The Worlds of R. A. Hortz
TZOMPANTLI

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TZOMPANTLI, by R. A. Hortz

Story Trivia: Tzompantli is a Mayan term meaning 'Wall of Skulls' and it describes a platform where the skulls of sacrificial victims, usually of war, were placed.)

Major "Bull Dog" Astor slowly opened his eyes, "I'm alive?" he croaked.

He tried to raise his head but was unable to do so, "Great, I'm paralyzed," he cursed his good fortune. He strained his eyes to look around, but was unable to make out more than the antiseptic white, windowless walls that surrounded his bed. A sweet-smelling breeze puffed out from some hidden vent and one of the walls wavered.

"Damn if it ain't a curtain."

"Is that you Major?" a harsh, scared voice whispered from behind the movable wall.

"Yeah, Dinkins, is that you?"

"Sure is Major, or at least what is left, I can't move."

"Me neither." Astor cringed at the panicked voice of his copilot and wondered if he sounded the same way. "I doubt that either one of us walked away from the crash without serious injuries. We've probably been immobilized so our bones will heal."

"Yeah, that's probably it," the voice on the other side of the wall did not sound so sure. "Have you seen anybody Major? Do you know where we are?"

"Nope, I just woke up. Your guess is as good as mine."

"But this is a hospital, isn't it?"

"Of course it is, where else could we be?"

"I don't know Major, but this sure doesn't smell like any hospital I've ever been in. Maybe we've gone to Glory, or something?"

"Oh come on, don't get religious on me kid." Astor sniffed the air, "but you do have a point. This place sure doesn't smell like a hospital, not a whiff of urine or blood or alcohol. Where are we?" Astor mumbled and shook himself to clear his head. "Dinkins, come on, snap out of it, man. If you keep talking like this, we'll both end up as basket cases. Now listen to me. We are not dead. I repeat. We are not dead. Do you copy?"

"Roger that, Major. It's just, how can we be alive? The last thing I remember is the plane being caught by the blast wave, the window imploded and after that everything went blank."

Astor closed his eyes and remembered the feel of the flames eating his flesh. He tried to keep his memories at bay, but they were persistent, and the more Dinkins rattled on the more real those memories became to him. He felt the urge to cry out, so he bit his tongue to keep from screaming. No matter what had happened, somehow they had survived and it was his duty to set an example for his men, or at least for Dinkins. For the briefest moment he questioned if any other of his men had survived but he silenced the shrill voice in his mind, "Time for answers later," he whispered.

"Don't question the miracles of medical science, Dink, just be happy that you survived and that you've been put back together. Doctors can do some mighty miraculous things."

"They must have. Man, we had to have been hamburger."

"Yeah, well," the image of his burned and mangled flesh turned his mouth sour.

"Hey, Major, what can you see on your side of the room?"

"Nothing much."

"Major, Major," Dink's voice was filled with dread, "I think I hear someone coming, what should I do?"

"If you can't move, you're just going to have to stay there and wait for some old fat hag of a nurse to come and give you an enema or shave off all of your nether hairs."

"Ah, Major," Dink giggled nervously.

Astor strained his ears, trying to hear the sounds Dink heard, but all he could make out was his own heartbeat.

"Major, something's happening," Dink squeaked.

"What?"

"A piece of the wall seems to be melting. Wow!"

Adrenaline rushed through the major's veins as Dink ceased his commentary, "Dink, what is it?"

For a second Astor received no reply. Apprehension seeped into his soul and he tried vainly to rise. Then, as quickly as the fear had gripped him, it subsided.

"Major, you know that old fat hag you mentioned?" Dink asked.

"Yeah."

"Well, man, is she ever a knock out."

"I gather that you boys have been talking about me. Tsk, tsk," a melodious voice sang out. "Guess that means that you're both awake and coherent."

"Who's that?" Astor strained his neck toward the curtain.

"It is I." The curtain retreated just enough to admit a petite, dark-haired woman dressed in a white nurse's uniform and an old-fashioned nurse's cap. She was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen.

"Wow," he said and whistled.

"Seems like you boys both have the same limited vocabulary," she grinned, smoothing her skirt.

"Oh, sorry ma'am, didn't mean to be indelicate." She smiled good-naturedly.

"Could you pull the curtain back further so that I can see Dink?"

