioning it—it feels good to have warmth inside of him again. It feels good to feel goodness again. Here at the inescapable end of his mission it is a welcome comfort.
The cultists have made a crude altar of the engine room door, festooning it with shards of obsidian, turkey feathers, rosettes of dried blood. Vessel rests his hand on the frame, feels it shiver not just with the mean power of locomotion but a stranger energy, as if suspended on the cusp of some eruptive moment, ready to launch. The handle turns easily when he tries it.
He hesitates anyway.
He’s stumbled onto a few seconds that are his alone. If he’s quick he can carve out his throat. Maybe leap off the train and let the immortal snake bake forever within his dried-out corpse.
But people are a convenience to an engine in motion. For better or worse, the train will power on without him towards a conclusion he won’t be able to help, being dead. That doesn’t quite sit right with him.
He sees the slave girl again. Pleading with dead eyes. Somehow, she feels more real in his memory than she did in flesh.
Oblivion beckons, but the lure of the crossroads ahead is more powerful still.
Vessel throws open the door. There is a blur of movement on the other side. What might be an edge winks in the dark. His hand acts, unsheathing the tecpatl from his clavicle and sending it aloft.
A meaty impact. A one-lunged gasp.
The Holy Man of the North collapses with a blade lodged in his chest.
There is no one else in the cab, which is just as well, as Vessel has run out of weapons. He kneels beside the Holy Man and claps him on the jaw. The other man’s eyes spin fearfully and then reorient on him.
“I’m dead,” he says, his voice as thin as a well-worn excuse.
“Getting there,” Vessel nods.
“I supposed it would end like this,” the Holy Man wheezes. “It still hurts.”
The man is younger than Vessel would have guessed. A Northerner, by his complexion, but he knew that much. He doesn’t look like he could whip a desperate people up into a murderous cult, not that anyone would in his condition. His right hand sticks up in the air, shackled by a short chain to one of the dozens of pipes kinking along the ceiling, keeping him well out of reach of the arsenal of valves, levers, and switches that make up the locomotive’s steam-driven cerebellum. With his flickering anger as a reference Vessel can feel a slight chill of regret. The man was harmless. His death, an extravagance.
The rest of the man is collapsed against a chest of carven stone, his weight insufficient to dislodge its heavy lid. Vessel reaches out to touch it, only for the Holy Man’s hand to snap shut around his wrist with a surprising strength—those last words had sounded fairly final.
“Destroy it,” the Holy Man says. “Please. I, I wanted to bring ruin to Tenochtitlan. Yes. But, only that. Not everything. Not the world.”
Vessel gently takes his hand back. “I don’t understand.”
“Listen.” The Holy Man hisses like a bladder losing air. “This is the Fifth Universe. There were four before it, all gone. Flood, fire, hurricane. Mankind too, destroyed four times, recreated four times. The Smoking Mirror came to me in a vision, showed me everything. It and the Feathered Serpent have fought over each universe from the very start—one destroying, the other creating, over and over and over again—”
“I don’t have time for stories,” Vessel interjects. It won’t be long before the snake wakes up. Whatever he does after that won’t be up to him.
“Listen!” the Holy Man snaps. “The people of that first universe weren’t human.” His fingers claw feebly across the lid of the box. “Worlds end, but bones remain. The Smoking Mirror told me where to find them, taught me the secret of how to bring them back to life.” He breaks off to pant until he’s mustered up breath enough to speak. “Inside is the skull of a primordial giant.”
The train clatters over a patch of scabby terrain, jostling the cab, causing the Holy Man to moan. “The Smoking Mirror gave me a mission,” he says. “Take the skull into Tenochtitlan, use blood of slaves to give it life again. It told me that it would lay low the slave-masters and break every chain. I believed it. I wanted to believe. But I wondered—what did it matter where I awoke the giant? So my god told me.
“Tenochtitlan is the throne of the Sun. Where Huitzilopochtli resides throughout the day. As soon as the giant wakes, it will reach into the sky and restrain him, take him by surprise, hold him there just long enough for the Stars to descend and devour it. And that—that will be the end of it. Of everything.”
