The plane was too small to have very powerful headlights and the torrential rain was making it difficult to see far ahead.
Captain Blue squinted into the rain and cursed under his breath; as he did so his cap mic swung down in front of his mouth and the epaulettes on his uniform tunic flickered.
“…base call… come in…tain Blue.”
He groaned and grimaced. Wonderful, now the comms links are packing up as well as everything else.
“Lieutenant? Can you hear me, Greenie?” he yelled.
“…nel White here…tain.”
Shit! Just when I think things couldn’t get any worse, I go all informal on the Colonel.
Aloud, Blue shouted: “It’s a very bad line, sir.”
“Indeed it is …port …. Location…”
Blue squinted at the global navigation computer readout. “Right now, sir, this plane thinks we are somewhere over Antarctica…”
“…arctic? Capt… is no time… uch foolishness”
No, it isn’t the time for such foolishness, but you tell the equipment in this clapped out old cart that, Colonel. Sir.
“Sorry, sir, the navigation equipment is obviously faulty; I wouldn’t trust it to speak my weight, never mind pinpoint my location on the planet!”
“Say again, Cloudbase?”
“An approximation… do…tain.”
Blue squinted out of the window and shrugged. “I have no idea where we are…. I know where we ought to be: somewhere near the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Frigging Hell! That was lightning! Sir, this is now an electrical storm and we’re in big trouble…”
“Cloudb… moving to …coast…dezvous… position… refer… mark 5. Do you copy?”
“No… repeat Cloudbase… Cloudbase?”
There was a second crash of lightning which caught the wing tip of the small aircraft. Blue wrestled with the controls as the plane bucked and swirled in the gusting winds. The rain threw itself against the beleaguered craft with renewed fury.
He wished for the nth time they had waited for the promised SPJ, but Captain Scarlet’s burns were so severe he’d had trouble stopping the workers at the oil installation from rushing him to the nearest local hospital. It got nasty when they accused him of trying to stop them saving his colleague’s life. Finally, they had made the offer of the only plane that still worked following the massive explosion and fire resulting from the Mysterons’ attack on the oil terminal and its adjacent refinery.
He’d informed the colonel of the situation and suggested that, if he had to fly anywhere, he take the fatally injured Captain Scarlet to the nearest Spectrum medical facility capable of handling his case. But Spectrum’s high command liked to keep knowledge of its premier agent’s remarkable ability of retrometabolism to the minimum – even amongst those in the organisation - and so, while the colonel had agreed he should risk flying Scarlet out of the oil complex - despite the ominous signs of the impending storm - White had informed him that Cloudbase would move from its current location to a rendezvous off the Central American Pacific coast, thus cutting the projected journey time by two thirds, and he could bring Scarlet straight back to Doctor Fawn’s Sick Bay.
That was the wrong decision, Blue thought, because now I don’t know where the hell Cloudbase is and I’m not sure where we are and not even the compass on this flying rust-bucket is up to the job, so there is no way I can go in the right direction – even if I knew it. I should’ve told the old man he was wrong. But, oh no, I’m so full of myself I thought I’d be able to fly this…. Next time I tell myself I can fly anything with wings I hope I remember this…
A fork of lightning struck the front of the plane, sending a jolt of electricity into Blue and fusing out the control-panel. Shaking his hands against the pain, Blue watched helplessly as the headlights flickered momentarily before they too went dark.
If I live long enough for there to be a next time… he thought, as the plane glided down towards the seemingly impenetrable canopy of the rain forest, at the mercy of every gust of wind and squall of rain.
His inactivity was only momentary as instinct and experience kicked in. He fought to keep the nose up and tried to spot a potential landing site - anywhere that looked even slightly less dense would do - in the intermittent brilliance of the lightning flashes. Finally he realised he had to let her go down where she would and activated the auto-pilot, just in case it was still working. Then he moved from the pilot’s seat to the rear, where Captain Scarlet lay unconscious on a makeshift bed of three passenger seats.
“Hang on, buddy,” he muttered, making sure the safety straps were secure on his friend. “And if you have any of that retrometabolism going spare, you might consider lending me some, ‘cause although you will eventually come out of this alive – I just might not.”
He gathered the first aid kit, emergency supplies and basic tool set from around the plane and rammed them into the gaudy haversack the oil workers had given him to carry some crude sandwiches and bottled water, then braced himself for impact, burying his head in his arms and closing his eyes.
Something was burning. The acrid smell was making him want to sneeze. He sat up, wincing under the protest of his aching body and head. He brushed his fringe back from his eyes and sniffed.
He glanced around the wrecked fuselage. There was smoke billowing from the engine up front - and much worse, flames licking around the interior at the rear of the plane.
Focussing on his dilemma, Captain Blue staggered to his feet. He bent over and checked Captain Scarlet. He was dead.
Only to be expected, Blue thought, as he started to undo the restraining straps. Although whether it’s due to the crash or the burns I don’t know. Mind you, some of those burns don’t look as bad as they did. You lucky bastard, Paul, I’ll be aching for weeks and you’ll be skipping like a spring lamb in a few days at most.
He jumped as a new spurt of flame broke out even closer to where Scarlet lay.
Right, time to go, buddy.
He picked up the haversack – and stuffed a few more random items from the plane in to it. Not that there was much to take. He slung the haversack over Scarlet’s back. Then he reached for his radio cap and rammed it down onto his fair hair as far he could, before he hefted the dead weight of his partner across his broad shoulders.
Gasping with pain as he moved unsteadily across the cabin to the door, he pushed the emergency hatch. Nothing happened. Cursing once more, Blue laid Scarlet on the floor and aimed a kick at the door - then another. The thin metal crumpled and finally gave, snapping off its hinges.
“Maybe there is something to be said for taking to the skies in something made from a recycled cookie tin,” he remarked to Captain Scarlet, as he bent to pick him up again.
Behind him new flames burst out and Blue dragged Scarlet to the hatch before manoeuvring him into a fireman’s lift and jumping. They landed in an ungainly heap with Scarlet’s body on top. Blue squirmed clear with difficulty and once more struggled to his feet, knowing they had to get clear of the plane in case it exploded.
They had come down in a small clearing although along one side was a steep drop to what sounded like rapids. At the other side of the clearing was a squat ziggurat, built of enormous square blocks of painted stone. At its summit – which was flat - was a square stone building.
Oh wonderful – another bloody temple – I don’t like temples, they give me the heebie-jeebies. The one good thing about the disaster at Najama was that the temple complex got obliterated. However, I’m not going to stand here in the rain, and that’s the best shelter there is and it’ll offer some protection if this crate explodes. Come on, Paul. “ Upsidaisy”. Looks like we are going to have to spend another night in a temple….
The journey up to the stone shelter was harder than it looked. The steps were designed to make them difficult to climb, plus - Blue reckoned as he found himself short of breath – they must be a fair height above sea level. The rain made the stones slippery and with Scarlet balanced across his shoulders, it wasn’t easy to keep his footing. When his attention was caught by a motif of – apparently – human skulls carved in the stones he felt uneasy, but that turned to acute perturbation when he saw real skulls lined up along the shelves that matched the steps at the top of the staircase. He had no doubt they were real: some of them still had skin and were wearing the bedraggled remnants of feathered headdresses.
Who was it that coined the phrase ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’? I have a nasty feeling about this place.
When he finally reached the top, he slung his partner onto the stone platform with a groan of relief.
“When we get back to Cloudbase, you are going on a diet, Paul Metcalfe.”
After a break to recover his breath, he moved Scarlet out of the rain and into the gloom of the square, stone room. There was nothing in the room except for a larger than life statue of a man, which the lightning flashes revealed to be painted in a fantastic costume of blue, red, white and gold, armed with two long spears and a smaller carving made of unadorned black glass of a smaller human figure. In front of each was an elaborately carved stone bowl.
“Maybe we’ve landed at an Aztec theme-park?” he remarked to Scarlet to calm his own jitters, while he made him as comfortable as he could. “With luck, help will arrive pretty soon. It’s sure to... the colonel will be sending out search parties as we speak.” He looked down at his companion and sighed. “If talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, what does talking to you when you’re like this mean? Especially when I keep expecting an answer...”
Standing at the entrance, Blue surveyed the location through the driving rain. The platform was edged by a small parapet, with a stone pillar at each corner and had an impressive statue of a recumbent human figure, also painted red and white and holding a shallow bowl, carved from a single rectangular block of stone close to the steps. Beyond that, the clearing was hemmed in with dense rainforest, although, he frowned and screwed his eyes to peer through the rain, on one side there appeared to be a scattering of what almost looked like cultivated fields, but there was no sign of any other buildings.
He glanced upwards and let the fierce rain splatter into his face. It was refreshing. He licked at the water running down to his lips and rather than bother with hunting out the water bottles, moved to the statue at the corner of the platform, to scoop some of the collected rainwater.
Rainwater should be healthy enough – just to moisten my throat.
He dipped his hand into the depression in the statue, to scoop out a handful of the liquid. As he raised his hand towards his face there was a snap of lightning and Blue stopped, shuddering with surprise.
The liquid in his hand was red… as red as blood!
“It’s no good, Colonel, we’ve lost touch with them completely now – there’s not even a trace of the static we were getting,” Lieutenant Green explained cautiously.
Spectrum’s commander-in-chief gave a grim nod and pursed his lips. “They flew into that storm, you are sure, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir. They’d have skirted it, if they’d followed the course I plotted for them, but the radar shows Captain Blue had veered off course by at least mark four, even before we lost the signal and, if he continued on that flight path, he’d have ended up going right through the worst of it, sir.”
“Now why would he do that, Lieutenant? Blue’s an experienced pilot, he’s not likely to choose to risk his craft in a tropical rainstorm.”
“Well, sir,” Green said hesitantly. Colonel White turned his cold blue eyes on his young communications officer and waited for what he sensed would be a confession of sorts. “The plane was in pretty poor shape. Captain Blue called it a ‘clapped out wreck’ and said it ‘belonged in a museum’,” the lieutenant reported, judiciously editing out the expletives that went with the statement. That Blue was swearing at all showed just how unhappy he was at the prospect of flying the plane.
“I don’t remember him saying that. When did he say it?” Colonel White glared at his subordinate.
“Errrm, he said it to me, sir. You were consulting the meteorological department at the time.”
“And you didn’t think to mention that fact to me? Bravo, Lieutenant! I know that sometimes the comments my officers make are not intended for my hearing - and I can guess why they are not – but if it contains information I ought to know before I make a decision I should be informed – however… disparaging the terms it is couched in may be!”
“Yes, sir; sorry, sir.”
“Launch Angel One and have her fly the last known route the plane took. If that doesn’t reveal them, we’ll launch Angels Two and Three and have them search a wider area. What is the terrain like where they were, Lieutenant?”
“All around there it is pretty dense rainforest, sir, with some mountainous areas and deep ravines.”
“Splendid; when those two decide to get lost, they do it with as much diligence as they tackle every job. Launch Angel One, and ask Captain Grey to come up here. He’d better get ready to lead a ground search party. I just hope Captain Blue survived the crash…”
So do I… Green thought fervently, as he ordered Angel One to take off. Melody’s acknowledgment of her orders was followed by the roar of the departing jet. He called for Captain Grey, and bent his head to re-start his search for any signals that might emanate from the missing plane.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and within minutes the sun was blazing fiercely, as if it had never been obliterated by heavy black clouds. It drew Captain Blue back to the entrance of the stone room.
The sky was a cloudless, innocent blue. Out in the open, the ground was already beginning to steam and mist was condensing from the trees and dense foliage around the clearing. A cacophony of jungle sounds grew louder as the place came alive after the storm and he realised that what had seemed to him a terrible calamity was almost certainly normal for the location.
“No Mysteron activity, I reckon, Paul, just typical rainforest weather. It was our misfortune to be in the wrong place – and in the wrong plane - at the time.”
Thoughtfully he studied the wreckage. It had not exploded, but there were still occasional spurts of flame coming from the fuselage and a column of black smoke rising lazily into the sky.
“The rain must’ve doused most of the fire,” Blue reported to his companion, “but I doubt there’ll be enough left working to get the thing airborne again. I suppose we could try and rig up some comms, or a signal beacon, at least. If I know the colonel, he’ll have the guys out looking for us.” He gave a hollow snort of laughter. “And he’ll be sharpening his tongue ready to give us – well, me - a piece of his mind… although I was only obeying orders – his orders, at that.”
Although he had no illusions about just how desperate a situation they were in, the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the location still combined to raise his spirits. He glanced at his wristwatch and mentally calculated how long had elapsed since he’d realised Scarlet had died and when – all things being equal – he could expect him to revive.
“You’re going to be unlucky, Paul,” he remarked, with a rueful smile. “You might even wish yourself back in Sick Bay under Fawn’s tender care. We have limited drinking water and emergency rations only – apart from some soggy sandwiches. I hope that’ll be enough to fuel your recovery?”
He turned back into the gloomy interior and sighed. Scarlet’s body lay still and motionless on the hard stone floor, his skin was ghostly pale and when Blue touched his cheek it was cold and flabby. Impulsively he trickled some of the drinking water between Scarlet’s lips. Retrometabolism always left the captain with a raging thirst and voracious appetite, so, Blue hypothesised, perhaps a mouthful of water would speed up the process?
He watched as the liquid trickled from Scarlet’s mouth and sighed. There was no sign of even a basic swallowing reflex, so there was little hope that his friend would revive soon. Blue had sat out innumerable hours waiting for Scarlet’s retrometabolism to work its miracle and in many ways, this time was no different; sometimes those hours could seem unreasonably long, but usually he was on Cloudbase or in one of Spectrum’s ground bases and there were other people on hand to alleviate his anxiety and boredom. He admitted to himself that their present predicament was adding to his anxiety levels and he could not remember a time when he had felt the need for someone else to bolster his confidence as much as he did now.
Pull yourself together, Svenson, he chided. You’re letting your imagination run away with you. You’d be the first to pour scorn on anyone else who got themselves into a funk over a deserted historical monument. There’re more than enough things you could be doing to improve matters. Get on with it!
“I’ll get going on making us more comfortable, shall I? Even if the guys have an accurate fix on where we came down, it’s going to take them hours to get us out, so we might as well be comfortable. I may be able to salvage some seat cushions or more blankets from the plane. There’ll be other useful stuff too. Yep, I’ll do that first and then I’ll fix us something to eat. It ought to be possible to start a fire and then, who knows, maybe the aroma of freshly reconstituted meatloaf will work miracles? You’ve never been much of a gourmet, after all.”
He emptied the rucksack, lining up the items against the wall of the room. It would do for whatever he could salvage from the plane including - he hoped – enough undamaged electrical components to enable them to build some way of attracting help.
As he made his way to the staircase, Blue glanced at the recumbent statue with its bowl. He had washed the red liquid from his hand with a slosh of their precious drinking water and avoided the place ever since. It was a mystery and he disliked mysteries. Now he had no excuse not to investigate it and, as much to prove to himself that he was not spooked by the incident as to confirm his initial suspicions, he went back and examined it.
The rain had diluted the contents considerably and it was less obviously blood than it had been, but it was blood – he had no doubt about that. Liquid blood. Blood that could not have been there for very long…
He scanned the horizon for signs of human occupation: smoke, buildings – anything – but the trees formed an impenetrable barrier and any smoke would be masked by the water vapour clouds that lay across the tree tops like a blanket. Recalling the possible fields he’d noticed, he turned and crossed to the other side of the platform, but it was impossible to tell if the area showed signs of cultivation or merely the remains of past habitation which the forest had not colonised as densely, and that seemed the more plausible explanation.