"Sure thing." The curtain retreated exposing the full length of the tiny room. The captain could just make out the bald head of Dink peeking out from beneath a stiff, white sheet.

"Hiya, Major." The pale lips moved slowly.

"Hiya, yourself."

"Oh, my, you boys sure can't see each other very well like this, can you. Now look, you've been under restraint so that you would not hurt yourselves."

Astor tried to give Dink an "I told you so" wink, but doubted that Dink saw it.

"I'll release the restraints, but you boys have to promise to take it easy. You'll probably feel quite good, but, nonetheless, no fast movements or you'll find yourselves flat on your backs again. Understand?"

"Yes ma'am," they answered in unison.

Astor followed the young woman with his eyes. He could not tell what she did other than to move to the foot of his bed. Then, suddenly, "boom," it was as if a thousand pounds of weight had been lifted off of his body.

Instinctively he stretched, mentally checking over his body for complaints. Other than a few sore muscles he felt perfect. He threw the sheet from off of his firm, naked body and slowly sat up. For a brief moment the room swam before his eyes, but it quickly settled. Across the narrow room he saw Dink also sitting up, and blushing. Puzzled for a moment, Astor quickly caught on as Dink's eyes moved from his groin to the pretty nurse avoided looking at him.

"Dink always has been a bit of a prude," Astor thought as he pulled the sheet over his lap. Dink nodded his approval and the blush began to fade.

"How long have we been out?" Astor asked.

"Oh, awhile, but that's not important. What is important is that you are both well."

"What about the rest of the crew?" Dink asked.

"That I don't know about."

"Oh," Dink's face dropped for a moment, and just as quickly perked up. "When can we go home?"

"Not for a while, I'm afraid. There are still some tests that have to be run and then there is . . . " she put her hand to her mouth and stilled her lips.

Astor tilted his head and stared at her. He slipped off the bed and draped the sheet around his body. "Miss, is there a phone I can use?"

"No, Major. Until the inquiry over the loss of your plane is completed, you two boys are incommunicado."

"But why?" Dink asked.

"Sorry boys, it's out of my hands. You'll be debriefed soon. In the meantime, here are your clothes." Astor could feel his mouth falling open and clamped it shut. The nurse had been standing right in front of him the whole time, empty handed, and now, suddenly, she held a stack of neatly folded clothes in her arms. "You boys will have to sort out what belongs to whom." She placed the pile on Dink's bed and smiled over her shoulder at Astor. "Don't worry Major, in time all your questions will be answered, as will ours."

She turned toward the wall and it began to melt into shadows of pink and blue. In two steps Astor reached her and grabbed her by the arm. "I don't understand what in the hell is going on. If you can't answer my questions, I demand to speak to . . . "

"Remove your hand at once, Major," her face hardened, "or you may find that you no longer have one."

Astor hung his head and allowed his grasp to slip, "I'm sorry miss, ah, I don't know your name."

"You may call me Coneja."

"Ah, well, Miss Coneja, I'm sorry. It's just very frustrating to wake up in a strange place, not knowing what is going on. And I get the distinct impression that you are giving us the runaround."

"Your feelings are correct, Major," she gave him a saccharine smile and walked through the swirling mass that had been the wall.

As she passed through the wall, it re-solidified. Astor ran forward and touched its cold surface. "It feels like ordinary plaster," he marveled.

"Major, what the hell is going on here? The most beautiful woman in the world just walked through that wall, and Major, when she came in the first time she walked through that wall, I swear," Dink motioned with his head to the rear of the room. "And Major, did you see, the clothes, they just appeared in her arms. Oh, mother of god, we have to be dead." Dink dropped to his knees and clasps his hands in prayer.

"Get off the floor, Dink. I'll grant that something strange is going on here, but we are not dead!"

"How can you be sure?"

Astor shrugged, "I just know, now get up." He roughly pulled his copilot to his feet. "Get dressed."

Dink did as he was ordered. "Major, these are the same clothes that we were wearing the day we bought it," Dink said as he pulled on his pants.

"Naw, can't be, they must have just gotten us some clean clothes from our lockers."

'No Major, remember, at breakfast, I dropped an egg, see the stain is still here, on my pant leg." Dink hopped around on one foot while trying to hold his thigh up to the major's face so he could see the yellowish-green smudge of egg."

