Spin, slap, toss, kick.
No thought, no pause, no fear.
The gun is still midair as I sidekick his stomach. He crumples, hissing at me. My assailant is lithe and lanky, and he almost coils on the ground. Between the green tatters of what used to be a military uniform and the scaly, warty scabs on his exposed skin, he looks reptilian. The hissing doesn’t help.
I’m about to go for the gun when he snaps out a switchblade and leaps up to attack again.
Lunge bob slash weave stab sidestep. My mind doesn’t know how to do this, but my muscles remember. And he seems predictable, as if I can see where the knife will be and I move to be somewhere else.
There. He goes wide with a slash, I go in and punch him right in his gut. He squeals and falls again, and this time he stays down, whimpering.
It was almost invisible with all the waves of heat radiating off the pavement, but with a misplaced step, I know where to look. A humanoid shape, outlined in bent sunlight, creeping closer to me. And a second, third, fourth.
Shit. Where was that gun again?
Oh right, I have one.
I fumble a bit pulling the gun out of my belt, and that’s all they need. One of them cuts my arm, and drop the gun with a yelp.
Focus on staying alive. Don’t let them touch you.
We dance, these copper-scaled madmen and I. When I stop thinking, stop planning, everything seems to flow. I thread between their knives, dodging and striking. The air crackles with static, and I feel an energy course through my limbs, sourceless and diffused. It clears the fuzz in my mind, the clogged lactic acid from my stiff joints, and then I am spinning, wheeling, laughing.
I punch with a snapping spark, and a scaly man shoots backwards like a rubber band. The others pause, staring at the electricity arcing between my fingers.
They seem to think so too. They turn tail and run, fading into the air with a shimmer. The two that I dropped just groan in pain.
I breathe toasted air. My adrenaline fades, and the lightning fades as well. I’m about to go when I catch my reflection in the mirrored walls of Prosper Tower. The burns have started to heal. The shiny, bloody blisters have started fading, turning pink.
Abel has a lot of explaining to do.
“Don’t forget the invisible snake people.”
“Oh, the Copperfangs aren’t anything new. Just crazier than they used to be.”
Good to know.
“Abel, are you going to tell me what’s going on or not? I’d like to know about any monster people that want to stab me, if that’s not too much to ask.”
“Let’s get somewhere safer, and then I’ll try to answer your questions.”
“Fine. I could use the exercise.”
We set off through the streets, guns in hand. If the sun is moving, it’s difficult to tell. Haze diffuses light almost uniformly, and shade is hard to come by. Abel brought me a scarf to cover my face and head, so instead of sunburns I just have my own choking sweat to worry about. We creep through a vacated city, past storefronts with windows smashed and wares looted, wheelless rickshaws and overturned street vendor kiosks. At first, I think I can hear animal cries: barking dogs and screeching birds, but the longer I listen, the more they sound like people. Their notes sound imitative, like an actor offstage creating sound effects. Every time we hear them, Abel leads me in the opposite direction.
Our path traces alleys and backstreets, intersecting wheel spokes and widow webs. Buildings constructed of sandstone and limestone, painted and plastered with advertisements. “Heavenly Styles at Earthly Prices!” next to theatrical costumes with lozengy patterns. “LIVE with PURPOSE: CASH by Chariot” above a crowing white rooster. “BOGO: Seizing Destiny + Guiding Destiny” under a pair of eponymous books that look like memoirs. Interspersed with these are bits that sound more like propaganda. “The Eyes of the Future are Upon Us” accompany a huge pair of blue eyes, one deep and the other light. “Defender of the People” proclaims a poster of a winged man with a comedy mask cracking a whip at mythical beasts with mixed animal parts. “Who Counsels the Consul?” seems to suggest the insincerity of a sneering woman gripping the comedy mask in absurdly clawed hands. Many of these posters have been stuck over each other, silent debates raging on the walls.
Our stumbling path takes us eventually to an open square, which an arched sign above the entrance declares “Martyr’s Quad.” Gazing over the square, almost untouched by whatever happened before I woke up, is a shining bronze statue of a woman in robes and a spiky crown. “Our Fallen Star,” says the plaque at the base. She holds a pitcher tipped towards her bare feet, but if water once flowed here, it’s stopped now. The face is angular, fierce, determined. Did her sacrifice achieve the victory she hoped for?
Abel heads to a large, sturdy door in the center of one of the apartment blocks framing the square. Unlike the other flats, the door is still on its hinges. He fiddles with a keyring and opens a series of locks, hauls it opens and we slip inside.
He lets out a slow whistle. The flat — if that would be an appropriate name — is lavish. Gold-leaf symbols accent the wallpaper, from which hang paintings of fractals. The floor is tiled in different colors of marble, and the furniture is embroidered with tessellating animal shapes that flow from one into another, a raven’s beak in the nook of a tiger’s arm, an angel cradling a pair of koi. And clocks, everywhere. Grandfather clocks loom along the walls like suits of armor, orreries hang from the ceiling, even the table in the entryway seems to be a clock, concentric rings marking out increments of time out to months.
And it all has stopped. No ticking or grinding, no mechanisms turning. No light, either, besides what pours in from the doorway. It’s enough to see the wealth, the obsession, and the loneliness.
“No accounting for taste, huh Alex?”
“I think the accounting was pretty good, if you ask me.”
Another chuckle. I’m getting good at this. “But this is—” He stops. “Never mind. We should find the backup sphere.”
Is it even worth asking at this point?
We move through the flat, living room, kitchen, den, library; each room as ostentatious as the first, each chaotic with symbols and timepieces. One of the bookcases swings out on oiled hinges, behind which is a spherical device made of glass and intersecting rings made of precious metals.
“Want to do the honors?”
“Turn it on.”
“With what switch?”
“Just give it a little zap.”
“Like you did with the Copperfangs. It needs a jolt.”
“And how exactly do I do a ‘little zap?’”
“Hell if I know.”
Okay, improv. I place a hand on the sphere, and unbidden, I feel a pulse. It starts at the base of my spine, courses up and out, vibrates my skin. I feel warm, then hot, then wired. The sensation fills my brain, my vision glows, and electricity branches from my fingers to the sphere. Flanges on the inside of the rings start spinning, and we have our lightning in a bottle.
The lights come on, incandescent and warm, casting the gold-leaf into brilliance.
“I summon lightning and the best you can say is ‘nice?’”
“Let’s make sure the rooms upstairs are clear.”
We head up to the residential part of the suite, with an office, some kind of laboratory, and a locked bedroom.
“What is this place,” I ask as Abel opens the door.
FLASH. The lights blind me for a moment. And then, a woman’s voice.
“Alex, a little privacy please.”
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