This is part one of a series of bar scenes from my published and soon to be published alternate history novels. Most of them involve ISOTs of some kind. The trick is to figure out as much as you can about the alternate history from the scene. Feel free to speculate in the comments.

TenochtitlanJuly 1941

Amber McDonald was loud and brassy, but the red-haired woman was good at dealing cards. She smoothly dealt Gilbert a card-sized something extra in his second poker hand. Her costume made covert transfers easier, a tight, sleeveless men’s white t-shirt with nothing under it. The white t-shirts, plus short cotton skirts, were a kind of uniform for women employees in Emerald Dreams, but Amber’s figure barely fit in the t-shirt and she took advantage of it, drawing male eyes away from her dealing.

Gilbert expertly palmed whatever Amber had given him and slid it into his pocket. None of the other players seemed to notice, though an Aztec commoner dressed in western jeans and dress-shirt eyed Gilbert a split second too long after the exchange.

He probably thinks she slid me a hideaway card. The chance of getting accused of cheating should be minor as long as he didn’t win too many pots. Which I won’t without cheating.

The Irish ‘businessmen” who leased Snake Island frowned on cheating unless they did it and when they frowned on something, they sent tough Irish bouncers or Aztec organized crime thugs, the so-called Kings of the Night, after the offender. Irish mobsters hiring Aztec organized crime. It’s a crazy world.

Amber worked at Emerald Dreams, Snake Island’s top of the line casino. Top of the line meant prices were high, but the alcohol was good even by European standards and the place had indoor plumbing, a post-Blip innovation, plus electric lights in fixtures that had been hastily added after the Blip, with wiring running along the support beams. They were powered by a generator that rumbled a few rooms away, causing the stone floors to vibrate almost imperceptibly.

Emerald Dreams was literally at the top of the pyramid, a truncated, one-hundred-foot-tall pyramid that dominated Snake Island and had once supposedly belonged to a mad Aztec noble turned pirate. The Irish businessmen had leased the island and turned an abandoned pleasure palace at the top of the pyramid into a decent, though somewhat mixed architecture, casino. Late mad Aztec nobleman meets just-upgraded from outhouse. The electric wires weren’t that noticeable, but they were a discordant touch.

They weren’t the only discordant touch in Emerald Dreams. Europeans in business suits, mostly Germans, talked business with Aztec nobles in traditional cotton finery, the kind of business they wouldn’t want to read about in tomorrow’s newspapers. Aztec commoners also did business here, but only with each other or with Europeans rather than with Aztec nobles. The commoners wore mostly blue jeans and European-style shirts and were ostentatiously ignored by the nobles. At one table, men and a woman from the Nations of the North sat silently, watching, but not interacting with Europeans or Aztecs.

Emerald Dreams. The owners played up the place’s bloody past. Placards in front of silver goblets in a glass showcase by the entrance claimed that Aztec pirates used them to drink a mixture of wine (more likely the weak native beer) and blood, which may have been true but would have probably tasted awful. Anything and Aztec beer tasted awful, at least to Gilbert. An acquired taste.

“Over four hundred years. You would think they could have figured out how to make decent beer or wine,” Gilbert said.

“They didn’t know what they were missing,” Amber said.

Young Indian women in the same kind of costume Amber wore—short cotton skirts and spotlessly white sleeveless men’s undershirts cut short to reveal their midriffs—moved among the men, taking drink orders and avoiding groping hands. If someone got too drunkenly hands-on, big almost stereotypically Irish-looking bouncers moved in. That didn’t happen often. Emerald Dreams was for off-the-record business and diplomacy, not getting drunk and pawing the help. There were other, more dangerous places on Snake Island for getting drunk and rowdy, bars catering to Aztec workmen and serving the awful Aztec beer, along with peyote and hallucinogenic mushrooms and, more recently, European cocaine and morphine—good places to get a knife in your back.

A serving woman took orders around the table but hesitated when she got to Gilbert. “American, right? We don’t take dollars here. Gold, silver or anything European is fine. We don’t have anything against Americans, just your money.”

“Dollars will be like gold again someday,” Gilbert said. The words came automatically, but without conviction. He bought a surprisingly good wine, using British pounds. Ironically, California gold and Nevada silver meant that dollars probably had more precious metals backing them than most European currencies. But money is only as good as people think it is.

“Dollars are as good as gold,” Gilbert said. “We have plenty of gold to back them up.”

“Until someone grabs the mines,” the woman said. “Then your dollars are just paper. Americans are all ‘over there rich’,”

Gilbert cringed at the description. It did fit some Americans, the ones who wandered Europe or the New World, not accepting that the wealth they once had in US houses, farms, factories and bank accounts were all gone. Of course it also fit a lot of Europeans who had invested in those same things in the US or Latin America. Some formerly wealthy Europeans made a precarious living selling rights to their missing New World assets for a few cents on the dollar. If the Blip reverses, some people will have gotten some real bargains. Some people would also find out that they had been defrauded, of course. If we ever get a court system going over here, it will be busy for a hundred years sorting all the financial stuff out.

The woman offered him a cigarette, which he refused. “I don’t smoke. Good thing too after the Blip.”

 “Miss your old world?” the Aztec commoner asked. “The one where America was on top, if you believe the Americans I’ve talked to?”

“I haven’t had much time to think about it.” That was partly true, though not as completely as Gilbert wished. “Do you miss your old world, the one without Europeans or Americans?”

“Not at all,” the guy replied. “In the old ways, you were a noble or a commoner and that couldn’t change. Now, if a commoner is smart, he can live better than a noble.” The Indian grinned. “And the best part is watching the nobles pretend not to notice.”

