Alphas: Aztecs by Nancy W

Sixth story in the ALPHAS series.

Vin liked going to school, even though he already knew most of the stuff that his teacher, Mrs. Manfredi, talked about. That morning, she talked about dinosaurs. He drew a picture of the time they went through the port and there were dinosaurs everywhere. That had been a strange timeline. The city was much like a city in this timeline, but there were alarms to warn people about the dinosaurs and shelters where they could hide from them. They had been chased by a large carnivore that time. Seven - JD - had been very afraid, because he was only four. To be honest, Vin had thought the big reptiles were pretty scary, too.

He explained all of that to Mrs. Manfredi when she asked him about his picture. She had told him his work was really good, but then she sent home a note for Mr. Travis telling him he should talk to Vin about making up stories.

Mr. Travis read the note and asked him to explain. Vin told him about the dinosaurs. "That really happened?" he asked him.

Vin nodded. "So did the sky station." When Mr. Travis frowned, Vin explained how Mrs. Manfredi had asked them to draw a picture of the most fun thing they had ever done, and Vin had drawn his about the time the Alphas had gone into space to kill an asteroid with a laser cannon.

"You didn't make that up?" Mr. Travis asked.

Vin shook his head.

Orin Travis was not sure how to handle the situation. He wasn't entirely convinced Vin was telling the truth, so he called the other boys together. They pretty much corroborated his story - both the one about the dinosaurs and the one about the asteroid.

"You mean someone sent children into space?" He had a hard time believing that.

"It was a training exercise," Josiah explained with a casual shrug. "Although the asteroid needed to be destroyed. On its subsequent orbit, it would have impacted with Earth."

"Why didn't they take care of it?" Orin asked, referring to whatever "they" was in charge of such things in the other timeline.

Chris shrugged. "I guess they would have, but it was good practice for us. We'd never been in space."

"It was fun!" JD said. The other six nodded.

That still left the problem of Mrs. Manfredi. Of course, all she had asked was that he talk to Vin about his "exaggeration," so, technically, he'd done what she'd asked.

He asked to see Vin's picture. It was an impressive piece of work - not so much in its artistry, because he still drew like a 7-year-old, but in its amazing detail. The boys had been trained to notice, remember and record their surroundings. All of them could draw like that.

He took Vin's drawing and used kitchen magnets to attach it to the refrigerator, they way they had done with Steven's art work so many years before. The little boy looked baffled.

"Why did you do that?" Vin asked.

"Because I like to look at it," Orin answered.

Vin smiled, genuinely pleased by this.

The boys had homework, which they would likely breeze through. JD's kindergarten homework was to write his numbers from one to twenty, which was no challenge at all for a child who could do multi-variable calculus - in his head. Interestingly, he'd still done it, neatly and carefully. Like the others, he was meticulous about following directions.

Josiah, though, had a report to turn in on the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence and it was all methodically researched, printed out, and bound in an appropriate plastic folder - none of which he had done himself. Their Omnicrhon mentors apparently had no problem with doing some of their homework for them, but Orin wasn't exactly sure what to do about it. None of the boys had difficulty with math or reading or science, but they did not take the social studies the least bit seriously. Theta had explained that cultures differed from timeline to timeline, and so did history. Their upbringing at Omnichron had focused more on instilling a sense of basic values - they had no allegiance to any particular religious or political system. The history the boys knew was generic. They knew, for example, that in most timelines, there had been two great world wars in the 20th century, but why they happened, who fought them and how they had turned out all depended on where in the space-time continuum you happened to be. In some timelines, there was no United States. In others, the US was the entire Western Hemisphere. In at least one timeline, the Declaration was phonetically written in Cherokee. He could see why the boys would find it confusing, but having their homework done for them did still seem a little like cheating.

Okay, it seemed a lot like cheating, but the boys didn't see it that way, and so, he didn't make an issue out of it. It was just another "Alpha" thing that was out of his control.

He checked homework, signed permission slips, made notes of supplies the boys needed - all of the things he had done with Steven, times seven. He couldn't say he didn't enjoy it, though. The boys really were no trouble. They did not misbehave, and they were never noisy. They also seemed perfectly capable of entertaining themselves. Sometimes, it was almost kind of sad.

When Evie announced that dinner was ready, the news was met with enthusiasm. The boys loved Evie's cooking, and it was usually pretty late by the time they were all home and ready to eat, so they were hungry. Evie had made meatloaf, probably out of self-defense. The boys - Nathan especially - were fascinated by chicken and different cuts of meat, and poor Evie often lost her appetite at the ensuing scientific discussion. Meatloaf was unidentifiable, so it was safe.

Mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables were passed around and the boys dug into their meal. Dessert was chocolate pudding - which had fast become a favorite. The meal didn't get that far, though. Just after clearing his second helping, Josiah grimaced slightly and touched his head.

Evie noticed. "Are you okay, sweetie?" she asked the 14-year-old.

He nodded. "I'm fine... but..." He looked to Orin. "I can see a red pyramid."

The vision of a red pyramid was an Alpha signal of some kind. Orin had no idea how it was transmitted or how Josiah was able to receive it.

The other boys immediately put down their utensils, and quietly got up from the table.

They gathered their gear, and were waiting when the green van with the Omnichron logo pulled into the driveway. Vin and JD waved happily from the back seat as it pulled away.

+ + + + + + +

The Alphas had trained for cold weather operations before, but they'd never actually needed the cold suits. Theta made sure they were all securely bundled up - after sending everyone to visit the restroom. They'd be in the suits for 2 hours max. If the operation took longer than that, they'd be pulled back through the port and other options would be considered.

They had slept on the plane ride to Mexico City and then had been given a snack and a quick mission briefing before they'd enter the Mexico City/Tenochtitlan port at sunrise.

The situation had been explained to them using survey maps and digital images transmitted by the Mexican Alpha team. That team had crossed to a timeline and unexpectedly encountered an Earth that was tilted 82 degrees off of its normal axis. The MATSAP in that timeline was cocooned in a wilderness of blinding snow and barren ice fields that didn't seem to hold anything even remotely of interest. There was evidence the MATSAP had once been manned, but there was no one there now, and had not been for a very long time. They weren't outfitted for the climate, but the scenario was intriguing, so they had decided to spend a few minutes taking some readings so they could return when they were better prepared. Unfortunately, the ground was unstable and a shifting plane of ice had suddenly pushed up at a sheer, steep angle into another, trapping the Alpha team in a 2 x 20 meter cave-like space between the two. The ice had quickly settled, and the team was adequately sheltered for the moment, but they could not get out.

Omnichron engineers at the Tenochtitlan site had concluded that strategically placed explosive charges would create an avenue of escape. However, placing the charges was going to require not only someone who knew how to use Semtex, but was also small enough to fit into the tight spaces in the cracked ice sheets. Theta's boys were the best option, since the next closest Alphas, the Cuzco Team in Peru, was more than twice as far away.

Ezra, Vin and JD would be going into the ice to set the charges. Josiah, Chris and Nathan would be connected to them and would be able to pull them out when they were done. Buck would rig the detonators. The entire operation was expected to take 37 minutes.

They had to wait a few minutes while the port was activated. One of the Series III teams had to do it and it had taken awhile to gather them together. Nathan, Ezra, Vin and JD opened the Semtex while they waited. It was a lot like modeling clay.

Vin made an animal out of his. "Look, it's a pig," he showed the others. When they failed to recognize the misshapen blob, he pressed the nose flat against the floor and then used the end of a detonating wire to poke nostrils in it. Then it almost looked like a pig.

"It has to have a curly tail," JD told him. He squeezed off a tiny piece of his lump of Semtex and Vin rolled it between his fingers to fashion the appendage.

Ezra made a dog that really looked like a dog. In fact, it looked like Mr. Javier's guide dog, Custard. They all knew that Ezra really wanted to find a dog like that for himself.

JD pinched a long neck and four stubby legs out of his Semtex and proclaimed it a giraffe.

Nathan made coils out of his and randomly arranged them into two piles that he then pushed together. "This is a brain," he said, holding it up proudly.

Theta entered the room and took the artwork from each boy and tucked it back into the pouches where it belonged. They groaned in disappointment, but didn't protest. Semtex was not a toy and they all knew that.

"Let's go," Theta waved his hand towards the port. "Do a good job, and be careful."

The seven Alphas gathered their equipment and walked through the barely visible boundary of the port.

The Earth on the other side was a panorama of blues and whites, except for the vibrant purples and oranges of the sunrise. They looked around at the strange landscape. It looked like Antarctica, except not quite as cold. The external temperature monitors on their suits said it was just a few degrees below freezing.

There were also occasional blobs of florescent green where the Mexican Alpha team had marked their trail. The boys followed it to where it ended in the up thrust wall of ice that was almost 10 meters high.

Chris pushed the talk button on his walkie-talkie. "Alpha Tango, this is Alpha Romeo leader. Do you read, over?"