Yet, something, or someone, had left their blood in the statue’s bowl, and maybe those skulls were not fakes or even that old? Until Scarlet was able to fend for himself – even if not fully recovered – he was not prepared to leave him to go scouting around.
He felt comforted by the pressure of his Spectrum pistol against his hip; he checked it carefully and was relieved that it was still functioning.
Whatever’s out there can and will be dealt with, he told himself, as he trudged down the awkwardly spaced stone steps and across to the plane. Stop scaring yourself. Reality is rarely as bad as you imagine it will be.
Recalling some of the dangerous missions and bizarre situations Scarlet and he had previously encountered, he wished he could believe his own wise words.
It didn’t take Blue long to confirm that the aircraft would never fly again. Nevertheless, he extinguished the few remaining fires with the extinguisher before he began to search for the on-board tool box. It had survived the crash and the contents – the bare regulation minimum – were undamaged. With a grunt of satisfaction he began to dismantle the flight deck, removing any undamaged parts that might possibly be useful in making or powering a communication device or signal beacon. When he’d exhausted that source, he dismantled the basic in-flight intercom and stripped the useful components from that.
The small galley in the tail-end was blackened by fire and there was little of use, apart from a second, smaller first aid kit and some cutlery. In the toilet he found liquid soap and paper towels and noticed in the shattered mirror above the hand basin, that the left side of his face, which had obviously taken the impact of the crash, was swollen and rapidly turning a greyish-blue as the bruise came out. He winced as he gingerly probed the tender flesh with his fingertips, but there did not seem to be any broken bones. There was a small cut above his right eyebrow which had bled a little and at some point his nose had bled even more, leaving dry blood around his mouth and on his chin. He swallowed a couple of painkillers from the first aid box with a drizzle of water from the tap.
“Count yourself lucky, my son,” he advised his reflection stoically, as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and smeared the blood even further. “It could’ve been a frigging lot worse.”
Under the seats he found stowed away a couple of blankets and inflatable sleep pillows which he squashed into the backpack, wrapped around the salvaged electrical components.
Captain Scarlet’s revolver, uniform tunic and radio cap had survived the crash, but the haversack was now bulging fit to burst, so he slipped the gun into his waistband, put the tunic over his own and rammed the cap backwards over his own as far as it would go, jamming them onto his head. He slipped the haversack on and picked up the final item he wanted – the collapsible stretcher Scarlet had been carried into the plane on. The telescopic metal poles and the canvas sling they slotted into would be useful for erecting a shelter, especially as he had no wish to spend more time than necessary in the stone temple. He wound the sling around his body, like an ungainly sarong.
“That’ll do for now,” he muttered to himself, “I’ll come back for some of the seat cushions and when Paul’s back we might even be able to get the seats out, if Spectrum hasn’t found us by then. At least I know it isn’t going to explode, so there’ll be a chance to gut it if we need to.”
He lay the stretcher poles on the floor near the door, hefted the rucksack higher on his shoulders and adjusted his awkward headgear in preparation to jumping from the plane.
It was then that he saw them.
Standing in the clearing, staring in astonishment at the plane, was a group of about twenty people, men and women. They all wore variations on a simple poncho decorated with geometric patterns and pinned at the shoulder with a metal clasp. The men were armed with spears and knives and, as one of them shouted and pointed, the crowd surged forwards.
“Oh, hell…” muttered Captain Blue, as he reached for his gun.
No-one made any hostile move towards him and they continued to examine each other for what seemed like a long time, until, Blue, hoping to show he was no threat, raised his hands.
Immediately members of the crowd dropped to the ground, covering their eyes with the flat of their palms, obviously, in homage. There was a debate, with some less inclined to follow suit, but gradually all of them knelt before him.
“Hello,” Blue said, then, as it occurred to him that they might well not speak English, and he stood a better chance with Spanish, he corrected himself: “Hola.”
One man got to his feet and advanced towards the plane, continuing to show deference by bowing.
“Hola,” Blue said again.
When he spoke, the man immediately bowed much lower and then gestured towards his companions and the temple, managing to convey the suggestion that Blue should make his way to the monument, but whether as a guest or a prisoner was uncertain.
The realisation that these people must be responsible for the blood in the bowl and the rows of decomposing skulls carried the concern that they could turn nasty if crossed and caused Blue to consider the option of not going. He quickly rejected it, realising that Scarlet was alone in the temple and unable to defend himself from whatever murderous attack they might chose to launch. Besides, he had no wish to alarm or antagonise them; they could prove useful in helping him until Scarlet recovered.
“Sure… bueno,” he said as amiably as he could and jumped down from the plane.
A murmur ran through the crowd as he walked towards them, the spokesman walking backwards, slightly in front of him, one hand shielding his eyes as he went. Blue smiled and nodded at the crowd, more than a little bemused when everyone whose gaze he met, immediately covered their eyes. Behind him the kneeling people got to their feet and followed at a respectful distance.
At the foot of the temple steps, he paused. The crowd waited, apparently expecting him to lead the way up the steps to the temple, but he was reluctant to take them any closer to Scarlet. He stood on the bottom step and tried again to communicate to them in Spanish.
“My plane crashed during the storm; I expect you saw it? I have a colleague who is hurt, not too badly hurt, but he needs rest and food…food? Understand?”
The spokesman responded in an unknown language and looked expectantly at Blue.
“Look, friend, I’m not going to hurt you but I don’t understand. Hablas español? Do you speak English? Pratar du Svenska? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Ty govorish' na russkom yazyke? Oh, for chrissake…”
The man gabbled a reply in which Blue thought he recognised ‘español’ but nothing else he said made any sense. Then he waved his arm towards the dense jungle and nodded, smiling encouragingly at Blue.
“I’m staying here for now.” Blue folded his arms and shook his head.
There was some commotion in the crowd and several people called out: Doña Andra.
Emerging from the jungle, Blue saw a group of men escorting a woman wearing an elaborately beaded cape and a headdress of colourful feathers. The men, in particular, made a disturbing sight: their skin was stained an unnatural blue-black in the same geometric patterns that characterised the decorations on the temple and their dark hair, which had been shaved, apart from a central top-knot, was long and matted. Two bands of yellow were painted across their faces which were adorned with lip plugs of crystal and a golden nose jewel, which ran through the septum and was the width of their mouths. Their ear lobes were distorted to accommodate large golden disc earrings. Each of them wore a feathered headdress of varying magnificence and a decorated cape.
The whole party was of importance, for everyone treated them with reverence and made way for them. The woman was conducted to the foot of the pyramid with much ceremony by the men, who appeared to be subservient to her.
It was she, who first approached Captain Blue and made a deep and reverent obeisance, covering her eyes with both hands. The men who had accompanied her remained at a respectful distance, but also shielded their eyes with one hand and knelt to place the other palm-down on the ground.
“Hola,” Blue said, hoping someone would understand. Thankfully, the woman did and although her Spanish was antiquated and stilted and her high-pitched and nasal voice affected her pronunciation, Blue could recognise enough to get the gist of what she said.
“Greetings, Lord. Welcome to your land and your people.” She stood and, although one hand still shielded her eyes, she glanced up at him through her fingers.
“Thank you. Eh, you know who I am?”
She smiled demurely. “Lord, it is your pleasure to test us. Be assured we are dedicated to your service.”
“Then address me by my name and titles.” Please, because I am totally bewildered here…
“My Lord Huitzilopochtli, Lord of the Sun, Prince of this World and Divine Warrior; we await your pleasure.”
Even in his astonishment, Blue recognised ‘Huitzilopochtli’ as one of the words the spokesman had kept repeating.
Doña Andra continued: “We, your people, humbly and reverently welcome you. For many generations we have lived by the grace and favour of Blue Hummingbird, honouring you as our Lord and Master. Through many cycles of the Tonalpohualli have we expected your return, but never did we doubt that you would return to us, Lord.”
“I’m not… no, wait a minute.” From the depths of Blue’s capacious memory came the recollection of some long-forgotten lesson on pre-Columbian history and the names of Aztec Gods and Goddesses. Huitzilopochtli was the God of the Sun and War, the date of whose long expected return had coincided with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, giving them an unforeseen advantage over the native theocracy. It seemed he had been as fortunate.
Doña Andra was looking at him quizzically. “Lord? It is our pleasure to serve you. Tell us how we may do so and it shall be done.”
Blue gave a wry smile and winced at the ache in his jaw. “Something to eat, would be good,” he said. “In the …” he pointed at the stone room at the top of the pyramid, “my… companion rests. Food for us both, please.”
“Of course, Lord; it shall be done. If it pleases you to return to your sanctuary refreshment will be brought to you with speed.”
“Thank you, Doña Andra.”
She was obviously pleased that he knew her name and he was grateful that the crowd had spoken clearly enough for him to get it right.
Nodding graciously to acknowledge the dignitaries and the crowd, Blue turned and went up the stairs with as much dignity as he could manage. Tomorrow, he’d explain it all to her and apologise; but now all he wanted was for Scarlet to recover and help him build a signal beacon.
Surely it wouldn’t hurt to let them continue to believe he was a god for just one or two nights?
As promised, Doña Andra organised a veritable feast which was delivered by a troupe of awed women, all of whom approached Blue, left the dishes at his feet and then backed out their eyes covered by their hands. The final waitress was backing out as Doña Andra came in and, as she sidestepped quickly, she tripped over Scarlet’s body and fell on top of him. She gave a squeal and cried something to Andra before she scuttled out of the temple.
Doña Andra bowed before Blue, who was investigating the food with interest as he realised how hungry he was.
“My Lord,” she began, “Why do you keep this dead man with you? Is he a vanquished enemy?”
“Enemy? No; he is my companion – my friend – and he’s not dead, he’ll wake soon.” Blue had no intention of even trying to explain retrometabolism to her, although ironically, he thought she’d have accepted the fact that Scarlet was indestructible with less scepticism than any westernised individual.
“Lord.” She studied Scarlet thoughtfully and then remarked: “All shall be as my Lord commands.”
“Hmm,” said Blue, not really paying much attention. He scooped up some mashed vegetables with a flatbread, and rolled it into a tube before biting into it. It was fairly tasteless, so he ate it quickly.
Doña Andra went to Scarlet and placed her hand on his forehead before Blue could prevent her. The glance she gave him left him in no doubt that she knew Scarlet was dead. Blue stared at her in, what he hoped was an inscrutable manner, implying that she should not interfere with matters she could never hope to understand.
“My Lord is all powerful,” she murmured admiringly.
“I wish,” Blue muttered to himself. Aloud he said: “I would like blankets to make him comfortable.”
“It shall be done.” She moved to the entrance and gave orders to whoever was outside.
Blue studied her carefully. He thought she must be in her late thirties or early forties. She was of no more than average height, with long black hair woven into an elaborate design that supported a feathered headdress and gave the impression that she was tall. Her bearing was haughty and she appeared to have complete confidence in her own importance and authority. The yellow bands across her face emphasised her broad cheekbones and large, dark eyes. She was plump in comparison to the other women he’d seen, and her garments were elaborately decorated in abstract geometric designs of blue, red and gold. On her arms she had a complex design of black tattoos and ornamental needles that pierced her skin. Her earlobes were distended by thick gold studs, but she did not have the lip plug or nose jewel he had seen on the men.
He surmised that she was not someone you’d want as an enemy.
He helped himself to some more of the food, but drank from one of the water bottles he’d brought from the plane: it wouldn’t do for their god to come down with a bout of what Scarlet would’ve no doubt aptly, in this instance, called ‘Montezuma’s revenge’.
“My Lord, if it please you, for your sustenance and honour at sunset there will be a feast of celebration and ceremony of dedication,” Andra said.
“It would please me,” he replied, thinking that it would keep everyone busy while he waited for Scarlet to revive, as well as giving him time to try and remember more about the attributes of Huitzilopochtli to avoid arousing any suspicion that he wasn’t who they thought he was. He had revised his opinion of Doña Andra enough to believe that she was unlikely to consider his masquerade a pardonable offence.
“We will bring you robes of honour, My Lord.”
Blue wondered what he’d end up wearing, but the thought that he’d be able to remove the two tunics, radio caps and the canvas sarong was a pleasing one, because even out of the sun the gloomy sanctuary was hot and humid.
“Excuse me, Lord. I will give instructions.”
“By all means…”
Blue watched her leave and then hurried across to Captain Scarlet. He felt for a pulse but still couldn’t find one. He sat back on his heels and said to his field partner:
“Come on, Paul; I need you up and running; the sooner we get out of here the better. I’m starting to get a funny feeling about this place and the whole set up. Doña Andra may be all deference now, but if she realises I’m just an ordinary Joe, she won’t be so friendly. Don’t forget there was a blood sacrifice in that bowl and it was recent. I don’t want either of us to end up on the wrong end of whatever ceremonial practices they indulge in.”
Once more he trickled some water into Scarlet’s mouth, then he rested against the stone wall and closed his eyes…
Blue woke with a start at the touch of a gentle hand.
The young woman leapt back in alarm and bowed to the ground, her eyes covered, in terrified apology. Beside her were a pile of elaborate garments, even more spectacular than Doña Andra’s.
“You startled me,” Blue explained defensively, rubbing his eyes. “I guess I dropped off…” He gave a lop-sided smile realising that she didn’t understand him, but this seemed to scare her even more. He placed a hand on her arm, intending to show that he was not annoyed, but she took it as a rebuke and cowered even lower.
Annoyed, he stood up and called loudly: Doña Andra!
There was a commotion outside and moments later she swept into the room. The young woman crawled to her feet and was apparently apologising for her side of the incident.
Doña Andra kicked her away, turned towards Blue and bowed, one hand shielding her eyes. “Lord, this peasant will be punished for her presumption.”
“What? No, I don’t want her punished; I want you to tell her I’m not angry. I… I’d fallen asleep and was surprised when she woke me, that’s all.”
Doña Andra glared at the offender. “She is a minor priestess in a lesser temple and has exceeded her authority in daring to lay an impious hand on your sacred person. I would not have you think that your people do not know how you should be treated, Lord. She acknowledges her fault and begs your forgiveness.”
“And she has it – understand? Doña Andra, I forbid you to do anything to punish this woman. I forbid it – absolutely.”
“Lord, it shall be as you wish.” Her face showed that she disagreed with his decision but after a moment she continued, “You will want to make an example of her yourself, I am sure.” She spoke to the woman, who began to sob.
“Now what’s wrong with her?”
“I have explained to her that you will punish her yourself, Lord.”
If that’s what it takes. Blue sighed. “She can stay here and contemplate her…sacrilege – for now.”
Andra spoke to the woman again, pointing to the far side of the room. The woman crawled into the corner and tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, despite her sobs.
“What’s her name?”
Andra glanced at her. “Tezalco.” She looked up at him. “Does it please you to be prepared for the ceremony now, Lord?”
Blue looked at the pile of clothes with ambivalence. “Yes?” he said hesitantly, fervently hoping that would not involve any body piercings.
Andra clapped her hands and two women came into the room carrying ewers of water and various jars. Like her, they had complex tattoos and piercings on their arms and, they both wore robes similar to Andra’s, but far less elaborate. Behind them came two of the men he’d seen escorting Andra to the temple. Closer to, Blue realised that they stank appallingly and that their long black hair was matted with blood. Although they covered their eyes with one hand in deference, they were far more assertive than even Doña Andra and he felt more insecure in their presence. One of them placed a small metal brazier before the two statues and proceeded to start a fire in it.
