VIIId. Strength in Small Numbers

“Behavioral instability, physical deformity with long-term heavy use, and really nasty withdrawal symptoms. But those side effects tend to seem less pressing when you can walk through fire without burning.”

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“Charlie, hold on a second.” I get his attention as the generals and consuls leave the war room. Valeria looks back for a moment, then goes to wait for me in the hall.

“What’s on your mind?” He looks much more relaxed now that it’s just the two of us. Out of the scrutiny of public eyes, his brows have risen and his jaw unclenched.

“I need a favor,” I say, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Do you know anyone named Abel Carter?”

“No, that name isn’t familiar. Why? Is he a problem?”

“I’m not sure. I think he’s going to be.”

“I see,” he folds his arms. “Does Valeria know about this? I doubt she’d approve.”

“No, I haven’t told anyone else.”

He smiles. “I’ll take a look in the Rookery, see if the Info Department had any records on someone with that name.”

“Check if it’s an alias, too.”

“That could take a while. A lot got destroyed or misplaced when we sacked the place.”

“If you can’t find anything, start putting together a dossier. I’ll give you in the information as I find out more myself.”

“Sure thing, Lexi. And please: be careful out there.”

***

“Anything I need to know about?” Valeria asks me.

“No, just a personal matter.” She nods slowly. “Now,” I continue, “you have a lot of explaining to do, and I’d rather get it done before I have to declare war on someone else.”

“Of course. Your office is this way.”

One floor below us is an that must occupy half of this floor of the tower: a panorama window overlooks the view to the south, and what a view it is. Fortuna’s wealthier districts lie before me: marvels of classical architecture with marble columns and painted frescoes, gardens and fountains, office complexes in glass, brass and steel shining like precious metals in the sunlight. Beyond the pale concrete walls, an army crouches in wait. Locomotives unload their deadly cargoes of soldiers, large weapons, ammunition crates, and armored vehicles before returning on train tracks to their southern supplier. Baculus Enterprises, if memory serves. Those tracks stretch through a desert of carnelian sands, stained red and sparkling under a boiling sun.

The office itself is mostly empty space, but the eye is drawn to the burnished, golden desk and matching chair behind it. The floor rises with a series of steps to the desk, so that anyone who enters must look up to the seated ruler, their head framed by sunlight. This is no office: it’s a throne room.

I hesitate, then make my way to the chair. Better get used to playing the part sooner instead of later.

“What would you like to know, Alex?” Valeria stands before the desk, unblinking as she faces the sun. In the light, she seems ablaze with power and confidence. I envy her.

“Let’s start with an easy one,” I say. “What is an Angelfool?”

She smiles coyly. “Not so easy. The short answer is no one is really sure. Throughout the Fortune Coast’s history, officials have documented a number of individuals gifted with unusual insight about events past and future. No family relationships to each other, no unifying experiences, nothing to connect them. These people used to be called prophets, but they quickly decided amongst themselves that they were uncomfortable with the title. They chose Angelfools as a more appropriate description.”

“And I’m one of them?”

“Yes, or at least your experiences as you’ve described match up with those of other Angelfools.”

“Namely?”

“Experiencing significant events out of chronological sequence. Premonitions of danger in more immediate circumstances. And CASH-derived powers that surpass those achievable by other humans.”

“The lightning, you mean?”

“Exactly. But I want to be clear that we really don’t know why that happens. There have been very few scientific studies of Angelfool physiology and psychology.”

“Are we very rare?”

“Extremely so. But their insight leads them to positions of power, so they tend to be overrepresented in those circles. Over fifty years ago, Regent Capricus got paranoid and ordered a purge of all known Angelfools in the Fortune Coast. Angelfools have tended to keep a lower profile since then. Virgus was the first Angelfools to come out publicly since the purges.”

“Consul Ricimer? He’s an Angelfool too?” That might explain some things.

Valeria nods. “You should really be asking him these questions. He knows much more about Angelfools and their history than I do.”

“I think he hates me.”

“He doesn’t trust you. You killed his Regent and dismantled a power structure that kept him safe for over three decades.”

“Oh, is that all?” I’m about to ask her why I placed him in my inner circle, but something about keeping enemies closer springs to mind.

“What about CASH?” I ask instead. “Everyone seems to care about it a lot.”

“CASH keeps Fortune running. Arius invented it as a nutritional supplement when Pecunia Mills had a bad harvest several years ago. The catalyst lets the body derive energy from substances it normally couldn’t, like metallic compounds. It also lets the body process and release that energy in a variety of ways, like increased strength or speed. Angelfools react to CASH differently, and it lets them discharge energy more directly. In your case, as electricity.”

“But not in every case.”

“No, and—”

“You don’t know why.”

Her smile is rueful. “Ricimer never consented to a study, and you’re the only other high-profile Angelfool we’ve known about since CASH was invented.”

I rub my eyes. Even though the sun is behind me, its reflection off Valeria makes her hard to look at directly. “Any side effects to CASH.”

“Yeah, I’d say so.” She crosses her arms. “Behavioral instability, physical deformity with long-term heavy use, and really nasty withdrawal symptoms. But those tend to seem less pressing when you can walk through fire without burning.”

“Sounds like it would make soldiers very effective. And loyal.”

“Arius thought so.”

“And we’re about to go to war.” I steeple my fingers. “How much of this stuff do we have?”

Author: Ben Ginsburg

I'm a writer, a storyteller, and a dreamer. As a recent graduate of UC Davis with a shiny new B.A., I decided its finally time to start writing that novel. So join me as I write, rewrite, and talk about it.

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