His swings his suspended hand, rattling his shackle. “Tried to tell my people. Turns out I’m not the voice of my god. Just the lips.” Tears unspool from his eyes and puddle upon the box. “The Smoking Mirror told me I would break the cycle of slavery and sacrifice,” he sobs. “Free mankind from the hunger of the gods. What shit. All I did was crank the cycle on. You and me and everyone, we’re just collateral in a grudge between gods. The world that comes after this one won’t be any different.”
The Holy Man pauses to suck down a breath; it sounds like he’s losing more than he’s taking in. “I never wanted things to go this far,” he says, and that is the last thing that is truly his choice to say, for what comes next is that final truth that everyone carries from the day they’re born, predestined to every soul, that waits all one’s life for its turn to be spoken before the lights go out. “Even after all I’ve seen,” he says, “I think—I know—the world can still be good. If people only mattered for the hearts we carry, we’d be nothing else.”
“I’m sorry I killed you,” Vessel says.
He waits for the Holy Man to reply, but there is no more coming. His tongue has fallen still against his cheek, his gaze fixed on whatever it was he was seeing when his heart ran out of steam.
Vessel heaves the body aside and, with an effort, slides the lid off the box. Wrinkled corn husks line the inside as ad-hoc padding, though he catches no more than a glimpse before the utter blackness of the object nestled within violently overflows the confines of its matter and envelops him. He stumbles as a darkened lens clicks into place between him and the world. All the pitted, rusted, tarnished metal surfaces of the cab suddenly gleam like burnished obsidian; a thousand mirrors reflect as many warped interpretations of Vessel’s features back at him. And in this splintered mirror-world he is not alone, for as he looks on, a great, rippling imperfection moves through it like something squaliform and many-fanged knifing through lightless waters.
Vessel of my enemy.
It’s a pleasure.
The voice emanates from everywhere invisible. From the blindness beyond the edge of his vision, from just over his shoulder. The spiraling bones in his ears whisper it to him. It echoes between the two halves of his brain. It is the voice of the unobtainable, that which pulls away as one reaches for it, taunting and tantalizing. It has not come, but merely deigned to be more intently where it was all along—perpetually a hair’s width from Vessel’s longest fingertip, on just the other side of a shadow. The Lord of the Near and Nigh, The Enemy of Both Sides, The Smoking Mirror—is here.
Tezcatlipoca is here.
Everything my prophet said to you is true, the god declares unabashedly. It is my ambition to end this stale world and start again. I wish to rise again as the Earth’s black sun, as was my right so very long ago now.
But that means nothing to you, does it?
Let us speak on what concerns a walking dead man.
Through spaces outside the three base dimensions the voice slinks closer to the node in his brain that receives it. You know better than any what a waste this world is, it croons. Vessel watches his clouded reflections mouth along in exaggerated, jaw-wrenching pantomime. An empty train carrying nothing towards nowhere, yet demanding ever more fuel to do so. It took your heart, and for what? To sustain the Sun until the next heart it wants. Your suffering was forgotten long ago, little vessel, if it was ever noticed at all.
A pitying chuckle from a maw as deep as despair. The death of my prophet is an opportunity for you, the god says. There is the weapon.
Giant skulls flower throughout the fractured mirror.
There is the ammunition.
The Holy Man’s lifeless features.
The Sun waits unsuspecting above the city of your slavers.
Wet the skull. Loose the Stars. End the pain.
Vessel stoops to pick up the skull, dark and dense as lead, and stares into its fist-sized eye-pits, which go on further than the skull is long. The fossilized thing is a relic from an epoch when existence was a novel concept, when the laws of nature were messy with scribbles and errors. There is more contained within this thing than its dimensions evidence. It has shriveled like a sponge for want of blood.
The god’s voice thins to a seductive whisper, sweet as manchineel fruit. I am a good god; I offer rewards upon rewards. It is liberation you desire, and you will have it. Do as I ask, and I shall guide you deeper into death than my foe can ever each. And while you sleep forever, your hard task done, I will make the next world a better one.
Vessel considers the offer. Sincerely.
