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?”

VIIIc. Strength in Small Numbers

“I’m guessing that our situation is much worse than we let on to the crowd.”

“Thank you, thank you all,” Valeria waves off the hangers-on. “The Electus isn’t taking any more questions today. We have lots of work to do, please move along. Refreshments are in the Grand Hall on the ground floor.”

The reporters groan in anticipation of the long stairway down. The descent is always harder than the climb.

Valeria shuffles me along a hallway to a small conference room. The table is already mostly surrounded by a collection of people in ill-fitting violet military uniforms cinched in with garters and dyed with crimson stripes. They stand to attention as we enter, saluting with three fingers on their eyes and foreheads. Spread out on the surface is a map like the one from the consul chamber, marked with topographical detail and festooned with figurines representing troop positions. I can see immediately that we’re in deep shit.

Fortuna is a coastal city, with the western side on the ocean. Some distance out to sea is an archipelago labeled Calix Shipping and Transporation. Further east expands a swath of farmland and forests, Pecunia Mills & Livestock. To the north, a series of small towns are dotted out amongst the mountains, dubbed Gladio Education and Professional Academies. The southern desert is crisscrossed with railroads between hills, mines and factories, titled Baculus Enterprises and Innovations. And all of them have sent an army to surround the city. We are besieged by land and sea,, stuck behind walls, trenches, imprisoned in our free city.

Does the public know any of this? Or are they so caught up in the honeymoon of victory that a break from reality is acceptable?

“As you were,” I finally remember to say after a few moments of generals staring at me. The medals on their chests jangle as they sit back down. Valeria stands to my right and leans down.

“This is the hard part,” she whispers.

Charlie, Calla, and Ricimer enter a few moments later, each taking a seat close to me at the head of the table. Charlie is at my left. “Alright, let’s get started.”

“I’m guessing,” I begin, “that our situation is much worse than we let on to the crowd.”

“Significantly so, Electus,” Charlie says. “Solara Baculus put out a bounty on all of our heads once word got out about Arius’ death. Fifty thousand crowns for everyone in this room.”

“That’s a tall order for just fifty grand,” Calla chuckles.

“Fifty thousand each. Two hundred grand for the Electus. No bounty on the Pro-Consul, unsurprisingly.” Charlie fixes Valeria with a glare. The generals murmur.

“My mother wants revenge by any means possible,” Valeria responds. “She’s trying to divide us, break us before we can begin the fight.”

“Does anyone else know about the bounties?” I ask.

“No, we intercepted the messenger before he reached the city,” Charlie says. “I’m holding him for further questioning, along with some other suspicious characters we picked up among the refugees fleeing the Consortium army.”

Ricimer snorts. “So it begins.”

“Come again, Consul?” I cut in.

“I hear there’s plenty of empty cells in the Snakepit, Electus.”

“How dare you!” One of the generals slams the table.

“Comrades!” Valeria says, in a voice both firm and measured. “We’re all on the same side here. I concur with Consul Sterling’s judgment. In fact, I recommend we increase personal security for everyone here for the foreseeable future. The Consortium Houses almost certainly have agents remaining in the city. Electus?”

“Agreed.”

“In any case,” Valeria continues, “the Consortium has surrounded the city, cut us off from the suburbs, farmlands, and any other states we might petition for help. We’re overcrowded with refugees, and food supplies won’t last long, especially if we’re keeping a closer eye on CASH dispersion.”

Charlie nods. “There are a lot of people who relied on CASH as part of their diet for years. They’ll all be in withdrawal if they don’t get enough calories.”

“But we also don’t want even more addicts than we can handle right now,” Calla adds. “We need food, and lots of it. PecMills should be our primary target.”

Some of the generals look surprised. Others look reassured.

“Are you sure, Consul Peck?” I ask, reading the room.

“Yes, sir.” Her jaw is set. “This is my family now.”

Peck. Pecunia. Got it.

“Alright, then,” I say. “We obviously don’t have the numbers to break the siege with brute force.”

“That’s never gotten in our way before,” Charlie says, lip curled.

“Yeah, but our main advantage over the Regency was mobility,” says one the of the generals. “Right now we’re stuck behind the city walls.”

“Consul Peck,” Valeria turns to Calla. “How’s it coming along with the wing harnesses?”