The men were obviously important people in ‘his’ temple which meant they had the right to touch his ‘sacred person’ without facing punishment, and although Blue wasn’t keen on the idea of being undressed by any of them – especially the women – he doubted he had much alternative. Yet before he submitted to their ministrations he took off the radio caps and placed them carefully on the floor beside Captain Scarlet, along with the red tunic, just as one of the priest threw something into the small metal brazier and a heady perfume scented the air.
The priests had no concept of how to remove his tunic – the technology of the zip was unknown to them - so he was able to keep their involvement to the minimum, and allow them to dress him in the elaborate, beaded and feathered cape and headdress over his black Spectrum sweater and trousers. They did not seem to want to remove his blue uniform boots, which was a relief. The women had left the water and the jars, which contained body paint. The taller of the two priests drew two broad bands of yellow across Blue’s face, causing him some discomfort as they pressed his bruised skin, while the other man drew a design on his hands in inky-blue paint.
The atmosphere in the sanctuary was growing more oppressive and Blue was starting to feel light-headed. He suspected that whatever had been put into the brazier fire was an intoxicant – possibly even an hallucinogenic - but he was fleetingly grateful that it deadened the aches and pains he’d been feeling since the crash. He fought hard to remain alert, digging his nails into the palms of his hands to help him stay focused.
To his amazement Andra appeared carrying a huge gold mask, depicting a fierce face, decorated with facial piercings, and enclosed by the curved beak of a bird of prey. This was placed on his shoulders and fastened behind his head; an imposing headdress of beads, semi-precious stones and feathers was placed on top, effectively hiding the straps. He was given an obsidian-tipped spear and knife to hold, as well as a decorated shield of wood and feathers to bear on his left arm.
Andra adjusted the finery until she was satisfied and then at a snap of her fingers, the priests moved to the entrance and one of them blew a conch shell. Outside many drums produced a pulsating beat.
The atmosphere in the sanctuary was so heavy that Blue was growing increasingly dizzy. The gloom and humidity, along with the restricted vision through the heavy mask, were triggering his latent claustrophobia. At a sign from Andra, he moved towards the exit and managed to walk out onto the platform unaided.
It was later than he’d realised and the sun was setting through the trees. The stone pillars at the corners were alight with fierce fires and whatever was being burnt was sending the same heady, intoxicating scent into the air. The crowd gathered at the foot of the pyramid was larger than that he had seen earlier in the day, numbering several hundred people at least, and he concluded that this was an important communal festival, with everyone wanting to see the newly-arrived deity.
Spaced around the clearing were additional braziers, tended by young women in colourful costumes and feathered headdresses, and woven rush mats were laid out on the ground covered in bowls and pots, as if it were a picnic. Groups of musicians were dotted around the site with more priests dancing to the insistent rhythm.
The hum of conversation ceased, the music stopped and Andra addressed the assembly. At one point they all fell to their knees, covering their eyes in the now familiar way, and chanted the name of Huitzilopochtli, while conch horns sounded around the clearing along with the drums, piping flutes and cymbals. Blue watched with fascination as young girls, wearing short ponchos that revealed their breasts, danced across the clearing towards the pyramid, strewing flower petals. They climbed the steps of the pyramid as the music intensified, but did not trespass onto the platform where he was standing with Andra and the most important priests. Approaching behind them was a party of about a dozen armed warriors surrounding an individual man painted with red and white stripes. They hustled him towards the temple and up to the steps of the platform. This took some time as his gait was erratic and Blue realised he was drugged. The suspicion that he was also under the influence of some exotic intoxicant grew in his mind.
As the procession climbed the steps Andra and the priests began to chant, the conches sounded and the drumming intensified. The crowd began to chant, low and slow, building to a great crescendo when the ‘prisoner’ reached the platform. The man was forced into a kneeling position and scented oil poured over him before he was given a dark liquid a crystal goblet. He drank it greedily and Blue saw his pupils dilate until he was barely aware of his situation.
The senior priests began to drag sharp needles through their tongues, earlobes and arms, the blood splattering their robes and onto the floor. Dona Andra sliced into her arm, allowing the blood to trickle down her hand and drip into the bowl held by the recumbent statue.
Then Andra stepped aside as two men dragged the prisoner to the ceremonial statue. All of the priests had come to the pyramid now and were chanting and swaying back and forth in a ritual dance. Then five of them, dressed in white robes that made them stand out from the others, seized the man and, holding his arms, legs and head, slung him along the statue so that his back was arched and his chest was stretched taut. The Head Priest stepped forward, his arm raised high above his head and with a cry, plunged the obsidian knife he was holding down into the flesh, separating the ribs and slicing through the major blood vessels in one swift curve. He plunged his hand into the cavity and lifted out the convulsing heart, from which the blood was still spurting, splattering his arm, face and hair. He raised it high as the crowd gave a heavy sigh, and then displayed it to Blue, bowing, before he placed it in the great bowl.
His acolytes stepped forward to drain the blood from the chest cavity into gilded bowls, which they poured onto the statue and into the bowl.
Hidden behind the impassive gold mask, Blue was quaking and gasping in revulsion, and when Andra moved to his side it was all he could do not to strike her down.
Oblivious to his distress she said: “Huitzilopochtli, dear Lord and Master, accept the devoted service of your people. Thus we ensure with the souls of our sacrifices that your strength surges forth and defeats the forces of darkness, returning the sun to the sky to warm the earth.”
The priests threw the carcass down the steps of the pyramid, and the crowd surged forward to drag it into the clearing.
In a state of profound shock Blue sat in the sanctuary, divested of his gold mask, but still wrapped in the cape in an attempt to hide his uncontrollable shaking. The images of what had happened continued to replay in his mind, whether his eyes were open or closed. After the ‘sacrifice’, while his heart had been burnt in the bowl of the bloody statue, the man’s body had been flayed and dismembered by the priests and distributed amongst the crowd. The slices of the victim’s body were to be consumed along with the other food already prepared.
On the platform there had been a further period of blood-letting. The senior priests and Doña Andra passed barbed cords through their pierced tongues and ears, while men of lesser importance cut their arms and dripped the blood into the ceremonial bowl. The place had reeked with the smell of blood and a huge swarm of flies had descended around them.
Blue felt sick and disgusted by the whole episode. Throughout his life he had believed that every society and individual should be free to worship whatever god they believed in, in whatever way they felt appropriate, but this was beyond the pale. Even so, he acknowledged that nobody seemed unwilling to participate and there was no overt coercion, but it revolted his cultured sensibilities none the less.
He had struggled not to throw up when the charred heart of the victim was presented to him on a plate, obviously intended as part of his meal. Thankful that there was no way he could eat through the golden mask, he was relieved when Doña Andra had explained that, as usual, his food would be left before his votive statue in the sanctuary to sustain him in his forthcoming battle with the forces of darkness. He had pushed the offending plate as far away from him as possible when he had been allowed to return to the room and take up his present position alongside Captain Scarlet.
Outside the sun had set with a suddenness that surprised him, and the clearing was pitch dark. The only light was from the flames of the fires burning in the stone braziers at the corners of the platform. Every so often he heard the murmur of voices belonging to the men tasked with tending those fires through the night and the regular mournful bleat of a conch shell, as it they were marking the passage of the time.
“God, I’m hungry.”
“Paul! Thank heaven!”
Captain Scarlet sat up, rubbing his back and stretching. “You might’ve found somewhere a bit more comfortable; I ache to buggery.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Blue replied, handing his friend the water bottle he had been nursing in the darkness.
“Where are we? What’s happened to the lights?” Scarlet asked, in between swigs of water.
In a low voice, Blue quickly explained all that had happened since Scarlet had been injured in the oil refinery explosion.
“Let me get this straight: we crashed and some lost tribe of Incas -”
“- natives, think you are the personification of a long-expected god, dropped from the sky.”
“So, in order to honour you, they have sliced, diced and eaten some poor soul and in the morning they expect you to have defeated the forces of darkness – whatever they might be?”
“Right. When can we leave?”
“We can’t: the plane’s a write-off and I have no idea where we are or which direction we need to go to reach civilisation. The instruments were on the blink and we were well off-course before the crash, so I doubt that Cloudbase knows where we are either. I hoped we’d be able to make some sort of beacon to attract their attention and they’d come and get us, but I haven’t even had a chance yet to look at the components I salvaged to see if they’re working, or if we’ll be able to cobble something together from them.”
“Great. Well, unless we have a torch we can’t do anything until daylight now anyway,” Scarlet reasoned. Even in the dark he could sense Blue’s anxious disquiet and knowing just how pragmatic his partner was, he was alarmed and knew he would have to take their decisions for a while until the American had regained his equilibrium. He emptied the water bottle. “Is there any food that wasn’t part of a human sacrifice, by any chance?”
“There was some, a sort of vegetable mush, it’s in the middle of the room.”
Scarlet peered into the gloom and from the glow of the fires outside, could just make out the collection of plates and bowls. He crawled forward and dipped a finger into one of them, licking the paste-like food from it. “It isn’t cordon-bleu, but it’ll do.” He scooped it into his mouth.
As he swallowed he looked up and noticed for the first time, the crouching figure of Tezalco, still huddled in the corner.
“Blue,” he said, “who’s your lady-friend?”
“Oh, hell – I’d forgotten about her.”
“Understandable in the circumstances. Who is she?”
“Her name’s Tezalco; she’s a minor priestess, as far as I understand it. She got herself into trouble when she was rash enough to touch me without permission. I’m supposed to be punishing her for her presumption.”
“She certainly looks scared to death,” Scarlet remarked. He smiled at the young woman and pushed one of the bowls of food towards her. “Eat something,” he encouraged her.
She stared at him, her eyes wide with terror, so he smiled again and nudged the bowl a little closer to her.
“Eat,” he said. “Eh… come esto.”
She grabbed the bowl and hungrily scooped the food into her mouth, her eyes never leaving his face, which was illuminated by the distance glow of the braziers.
“She doesn’t understand,” Blue explained, “in fact, only Doña Andra speaks Spanish, of a kind. The rest of them speak… Nahuatl or a variation on it, I think.”
“My Spanish is pretty basic,” Scarlet confessed, “and my Nahuatl non-existent. Like most Englishmen I firmly believe I can make myself understood anywhere by talking loudly and slowly in a mix of pidgin-English and a kind of Esperanto: S'il vous plaît, mine herr, muchas gracias …” He heard Blue chuckle.
“Gracias mi Señor,” Tezalco said quietly.
“Blue, did you hear that? She spoke Spanish,” Scarlet said.
Blue crawled over to Scarlet’s side and looked at the woman huddled in the corner.
“¿Hablas español?” he asked in surprise. She nodded. “¿Por qué no lo dijiste?,” he asked.
“Está prohibido hablar el idioma de los dioses,” she explained fearfully, sinking back against the wall.
“What was that about? It’s beyond my holiday Spanish,” Scarlet asked and Blue translated for him:
“She didn’t tell me she could speak Spanish because it is forbidden to speak the language of the Gods. But look,” he asked her gently, “if it is forbidden, how do you know it?”
It took Tezalco several minutes to summon the courage to reply, but eventually she said: “My Lord, Tlacaelel, many years Totec Tlamacacazqui, the most important priest of your temple and Great Speaker of the people, was my father. Privately, he taught me, his only child, the legends of your greatness and the language of your temple. When Tlacaelel died, his brother, the father of Doña Andra, became the high priest and Great Speaker. He feared his power would be challenged by others as worthy and so he removed many of the priests who knew the sacred language. On his death, his son, Cuitlalpitoc, took his place. Within several moons of his taking the roles, it pleased you to take Cuitlalpitoc to your sacred retinue, and, as none of the other priests had the confidence of the Ocelot Warriors, they convinced the High Council to appoint Andra, the high priestess of Chalchihuitlicue, as Great Speaker after him, as she knew the sacred language from her father and brother. Of course, she has no role in your temple, Lord, but Ixtlilxochitl, who is now Totec Tlamacacazqui, is in her power and the other priests obey him. I too served Lady Precious Green alongside Andra, until she gave me into the divine service of Lady Chantico and made her devoted follower the priestess of Chalchihuitlicue in my place. Our sacrifices are of the flowers and the fruits and therefore, such as we are not allowed to speak the sacred language of the blood sacrifices which are used for your worship, Lord.”
“Sounds like a straightforward palace coup,” said Scarlet, when Blue had translated the bare facts of the story to him. Blue nodded in agreement.
Tezalco continued, “Andra suspects I know the sacred language and she will have me killed if you tell her I can speak it. To disobey her is death. I beg your forgiveness and ask your protection, Lord!”
“Don’t be frightened, Tezalco, I told you I’m not going to hurt you or let Doña Andra hurt you either,” he reassured her and then translated for Scarlet’s benefit.
“What I don’t understand,” Scarlet said, “is why the language of the gods is Spanish – the language of the conquistadors.”
Tezalco looked confused by this line of questioning, but it was obvious that she accepted Blue’s right to ask. She answered like a child reciting a catechism: “Lord, you remember when the ugly ones came from the east with Cortes-Malintzin, he unleashed great destruction and death amongst the people. Yet not all were chastised, for you sent Papa Bartolomo to the people of this land, who through generations have been devoted to your service and have dedicated their blood and sacrifice to none but the worship of Lord Blue Hummingbird. At your bidding he preserved this valley where we continue to worship as our forefathers did. Great is the glory of Lord Huitzilopochtli!”
She covered her eyes with her hands. When she removed them, she added, “In those days only the highest nobles and holiest of the priests spoke to Papa Bartolomo, and they learnt the sacred language you had given him. So it has remained from that day forward, in honour of your preservation of your chosen people.”
“Presumably a priest with a conscience, who baulked at the genocide that was going on around him,” Scarlet remarked, after Blue had translated.
Blue nodded. “There were a few – a very few – if I remember my history lessons right.”
“So, we can safely assume that everyone believes you are Wheat…Hewit-silly-pocktea…”
“Huitzilopochtli.” Blue supplied the name with a pitying roll of his eyes. He didn’t doubt for a moment that Scarlet could pronounce the name.
“Gesundheit,” Scarlet said, adding, “I’ll stick to Blue Hummingbird, if that’s okay with you? It must’ve been your Spectrum uniform that convinced them.” He grinned.
“Well, when they first saw me I had your radio cap and tunic over mine and a canvas stretcher wrapped round my waist as well as a bright purple haversack on my back,” Blue confessed. “I must’ve looked like a very badly dressed deity.”
“Or maybe they thought it was some new divine boho-chic,” Scarlet reasoned, adding, “You know, I have a vague recollection that the Aztecs assumed the conquistadors were something to do with their gods because one was supposed to be fair and blue-eyed. If that’s right, you’d be a shoe-in.”
“It rings a bell,” Blue agreed.
“Question is: who do they think I am?” said Scarlet.
Blue asked Tezalco.
“Some say he is the Precious Twin, the Lord Quetzalcoatl.”
“Why do they think that?”
“Quetzalcoatl is pale of face and he wears dark garments, Lord.”
“And who do the others think he is?”
“Xolotal, the Evil Twin, Lord.”
“Why do they think he might be Xolotal, Tezalco?”
“The ugly ones had black hair on their faces, Lord,” she replied, eyeing the three-days’ growth of beard on Scarlet’s pale face.
