Different place, different time. Earlier, I think. Charlie has fewer lines on his face, no anxious crease between his eyes, less salt in his hair. Pinky raised as he points his bottle at me.
“This young man saved a lot of lives that day,” he says. “Well, not the driver’s life, but that’s no great loss, am I right?”
The others around the table let out a whoop of agreement and drink. I do too. Keep up appearances.
“Not only,” Charlie continues, “did we give a bunch of cogs a new chance at better jobs, but we made out like bandits with a whole shipment of top-grade CASH. Made it a whole lot easier finding new lodgings in Blueroof once we got into town.”
“Not to mention this snazzy new jacket,” I say, brushing imaginary dust off the sleeve, crimson and blue murmuring like blood and wine in the low light.
“And RegSec hasn’t come after you?” This from a dark young man with dry patches of skin on his arms.
“The static storm must have wiped the video feeds. Between the equipment damage, injured RegSec officers and dead driver, I guess they figured a few AWOL cogs wasn’t worth the trouble.”
“But a CASH shipment probably is worth the trouble, Charlie,” I cut in. “Maybe we should be a little cautious about spreading word of our exploits around a crowded bar.”
“Au contraire, Lexi! Don’t be so humble!” He rubs my back with one hand. “I was the worried one after we escaped,” now to the others. “And Alex told me that RegSec was probably so embarrassed by the whole thing that spreading word about it would keep them off our case. No one wants to tell their superiors that one cog took out a whole division of Regency Security, a driver, and stole twenty kilos of product by himself. With a little getaway help from his workmate, of course.”
Charlie reaches into my coat pocket and pulls out a small glass bottle filled with carnelian pills. The label reads StrongArm. The eyes around the table gleam with hunger. “And we’re offering very reasonable prices for the stuff. Twenty crowns per pill.”
“With a ten percent discount if you buy the whole bottle,” I add, swiping it back to my pocket.
“I don’t know, boys,” says a round-faced woman a few years older than the rest of us. “I’ve heard some rumors goin’ round that Arius told the Tinbeaks to scan the city for undermarket CASH more than usual. Maybe making a deal in a Prosper Plaza bar isn’t the most…discrete way of doing business right now.”
“Oh, forget discrete!” I slam my hand on the table. The bar goes quiet, and folks turn around towards me.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit ironic that in Prosper Plaza we’re supposed to be afraid to do business how we want? Has anyone in here prospered recently? We’re only doing alright because we’ve been selling illegal shit. Does that seem right? Does that seem fair?”
The crowd seems more inconvenienced than indignant. Time for some showmanship.
“We deserve more than this. Drinking our money away after a long and painful day at work. Scraping together what’s left for rent, food, clothing. Hiding in the shadows to make a profit on an undermarket deal. And the likes of Arius and Regency Security have us running with tails between our legs while they go where they want and have what they want. Well I want more. Don’t you all want more?”
This gets a rumbling of approval.
“So let’s take it.” I stand with one foot on my chair and the other on the table, scaling the world’s smallest mountain. I fish a coin out of my pocket, stamped with a stern, heavy-browed face on one side and a bundle of rods on the other. “We’re more than just cogs in someone else’s machine. If we want it, we can have for it.” I flip the coin in the air, feel the energy in the room coil and hum, every eye rapt on me.
“And like a flash of lightning—” I snatch the coin midair and my fist crackles with electricity — “we can change the world.”
Gasps. Whispers. Murmurs.
Charlie stares with a blend of awe, affection and amusement. Quite endearing, really. He’s kind of the only one. Then a gruff voice from the back: “I bet there’s a reward for a freak like him!” A large man with chemical-bleached green-blonde hair lurches across the room towards me.
The others at my table scoot back in their chairs, stand up, ready to fight. Great, we’re doing this again. I reach to my belt, grabbing the rod that I know will be there. Oh look, it has a button on the handle. I wonder what this does. I point at the staggering drunk and click. A spring snaps out and strikes him across the shoulder, then wraps around his arm like a physics-defying whip. A quick tug and he falls off balance, and the spring-whip coils back to my hand.
Then I fall off balance as someone grabs me from the side, and we crash to the floor. What happened to my finely-honed battle instincts? Watch the peripherals next time. The grappler smells like smoke and rubbing alcohol. Charlie lifts him off me, slaps him one-two across the face and sucker punches his gut.
“I’m the only one who gets to do that,” he quips.
“Is now really the time, Charlie?” I say as I take his preferred hand off the floor.
“Never a bad time, Lexi. Let’s get to work.”
By now the bar is in full brawl. The staff has helpfully cleared away the furniture in the center of the room, and the brawlers are helpfully fighting away from breakable property. Another drunk man rumbles towards us. I grab my drink, sling it in his face, and Charlie drops down to sweep his leg out. The next one gets a napkin across the eyes, and I spin around to his back, grab his arm and press his lower back to make him fall.
We continue like this, trick and trip, feint and fall, one and the other, Charlie and I slipping through the crowd like needle and thread. The spring-whip lashes out to snap, snag, and startle. No lightning; I don’t want to seriously hurt these folks. Charlie nudges me towards the exit, and I get the hint. We sneak out into the street crowd as three navy-uniformed security officers rush to the bar. I hear barks and cracks as they lay into the brawl.
We head down an alley and catch our breath.
“Lexi, that was a bit much. What’s gotten into you?”
“The future, Charlie. A vision of a brighter future.”