Humans were so boring. Fortunately, Afzal wasn’t one anymore.
Afzal glanced under his desk, through the transparent floor of his airship. The city of Elmidde spread out beneath him, faint through a thin layer of early morning fog.
This entire city, Projectors and Humdrums alike, were all so frustrating. Their minds played out the same patterns and desires, over and over again with different coats of paint. Their insights were unoriginal, their intuitions flat.
The poor idiotic Humdrums had spent centuries in the dark, unable to grasp that an entire world of projection was hidden under their noses. Most projectors weren’t much better, clinging to archaic traditions and stifling progress, barely living up to a sliver of their potential.
When talking to most of them, Afzal could predict the entire arc of the conversation, anticipating every clumsy argument they would make, every social tactic.
On the plus side, it made them easier to influence. On the minus side, they were very tedious to have lunch with.
Case in point, the man sitting across from him. He was going over some rehearsed anecdote about how he solved a crisis in his last job with an unconventional, but brilliant solution and how that proved he was a perfect, perfect fit for this position in Oracle Media Group. Eighty-three percent of it was fake, and the candidate had convinced himself the lie was just ‘showing his best self’.
It made Afzal want to rub Kabrian peppers into his eyes. Thankfully, it only took a fraction of his attention to carry out the job interview.
With the rest of his mind, he projected into five typewriters in an adjacent room, typing out ad campaigns for his marketing teams and eating lunch with shaking fingers. Since that assassin boy slit his throat with a piece of paper, Afzal’s hands had been quivering and clumsy, no matter what body he transferred into.
Afzal could have used projection to lift the food, but he was still pretending to be a Humdrum. If he blew his cover, Paragon would watch him far more closely, and might even suss out his Vocation.
As a result, eating his lamb skewers presented a far more interesting problem than this meeting. They came from the only restaurant in Elmidde that made good seekh kebabs, and the sharp saffron flavors reminded him of the Glass Oasis. Of eating late-night dinners on a warm summer patio with Hira and Zahir and Abis, debating about consciousness, the Great Scholars, and whether the latest season of The Mountain Slayer was its best or worst yet.
It was a sweet memory. Afzal would kill for an exciting, unpredictable conversation like that. In contrast, Gregory Cotton, aspiring marketing executive, brought him only frustration.
Gregory was spinning various lies about his dreams, and how he loved the content Afzal produced. In truth, all the man wanted was money and status. Oracle Media Group was the kind of coveted, prestigious company that would earn him bragging rights among his pseudo-friends from business school and make him feel like he’d accomplished something with his life. That would be more than enough to please him.
Of course, Gregory thought he wanted the job to help his wife and future children, to pay a mortgage for his boring house in the suburbs and fund his kids’ disgustingly overpriced education. But Afzal estimated at least a sixty percent chance the two would divorce in the next five years. If they had a child, the odds went over eighty. There was a margin of error, of course, but Afzal tended to be right about these things.
Afzal couldn’t blame him, of course. He pitied him, in fact. As a Humdrum, Mr. Cotton’s mind would never get the chance to grow beyond its simple roots. For him “strive to become an Exemplar” was just a catchphrase, not a genuine aspiration.
Afzal, on the other hand, had the privilege of being born a Projector. A Praxis Specialist, no less.
Afzal’s projection enhanced his multitasking, working memory, and social analytics, and let him sleep only four hours a night while maintaining full functionality. His skill-stitching made him better than most experts in statistics, sociology, economics, law, and scorpion whip kickboxing. Memory Bursts gave him perfect recollection on the fly, and Empathy let him read the emotions of others.
And, of course, his Vocation, the best of them all. Combined with his emotional regulators, you couldn’t exactly call his mind human anymore.
Gregory Cotton was winding down. Afzal stood up and shook his hand. “You’re hired. Start tomorrow?”
Gregory’s eyes widened, and he blinked several times. “Really?” His voice gave away his eagerness.
“Two hundred and ten an hour.” It was the lowest offer Cotton would be willing to accept. Catching the man off guard made the number lower.
“Thank you, sir.” Cotton was shocked.
“At Oracle, you’ll move up the ladder fast if you’re competent,” lied Afzal. Cotton would never advance, but his work would be better this way, and he would be willing to put in many hours of unpaid overtime. Afzal shook Cotton’s hand. “Between you and me, we interviewed forty-one other people for this job. So finding someone who knows what they’re talking about is such a relief.”
Cotton grinned. “Really?”
Afzal nodded. In truth, he’d interviewed three, but Cotton was insecure about his intellect, and craved validation from authority.
After a few dull pleasantries, Afzal was finally free. With a flick of his finger, he opened a radio line to the airship’s pilot. “It’s time.” He stopped his skewer-eating and typing in the other room. He needed to concentrate for this next part.
Another flick of his finger, and a mat floated out of a cabinet, unrolling and resting itself on the glass floor. Afzal lied down on his back, and a gold-embroidered pillow slid beneath his head.
The phone rang once, the signal that the zeppelin had begun its trip around Mount Elwar. The floor jerked underneath Afzal as it turned in midair.
Afzal inhaled, sucking in a lungful of air and closing his eyes.
He exhaled, and the city opened up before him. His Pith exploded out of his body, stretching three point two kilometers in every direction, sweeping invisibly over houses and streets and canals.
Millions of souls lit up in his mind, a carpet of lights spread out beneath him. He sensed the presence and general position of every one of them, shifting and swirling and changing. For the first several seconds, it was overwhelming, a wave of information so immense it drowned out his thoughts, turning his mind into a chaotic storm of inputs. Over the next minute, the noise softened, as his mind sorted it into reams of data.