Scarlet had to agree he qualified under either description, but he asked, “Why’s he called the Precious Twin? It sounds a bit fey to me.”
Tezalco smiled at Blue’s question, assuming they were testing her knowledge and piety. “Quetzalcoatl, Lord of the Air, manifests as the morning star, who heralds the dawn approach of Tezcatlipoca, Blue Hummingbird.” She gazed up at Captain Blue. “He ascends with the sun in suffering and sacrifice to noonday, thence, in the magnificent form of Huitzilopochtli, Lord of the Earth, he traverses the heavens ensuring the well-being of his people and bringing great victory to our warriors.”
“And Xolotal?” Blue asked.
“Xolotal, Quetzalcoatl’s Evil Twin, manifests as the Evening Star and seeks to prevent the sun from travelling under the disc of the earth to rise again in the east. Huitzilopochtli escorts the sun on its journey and fights Xolotal, to bring us a new sunrise.”
“I get the impression these gods are all schizophrenics,” Scarlet muttered, “but at least, if we’re revered there shouldn’t be any question of them trying to hurt us.”
“Unless and until they realise we’re frauds and we don’t intend to stay,” Blue suggested. “I wouldn’t trust to Doña Andra’s continuing goodwill if we fail to deliver whatever she considers to be our side of the bargain.”
Scarlet exhaled and stood to stretch his cramped limbs. “It’s starting to get light, Adam,” he said. “Maybe we better hope and pray the sun rises on cue this morning…”
Outside came the haunting cry of the conch shells and the rhythmic thud of the drums.
Tezalco looked worried. “It is the ceremony of the morning sacrifice,” she said. “Doña Andra will come, Lord.”
“Morning sacrifice?” Blue repeated. “You mean another one like last night?”
She nodded. “The souls must ascend to the heavens and assist Tezcatlipoca pushing the sun into the sky.”
“Not this morning,” Blue said with determination. He glanced at Scarlet. “Come on, Paul; this morning you and I are going to make the sun rise without anybody needing to die.”
“I’m right with you on that. Lead on, Birdy, old friend.”
The priests were making their way up the steps as Blue and Scarlet emerged from the sanctuary. There were fewer people in the clearing this morning, but still a good number and Doña Andra’s retinue was arriving, heralding her approach. The priests covered their eyes and bowed towards the officers, but continued their procession. Four of them carried two large wicker baskets between them, from which fluttering and cheeps could be heard.
“That’s the same guys as last night?” Scarlet asked.
“Yes; and they don’t look any more benevolent this morning.”
“What’s with the dreadlocks?”
“I don’t know, but they can’t ever wash it – it stinks of blood.”
Scarlet glanced at his friend for the first time in daylight and frowned. “You have the mother of all black eyes and a bruise from brow to jaw on the left hand side of your face. Are you okay?”
Blue gave a grimace, gingerly. “Yeah, it’s just a bruise; at least, I don’t think anything’s broken. I’m sure I’d know by now if it was. I took some painkillers from the First Aid Box and it’s okay now. It only hurts when I laugh.”
“I shall be sober and serious then,” Scarlet assured him. “Levity will be a thing of the past.” He added, “Mind you, I presume the yellow blusher was their idea? Although it shows the bruises off a treat.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” Blue pleaded, with a lop-sided grin.
“You could start a whole new fashion trend.”
Scarlet grinned apologetically. “How did you acquire the yellow streaks, Adam?”
“They painted me last night before the ceremony, heaven knows what with.” He held up one hand to display the design on it. “Thankfully no one tried to pierce my ears or my nose. They’d have felt my divine right hook if they had.”
“The wrath of God indeed,” remarked Scarlet, who had personal experience of that powerful right hook. “Still, I can’t see the colonel accepting nose plugs and earrings as part of your cultural identity, however divine.”
The procession had reached the platform.
“I can’t see a sacrificial victim,” Blue remarked, “which is an improvement.”
The priests prepared themselves for the ceremony, dancing and chanting as incense was sprinkled on the dying embers of the fires. The familiar smell wafted towards them.
“I think it’s some kind of intoxicant,” Blue remarked, “I reckon just about everyone was high last night.”
“More than likely; I certainly felt… disassociated from it all, but then, you know I get claustrophobia, and after hours in that sanctuary, wearing that mask was enough to set me off.”
Scarlet nodded and sniffed. “Well, even if it’s supposed to make everyone compliant, it probably won’t work on me,” he remarked.
Doña Andra arrived and bowed to Blue.
“Lord, I rejoice to see you amongst us as the day begins.” She studied Captain Scarlet. “As you foretold, the Lord Quetzalcoatl has returned to greet the dawn.” She bowed to Scarlet and raised her arms to the sky, in the direction of the planet Venus, just visible above the tree tops. “Great is the power of Lord Huitzilopochtli, Prince of this Earth, Lord of the Sun, Divine Warrior.”
“Amen to all that,” Scarlet muttered, with a wry glance at the embarrassed Captain Blue.
Andra continued, “With your permission, we will begin the ceremony immediately.” Captain Blue nodded and she turned and spoke to the priests.
Conch shells sounded and a rhythmical drumming began. With a bow to the officers, Andra went into the sanctuary.
“If all they’re going to do is chant and dance, we shouldn’t interfere,” Scarlet suggested.
Blue agreed. “I hope this ceremony goes smoothly.”
Scarlet concluded, “And ends in a vegetarian option breakfast…”
The priests carried one of the baskets across to the recumbent statue. The high priest plunged his hand in and drew out a small, rotund bird, with shining plumage. In a single stroke he slashed the creature in half and scooped out the tiny, fluttering heart and dropped it into the stone bowl.
“What the hell…” Scarlet gasped, as other priests started to do the same. Within minutes there was a sickening pile of dead birds and the platform was sodden with blood.
“I don’t like this one bit even if it isn’t a person,” Scarlet snapped and sprang forward. He pushed one of the priests aside and kicked the basket over. There was a flurry of frightened birds; those able to quickly took wing and headed for the trees, but some were too dazed, or had clipped wings and they were left hopping about in the blood, chirping in terror.
Blue moved to lift the lid off the other basket, flung it over the parapet and then tipped the basket over to make sure every bird could escape. Three men were trying to scoop up as many of the escapees as possible. “Leave them alone!” he shouted in Spanish, darting towards them. They backed away in fear.
The crowd, alarmed by the disruption they were witnessing, began to yell and shout. Two of the priests grabbed Scarlet by his arms, and began dragging him towards the High Priest, who was still standing at the sacred stone. However, they were obviously used to compliant, drugged victims and were easily overwhelmed. As their prisoner broke free, they were startled to find themselves facing a determined and very capable foe.
“Come and get me…” Scarlet taunted them, beckoning to them with his fingers, while he crouched in attack mode.
Blue turned to Doña Andra, who had come rushing out of the sanctuary once the noise caused by the disruption had reached her. Pointing at her, he yelled angrily, “I order you to stop this!” At that moment, in the direction of his pointing finger, the sun rose above the horizon, flooding the clearing with bright light. The priests stared open-mouthed and one by one fell to their knees, covering their eyes with both hands. In the clearing the crowd cheered with relief, and dropped to their knees, covering their eyes and placing one hand palm-down on the ground as the conch shells blew their mournful tribute to the newly risen god.
Straightening up, Scarlet glanced at Blue and said dryly, “Nice going, but I bet you couldn’t do it again.”
With a smirk, Blue examined the end of his index finger and replied, “Maybe there is something in this after all?”
But their self-congratulatory complacency was short-lived, as Doña Andra was furious.
“My Lord,” she railed, barely attempting to disguise her anger, “I understand your wish to reward your people with a demonstration of your great power, but the peasants do not understand and deviation from the accepted ceremonies causes fear. For centuries our forefathers have followed the sacred rituals you laid down to ensure the well-being of the world and all the life in it. I beg you, do not disrupt them again.”
The High Priest, who finally seemed to have recovered from his shock, spoke and although they could not understand what he was saying, they were left in no doubt that he was as angry as Doña Andra.
Blue heard him out for a while and then, drawing himself up to his considerable height so that he towered over the man and Andra, interrupted him:
“Do not you presume to instruct me in the necessary rituals.” He indicated Captain Scarlet and continued, “Lord Quetzalcoatl has as much right as I do to object to or amend the rituals, so that they are pleasing in our sight. The sun came up and all’s right with the world. Never mention it again.”
He turned on his heel and, with a slight nod towards Scarlet, led the way back into the sanctuary. Without looking at the Aztecs, Scarlet marched after him with rigid military bearing.
Once inside, Blue relaxed, exhaled and ran his fingers through his fair hair. “I think we’ve upset the apple cart good and proper, Paul.”
“What on earth did you say to them?” Scarlet asked, and after Blue had told him, he added, “Well, it certainly took the wind out of their sails. However,” he continued, peering out through the entrance, “I still don’t think they’re very pleased with us. I’m sorry, Adam, but the thought that they intended to slaughter all those innocent little birds was just too awful. I know it could be argued that it was better the birds than another human being, but the best state of affairs would’ve involved no killing at all.”
“Oh, I agree, but I don’t suppose they’ll stop doing it just because of what happened today.” He smiled and stooped to pick up one confused bird that had hopped into the sanctuary in search of safety. “Don’t worry, little fella, I’ll see that you make it back to the jungle okay.”
Tezalco had gathered three more of the birds into her cape, and Blue deposited his captive with her. “Keep an eye on them and don’t let anyone hurt them,” he instructed her.
“Yes, Lord.” She was frowning and after a moment asked hesitantly, “Did the sacrifice of the quail not please you?”
“Killing something to eat it is one thing,” Blue explained, “killing for no good purpose does not please me.”
“But the purpose is to ensure the sun returns to the earth, Lord; is that not the best purpose?”
She asked the question with the genuine concern of someone seeking for the truth in order to understand a puzzling situation, and Blue realised that trying to explain would be a long, and probably pointless, task; she and all of her people were so deeply entrenched in their culture and religious beliefs that a different set of moral values was beyond their comprehension.
“While I am here with you,” he said, “there’s no need for the sacrifices. You can see that I – and Lord Quetzalcoatl – are strong and healthy enough to keep the sun rising.”
“You will not leave us again, Lord?” Tezalco cried in alarm, reaching out towards them both.
“We cannot stay here for ever,” Blue said, trying to calm her fears, “and we can see that you are all able to cope very well without us.”
She continued to question and plead with Blue, so Scarlet unable to follow the conversation in any detail, occupied himself by starting to check over the salvaged aircraft parts.
He had slipped his red tunic and radio cap back on and now he looked up and called to Blue: “I think there’s some life left in my comms links, Adam. We should try outside, we might be lucky enough to be in range of a communication satellite. If not, there must be some parts amongst this lot that we can use to boost the signal. You can bet your life Cloudbase will be deep scanning all known frequencies for anomalies, so we shouldn’t need to make it too powerful…”
“That’s good; mine shorted out when the lightning struck the plane.” Blue picked up his tunic and radio cap and crouched down beside Scarlet.
The pair became so involved in testing the equipment and considering ways to improve the weak response that neither of them noticed Tezalco slip from the sanctuary. Consequently, they were surprised when Doña Andra came to the entrance with several heavily armed warriors and all of the priests behind her.
With an anxious glance at Scarlet, Blue got to his feet. “What is it?” he asked. “I’m busy.”
“Lord,” Doña Andra said politely enough, although without her usual gesture of deference, “We believe your companion is not Lord Quetzalcoatl, but the Evil Twin.”
“Nonsense,” Blue replied, gesturing for Scarlet to get to his feet. “I know who he is. Do you doubt my word?”
“No, Lord; but we know that Xolotal is capable of great wickedness in his never-ending quest to destroy the Sun God. We believe that he has tricked you and plans to lead you away from us. This would place the sun in danger and we cannot allow that.”
It was only then that Blue glanced towards Tezalco’s corner and realised she had gone.
“What nonsense,” he told Andra. “When I leave it will be because I decide it.”
“Then you are planning to leave, Lord?” she snapped back.
“I will come and go as I please,” Blue replied sharply.
Sensing the conflict in the conversation, Scarlet came to stand beside his field partner. Quietly and without taking his eyes from Doña Andra and her party, Blue explained to him: “Tezalco’s told them we plan to leave. Andra’s not pleased; she’s calling you the evil twin.”
“They already don’t like me much,” Scarlet muttered back, “so any excuse’d do to have a go at me.”
The warriors standing at Andra’s shoulders carried heavy wooden clubs embedded with obsidian blades. Scarlet moved a few paces away from Blue, the better to defend himself. It was likely that he’d be the main target of any attack, but if Blue came to his aid, he suspected they’d both be attacked. He also had no doubt that however primitive the military hardware looked, in the hands of an expert it was deadly – and he did not underestimate the skill of these warriors.
He patted his holster and felt the reassuring pressure of his Spectrum pistol.
One blow from one of those and you’d be lucky to still be conscious, never mind able to defend yourself, he reasoned. I really don’t want to open fire on them, but we may have no choice in the end… it could be them or us. We need to get out of this room, our chances are better in the open.
Captain Blue had reached the same conclusion and he strode towards the exit, forcing Andra and her group to move away. They were still too much in awe of him to impede his progress or openly defy his orders. Scarlet marched close behind him, to prevent any chance of their being cut off from each other.
The fact that Blue was wearing his tunic and radio cap seemed to impress the assembled warriors and priests, whose skin was tinted various shades of blue, presumably in homage to their god. Several of the priests shielded their eyes and one of them sank to the ground to place his hand palm down. The warriors backed off, although they were still clutching their clubs and could attack at any moment. Doña Andra alone stood her ground.
“Lord,” she said, “your people are concerned. Long have we waited for your return and we honour you in our hearts and souls. This devotion makes us concerned for your well-being – great though we know your powers are, we fear the evil intent of Xolotal. It was he who disrupted the morning ceremony and makes you speak of leaving us.”
“There is no danger to me – or to you – from Lord Quetzalcoatl. You must accept my word on this. To offer him any disrespect is to offer it to me and I will not be pleased by such behaviour.”
“Lord, while the sun remains newly-reborn in the sky we fear for you. As the sun climbs to the midday, we know how mighty you will become. Xolotal is weak while the sun is bright, yet we know his strength and powers will increase with the approach of the darkness, as surely as yours will fade. Surely, Lord, you would not deny us the reassurance of protecting you from any possible assault?”
Her failure to accept his word without question concerned Blue. She was beginning to doubt him and once again he regretted that he knew so little of the mythology surrounding Huitzilopochtli. “How do you propose to do that?” he asked.
“Through our blood sacrifice, Lord; your priests and devotees wish to honour you by their own sacrifice in the time honoured way,” she replied.
Blue frowned and said, “I wish my time here to be a celebration of life and… increase. My strength, combined with that of Lord Quetzalcoatl is enough to protect the sun and ensure its safe journey through the hours of darkness to another dawn. Xolotal cannot overcome us both. There is no need for further sacrifices.”
Doña Andra’s expression remained doubtful and he saw a flash of anger in her dark eyes. She inclined her head and continued, “As you say, Lord, but you will understand our wish to place Xolotal in confinement from sunset until the sun rises again.”
“I won’t agree to the confinement of my companion. There’s no need, Doña Andra, I have told you. Do you dare to doubt my word?”
“With respect, Lord, I ask you to consider the concerns of the people. Fear amongst them is easily engendered and hard to overcome.”