The Tango designation meant "T" for Tenochtitlan. The Romeo was for the "R" in Rocky Mountains. Two was letting the other Alpha team know that help had arrived and who it was.

The Alpha Tango leader responded in Spanish, the common language of the Western Hemisphere teams. There were some minor injuries, but the team was intact and okay. From their dossiers, Chris knew they were all between 10 and 16, and of course they were in perfect physical condition like all Alphas were. They more than likely had heat-reflective blankets for emergencies, so the cold was not a danger. He was sure they'd be happy to get out of there, though.

He handed the walkie-talkie over to Ezra, whose Spanish was fluent, and had him explain what they were going to do so the Tango leader could prepare her team. The explosions would be loud, and likely some small pieces of ice would fall on them. Buck was evaluating where to place the charges, to minimize the danger.

"How much ice do you estimate from here..." Buck indicated a spot, "... to there?" he asked JD, who was good at estimating distances and calculating volumes.

JD thought for a moment, considering the weight of a cubic meter of ice and the dimensions of the area Buck had pointed out. "Two point five seven metric tons," he answered after a few seconds.

That would be the largest piece of ice that would break off - there was no safe way to make it smaller. Buck decided where to place the charges so that piece would fall well away and free the trapped Alphas.

There were numerous cracks, crevices and tiny openings in the ice, and Buck set up laser pointers aimed at the exact locations where the three smallest Alphas were to place the Semtex. All they had to do was wiggle their way in and affix the plastic explosive to the ice with a special adhesive made for that purpose, and attach the detonators.

Ezra, Vin and JD were eager to go - crawling into the ice looked fun! Even Ezra didn't mind, because the ice wasn't dirty, just cold.

They activated their headsets so that Buck could talk to them without having to shout. The helmets they wore were shaped like eagle heads. They had confiscated them from an invading Alpha team last time they had been at the port and Tech Division had rigged them with their own electronics and adjusted them to fit properly. They wore knee and elbow pads with tiny cleats that would grip the ice as they crawled. Josiah, Chris and Nathan helped them into harnesses so they could be safely and quickly retrieved when they were done.

Finally, it was time to go in. The small, athletic boys effortlessly shinnied through the ice. Finding the red dots from Three's laser pointers was like a game. There were 17 in all, and they raced each other to see who could set the most charges. Vin found the most, because he was good at locating targets. JD accidentally glued one of his gloves to the ice and had to work it free, so he ended up finding only three. It took them 22 minutes to set all of the charges.

When they were done, the bigger boys gently pulled on the harnesses and eased them back out of the ice. It wasn't until they were safely out that Buck armed the detonators.

"Alpha Romeo to Alpha Tango," Chris said into his walkie-talkie when all was ready. "Ignition sequence commencing."

"We are ready, Alpha Romeo," came the reply from the other team's leader.

Ezra began the countdown in Spanish, "Ignition in ten... nine... eight..."

When he got to zero, there was a soft rumble followed by chords of the unique and oddly musical sound made by cracking ice. It echoed in the cold morning air like a brief symphony, and at the conclusion, the ice sheet slid slowly away to reveal the trapped Alphas.

Once free, they quickly made their way across the strewn ice. One of them, a boy of about 12, was supported by two of the others, and appeared to have injured his foot, but other than that, they all looked fine. Nathan resisted the urge to offer first aid, knowing that one of them was a trained medic like he was.

The team leader approached and introduced herself and the rest of the team. They were named in Spanish ordinals - she was Primera, and the others were Segundo, Tercera, Cuarto, Quinto, Sexto and Septima, Quinto was the one who was injured. Tercera was their medic, and Nathan could see she had done a perfect job of stabilizing his ankle.

Buck couldn't help but notice that Primera was stunningly beautiful, with long jet black hair, pale green eyes and flawless olive skin. She was 16, though, and he was only 11, so she didn't even look his way.

"Gracias," she said to Chris, and meant it. They had been trapped for 14 hours.

"De nada," Chris replied, and smiled at her. Him, she noticed. Buck wanted to tell her Chris was only 13, but he didn't.

Josiah was bigger and stronger than anyone on the Tango team, so he picked Quinto up and carried him as they made their way back to the port. The youngest Tango Alpha, a 10-year-old girl, fell into step alongside Buck.

"Hello, I'm Septima," she said. She had big brown eyes and curly light brown hair that was cut short. She was little - not much taller than Six. She was sort of cute, though.

"I'm Three," he said, using his Alpha name, and then wasn't sure what else to say, so he reached into a pocket and offered her a snack bar. They weren't the kind you bought in the stores - these were made at Omnichron and had oats and nuts and fruit, but not a lot of stuff that Nathan said wasn't really food. She took it eagerly and smiled appreciatively after taking a bite. "Muy, muy bueno!"

"Septima! Ven aqui!" Primera ordered. They had reached the port. Apparently, Septima was the group's 'engineer' - the one who best knew the port protocols. So, she and Buck had that in common. Interesting. Buck wondered when he'd see her again. The Alpha teams rarely worked together, so maybe it would be never, but it could happen.

The Tango team was tired and cold and hungry, so they went through the port first once it was configured. When they were safely through, the Alphas gathered their gear and were preparing to follow them when the port erupted in a brilliant flash of blue light and another Tango team - not the one that had just been there - was suddenly in front of them.

They were armed with spears and they didn't look the least bit friendly or happy. The Alphas immediately recognized their red uniforms with the Sunstone patch on one arm and the patch of North America with a spear through it on the other. They had met them a couple of weeks before and had sent them back through the port after a brief engagement in which they were quickly defeated. The spears, they knew, were actually firearms. The points would shoot out to be replaced by another. The Alphas hadn't had time to reach for their weapons.

One of the new Tangos pointed to their helmets and said something in Nahuatl.

Ezra translated. "He says we took their stuff." It was true. They had.

The leader then stepped forward and in accented but perfect English informed them, "And you are under arrest and the prisoners of His Exalted Magnificence Kukulkan the Tenth, Emperor of the Universe."

School had taught Josiah an appropriate verbal response for such a situation. "Oh, shit," he muttered softly.

+ + + + + + +

A familiar face greeted them as they emerged from the port into the alternate timeline of what should have been Mexico City. It was Nima Hashim, the scientist they had forced back through the Rocky Mountain port along with the Alpha team that now held them prisoner.

He looked them over, unsmiling. "You will prepare for an audience with His Radiance," he instructed them. "Get out of your cold suits and remove all weapons and tools from your uniforms. Don't try any tricks, because trust me, we will know."

The Alphas had little choice but to comply. The spears carried by the other team were dangerous - they could pierce body armor, if the Alphas were wearing body armor, which they were not.

"Make yourselves presentable. I will be back for you in 10 minutes." Hashim consulted his Rolex, which was probably something he'd brought from the Alpha's reality as nothing else in their immediate surroundings looked like the earth they had left behind.

The walls of the port room were constructed of large stones. There was a small notch for a doorway that revealed the walls were almost a meter thick. The place had a sensation of being very, very old. Whoever had built it had meant for it to last forever, and from the looks of it, it probably would. The walls were adorned with paintings in the style seen in Aztec codices, but included modern images like space craft and cell phone towers, as well as animals that were not native to North America.

The room was almost bare, except for two small tables upon which sat ornately carved skulls of pure crystal. They were beautiful, but worrisome at the same time. They seemed to have some sort of light source inside that made them have a faint, eerie glow. Another desk sat in a corner and it was empty save for a pile of tiny gold objects shoved into a corner. The others didn't notice them, but Five was drawn to them and upon close examination, he discovered they were tiny, beautifully detailed skulls. He thought at first that they were beads, but they had no hole for a cord to go through. He wondered what they were for. He wanted to pick them up, but the other Alphas guarded them intently as they removed everything except their trousers and tee-shirts, including their boots and socks.

These Alphas were almost identical to the Tango Alpha team they had just rescued, except for the uniforms. Many Alpha teams had exact duplicates in other timelines. This team said nothing, obviously still perturbed that they'd been so easily chased out of the Alpha's own timeline a few weeks before.

Hashim returned in 10 minutes as promised. He studied each boy and made sure their hair was not untidy and their faces were clean. "Follow me," he ordered.

They assumed the "guinea pig" formation, with the Three and Four in front, and One and Two in the rear with the three smallest boys sheltered protectively between them. They were lead down stone corridors and passageways and through tunnels, all the while traveling upward. The passageways were dimly lit by what appeared to be torches but were actually some kind of light source made to simulate a flame. Many of them had crystal skulls nearby. The skulls seemed to be a common decoration.

Most people would have become hopelessly lost, but each of them was memorizing the turns and distances, and Six would know exactly where they were and how to get back to the port.

Finally, they reached a room that had natural light coming through several slots in the wall. There were mats on the floor and Hashim instructed them to sit.