"That's impossible." Astor pushed Dink onto the bed and took a closer look at the stain. "It looks like egg," he thought. He pressed his nose down into it. Mingled with Dink's own stink was the faint smell of egg.

"Major, what does this mean?"

"I don't know lieutenant, I just don't know," Astor ran his fingers through his hair, "but one thing for sure, I vote that we get the hell out of here."

"I second that sir, but Major, where are we?"

"I've been giving that some thought. From what I remember about the accident, I don't believe that we could ever have made it back to friendly territory. I bet that when the concussion hit the plane we were thrown clear and somehow survived. The enemy must have found us, patched us up, and now that we are well, they're planning to interrogate us."

Dink blanched, "Yeah, that makes some sense . . . "

The two men spent the next few hours looking around the room, looking for a means of escape. The walls were solid and they could not locate the doorway. Cool air entered the room yet they were unable to discern any vents, nor any light fixtures to explain the soft yellow glow that permeated the room.

"I give up Major, there's no way out of here," Dink threw himself onto his bed.

"If Coneja can come and go, so can we," Astor paced the tiny room. "We'll just have to wait until someone activates the doorway. This must be some new, top secret, high tech holding cell. Next time the door opens, we rush through and see if we can figure out where we are."

They sat mutely side by side, waiting, each man deep in his own thoughts. The only sound that reached them was the random hiss of air entering the room and the growling of their own stomachs.

Astor had begun to drift off to sleep when Dink tapped him on his shoulder. Astor came to instantly and looked about. One of the walls was becoming unstable. Astor nodded to Dink and they both quietly stood up and took positions on either side of the opening that was forming.

Astor could feel his heart beating in his throat. He flexed his muscles, preparing to lunge through the opening. An arm slid through the wall and Astor grabbed it, wrenching Coneja into his arms. She did not resist as he twisted her arm behind her back and pulled her tightly to his chest. With his free hand he grabbed her around the neck and hissed into her ear, "Look, I don't want to hurt you, but something funny is going on here and we are going to get some answers. Let's go." He pushed her through the wall. He could feel Dink's hot breath on his neck.

As his body merged with the wall, Astor felt all the air in his body forced out. His arms became weak and the girl slipped from his grasp. He tried to inhale, but there was no air. He wheezed emptiness and panic shook his body. He was suffocating within the pink and blue swirls of the doorway. Something bashed against his leg and he looked down to find the shadowy form of Dink convulsing at his feet. Abandoning his copilot, Astor rushed onward. The doorway seemed endless, and always, just before him he could make out the laughing form of Coneja. Onward and onward he ran, each step robbing his blood of needed oxygen. "Maybe we are dead, and this is hell," Astor thought as he passed out.

Astor came to, scratching at his throat. Panic surged through his veins and drove him to his feet. He knew his eyes were open, yet he could not see, and then, just as suddenly as terror had over taken him, it vanished - he could breathe.

Slowly, deeply, he inhaled, taking great delight in a bodily function he had never before paid much attention to. He wiped his clammy, wet brow and noticed that the world was growing brighter and he could see. He squinted in the dim light that surrounded him and froze when the first thing he could make out was the form of Coneja, standing silently before him.

"Ah, ah," he stuttered, unsure of how to greet the woman he had just forcefully tried to abduct. She did not make things any easier for him by speaking.

"Ah, where's Dink, is he ok?"

The shadowy form bobbed its head. "He's alive, no thanks to you. We felt it best to separate you two; you're not a very good influence on the poor boy. He'll do better on his own."

"What's going to happen, now?"

"Now, Major Astor, you are going to have all your questions answered. We had planned on giving you a bit more time to adjust but we don't like having malcontents disrupting our routine. Your trial will commence immediately."

"What?" he stammered as a spotlight sprung to light, illuminating him in its glare and casting the rest of the room deeper into darkness. "I was right," he thought, "we've been captured by the enemy . . . "

"Stand still," Coneja ordered as Astor spun about, "you look like a caged rat."

"But that's what I feel like." His voice boomed around him, amplified by some hidden device. Twitters and muttered giggles answered him back.

He spun around again and Coneja came deeper into the light. "Major, please stand still."