“There is no need for fear! Tell them so; the sun will rise tomorrow without any sacrifices today.” He could see disapproval in her stubborn expression. He recalled Tezalco’s remarks about sacrifices of flowers and fruit to the goddess she served and in an effort to win Andra over, he continued, “There are ceremonies for well-being and… plenty. I command that you perform one of those. That will satisfy the people, surely?”
“If that is what My Lord commands.”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Then I will arrange the performance of the ceremony in honour of Lady Xilonen, to ensure the health of the ripening corn and success in the coming harvest.”
“Yes, do that.”
Andra bowed and backed away. She hurried to the High Priest and they had a short, but intense, conversation. Glancing across at Blue several times he nodded and, with a bow towards Blue, left the platform. Without acknowledging Blue, Andra descended the pyramid steps and followed by her retinue walked away across the clearing.
Scarlet came alongside and Blue briefed him on the conversation. “They want to lock me up? Somehow, I find it hard to imagine she’s given up on the idea even if she’s saying she’ll do what you say,” he said to Blue. “I’m going to keep my pistol with me, Adam. I don’t want to fire on them, but I will if I have to.”
“Yes; I understand.” Blue tapped the holster at his side. “I feel better with my gun to hand.” He sighed. “I wish we could get the comms working and then I’d at least feel as if we stand a chance of being rescued, before this all goes pear-shaped.”
“You think it will?”
Blue nodded. “Andra’s having second thoughts about my identity; I don’t conform to her expectations, not that I would want to even if I knew for sure what they were. Besides, she’s one tough woman and I can’t see her letting even a real god come between her and her control of this community. Tezalco’s scared of her and I’m beginning to understand why.”
“Yet Tezalco must’ve run straight to her with the news that we plan to leave,” Scarlet reminded him. “That doesn’t win many brownie points in my book. I thought she liked us.”
“I think she does; but how would you feel if the people you felt were protecting you from the wrath of someone like Andra, told you they were planning to go as soon as they could, leaving you to face the music?”
“Hmm,” Scarlet’s reply was non-committal. “I see your point.”
“Let’s get the equipment and take it out on the platform,” Blue suggested. “I don’t want anyone thinking we’re skulking in here out of fear.”
“Yeah, that’ll make it easier to see what we’re doing and check for communication satellite coverage,” Scarlet agreed. “Mind you,” he remarked as they gathered all their belongings onto one of the rush mats, “it’s going to be messy out there.”
Scarlet and Blue spent the rest of the morning out on the platform, working to improve the comms link in Scarlet’s uniform. Nobody came close to them until a young girl was sent with a basket of food at about midday. They took a break and ate the flatbreads and the fruit, although neither felt prepared to risk eating the pots of stewed meat that comprised the main dish, or drinking the local ale, which smelt extremely unappetising. Even Captain Scarlet, who was virtually immune to the effects of alcohol, however potent, drew the line at this brew.
As the afternoon wore on, they noticed signs of preparations for a ceremony.
Blue explained to Scarlet, “I told Andra she could have a ceremony for ‘well-being and plenty’; I thought it would pacify her and Tezalco had said that’s done with fruit and flowers.”
“Let’s hope she’s satisfied with that, then,” Scarlet said, putting down the battery he was working on and looking up at the clear sky. “Let’s try this again and see if we can make a connection to a comms satellite.”
Blue nodded and they continued with their experiments, while the preparations went on around them.
The afternoon was well advanced when Doña Andra came to the temple. She bowed and shielded her eyes as she approached Captain Blue, but he suspected she was still not happy with him or his orders.
“My Lord,” she said, “Would it please you to make ready for the ceremony?”
Scarlet nodded to Blue. “I’ll finish this; you better play along with her.”
“I think you ought to be dressed up to,” Blue said, getting to his feet and stretching. “We don’t want them thinking you’re not willing to participate; that’d only give credence to the Evil Twin theory.”
Scarlet pulled a face, but agreed that his friend had a point. “I’ll set this going for as long as the battery lasts, anyway; and follow you in,” he agreed.
The clearing was packed with people and the drums, flutes and cymbals were creating a cacophony of noise. Every priest was dressed in full regalia and the ocelot warriors were out in force, each armed with a spear and a wooden club.
Scarlet peered from the doorway of the sanctuary and reported back.
“Looks like it’s a grand affair. Perhaps they get tired of blood and guts too and appreciate a few flowers?”
Blue’s voice was muffled by the golden mask. “I hope so. I don’t think I can face more bloodletting.”
“The sun’ll be setting very soon; I expect the ceremony is about to happen.”
Blue came to join him. “Now I know how the Man in the Iron Mask felt,” he complained. “This thing weighs a ton and I can hardly see a thing.”
“You look very impressive though,” Scarlet reassured him. “Positively divine, if I may say so.”
“Drop dead, Paul,” Blue replied, although without rancour. Despite their tendency to bicker there was rarely any animosity between them and they remained close and loyal friends.
Scarlet laughed. “The priests are coming in procession. Look, one of them is carrying a woman on his back… What do you think that’s about?”
“It must be a sign of her importance. Is it Andra?”
“I can’t tell; she’s all tarted up with more bling than even you’ve got.”
When the procession reached the platform, several of the priests came forward to usher Blue out from the sanctuary. The crowd cheered and the noise increased, fires burned in braziers around the clearing and the air was thick with the now familiar intoxicating scent of the incense. The rhythmic beat of the drums and the blaring of the horns and pipes added to the air of anticipation and even Scarlet, so often impervious to stimulants and drugs, began to experience sensory overload.
Scarlet moved to stand a little way behind his partner. He was wearing a feathered cape over his black Spectrum uniform and a headdress of blue and scarlet feathers. Red and white paint had been daubed on his face and hands by one of the priests, but he had no mask, nor was he given a ceremonial club and spear such as Blue carried. Tucked into the waistband of the leather, jewel-studded skirt that had been fastened around his waist, was his Spectrum pistol; he could not trust the Aztecs nor give them the benefit of the doubt as readily as Blue did.
Blue was quickly surrounded by dancing priests and women strewing flowers and chanting in high-pitched, nasal voices. He was swept across the platform by the flow of the crowd and, although he tried, Scarlet couldn’t follow because a line of Ocelot Warriors, also chanting and swaying as part of the ceremony, formed a barrier between him and Blue.
Instinct told Scarlet that this was no accident and that something more than the obvious was going on. He hoped Blue was alert to the situation but, he increasingly suspected that the paint used to decorate their bodies contained some kind of narcotic; even he had experienced a deadening of his senses for a minute or two after it had been applied, although his retrometabolism had made short work of it. He knew the effect would last far longer for his field partner and that protecting them both would be down to him.
The priest carrying the woman on his back reached the platform. Her head was resting on his shoulder, her face hidden by the fall of her long, black hair, decorated with a garland of beautiful yellow flowers. The cape she wore which covered her body and fell almost to the ground, was richly decorated with green and yellow beadwork, feathers, jewels and real flowers.
The excitement of the revellers on the platform increased noticeably as the newcomer joined in the dancing. Given his burden he capered less nimbly than the other priests who surrounded him, but Scarlet noticed that through it all the woman remained immobile, even during his most energetic jigging about.
She’s drugged, he concluded, and a fresh concern about the nature of the ceremony began to stir in his mind. Why would they need to drug someone who was merely going to sacrifice flowers?
He made a move towards Blue, but the line of Ocelot Warriors moved between them like a well-drilled troupe of ballroom dancers. The hairs on the back of Scarlet’s neck rose. He called out to Blue but his voice was lost in the surrounding cacophony. Suspicious and now hyper-alert for any threat to his friend or himself, Scarlet watched and waited, prepared to strike with force, if – and when – necessary.
There was a new wave of excitement in the crowd as a new procession appeared through the trees. Seated on a wickerwork chair, Doña Andra was carried up to the platform by Ocelot Warriors. She was wearing a mask made of semi-precious and crystal mosaic tiles. Her hair was completed covered by a beaded cloth and strips of yellow and green braid formed a fringe around her neck. Her arms were bare, patterned in body paint and already splattered with beads of blood from the numerous sharp spines and needles pushed through the skin.
A second wicker chair, higher and more elaborately decorated, was set beside hers on the platform and Blue was led to it by deferential men. The male dancers performed in front of them, while the young women scattering flowers around them and threw them into the air. The drumming grew even more insistent and the hitherto tinkling cymbals took on an altogether more martial tone.
The line of Ocelot Warriors retreated from the thrones, pushing Scarlet closer to the High Priest and the swirling figure of the man carrying the drugged woman.
The dancer now moved in circles, each one bringing him nearer to the High Priest. Suddenly the music stopped completely and in the eerie silence he dropped to his knees.
Scarlet saw the High Priest grab a handful of the woman’s dark hair and raise her head from the shoulder, exposing her face. Despite the face paint and decoration, he recognised her immediately.
Blue jumped to his feet as he realised what was going to happen but his outraged scream of “No!” was lost in the renewed drumming and chanting. The priests and warriors around the throne forced him back into his seat.
Scarlet also leapt forwards, but the Ocelot Warriors now formed a defensive circle around him and any attempt of his to break out was met with the brandishing of those fearful obsidian clubs.
The Spectrum officers watched helplessly as, with a broad downwards sweep of his arm, the High Priest slashed Tezalco’s throat with a long bladed knife. Thick blood gushed out, coating the dancer, the statue and the platform. The High Priest continued to slice through the sinews, blood vessels and bones of her neck until he could lift her head clear away. He held it aloft by the long dark hair and the crowd below the pyramid roared their approval as the blood drained out in a thick stream.
“Damn you,” Blue raged at Doña Andra, “I told you there was to be no bloodshed!”
“Lord,” she replied with frosty distain, “You told me to perform the ceremony honouring Lady Xilonen. Tezalco was proud and honoured to be chosen as the sacrificial offering. She will now ascend to the Goddess’ retinue and be cherished in her service. Lord Huitzilopochtli would know this. You give me cause to doubt you, Lord, if such you are, by this disapproval.”
“What do you mean, ‘if such I am’?” Blue demanded. “You yourself named me before the people.”
Doña Andra replied, “It is known that the Evil Twin is capable of great trickery. I believe that he” – she pointed at Scarlet – “is Xolotal and that you are a false god sent by him to prevent us from carrying out the rituals that ensure the sun’s survival. You are a heretic and you will both be sacrificed to the Lord Huitzilopochtli!”
She rose to her feet and spoke to the assembled people, no doubt repeating what she had explained to Blue. As she finished, there was a roar of anger from the crowd and as two Ocelot Warriors secured Scarlet by the arms, two priests grabbed Blue, while a third removed his headdress and the golden mask.
The two officers were dragged towards the sacrificial stone, where the High Priest stood waiting, Tezalco’s blood still dripping down his arm to drip onto the stone statue. Side by side while the preliminary rituals were performed, Scarlet turned to his companion, seeing with relief, that Blue was fully alert.
He urged his companion:
“Speak to them! You must speak to them and convince them that Andra is wrong. Make a deal. Let them sacrifice me and tell them you will prove yourself the real god by bringing me back to life!”
“I can’t do that!”
“Idiot – of course you can! What use is my retrometabolism if I can’t use it to prevent the deaths of my friends?”
“Paul! It’s too dangerous.”
“Too dangerous? Than what? Being sliced and diced by the Aztecs? I don’t think so. Do it now, Adam, before it’s too late!”
“Will retrometabolism work if they cut your heart out?” Blue demanded, going straight to the root of his reluctance.
Scarlet shrugged. “I don’t know; but I do know that if they cut your heart out, there’s absolutely nothing anybody can do to bring you back! “You’ve only got the one life. Thanks to the Mysterons, for better or for worse, I’ve got many.” This way, whatever the final outcome, it gains us time – time for Spectrum to find us. So I‘m ordering you, Captain Blue, make the offer.”
Knowing they had no time to argue, Blue muttered, “Under protest.”
He broke free from the priests’ grasp and pushed them aside. Striding towards Andra, he yelled:
“Doña Andra, hear me! You have dared to doubt my identity and would seek to test me even though you have already witnessed my power to restore life. Well, you shall have your way! Sacrifice Lord Quetzalcoatl and I swear to you within two sunrises I will have restored him to life! If I do not, then you will have proven me a false god and may sacrifice me as well!”
She hesitated a moment before replying: “What trickery is this?”
“No trickery. Quetzalcoatl knows who I am and if you are so lacking in faith that you doubt us, he will submit, secure in the knowledge of my power to restore him. Consider,” he continued as he saw doubt in her expression, “if I fail, then my life is forfeit to you and the people will see you have proven your assertion that I am a false god. They will have faith in your leadership. If I do not fail, you – and they - will know that I am Huitzilopochtli. If you kill us both now and you are wrong, then on my honour, the death and disaster that arose from the presence of Cortes-Malintzin amongst you, shall be as nothing to the vengeance I will exact on all of your miserable souls. Choose now!”
Scarlet had to admit that when Blue chose to be arrogant, he did it well. Even without the headdress and the golden mask, he stood taller than any of the natives and the setting sun was making his fair hair shine, so that he looked very impressive. The priests and warriors were regarding him with awe and even if they did not understand everything he said, they responded at an emotional level to the way he said it.
To Scarlet’s surprise, the Head Priest called to Andra – presumably he knew enough Spanish to get the gist of Blue’s pronouncement – and reluctantly she went to his side. It seemed that his authority over the other priests was absolute for although they spoke for some minutes and the clash of wills was evident, she had no option but to acquiesce with his decision.
She bowed towards Blue, covering her eyes with one hand. “Totec Tlamacacazqui agrees to your wishes and as you decree, so shall it be, Lord.”
The High Priest bowed his head towards Blue, raising one hand to his forehead in a gesture of deference. His doubt was less assured than Andra’s.
Haughtily Blue inclined his head but said nothing. He turned his back on Andra, marched back to Scarlet, placed both hands on his shoulders and looked sadly into his friend’s sapphire-blue eyes for a long moment.
“I don’t like this one little bit,” he muttered.
“Can’t say it thrills me much either,” Scarlet replied, with a wry smile. “But you know it makes sense, Adam.”
“Nothing about this place makes sense,” Blue said hotly.
Scarlet smiled reassuringly and covered Blue’s hands with his.
They both turned in surprise as Tezalco’s body was thrown down to the waiting crowd and two priests stepped forward, stripped her body and began to flay the skin from her. Her head was added to the rows of skulls adorning the front of the pyramid.
“God, I hate this place,” Blue hissed vehemently.
“So do I, but watch what you do and what you say; you’re still on trial, you know? If Fate’s kind to us, I’ll be up and about before the deadline or Spectrum will arrive like the cavalry to whisk us both away,” Scarlet said.
As two Ocelot Warriors gripped him by the arms and dragged him away from Blue and towards the High Priest, he called with a composure he did not really feel:
“Wish me luck.”
Distressed, Blue went and sat on his throne, although the look he gave Andra as she made a move to join him convinced her to stay standing amongst the priests. He stared woodenly towards the sacrificial stone. Aware that he had to hide his anguish, he steeled himself to watch the barbaric event about to take place without showing any undue emotion; although every breath he took threatened to burst his lungs.
Scarlet was anointed with the sacred oil and offered the drugged drink. He declined it, as he doubted it would have any more than a passing effect on him anyway, but the priests and warriors were greatly impressed at this courage. They stripped him and then five men grabbed him, one for each arm and leg and one for his head. Instinct made Scarlet want to struggle, but he realised that acceptance and compliance were what was expected and fighting would only increase the doubt about Blue’s identity – and his own. Therefore, he fought the urge and closed his eyes, biting his bottom lip as the men slung him over the recumbent statue, so that his head hung over the end. His spine was arched backwards and his chest thrust upwards, the skin taut over his ribs. His breathing was rapid and shallow as he waited for the cut of the knife.
