Standing with the orange-yellow sodium vapor lamp silhouetting him for the squatters lying in front of Agua Bendita, Ben Graywol, known in the shadows as Gabriel, takes one long drag from his nic-stick and lets it fall, like the blood from the wound hidden under his Aztlan armor, to the earth. Some runs just don't work out right, he thinks while staring at the door across the street to the bar. Blue neon blood swims through the "Open" sign giving the light a low purr of contained energy. His eyes dart to the parking lot next to the run down establishment; his augmented Yamatasu 2047-010 cybereyes paint the world in alien lowlight, as if the moon no longer shines as a blue orb but now casts its reflected light as a dower cold green. The moon shines only as a small growing sliver in the night so the derelict street lamps are the primary light for his vision enhancers. The vehicles in the lot, living lives of neglected abused, sit in silence. One vehicle stands out against the others to Gabriel. An old model; Ford-Canada 2020 Utility truck. A light layer of dust covers the chassis unlike the other vehicles of the shanty town of Nueva Esperanza. The truck is Gabriel's. He normally keeps it at his place, hidden away in his garage, only using it when he needs to move more than himself around, which is a rarity. He likes his Harley best. His truck signifies that his employer, Mr. Rodrigaz, is inside and not at Gabriel house like he is supposed to be. Been nice to have a drink first, he thinks as the weight of his failure rips within him.
Gabriel's turns his eyes back to the bar's facade. Taking a deep breath he lifts his hat from his head and slicks back his hair. "Frag," he whispers to himself and limpingly takes a step off the curb towards the bar.
Gabriel had gone down "Aztlan way" to lie low and give himself time to take things quiet and easy. That's how he wanted it; quiet and easy. But in border towns along the Aztlan-CAS boundary, quiet and easy is like a peaceful dream receding into the violent shadows of consciousness. The south had always been this way, for as long as Gabriel knew, even from the stories his father would tell when it was the territory of the state of Texas and only a long lost dream land of Mexico. There was always violence in the destitution of the forgotten men and women of this desert. Gabriel knew this well, but compared to the Ares/UCAS hit he had pulled off two weeks ago; drunk oppressed Mestizos and Mesoamerinds were far more quiet and easy to get along with than Corporate Security sporting milspec armor and HMGs. With the job, a theft of military weapon designs from Ares corporation, over and their pay collected from the Johnson, their anonymous employer, the rest of Gabriel's team split up and due to meet back in Seattle in a month. Gabriel figured that his little home town of Nueva Esperanza was the best place to hold up and "drink down some memories," as he had said to Fatty, his team's magician and long time chummer. Fatty knew what was inferred by that. To be left alone was the underlying message, and Fatty never argued with it. But Gabriel always had a hard time understanding Fatty's train of thought. Gabriel tended to blame Fatty's erratic behavior on his friend growing up a magician in a world that had been dominated by technology; to blame the culture for Fatty's burrowing deep into society only to mushroom, like some cross between armor piercing and hollow point rounds, and make himself seen.
"Well, Type-O's off to Havana," Fatty had smiled, his pink flamingo shirt brighter than a tac-nuke. "He says they have a helluva decker society down there. Somethin' bout indies and a novahot host in the matrix." Gabriel just looked at his friend through the smoke of his nic-stick, "Doubt we'll see the other two guys we ran with again." Fatty considered his friend closely, letting the silence take over.
"See you in a month, then?" Fatty asked his chummer in front of the coffin motel the team had holed up in during their datasteal.
"Yeah, `bout that," the aging samurai replied. Gabriel never thought of himself as a samurai but the chrome in his body tended to get him labeled that more often than not.
"Just don't get lost at some Lupanar," the mage teased. Fatty knew that Gabriel didn't care much for women, not since the incident with his wife and daughter.
"Naw, you know me. My only woman these days is a little old woman down Tennessee way. Calls herself 'Jack'." Gabriel brushed his salt and peppered bangs from his face and smiled crookedly at his friend.
