The light comes on, and my skin burns and blisters.
“This is your residence, Alex,” Abel says. “You remember that much, don’t you?”
“Of course, sorry,” I reply, blinking away spots. “I must still be disoriented.”
Right where I left off, then. Same place, different time. My eyes adjust, and I recognize the bedroom now from my morning with Valeria. Same king-sized mattress, same writing desk, same open space. Different walls, though. The sepia, umber, and sky blue stripes are barely visible underneath hundreds of scraps of paper in all sizes. Some are little more than a quick scrawl on a hand-sized note; others appear to be ripped from books on chemistry, mechanics, and mysticism; pages of extended reports and situational briefings are taped to each other in long vertical banners that hang to the floor; here and there a tarot card has been pinned to a photograph of an individual, a place, an object schematic, the full 78-card deck spread around the room and punctuating the black-and-white storm with dabs of color. On the wall where the windows have been boarded up, the centerpiece is a massive geometric diagram on a vertical canvas, a series of rings, arches and spheres forming a bulbous globe that tapers to a point at the top, supported by a single column descending from the apex through the bottom of the sphere and terminating below at a rounded point. The whole thing looks like a fat teardrop, or a candle flame. The diagram has been annotated with numbers and symbols, and crimson strings radiate from these annotations to supporting documents across the walls of the room. On the floor, someone — probably me, as I’m unfortunately realizing — has carved dozens of concentric and intersecting circles, divided into quarters, fifths, tenths, or smaller segments. The room is illuminated by a latticed light bulb the size of my head and shaped like an upside-down version of the diagram.
Maybe it’s good that I don’t remember this.
Abel lets out a slow whistle. “I knew you went off the deep end, but I didn’t know it was this bad.”
“Is there a reason you wanted to come here, besides reveling in my alleged madness?”
“Your people built up this place to withstand a siege. Once we secure it, the building should be safer than any other place in Templeton. I’m surprised you left it open, though.”
“Maybe I didn’t expect to come back.”
“Huh.” He turns to me, face still concealed under the scarf and goggles. “So you didn’t leave anything behind that could help us survive? Weapons, CASH, anything?”
“Damn.” Abel rubs his head, the smooth sound of cloth against metal. “Check the bed, closet, desk, anywhere you might’ve left something. I’m gonna go downstairs and look for food. Then we should talk about next steps.”
I agree, and Abel leaves me to my ministrations.
The bed smells of dried sick and sweat, the sheets torn and stitched and torn again. The closet holds a variety of clothes in my size, matching outfit colors ranging from sunny yellow to stormy navy. The desk is covered with writing implements and watches in various states of dismemberment, but none so fine as the one in my pocket. I crouch on the floor, tapping the circles of polished wood. The knock sounds hollow.
Running my fingers along the wood, I come to a ring that seems more like a panel than a carving. The disk is demarcated into twelve equal segments, with the round inner circle blank and empty. I look closer, and find a small, thin hole in the gap between two segments. A keyhole, perhaps?
Twelve segments suggests a clock. I go back to the desk, spreading out the watches and pens.
A winding key. Small, thin, with a tiny pair of feathered wings as a handle. I try it in the slot, and the central disk slides away.
Underneath the floor are dozens of brown paper packages the size of bricks; the one directly below me has the top torn off, revealing glittering carnelian pills.
A treasure trove of CASH, enough for a small army. The packages are marked with colored stripes and small labels to indicate their contents: black ThickSkin, blue SharpEye, red StrongArm, green SlipSneak, white QuickStep, yellow FarReach. The open package is an anonymous purple. Next to it is a large glass bottle labeled “Medley.”
Abel can’t know about this. Not all of it, at least.
I remove the medley bottle, rainbow pills glistening like circus candy. From downstairs, the savory smell of soup catches my nose. Abel must have found some food.
In the kitchen, Abel has removed his outerwear and scarf. He wears brown military body armor, and a gray steel theatrical tragedy mask covers his face, with only small openings for his mouth and nostrils. He turns to me, eyes hidden behind mirrored glass.
“I found some CASH in the desk,” I say, lifting up the bottle. “It’s not much, but better than nothing.”
“It’ll do for now.” He stirs the soup as he talks, steam rising from the surface. “There’s plenty of food in the pantry. Mostly canned, should last us a while if necessary.”
“How long is that? Shouldn’t we be trying to get out of here as soon as possible?”
“Still thinking of yourself,” Abel says, lips curling into a frown beneath the mask. “There are other survivors in Fortuna. They need help. Our help.”
“Sheesh, point taken.” I sit down on a bar stool next to the long, quartz-topped kitchen island. Abel serves me a bowl of soup and takes one for himself. We eat in silence, too hungry to pause between gulping spoonfuls. Under that impenetrable metal face, I can’t tell if Abel is searching for meaning in the turgid brown stew or staring at me from heavy brows. I keep my eyes on my bowl, but peripherally, I can see that the skin around his mouth is burned, like mine.
“We should get some rest,” I say after I rinse the bowls in the sink. “We can look for other survivors starting tomorrow.”
“I’ll take first watch.” He grabs his spear and heads the front door. I leave the CASH on the table, and ascend into madness.