Blue watched, his face pale and his eyes misty with tears, as the High Priest raised his arm and brought it down with enough force to break the ribs. The obsidian blade sliced through the skin and bone and Scarlet suppressed his screams but gave a deep groan as the man plunged his hand in and sliced the heart free. It was still pumping blood as the High Priest raised it towards the fierce sun.
There was an awed silence as the High Priest displayed his trophy and then a wild chanting and drumming erupted. The noise shocked Blue into action as he remembered what Scarlet had not known: sacrificial hearts were burnt as part of the offering. Driven by fear, he moved with speed and authority, getting to his feet, he stretched out his open hands towards the High Priest. Deferentially, although surprised, the High Priest passed the heart into Blue’s keeping. Cradling it close to his chest Blue gave a brusque order to Andra:
“Have Quetzalcoatl carried into the sanctuary. Bring torches to light the room and then everyone is to get out and go away from the temple. Everyone is to stay away until I say otherwise. The secret of life is not something I will share.”
He walked back into the sanctuary carrying Scarlet’s heart cupped between his hands. Behind him he heard Doña Andra giving orders and shortly after he reached the gloom of the temple, four warriors carried Scarlet’s body in and laid it reverently on the rush mat on the floor.
They bowed, shielding their eyes and backed away from Captain Blue. Immediately two priests came in bearing torches which they placed in brackets and left. Doña Andra came in; she looked suitably contrite and bowed reverently before Blue.
“All is as you have ordered, Lord. Do you wish for anything else to be brought?”
Blue considered asking for fresh water, but he still didn’t trust her, so he shook his head, not trusting his voice.
She glanced at Scarlet and at Blue’s contemptuous expression and her self-confidence crumbled. “Lord, forgive me; I acted for the good of my people.”
With a sneering smile, Blue replied coldly, “Leave us,” adding as she left, “Pray for Lord Quetzalcoatl’s recovery, Doña Andra, that he may intercede for you and your people. The displeasure of Huitzilopochtli is something all men should fear.”
Bowing low, she hurried away.
Once alone, Blue acted quickly. Whether retrometabolism could repair the severed arteries and restore life to his friend’s bleeding body was one question, but he doubted it could’ve done anything with a heart that had been burnt beyond recognition. He knelt beside the bloody shell of Scarlet’s body and shaking, reached inside the chest cavity to place the heart as close as he could to the rough ends of the severed blood vessels. He taped the gaping wound closed with the bandages and plasters from the First Aid kits, although he could have wept at the inadequacy of the tools he had to deal with the task.
Scarlet had naturally lost an inordinate amount of blood, but Blue had no way to improve the situation, except trickling water between his friend’s clenched teeth. Realising that in his anguish Scarlet had bitten clean through his lower lip was almost more than he could bear.
“Jesus, Paul; I don’t even know if I should replace it or not? Damn you - damn you to hell and back! Why do you always leave me to pick up the pieces?”
He was shaking as he gathered the remaining water bottles together and then sat cross-legged beside the body, which he covered with one of the decorated capes and prepared to sit out the hours, as he had done so often before.
In the deep and gloomy silence of the sanctuary, he sat rocking back and forth, so deep in shock that he had no coherent thoughts in his mind and it was some time before he even became aware of the tears rolling down his cheeks.
With the new dawn people came to the temple and one brave priest ventured into the sanctuary, only to be met with a fierce roar of “Go away!” so he told his fellow devotees that the Gods were not to be disturbed and with one accord they crept away, although some left offerings of food outside the entrance.
Blue left his vigil once, going outside the sanctuary to stretch his aching legs and back and to check on whether Scarlet’s improvised communication beacon was still working, or if there was any record of a response to their SOS. The beacon had stopped transmitting, all power exhausted, and he knew that none of the other batteries were still working.
He picked up the tunic and radio cap and carried them into the sanctuary, where he sat by the entrance to make use of the daylight and whiled away the hours tinkering with the electronics and trying – without hope – to get it transmitting again. Periodically, he went to check on Scarlet, trickling water between his lips and kept up a one-sided conversation including reciting the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg address and every poem he could remember from John Donne to W.B. Yeats and Longfellow to Elliott, much as he would have done on Cloudbase.
Finally he lay down beside the corpse and despite his physical discomfort and misery, he slept for several hours.
When he woke it was dark and he went outside to get some fresh air. The sky was clear and the stars shone with a brilliance that was breathtakingly beautiful. He stared into the sky, half-hoping to see Cloudbase. He thought about their friends, about Symphony Angel and how much he loved her and how much Rhapsody Angel meant to Captain Scarlet. He thought of his family in Boston and Scarlet’s parents in Winchester and what Spectrum would tell them if they were never found.
Missing in action – presumed dead. He gave a snort of despairing laughter. Only they’ll never give up looking for Paul – they’ll never believe he could have died. If he doesn’t pull though by this time tomorrow it’ll be too late for us both. The Aztecs will have sliced, diced and cremated us both. That’s if they don’t actually eat us, of course…
“I’ve always envied your ability to remember the star patterns, I get the lesser constellations confused,” Captain Scarlet said, his voice no more than a whisper.
“Paul!” Blue spun round. Scarlet was sagging against the entrance of the sanctuary. He rushed across and threw his arms around his friend.
“Take it easy!” Scarlet pleaded, feebly pushing Blue away. “I’m upright but only just. It’s taken me an age to get to my feet. I can hardly get my breath.”
Blue was all concern. “You need water? Food?” he asked, examining his friend and noting the deep lines of exhaustion on his face.
Scarlet nodded. Blue led him slowly to the parapet and sat him on it, while he raced back and forth from the sanctuary bringing the water bottles and what was left of the fruit to his friend.
Scarlet drained all the water and nibbled the fruit. He choked several times and gasped for breath.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Blue confessed, sitting beside him on the parapet and staring at him with a mixture of delight and relief on his face. “First aid is one thing, but open heart surgery is beyond me. I didn’t think you’d make it.”
“Not sure I have,” Scarlet wheezed. “Well, not completely. Getting back to peak fitness is going to take me longer than we have.”
“But you’re alive – we’re safe!”
“As long as they don’t expect me to walk and talk. I think I must’ve been anxious about the deadline you set – didn’t want you wondering if I’d make it for longer than necessary. When I came to, all I could think of was ‘tell Adam immediately’.”
“Oh great – now I feel like a jerk. Don’t worry, Paul; they won’t come for hours yet. Get some sleep and you’ll be fine. I’ll order more food and water.”
“Your faith in me is touching.”
Blue confessed, “Every time I doubt you’ll make it and every time – by some miracle – you do. You’d think I’d’ve learnt and know better by now, wouldn’t you?”
Scarlet gave a weary smile and placed his hand over Blue’s. Blue helped him to his feet and back into the sanctuary, where he made a fresh bed of rush matting and blankets for Scarlet to lie on. He slipped the haversack under his head and smiled.
“I meant to get the cushions from the aircraft seats and never did. I could get them now, if you’d like them?”
Scarlet reached out his hand and said urgently, “No; don’t leave me. I feel better with you around. Just let me sleep. I’ll be okay.”
Even that much exertion exhausted him and his eyes closed as he stopped speaking.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Blue promised, and sat cross-legged beside his friend.
Scarlet slept the night through and well into the next day. The sun was past its zenith and the afternoon was wearing on when Doña Andra and the High Priest appeared in the clearing leading their people. Blue was watching from the sanctuary entrance. He glanced back at the sleeping Scarlet and decided he would have to wake him.
He knelt down and placed a hand on Scarlet’s shoulder, shaking him gently. “Wake up, Paul.”
Reluctantly, Scarlet opened his eyes and stared up at Blue.
“They’re coming. Can you get up?”
Scarlet nodded and with a tremendous effort of will, and Blue’s help, got to his feet. “I’ll be okay,” he whispered in defiance of the evidence. His breathing was rapid and shallow and he was sweating with the exertion and unsteady on his feet.
Blue nodded encouragingly. “Let me put some of these feathers on you and paint your face with this stuff,” Blue suggested. “It might distract them. Don’t try to talk to them, just stand there and look as divine as you can…”
Scarlet managed a weak chuckle. “I thought that was your job?”
“Hey, I’m not the superman around here.”
Scarlet stood still while Blue put his red tunic back on, draped a feathered cape on his shoulders and fastened a headdress on his head. Then he painted broad red and yellow stripes across his friend’s face and drew a geometric pattern on the back of his hands.
“Well, you sure look like an Aztec god to me,” Blue said, as he surveyed his handiwork.
“You are ever the optimist,” Scarlet muttered.
Blue went to the entrance to watch the approach of the Aztecs. He had not bothered to change out of his tunic which was stained with Scarlet’s heart-blood, and he was in no mood to treat them with any respect whatsoever.
He sensed Scarlet coming to stand behind him and reached back his hand to take hold of his friend’s.
“Lean on me. We’ll go out together. Leave the talking to me.”
“I’ll have to,” Scarlet wheezed. “Retrometabolism hasn’t improved my Spanish; it’s still not up to much, I’m afraid.”
“Clever…” Blue retorted, bending his arm to allow Scarlet to place his on top, so that he could walk by his side, with the support he needed.
The priest was overawed by Scarlet’s recovery and he and his acolytes bowed low, offering their homage to the Spectrum officers. As conch shells sounded in celebration two baskets full of quail were brought to the platform. The High Priest led Blue and Scarlet to the wicker thrones and installed them on them, side-by-side, while others began the wholesale sacrifice of innumerable birds. Neither officer felt able to intervene on this occasion.
Doña Andra, who had clearly been side-lined for questioning the divinity of Blue and Scarlet, remained standing by the sacrificial stone, but took no part in the ceremony. The crowd in the clearing danced and sang and the atmosphere was jovial.
“I suppose the quail are intended to build up your strength,” Blue muttered to Scarlet.
“Poor little buggers,” Scarlet replied. “You were right, we haven’t stopped the practice.”
“I can’t get the signal beacon working again either,” Blue told him, meaning to get all the bad news over in one hit.
“Have faith in the colonel,” Scarlet advised him. “They’ll have registered the signal. They’ll be on their way.”
“Now who’s the optimist?” Blue gave a wry smile.
Bowls of bloody hearts were laid before the wicker thrones and the priests grew more and more ecstatic in their dancing. The ceremony looked as if it would last into the night once the parapet torches had been lit and bonfires and braziers appeared in the clearing.
A procession of young women, barely dressed in feathers and jewellery, paraded through the crowd, who pelted them with flowers and corn. They came up the steps of the pyramid and onto the platform where each of them came before the thrones and – it quickly dawned on the officers – offered themselves. Politely but firmly both men declined every offer. With visible regret the women joined the throng of priests and warriors milling around on the platform, but their disappointment did not last long. Less particular than the Spectrum officers, the warriors and priests selected a companion and, with no discernible shame, there were soon couples copulating all around the platform. They also thought nothing of moving on the fresh partners as soon as they had got their breath back.
“I think,” Blue muttered as matter-of-factly as he could, “this must be a part of the fertility ceremony.”
“If it is, then it is the first custom in this religion that I approve of,” Scarlet replied, his tongue very much in his cheek, adding, “Just my luck to be too knackered to participate in my first genuine orgy.”
Blue, who was trying to look shocked at the first part of the statement, smothered a snort of laughter.
Slowly couples began to leave the platform to continue their amorous pastimes elsewhere.
The High Priest had not taken part, nor had Doña Andra, and it wasn’t long until they were the only people left on the platform. The sun had set and the scene was lit only by the crescent moon, the densely clustered starlight and the flames of the fires.
“How are you feeling?” Blue asked Scarlet.
“Getting better; but I’m not there yet.” Scarlet exhaled deeply. “Who’d have thought that taking a deep breath of clean, fresh air could be so wonderful?”
“You ought to get some more sleep.”
“Yes, Doc. You know, you’ve been hanging in Sick Bay too long: you even sound like Fawn these days.”
“He may not do what you want, but he sure gets the job done,” Blue replied. “Left to yourself you’d be rushing off to indulge in something reprehensible before you were fully fit.”
“Surely just one little virgin wouldn’t have done any harm?” Scarlet joked, before adding with a serious glance, “We might still have to do that here. We can’t risk staying too long. We’ve got away with it this time, but there’s no guarantee we won’t come a cropper over the next thing they expect us to do. We shouldn’t push our luck.”
“But, if Spectrum have traced us, and we move on, they’ll never find us,” Blue reasoned. “We have to sit it out, Paul. Besides, right now, I don’t think Andra has enough credit with anyone to cause us trouble.”
He stood and stepped down from the wicker throne. Andra bowed and moved towards him.
“Lord, what is your wish?” she asked.
“Leave us,” Blue instructed, gesturing that the order included both of them. The priest bowed low and began to walk away, confirming that he knew some Spanish, at least. Moments later, she followed him.
“Come on, Paul; let’s get some rest,” Blue said.
“You go; I’ll come in a while,” Scarlet replied. “I’m not that sleepy but I guess you must be.” Blue nodded and Scarlet continued, “Thanks, Adam.”
“For sitting out the hours of the ‘death-watch’ with me. I have a very vague, dream-like memory of someone reciting poetry at me for hours on end. I figure it must’ve been you.” Blue nodded again. “If anything is guaranteed to speed up my recovery, it is you reciting poetry... or anybody else reciting it, if it comes to that.”
To his surprise, Blue looked embarrassed rather than pleased. “I’m sorry; I ran out of small talk. Next time I’ll get Grey or Ochre to sit with you; between them those two could fill a 24-rolling news service with scurrilous gossip.”
“Hey, don’t be so thin-skinned. I’m not complaining. Speedy recoveries are always my favourites.” Scarlet grinned.
Blue smiled back. “Goodnight, Paul.”
“’Night, Birdy. Sleep well.”
Scarlet did not go back to the sanctuary that night; instead he watched the spectacular stars from the platform, ready to warn Blue, or act, if there was any sign of an Aztec attack. As it was he saw no-one until the priests arrived with the morning’s quail sacrifice. That was enough to send him back inside to avoid the sight of so much bloodshed.
Blue woke at his entrance and sat up, dragging his fingers through his tangled hair.
“Good morning,” Scarlet said, and it was obvious from his voice that he was on the way to full health.
“Hi,” Blue said, sleepily.
“The priests are back with the quail, so I came in here to avoid watching. They’ll probably bring us something to eat in a while. I must say, I am famished. I could even be tempted to eat a roasted quail or two.”
“You could always reconstitute one of the emergency packs – there’s meatloaf or something that claims to be chicken chasseur,” Blue suggested.
“Neither appeals much,” Scarlet complained. “But I need something to make sure my retrometabolism is complete.” He rifled through the haversack of supplies and with a cry of delight, devoured a cereal bar he found underneath the stale sandwiches.
There was a commotion outside on the platform and Blue went to see what was going on. He found a young man, holding a small child in his arms, arguing violently with the priests, while the woman at his side wept bitterly.
When he spotted Blue, the man sprang past the priests to lay the child at Blue’s feet; gabbling something with great urgency, pleading, even as the priests dragged him away.