“Slowly,” Calla says. “The delicate bits on Alex’s harness were completely fried in the storm. I had to start from scratch on everything but the frame. It’ll take time, and more time to duplicate them for more fighters. But I was thinking: what about the tunnels?”

Everyone goes very still.

“Look, I know there’s a lot of bad memories down there,” Calla says, “but the tunnels gave us mobility, and that’s what we need right now. Some of them probably go beyond the city walls. We could get a small squad of soldiers behind the main siege lines and hit their supply line at the source.” She stabs a short finger on the map over a town labeled Turtleden. “The Consortium needs food as much as we do. We can steal some transport vehicles, load them up with food and supplies, sabotage their armor and workshops, and be back in Fortuna before they can bring reinforcements from the front. And once they do, that’ll leave a hole in the siege and spread the rest of the Consortium forces thin.”

The generals discuss among themselves, as if they have a real contribution to the decision. They turn to me for approval.

“It’s a good plan. Consuls?”

Charlie tentatively nods. Valeria nods. Ricimer rolls his eyes.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Let’s get to work.”

XVd. The Devil in the Details

“I turn away and jam fingers in my ears. I know what comes next and I don’t want to hear it.”

Upstairs and alone, I begin to explore the other rooms. Maybe I can find some answers about how Fortuna went from fair to free to fallen.

Compared to the bedroom and its conspiratorial scrawling symbols, the office suite is a temple. The electric lights cast a warm glow on the wood-paneled room. Three writing desks like the one in the bedroom flank each of the walls, with another door of fogged glass against the wall opposite me. The desks face inwards, workspaces hidden from the center. Drawers hang open, contents emptied. Someone forced open the door to the chief office, pieces of the lock left on the floor like a mechanical bloodstain. The office is similarly wounded. The paneled walls were once carved in intricate designs of mythical, chimeric creatures and heraldic symbols: horned rams, goats and bulls; lions, wolves, snakes; birds of prey and bright plumage. Etched and burned into the scenes are smaller, simpler symbols and formulae, like a scholar’s annotations to a grand novel. But most prominent are the angry gashes and scars hacked into the work, chips and splinters of masterpiece and madness strewn on the floor.

The desk was ransacked as well, drawers hanging off their runners and pens scattered over the table top. But if this was my office, and I was the conspiratorial paranoiac that I seem to be, I might have hidden something—

There it is. The left leg is hollow, and the winding key unlocks it with a bit of coaxing. Ooh, a journal. Simple, sturdy. And mostly redacted. Shit.

Am I keeping secrets from myself, or did someone else get here before we did?

The most recent entry is more or less intact. The date is blacked out, but the text itself isn’t:

It’s all coming apart. I can’t contact Valeria or Calla, Charlie’s still undercover, Abel Carter’s thugs have taken over, and after seven years I still don’t know who the bastard actually is under that mask. 

On the other hand, it’s all coming together. Arius is trapped, Helen is overjoyed and safe, Ricimer sees the writing on the wall, and we’re ready for the final push. But it’s hard for me to separate sequences. The dive made things worse.

Upside: they won’t find my stash before time’s up. Downside: it can’t help me either. I have to leave it for me to find…later…before? Doesn’t matter. It’s supposed to be here. I can’t muddy the waters more than they are already; I can barely see as it is. 

I’m approaching totality — that much is clear. Ricimer warned me about this, told me to be ready.

I’m not. Not last time, this time, or next time. But I can’t change course now. 

Well, that wasn’t helpful. I guess Charlie was right about me being cryptic. Gotta work on that. The rest of the journal is significantly worse, full of incoherent ramblings that are meaningless without names and dates for context. Just fragments of emotion and musing — outrage hear, ennui there, wist and worry tying it all together like a grotesque experiment.

Speaking of experiments, the laboratory isn’t much help either. The alembics, beakers, compounds and documents are a burned and stained mess of garbage and detritus. The mess has a distinct purple tinge to it, same as the nameless CASH package I found earlier.

Amidst the junk I find several cage-like devices that seem like full-formed models of the geometric diagram I keep seeing. Three rings parallel to each other, speared by a central column and framed with two curved branches that meet at the top, forming a flame or teardrop shape. More arcs and struts connect ten tiny crystal spheres arranged throughout the structure. It doesn’t help me figure out what it does, but I must have thought it was important to go through prototype stages. The models vary slightly in shape and greatly in materials. Impossible to know which one I settled on.