Afzal wasn’t a mind reader, per se. When he concentrated on a single Pith miles below, a single human, he couldn’t hear any of their thoughts. Their desires and emotions and identity were hidden from him. On its own, it was like a droplet of paint on a canvas, simple and unreadable.
But the more droplets he saw, the more data points he added to his model, and the clearer the image became. It was like an impressionist painting from centuries ago. Close up, it was incoherent, but the further back you stepped, the more you saw patterns, clarity, insight.
Afzal Kahlin couldn’t read a single mind. But he could read the collective unconsciousness of a million of them.
The sensation was difficult to explain, the way most Praxis Vocations were. It felt like swimming in a four-dimensional river, where the water was rushing through you from every direction. There was no internal monologue he could hear, no series of images that encompassed the varying thoughts of the masses below.
But there was a presence, that could be separated and sorted into groups. Branches and channels in the river. There were common demographics like age, race, gender, and political affiliation, but there were subtler categories, too. Neuroticism. Openness. Social compliance.
It was the perfect poll, the perfect focus group that could be melded together and analyzed.
And it was breathtaking. An individual human was boring, like an individual neuron that could only do one thing. But a network of them, a tapestry was beautiful, a dynamic organism of beliefs and institutions and conflict.
The current topic of interest was the fallout of last night’s events. Lyna Wethers had hijacked over a hundred and fifty people at her yacht party, then gotten herself killed. They’d planned for her to cause more damage to Paragon’s reputation before dying, but someone else had gotten to her first.
Curiously enough, reports showed that two of Wethers’ own minions had taken her out. That wasn’t Paragon’s style. A Guardian would have just killed her, they wouldn’t have fussed around with Whisper Vocations.
Which meant there was another player in the game. A third party.
Afzal had no idea who it was, but his colleagues would find out soon enough. If they were useful, they’d be used. If not, they’d be removed.
The public was catching wind of the incident. Initial surface-level articles about the incident had already appeared in this morning’s papers. By tomorrow, his newspapers, television shows, and radio hosts needed a coherent narrative to push and play with.
The initial spin tactics were simple, free of overt opinions: referring to Lyna Wethers as a ‘former Guardian’, as many times as possible, and referencing her history over and over again. Afzal sent pings out, querying the populace on what they thought of the mass mental hijacking.
There was anger. Collective frustration and fear born of a sense of powerlessness. It was a similar reaction to the recent instances of Nudge terrorism – a sense that they were vulnerable and helpless, and that the only reason their minds hadn’t been shattered was luck.
On the flip side, though, Afzal sensed a thread of indifference running strong among the populace of Lowtown: the impoverished Humdrums of the city. Afzal followed the thread, sending out further pings, prodding into the sentiment until it clicked.
The wealthy and powerful of society had been the main victims of Wethers’ attack. Epistocrats, business executives, Paragon students. The poor resented them, and as a result, didn’t care about them being victimized.
Resentment against Epistocrats and Paragon was good, but Afzal wanted passion, not apathy. In his head, Afzal composed a series of op-eds, think-pieces, and talking points for the radio and TV personalities working under Oracle’s umbrella. The writers and journalists would fill in the details and give it their unique voices, and it would take some maneuvering to give it the appearance of editorial independence. But still, the skeletal framework, the core influence was all him.
Afzal honed his focus on two victims of the incident. Felicia Batherst, a twenty-year-old phone operator who’d won a lottery to go to the party, and Griffin Hille, a beloved singer for holiday albums in his forties. Combined, they were relatable and attractive enough to sell their humanity to a broader audience.
In addition, they were both native to the Principality. Like most places of the world, the people of this nation exhibited a strong undercurrent of xenophobia, a remnant of their days as a colonial power. They’d be less likely to sympathize with an Ilaquan or a Nekean, or god forbid, a Shenti.
Afzal focused his narrative on their humanity, all their hopes and aspirations and loves that had been shattered by a wild ex-Guardian off the leash. He tested phrases, words, and images that he drew up in his head, sending them through the subconscious network of minds to see what the response might look like.
Information streamed back into his mind, and he noted effective and ineffective elements down to the most minute detail. Most people in Elmidde would be uninterested in Felicia’s desire to start her own graphic design company, but they were well-primed to shed tears over her shattered romance with her high school sweetheart.
Christea Ronaveda, of the radio show Verity, was another celebrity who’d been on the ship. Though her Vocation had rendered her strangely immune to Honeypot, she’d witnessed much of the horror, and could be used to keep the incident in the headlines, even the ones he didn’t own.
The stream of information highlighted other effective talking points: Anti-elitism against Paragon Academy, disgust for an incompetent government that let Wethers escape, and the Humdrum’s natural fear of Projection.
That last one was the foundation of Commonplace’s support – a fear of a secret society of Epistocrats that had kept themselves hidden for millennia with suppression and memory wipes. People didn’t like having their minds violated, and Humdrums had to worry about it more than most.
It was amusing. Convince someone they’re being brainwashed by an enemy, and they’d do just about anything for you.
After a few minutes, Afzal had all the material he needed. As an afterthought, he cooked up a couple of conspiracy theories about Honeypot’s true origins. She was bought by the Droll Corsairs. She was working with an Ilaquan cabal of wily seductresses from the Far East. And she was conducting secret experiments for Paragon and Headmaster Tau, who, of course, was behind it all.
These could be distributed to his grassroots channels to hopefully incite more political violence. And were amusing to come up with.
Afzal opened his eyes. The purple lightning of his Pith crackled around his body as he strained with his Vocation. Then he let his soul contract back into his body. The tapestry of minds faded, and the lightning vanished. He sagged back on the mat, exhausted.