The ride into the Confederated American States was quick and effortless but Gabriel was held up for two days in San Angelo, Texas while about to cross the border south. There had been trouble at San Angelo, directly on the CAS/Aztlan border, and security to cross over was tighter than ever. Gabriel waited in a small town north of San Angelo called Sterling City until he could hear his haven, Nueva Esperanza, calling in his dreams. Out of impatience Gabriel hooked up with some smugglers in a thunderbird headed his way, and for a little cred and info on some of the better shadow bars in Piedras Negras, they gladly gave him a ride across the border to Ozona.
Ozona; population of 4,421, and that is only if no one counts all the mesos that live in the surrounding shanties like Nueva Esperanza. The town has more bars and brothels than restaurants and Stuffer Shacks in the Seattle sprawl. Ozona and the surrounding area took off at the turn of the century when copper was discovered up Johnson Draw just south of the town. Hopefuls set up camp by one of the springs and so arose Nueva Esperanza or; New Hope. This was where Ben Graywol was born. Son to an Anglo and his Mexican-American wife, Ben's parents tried to strike it rich off the miners by running a bar and casino. "Just like the ol' West!" His father proclaimed when a night was through and the customers sauntered home drunk in the dark; just what his father claimed before one of the patrons shot him in the back. After that, Gabriel's mother packed up and headed for Denver with her son and she never looked back.
And all that before Aztlan had even existed, Ben thinks walking across the street towards the bar. It is amazing to him the way his thoughts bounced around. Even with everything he has been through in the last forty eight hours he could still think about his father.
His left hand is cramped. It is wrapped around his waist under his stolen armor, holding in the pain and pushing his shotgun close against his flank. The lamp behind him begins to flicker and flash causing his eyes' flare compensation to kick in and out. The world violently shifts from white piercing light to cold darkness and back again. With a mental switch Gabriel turns the cybernetic flare-comp off while crossing the street from his Harley to the bar.
"You don't have to do this." The runner whispers to himself. No one has to know. I can just leave. He takes another deep breath and winces from the pain. Some runs just never go right. He watches the bar, with each step he feels the beet of the "Nueva Musica" inside. So this is vacation, huh? The wired reflexes in his body feel as if they want action. He hates that, sometimes it feels that the machine was making the decisions; not letting him take the time to make up his own mind. He never got around to having a reflex trigger installed.
Everything had been fine before Rodrigaz showed up. Gabriel's world had been turning in its proper celestial sphere with heaven being just him and his vacation in a place where people let him be and think. He was happy to let his memories of the good days with his wife, Laura, and daughter, Justine, comfort him in his head while sitting in the world he had grown up in. With Jack Daniel's as the warm hearth in his makeshift home away from the universe.
Rodrigaz had walked in and if it wasn't for the fact that it was one in the afternoon and Gabriel was just getting started on his eggs and cerveza breakfast he probably would not have noticed the out of place Spanish-Aztlan salaryman. The man had walked in and approached Oscar the bartender who after much negotiating pointed over towards Gabriel.
"Are you Gabriel?" The man asked quietly in Spanish accented spanglish. His hands were shaking uncontrollably. Gabriel didn't answer but continued sipping his beer with his hat pulled low and his boots on the table. "`Cause the bartender over there said that maybe you could help me?"
Frag!, Gabriel thought, just what I need, some low level wage slave hitting me up for some job. Probably to go geek the guy who's been busy slotting his wife. "I'm on vacation," Gabriel said slowly.
"Please, sir." The suit groveled, "You don't understand..."
"I'm on vacation."
"They have my daughter!" The corp wheezed as if someone had grabbed a hold of his lungs and squeezed the air out.
Gabriel stopped. His own memories stared to surface but his consciousness fled from the tremors of his life. Gabriel swallowed, "What do you mean?"
"They have my daughter," The man began to ramble, "and I know where she is but..."
"Stop." Gabriel took his feet off the table and leaned in close to the company man. Even through Gabriel's drink he could smell the whisky on the mans breath. "Who has your daughter?"
"The Tio Viejo. The old men. The Sons of Quetzalqoatl. They took her to the Teocalli..."