"It is a great honor to meet with His Supreme Glory..." he began.

Seven interrupted. "I thought his name was Exalted Magnificence."

Three gently nudged him. "Seven, hush."

"He goes by many names," Hashim said sternly. "You will not speak unless he speaks to you. If he asks you a question, answer it and then say no more. You will not look away from his Omnipotent Presence, but do not look him in the eye."

"We don't speak Nahuatl," One pointed out.

"His Glorious Brilliance knows your language, and many others," Hashim scoffed.

There was a distant sound that sounded like the tinkling of a lot of little bells. A large stone in the wall slid back, and Hashim led them through the opening. Two took Six's hand and nodded at One and Three, who took Five and Seven's hands respectively. They would not be separated so easily that way.

They found themselves in another stone chamber, but in this one, the floors were black marble that had been polished to a mirror like finish. Soldiers lined the walls, wearing the same red uniforms with the Sunstone and North America patches as their Alpha team - and armed with the same spear weapons.

An opening in the ceiling focused a beam of sunlight on a huge chair at the front of the room, ornately carved with Aztec designs - animals, flowers and, disturbingly, many, many skulls.

Seated on this throne was a very large man. Four estimated from the length of his shins that standing erect, he was considerably over two meters tall. Unlike his booted soldiers, he wore leather sandals laced halfway up his calves and an elaborately decorated loin cloth. An equally elaborate cape - trimmed in what appeared to be gold thread, hung from his left shoulder, and he wore a head dress comprised of long, brilliant green feathers. To his right was a table that rested on a carved eagle's talon, with a crystal skull atop it.

He looked at them without expression. Six forgot he wasn't supposed to look him in the eye and got a sharp tap on the top of his head from Hashim. Two gently squeezed his hand so he would not be frightened.

The man on the throne picked up what looked like a digital tablet, and took their picture. He studied it for a moment, and then set the tablet down. He rose to his full height, and even One looked and felt like a small boy as he walked towards them. He paused to study each boy carefully.

When he got to Seven, he reached down and lifted the little boy's chin up. "How many years have you, little one?" he asked.

Seven was confused by the phrasing of the question, so Three answered for him. "He's five."

Seven looked up with his big, dark eyes. "I'm not little."

Two nudged him again, sharply this time. Seven continued to look up at the giant figure before him, and asked, "Are we in trouble?"

The Emperor stood to his full height and walked around Seven, as if inspecting him from all angles. Seven's head moved to follow him.

Finally, the Emperor returned to his throne and sat down. "Have them debriefed. I want to know all about their world," he ordered. "Except the small one. He will be a suitable sacrifice."

"WHAT!?" Two stepped forward, challenge in both his tone and attitude. In an instant, all of the spear-guns in the room were pointed at him.

Three pulled Seven protectively to his side.

The Emperor spoke. "Our Alphas have redeemed their honor," he explained. "This calls for celebration, and celebration demands a sacrifice."

"NO!" Two shouted, and both he and One stepped forward, ready to fight, even though they were vastly outnumbered and had no hope of victory.

One resorted to negotiation. "Take me," he said softly. "I'll be the sacrifice."

The Emperor smiled dismissively and waved him off. "You are too old... all of you. We must have an innocent." He motioned to two of the soldiers standing guard and then pointed at Seven. "Take him. Prepare him."

Most five-year-olds would not have known what was going on, but Seven knew what 'sacrifice' meant. He learned it in the dinosaur world where people left out cows and pigs and horses so the dinosaurs wouldn't eat them.

When one of the soldiers tried to take his hand, he jumped back out of the way. The other six formed a circle around him. All they had to fight with was their hands, though, and Seven knew they were all going to get killed. He wanted to cry, but he didn't. He'd be brave and die like a soldier.

Oddly, they weren't attacked with weapons. The Emperor motioned to his Alpha team, and the other soldiers in the room. They soon had the boys surrounded, and even though they did their best, the Emperor's Alphas were just as quick and strong and well-trained at hand-to-hand combat as they were. They managed to create enough of a diversion that soldiers moved in on Seven and scooped the tiny boy up.

The other Alphas gave up the fight and watched in horror as their youngest was taken away.

+ + + + + + +

The six Alphas were taken to long room with a long table that was set with food and drink, although none of them felt at all hungry. Six sniffled almost imperceptibly. He was the closest in age to Seven, and their bond was close.

"Why are they feeding us if they are going to kill us?" Five asked. One and Two glared at him. They were all scared - they didn't need the eight-year-old making observations that would only make it worse.

When no one answered him, Five sat down on a mat and folded his hands in his lap. Nearby, he spotted another odd pile of those tiny gold skulls. These were not even on a table, just tucked into a corner on the floor.

Six wiped a tear out of his eye.

Two put an arm around him, but he could offer little comfort. He was as distressed at Seven being taken away as Six was. "We need to get him back," he said resolutely. He knew the situation was virtually hopeless - and the others probably did, too, but they perked up at his words. He gestured at the table and around the room. "Look for stuff to make weapons with," he told them.

"That would be ill-advised," came a voice from the doorway. It was Hashim.

Five took advantage of the distraction to scoop up the pile of little skulls and tuck them into his pocket.

"What do you want with us?" Two demanded.

Hashim shrugged. "Nothing. But, our Series IVs were disgraced when you sent them back here stripped of everything but their hides. We will allow them to enjoy their victory over you."

"It was you who opened the port that time, Hashim," Two said.

"Tecolotl Chicuacë is who I am. Hashim is Omnichron's name for me."

"Tecolotl Chicuacë... Owl Six," Five translated, and immediately understood. "You're an Alpha."

"I was, once. I was nine when I was separated from my team and stranded in your timeline. I spent 20 years there, until your friend Travis showed up at the university with the port equations all neatly written out. It was my ticket home."

"You didn't know the equations?" Four asked.

Hashim - Chicuacë - shook his head. "I got stranded when an earthquake disrupted the Tenochtitlan ports as we were going through. I was struck by falling debris and badly injured. I was flown to the United States for treatment, and there I stayed. I had a sense of where the port there was, of course, but I couldn't remember the equations. When I saw your version, and had time to study them, it came back to me."

"Why didn't Omnichron just send you back?" One asked.

"They didn't know where to send me. Even I wasn't sure. Omnichron saw that I had a good life - sent me to an exclusive private school and a top university, and saw that I got a high-paying job. But I never saw my team again."

The Alphas understood. The seven of them belonged together. All of the Alpha teams were bonded to one another. Being separated from the others was something none of them wanted to think about.

"Why did you take Seven?" Three asked accusingly.

Chicuacë scoffed. "I didn't take him. The Emperor did."

"To be sacrificed," Two said bluntly. Angrily.

"Yes," Chicuacë replied. "It's a great honor..."

"For who?!" One spat.

"How are you going to do it?" Four wanted to know.

The others remained silent - they wanted to hear the answer to that.

Chicuacë shrugged. "He will be taken to the altar stone atop the Pyramid of the Sun as the sun crosses the meridian. They will swab his chest with a substance to dull the pain. The priests are very efficient. It will be over quickly, and then there will be a feast."

Five covered his ears and Six began to cry outright.

Chicuacë looked confused. "Why are you so upset?"

The Aztec Alpha was honestly baffled as the others regarded him with "What kind of stupid are you?" looks. Realization dawned slowly. Because he was a physicist, he'd never had the slightest interest in the history and sociology of a timeline not his own. He was, however, vaguely aware that the Aztecs in most time lines had practiced bloody ritual sacrifices which had ultimately led to their downfall as a civilization. The invading Spaniards had been appalled and had felt compelled to put a stop to the practice while stealing all of the Aztec gold they could cram into their ships.

His own people had abandoned those practices decades before their Spaniards - who in their case were actually Iberian Romans - had shown up. The Romans had wanted their gold, too, but had not felt compelled to force their culture on them.

He thought about explaining all of this, but then he remembered how these little brats had drugged him and tossed him through the port with the Alpha team. It had been a bittersweet homecoming, not the triumphant one he had dreamed of for so many years. So, he decided to just let them go on thinking whatever they wanted to think.

"Don't try anything," he warned them. "You will regret it." He turned to walk out, but then turned back, remembering his original message. "The Alpha mentors will be arriving soon. Answer their questions and you will all be home in a day or two."

+ + + + + + +

JD was escorted to a small room by the youngest of the Aztec Alphas. Her name was Tecuani Septima - which she said meant "Seventh Jaguar" - and she was 10 years old. She wasn't so mean once she was away from the other Alphas, and asked him if he had any questions.

"What are they going to do to me?" he asked, trying to keep his lip from quivering.

"You are to be a sacrifice. It's an honor, especially since you were picked by the Emperor himself."

"Will it hurt?"

"Of course it will. That's the whole point of a sacrifice."

"Oh," JD sniffled. He really didn't want to cry.