Afzal had a simple philosophy for his work. Deep down, the vast majority of humans had two basic desires: They wanted to feel both comfortable and important. If they had solid livelihoods and got to feel significant, people would rationalize away all sorts of atrocities and injustices. Rockwell Cigarettes meant status and luxury: importance. Jwala’s Orange Soda meant warm, relaxing summers with your friends and family: comfort.
In most cases, all you had to do was invent a threat to one of those, and you could create a whole new desire out of dust and soundbites. The Shenti barbarians from across the sea are going to burn down your home, so you need to join the military. Your friends think you’re disgusting and your breath smells and nobody will ever love you, so buy our new line of mouthwash. If you don’t buy an expensive engagement ring, you’re a penniless, insignificant loser who doesn’t love your spouse.
Plus, a classic: Everyone noteworthy and smart and authoritative is investing in this company, and if you miss out, they’re all more important than you. Until recently, the Principality had been the richest, most powerful nation in the Eight Oceans, which made it pathetically easy to appeal to its denizens’ pride and nationalism and hunger for wealth.
Working off these fundamentals, he could transform a failing makeup company with terrible products into a multilevel marketing giant, start rumors that got people elected and misconceptions that fueled business empires.
And he could make Commonplace seem like the last bastion of hope, reason, and morality in the nation. The tabloids spread nasty rumors about him and his foreign influence on the press, but in the end, they still used his words, even if they hated him.
The rumors were true, of course, but it wasn’t like things were better before his reign. Until less than a decade ago, Paragon Academy had puppeted the entire country’s media. Afzal was simply better at it.
Holding the results of his survey in his mind, Afzal put his plans on eight typewriters at once, translating the abstract ideas into a strategy that would play out in countless mediums over the next week.
Afzal pushed himself to a standing position, and strode out of his office. Using his Vocation tired him out quickly, and he could use something to cool off.
The main chamber of his blimp was filled with people. Typists copying his directives to be spread throughout his network of media companies, executives shouting over each other to hash out the logistical details, and Qadir, the janitor, mopping up spilled wine on the hideous carpet.
Why did I ever tolerate that color? The blimp and penthouse were new purchases, from another billionaire with abhorrent taste. Afzal had interior designers coming in soon, but even after that, it would take time to safely make the modifications.
As an afterthought, Afzal extended his Pith, initiating his Empathy vocation to feel their shifting clouds of emotion. With it, he noted their reactions to the new content, or in the janitor’s case, overwhelming boredom mixed with existential nihilism. Rolf Wensley, Oracle’s Chief Communications Officer, was having a particularly interesting response.
A brown-skinned woman in loose martial arts clothes strode up to Afzal, peeling grapes with projection and floating them into her mouth one by one. Madha, one of the eleven members of Steel Violet. Along with Qadir, they made up the only other Ilaquans on his zeppelin. There were not many of his countrymen in the Principality.
“Morning, sir!” she said, beaming with a full mouth of grapes. “Any new assignments?”
“Give Rolf Wensley a precision memory wipe,” said Afzal under his breath. “Then fire him. We’ve got plenty who can take his place.”
Madha raised an eyebrow. “May I ask why?”
Afzal had held suspicions for a while, and today had confirmed them. Rolf had always served up quality work, but was a steadfast patriot with a strong moral compass, who quietly disapproved of Oracle’s recent practices and the nondisclosure agreement he’d signed.
Upon reading the new orders from Afzal, Mr. Wensley had felt a dangerous combination of emotions: discomfort, moral outrage, then decisiveness.
“He’s going to try and whistleblow to a competing paper. Or maybe Paragon. And he thinks he’s smart enough to get away with it.”
Madha nodded. “We’ll have him out within the hour.”
Afzal plucked a grape out of the air and dropped it into his mouth. He glanced at Madha’s loose, flowing martial arts pants. “Got time for some sparring?”
Afzal leapt forward, lashing out with his fist. In response, Madha’s leg pulled into her chest. It shot out in a blur, and the sole of her foot slammed into his solar plexus.
Afzal staggered back on the wooden floor, doubling over. “Nice,” he wheezed. He thought he’d found an opening, a space where Madha had overextended, and couldn’t defend herself. But her slip-up had been bait.
Afzal, given his position, had focused his skill-stitching on social sciences, business, and mathematics. The only close-combat system he knew was Scorpion Whip kickboxing. On the other hand, Madha, as a dedicated bodyguard, had stitched in just about every martial art in the Eight Oceans, and could blend the styles with ease. And she was thought-stitching with ten others just as proficient, who could help her strategize.
But on the flip side, Afzal’s body was far stronger than hers, even with her combat chassis. It made for an interesting match.
The two of them circled each other, punctuating the silence with brief flurries of punches and kicks. Every time Afzal tried to get in for a grapple, Madha was able to push him back or evade, bobbing and weaving like a boxer, or throwing him off balance like a Cei Ji master.
It was an adequate time-waster, but made him nostalgic for the similar bouts he’d had with his family. Not combat, but Jao Lu, poker, games of strategy and rhetoric. Both his children had proper Praxis Vocations, and his husband’s mind was unique enough to be interesting, even as a Humdrum.
Sometimes Afzal replayed conversations with them in his mind, thought-stitching them back onto himself to experience them all over again. It had filled him with pride to watch their minds grow and develop. He wanted to watch them peel apart the world like an onion, to grow into the brightest minds of a generation.
But he’d ruined it all. Hira had run away from home. Abis was in hiding. And Afzal had allowed Zahir to get under the thumb of a brilliant psychopath, one of the few people that terrified him.
Afzal had a great many acquaintances left, but no friends. No family.
In his moment of reminiscence, one of his retreats moved slower than it should have, leaving a small opening as he pulled back from one of his jabs.