"The what?" Gabriel asked, looking over the man's shoulder he could see the other patrons, especially the mesos, leaving. The bartender was talking with one of them and looking over at Gabriel's table. Gabriel didn't like the look on Oscars face. I'll have to talk to Oscar about that, he thought, that and not to be giving my name out while on vacation. "All right," Gabriel started before the suit could begin to explain more, "but we need someplace private."
On the way to Gabriel's small self-made house, which sat on a hill looking down Johnson's Draw, he found out the mans' name was Pablo Rodrigaz, he worked for a small law firm out of San Antonio. After talking to various 'shadow' people, Rodrigaz had made his way nearly three hundred kilometers west to Ozona. And what was another twenty to Nueva Esperanza to find some aging vacationing runner? Gabriel thought.
Inside Gabriel pulled the shades and brought out a bottle of tequila and glasses. "Here," Gabriel handed the man a glassful, "This will help calm your nerves." He said trying to smile but ending with a strange smirk. "O.K. Let me get it right.," Gabriel said walking towards the window. He moved the curtain to peer into the darkening desert night. Little fingernail, he thought as he looked at the silver waning crescent moon. "You're an independent lawyer, you defended a client, a meso client, from a big timer Azzie suit in San Antonio. You win and so the Azzie boy sends some cult to kidnap your daughter. Doesn't..."
"Not a cult., " The Rodrigaz hastily interrupted, "But the Sons of Quetzalqoatl. Demigods that rule the heavens and the hells. They are south of Laerdo, please will you help me, will you save my daughter?" He pleaded.
"Sure. Demigods have stolen your daughter?" Gabriel began sarcastically, "Ya, I'll get her back." He shook his head, "What the frag?" Gabriel exclaimed more to the house and himself than Pablo. "Wait here." Taking out a nic-stick Gabriel strode into his bedroom and flipped up the vid-screen. A few seconds of dialing and the phone was ringing.
"Hey-lo." Said a voice on the other side. The screen was dark.
"Hoi, This Fatty?"
"Ya, Gabe?" The screen flashed alive, shedding the light of Fatty's three dimensional features in the dim of Gabriel's room.
"Yea, hay Fatty. I got some mojo-magic drek I'd like you to check out for me, and get Type-O to check the databases too, if you can."
"Null Persp, Gabe. What's up? You ain't runnin' without us?"
"No. Nothing like that, just need the info, that's all."
Gabriel talked to Fatty for little under half an hour. Leaving Fatty to do his work, Gabriel went to check up on his new-found friend.
Rodrigaz lay spread out on the couch with the tequila glass, now empty, but standing straight up in his hand. The next few hours into the night found Gabriel frantically searching for more nic-sticks and stuffers. As a voice began calling him down to Ozona, to the only pseudo Stuffer Shack in over eighty miles, the vid-phone rang.
Gabriel walked into the room and answered the vid. "Gabe," he said, not bothering to hide his face from the caller.
"Gabe, seems like this group you're talking about is probably some gang in the area preying on people's fears of legends." Fatty began.
"Well all the info me and Type-O could come up with is that the Tio Viejo was a name given to some priests way back in the Nineteenth century. Seems that in December of 1890 some catholic missionary-type goes loco and starts claiming that the Devil has come and the only way to stop Satan and his crew is by sacrificing the children to this, and I'm quoting some datafaxes on this one, 'Devil-Serpent.'"
"Ya, weird and sick. Seems that it worked for about a month. The priest and his fellow cloth would lead one child every four days, starting on the new moon and ending on the full, to some church in the desert south of Laredo. The whole thing ended with some Bandido's coming in, seeing what was happening, then slaughtering all the priests and the more fanatic followers." Fatty let the words settle. "So I don't know if this suit is thinking of the same Tio Viejo, but if they are lets just hope they left the religion out of the game."
"Yea." Gabriel said feeling ashamed that he had lied to his friend. No need for them to know, next thing I know I'll have a handful of Shadowrunners and the street thinking something big is going down Azzie-CAS way. No, 'cause with all that I'm sure nothing would turn out right. "What about the Sons of Quats-his-frag."