So I guess I’ll just have to accept the mystery for now. Real damn helpful, me.

***

Water and darkness surround. Churning, roiling, I am tossed from current to current in silence and cold. Pressing my ears and nostrils, numbing my skin.

A spark. A light twisting in the void. Spiking tendrils of brilliance trace fractal designs, revealing endless sea. I am pierced.

***

I wake. How long? The clocks are stopped and the windows are boarded. Darkness surrounds.

A cry in the night, animal in content, human in tone. I press my face to the boards, to a small hole drilled to the outside world.

Four burly figures amble through the square, thick limbs and swollen faces. The scant evening light is enough to show the blackened spots on their skin. Localized necrotic tissue creates a cowhide, and they low in bovine imitation.

From the alleys come a pack of five snarling, snapping wolves in human flesh. They bound in on all fours, ruddy hair unkempt and straggled. One swipes at a bull-folk and sends him skidding along the cobblestones. He gets a heavy forearm to the head in response. The other bull-folk turn to face the charging pack and snort in defiance. More howling from human throats.

I turn away and jam fingers in my ears. I know what comes next and I don’t want to hear it. They may act like animals, but those are people. They wear clothes, their faces are painfully normal. Ritual, madness, I don’t know or care. Something is desperately wrong. Wake up, wake up, wake up!

I don’t think this is a dream. The snake-men from earlier — Copperfangs, Abel called them — those were people too.

Howling, lowing, shrieking, tearing, breaking. I screw my eyes shut and call back the dream. Boundless water and darkness, numbing cold and silence. And just as my breath runs out, as the savagery beyond the walls rises in a contorted choir, the lightning FLASHES.

***

Valeria leads me away from the crowd.

Commentary: More on Tarot and Symbolism in My Writing

I mentioned a couple chapters ago that the structure of Angelfools is guided by the Fool’s Journey of the Major Arcana in the tarot deck. One of the aspects of tarot that continues to fascinate me is the wealth of symbolism inherent in the deck. The classic Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck incorporates symbolism from several ancient mystical cultures into its artwork, ranging from astrology to alchemy to Kabbalah. Modern decks often play with the symbolism and the meanings of individual cards. For those who like to find patterns and connections in otherwise random collections of objects, this is a nearly endless source of inspiration.

The poem that I wrote as the proto-story of Angelfools took pains to include the varied symbols of the tarot deck into its verses. I hope to do something similar with this prose narrative, though in some cases, I’m not yet sure how to do that. For example: Major Arcana number XV, The Devil, is associated with the astrological sign of Capricorn the Goat, as well as the classical element of earth. Thus far, there has been no appearance of a goat in the XV chapters. We’ll see if I can sneak one in at a later date, but if it doesn’t happen, no worries.

One of my experiences in writing is that I learn a lot about the story after it’s written and I go back to edit. Deeper themes and recurrent motifs emerge as I trim and embellish to support the narrative and the writing needs of the passage. In a short story I wrote for a fiction-writing class a few years ago, the first draft featured no recurring symbols at all. It wasn’t until the editing process when I needed to add more details to a scene that I started associating stars with skulls, and the whole meaning opened up to me.

The point of this rambling is to say that the writing process is organic, and will become more developed over time. This first draft is mostly for my own benefit, to get the story down in one fluid progression. I’ll worry about the finer details in the next draft. Y’all get to enjoy the process with me.

XVc. The Devil in the Details

“I leave the CASH on the table and ascend into madness.”

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?”

“Search me.”

“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.

Holy shit.

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.

Commentary: Showing instead of Telling Magic

CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a big fan of showing instead of telling. When writing from a first-person perspective, I think this makes the most sense: Alex knows what he knows, and he wouldn’t mentally explain it to himself unless he really needs to concentrate on it. So the reader learns about the setting through his observations, actions, and dialogue. What does Alex think is important? How does he treat other people? What does he remember and what is he making up as he goes along? The reader is in the same boat.