Madha sprung through the gap in his defenses and moved to sweep his legs out. But her movement was too aggressive, too hasty to capitalize on his weakness. Afzal snapped back to reality, and in three quick movements, had her pinned on her back, her advanced technique useless against his overwhelming strength.
She tapped the ground. “Well fought.”
Afzal let go, and nodded, his clothes soaked with sweat. In a real fight, with projection and guns, she’d crush him, but in this ring, she wasn’t good enough. He’d thought the battle might provide some respite, but all it did was remind him of better times, more exciting challenges like the sort he had with his family. He was bored.
“Incoming message,” said Madha. “Jabira just picked up a new job application with some interesting discrepancies.”
“Memory-stitch it over.”
They clasped hands, and Afzal felt a warm feeling spreading up his arm and into his skull. Images and words streamed into his mind, as the memory copied from her Pith onto his.
It was a job application for a high-level graphic designer, complete with a portfolio, submitted with no referral. Normally, one of his many underlings would sort it out of the slush pile, but this one was unique. It was both spectacularly good, and contained a very particular pattern of errors.
The cover letter and resume contained a combination of minor vocabulary alterations, words that didn’t quite fit their sentences, as well as a smattering of uncommon grammar errors. And the images on the portfolio contained tiny imperfections, bits the size of a pencil dot that were painted the wrong color or missing.
To a normal person, they’d be invisible, and even to the joining-enhanced eyes of Steel Violet, it looked like an incoherent jumble of information.
But not to Afzal. He held all the information in his memory, not forgetting a single piece, then sorted them into a mental spreadsheet, and ran it through one of the custom cryptography engines that had been installed into his Pith.
The information sifted through the engine, which gave him a light headache as they worked out the symbols. After a few seconds, his mind spat out a sequence of numbers:
56.98025235521883, 20.4603375000501061, 0813
Exact latitude and longitude coordinates, followed by a time. There was no date, which meant it had to be today. At 8:13 in the morning. Thirty-seven minutes from now. And judging by the custom-ported atlas installed in his Pith, the location was in the middle of the ocean.
“Call Rory in the cockpit,” said Afzal, scribbling down the numbers on a piece of paper. “Tell him to take us to these coordinates as fast as he can.”
“What is it?” asked Madha.
“The Lady’s left me one of her codes. She wants to meet me. Alone.”
The airship floated down and stopped sixty feet above the water. Fog surrounded it, rendering it impossible to see more than twenty feet in any direction.
The zeppelin’s radar detected nothing in the near vicinity. No planes. No ships. No land. This stretch of the ocean was as empty as a desert.
Afzal consulted his internal clock, another Praxis technique, accurate to the microsecond. 8:11. Two minutes early.
Twin doors slid open on the floor, letting in a rush of cold air from the outside. Madha scowled. “Why does the Lady want to meet you in the middle of the ocean?”
“I’m not entirely sure.” Afzal grinned. “Thrilling, isn’t it?”
“She’s unstable. Angry,” said Madha. “And she doesn’t like most people like you.”
“As your bodyguards, Steel Violet would like to advise you to minimize person-to-person contact. Or at least have some of us with you. One of these meetings, she might end up killing you.”
“Yes,” said Afzal. “She might.” He leapt off the edge and projected into his clothes, slowing his fall.
His feet touched down on the hardened surface of the water, sending ripples out. Just on time. There was no sign of her. Maybe she was waiting for him to be alone.
Or maybe she’d decided Afzal had outlived his usefulness, and was setting up a Voidsteel sniper shot.
The zeppelin floated upwards, fading into the fog until Afzal was alone in the grey, empty ocean. A frigid breeze blew across the water, and Afzal shivered. With no waves, the water was silent. Flat.
To tell the truth, Afzal found the open ocean unsettling. It was not an irrational fear. It had swallowed the Great Scholars, and countless archaeologists eager to investigate their remains.
Afzal owned a shipping company, and this year alone, they’d lost more than three dozen cargo ships, all on the open ocean with no records to indicate what caused them. Pirates and storm krakens accounted for some, but there was more. There had to be something more.
There were so many theories about what was below the ten thousand feet marker, where the cities of the Great Scholars had once thrived. Tentacle demons and gateways to other worlds and secret government labs. He’d even helped invent some of them.
But the truth was, nobody knew what they were talking about.
The sea remains, thought Afzal. And the water was rising.
He didn’t want to be here a second longer than he had to.
A female voice echoed from behind him. “You’re behind projections.”
Afzal spun around. A woman strode towards him across the waves, scowling at him. Tunnel Vision. The crazy bitch who’d slaughtered, then taken over half of Elmidde’s underworld.
Damn her, thought Afzal, how did she sneak up behind me? None of his threat tracker vocations had indicated anything nearby.
“You’re behind projections,” she said again. Tunnel Vision’s voice was quiet, as always, but Afzal could sense the subdued rage underneath. Talking to her was like standing in the eye of a hurricane.
And worse, most of her thoughts were closed off to him. She’d been trained to block the common Empathy vocation he used, and his social analysis vocations threw up random results whenever exposed to her body language. Which meant she knew how to fool them.
Manipulating her was going to be difficult. But he was working on it.
“I – I’m sorry,” he said, letting his voice quiver. Normally, Afzal affected a friendly air, a thick layer of warmth and precision-targeted flattery strong enough to disarm almost anyone. But as far as he could tell, Tunnel Vision desired loyalty and fear.
So Afzal made himself look awed in her presence, and spent every iota of his mental energy trying to anticipate her thoughts, to mirror her subtle tics, gestures, and verbal patterns so she would subconsciously see him as a similar person.
Because he needed her. Without her and Commonplace and the boss, Afzal had no chance of taking over this country. And without the overwhelming power of this country, his children were doomed. And so was he.