"Well, I could fax all the stuff we found, but there are as many Sons of the Big Q as there are sons of John, if you get my meaning."
"Frag," Gabriel said quietly, "anything connecting the Sons with Tio Viejo?"
"No, nothin' off the bat, but I can still do some checking for ya?"
"No, thanks for the info. Did it cost you anything?"
"Me? Drek no. But you, well, remember that secretary I set you up with coupl'a years ago, the redhead with the wizzer tats."
"Ya..." Gabriel said uncomfortably.
"Well she's now working over in the Aztecnology Public Library up in Seattle. I told her if she scanned the data for me I get her another date with you. I think she really took to you."
"Damn you Fatty." Gabriel said with a tortured smile.
"Hay, only tryin' ta help. Peyote dreams, chummer."' Fatty said holding up his hand to say good bye.
"Slot 'n run ya bastard." And with that the vid went blank.
Gabriel had left Rodrigaz at his pad as sort of a safe house and gone back down to Nueva Esperanza. The bartender of Agua Bendita had no information about anything that made Gabriel comfortable. Oscar seemed afraid to say anything, fiddling with his bar rag until Gabriel finally had to take it away to focus the man. Oscar then looked at Gabriel, "I don't know anything. The Sons of Quetzalqoatl are a gang or a group that use magic. Dark forgotten magic, Gabe, to sacrifice for the gods. You don't want nothin' da do with them." Oscar said darkly.
"Where can I find them?" Gabriel asked taking a shot of tequila.
"Just tell me where, Oscar."
"They, they are south of Laredo," Oscar said giving up, "along the Bravo del Norte, the Rio Grande, I hear they have a hang out there."
A few more questions and that was all Gabriel needed, he headed towards the Laredo sprawl on his Harley. The first hundred and twenty klicks to Del Rio was nothing but dust and bugs. Gabriel hated bugs. The image of his daughter, Justine, came screaming out of the past and the night into the now of his brain. If only I had been there, he thought, I could have saved her. There were the torches in the memories, not that he had been there to see whether the rioters had carried torches or not, but the image stuck to the memories as if nailed on top of a cross for some terrible joke. His mind played it over and over, the humans herding the metas, the elves and orks, trolls and dwarves, along Madison Ave. Justine was just down there to have fun. Ben and Laura's daughter, their elven daughter that they had fully welcomed into their human hearts sixteen years before, had just gone down to shop and see a vid with some friends. They knew there was tension in the city, Laura even suggested that they rent a show for the evening and the kids could spend the night.
"Aw, mom. But we want to get out. "
"I don't know," Laura began her concerned lecture, "have you heard what's been happening in Seattle?" Laura said, a little afraid of what the news had been saying about metahumans being herded into the Seattle docks.
"Oh that's so West Coast though..."
"Yea Laura," Gabriel interrupted, "Nothing's going to happen. Not tonight anyway." Gabriel had always wished he had never said that, that he never made the prediction that 836 metahumans and their sympathizers would not die that night from the racial riots.
At Del Rio, Gabriel grabbed a drink and continued to his goal. He hugged the north bank of the Rio Grande all the way down to Laredo. He could see the ghostly halogen glow of the city against the low hanging smog in the sky directly over Laredo as he approached. The Tio Viejo, as Oscar had further explained, were on the other side of the river, past the Nueva Laredo district and south along the river. Gabriel figured that the Tio Viejo and the Sons of Quetzaqoatl were most likely the same go-go gang that did a lot of traveling north and south, between the Laredo sprawl and San Antonio. Gabriel also figured that there was enough superstition in Oscar, let alone all of Nueva Esperanza, to let a few rumors of some petty go-gang wizard keep people scared. He never liked fanatics that named themselves after old religions and cults. He figured that they were more dangerous than the normal turf huggers. But then again, Gabriel thought, I call myself Gabriel. This brought a worn smile to his face which he quickly hid so as not to get any extra flying protean stuck between his teeth.