However, this can present a problem in speculative fiction when I as the author introduce elements that are fantastic or impossible to the reader, but are mundane to the characters. This is most obvious with CASH, which pulls triple duty as an in-world economic mainstay, a crucial plot element, and a central symbol for the narrative. But CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary. This is similar to how a novel set in contemporary times would likely not explain how cellphones or the internet work. In science fiction, this is sometimes known as the Heinlein method. While some sci-fi authors will explain in great detail the minutia of their imagined worlds, Robert Heinlein simply wrote “the door dilated.”

Another example: my friend Ted Tinker’s ongoing novel Akayama DanJay features “hallucinogenic bugs” that the characters smoke. The crickets are grown like plants, which is completely normal for his world. Tinker doesn’t write as much as a paragraph talking about the worldwide bug-smoking culture; instead, he shows how the characters participate in it, with bits of direct expository information woven throughout the narrative where it is appropriate.

Thus, after downing their CASH drinks, Alex and Charlie telekinetically spin coins in the air, and neither of them have second thoughts about it. So the reader learns that CASH bestows supernatural abilities on those who imbibe it, and that use of these abilities is neither magical nor mysterious. We also saw in the previous chapter that there are different varieties of CASH, presumably bestowing different abilities. Furthermore, we learn in this same chapter that Alex’s lightning is NOT a function of CASH use — Charlie and others see it as extraordinary, potentially linked to Alex’s visions.

I will say here that although I have included “magic” in the title of this commentary and the linked chapter, CASH is not magic. The “science” behind it is fictional, obviously, but it is merely advanced biotechnology that would be “indistinguishable from magic” to us.

Ib. Indistinguishable from Magic

“To life, while we have it,” he toasts. 

“To a better life, not yet arrived,” I reply. We swallow. 

“Lexi, don’t be cryptic. It’s rude and it leads the conversation.”

“Sorry. Still in the showman mood.”

“Well, get out of it. I’ve known you too long for you to fool me. Now what do you mean by ‘vision of the future?’”

What exactly do I mean? A dream of falling, desolation, and a parliament chamber barely constitutes a vision. And it wasn’t quite a dream, was it? There was an order, a logic. Different times, similar circumstances. Patterns underlying the idiosyncrasies, an influence at the edge of awareness. What did Valeria say? We fought hard for this day. Make sure we keep it. 

“I was at the top of a tower,” I begin. “A man fell to a crowded plaza below. And then I was lying in the mud looking up at the sky, a voice calling my name.”

“That was a week ago. You collapsed after beating the driver. I had to carry you away.”

“And then I was giving a speech to a huge audience about a new nation, or a new government. We had just won a revolution.”

“We? Who’s we?”

“You and me, I think. You were there too, right at my side.”

Charlie chuckles. “I doubt that. I’m a backstage kinda guy. Keep the lights on and the wires hidden.”

So no ego to appeal to. Good to know.

“It wasn’t just you. There was a whole group of us. Two women, another man. And a whole freakin’ army of people just like us cogs.”

“And we overthrew the Regency?” Charlie crosses his arms. He’s much bonier now than later, clothes ill-fitting on a thin frame. “You and me and an army of cogs?”

“I guess so.”

“I guess no.” He flicks his head and we head back into the crowd, weaving a familiar path past familiar storefronts and advertisements.

“Noble Fashions at Base Prices!”

“BOGO Free! Finding the Fountain by Chief Regent Valens Arius Baculum!”

“LIVE with PURPOSE: CASH by Regency!”

Same sedimentary buildings, same wheeling and webbed streets and alleys. The setting sun paints the walls with fire. No graffiti though, and lots of people. Factory workers in gray and brown coveralls, drivers with color-coded suspenders and sleeve garters, Regency Security officers in deep purple uniforms and wolf head badges, merchants and barkers in whatever they found on hand. Sizzling sausages of mystery meat, fresh fruit concealing less-than-fresh fruit, bottled drinks of dubious origin. Ready-to-wear dresses billed as bespoke, jewelry with the oily patina of gilded pewter or painted quartz, eyeglasses that looked more likely to damage vision than correct it. And every so often, a ram-headed seal of approval from the Regency Commerce Department, ensuring quality and inflating prices.

After twenty minutes of wading through the throng, we enter Honor’s Quad. Surveying the square is a statue of a regal man in a dress uniform, shod in silver. His face is angular, but gentle. Laugh lines frame the corners of his eyes and a beard rounds the corners of his jaw. He holds a goblet in his right hand and a medal around his neck bears a pair of circling fish. The pedestal names him Honorus Piscus Calix.