Tunnel Vision strode forward. “Come.”
Afzal followed her, hardening the water beneath him as he walked.
In truth, the mobster was scary, but far from awe-inspiring. The woman was all rage and no charm, and had the fashion sense of a country bumpkin who’d just won the lottery. The natural beauty of her chassis was wasted on her.
The woman’s suit jacket looked more than a decade old. Underneath her black skirt, her calves bristled with unshaven stubble. The carved Voidsteel tanto dagger at her waist clashed with the other colors in her ensemble. And her light brown hair was tied back in a thin, waist-length ponytail protruding from her bowler hat, which made no sense with her outfit.
He’d laugh at her, if he thought she wouldn’t kill him for it.
The two of them strode through the thick fog. Tunnel Vision was silent, declining to explain why she’d brought him out to the middle of nowhere.
With nothing from her, Afzal moved to fill the silence in the conversation. “The issues with my influence campaign are in my report. There were changes and factors I didn’t anticipate.”
The truth was, Tunnel Vision’s schedule was too damn ambitious. She wanted over sixty-five percent of the country to be on the side of Commonplace by the end of the year, which was not realistic. Public opinion could be shaped and toyed with, but it moved slow. Men and women did not change their opinions easily, especially as they grew older.
But she hadn’t listened to any of his warnings. The woman’s patience was shorter than her temper, and she wanted to topple the country fast. She’d earned her nickname for a reason.
“You need to move faster,” she said. “Not slower. I just shut down all my Nudge terrorism attacks.” Irritation crept into her voice.
“Why?” said Afzal. “They were working great.” All you had to do was find a Humdrum with a gun, Nudge them, and wipe the memories.
“The boss didn’t like it.” Tunnel Vision scowled. “I told her: you want a violent revolution, you have to get the nation primed for political violence. You can’t overthrow a government with a bunch of peaceful protestors who whine about theory. They have to see their enemies as less than human.”
“But she insisted.”
“She said we were abusing the people we were trying to protect. And she gets final say.”
Despite hearing a great deal about the true leader of Commonplace, Afzal had never actually met her. Who could be dangerous enough to get final say over Tunnel Vision?
Tunnel Vision folded her arms behind her back. “But it doesn’t matter as much now. The avalanche has started. Copycats have begun to carry out similar attacks without any instruction. But you need to escalate them further.”
Afzal nodded. “You could have told me that with a coded message. Why did you ask me to come here?”
Tunnel Vision fell silent.
That’s no fun. He barely got to see her in person, and he wanted to spend every moment currying favor, learning new information, getting leverage. By summer of next year, she would probably be running the country, and he needed influence over her.
If she didn’t say anything, he’d make her open up. “You know, I’ve been following your progress since before we met,” he said. “In under a year, you’ve single-handedly taken control of thirteen different crime families in this country. And I’ve heard you have fingers deep into the military, too. How is it I know so little about you? And how did you manage that?”
Tunnel Vision said nothing. The flattery wasn’t getting through.
“Even without your track record. The way you talked, responded to questions. I could tell you were one of the people who actually knew how to use their mind. You’re music, not just background noise.” Afzal grinned. “Which means you’re a Praxis Specialist. Am I wrong?”
“Your hands are shaking,” Tunnel Vision didn’t take the bait, declining the offer to gloat about her intelligence.
“I was attacked by a Projector that specialized in paper cuts,” he said. “I took some damage to my Pith before I could transfer to another body.”
“Stupid,” said Tunnel Vision. “You should have had spares on hand.”
“I was foolish. I’m not used to this world,” Afzal nodded. Let’s try a different tactic. “It was more pain than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I was choking, lying in a pool of my blood. Bits of my skin were peeling off, and one of my eyes was sliced open. But all I could think of, through it all, was: if I let go here, it will have all been for nothing. All the people we fought for, all the sacrifices we made.”
Reciprocity. A simple psychological tactic, but effective nonetheless. If he was vulnerable to her, it would push her to open up more in return, and build trust in the long term.
“These are not your people,” said Tunnel Vision. “Your people are in Ilaqua, across the sea.”
Afzal pushed indignity into his voice. “A man can love the people of a foreign country, and care about their freedom. The people face injustice here just like they do everywhere.”
It was a lie. Afzal hated the Principality and all the idiots in it. They ate lard with everything, piled their trash in giant walls on the streets, and had such primitive, uptight views on gender and romance. Then still had the nerve to think they were the superior culture.
What really kept Afzal going was the thought of his family. To get them back, he needed to rule this nation, or get as close to ruling it as possible. So he would keep playing Tunnel Vision, and the public, and their enigmatic boss, until both the mob and Commonplace were dancing before him.
Because like everyone else, they wanted to feel comfortable and important too.
Tunnel Vision stopped. What now? What was so important about this particular patch of ocean? Afzal projected into the water nearby, feeling a cluster of matrix fish and several other animals. But nothing significant.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“Shh.” Tunnel Vision held up a finger. If she wanted to kill me, she’d have done it already.
After several minutes of agonizing silence, Afzal’s senses picked up a sound in the far distance. A grinding or a rumbling. His noise analyzers deduced it was a diesel engine, three-quarters of a mile away and getting closer by the second.
The noise got louder and louder until it was deafening, making Afzal’s ears ache.
A giant metal hull emerged from the fog in front of Tunnel Vision. A submarine. Only the top third was out of the water, a massive steel tube with a fin sticking out of the top.
It bore down on the two of them, churning up the water in its wake. There was no time to shout, or move to the side.
As it approached them, Afzal felt a tug in his pants and shirt, and an unseen force yanked him backwards and upwards, lifting him into the air and accelerating him backwards. Tunnel Vision floated beside him, her face still deadpan. She’s projecting into our clothes.
