Everything is dry. My mouth, my eyes, the air. The sky is dry, baked and hollow. I can see it through a hole in the rubble, noon haze glaring at me.
Can’t move. Limbs numb.
Footsteps. Someone else survived.
“Help.” Cracked and thin. Have to do better than that.
Third time’s a charm.
“Don’t move!” No risk of that. “I’m getting you out of there!”
A silhouette appears, haloed by the parched sky. The rubble shifts, and he levers a slab of wall off me. Needles of pain pierce my legs as blood flow returns, and I can’t keep the scream in.
“Sorry, friend. No getting around it. Come on, up you go.”
An arm under my legs, another under my back. I shut my eyes, but the glare is still orange through the lids. He sets me on unsteady feet, and I lean on him.
“Let’s get you out of the sun.”
We hobble this way or that way, I don’t bother complaining. I’m sure he gets the idea from my groans of pain. Legs quaking from circulation, skin blistered and burnt, head ringing.
Then shade. Blessed shade. And blessed water. Warm, but wet. HE only lets me drink for a few seconds.
“Not too fast, friend, you’ll get sick.”
“Thank you,” I gasp. Not so cracked, still thin. “More, please.”
Another quick sip.
I breathe for a while. It’s not so orange anymore. I blink, rub my eyes. Mistake. The eyelids are burnt, inflamed.
“Easy there,” my rescuer says, voice muffled. “You must have been caught in the blast like me. You look terrible.”
“How bad is it?”
“You won’t win any elections, but I’ve seen worse.”
“Well, it’s an honor just to be nominated.”
He chuckles. I blink again, and now I’m starting to see contrasts, dark against light. Buildings blocking out the diffused sun. A man crouched in front of me, swathed in linen wraps. His face is covered with a scarf, hood up. A pair of gloves lie in the dust next to him, by the canteen. His hands are covered in shiny pink blisters, and he’s holding some kind of spear.
“Where are we?”
“Templeton, just on the edge of Prosper Plaza. That’s Prosper Tower behind me. Well, what’s left of it.”
I lean and squint, then wince away. The tower is a jagged pillar of light, glass and steel. It’s mostly shattered and twisted, but it’s reflecting the sun all the same.
“What happened? You said there was a blast.”
He squats, hands on his knees. “You don’t remember? It was kinda hard to miss.”
“I remember the blast, but nothing else. Everything’s shuffled.”
“You probably hit your head.”
“I think I hit a lot more than my head.”
“At least you didn’t forget a sense of humor.”
“Small favors.” I give him a once over. “You’re burned all over?”
“My own mother wouldn’t recognize me. I’ll try and find you some sturdier clothes; you won’t get far in those.”
He points at my rags. Whatever pattern may have marked them is burned and blasted away, and the skin isn’t much better. The pain has subsided to a low simmer, so there’s that.
“Listen friend,” he says. “We can’t stay here very long. I’m going to go find us some supplies, and then we have to get out of the open.”
“We aren’t the only survivors, but most of the others aren’t as friendly or as well spoken as I am.”
“Lay off the charm, I’m not voting for you.”
He presses a gun into my hand. “Just in case.”
“I didn’t get your name.”
He extends a hand. “Abel.”
“Alex.” Before I can shake, he jerks it away. I can’t see his face, or his eyes, but I think he’s looking at the gun he just gave me. After a long moment, he takes my hand.
“I’ll be back soon. Don’t do anything foolish.”
Foolish. And I heard a voice calling me “Fool” before I blacked out. Might be a coincidence, might not.
I clearly mean something to him, and not in a good way. Do I have a reputation? He didn’t recognize me, but that may be thanks to the burns. Exactly how bad do I look?
Mirror. The tower has reflective stuff all over it.
What could it hurt?
Now that I’ve rested for a few minutes, I don’t feel as bad as I thought. Legs starting to feel again, eyes adjusting to the day. I survey my surroundings.
The plaza — Prosper Plaza? — is a vast hexagon surrounding the tower. Debris litters the space: smashed kiosks and wares, torn clothing and trampled food, sandstone rubble and spent coins. I pick one up, careful not to cut myself on the filed edge. One side bears a six-winged figure, the other a geometric pattern of crossing and parallel lines.
No weapons, and no bodies. Could be more than one reason for that.
And it’s quiet. No wind, no birds, no insects. Just my footsteps, cautious and tender.
Oh, I’m wearing boots. I hadn’t noticed before. Probably why my feet aren’t burning off. Gotta be grateful for the little things.
And then I see my reflection in the mirrored tower walls. I almost retch.
My face — what used to be my face — is one massive sore. Angry and bloody, inflamed with burns. If I had hair, it’s gone now. Eyebrows too. I crane closer. Yup, took the eyelashes for good measure. But my eyes, remarkably, look pretty okay. No burnt retina or red sclera, and I can open and close them without problem. Brown irises, so that’s normal. Again, little things.
Nearby, I think I see the place where Abel dug me out. A slab of concrete and rebar has been overturned. There’s a jacket lying underneath, tattered and torn. But I recognize the pattern, the crimson and sky-blue diamonds.
And next to it, also mine? A metal rod, engraved with a spiral design along its length like a coiled spring. There’s a holster on my belt that looks like they were meant to be to together.
Rod, jacket, and a face to my name. Not bad. And I didn’t get myself hurt on the way.
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