With the snake yet insensate, the choice is upon him. It would be easiest to accept death, he supposes. No one could rightly blame him for it. The world is too great to possibly be his burden.
Then he thinks of the slave girl. The thousand like her even now lined up before bloody ziggurats. The thousands yet to come. All of them aware of the world they’d been cursed into, all of them hoping to live through it all the same. To mean more than the weight of their hearts.
He cannot imagine as many faces as they must have. It is difficult to spread so little care so thin.
But as one paroled from death, it costs him nothing to live a little longer. It costs him nothing to give what he does not have.
Vessel places the skull back in its box and lifts its stone lid in both hands. “I think if you and the Feathered Serpent were going to get it right,” he says, “you’d have done it long ago,”
With that he swings the lid at the train’s control panel. Halfway there it strikes a phantom solidity in the air, not the mess of machinery but the bolus of ab-reality pimpled up where the universe reacted allergically to the fingertip touch of the evil god. With the shriek of an angry jaguar the bubble bursts, leaving Vessel once more in the realm of the firm and definite, with breaking glass ringing in his ears.
Well done, my vessel, says a voice from inside, his twisted conscience.
“You were awake for all that?”
For a minute or five, the snake purrs. I wanted to see what you would do without me. I was not disappointed. It turns over and over inside of Vessel, luxuriating in victory. All that’s left now is to take the skull back to Tenochtitlan.
“Doesn’t seem wise to do your enemy’s work for him,” Vessel notes.
A dusty snicker from within. No sense in letting something useful go to waste. The Feathered Serpent has great love for mankind, but that love is conditional. Should it prove… disappointing, well, it is the nature of worlds to end, and cycles to continue. You understand.
Vessel imagines all the blood it would take to dye giant hands red.
“No, I don’t think I do,” Vessel says, lifting the heavy lid overhead.
Stop! The snake cries, hammering its fangs into his flesh. Pain nearly blasts the lid from Vessel’s hands. His resolve flickers like a failing lightbulb, but he refuses to let go. The snake can make him suffer, can make him cold in the soul, but it doesn’t have a pair of hands to steer him with. All he’s got to do is hold on to what he’s got to do even when his will’s used up. Again and again the snake strikes, overflowing his veins with venom, until an hour or a year later, it at last runs dry, and collapses like a slit rope.
Vessel brings the lid down on top of the skull, cracking it neatly in half. Its latent power whiffs away without a sound.
The snake pants, its tail weakly rattling. I’ll make every moment you live an original torture.
Vessel shakes his head. “All you can do is bite me. That’ll hurt, but I suspect I’ll get numb.” He probes the long scar where his heart came out, feeling how stubbornly that tissue holds together, determined not to yield a second time.
“The cut you slithered in through’s all healed over. You don’t have an exit, do you? No, I doubt the Feathered Serpent ever deigned to put a feather back on. I’d gamble you’re stuck with me. Maybe you’d better act nice.”
The snake, it seems, has nothing to say about that.
Vessel opens the side door to the cab to let out the Holy Man’s increasingly frantic hummingbird. He climbs onto the outer catwalk and lets the hot wind snatch his hat away. The train is racing the Sun towards the horizon; it doesn’t look like they’ll beat it there.
From here, Huitzilopochtli, the Sun, looks plump and healthy. A big golden baby geared for war. Vessel’s got to wonder whether it needs that daily blood transfusion to keep rolling on through its rounds, or if the commonplace violence of man throughout the world does the trick just fine.
There is no other way, you fool, the snake spits, oh so sullenly, but Vessel is skeptical; the snake has been wrong before, and recently to boot.
Maybe there’s an alternative. Maybe there isn’t. Vessel’s been plenty wrong too. From where stands, however, it seems rash to trash the universe in the hope of something better. He supposes he’ll find out.
Until then, the desert remains ahead. The train rolls on. There are stops between here and Tenochtitlan, where he can unshackle the slaves and decide where to go from there. Perhaps he’ll change the world. Perhaps he’ll just be free.
For now, Vessel stretches himself over the railing and enjoys the warmth on his face.