The two of them flew above the submarine, accelerating backwards until they matched its speed. Tunnel Vision lowered them onto the top of the fin, and dropped them down onto its smooth metal surface. It took all of Afzal’s coordination not to fall over.
A man’s head stuck out of a hatch next to the two of them. He stared at them, dumbfounded, and made eye contact with Afzal.
Then he grabbed the hatch and dropped down, slamming it shut with a loud clang. The wheel turned, locking it in place.
“They’re going to dive,” said Afzal.
“They won’t,” said Tunnel Vision. “The ballast vents are malfunctioning.” She lifted a finger, and the hatch tore off its hinge, flying into the distance. The mobster stepped forward and floated down into the sub. “Come.”
“They could have Voidsteel bullets.”
“They do,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
Afzal climbed down the ladder after her, descending into a cramped hallway filled with pipes and machinery. What did she drag me into?
Tunnel Vision strode forward, and Afzal followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting it on door frames.
“Is this a military sub?” Afzal asked. “One of the Principality’s?”
“Do you know who The Radio Man is?” said Tunnel Vision.
The two of them entered a control room of sorts, filled with dials and buttons and switches. It was empty. One of the chairs was knocked over, like someone had left in a hurry.
“One of your competitors,” Afzal said. “Platinum-ranked projector. Runs a crime syndicate.”
“He’s the last of the old guard. His family, the Whitewoods, have been running the eastern half of Low and Midtown since Elmidde was first founded. They’ve all been projectors, but Paragon left them alone as long as they didn’t make too much trouble for the government. There’s always bigger problems to deal with.”
“Their mistake,” said Afzal. “Leave something like that alone, and it’ll grow like a tumor.”
Tunnel Vision nodded, examining one of the consoles. “Indeed. The Radio Man now owns an eighth of the city council, donates heavily to Mayor Noke’s campaigns, and is good friends with General Wyard, who has great influence among the senior staff members in both the army and navy. With their help, he’s managed to procure and operate this stealth submarine, and uses it when he’s afraid of an attempt on his life.”
When they strode into the next room, a man in a sailor’s uniform was standing at the opposite end. His eyes widened as he saw the two of them, and he sprinted down a hallway, slamming the door at the other end.
They’re running from us. Well, they were running from her.
“He earned his nickname because his Vocation lets him intercept and fake radio signals at a vast range. Combined with his cryptology division, he used it to take the syndicate from his older sister.”
Why am I here? If The Radio Man was here, then this was a hostile takeover, an assassination, or both, and Afzal was useless in all those cases.
They descended another pair of ladders. At the bottom of the second one, two men jumped out from behind a torpedo and pointed pistols at them, pulling the triggers over and over again.
The guns clicked. No bullets came out. Tunnel Vision walked towards them, nonchalant, and they dropped the guns, running away.
Afzal followed the woman through more watertight doors, more steel corridors with low ceilings and empty rooms, until they stopped at a room with a ladder in the middle. Tunnel Vision stared up at the open hatch at the top, then strode to a radio, flipping it on.
Static came out of the speakers. She didn’t twist any of the tuning knobs. “Mr. Whitewood.”
The static faded away, replaced by a man’s dejected voice. “I surrender,” said the Radio Man. “You win. I did everything I could to keep my location hidden. Almost nobody in my organization even knows this submarine exists.”
Afzal almost snorted. How did he get this far? Maybe he could outclass other humans, but against a determined Praxis Specialist, he was crumbling in minutes.
“If you found this place, then I have no hope of outmaneuvering you. If you let me live and keep a portion of my wealth, I’ll give you everything. My assets, my soldiers, my operations in the city. The rest of the organization won’t fight you. I’ll move overseas and you’ll never see me again.” The Radio Man sighed. “I’m in the sonar room. You know where it is.”
Afzal glanced up at the hatch above the ladder. That must be it.
“Hm,” said Tunnel Vision. “So you got the ambush all set up, then?”
“The fuck are you talking about?” the Radio Man’s voice was annoyed. “I’m surrendering!”
“You have nine soldiers with submachine guns in a semicircle, about thirty feet around the top of the ladder, plus you with a pistol and an explosive trap disguised as a fuel pipe. You’re projecting into the weapons so I can’t jam them, and the bullets are Voidsteel. Then you have another four projector mercs you hired from the Droll Corsairs, because you’ve been preparing for this day since you saw me rip your other competitors to wet piles of meat.” She tapped her foot on the floor, impatient.
Radio Man fell silent. Nothing came out of the radio’s speakers.
“This is your only warning,” she said. “The men with you are well-trained and principled. They deserve to die for a better cause than yours.”
There was a long pause, when nobody said anything. The Radio Man seemed to be deliberating.
Then the radio’s speakers flipped back to static. He hung up.
Bootheels clanged on the metal ceiling above them. Racing closer to the hatch and the ladder.
“He knows where we are,” said Afzal, panic slipping into his voice. “His people are coming to – “
A grenade dropped from the hatch above them, bouncing onto the floor. He’s projecting into it already. That meant they wouldn’t be able to jam it. And the shrapnel would be Voidsteel, unblockable. Afzal stumbled back, putting himself behind a metal pipe.
Tunnel Vision didn’t move.
A storm of loud cracks rang out at the same time. Gunshots. All from above.
The grenade didn’t explode. Tunnel Vision didn’t even look at it. It just sat there, inanimate.
She floated upwards through the hatch. “Come on.”
Afzal climbed the rungs of the ladder, staring at the grenade beneath him.
In the room above, it was exactly as Tunnel Vision had predicted, with the Radio Man’s soldiers laid out in a semicircle around the hatch. Thirteen corpses, fitted out in a combination of military and civilian gear. Each one was shot clean through the head, lying in a puddle of blood.