His mouth fell open and he let it hang. Gone was her nurse guise. This time she appeared before him in a severe dark suit, her hair pulled back so tightly that her eyes had become mere slits. She tossed a heavy briefcase up, and a table appeared under it. It landed with a loud, echoing thud.

"I demand . . . " Astor growled.

"You may demand nothing," she snapped open her briefcase and extracted a yellow legal pad. She consulted it briefly, "You are Major John Astor, a.k.a. Bull Dog." His flight helmet appeared on the table and the image of the bull dog emblazoned stared at him, mockingly.

"What is going on here?"

"Major, you are being tried for crimes against humanity. Now answer me, are you . . . "

"Of course I am. You already know who I am."

"Were you in command of the Silver Talon when it dropped a nuclear warhead upon a hapless city killing some three million civilians?"

"Look here," Astor advanced toward the table. He placed his hands upon it and leaned toward the girl. "You have no right to try me. I am a soldier and I was carrying out valid orders. Who was killed or how many doesn't concern me. I did my job, you can not hold me accountable for that." Coneja slowly shook her head and from all around him cat calls and boos filled the air.

"Major Astor, did you ever question your orders? Do you not feel any remorse for the millions already dead, or the millions who will die from the long term effects of radiation poisoning?"

"Why should I feel sorry? They were the enemy. Besides if I had refused to do my duty, I'd have been court-martialed and someone else would have just carried out my job. Anyway, they deserved it."

Coneja tossed her legal pad into the briefcase and slammed it shut. "This is pointless," she sighed and spoke to the shadows, "he shows no remorse. Although intelligent he never questioned those that ordered him to murder. I vote for damnation. What is your vote?"

The house lights lit up and Astor was confronted by a stadium full of charred bodies. He looked about, without so much as a pause, the corpses raised their fists, thumbs down. Someone threw a blackened tooth at him and it whacked him in the cheek and fell to the ground with a clank. His hand flew to his face and it came back bloody. "This isn't happening," he screamed.

A harlequin stood up and shouted, "Damn him." One side of the harlequin was a handsome teenager, the other half a blackened skeleton dressed in the remnants of its flesh.

"No! You have no right, the Articles of War," Astor screamed and fell to his knees, burying his head in his hands. "I only did what I was told."

"Major, you have been tried and condemned by those that you killed, we hope that you enjoy your damnation and if you have any complaints, tough." Coneja laughed.

The floor beneath his feet began to part and flames licked up from the depths below, he stood and attempted to run but the crack grew wider. His legs straddled the crack, wider and wider it became, until he was doing a complete split. The flames began eating away at his clothing. Over and over he screamed, "This isn't fair, I was only doing my job. Please, save me."

"Too late, too late," the audience chanted as the crack widened and he began to plummet, head over heals, down into the fiery abyss . . .

"Hey, wake up Major, you having a nightmare?" Dinkins tapped the pilot.

"What?" Astor snapped awake. He would have jumped out of his seat if his flight harness had not held him down. He hurriedly glanced around the cramped flight cabin.

"Sorry to wake you sir, but we are approaching the target coordinates."

"Oh, yes." Astor said, shaking his head in relief. He took several deep breaths, calming his shaky nerves.

Astor keyed his mike so he could speak to the bomber crew. "Listen up men, this one is for real, we're going to drop this baby and get the hell out. Be prepared, just like in the practice runs, we're going to make a sharp turn as soon as she's away and then run for the hill. Sure as hell don't want to get our butts burnt off," he snickered, "so look sharp men." He proudly looked around the cabin, noting the stalwart faces of his men studiously preparing to do a dirty job. "Good luck and good hunting. Let's make the kids back home proud of us, let's cream the bloody bastards," he shouted into the mike. The plane fairly shook with the cheers of the men.

Astor keyed the mike off and reached up to retrieve the clip board holding the pre-bombing check list. A faint, acrid whiff of sulfur seemed to emanate from his sleeve. He crinkled his nose at the smell. "It was just a dream, wasn't it?"

"What was that you said, sir?" Dinkins asked.

"Nothing, " Astor shook his head and flipped through the pages on the clip board.

"Ah well," he slapped his leg. "Time to stop daydreaming and get down to business. Here," he handed the clip board to Dinkins and they began preparing for the final leg of their bombing mission.

Copyright R. A. Hortz - 2005



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