Blue looked down at the child. It was ill: its skin was dull, eyes closed and mouth edged with dried vomit. He stooped and touched it – it was running a temperature. The young woman – evidently the mother – knelt before him, her eyes covered with one hand while the other clutched his boot. Even though he didn’t understand a word she said, Blue could not mistake her plea. He ordered the priests to leave the man alone and sent one running for Doña Andra to translate.
At his call Scarlet joined him and together they discussed what – if anything - they could do to help the child, whose name they guessed from the mother’s pleadings was Cacama.
Andra arrived after some delay, and explained that the man was the child’s father and he was asking Huitzilopochtli to cure the infant, as he had saved Quetzalcoatl.
“He is sure, Lord, that you can save his son,” she explained, her expression showing that she did not share that certainty.
“Can we do anything?” Scarlet asked quietly.
Blue had a basic working knowledge of first aid but that was not of much use in this instance. However, he could see that the child was dehydrated and guessed, from the smell, that he had diarrhoea. He checked in the first aid kits and found some digestion powders.
“We can try,” he replied to Scarlet.
He told Andra to order fires to be lit and as many pots of fresh water as was possible to be heated to boiling point until he said otherwise. He lifted the child – who weighed next to nothing - and carried him into the sanctuary, where he administered a dose of anti-diarrhoea medicine in the last of their bottled water.
Scarlet collected together all the water purification tablets in the survival rations in preparation to add them to the boiled water once it had cooled.
Blue lay the child on the rush matting and, through Andra, instructed the woman to wash her child with the boiled water once it was cool enough, but the bowls that had been treated with the purification tablets were only to be given to the child to drink, in small sips or with a spoon.
He instructed Andra to explain that the child must stay with them while they tried to help him recover.
“Will it work?” asked Scarlet.
Blue shrugged. “It may be too late. If it is dysentery and he’s been dehydrated for too long ...” He shook his head. “But it’s all we have. There’s nothing else I can do.”
Witnessing the distressing illness and suffering of civilians – especially children – was an occupational hazard. Although Spectrum’s elite officers tended not to remain long once the initial Mysteron or terrorist threat had been dealt with, follow up reports from ground forces would contain details of the consequences of successful threats, and in cases such the destruction of the desalination plant at Najama, the subsequent failure of local crops had inevitably led to food shortages and malnutrition. The Aztecs did not appear to be in danger of starvation; their jungle home could provide enough food for the population, as long as it did not outgrow the local resources. However, water-borne diseases were a constant threat even where a native population may have developed some natural immunity, and, the world over, it was always the very young and the very old who suffered most.
Scarlet went outside, leaving Blue to finish supervising the administering of the medication and care. There were few people on the temple platform and they moved a respectful distance from him. The clearing was also largely vacant, presumably because everyone was busy with their daily chores and there were no ceremonies to attend. He stood full centre of the platform and looked around before raising his gaze to the jungle canopy and the sky above.
The daily build up of cloud resulted in afternoon rain, although nothing like as fierce as the tropical storm that had brought their plane down. Today was no different: there were rain clouds forming over the surrounding peaks, rolling down towards the jungle canopy and darkening. The humidity was rising by the minute.
Then something caught Scarlet’s eye: something that looked like the merest glint of sunlight on the wings of a distant plane. He shielded his eyes from the bright sun and scanned the sky, frowning in concentration – Yes, there it was again!
“Adam!” he called urgently. “Adam, come here!”
Blue emerged from the sanctuary. “What is it?”
Scarlet pointed. “A plane; I’m damned sure it’s a plane! Look for flashes of sunlight...”
Blue stared into the distance.
“There! See it?” cried Scarlet, pointing.
“No.” Blue framed his eyes with his hands against the glare and tried to focus.
“It is there. It must be an Angel Jet.”
Shaking his head, Blue replied, “You can’t possibly know that,” although hope was clearly evident on his face. “It’s too far away.”
“This isn’t a commercial flight path and Spectrum will be looking for us – who else is it gonna be? They must’ve picked up the signal but not clear enough to pinpoint us,” Scarlet reasoned. “We have to attract their attention.”
Blue had given just this situation much thought during his solitude; he had an answer ready. “If you’re sure it is a search plane, then yes, we do. There’s one thing that they couldn’t miss – but we’ll only get one chance.”
Scarlet looked enquiringly at him. “What?”
“We can blow the wreckage up.”
“How? What with?”
“I estimate that there must still be some fuel in the tanks. I was sure the plane’d explode on crashing and it didn’t, nor did the fires burn fierce or long enough to have used it all. So, I planned to shoot it.”
“Neat.” Scarlet nodded approvingly. “It should work.”
“Thank you,” Blue said, with just the merest hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Scarlet grinned and continued, “But you better let me do it.”
“Think I’d miss?” Blue protested.
Scarlet chuckled. “Well, everyone knows you can’t hit the side of a barn, Blue Boy...” He continued seriously before Blue could protest. “No, I don’t think you’d miss; but if it explodes you need to be nowhere near it. It’s better if I’m the one close enough to fire into the tanks. Retrometabolism, remember?”
Blue sighed. “You get all the fun jobs, Paul.”
“Give me your gun. Two bullets are better than one.”
Armed with both Spectrum pistols, Scarlet went down the pyramid steps as quickly as he could. He could feel his heart pumping and he was soon out of breath – a sensation he had become unused to experiencing – however, as his adrenalin levels rose, he overcame the handicap and reached the plane in record time.
There were a few boys playing around the wreckage but they dispersed into the trees at his approach. He waved them away and roared: “Bugger off out of it!” after them – for good measure – as they raced away across the clearing.
Heart thumping and lungs heaving fit to burst, Scarlet drew out the pistols. He steadied himself and then aimed for the fuel tank. Hoping that Blue’s ‘guesstimation’ was accurate, he fired off three rounds from both barrels in quick succession. The resulting explosion was powerful enough to knock him off his feet and he had the satisfaction of seeing a fireball rising into the grey sky before the blast hit him and he blacked out.
While Scarlet made his way to the plane, Blue fetched the golden mask from the sanctuary and stood where he could catch the rays of the sun with it. He felt the blast and saw Scarlet fall to the ground as the blast wave reverberated around the caldera.
“If the Angel pilot misses that, she must be asleep,” he muttered. He stared into the distance, watching anxiously for the first sign of an approaching plane.
People came running from the surrounding jungle, so that most of the population witnessed the sleek, white jet swoop low over the clearing, while Blue waved the golden mask above his head and whooped in delight. As the plane soared away into the grey clouds, it left a trail of red smoke.
“I’ve found them, Colonel White,” Melody Angel reported, giving the global position details. “I can see Captain Blue, hale and hearty. I think Captain Scarlet was by the explosion, he’s lying on the ground. The clearing is on a plateau and surrounds a large stone pyramid, sir. The land around it is heavily forested, but there are some houses and fields on terraces below the plateau. There’s no room for me to land, Colonel, so I am returning to Cloudbase.”
“Well done, Melody.” White turned to Lieutenant Green. “Have Doctor Fawn go aboard the medical helijet; it sounds as if Scarlet will need him. Send Captains Ochre and Magenta with him, to make sure everything goes smoothly. We don’t want to alarm the natives but I want our people back as soon as possible...”
The powerful Angel Jet had frightened the Aztecs. Doña Andra was dragged into the clearing, and it was obvious that she was being held responsible for the appearance of the flying monster. Some people began to throw stones at her and she cowered away from them, shielding herself with the feathered cloak she wore, as others joined in.
Blue did not like Andra and had little reason to trust her after Tezalco’s sacrifice, but he sensed that she was possibly the only person strong enough to hold the tribe together. Besides, there had been quite enough bloodshed and he did not want this woman’s blood on his hands. He shouted down from the platform:
The stoning stopped, but the people crowded around the temple pyramid much as children cluster round their parents when they feel afraid. Two Ocelot Warriors dragged Andra with them and flung her down at the base of the steps.
She looked up towards Blue. “Lord, forgive me,” she cried. “I meant no harm or disrespect. I had only the welfare of my people at heart. Do not punish your people for my folly!”
“The flying machine was looking for me, Andra; it means no harm to the people. Tell them that… I have confidence in you and they should too. No harm can come to them under my protection and the flying machine will not return.”
Shakily she got to her feet and reported his words. There was some dissent amongst the crowd, but she moved up to stand a few steps below Blue. He placed his hand on her shoulder.
“She is under my protection,” he announced.
Andra grasped his hand, placed her forehead against it and looked all gratitude at him.
“Remember this, Andra,” he said, “I shall know if you take revenge on any here or deviate from following the good rule of your people.”
“Great is the power of Lord Huitzilopochtli,” she cried fervently. “It shall be as My Lord commands.”
Blue glanced across at the Totec Tlamacacazqui, who was watching what was said and done. Blue had suspected he spoke some Spanish for some time, and he said to him, “You will aid Doña Andra in caring for my people. You shall both answer to me for any wrongdoing.”
The Totec Tlamacacazqui fell to his knee and placed his palm on the ground, shielding his eyes.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Blue muttered to himself, exhaling. “Now,” he said, reverting to Spanish, “Bring Quetzalcoatl to the sanctuary and then leave us.”
The blast had easily been powerful enough to kill and Blue was worried that another fatality, so soon after the sacrificial death, might prove too much even for Scarlet’s retrometabolism. He tried to calm his anxiety by reminding himself that although he instinctively felt every death Scarlet endured could be his last, miraculously he managed to survive. In addition, now they’d found them, Spectrum would be sure to send medical help and before long they’d both be on Cloudbase being spoilt by the attentive nursing staff while under the watchful eye of the peerless Doctor Fawn.
The passing thought that Symphony Angel would surely be the first to pay him a visit cheered him enormously.
His optimism grew when he examined Scarlet and discovered that although he’d been badly burned by the blast, he was still alive. That was in itself a two-edged sword, Blue realised: dead Scarlet experienced no pain, alive even a papercut hurt him as much as it would a normal person and opiates had little or no effect on Scarlet. Making Scarlet as comfortable as he could, Blue thought:
I wonder if the fact that he was still recovering from the effects of the sacrifice means that his retrometabolism has kicked in straight away. I’ll mention it to Fawn; he always appreciates battle-field insights…
He glanced around the sanctuary. The young boy and his mother were still in one corner. She covered her eyes and placed her hand on the floor in homage when Blue caught her gaze. He walked over and stooped to touch the child’s forehead: it was hot and clammy, but Blue believed it there was an improvement. He encouraged his mother to keep spoon feeding the boiled water into the boy and patted her shoulder sympathetically before going back to Scarlet.
Crouched beside his friend, he muttered in suppressed excitement, “Try and wake up, Paul. Spectrum’ll be here pretty soon. We’re getting out of here!”
The helijet flew reconnaissance over the clearing several times before coming in to land, its blades making a powerful downdraft. The Aztecs had scattered into the trees when it appeared and they watched the landing with alarm. Once the blades stopped rotating several Ocelot Warriors crept forward brandishing their spears, but keeping a respectful distance.
Captain Ochre was the first to step out. He was armed and scanned the clearing for signs of danger. He saw the warriors but didn’t think they’d be brave enough to approach any closer to the helijet; behind them, amongst the trees, he saw villagers, some of whom were kneeling, the palm of one hand placed flat on the ground and their eyes shielded by the other hand.
“Situation S.I.G.,” he reported, moving forward so that Fawn could disembark.
Both men turned at the welcoming call from Captain Blue who was descending the stone steps with some haste at the risk of breaking his neck if he fell.
“Hi there,” Ochre called casually. “Need a lift back home?”
“Sure, that’d be nice,” Blue replied in the same casual tone, as he reached the ground and slowed to a stroll. “Welcome to… wherever this is.”
They exchanged grins.
Fawn produced a Mysteron detector and ordered, “Hold it right there.”
Blue stood still.
“Smile for the birdie,” Ochre joked, as Fawn trained the detector on their colleague and pressed the button.
All three of them knew that a lot depended on the result. If the detector produced an X-ray shot of Blue’s head, then he was human, but Spectrum had discovered that a Mysteron agent was impervious to x-rays and the detector produced a normal photograph of them; for that reason there was never any point in testing Captain Scarlet with the detector, unless you wanted to make sure it was working correctly. It didn’t take long for the machine to print out its result and Fawn smiled.
“Proceed, Captain Blue.”
“You better check it for fractures,” Blue remarked, peering over Fawn’s shoulder at his x-ray. “I took a right bang on the head during the crash. I don’t think there’s anything broken, but you never know.”
“Telling me my job, Captain?” Fawn asked, his eyebrows raised in query. He studied the x-ray and looked up at Blue’s smiling, oddly painted face. “There’s no sign of any fracture, but my guess is that under that paint you’ll have some soft-tissue damage. What’s paint and what’s bruising?” He gently pressed the cut over Blue’s eyebrow to satisfy himself that there was no infection.
“It feels as if it is one big bruise,” Blue confessed. “But I’ll live, I guess.”
“If you want my professional opinion: yes, you’ll live. Now, where’s Captain Scarlet?”
Blue pointed to the sanctuary. “He’s alive but unconscious. He was hurt when the wreckage of the plane exploded. Mind you, Doc, he was already recovering from a fatal incident when he set the explosion off.”
Fawn collected his medical kit and started towards the steps. “Give me the details as we go,” he ordered.
“What’s with all that face paint?” Ochre asked, accompanying them to the sanctuary.
“Oh, that’s because the natives consider me to be one of their gods,” Blue said in the most off-hand way he could manage.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“No; there’s one called Blue Hummingbird and they thought - from my uniform – that I was…am, him.”
“That must’ve put Scarlet’s nose out of joint,” Ochre remarked, grinning.
“Not really, they think he’s Quetzalcoatl – another of their deities. We’ve had quite a time of it. In fact, Doc, they gave us a kid to cure. He has a gastro-infection, I think – I hope it isn’t dysentery. Can you check him out before we go?”
“Sure,” Fawn replied, entering the sanctuary. “No problem.”
The Totec Tlamacacazqui and three Ocelot Warriors approached them as they reached the foot of the steps. They bowed before Blue and eyed Ochre and Fawn warily.
“Lord, are these divine warriors?” The Totec Tlamacacazqui’s Spanish was basic and poorly pronounced, but Blue got the gist.
He replied, “These warriors come from my home: a great floating city in the clouds. Soon Quetzalcoatl and I will be leaving with them to return there. We will continue to ensure the sun rises on the world and defend it from the evil of Xolotal. You need have no fear, Totec Tlamacacazqui.”
“Are we gods too?” Ochre asked, hopefully.
Before Blue could answer, Fawn interjected smoothly, “Oh no, you’re definitely a demon, Rick; I don’t care what anyone says.”
Blue grinned at Ochre’s exaggerated protest at this remark.
“If we painted our faces, would we be gods?” Ochre persisted, as they climbed the steps.
Blue shook his head. “Be content with your status as a divine warrior, Rick; that way they’ll assume you’ve already been sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli and you might get back to Cloudbase with your internal organs in place and all your limbs attached.”
“Their tribal top god,” Blue explained. “That’s the one they think I am, actually. His name means Blue Hummingbird and I was in blue.”
Ochre’s expression was one of pure disbelief.
“It made sense to them,” Blue concluded apologetically.
“Jeez…” Ochre breathed.
Fawn was chuckling as he went to examine Captain Scarlet. He injected something into the captain and wandered across to examine Cacama. He spent some time with the child and administered several injections before re-joining his companions.