Afzal repressed a wave of nausea. Even with all his Praxis vocations, genuine violence remained the one thing he wasn’t wired for.
There were fourteen large bullet holes in the wall, letting in faint morning sunlight from the outside. She used snipers. But with the hull’s thickness, they’d all have to be anti-tank rifles.
How carefully had she planned this?
Tunnel Vision poked her finger into one of the holes, scowling. “That’s going to cost money to fix.”
A groan came from the other side of the room. A young, broad-set man with blonde hair lay on the floor, his clothes covered in blood. The Radio Man. He clutched his right arm, with a mangled stump of bone and flesh in place of his hand.
A pistol sat on the floor next to him. Whoever her snipers were, they were good enough to shoot the gun right out of his hand.
Tunnel Vision strode towards him. He spat at her, and the saliva stopped in midair before it could touch her. It dropped to the ground between them.
“We had a good thing going,” he said, coughing. “The rival families were at peace. We were cooperating, conducting our business without fighting each other.”
“Don’t do it,” said Tunnel Vision. “Don’t do it.”
“Then you killed them all. You fucked it all up.” Loud metallic clangs echoed from behind them, the sounds of footsteps on the floor. Someone’s sprinting towards us. Afzal spun to look behind him. Nothing.
When Afzal turned back to the Radio Man, the pistol was in his left hand, pointing towards Tunnel Vision. A distraction. He –
A flash of white light exploded over Afzal’s vision, and he felt a wave of heat on his face. He blinked, and the room came into focus.
The Radio Man had dropped the gun. The sleeve on his left arm was blackened, and large chunks of the fabric crumbled off. His flesh underneath looked like white wax, steam coming off of it. His fingers curled and twitched, covered in a layer of pale crust that resembled the outside of a pastry.
That’s his skin.
The Radio Man screamed. He fell back on the ground and shook, tears pouring down his face.
“I did warn you not to do it,” said Tunnel Vision, disgust permeating her voice. She lifted a finger, and Radio Man floated next to her, carried by his clothes. She strode towards the intercom, flicking it on. “To all crew. This is Tunnel Vision. Soldiers under my command will be arriving within minutes to take charge of this vessel. If you wish to leave, you will be escorted out and no harm will be done to you. But if you continue working here, your salaries will be doubled. I take care of my workers.” Tunnel Vision walked back towards the hatch. “Come on, Broadcast King. We’ve got to interrogate this piece of shit.”
Afzal followed her. What did I get myself into? And he still didn’t know why she’d brought him here, though he had a theory.
“Tell me,” said Tunnel Vision, leaning down to the Radio Man’s ear. “Have you ever heard the parable of the ant and the beetle?”
Tunnel Vision pressed one palm against the Radio Man’s forehead, and another against a limp, empty body lying on the mattress next to him.
Purple lightning crackled around her hands. Her Pith, straining to force her target out of his body and into the other one. Purple. She’s definitely a Praxis Specialist. In response, the unconscious Radio Man’s Pith crackled green, the color of a Physical Specialist, trying to keep itself in his chassis.
After a few seconds of struggle, the Radio Man’s eyes went blank, and the new body’s chest began to rise and fall. Forced transference was the only Whisper technique that required brute-force strength, and it hadn’t even been a contest.
The old, bleeding body floated away into another room, and cables wrapped around the new body’s ankles and wrists, tying it up. Their enemy’s new form was a middle-aged female chassis, and had been pre-injected with Null Venom to keep him from projecting outside his body.
Without the pain of his injuries, he’d be able to carry a conversation with them, and the gender swap would help keep him uncomfortable, off-balance.
“The ant and the beetle,” Afzal said. “You tell that proverb to everyone you meet? I don’t think I’ve heard it anywhere else. What’s your interpretation?”
He sat down on a plush chair and poured himself a glass. Now that the fighting was over, he was on his feet again, trying to get information and leverage on his ally. He glanced around the ship. This place is far too small for an operation her size.
At the far end of the hallway, a pale white light flickered around the edges of a steel door. He glanced at it out of the corner of his eye. What’s behind that? Tunnel Vision didn’t seem interested in sharing.
“During the flood, the Ant joins the living raft and dies for its colony,” said Tunnel Vision continuing. “The Beetle saves itself, profiting off of their sacrifice. It’s content to only survive, even while the world crumbles around them.” A bottle of smelling salts floated into her hand, and she unscrewed the cap. “But what happens if we build an entire society on beetles? What happens when the majority of people care only about their own survival and comfort?”
Comfort and importance. It always came back to those two things.
Afzal knew what she wanted to hear. “The raft sinks,” he said. “Everyone drowns. For a nation to function, you need to convince enough citizens to be ants.” He clenched his teeth, making eye contact with her. “And I swear, I will do whatever it takes to make our vision a reality.”
Afzal was lying, of course. The answer to the proverb was simple. It wasn’t about being a lowly worker ant or a selfish beetle.
The solution, of course, was to make yourself the queen.
Tunnel Vision held the smelling salts underneath the Radio Man’s nose, and her – his eyes fluttered open. His gaze darted around the room, passing over the other two in the room.
Tunnel Vision lifted a finger, and a large wooden crate floated into the room, slamming down at the foot of the bed.
“That a torture machine?” His body spoke in a bright, feminine voice. “Electric shocks? Waterboarding? Reverse hanging?” He snorted. “You know I have pain inhibitors installed on my Pith, right? Now that I’ve turned them on, anything goes beyond a certain threshold, and I fall right asleep. And if making me sound like my ex-wife is your idea of mind games, then you need to take a class or – .”