He pulled off the freeway and took an old long bi-way along the Rio Grande. Even this road had been paved by the Aztlan government to appease the people back when it had first come into power. But that was the last time that they had attended to it, Gabriel thought. Soon the lights of the sprawl disappeared behind him and the sun started to sink below the horizon. After 60 kilometers of slow searching for something that would look like a go-gang hideout, lights appeared on the horizon. Even with his cybered vision magnification, he could only see a low glow at first. Then form and shape began to emerge from the horizon, and like the fear and awe from deep within his mind, it became real. A pyramid, teocalli as the Aztlaners called them, pierced through the earth and toward the heavens. It was not even close to being as large as the teocalli in Tenochtitlàn, or even Seattle for that matter, but it stood nearly forty meters tall with gold torches flickering along each of its four tiers and roof. Against the back drop of the desert night it truly was a monolithic god.
Gabriel stopped his bike about a kilometer away and took in the sight. "Maybe I'm in over my head on this one," he said.
Closing the distance between him and the teocalli with his vision magnifiers he could make out the great stairs of the pyramid that were facing eastward. Ascending those stairs were several figures; a robed man, wearing an Aztec headdress capped with tall green plumes, walking between two sparse rows of Aztlan Guards. The man was leading what looked like a young girl. At the base of the teocalli were several trucks with men unloading crates from the trailers. Gabriel could see that most of the men were wearing Aztlan's light military armor and sporting assault rifles; the others looked like maintenance personnel.
"Yep, waaay outta' my league." Gabriel walked his bike off the road and into the brush, lying it down behind some sage. From the bike's cargo he pulled a long duster and a dark jacket, both were armored with a dense kevlar weave. Putting them on he looked like an outlaw straight out of the old west. He checked his shotgun, making sure all five rounds were loaded in the aptly named Defiance-T250. He also loaded the bandolier he had sewn into the lining of his duster with shotgun slugs. Looking back at the active pyramid he decided against lighting up a nic-stick and settled with letting one hang limply between his dry lips. From the cargo he took out a long sheath with an elk horn handled knife. He smiled at the workmanship. "We've been through a lot," he whispered to the blade. "Think we'll make it through this?" Gabriel turned his head towards the teocalli and took a deep breath, then began to walk towards it.
There was a sound behind him. He turned to see, far down the road, headlights approaching. He dropped to the ground and waited. The white of the lights against the black of the desert's' night threw shades of sagebrush ghosts around Gabriel. The lights drew closer and Gabriel could make out the top rack of a semi. He held his breath. When the truck was perpendicular to him, he sprung forward and ran behind the truck, his wired reflexes giving him the extra edge to catch the back end and hurl himself onto the vehicle.
With sweat starting to drip from his face, due more from the warm evening than the physical exertion, Gabriel lowered himself under the back of the truck. He held himself close to the belly of the machine. If it were not for the surgery he went through years ago, replacing his muscles with those of specifically biologically strengthened muscles, many of the pits and holes in the road would have jarred him loose. The truck slowed, passed through a lax check point, and continued down the road. "What am I getting myself into?" He said, carefully balancing the nic-stick in his lips. He could hear music, soft and low, coming from the cab of the truck. Must be going deaf, Gabriel thought of the driver.
The music that beats behind the door to the bar, Agua Bendita, is the same music that was in the trucks cabin that Gabriel had heard. The music grows louder as he crosses the street to the bar. Thoughts of the past few days mingled with his consciousness and the music brought him back to and from the past. It is some neo-mexicalli techno jazz that carries long drawn out notes through the door of the bar. Gabriel feels each beat of the drums rhythmically pound the building's foundation. You don't have to go... he begins to think when lights appear down the street from Agua Bendita. He steps back away from the bar and reaches for his gun. The car turns a corner before Gabriel can make out what type of vehicle it was.
"Paranoid." He says to himself, pushing his other hand tighter against his wound, and looking back at the bar. He holds himself in check. His emotions warring in him. He does not know whether to vomit or cry.
The door bursts open sending a drunk man against the asphalt. The bouncer, who is new to Gabriel, stands looking at the man in the street from the door. Looking up from the man, then to Gabriel, then back to the man, the bouncer spins around, disappearing back inside, and lets the spring on the door slam wood against the frame.