Tucuani Septima softened her tone. "Don't worry, it won't hurt very much and not for very long." She turned him so they were looking eye-to-eye and her voice became stern again. "I know you are from another time line, but you are an Alpha. Do not cry, or you will shame us all. The last Alpha who was sacrificed was only four, and she didn't make a sound. Not one. There is nothing to be afraid of."

JD wondered why she would say that, and even though he was scared to know, he asked her what would be done to him.

She explained it in detail and when she was done, she repeated, "It's an honor - the Emperor chose you... Now take off your uniform and put these on." She handed him clothes like the Emperor had been wearing. He'd be practically naked, but he didn't care. He was thinking about what Tucuani Septima had just told him.

"You will have breakfast with the Emperor. Don't be rude," she warned him. "He is the Emperor of the Universe, and is all-powerful. He is a living god."

JD wasn't sure what any of that meant, so he just said, "Okay."

+ + + + + + +

The six Alphas did not want to eat any of the food that had been set out for them, but Nathan pointed out that they would be more efficient if they were not hungry or dehydrated should the opportunity to escape present itself.

There was fruit and tortillas and a warming platter of scrambled eggs and chorizo. At the end of the table was a large pitcher of water and six small cups of deep brown liquid. Four held one up and sniffed it.

"Smells like chocolate," he announced and then took a sip. He made a face - it did have a chocolaty taste, but it wasn't sweet like he was expecting it to be. It didn't really taste horrible, but it would have been a lot better with sugar. He suddenly found himself horrified by that thought. Refined sugar was unhealthy. It did taste good, though.

The food was more than adequate, but the boys ate sparingly. They could not enjoy it knowing they might never see Seven again. There were extra Alphas available in case one was lost, but it would take time and effort to integrate one of them into the team, and they might never bond with him the way they were bonded to Seven, whom they had all known since he was just a few days old.

They wanted him back, and they wanted to go home to Orin and Evie.

The Mentors arrived and the six boys were taken to a large room that had separate smaller rooms opening off of it. It reminded them of the interrogation rooms at the police station when they had been arrested a few weeks before.

There was a large map of the world on one wall, and Josiah noted for later reference that this timeline only had eight countries; The United States of the Aztecs, Peru, Rome, Mongolia, Egypt, China, Zululand and Australia. The "USA" was divided into ninety-three states, all the domain of Kukulkan the Tenth - although Josiah was surprised to see they also had a President.

There was also a TV in the room, playing what appeared to be a news broadcast. It was in Nahuatl with Spanish subtitles. The boys followed along for a time, but it wasn't really very interesting, and they were distracted thinking about Seven and where he might be and what was being done to him.

The Mentors seemed excited to meet them. There were six of them and each of them was assigned to a specific Alpha. A stern man in a military uniform looked at Six.

"You will come with me," he said.

Six stood his ground. "No."

The officer softened his tone and smiled. "I have many weapons to show you," he said. "And I hope to learn something from you, too."

Six looked to the others uncertainly. The soldier spoke to them all. "I will not harm him."

One felt his thoughts and sensed no malevolence. He was telling the truth. He nodded at Two, who turned to Six and said, "Go."

The process was repeated for each of them. A rather stern woman in what closely resembled a business suit spoke to Five in French as she led him into a cubicle.

A man in surgical scrubs was there for Four.

A young man with a briefcase took Three away.

The two who were left were a man and a woman who both wore robes with the North American patch and Sunstone on them. They took One and Two into a room together.

Their debriefing lasted four and a half hours. They answered all of the questions put to them truthfully. It would do no good to lie, and they had nothing to hide from the Mentors.

Capitan Otero, the soldier who had taken Six, did indeed show him many weapons, including some confiscated from other timelines. El Capitan showed Six how to load, aim and fire the spear weapons, and Six had shown him how a taser worked. There were larger armaments, too, including a large laser canon which, El Capitan explained, was also a good deterrent against the Incas, who did not have such a weapon and who were not the Aztecs' friends.

The woman who debriefed Five found it interesting that his primary language was English. In this timeline, English was a colloquial dialect spoken in a small region of the Roman Empire called Anglorum - the UK. The official language of the Romans was Latin, and she found it curious that Five knew the language even though no one in his timeline actually spoke it any longer. At several points during their conversation, she placed a tiny gold skull - much like the ones he had in his pocket - against the much larger crystal skull on her desk. She also had a screen that looked like a computer monitor that she referred to at the same time. Five had no idea what she was doing, but he memorized his observation and tucked it away for later.

The briefcase carried by the Aztec engineer who debriefed Three held a laptop computer, either from Three's timeline or one that had computers just like it. The engineer wanted to know how it worked, but without a power source, it was useless. Most of the technology in this timeline was powered by the sun, and Three was amazed to find out that the crystal skulls that were everywhere were actually computers. They stored data that could be retrieved simply by holding a connecting device - which looked like a small gold skull the size of a pea - anywhere on the skull's surface. The gold skulls stuck to the glass, which was a mystery in itself since neither gold nor glass was magnetic. It was fascinating to watch, but his mind was on Seven, so he merely concentrated on absorbing as much detail as possible.

Four was debriefed by an entire medical team. They were interested in knowing what treatments he knew of for various diseases and conditions that affected people in both timelines. He discovered that they were far more advanced in some areas - such as manipulating DNA to cure genetic diseases, and in the science of nerve regeneration, but alarmingly behind in others. Their imaging technology was 40 years behind his own timeline, and the only antibiotic they possessed was penicillin. Laser surgery was unheard of, even though they had construction lasers powerful enough to cut rock.

One and Two were asked numerous questions about politics and social structure. The Mentors seemed almost insulted to learn that Mexico was not a world power in their timeline, and that North American was divided into three distinct countries, with none of them having an emperor. They did feel a bit better when One explained that none of the other mega-states from this timeline existed, either, except for Australia. They were also told that the crystal skulls were data storage devices, but the Mentors did not know how they worked so could not explain it.

The Alphas freely shared whatever information was asked of them. It was not forbidden, as it had been determined that such information flowed into a timeline and became part of it and did not significantly affect it. Theta had explained it by saying it was like adding two or three drops of blue paint to a river of red paint. At first you saw a small smudge of purple, but as the red paint flowed on, it became a uniform color once again.

The one thing that none of them could get the Mentors to discuss was Seven's fate. Capitan Otero had told Six that it was bad luck to talk about a Sacrifice before he or she was "completed" - whatever that meant.

+ + + + + + +

Seven was having a great time. He'd had breakfast with the Emperor who let him eat whatever he wanted, and then he was allowed to touch and play with all of the things in the Emperor's office, including a box of carved ants the size of his fist - those were his favorite.

The Emperor asked him many questions and was surprised that he could do differential equations. Those were easy, in fact.

"How does one so young know such things?" the Emperor asked.

Seven shrugged. He didn't remember not knowing. Numbers were his earliest memories.

The Emperor liked mathematics, too, although he wrote his numbers differently. The Aztec number system was base 20, Seven learned. But he was able to convert the numbers easily and quickly learned how to write them, which made the Emperor very pleased.

Later, they walked through a long tunnel that opened into a large outdoor area. There was a life-size rocking horse that he was allowed to play on as long as he wanted. When he tired of that, the Emperor had a small airplane brought out of one of the few buildings on the site. It was painted like a dragon and he explained it was a gift from the Emperor of China. Kukulkan was too big to fit into it - it was made for a child or small teenager - but he was able to fly it with a remote device while Seven enjoyed the ride. He really loved that little plane!

There was an ullamaliztli court on the grounds and the Emperor was delighted that Seven knew the rules of the game. He wasn't as good at it as the older boys who'd had longer to practice, but Kukulkan was astonished that he managed several times to get the ball through the tiny hoop.

While he was exploring, Seven found a deep pit with stairs going down into it. He was curious, but it was dark and scary looking so he just stood at the top of the steps looking down. The Emperor came up alongside him.

"Come, let us go down," he said.

There was a large, bare room at the bottom of the stairs. The room was empty except for a small, white pyramid in the center. The pyramid was flat on top, and there was something there, but Seven wasn't tall enough to see it. The Emperor lifted him up for a better look. There was an indentation there shaped like a hand. Seven instinctively placed his hand into it.

The walls of the room lit up and a dizzying series of images flashed all around him - so dizzying that for a moment, he didn't know where he was. Someone was talking to him, and telling him something, but it wasn't really a voice, and he could just barely make out the words - it was the name of a place repeated over and over. He shut his eyes against the confusion and instead of darkness, he saw a white background covered in black symbols. It was all very strange, and he should have been frightened, but he wasn't.

Suddenly, it was over and he was back in the silent bare room with the Emperor. "You saw things?" the Emperor asked.

Seven nodded, still confused.

"Then I will tell you something, but you must not tell anyone else."

"Okay," Seven said. And that's when he learned the secret of the white pyramid.