“Christopher Whitewood.“ said Tunnel Vision, talking over him. “You have tools and resources that will be needed in the coming conflict. A Vocation that allows monitoring and control of radio waves. A criminal organization with funds and weapons. Connections with senior staff members in the Principality’s military.”
“And you won’t get any of them,” said the Radio Man. “People will replace me. I have redundancies.”
“Your wife and sons?” said Tunnel Vision. “You were neglecting them at best. They had no interest in dying for you. I offered them a comfortable life on a tropical island in the far South, and it took them less than two minutes to accept. You will never see them again.”
“Liar,” he said. “You’ve got me locked up. You’ll say anything to break me.”
Tunnel Vision shrugged. “You’ll find out soon enough.” She sat down on the bed next to Whitewood. “Way I see it, you have two choices. You can – ”
“My family forged this country,” hissed the Radio Man. “Our companies paved these streets. We mined the stone for the towers of Paragon Academy. We survived the Thought-Stitcher, the Whale’s Plague, and the Inquisitor’s Council. When the Conclave of the Wise tried to shut us down, we endured. When the Shenti legions crushed every nation in their path, we endured.” A smile spread across his face. “We will endure you. Fuck your two choices, I’ll never bow to you.”
“That wasn’t the choice,” said Tunnel Vision. “You can join me now. Or later.”
“Later, then.” The metal restraints pulled him down the bed, throwing him on top of the wooden crate.
Tunnel Vision grabbed his arm with one hand, pressing her other palm against the box beneath him. Purple lightning crackled out from her skin, and she clenched her teeth. In response, green lightning exploded around the Radio Man’s head, fighting her.
Forced transference. She was pushing him out of his body again. And she was stronger.
After a few seconds, the lightning flickered out, and the female body went limp. Tunnel Vision kicked it, and it rolled onto the floor. With a flick of her wrist, the top and sides of the crate broke off, stacking themselves onto the corner and revealing the new form Whitewood had been forced into.
When Afzal saw what was inside, he choked.
It was a naked body, but not like any body he’d seen before. It was little more than a torso and a head. There were no arms or legs or genitals. On its face, there were no eyes, ears, or nose. It didn’t even look like it had a jaw, or a skull, making its features look like a deflated balloon of flesh and skin.
The only discernible features it had were a small hole in its stomach, and a larger one on the front of its head. A quiet whistling noise came out of the hole in its stomach. That’s where he’s breathing from, Afzal realized.
“He’s right,” said Tunnel Vision. “We can’t torture him with traditional methods. But while you can block pain in your Pith, there aren’t any vocations that can deal with mind-body dissonance. Or sensory deprivation.“
Two men and a woman strode into the room, carting a stretcher on wheels alongside a table full of equipment. They lifted the new body onto it, connecting thick tubes to the holes in his face and stomach and strapping it down.
Afzal retched, unable to come up with words to describe his disgust. That kind of body should not have been created, much less inhabited by a living Pith.
“That chassis was designed by a member of the Droll Corsairs’ Executive Board,” said Tunnel Vision. “One of the few people in the world richer than you. The only senses it’s capable of are touch, taste, and smell. It ingests and excretes through the same hole. And it’s been injected with Null Venom to keep Whitewood from projecting.” She patted the Radio Man’s cheek, or the skin where his cheek would have been. “We’ll keep him here for a few months, enough to break him a little without shattering him. He’ll learn.”
The whistling grew louder. Afzal wasn’t sure if Whitewood was screaming, crying for help, or something else.
“Why are you doing this?” said Afzal. His voice was quiet, muted.
“Do you feel sorry for him?” She stood up. “His organization is the biggest source of human trafficking in the country. When he got angry, he destroyed the lives of innocent people to let off steam. And I wasn’t lying about his family. He wasn’t doing this all for them. He ran his business out of habit, and because he wanted to feel significant.”
Comfort and importance. Did she know about Afzal’s terminology?
“You can’t teach morality to a beetle. You have to force it on them.”
Afzal forced down his revulsion and nodded, pretending to be satisfied by her twisted sense of morality. “If that’s true,” he said. “He deserves far worse.”
Something clicked in his mind. After today, he understood the core of her personality. I know who you are.
Vicious idealism. A righteous obsession with justice. A probable history of trauma and betrayal. A partial savior complex. And an addiction to power and violence that she would never admit to herself, even in her darkest moments.
Now he knew her weak spots, it would only be a matter of time before he had her under his thumb. Then he could convert the boss, too. He would gain complete leverage over this country, and save his family from the nightmare to the south.
“By the way,” said Tunnel Vision. “You can keep trying to manipulate me, if it makes you feel smart. But it does anger me.”
“What?” said Afzal.
“Your dime-store mind games. The flattery, the psychoanalysis. The partial reinforcement and subconscious mirroring and performative morals and fake awe. Go ahead and do them if they make you feel smart.” Her gaze bored into him. “But if you betray me, or the boss, I have plenty more bodies I can fill.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Afzal. How the fuck does she know? He’d been subtle and precise and deliberate.
Finally, he understood why Tunnel Vision had brought him along, despite not needing him at any step of the process. Intimidation. A demonstration of what she could do to him, if he crossed her. A reminder that he was up against an unknown Praxis Vocation that was even more powerful than his.
He bowed to her. “Thank you. Message received.” He walked out the door, moving to exit her ship.
“You’re just a human, Afzal Kahlin.”
Afzal stopped, turning back to her.
“We’re all humans. Guardians and Humdrums and Praxis Specialists. No matter how clever you think you are. No matter how many people you control. You’re still just a lonely fool without a family.” Her fists were clenched. “Forget that,” she spat, holding up her dagger, “and I’ll carve it into your brain.”
Afzal would have to think about that.