“And you’re in the same world with Europe,” Gilbert said. “Europeans cut a bloody path across our world, killing and enslaving on almost every continent, then fighting wars among themselves that killed more people than there are in all of Mexico. They were headed for another big war when the Blip happened. They’ll get back to that war eventually.”

And we’re not much better. Maybe worse to Indians. Did the Aztec know that? Aztecs seemed good at sorting truth out of crap, so this guy might know about the bloody US history with Indians. If he did, he didn’t mention it.

Gilbert played cautiously, aware of his embassy’s limited money supply. Even dollars were getting scarce, though no one except Americans accepted them anymore. Backed by the gold and silver of a country that doesn’t exist, though it does have plenty of gold and silver.

He kept an eye on the Aztec commoner. The guy was tall for an Aztec, with wiry muscles playing under his western-style shirt. The serving women treated him differently than they did other Aztec commoners, as though they were drawn to him and a little afraid. The Aztec had ample money and was free with it, ordering drinks for everyone at the table and tipping generously.

New rich commoner? Maybe. Ambitious Aztec commoners could get rich exploiting the Blip’s opportunities and were gaining political power along with their newfound wealth, a situation that traditional Aztec nobles tolerated, but were not happy about. The guy didn’t seem new rich though. He was smooth, as though he was accustomed to money and deference. King of the Night? Gilbert didn’t see the tattoos that usually identified the Aztec gangsters, but he wouldn’t because the guy’s long shirt sleeves would cover them. Last thing I need: an Aztec mobster thinking I’m cheating him.

Gilbert thought about easing away from the game, but he needed to play a few more hands before he could credibly give Amber a large enough tip to keep her information flowing. He grinned at the Aztec. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”

“You couldn’t pronounce my real name,” the guy said in perfect English, with a slight British accent. “European tongues are too thick and clumsy. Call me Josh Lott.”

How do these people pick up languages so fast? Maybe because of the many languages spoken around Lake Texcoco, sort of like Europeans in mixed-language parts of Europe. Maybe also because learning the new languages meant a way out of the poverty that was an Aztec commoner’s lot before the Blip.

Based on the conversations around them, the Aztecs had picked up a lot of English and German in the two years since the Blip. Gilbert introduced himself, using a cover name. His position in the embassy wasn’t too well-known, but why take the chance of getting identified?

And I think he knows who I really am. Gilbert couldn’t put his finger on why, but something about the guy’s expression made him wary.

“This building was a pleasure palace for an Aztec nobleman turned pirate,” Josh said. “They called his men the Atzoatl, which sort of translates to ‘Dirty Water’. The Atzoatl terrorized Lake Texcoco for forty years during the time of troubles. Then decades ago, cities around the lake united against them and trapped them on top of this pyramid, where they held out until they ran out of food and water. They tried to escape with their treasure, but most were killed, and their canoes sunk off the northern tip of the island.”

That was all true as far as Gilbert knew, and there was worse. Human sacrifice had mostly faded away in Mexico hundreds of years ago, but the Atzoatl had revived the custom, along with other dark practices, to terrorize their enemies.

The Atzoatl had been more than pirates, though. They were a rogue part of an Aztec organized crime network whose name roughly translated to “Kings of the Night.” And the Kings are still around, maybe even at this table, using the Blip to get richer.

They played a few more hands, then Gilbert tipped Amber generously and left. He went to a bathroom stall and looked at what Amber had given him. It was a photograph, cropped to playing card size. In the picture, six airplanes, probably German Ju-90 transports, though they didn’t exactly match pictures of the big new German transports British intelligence had recently shown the Americans. On the back of the picture, Amber had written a note in small neat letters:

“Forty planes there last night. Will probably load tonight or tomorrow morning.” The note gave a location about twenty miles from Lake Texcoco.

German transport planes in Mexico? That wasn’t impossible, but it didn’t seem likely. Could the planes have flown in? Not from Germany. The Ju-90 was much bigger, with a much longer range than Germany’s older Ju-52s, but nowhere close to long enough for a Germany to Mexico flight. Through Spain and the Canary Islands? Still far beyond their range, even flying one way. Could they make it flying empty, stripped down and with drop tanks? Gilbert didn’t think so but couldn’t rule it out. Could the Germans have brought them in broken down and assembled them in Mexico? Maybe, but British and American intelligence kept a close eye on German freighters coming into the country and they hadn’t spotted the big planes on their way in. Also, reassembling the planes in Mexico wouldn’t be a trivial task.

Could the photo be a scam? Gilbert had no reason to trust Amber, though the big red-headed woman’s information had been accurate so far. The picture could have been taken in Germany or Spain. Gilbert didn’t think so though. The transport planes fit too well into his picture of Aztec plans and ambitions. Europeans tolerated the rump US’s claims to the old United States, at least for now, but the Aztecs saw a rival power so close to their homeland as a threat.

If they knock out New Galveston, they’ll like what happens next even less. But Aztec political/military thinking didn’t look that far ahead. Their attitude: hit the immediate problem over the head until it died and let whatever happened after that take care of itself.

Aztecs make Germans look like deep strategic thinkers, which takes some doing.

What now? Gilbert put the picture back in his pocket and headed out of Emerald Dreams. The night was clear, with more stars than Gilbert had ever seen before the Blip. Too many manmade lights back home. Here, torches lit the stairs down the side of the pyramid and from there to Snake Island’s main pier. He suddenly missed streetlights and light leaking out around window shades and car lights going by at all hours of the night. He missed towns that kept going well into the early morning hours. He even missed the smell of half-burned gasoline and cigarette smoke a little.