The morning went by quickly, and finally, the Emperor told him he must go and prepare for the ceremony.

As he was lead away by one priest, a second priest listened to Kukulkan as he said, "This child is perfect. He is brilliant and beautiful and strong, and he sees with the white pyramid."

"You have chosen well, Your Supreme Glory."

+ + + + + +

When the Alphas were returned to the main conference room, it was almost noon. They realized this by the clocks on the wall, which divided the day into 20 hours. The hour hand had almost reached the middle hour.

Sure enough, Hashim/Chicuacë returned for them a few minutes later to take them to the ceremony.

With numbing dread, they filed into the Hall of Feasts, which was not really a hall at all but a large veranda that over looked Mexico City - which was still called by its Aztec name of Tenochtitlan in this time line. The view was stunningly beautiful - the noon day sun reflected off of sandstone skyscrapers and pyramids giving them a golden glow. Blue canals, ponds and lakes dotted the landscape, lined with flowering trees and shrubs in every color. Most of the buildings were decorated with the traditional maize, green, blue and blood-red color scheme that the Aztecs were so fond of.

A few meters below them, the largest pyramid in the city, the Pyramid of the Sun, was visible. A sizeable crowd had gathered around it and a procession was making its way up steps that looked like they were plated with gold leading to the pyramid's summit. There were two adults in white robes flanking a third whose robe was red. Behind them marched five small children in skirts or loincloths and deep green capes embroidered with colorful flowers and animals. On their feet they wore sandals ornately decorated with turquoise and gemstones.

The last one in line was Seven.

Although he looked uncertain, he did not appear to be afraid. He held his head high and walked with confidence up the long steps. There was a blue stain on his chest where something had been smeared across his skin. Three ran to the edge of the veranda and called out to him, but two of the Aztec Alphas grabbed him and pulled him back. There was no guardrail, so Three didn't struggle. He didn't want the three of them to go over the edge.

Suddenly, the Alphas released him and snapped to attention, along with Chicuacë and all of the soldiers there. The ones with spears raised them in an arch.

"His Supreme and Venerated Glory, Kukulkan the Tenth!" someone announced. It was English so it was obvious the Alphas were meant to hear and understand it.

A vault-like stainless steel door - which looked decidedly out of place amidst the Aztec architecture and decor - slid open and the Emperor appeared. A large upholstered chair that looked like it was made from a pile of skulls waited near the edge of the veranda. Kukulkan regally made his way to it and sat, then made a brief motion with his hand which caused all of the soldiers to stand at ease. He then gestured to Chicuacë and indicated a row of mats beside him. Chicuacë ushered the Alphas to them and made them sit down.

One, Two and Three were angry. It was bad enough this was going to happen and they were powerless to stop it, but it was wrong that they should have to watch. Four was transfixed by the scene, both horrified and curious at the same time. Five was ghostly pale - he felt like he might throw up, and when he told One that, One replied that it would serve the emperor right. Six cried silently. There were no sobs or wails, just tears. He knew that crying would do no good and Theta had told them many times that fear was their only enemy. What would happen would happen, and there was no point in being afraid. But he was.

Kukulkan used a sextant to determine the position of the sun. After making his measurement, he gestured to the crowd below. By this time, the children had reached the top of the pyramid. The altar at the apex was hidden from view, encased in a stone chamber. It had no roof, but the sides were angled so that no one could see into it. The three robed priests stopped at the top and addressed the crowd via a PA system in Nahuatl. Flutes and drums began to play and a second procession began to ascend the steps. There were five of them, three men and two women, each carrying a white shield covered with colored dots, and a long, sharp stick.

As they reached the summit, the first one took the lead child by the hand and lead him into the altar chamber.

The crowd went completely silent.

The PA system picked up rustlings and whispers from inside the chamber, and then a faint whirring sound was heard. The six boys watching were stunned numb by the cries of the child which lasted as long as the whirring sound continued, then abruptly ceased.

Four, though, noted that the cries were neither frantic nor agonized. Curious. He wondered if the children had been mercifully drugged somehow. He hoped so.

This was repeated four times until finally, it was Seven's turn.

Before he was lead into the chamber, the little boy turned and faced the crowd, then looked up at the Emperor. "I will not cry!" he said defiantly.

Most of the crowd did not understand him, but the Emperor smiled.

+ + + + + + +

Seven was led into the altar chamber. There was a large stone in the middle with a padded mat on top of it. The sun shined down on it through a hole in the roof.

One of the priests approached him and asked if he was ready. He nodded his head. After a very good breakfast of French fries, orange soda, and something that was sort of like chocolate pudding and chocolate cake at the same time, he'd had a long visit with the Emperor. He knew everything he was supposed to do.

The priest picked him up and laid him down on the mat. Another priest in colored robes looked down on him. He knew this was the person who would do the sacrifice. He held up a piece of paper with a drawing on it and showed it to him.

"You have been chosen especially for this," the priest said softly. "The honor of this sacrifice is mine." He bowed his head to JD. The other priests did that, too.

The colorful priest pressed the paper against JD's chest and then pulled it away. It left a little picture there. He turned and retrieved some kind of tool - JD didn't know what it was. Again, he spoke softly, "You can cry or scream or whatever you like, just do not move. Do you understand?"

JD nodded that he did. He felt like he had little bugs crawling around in his tummy, but he was ready and he was not going to scream or cry.

The tool began to make a humming noise. A few seconds later, the priest pressed it to his chest.

JD's eyes flew open and he gasped, because Tucuani Septima was right - it did hurt. He began to count like Nathan had taught him. He thought he could make it to 25, but he didn't have to, because before he got to 10, the pain stopped. The priest rubbed his chest with something and then started again. Each time the pain began, it would quickly stop and the more his chest was rubbed, the less the pain became until finally he only felt a tickly sensation that he could endure easily. He held perfectly still. Tucuani Septima had told him it would be over quickly.

Four had been trying to place the whirring sound coming from inside the altar chamber. He could hear it plainly this time because true to his word, Seven did not cry out or even sob. After a few seconds, a terrible thought struck him. He was vaguely aware that some Meso-American tribes had practiced ritual sacrifices that involved removing the victim's still-beating heart. He wondered if what he was hearing was bone saw cutting through Seven's chest.

He was overcome by the horror of it and covered his ears and closed his eyes. In seconds, One's arm wrapped around him, and the older boy reminded him to comport himself with dignity. If Seven could have such courage, so could the rest of them.

+ + + + + + +

Finally, the whirring noise stopped and the crowd went completely silent as four enormous monitors rose from the sides of the pyramid, their screens displaying the symbol of Kukulkan the Tenth - two parallel bars beneath a red-eyed skull wearing a green headdress.

After a few seconds, the display disappeared to reveal a close-up view of the altar chamber. The priest in the red robe came out first. By this time, only Two was still watching, his eyes burning with hatred and rage. Sorrow would come later. He'd kill Kukulkan if he got the chance.

But then, to his utter amazement, on the altar behind the priest, four of the five children suddenly emerged. Each had a small bandage on his or her chest, but none of them appeared to be injured. In fact, they were smiling. Two nudged One, who looked up also. Both of them dared to hope, even though Seven was not one of the four.

After a few moments, the two white-robed priests emerged.

Seven stood between them.

"Six, look!" Two nudged the 7-year-old. The other three looked up on their own.

Seven stood straight at his full height - which for him was just over a meter. The embroidered green cape had been replaced by a longer one, this one adorned with gold. In his right hand he held a spear, and his left hand was encased in a glove that made it look like an eagle's talon. He wore a headdress made with brilliant green feathers, just like the Emperor's. An excited murmur went through the crowd as he walked to the edge of the altar platform. The white-robed priests then drew back his cape and the video cameras zoomed in on his chest. There, slightly red and swollen, was the insignia of Kukulkan scratched into his pale skin, the only difference being a small dot above the parallel lines.

The crowd gasped in unison.

Seven raised the spear high in the air and a thunderous cheer erupted. Lively mariachi music began to play over the PA system and the crowd began to move in a joyous dance.

The red-robed priest placed a small bandage over Seven's chest, and the little boy led the procession down the pyramid steps. When everyone reached a level about 20 feet below the apex, Seven once again raised both the spear and the eagle talon, and the crowd cheered loudly again as the steps began to move, and slowly sank out of sight.

"FEAST!" Kukulkan shouted, his voice booming over the PA system.

The Alphas had no idea what had just happened, but it didn't matter. Seven was alive!

+ + + + + + +

Servers began bringing out plates of food - tamales, fruit, pastries and beverages. There were disposable plates that appeared to be made out of some sort of leaf. Everything was bite-size so there were no knives, or anything else that could be used as a weapon.

People began to heap their plates and talk among themselves. Most of them were cheerful, but One, who was trained to observe human behavior, noticed a few forced smiles and comments that had hinted inflections of concern, even though he did not understand the language.