The door slapping against its frame reminds Gabriel of the sound that the lock bouncing on the truck he had ridden under made when the driver lifted the trailer door open. It had made him jump, even though Gabriel had watched the man's boots walk around the truck to the back. Gabriel's arms had begun to hurt in the crook of his elbows where he had latched himself to the vehicle.
"Darse Prisa!" He had heard a man yell and then the floor of the trailer above him began to rattle, then to thunder, with the weight of armor clad men. Looking straight ahead, towards the back of the truck, Gabriel saw boots landing in the dust of the dirt that spread from the base of the pyramid. Gabriel counted at least ten pairs of boots until the dust was to great and he had to look away. Then the rumbling had stopped, just in time for a different sound, like that of chains rattling against metal. "Pull!" The man yelled, "Bahamos! Bahamos!" The rattling grew louder then stopped and Gabriel heard a great commotion of men's voices and machines.
Gabriel looked back at the boots of the men and found they had been replaced with a fork lift. The twin blades moved slowly up, met with more rattling, then slowly lowered back down again. Gabriel could only see the bottom of a box covered by a brown tarp.
"Take the Chac-Mool to Tomás!" was all Gabriel could hear before the movement of the men began again. Looking around Gabriel could see that he was now near the base of the pyramid and that there were several people all moving towards the teocalli. At the back of the truck Gabriel saw only one man standing with his back against the truck.
Gabriel let a few more moments pass then lowered himself slowly to the ground. He used the bottom bars and wires of the trailer to lift himself up off the earth and pull forward so that he did not scrape against the gravel. At last Gabriel was just behind the heels of the man who was clad in light Aztlan military armor and leaning on the lip of the trailer and smoking a nic-stick. Gabriel drew his knife. He listened carefully, for any sound that might indicate that more troops were in the back of the trailer. Secure with the silence above him, he grabbed a hold on the bumper of the truck and swung himself out between the mans legs. Sitting up instantly Gabriel grabbed the mans collar and pulled him down. Leading with his head the Aztlan guard pulled away from his assailant and dangerously exposed his neck. Gabriel thrust his blade up and pulled the man over trying not to spill any blood on the guard or himself. The man fell limp and slid to the ground. Gabriel rolled him over quickly and pulled his kill back under the truck. He began to take the armor off the guard then realized there was not enough room to change clothes. "Frag!" He whispered and looked back out, behind the truck. There was no one.
Gabriel scrambled out from under the vehicle, while pulling the man along. He threw the body inside the trailer and followed it in. He stood as he turned to face the night. There was no moon out and where the light of the teocalli's torches failed to penetrate into the desert, darkness consumed the world. For that moment he felt that he could see shapes in the gloom. Where the torches died, for a second, he felt that there was something there; something that was not quite real, not truly substantial, but dancing on the border of darkness and light. Raising a hand Gabriel grabbed the door of the trailer and pulled it shut.
Gabriel emerged clad in the guard's uniform, holding in his hand the guard's Assault rifle. His duster and clothes were hidden in the back of the trailer. Gabriel looked around, his temples throbbing from the tightness of the armor. He dropped down from the trailer and headed over towards the teocalli. There were guards lined up the steps of the teocalli every four or five meters. High above, at the top of the temple there were several men with a harness that held the box the truck had brought. Down the length of the teocalli, in the back, there were a few men that were setting up power generators.
"Hmm?" Gabriel whispered under his helm. He started moving down the length of the teocalli towards the generators. Cautiously he walked past the first groups of men until he came to the back corner of the teocalli. Behind the teocalli there were several canisters of gas to power the generators. He looked back down the pyramid. The other guards were beginning to hurry to the front of the temple. As he turned back towards the canisters he noticed a small service ladder that climbed up the back of the monolith.