“You did well, Adam. I think you got to him in time and with care he’ll be up and about soon enough. You need to make sure they know to purify his water – boiling it for at least 5 minutes before he drinks it if that’s all they can do - and keep him on small meals for a while; little and often is the best course. I’ve given him a shot of antibiotics and a pick-me-up of minerals and vitamins. He seems a strong kid; he should make it.”
“Thanks, Doc. I’ll try and make the High Priest understand. Maybe, if it comes from Huitzilopochtli they’ll do it?”
Fawn nodded. “It’s all we can do.”
Captain Scarlet sat up from his rush mat bed and ran his fingers through his hair. “Did I get a blowtorch haircut when that plane exploded?” he asked, wrinkling his nose at the smell of burnt hair.
“Yes, a little,” Fawn replied, going to examine him. “Your eyebrows are non-existent.”
“Hiya, Doc! You found us then?”
“I see your observational faculties are fully functional,” Fawn remarked. “That’s always a good sign.” He clamped a stethoscope against Scarlet’s chest. “Breathe,” he instructed. He listened for a long moment in silence and then remarked, “Your heartbeat is erratic, but stronger than I expected. When we get back to Cloudbase I’m going to need to run some scans and do some tests-”
“-to see what exactly has happened with your heart. Blue explained what happened and that he placed it back in the body cavity as accurately as he could – with a view to matching the severed arteries – but I’m going to need to check it out.”
Scarlet exhaled. “I suppose you must?”
“But, I’m fit for duty now?” Scarlet pleaded.
“You are fit for light duties,” Fawn amended. “Duties such as getting back into the helijet and lying on a medical gurney when we get back to base.”
“S.I.G., Doc. You’re the boss.”
“And don’t you forget it,” Fawn remarked, getting to his feet and strolling over to examine Cacama again prior to departure.
Scarlet scrambled to his feet and with a grin at Blue, he nodded a welcome to Ochre. “Did you bring me an Angel, Rick?”
“No, I did not; Magenta’s piloting the helijet. Besides,” Ochre continued, “from what I gather you’ve been having a whale of a time here. You don’t deserve an Angel.”
Scarlet protested, “Huh, I’m just the sidekick to old Birdie, there.” He indicated Blue. “He’s the one that gets sacrificed to: people - me included – birds, fruits, flowers and virgins.”
“Virgins?” Ochre queried.
“Now you’ve done it,” Blue remarked to Scarlet, with a shake of his head.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
Scarlet shook his head. “Lining up all down the steps to be deflowered, they were. It was an impressive sight,” he concluded mischievously.
“So what did you – did Blue – do?”
“What would you have done, Rick? This was part of their religion and their culture, they expected some divine… interaction. To have disappointed them could’ve put us in danger.”
For once, Ochre was speechless.
Fawn, who had been listening to all this with his usual scepticism, sighed and said pragmatically, “I’ll arrange a course of shots for you when we get back, Captain Blue; heaven knows what you could’ve contracted.”
Blue protested wordlessly, as Scarlet roared with laughter.
On the clearing, the people were waiting for Blue and Scarlet to come to the helijet. Captain Magenta was standing in the entrance, hand on his pistol, to ensure no one did anything to damage the craft. To hearty cheers, Blue and Scarlet made their way across to the helijet with Ochre and Fawn close behind them, and Andra and the High Priest alongside.
“Are we ready to go?” Magenta asked.
“Soon as you like,” Scarlet replied.
The High Priest bowed before them both and said, “Blue Hummingbird, Lord of the Sun and Prince of the World, must you leave us?”
“I’m afraid so,” Blue replied. “But, you know I will return, as I have done before and until then I will be watching over you.”
The High Priest replied: “Lord of the Sun, Prince of the World, Divine Warrior, happy are we who have seen your person and experienced your power. We will honour you in our hearts and souls and await your return.” He turned to Scarlet. “Prince Quetzalcoatl, Creator of Mankind, Lord of the Wind and Rain, be merciful to your people; protect our harvests and ensure our well-being.”
Blue gave a quick translation and Scarlet replied, “My pleasure,” with a smile and a nod.
Fawn and Ochre went into the helijet, but as Scarlet turned to climb aboard, protest broke out amongst the crowd and an obsidian spear bounced off the helijet.
“Get on board before it all turns nasty?” said Ochre.
“Or maybe you’d better speak to them and reassure them first?” Magenta suggested. “We don’t want the plane damaged, do we?”
“What can we say to them?” Scarlet remarked. “They don’t speak English or Spanish and neither Blue nor I have had time to learn Nahuatl.”
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” Blue remarked to him. “Watch.”
He stepped on to the first step of the entrance and turned to face the crowd. When he raised one hand, they fell to their knees and stared at him, expectantly.
“Oh, this should be good,” Ochre murmured doubtfully.
“Listen to me and I will tell you the story of Blue Hummingbird and Feathered Serpent as it was told in the days of old, in the lands of the north, where black rocks stand against the cold seas and the nights are long.”
Scarlet was sure he’d heard that before – or something like it - but when Blue stepped down to the clearing and gave him a questioning glance, he came to join him.
Drawing a deep breath, Blue declaimed:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
With an understanding grin, Scarlet joined in, projecting his voice and performing a dumb show to match the purport of the nonsensical words:
Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
(He grabbed the obsidian spear that Magenta had retrieved to prevent it being reused against them)
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
(He assumed a pose reminiscent of ‘The Thinker’, index finger pressed to his bowed forehead.)
Scarlet continued, building an almost unbearable pitch of tension in his voice:
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two!
His sudden hand claps made everyone who was listening intently to this engrossing saga jump in surprise.
And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He dropped the spear.
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
He lifted the invisible head above his own and brandished it.
Scarlet sprang forward:
And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Blue nodded, modestly.
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
He enveloped Blue in a hug.
O frabjous day!
He kissed Blue’s right cheek.
Callooh! (A kiss on the left)
Callay! (A kiss on the right)
He chortled in his joy.
They both recited the concluding verse portentously:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
The audience were spellbound but after a moment or two, cheering broke out and the celebrations grew louder as Scarlet and Blue smiled, acknowledged the applause and waved ‘goodbye’.
“Now get on board, quickly,” Fawn ordered, “before they realise what we’ve known all along: you two are the biggest bullshitters in Spectrum.”
Back on Cloudbase Colonel White spent some time debriefing Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue, although no one knew whether he believed what they had to tell him concerning their adventures with the lost tribe of the Aztecs.
Doctor Fawn had insisted that both men report to Sick Bay after the debriefing finished. He took a sample of the body paint used on them for analysis, before either man was allowed to shower. After that Blue was subjected to a thorough medical and Scarlet was sent to his own recovery room in preparation for the tests Fawn had in mind.
Sitting on an examination table, idly swinging his legs while Fawn typed up his results, Captain Blue asked:
“Everything okay, Doc? I was a bit concerned that the body paint was some sort of drug; but what could I do?”
Fawn looked up. “Hmm, it does have some narcotic properties. The auto analyser indicates that some of the compounds in it are the same as those found in a scorpion’s sting. It deadens nerve endings, a little like a local anaesthetic, presumably so the sacrificial bloodletting you told me about didn’t hurt so much. Very cleverly done as too much would be lethal.”
“Oh,” Blue said, looking alarmed.
“Don’t worry; you’ve had nowhere near enough exposure to it.”
“There shouldn’t be any long-term effects and the blueness lingering around your face is the bruising caused by the crash, not the paint.”
Fawn stopped typing and sat back in his chair. He gave Blue a long stare and said, “Have to ask you this, I’m afraid: those virgins?”
Blue held up both hands. “Never touched ‘em. Not even one. Swear to God.”
Fawn pursed his lips, as if in doubt, so Blue continued, “Doc, you know the situation between … a certain lady pilot and me. Do you think I’d risk her wrath if she ever found out I’d been… exercising my divine prerogative with young Aztec ladies?”
“True,” Fawn agreed mildly.
“I’m not daft, Doc. I know Scarlet’s the indestructible one, not me.”
Fawn grinned. “Bugger off out of it then. You’re fit for duty.”
“S.I.G., Doctor Fawn.”
Blue strolled jauntily back to his quarters. It felt good to be back, and everyone he encountered received a beaming smile and a bright ‘Good morning!’ in acknowledgement. As he passed the library, Lieutenant Flaxen caught sight of him, and ran out to say ‘welcome back’ and to hand him a small research folder.
“Thought you might find it interesting, Captain,” she said shyly.
“Thanks, Lieutenant,” Blue said, opening the file. Inside was a comprehensive account of the religious beliefs of the Aztec, Mayan and Mesoamerican cultures, illustrated with photographs and pictures of the various deities. He glanced at her. “Ochre been round to tell you what happened, has he?”
She coloured and shook her head. “I bumped into him in the canteen and he did mention it, yes, sir.”
Blue grinned at the thought that when Flaxen said she had ‘bumped into’ someone, it was usually an accurate description rather than a metaphor. She was probably the most accident-prone person on the base.
“Thanks, Flax. Just don’t believe everything Ochre tells you about it, will you?”
She smiled and shook her head. “I’ve learned the hard way that Captain Ochre tends to embellish events at times.”
Blue gave her arm a friendly punch. “Atta’ girl. Besides, he doesn’t know the half of it – whatever he says! I’ll study this at my leisure. Thanks again, Flax.”
She smiled with delight and waved ‘goodbye’ awkwardly before darting back into the library.
Chuckling affectionately to himself, Blue continued back to his quarters.
He keyed the key code into the electronic lock and the door slid open. The sight that met his eyes brought a frown to his face.
Bound by brightly-coloured scarves to a chair in the middle of the room, sat Symphony Angel, another scarf was tied around her head, as a gag. On either side of her, stood Ochre and Magenta, each holding the end of a feathered streamer over their prisoner. Blue recognised it as a feather boa the Angels had acquired from somewhere and used as part of fancy-dress outfits.
“What the hell?” Blue demanded.
Ochre and Magenta chanted: “We bring a gift to the Great White God of the Aztecs! Lord of the Sun...”
“Can it, guys!”
“We are not worthy to breathe the same air and the Great White God,” Ochre said, “So we thought we’d bring something he’d like… as a gift.”
“Yeah,” said Magenta, although he sounded less certain than Ochre.
Ochre grinned. “The real dusky maiden’s in Angel One, so we got you this one. I hope she’ll do?”
Symphony was struggling, her hazel-eyes flashing with fury as she made angry, if inarticulate, noises.
Blue shook his head and said, “Hey guys, much as I appreciate the gesture, I think you may have made a serious mistake here. But, as I’m feeling kinda beneficent today, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I will count to ten before I untie her, okay?”
Ochre and Magenta exchanged amused glances, but before they could reply Blue continued:
“Word to the wise? Get outta here before I reach ten if you want to survive. Your choice, of course.”
Magenta’s smile froze.
“If you ain’t mad at us, what’s the fuss?” said Ochre, who was not usually so obtuse.
“Did I say I wasn’t mad at you?” Blue asked. “My mistake. One… Ask yourself, would you rather face my divine wrath or Symphony’s all-too-human anger?”
Moving to the chair, where the Angel pilot was almost bouncing up and down with frustration at his delay, he murmured, “Two, three... still here, guys? Well, you know best.”
“It was just a silly joke…” Magenta soothed.
“No offence, Symphony?”
“Eight, nine… fellas, I really do think...”
They turned and ran.
“So help me, I’ll kill the pair of them,” Symphony raged as soon as Blue removed the gag. “And you sure took your time to set me free! Don’t get any smart ideas from this, Svenson; I’m warning you!”
“Would I?” He hid his smile from her by bending to untie her hands. She pushed him away and bent to do her feet. Once free, she sprang up, ready to chase after them.
“Hey, haven’t you forgotten something?” He stopped her leaving by grabbing her arm and pulling her round to face him.
“This God would like a kiss, from the most beautiful Goddess on the planet…” He bent his head and pressed his lips to hers. She struggled for a moment and then relaxed into his embrace.
“Aaaah, Adam….” she purred, nestling against him.
They kissed again, all thought of her leaving any time soon evaporating as the precious seconds of intimacy ticked by.
Much later, Symphony sat up in bed, pursed her lips and said, “Just be aware that if I ever hear of anyone discovering a tribe of blue-eyed Incas – you’re dead Svenson!”
Sighing, Blue reached for her saying, “I may challenge your right to pound Ochre into a pulp if he doesn’t stop spreading scurrilous gossip about me all round Cloudbase… Besides, he ought to know by now that anything Scarlet says, especially anything designed with the intention of dropping me in a barrow load of shit, should be taken with a bucketful of salt.”
“Hmm… maybe I’ll have a word with Paul… just to be certain sure.”
“Oh, Karen! Can’t you trust me for once?”
She laughed and kissed him fiercely. “Now who’s being gullible?” she asked.
“Well, they only said I was divine, not omniscient,” Blue excused himself, as she laughed and snuggled down beside him.
“They were fifty-percent accurate…” she murmured, as his fingers caressed her and the fierce flames of desire rekindled between them.
And Blue wasn’t prepared to argue it any further.
The idea for this story has been haunting my imagination for many years. I hope I’ve done it justice.
My thanks go to Hazel Köhler for beta-reading this story and to Chris Bishop for presentation on her marvellous website.
As the 50th anniversary of ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ approaches, it is good to see that so many people are keeping the flame alive through fanfiction. Long may it continue!
(Possibly originally a hero figure of the Aztecs later deified.)
(blue limbed) Hummingbird. Hummingbirds were believed to be the souls of fallen warriors.
Led the Aztecs from their homeland to their major city Tenochtitlan and ensured their dominion over neighbouring city states.
Centre of the Aztec cult of blood sacrifice; blood ‘fed’ the sun god and kept creation going.
Foremost tribal god of the Aztecs. God of the sun, war and death.
Conflated with the earlier Mesoamerican pre-eminent god Tezcatlipoca.
The souls of sacrificial victims travelled with Huitzilopochtli for 4 years as he guided the sun across the sky, then became hummingbirds.
(Originally the name of a Toltec leader deified as one of the creator gods.)
Feathered Serpent/ Precious Twin (associated with Venus, as the morning star) Rescued the first man and woman from the God of Death and gave them renewed life by mixing their bones with his blood.
Mesoamerican god of fertility, god of the winds. Closely related to Tlaloc, god of the rains. Considered by the Aztecs to be a ‘friendly rival’ to Huitzilopochtli
Dog-headed / Evil Twin (associated with Venus as the evening star)
God of the underworld/Night/ darkness
(Omnipotent and omniscient god of the Mesoamerican pantheon.) Originally 4 gods with this name from each compass point with different attributes.
Blue (limbed) Hummingbird (of the south).
Lord of the Smoking Mirror/ Lord of Shadows, able to see into the hearts of men.
God of death and darkness. Introduced drunkenness and carnality into the world. Protector of the sun as it travels under the earth and helps it to rise again at dawn.
Conflated with Huitzilopochtli by the Aztecs
Lady Precious Green/ Lady of the Jade Skirt/ Lady of the Sea and Lakes
Goddess of water – wife of Tlaloc, god of rain.
Mesoamerican god of Fertility.
Shared pre-eminence with Huitzilopochtli – associated with death through famine and natural disasters.
God of Rain, agriculture and Corn
Associated with the mountains, rivers and seas
Associated with the worship of Tlaloc, Chalchihuitlicue, Chicomecoatl (goddess of sustenance) and Centeotl (god of maize)
Goddess of the young ears of corn.
Goddess of the Hearth
Title given to the High Priest of Huitzilopchtli