The one who appeared to be trying the hardest to be pleasant was Hashim/Chicuacë - in fact, he seemed definitely upset about something.

The revelry ceased abruptly when the steel vault door opened once again, and there, flanked by priests and the other children who had been 'sacrificed' was Seven.

As he walked through the crowd, every person there touched their left hand to their head and then their chest as he passed by, as if saluting the 5-year-old.

As for Seven, he seemed to know exactly what was going on, and as the other four children were gathered up by proud parents, he regally made his way to the throne of the Emperor.

It was then that the Alphas noticed they were dressed exactly alike - same cloak, same head dress, same sandals, same jewelry, same spear and eagle claw glove. When Seven spotted the other Alphas, he turned and waved happily, but made no move to join them.

Two sought out Chicuacë, who was standing a few feet away literally glaring at the little boy.

"What is this about?" he asked the physicist.

Chicuacë smiled bitterly. "The symbol of his sacrifice..." he pointed to his chest. "It's the Imperial crest. The two lines and the dot..." He drew and imaginary symbol on his own chest. " the number eleven. Kukulkan has chosen his successor."

It took a few seconds for what Chicuacë had said to sink in. "Oh, that's definitely not happening," Two said.

Chicuacë gave him a meaningful glance. "Unfortunately for your little friend, that may be the truth."

"What do you mean?" Two asked.

"Let me show you something," Chicuacë said. He unbuttoned his shirt. On it was a symbol identical to the one Seven now wore. "The Emperor chose me once. Then I was lost to him. I am back now, but he appears to have forgotten that I am Kukulkan the Eleventh."

One had joined the conversation. "You were not raised in this culture," he observed. "Perhaps he thinks you could not rule effectively."

"No, he is just insane." As soon as he said it, he looked around nervously, hoping no one had overheard him. He spoke softly when he continued. "He has chosen other children. None has survived that I know of."

The other Alphas had gathered around Chicuacë by this time. "What happened to them?" Three demanded.

"They died."

"He killed them?" Four asked timidly. He didn't really want to know.

"No... no... nothing like that... The Emperor is insane... but he's not cruel. And no one here would assassinate a child...."

There was an unspoken 'but' in his statement.

"Go on," Two insisted.

"The royal chambers... They are painted with murals that glow in the night. The bed chamber of the crown prince is the most heavily painted of all. But the paint contains... tekachitli .... There is no English word for it. It glows because it's radioactive. The children sicken, and then they die."

"Doesn't he know that?" Two asked.

"He has been told... But he slept in that same room as a child, as did all of the Emperors before him for hundreds of years. For some reason, some people are immune to the effects of the tekachitli. Or almost immune..." Chicuacë shrugged. "It merely makes some people grow to excessive height. The Emperor is almost two and a half meters tall. But it also may be why he's insane."

Two decided to make a bold request. "You have to help us get out of here."

Chicuacë popped a tamale into his mouth and finished swallowing it before he replied, "I agree. The throne is rightfully mine."

Seven came running over, beaming excitedly. "Did you see me on the big TV?" he asked.

Four knelt down to examine his chest, carefully pulling back the bandage.

"Tecuani Septima told me she was a sacrifice, too. She showed me her picture. It's a flower. She said I will have this picture for the rest of my life." The little boy seemed very pleased by that.

"Does it hurt?" Four asked. The skin around the design looked red and inflamed and it was still oozing blood and serous fluid.

Seven shrugged. "A little. But Tecuani Septima said in a few days it will feel just like regular skin. It means I am a prince now."

"Seven, we can't stay here," Three told him.

The little boy's smile faded somewhat. "I know that. But don't tell the Emperor. It would make him sad. All of his other princes got sick and died."

"Not quite all of them," Chicuacë said. He looked at the older boys. "There is nothing we can do until later, when the festivities are over. You may as well eat and enjoy yourselves." He heaped his leaf-plate with food and walked away.

"Do you think we can trust him?" One asked Two.

"I don't know... probably not. But we don't really have a choice."

Three was ignoring the conversation. He was just happy to have Seven back. He lifted the little boy into his arms. "So, you're a prince," he laughed, fingering the brilliant green cloak and brushing his fingers over the bright headdress.

Seven touched the feathers. "These are feathers from a quetzal bird. They're special. Only Emperors can wear them... I am Kukulkan the Eleventh."

"Seven," One said patiently, "You aren't an Emperor. We have to go back to our own timeline."

Seven sighed heavily. "But it's fun being an emperor," he said.

"It's fun being an Alpha, too," Six said, his tears having evaporated.

Seven thought that over for a bit. "When do we have to leave?"

"Soon," Two told him. "But don't say anything to anyone."

Seven nodded that he understood. He knew how to keep a secret. The Emperor had told him a secret, too.

+ + + + + + +

After every one had eaten, the Emperor declared a "siesta" and the streets below emptied out and most of the people in the Hall of Feasts left. The alternate Alphas came to escort Seven away from the group.

"Where are you taking him?" Two wanted to know.

Tecuani Primera, the leader, stared at him belligerently for a few seconds, but then answered, "To the Imperial quarters. It's time for siesta."

"That means 'nap,'" Five offered helpfully.

Four looked panicked. "In the bedchamber?"

"Of course."

"I want to stay with them," Seven said.

Surprisingly, Tecuani Primera looked confused by this. Two realized that the other Alphas really did recognize Seven as Kukulkan the Eleventh - and they were obliged to follow his wishes.

"Very well," Primera said. "You will all come, then...." She looked down at Seven, "...If that pleases your Imperial Majesty."

Seven didn't question who they were talking about. He knew they meant him. "It does," he said self-importantly.

Because there were seven of them, they were not taken to the prince's bedchamber with the radioactive paint. It was large enough, but it was full of toys and games. Instead, they were led back to the room where they'd had breakfast earlier in the day. Six mats had already been laid out on the floor, and an actual cot with a thick mattress and a soft blanket with the Imperial seal was quickly brought in for Seven, who had no qualms about crawling onto it while his team mates slept on the floor.

"Why does he get a real bed?" Five asked peevishly.

He suddenly found an Alpha spear point in his face. "Because he is the future emperor, and you are nothing."

Five didn't like that answer, but he felt it best not to say so.

Guards were posted at the exit and the large stone door slid shut. There was no way to escape, and the boys had all been awake since before dawn, with only a few hours of sleep the night before.

Despite their predicament, none of them felt truly threatened at that moment, so sleep came easily for all seven of them.

+ + + + + + +

They were awakened two hours later, by the Emperor himself. He was dressed in khaki pants and a green polo-type shirt with the Imperial crest on the left breast. He'd brought matching clothes for Seven, and shirts for the others.

He clasped his hands together eagerly. "Change quickly," he said. "We have many sights to see in our beautiful city..." He patted Seven's head affectionately. "Your city, my cherished little one."

Since there was still no apparent escape opportunity, the Alphas played along. Two told them to think of it as another reconnaissance mission, and that they should observe and gather as much information as they could about this timeline.

They were taken to a waiting vehicle with an escort of armed soldiers on motorcycles. The Emperor was cordial and gracious and as the entourage drove away from the palace, people stopped in the streets to wave as it passed.

Curiously, none of that seemed forced. The people really did seem to like the Emperor. The older Alphas remembered what Chicuacë had said about Kukulkan being insane, and wondered why the Aztec Alpha had come to that conclusion.

As he took them on a guided tour of the city, however, they noticed that the ruler showed the most enthusiasm for a number of increasingly odd public works projects he had commissioned. Some were practical and impressive - such as the network of cooling pipes that forced cold, moist air up through holes in the city's sidewalks. Even in the blazing afternoon heat, a blanket of coolness rose about 2 meters from the sidewalk's surface. Three wondered at the extraordinary expenditure of energy that would have been needed to power the system.

At one of the city's many parks, artisans were hard at work building a scale model of the city. Not just a display, but a working model - the tiny buildings all had a working power supply and the miniscule plumbing actually worked. Elevators rose between polished floors that no one would ever walk on. The boys found it fascinating to watch, but untold hours of effort were being put into the project simply because the Emperor wanted it done.

Kukulkan's crowning achievement, though, was the Pyramid of the Moon which had been under construction for 45 years. It was a dull grey color, not the glimmering gold-flecked limestone and granite from which most of the city was made. The reason for that, he explained, was that it was made from rock gathered on the moon itself. The country's entire space program had been developed solely for the purpose of building the pyramid. Massive rockets launched mining vehicles into space - laden with tons of earth rock to replace whatever was removed from moon. The Imperial Aeronautics and Space Administration employed almost 2 million people, physicists, geologists, engineers, astronauts and miners. Thousands more worked on the pyramid itself.

The Mexico City of Kukulkan the Tenth was a strange place, indeed.

They returned to the palace shortly before sundown. It was also a pyramid - or, more precisely, a ziggurat, a structure with decreasingly smaller layers piled one atop the other.