Gabriel spun around. He was about to reply when the emblem on the soldier's shoulder, marking him as one of Aztlan's elite Jaguar Guards, shot a flash of fear through Gabriel. "Frag!" Gabriel whispered as his reflexes brought his rifle up to the chin of the guard. Both of the men began to back away from each other when Gabriel pulled the trigger. "Frag!" He said again after the gun stopped firing and the Jaguar guard hit the earth. In the man's hand was a smoking handgun. Gabriel froze, staring at the guard's weapon. He then felt something warm spreading down his left leg. Looking down he saw blood running slowly down his armor. "Frag," he hissed.
Ducking around the corner of the teocalli he drew out his knife and jammed it in the nearest gas canister. He could hear the sounds of men yelling far behind him. As the gas poured out of the canister he brought his hand up and turned on the armor's head radio. Chaos of men yelling in Spanish resounded within his helmet until he turned the head set off. Turning back to the teocalli he looked up the temple and saw shadows on the top. He couldn't tell whether they were from people or the torches.
He began climbing. When he reached the first tier he looked over the corner to see men running towards the canisters and the fallen Jaguar guard. From one of the pouches of the armor he pulled a flare. After lighting it he threw it down to the gathering pool at the bottom of the gasoline tank.
The pool flared up into the night. Flames raced up the side of the canister like an army of holy warriors running to their doom. There was a flash and Gabriel dropped to the base of the tier, hoping that the angle of the pyramid's steps would give him cover. The world became deaf to the thunder of the chain reaction of each canister setting off the next.
Gabriel was soon on his feet and climbing up towards the top of the teocalli. He didn't dare turn to look back at the men scrambling around the canisters but he felt certain that they had spotted him with the light of the flames framing him against the building.
He reached the base of the top tier and could hear someone speaking above him. He scrambled up the ladder but slowed down as he reached the top. Gabriel brought his head carefully over the lip of the top of the teocalli. He could see a man, clad in dark red robes standing with a long obsidian blade over a jade altar. On the altar was stretched a shaking naked body.
Justine! But it wasn't his daughter. This girl's skin was to dark to be Justine, her hair too long, hanging down the alter slick with fear-sweat. This was Rodrigaz's girl.
"Frag," he whispered as he recognized the man standing over her as an Aztlan priest. Gabriel tried to listen to the words that the man was speaking but they made no sense; it was neither English nor Spanish nor anything that Gabriel had ever heard.
Quietly Gabriel climbed up the last rungs of the pyramid's ladder. The priest, who faced away from Gabriel, was holding his hands wide to the heavens and chanting a prayer that was climbing to a fanatic scream. Thick ropes tied the girl to rungs on either end of the altar. Her body was healthy. No Bruises, Gabriel thought, as her cries failed to defeat the chant of the priest. Gabriel was able to stand upon the top of the teocalli without the guards below able to see him from behind the lip of the stairs. Gabriel set foot upon the apex of the teocalli. Blood drained from his head and his legs while more adrenaline rushed to his heart. The energy that flowed from the priest into the altar dazed even a mundane human, like Gabriel. He nearly fell off the back of the pyramid from the power. "Frag." he whispered again, catching his balance and wondering what his options were now that he was at the back end of an Aztlan sacrificial pyramid, standing behind some chanting shamanic priest who was about to carve up the girl he was here to rescue in front of an audience of Aztlan Jaguar guards.
"Daddy!" He heard the girl sob softly in-between the sound of the priest. The word echoed in Gabriel's mind, reverberating off his skull like footsteps in an ancient cave; disturbing the denizens that had been hanging on the roof out of sight and pushed back, only to surge forth into the cavern with the madness of a thousand bats who had lost their sonar. Reason seemed to leave Gabriel. His body just began to react to fate, or hysteria. He wasn't thinking. He dropped his rifle and pulled his knife. The adrenaline hit the rest of his body and his desire snapped his wired reflexes into motion. His hand was out and around the priest with the knife sinking to the haft and rising from the kidney up the spine until the momentum of Gabriel's anger was stopped by the increasing bones that blocked the blade's crusade.
Light and energy seared into Gabriel as the blood of the priest ran onto his hand. The runner pushed the priest towards the steps and ran to the sobbing girl. Gabriel felt charged, electric. He began cutting the ropes and had the girl in his hands. The two guards in the lead of the procession up the stairs ran to catch the priest who was tumbling down the steps towards them as the rest of the guards began a frantic ascent up the steep steps.