“Blessed memory,” Charlie whispers as we pass the statue.

Premium Timepieces by Barnum has seen better days. Despite a RegComm seal of approval featured in the storefront and an attractive window display, no customers browse the aisles of wristwatches, pocket chains, and standing clocks. Barnum sits behind a glass-topped counter and nurses a tumbler of dark red liquor. We don’t enter through the front.

Charlie and I walk to the narrow alley alongside, and he retrieves an aluminum staff from a hideyhole behind a loose block. The staff is topped with a three-taloned grabber, and Charlie pulls down a ladder from the balcony above. We climb up and slip into the apartment.

I recognize the layout of the flat. What was the second-floor living room in the other times is the entire apartment in this one. A dangling lightbulb reveals a wood burning stove, ice box, slump sink, a small table with two chairs, a lockbox, and a single mattress on a makeshift boxspring.

How we got all this stuff up a ladder is beyond me. Then I see the trapdoor in one corner, large enough for the furnishings to pass through. Maybe it’s locked from the other side.

Charlie transfers produce from a backpack to the table. He takes a pair of glass tumblers from the sink, checks for cleanliness, seems satisfied, and retrieves a bottle of something alcoholic from the ice box. He pours a small amount into each glass. From one pocket, he takes a pill bottle with an ornate label edged in gold ink. FarReach. He takes a single round tablet and grinds it on a metal tray in the center of the table, then divides the crimson powder into two small piles. He mixes it with the liquor, swirling it around until the powder is dissolved and the liquid turns a deep gold color.

“To life, while we have it,” he toasts.

“To a better life, not yet arrived,” I reply. We swallow.

It burns less than I expected. Actually, it’s warm and soothing, with a deep sweetness like molasses. As the heat trickles down my throat, it stretches like a cat into my skull, shoulders, down to my fingertips, quivering its tail in my groin. I almost purr. Charlie doesn’t hold back.

“Now,” he breathes, “tell me more about this vision.”

I take a handful of coins from my pocket and spread them out on the table. “Things were different. From coins to clothing to this apartment. Even the city had a different name: Free Fortune.”

“Does different mean better?” He takes a coin, palm up, and it slowly rises into the air. His face starts to flush.

“Maybe. Better for us, in specific. Better for cogs in general. Honestly though, I didn’t get a great look at it.”

“Meaning, you’re not sure if it’s real?” The coin slowly turns in midair, head over tail. “Did it seem like a dream?”

“Too detailed to be a dream. Take the coins.” I do. “Different minting. An angel on one side, and some geometric pattern on the other.” I place it on edge, start it spinning. It winks in the light.

“An angel. Like an Angelfool? Do you think you’re one?”

“I don’t know.”

“I haven’t heard of one outing themselves in my lifetime. Not counting Ricimer, but he’s always been open. It would explain the visions.”

I draw my fingers together like I’m pulling a puppet string, and the spinning coin rises above the table, still winking. Charlie’s gaze and spinning coin match mine. Sparks dance between my fingers and the bits of metal.

“And it would explain that,” he nods. Then he leans back in his chair and his coin clatters to the table. “But Angelfool or not, you and I aren’t going to change anything. Fortuna’s been ‘Fair’ for a long time, and real change doesn’t happen in a week.”

“What about a year? Two? Seven?” I float more coins to make my point. “Plus, in one of the visions, I was a much better fighter than I am now.”

“That isn’t hard to imagine, Lexi.”

“But certain things match up. The lightning, this spring-whip thing. You.”

He furrows his brow. “How much fighting do you expect? Revolutions are violent, bloody. They tend to get out of control. The Silverfish have killed a lot of people, not all of them Regency drivers.”

“Then we’ll be careful. Plan it out, keep things quiet until we’re ready to strike.” I reach across the table and rest my hand on top of his. “But I need you with me to pull it off.”

He weighs risk and reward, weal and woe, boon and bane, drifting my coins in slow circles like moths around the bulb. Inhale, exhale.

“You do need me. To keep you on track and off the edge, if nothing else. I’m with you, Lexi. Now can we please leave the rest till morning?” He reaches up and clicks off the light.