The MATSAP was hidden beneath the structure. Six was sure he could find it again. Perhaps if they won the Emperor's trust, he would leave them unguarded and they could simply leave, although if they were honest with themselves, they were actually beginning to like Kukulkan.

They willingly answered the Emperor's questions about their timeline while they ate the evening meal as his guests in the royal banquet hall. Roast pork, grilled corn, steamed yams, tortillas and salad were served, along with more of the chocolate drink. For desert, there were cakes and ice cream - which was different from the ice cream in their timeline. It was pure cream, sweetened with fruit and sugar, served in small frozen cubes.

They were surprised when, at the end of the meal, Kukulkan said, "I suppose you are anxious to return to your home."

"We are," Two said, and then dared to offer, "And Seven must go with us."

"But he is the Prince. He will inherit my empire," Kukulkan said dismissively.

"What about Chicuacë?" One asked. "You chose him, first."

"He's not suited to rule." His expression darkened. "He does not love the land, or the people. He only wants power. I am afraid that is something he learned in your world. He is blighted."

The Alphas were silent. What Kukulkan had said was likely true. That didn't change the fact that they would need Chicuacë's help to escape.

After the meal, they were escorted to a room with heated pools for bathing, and given clean night clothes. Seven had his own pool where he was tended by four servants who carefully made sure he was as clean as it was possible for a 5-year-old to get. Afterwards, he was told to say good-bye to the other Alphas.

"But I don't want to stay here," he protested. "I want to go home."

"You are home," one of the servants said gently. "You will have a wonderful, magical room that lights up by itself, and many toys."

"Where will my Alphas be?" he asked.

Another servant spoke. "Not far away tonight, but tomorrow, they will be gone."

Seven didn't cry. He was brave and a soldier and he never cried.

But he wanted to.

+ + + + + + +

The Alphas were not locked in that night. They had decided to go look for Seven, and found the task less daunting than they expected. The palace ziggurat was enormous, but there were schematics everywhere, so that visitors and staff could orient themselves. It was actually a double pyramid, with 50 levels above the ground and another 49 below. The below-ground levels decreased in size the further down they went, ending with the subterranean room that held the MATSAP. The information on the diagrams was presented in 8 different languages, none of which was English, but one of which was Mandarin, which Five could translate easily.

The Emperor's personal residence was on the 48th level up, but they did not include the chambers where the prince slept. That was only 3 levels above the ground. It was likely to be heavily guarded, but they'd have to at least try to get Seven back.

They were on level 12, and expected to encounter difficulty descending nine levels, but they didn't. The Imperial Pyramid was basically an office building, and most of the people who didn't live there were gone. They encountered cleaning staff, who gave them a cursory glance but nothing more, and a group of kitchen workers who were busy carving meat, grinding corn, and preparing produce for the next day. They didn't even look at the Alphas.

They relaxed their guard and were not prepared for the sight that greeted them on the third level.

Outside of what, according to the floor diagram, was the prince's bedchamber, two armed guards lay unconscious on the floor, their spear-weapons still at their sides.

Six took the spears and then searched them for other weapons. Both guards had knives and some kind of small blade that looked like a miniature machete. Six examined it quickly and realized it fit over the back of the hand when the "handle" was looped over the thumb. Only One had hands big enough to use it, so he got both of them. Four and Five got the knives and Two got one of the spear weapons. Six kept the other spear weapon for himself. He quickly showed Two how to aim and fire the spear.

They could hear voices coming from inside the bed chamber.

"Come down, now." That voice was Chicuacë's.

"No," Seven's voice answered. "You're going to be in big trouble when I tell the Emperor you chased me with a knife."

"I am not going to harm you."

"I don't believe you," Seven said. "And they are going to catch you."

Chicuacë laughed. "I have deactivated all of the security systems. No one even knows I'm here. If you don't come down right now, I will get a spear and shoot you down."

Two kicked the door open at that point. "Not going to happen."

Chicuacë turned and immediately assumed a defense posture, an obsidian knife in his left hand. It did him no good. Four threw his knife and sliced the tendons in his wrist. The knife fell from his useless fingers and shattered on the polished granite floor.

Six aimed his spear-weapon. "Don't move," he threatened.

Chicuacë was an Alpha - he knew better than to think Six wouldn't follow through on his threat. He didn't move.

There were no lights on the room, but the walls glowed with colorful fish and birds and the vaulted ceiling was awash with stars and moons and planets.

Seven was an accomplished acrobat and a good climber, and somehow, he'd made his way onto a plinth atop a decorative column carved with jungle animals that rose about 5 meters above the floor.

Three went to him. "Come on down now," he said softly. "It's okay."

"He wants to be the Emperor," Seven pointed accusingly at Chicuacë before effortlessly making his way down the column using its carvings for hand and foot holds.

"You little shits are never going to get out of here without me," Chicuacë said smugly.

"Don't be so sure about that," a deep voice boomed from the doorway.

"Theta!" Seven shouted happily, and ran to the big man's waiting arms.

Theta scooped Seven up. The small boy wasn't wearing a shirt and the colorful "wound" on his chest was plainly visible.

Theta frowned when he saw it. "Is that a tattoo?"

Seven nodded vigorously, his dark bangs flopping in his eyes. "It's my picture. It means I am going to be the Emperor of the Universe when the Emperor gets old and dies."

"Does it now," Theta said calmly.

"I am to be addressed as 'Your Imperial Majesty'," Seven added seriously.

Theta lowered him to the floor. "Would Your Imperial Majesty like to go home now?"

Seven nodded again. "Yes, please."

Theta took off his field pack and tossed it to Four, who was looking around for something to use as a bandage for Chicuacë's wrist. Field packs always had first aid supplies and Four quickly found a pressure bandage. He would have applied it, but Chicuacë snatched it from him and did the job himself.

"You're coming with us," Theta told the would-be usurper.

"I will not."

"You have no choice. In a few minutes, someone is going to realize that security is down. If we get caught, we will tell the Emperor you tried to assassinate his heir."

"I wasn't going to kill him," Chicuacë protested, sounding grievously offended.

"Then what were you going to do?" Two asked.

"I was going to send him back where he belongs. I am the Emperor's rightful heir."

"Not any more," Theta said. "You've killed two guards."

"They're not dead. I released a sedative gas into the air filtration system. That's all."

Theta pulled a Sig Sauer from the holster on his hip. He fired the entire clip into the heads of the two bodyguards on the floor. He then used his superior size and strength to force the weapon into Chicuacë's right hand. "In two minutes, we will be gone and you will be here with the only weapon that could have killed these two." He indicated the guards.

The Alphas appeared shocked by what Theta had just done, but it was a ruse. Each of them knew Theta would never commit cold-blooded murder, and Six immediately realized that the Sig Sauer had fired red paint balls. Had Theta used real bullets, there would be nothing left of the victim's skulls. If the guards had been awake, the paint balls might have stung, but they were not even injured, let alone dead.

Chicuacë didn't know that, though. He gasped in horror at the guards' apparently blood-soaked heads, and immediately dropped the Sig.

"To the port, boys," Theta ordered.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Chicuacë whined as they headed for the lower levels. He was out of luck either way - if he stayed, he'd be accused of killing the guards. If he went, he'd be accused of helping these Alphas escape.

"Because it had to have been you who orchestrated the kidnapping of these boys in the first place," Theta said. "You can operate the port and get us back where we belong - but I can't trust you to do that if you think you will be safe here once we are gone."

Chicuacë didn't put up any further argument.

As they descended, they passed the room where they had removed their gear. Since no one was following them yet, Theta gave them a few seconds to hastily gather up what they could carry, including their eagle helmets.

The older boys wanted to take the crystal skull, too, but Theta reminded them that theft of artifacts was not part of their general assignment.

Five closed his hand tightly around the handful of little gold skulls in his pocket. They weren't really artifacts if they were just tossed in a corner.

"But it's not an artifact," One pointed out, referring to the skull. "It's a computer."

Theta frowned as he picked up the skull and examined it.

Three explained, "The crystal is a molecular matrix. The data is stored on it in trinary code." That was what the mentor who had debriefed him had told him.

Theta was still hesitant. "We have crystal skulls in our timeline. With that information, perhaps we can study one of them. We will leave this one here."

They were at the 46th level below the surface when the alarms went off, but any attempt to stop them was going to come from above. The Tenochtitlan MATSAP in this timeline was unguarded.

"Anyone can just walk through?" Three asked when Theta explained this.

It was Chicuacë who answered. "The MATSAP is just another toy to the Emperor. He does not believe he can be harmed, so he does not worry what effect invaders have on our timeline. He's insane."

"I like him," Seven noted.

"That is because you are too young and stupid to know any better."

Three, who was immediately behind Chicuacë, gave him a hard shove.

He didn't shut up. "When I am emperor, I will put an end to his frivolous waste of resources. I will build an army such as the world has never seen."