The guards did not realize that the priest was dead until Gabriel had made it with the girl across the length of the roof. Two guards cleared the roof and took aim with their assault rifles. Counting on the Aztecnology armor to withstand the force of the landing, Gabriel jumped to the pyramid tier below him with the naked girl slung across his shoulder and automatic rifles firing behind him.
He landed with a thud and doubled over as the shock on his legs attacked his wound. Before his mind could react to the pain he was off again and jumping, more or less, to the next tier. In mid air he let out a groan. Then he hit the next tier and rolled, his hands cradling the girl as best as he could. Stopping himself from rolling down to the next level he rose and pulled her up while looking towards the roof for signs of guards.
"Frag, she's fainted," he said with her body limp in his arms, and fell to the next tier. He landed and was up again next to the edge when he noticed there was blood all around where he had landed.
The girl was not breathing.
Gabriel looked at her. Blood ran from the exit wounds of several bullet holes scattered across her stomach and chest. He knelt beside her, his hands cradling her head. He wanted to scream but just looked at her silently. His eyes were glazing over with tears. He blinked and when he looked at the girl again all he could see was the face of his daughter; the face of Justine, calmly asleep, like the morning he had been called to the morgue to identify her body.
Bullets began to fall from the roof. He grabbed the girl and jumped the last, and longest, leg of the pyramid. He landed to the left of the burning gas drums and staggered to his feet. His mind was spinning from the falls and the blood that he was losing from his side. He looked down at the girl and then towards the burning canisters. Bullets kicked up dirt around him.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to the dead girl and threw her into the fire. Something knocked him to the ground and he looked to see a bullet lodged, half piercing, his armor's shoulder piece. He sat there in the dust and smoke, looking at his shoulder, Why couldn't it have been ten centimeters up and a little to the right, he thought. He didn't want to move, he just wanted them to come and get him now. They could kill him, or torture him, or what ever they wanted. He did not care any more. The sight of the girl cradled in the fire drew all his will to fan the flames of what had once been so beautiful.
The bullets slowed to a few shots now and again, but Gabriel knew that they were just keeping track of him while the others were scrambling down the front of the teocalli. His mind swirled, his life, how he did not notice it until he had climbed those last few steps to see the girl tied to the altar. To see her innocent in the world, bared for depravity to cut its mark, made him feel the importance to his being here at the teocalli, the importance of what he had made his life into. Bile rose in his throat when he pictured the girl. He almost gagged on the image. That was enough of a jump to his system to send him on his feet, running into the darkness of the desert.
He ran from the teocalli, from the yells of the men, and into the sage where he figured he had hid his bike. Two minutes later he was at his motorcycle and took the butt of his rifle and smashed the tail light.
Looking back at the building Gabriel thought, Chickens with no head, Most were scrambling around the burning canisters. Why didn't they stop the ritual when the canisters had first exploded, he wondered. He straddled his bike and noticed that several of the smaller trucks at the teocalli had their lights on and were moving onto the road. He jumped the bike into action and tore off down the road.
The two day limp from and then back to Nueva Esperanza took seconds to Gabriel, compared to the millennia that passes as he stands looking at the door of Agua Bendita. The man just thrown out now wobbles down the street and Gabriel is still looking at the door. A cough erupts from his tired lungs and more blood runs from his wound. He can not tell whether the solid matter, soft and sponge-like against his fingers, is pieces of the cloth under his armor or broken bits of himself. The world around him tunes in gray as if the brightness on a television has been turned to the white extreme. He staggers, which jostles his wound more, but the pain brings him back. He checks himself against the dizziness. What I wouldn't do for a stim patch right now. Once secure Gabriel looks back up at the door. It feels to him as if the door is stronger than him and that he is never to be able to reach it, let alone move it from its hinges.
"Frag." The word drops from his lips. Stepping forward he whispers to spite his life, "If I'm to die, then I'd better do my job first." He reaches up and pulls the door open. "Some runs just never work out right."