"For what purpose?" One asked. From the news broadcast he'd glimpsed earlier in the day, the major global political conflict was a standoff between the armies of China - which in this timeline included all of southeast Asia and Japan - and the Mongol Empire. The Great Wall still separated the two, so one army was going to have to invade the other if they truly wanted a war. North America wasn't involved or threatened.

If Chicuacë even had an answer for that question, he kept it to himself.

They reached the MATSAP and Theta guided Chicuacë to the control console. As was the case with the Mexico City MATSAP in their own timeline, this one was made of carved obsidian inlaid with turquoise and gold.

Chicuacë grudgingly entered the protocols while Three watched him carefully to ensure there were no tricks.

A few moments later, no less than 3 dozen armed soldiers burst into the MATSAP chamber just in time to see Theta follow his Alphas and Chicuacë go through the port.

They did not follow.

+ + + + + + +

Orin and Evie were happy to have the boys safely home. They had been gone less than two days, but the house had seemed empty without them. It was Saturday, so they had only missed one day of school.

Both of them were curious as to where the boys had been and what they had done, but they weren't sure if they should even bring the subject up. Orin asked, "Did you boys have a good time?" and then immediately realized what a lame question that was. These boys were trained soldiers. They may have had to fight for their lives at some point.

To his relief, little JD was happy to answer. "I did! I am going to be an emperor one day. I was chosen."

Orin looked at the older boys. Josiah simply shrugged. Chris shook his head, but it was just barely noticeable. Three was the one who spoke up, "You have to stay with us until you grow up, though, right?"

JD nodded.

"Show them your picture!" Six said.

They expected JD to pull out a piece of artwork, and were shocked when he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a healing tattoo.

"What on earth!?...." Evie gasped.

"Is that real?" Orin asked, leaning in close.

"Yes, it is," JD answered. "It means I am the heir to Kukulkan the Tenth. See these lines and this dot?" He pointed to the bottom of the tattoo. "That is the Aztec number eleven, and this...." He pointed to the skull. " the Emperor's crest.

Orin and Evie both wished Theta was there so they could ask him if Omnicrhon actually intended to leave a 5-year-old with a tattoo, but the green Omnichron van had dropped the seven boys off and abruptly left. They didn't even see who was driving.

The boys had spent much of the night flying back from Mexico City and then had undergone several hours of debriefing. They were ready for some time to themselves, so Orin and Evie didn't press them for more information.

The four older ones headed to the backyard to play basketball. Ezra, Vin and JD sat down with their crayons and paper and began to draw - pyramids, skulls, and weapons. The amount of detail was disturbing, but the Travises reminded themselves that was how the boys had been trained. They supposed it was also a good outlet for situations they found confusing - like being kidnapped and then being named Emperor of the Universe.

+ + + + + + +

The boys returned to school on Monday as if nothing had happened. They had long since become accustomed to encountering strange events and people in other timelines.

For the kindergarten students, Monday morning was show-and-tell, where the students talked about various weekend experiences. JD was eager to participate and when Sister Josephine called on him, he happily went to the front of the room.

"On Friday I went to Tenochtitlan," he began. "That's another name for Mexico City. I got to meet the Emperor of the Universe. His name is Kukulkan the Tenth."

Sister Josephine frowned, fully aware that Mexico had no emperor.

"I went up in the big Pyramid of the Sun and I was a sacrifice."

Sister Josephine was certain that was complete fabrication, so she interrupted. "Thank you, JD."

"I'm not done!" JD protested. "I got a picture on my chest..." JD struggled to pull down the collar of his polo shirt and when he couldn't, he pulled it up instead. He pointed to the image there. "This means I'm an emperor, too." He pointed to the skull with the green head dress. "And this is the number eleven in Aztec. I am Kukulkan the Eleventh"

The other students were suitably impressed, but Sister Josephine reached into her desk for the bottle of rubbing alcohol she kept there to remove errant marker ink from desks and tabletops. Her initial thought was to soak a cotton ball and wash the artwork off of the little boy, but then she realized that might embarrass the child, which would not go over well with Sister Ricardis.

"Come here, JD," she said. "Let me see that."

Upon close examination, she was shocked to see tiny scabs in the outline of the design. It was a tattoo! A real one!

At recess, she promptly notified Sister Ricardis, and insisted that Children's Protective Services be notified at once.

+ + + + + + +

Mr. Javier, the student teacher in Ezra's class, was reading a story while Ezra watched, fascinated. Mr. Javier was blind, so his book had raised dots on the pages instead of letters and he felt them with his fingers. He had asked if he could sit close so he could watch and study the dots as Mr. Javier read. He was reading a story about Harry Houdini. Ezra knew who he was - his mentors had taught him some of Houdini's tricks for picking locks. Ezra was more interested in the patterns made by the dots. He thought if he watched long enough, he could figure them out. As he watched, he absently played with the tiny gold skulls in his pocket. They made a pleasant clicking sound. Ezra liked looking at them, too, but he didn't dare take them out where everyone could see he had them.

After the story was finished, it was time to get ready for lunch. Mr. Javier closed his book and then said, "Ezra?"

Surprised to hear his name, Ezra quickly replied. "Yes, Mr. Javier?"

"What do you have in your pocket?"

Ezra was taken aback. How did Mr. Javier know?

Mr. Javier seemed to sense his confusion. "I heard them clicking while I was reading."

"Oh," Ezra said, and pulled out the handful of skulls. "It's just these. They are little gold skulls." He let Mr. Javier feel them.

"Where did you get these?"

Ezra cast his head downward. "From the Aztec pyramid."

"You stole them?" Mr. Javier asked, sounding disappointed.

"Not really... they were... thrown away. No one wanted them."

"Aztec pyramid, huh?" Mr. Javier smiled.

"Well, it was really a ziggurat." Then, he had to explain 'ziggurat.' Ezra knew more words than a lot of adults did.

"What are the for?" Mr. Javier asked. Ezra could tell he was just doing what Theta called 'humoring' him, that he didn't really believe they were tiny gold skulls he found in an Aztec pyramid. But, he played along.

"They go on the crystal skulls," he explained. "Like this..." he touched one skull to Mr. Javier's head. To his surprise, it stuck there. He tried sticking one to his own head, but it didn't work. And Mr. Javier didn't seem to realize what had happened. Ezra tried sticking the others on, which Mr. Javier patiently endured, still 'humoring' him. They all stuck. "Wow... they stick on your head just like the crystal skulls..."

Mr., Javier reached up and felt the tiny lumps on his forehead and scalp. "What the he... heck...?"

He peeled them off with some effort. "I wish I could see those things for myself," he laughed. Then, the lunch bell rang and Mr. Javier got up with his dog and headed for the teacher's lunch room. Ezra went the other way, his little skulls safe in his pocket once again.

+ + + + + + +

Nu was with the boys when Evie picked them up.

She was carrying her briefcase with the CPS logo on it, which meant she was in her guise as Nettie Wells, social worker. Evie wasn't sure if Nu actually worked for Children's Protective Services or not - she suspected not - but the fact that she was there, with the boys, did not bode well.

Nu followed them home in her own car, and then explained that CPS had been contacted concerning JD's tattoo. She discussed the matter in front of the boys - it was Omnichron policy to keep nothing that directly concerned them hidden from them.

"What did you tell them?" Evie wanted to know.

"That I would look into how he got it, and see about having it removed."

"I don't want it removed!" JD protested.

Nu frowned. "You don't?"


"He thinks it makes him an emperor," Buck said with affection.

"It does," Vin commented. He really liked JD's tattoo.

Nu stroked her chin thoughtfully. "Well, I suppose it doesn't have to be done right away..." She tousled JD's hair. "Just don't tell anyone about the Emperor. We wouldn't want to get him in trouble."

"You can't get him in trouble," Ezra remarked. "He's the Emperor."

"Of the Universe," Four added helpfully.

Nu nodded thoughtfully. "I think it might be a good idea if you boys did not share too many of your adventures."

The three older ones seemed to understand the reason for this. "No one would believe us, anyway," Chris said.

Nu put an affectionate hand on his. "It's enough that you are Alphas. What other people think or believe won't change that. Remember that."

She got up to leave, saying good-bye to each boy individually. "I will see you again, soon," she promised.

After she left, Vin handed Evie another note from Mrs. Manfredi.

Evie read it and smiled. "Where is your picture?" she asked. He took it out of his backpack and showed her the Great Pyramid with the giant video monitors on its sides and the crowds of people below.

Mrs. Manfredi had recommended Vin for the schools gifted & talented creative arts program. She did not wish to discourage his talent. She did, however, suggest a meeting with Sister Ricardis to discuss Vin's tendency to 'embellish details,' as she put it.

Evie just smiled, and kissed Vin on the forehead. Then, she put his picture on the refrigerator.

Continues in "Gunslingers"

Comments to: