I lay on the floor of the tower, as water poured into the room.
The sea rose underneath me, slow but inevitable. In the moonless night, its surface was pitch-black.
Get up, idiot. Move. I tried to lift my arms, to bend my legs beneath me and push myself upright, but they refused to move, frozen in place.
The only thing that worked was my face, and by extension, my eyes. My vision darted left and right, taking in my surroundings. The rusty metal floor. The broken triangular walls. The large holes in the tower’s roof above me. Why is this familiar?
The freezing water touched my gown, and I shivered.
I glanced up and down my body, noting my smooth skin, my pale green evening dress, my swollen chest that resembled a pair of overinflated balloons. I’m in my old body.
A woman’s voice echoed from the far side of the room. “Eat anywhere nice lately?”
My lips moved, babbling on about chicken skewers. My eyes locked on the source of the voice.
Lyna Wethers strode across the room, wading toward me through the rushing water. Her narrow eyes stared down at me beneath strands of loose blonde hair, and a smirk played at the edges of her lips.
I couldn’t look away from her. Her pallid skin, her chapped lips, her cruel gaze.
Everything about her was perfect.
“Eat anywhere nice lately?” she said, standing over me. “Eat anywhere nice lately?”
I gave the code answer, again and again, until the water came up to my mouth and I could only sputter and cough.
My lungs sucked in one last desperate breath as the water covered my nose, filling the room. My chest burned, even as the chill spread from my skin to the rest of my body.
After what felt like ten minutes, the pressure was too much to take. My lungs sucked in an involuntary breath, pulling in water.
Lyna Wethers knelt beside me, bent over, and kissed me.
Even though I didn’t want to. Even as I choked and writhed and drowned in the freezing water, my body moved of its own volition.
I kissed her back.
My eyes snapped open, and I leapt upwards on my mattress. The side of my temple collided with something, and pain exploded throughout my head.
After the agony subsided, I glanced at the concrete wall of Ana’s storage unit, where I’d hit myself. That’s going to leave a bruise. I massaged my temples, wincing.
The image of Honeypot’s face flashed into my mind, still clear and sharp from the dream.
No. Think about something else. I imagined other faces, attractive faces: Ralph Corbiere from Cyclops Squad, Eliya, Professor Oakes with his bulging pectoral muscles.
And Samuel, with his patient smile and steady hands and dirty blonde hair. He’s still beautiful to you. She hadn’t taken that away from me.
Wethers had blonde hair too. Her face popped back in my mind, overriding all the others.
Fucking scholars. It was like a catchy song, stuck in my mind on a recurring loop, getting worse the more I tried to push it out of my thoughts.
She’s dead. She can’t control you anymore. But the effects of her Vocation lingered on me, just like they did on everyone else.
I poured myself a glass of bourbon and downed it in two gulps. Cardamom, Ana’s new bright green cat, curled up beside me, sleeping. Scholars, I found him adorable too. Maojun. This had never happened to me before. I’d always regarded cats with a mixture of indifference and disgust. This body had to be infected, making me like felines more like some poor Humdrum. Another irritation to add to all my other ones.
“Takonara,” I muttered.
Once the comfortable buzz settled over my mind, I laid back down on my pillow, away from the cat, forcing my eyes shut.
Minutes later, my mind still refused to fall asleep. I rolled onto my stomach, shifting my position in the bed, then on my back. Is my bed too uncomfortable? With the money from our first job, I’d replaced my newspapers with real blankets, to go with the Rose Titan’s indigo one, and bought a proper pillow instead of a bunch of clothes.
My bed was more comfortable than it had ever been, and the cuts on my back from the glass on the Golden Moon had mostly healed. No, it had to be something else.
Go to sleep. There was lots to do tomorrow. I had to find some way to get at the Broadcast King’s files. His airship was too well-guarded. His penthouse was watched twenty-four hours a day by Steel Violet, a group that outmatched us in training, numbers, and projection skills.
The mercenary Copycat had gotten us on the Golden Moon, but she was nowhere to be seen. The people I’d asked had no idea where she’d gone.
And if I couldn’t find a way forward, Ana would abandon the idea, and I’d lose my best chance at implicating Afzal Kahlin. My family would stay in debt to him, that imposter would stay where she was, and I’d never get to go home.
There would be no Samuel to warm my bed at night. Only Lyna Wethers, a memory of a monster, playing over and over again.
I crawled out of bed, throwing my covers off. Thirty seconds later, I had my shoes on and was out of the storage unit, jogging down the hallway.
A run could clear my head. And if I was lucky, maybe someone would try to mug me, and I could beat the shit out of them. A run was good, but a fight was better.
And if I pushed myself hard enough, maybe I could think of someone else.
I felt guilty, lying to Ana.
As I jogged down the dark streets, I was surprised at how guilty I felt. Of all the negative emotions I’d felt over the last week, guilt was the last one I’d expected.
I’d lied to so many people. I’d made up stories to get extensions from professors, even if it only worked five percent of the time. I’d lied to my parents, putting on a front of mature adulthood while my life fell apart.
I even lied to Samuel, once, when he offered to help me on the night before a test. He was struggling with it too, and if he stayed up with me instead of sleeping, he might have dropped his grade by a whole letter. I couldn’t have forgiven myself for that.
After a brief conversation, he went to bed, and I went to the bar with a clear conscience. Lying was easy.
But Ana was the only friend I had left. The only one who could still talk to me, at least. She’d saved my life, rescued me from a fate worse than death. And she’d pledged to help me get Samuel back, without knowing my true intentions.
And I was using her. I knew nothing connecting Lyna Wethers to Afzal Kahlin. It was just the simplest way to convince her to target him with me.
I turned a corner and ran up a hill, my chest burning. Nice going, idiot. Sweat trickled down my back, soaking into my cheap shirt.
I’d come so close to telling Ana the truth, that night when we were drunk and exhausted and she was spilling all her secrets before me. But a part of me held back. Because I was close. So close. If I could implicate Kahlin, connect him to the underground terrorist half of Commonplace, I could wipe away my family’s debt in one stroke.
I just had to take the evidence, hide it from Ana, and bring it to my mother. At which point, all I had to do was defeat that pretender in an Ousting ceremony. Now that I knew her Vocation, I had a few ideas on how.
My legs ached as I ascended the hill, begging me to stop. Don’t give up now. I doubled my pace, sprinting forwards.
At the top of the slope, I leaned on my knees, wheezing. This body’s endurance was shit, but fuck, its strength was amazing. It was remarkable, how fast I’d adapted to it, how effortless it felt to pilot it.
Leaving Ana wouldn’t hurt her. Not really. When I stole the data, she’d lose the income from this mission, but in the long run, she’d get by. I talked up my projection skills a lot, but I was irresponsible too. Impulsive. And drunk more often than not.
If Ana found a solid replacement for me, this could even be a positive.
I glanced beside me, and found myself facing a large auditorium with boarded-up windows. The fighting pit where Copycat was. I hadn’t thought to run in any particular direction, but my subconscious had directed me here. Because it was familiar, perhaps. Or for some other reason.
But Copycat wasn’t here anymore. I’d come here almost every night, and asked around for her, but nobody had the slightest idea where she’d be.
Well, watching a fight was almost as good as participating in one.
I strode up to the front door, and forked over a few bills from my pockets for the entry fee.
Inside, the stands were almost empty. The few members of the audience stared down at the fighting pit with silence, sipping beers and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. A different pit master sat near the top, smoking something from a pipe and looking half-asleep.
Even the fighters below seemed bored. They circled each other, exchanging the occasional jab or kick before backing off.
Something caught my eye at the bottom of the stands. A tall, clean-shaven Ilaquan man sitting and watching the match, with a familiar face. As I approached him, his face grew clearer and my memory clicked.
The fighter from the night I met Copycat. He looked unfamiliar with his shirt and pants on. The man who’d looked like he was getting crushed, before winning the fight in just three blows. Given how much money Copycat had put on him, my guess was that the fight was rigged.
It was a long shot, but he might know something about her.
I stepped up to him. “Hey.”
He didn’t look up from his book, scribbling notes in it. A thin, black sniper rifle sat underneath his seat, some expensive Ilaquan model.
“Hey, you were fighting down there the other night, weren’t you?”
The man stuffed his hands in his pockets. Now that I got a closer look at him, he was younger than I thought he was. He looked to be around my age: more a boy than a man, just a very muscular one.
“Do you know where the mercenary Copycat is?
“What, Copycat, the Ilaquan broad who wore the pink?”
“So what?” he said. “You think all Ilaquans in this town just know each other? Sounds pretty messed up to me.” He kept reading and writing in his notebook.
“No,” I said under my breath. “I think you know her because you were in cohorts with her during your match last week. Look like you’re losing, get people to gamble against you with high odds, turn it around at the last second? Pretty good way to make money.” I leaned closer. “What kind of cut is she giving you? Because I bet she’s screwing you out of a lot.”
He broke into laughter, snickering at me. “You limp-dicked little squidfucker,” he said. “Are you trying to get me to betray her? She paid me a hundred times what you ever could – ”
“Don’t be so sure,” I lied. He’s probably right. Scholars, I hated being poor.
“ – and even if you had more money, I would never cross her to help you. Do you know what she’d do to me?”
“I’m not trying to dick her over,” I snapped. “I just want to know where she is. I have a business proposition, that’s all.”
After a moment’s thought, the man sighed, and put down his book. “You’re looking in the wrong place. She doesn’t come around here that often.”
“Where does she?”
“Around this time,” he said. “she usually comes around the Sanguine Smokehouse.”
“And where’s that?”
“Two streets west of Third and Crow’s Nest,” he said. “Bring a gas mask.”
The smokehouse’s lobby smelled like cheap gin and body odor, a lethal combination that forced me to suppress my gag instinct. Normally, you’d have to drag me into a place like this.
The receptionist behind the front desk looked positively suicidal, and was reading a book with shirtless men and women on the cover. She glanced up as I approached. “Welcome to the Sanguine Smokehouse,” she said in a bored monotone. “Rates are on the wall. Entry fee is thirty dollars.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” I said. “I’m looking for one of your clients.”
“This is a private establishment. We get mobsters and MPs in here, and sometimes they bring their escorts. It’s not pretty, and we don’t hand out information.”
I stuffed a hand into my pocket and dumped a wad of bills onto the counter. She stopped snickering for a moment, as she leaned over it and counted.
Then she laughed again. “You don’t know my salary, do you?”
She’s bluffing. “You’re a receptionist. I can guess.” I pushed the money forward. “I’m looking for an Ilaquan girl. Between nineteen and twenty-two years old, maybe. Probably carried weapons in here. Wears lipstick with this smug smirk that – “
“I know who you’re talking about. And she really likes her privacy. You sure you want to do this?”
“You sure you want to afford drinks with your girlfriends this weekend?” I might not get another chance at this.
“The deluxe suite. Top floor. Door code is one-two-three-four.”
I strode up the staircase, and the smell of gin and body odor was overwhelmed by the thick odor of tobacco. It drifted from under the doors, filling the air, making my eyes sting. On the top floor, there were only two rooms. The one at the end of the hallway was the deluxe suite.
I knocked on the door with my good hand. Nothing. I pressed my ear to the wood. Voices drifted from the inside, but I couldn’t make out words or who was speaking.
I knocked again, louder this time.
Silence. No response.
Fine. I tapped the code into the tiny buttons above the door handle, and the lock clicked. The door swung open, and fruit-smelling smoke filled my eyes. I blinked and coughed, waving my hand to clear it.
Copycat was lying at the edge of a wide bed, hands folded behind her head, wearing a frilly orange blouse and a pair of narrow sunglasses. A man and woman lay on both sides of her. The man fed her slivers of grapefruit from a platter of fruit, and in between fruits, the woman gave her puffs from her purple hookah.
The fuck did I land myself into?
“Copycat!” I shouted. “We need to talk.”
A grapefruit flew off Copycat’s platter and shot towards me. I raised my hands in front of my face to block it.
A foot away, it exploded, hurling around my hands. Stinging pink pulp blasted into my eyes. I staggered back, wiping my face and mentally reaching for the nearest pieces of paper I could find: a book on the shelf.
When my vision cleared, Copycat was standing on the far side of the bed, aiming a pistol at me.
Somehow, the girl had managed to target me, get out under the covers, move across the room, and aim a weapon in the span of a few seconds.
“Oh,” she said. “It’s just you.” She tossed the gun behind her, and it landed in an empty wine cooler.
“Like I said, we need to talk.”
“Lund pe chad,” she grumbled. “Get out of my room.”
“It’s time-sensitive,” I said. “This is the only place I could find you.”
Money floated into the hands of the man and woman. Copycat sat at the edge of the bed and sighed. “Tomorrow night, same time. Don’t tell anyone I projected, or I’ll have your skulls.” The two of them stepped out of the room. Outside some very limited situations, projection from those who weren’t Guardians or Paragon students was strictly illegal.
Copycat turned to look in my direction. “This had better be good.”
“What a terrible way to treat your business partner,” I spoke with mock indignance. “You read the news, didn’t you? Lyna Wethers is dead. Who do you imagine was responsible for that?”
“You want me to thank you, is that it?” Copycat poured herself a glass of wine and downed it in two gulps. “Daddy never complimented you enough, and now you gotta scrabble for validation from every poor fucker that crosses your path?”
“Well, technically, it was my mother, but – “
“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “Thank you for putting that bitch down. I was right to give you those tickets, even if you were planning to violently take them from me.” The platter of fruit floated over to her, and she picked a bright red pill from it. “Now get out so I can finish these drugs and cry myself to sleep.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” I said. “Your man in the fighting pit referred me to you. I need to get into the Broadcast King’s penthouse. You seemed like a good person to ask.”
“Why do you think I’d know anything about that?” she said. “You think all Ilaquan people know each other or something?”
The man at the pit said that too. “I’ve exhausted all my other contacts, and you’re the only specialist I know about this stuff.”
“You’re not very good at this, are you?” she said.
“Just tell me if you have anything,” I snapped. “So I can leave.”
She leaned back, crossing her legs. “God, someone hasn’t gotten laid in a while.” She smirked. Scholars, I hate that smirk. “I have something. Information you could use to get at Afzal Kahlin. But it’ll cost you. Here’s my offer:”
“No, I will not sleep with you,” I said.
“Your heist. Or attack. Whatever it is you and your group is planning to do inside Kahlin’s building. I do it with you. And I take half of the bounty.”
What? “You want to do the job with us?” I asked.
“You catch on so slow. How did you ever defeat Wethers?”
I scowled. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a bit of an asshole?”
“Only my parents, siblings, friends, and former lovers. Why do you ask?”
“Here’s a scenario for you.” I folded my arms in front of me. “You do the first part of the job with me and my colleague, stab us in the back, and walk away with everything. How do I know this isn’t some sort of trap?”
“You don’t,” she said. “Feel free to find your own way into the penthouse.”
Damn her, she’s right. Without her, I had no way into the penthouse, and I needed Kahlin’s files.
“That’s what I thought,” she said, as she tucked the pills into a pocket of her shirt. “Come on. I have something to show you.” Her hookah folded in on itself, shrinking to a small, portable object.
“The first step of your plan? Tonight?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there.” She stuffed her hookah in a bag and strode out of the room. “You got weapons, right?”
“This would go a lot faster,” I grumbled, “if you explained what you were doing.”
Copycat’s moves had been confusing. First, she’d taken me to a police station, where she walked around the lobby and flirted with various officers. Then she’d taken me to a house in the middle of Lowtown and stared at the living room from the outside for a minute.
Now, after picking up her trench shotgun from a hidden bag in an alleyway, she was taking me to another residence, an apartment in West Midtown, one of the few neighborhoods in Elmidde that resembled a suburb.
“Wrong,” said Copycat. “It’s much faster this way. Just do what I tell you and be patient.”
This doesn’t feel right. She had suggested joining forces so quickly, and now she already had a plan lined up to go after him?
This was all too easy. She had to be hiding something.
Copycat lifted a finger, and a wooden gate opened for us. “Don’t make me regret leaving that smokehouse.” She knelt in front of a side door and jammed lockpicks into the green metal keyhole. Voidsteel lock.
Three seconds later, the knob turned and the door swung open.
“How’d you get this lead?” I asked. “Have you been targeting the Broadcast King for a – “
“Shh.” She held a finger to her lips.
“Whose apartment is this?” I whispered.
She led me up a staircase. “This is John Brahmani’s apartment. He’s an assistant to Shab Pirzanu, the only interior decorator in the Principality who specializes in Chutani, a rare style used in Northern Ilaqua.”
“And?” I whispered.
Copycat strode down the hallway and knocked on the second door to the left. “Mr. Brahmani.” She changed her accent to a high-pitched native of the Principality, sounding completely different. “My name is Angela. I’m a courier with Western Express Shipping. A Mr. Pirzanu sent me with an envelope. He said it was urgent, and that he couldn’t talk over the phone.”
Footsteps clunked on the wooden floor inside, getting louder. I projected forward, feeling a clump of paper bills approaching the door. Money in someone’s pocket.
A man’s voice echoed from inside. “Go away. I was just on the phone with Mr. Pirzanu, and he didn’t say anything about that.”
Shit. He saw right through Copycat’s lie.
I knelt by the door, projecting towards the lock. The mechanism itself was Voidsteel, making it impossible to pick with projection, but the deadbolt itself was ordinary steel. Too expensive to make it all Voidsteel.
Copycat knocked again. “Sir, he said he couldn’t discuss it over the phone. Please, he made me promise to deliver this.”
I projected into the deadbolt and used my Vocation, flattening it horizontally. Green lightning crackled around it, and I yanked the door open.
An Ilaquan man stood inside, eyes wide with panic. John Brahmani. He yanked open a dresser drawer and rifled through the clothes, tossing shirts and socks aside.
Before I could move further, Copycat ducked under my arm and leapt forward, as the man pulled a pistol from the cabinet.
In two bounds, she crossed the room and grabbed the hand holding the gun, twisting his wrist around. The sound of static rang in my ears, and the man fell to the ground, twitching. Copycat pried his fingers from the gun and tossed it aside.
Electricity projection. The same attack she’d used on me.
Copycat made a blindfold from one of the man’s shirts, and tied it over his eyes. “Close the door, will you?”
I stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind me.
In short order, Copycat pulled out a pair of handcuffs and a length of rope, which she used to secure Mr. Brahmani’s hands and feet. She stuffed a pair of thick cotton balls into his ears and dropped him on the bed.
“Neat Vocation,” she said. “What does it do?”
“If I can project into a critical mass of something, I can flatten it. Fold the dimensions from three to two, sort of. But it takes a lot of effort, and the expansion force is almost zero.” I glanced over the tied-up assistant. “Now what?”
“Tomorrow morning, Mr. Brahmani is going to call his boss to get him to come here. Or rather, you will, in his body. The day after that, Mr. Pirzanu is going to have a phone call with his client about a meeting in two weeks to discuss the decor of an apartment.”
It clicked for me. “Afzal Kahlin’s penthouse.”
“Mr. Pirzanu is gonna explain why photographs of the room are not sufficient for the work he does, and how he must, must go to the penthouse in person to understand what it needs.”
“ – And that’s where we come in.”
“Yup.” Copycat opened the fridge, cracked open a beer, and took a swig.
“On the same night I tell you I’m going after Kahlin, you happen to have this detailed plan all ready to go. Have you been staking him out?”
She shrugged. “He’s well-guarded, but juicier than a summer grapefruit. I always keep tabs on the richest fuckers in town, in case an opportunity comes up.”
Is this a trap? Probably, but I couldn’t think of any other way at Kahlin. So I just had to be ready for it.
“Kahlin’s not going to half-ass his security. He’ll ask for their ID numbers, and he’ll have subconscious keys too, probably.”
“Already got ‘em.” Copycat gulped down a pair of pills.
“What, from your Vocation?” Maybe she’ll brag and let slip something. “What are you, a Whisper specialist? Praxis?”
She just winked at me.
“We don’t know your Vocation,” I said. “We don’t know your real motivations for this job. We don’t even know your name. How are we supposed to trust you?”
She tossed a beer at me, and I caught it. “Raziah. Nice to meet you. Now, you know how to do forced transference?”
Ana leaned on the clutter-filled desk, massaging the dark circles under her eyes and coughing.
“So,” I said. “You and I impersonate those two decorators, use Copycat’s stolen codes to gain access to the penthouse, at which point I’ll feed Kahlin’s papers to Copycat five floors below. We take the info on the way down, and leave with The Broadcast King being none the wiser. Easy.” The buzz of the alcohol was starting to wear off.
“Easy?” she said. “I lost count of the possible ways that plan could fail. This is even riskier than our last two jobs.”
Lightning Rod played on the gramophone in the corner, a snappy, bright tune from Steel Violet about cute boys and being superstars. I tapped my foot along to the rhythm and grinned. “Third time’s the charm, right?”
“And,” said Ana, “Have you thought about how fucked-up it is to take the bodies of two innocent people, who have done nothing to – “
“They’re working for Kahlin,” I said.
“As interior decorators.” Ana stood between me and Copycat – Raziah, glaring back and forth between the two of us. “They think he’s an eccentric billionaire, not some monster who sets mental hijackers loose on the public.”
Shit. She was talking about Lyna Wethers, and her false belief that Kahlin had broken her out of prison. I didn’t want Copycat to know about that particular lie.
“Mental hijackers?” asked Raziah, sticking her hands in her pockets. “What are you talking about?”
“Remember Lyna Wethers?” said Ana. “Wes found out that Kahlin was behind her prison break. He’s a Praxis Specialist and a projector, not a Humdrum.”
“There were some links in the files from her office,” I lied. “I don’t know to what extent he’s involved, but it makes sense if the Broadcast King wanted to stir up anti-Paragon sentiment. Get support for Commonplace’s policy agenda.”
Raziah gazed at me. “Interesting.”
She knows I’m lying. She had to. At the very least, she suspected something.
“Point is,” I said, changing the subject. “We’ll return these men’s bodies, and they won’t be harmed. That conforms to your tight-assed moral code, no?”
“What if we have to fight in their bodies?” Ana folded her arms. “What if we get serious injuries? What then? Are we going to reimburse them for the damage? Buy them new bodies with money we don’t have?”
I didn’t have an answer for that, so I rolled my eyes at her.
Ana stepped closer to me, lowering her voice. “Wes. This is not how we should be pursuing our goals. We can’t fall short of our ideals.”
“You seemed fine with hurting people on the yacht,” I muttered. And with stealing bodies. Though the ones from her initial heist hadn’t actually belonged to anyone.
Ana looked away from me “Please. Don’t bring that up.” She bit her lip. “All I’m saying is, endangering innocents isn’t me. And it isn’t you either. Was this your idea?”
“It was mine.” Raziah stepped forward. “And you’re a limp-dicked fool if you think we can do it any other way.”
“Or,” said Ana. “This is just the most convenient plan for you, and you don’t give a shit about how many people you crush underway.”
Raziah shrugged. “Try to think of alternative tactics if you want, but they’re going to fall on their ass in the field.”
Ana clenched her fists, staring at the ground.
“You want to fight? Get it out of your system?” asked Raziah. She slid her hands out of her pockets.
I held up a hand to both of them. “Ana. We’ll be careful.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “If we have the choice, we’ll run instead of fight, and if we sustain any injuries, then we’ll find some way to make it up to these people.” Though I can’t imagine how. “But this is our only real plan for getting the Broadcast King. This is how we get the man who set Honeypot free.” Liar. You disgusting liar.
Ana looked at me, then nodded, reluctant. “If this is the only way, then I’ll go along with it.” She wants to avenge Kaplen more than anything.
“If we do get into a fight,” said Copycat. She untied a golf bag leaning against the wall, and pulled out an assault rifle, a submachine gun, and a pair of grenades with dark yellow stripes. She spun one of the grenades on the tip of her finger. “These contain Seroflourin Gas, which induces skin irritation, difficulty breathing, and temporary blindness.”
“We’re going to be indoors,” I said. “And I like my eyes. Maybe stick to the guns.”
A tiny glass bottle floated out of Copycat’s bag, filled with a clear liquid. A hypodermic syringe floated out next to it. “Seroflourin is unique from the standard riot control gases. Because it has an antidote.” She tossed the bottle to me, and I caught it. “One injection and you’re immune for the next forty-eight hours. We inject these, and if things go to shit, we have a trump card.”
“If that’s what you say it is,” said Ana, mirroring my thoughts.
Even if it did do what she told us, she could have spiked it. A slow-acting poison or sedative, that wouldn’t affect us until she wanted it to. “We’ll use it,” I said. “If we can watch you inject it too.” It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was the best I could think of.
Copycat rolled her eyes. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll be in room 7251. Five floors down. If shit goes bad, pull the fire alarm to signal me, and I’ll come in with gas and guns.”
Ana sighed, and sank back into a chair, the fight drained out of her. “Alright. What’s our opposition look like?”
I pointed at the gramophone. The members of Steel Violet sang the chorus of the song. I’m a lightning rod, whoa-oh. In a thunderstorm, blow blow. I’d listened to the album a hundred times back at Paragon, and had to resist the impulse to sing along.
“I don’t understand,” said Ana. “We’re going against a girl group?”
“Steel Violet was a girl group, for a few years,” I said. “The most popular one in Ilaqua, which is saying a lot. Then they were celebrity kebab chefs. Then they were a champion men’s cricket team. Then the Locus of Ilaqua drafted them as Kutta special forces, and they won thirteen silver arrows before vanishing under mysterious circumstances.”
“That’s the sort of career you can have when you’re a platinum-ranked skill-stitcher,” said Copycat.
“Popular consensus among their listeners is that they’re still alive, and that Astay, Uzma, and Hajaj are having a secret three-way affair at a monastery in the Xuegang Mountains. Which is ridiculous, because Astay is the most loyal member of the group, and she would never betray her one true love, At – “
“Brown,” said Raziah, interrupting me. “Nobody cares.”
“Right.” I coughed. “Right. That was just background research, by the way. I’m not some kind of fan or anything.“
Ana and Raziah looked at me.
“Now,” said Raziah. “They’re specialized as some sort of elite bodyguard unit, as far as I can tell, licensed out personally by Afzal Kahlin. And they’re all capable of continuous thought-stitching with each other.”
Ana scowled. “How are we supposed to survive against a group with that training?”
“We’re not,” said Raziah. “That’s the point. We avoid them so we don’t get ground to a pulp.”
“Bloody Praxis specialists,” I muttered.
“Then,” said Ana. “How are we going to keep the Broadcast King from finding us out? He’s a Praxis specialist too, right? Maybe even higher than platinum-ranked.”
Copycat made eye contact with Ana. “You’re grieving for someone. For a while, it caused you blind rage, but right now, you’re fluctuating between apathy and frustration. The grief is tied up with intense loneliness and self-loathing, which you self-medicate by obsessively planning your next actions. There are islands of hope in the ocean, but they risk being drowned in the next few months.”
Ana growled. “Get the fuck out of my head.”
“Kahlin, like me, knows how to use the Empathy vocation,” said Raziah. “Even if you throw up illusions to mask your body language, he’ll still sense the anxiety and calculation and dishonesty in your Pith. You’ll be exposed in an instant.”
“Do that again without permission,” said Ana. “And I will fight you. If he can use Empathy, we can take Ataraxia to mute our emotions during the job.”
“I’ve taken Ataraxia before,” said Raziah. “The high is great, but I don’t want you two drooling all over the Broadcast King when you should be stealing his sensitive files. No, you need to learn the defense.”
Ana tensed, clenching her fist. I felt a force pushing on the outside of my Pith, drowning my consciousness in a thick, warm liquid. I edited away the changes, asserting control over my thoughts.
“Good,” said Raziah. “You can both already block Nudging and Basic Sleep. If you practice, you should get the technique down within the next fourteen days. I’ll teach you how.”
I nodded. The girl seemed comfortable with directing every detail of the operation. A little too comfortable. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this all seemed planned.
And while Copycat trained us, she’d get a pretty good look at our emotional states. Even worse, we didn’t know what her Vocation was.
Either way, I had a lingering suspicion. Copycat knew I was planning on stealing the plunder from the mission. She knew I was going to double-cross both her and Ana.
And she would be ready.
“Let me get this straight,” said Ana. “You think there’s a good chance Copycat – Raziah is going to double-cross us today, and you want to do the job anyway?”
She strode down the empty Midtown street. The sun rose over the tops of the apartment buildings before her.
“When you put it that way, it sounds stupid,” I said. I fidgeted with a piece of paper, folding it into an origami whale. With two of my fingers still half-broken, the task was a unique challenge. “But trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
“You drank a shot of gin for breakfast.”
“Two shots,” I said. “Of barrel-aged gin.” Food shopping was boring, and I’d shoot myself if I had to taste another spoonful of Ana’s canned lentils. “And I’d take that stick out of your ass, if I were you. You don’t want to tense up during the mission.”
“Fine,” she said. “What’s your plan?”
“When we arrive, I’m going to use my Physical Vocation to flatten and remove a part in the engine’s ignition. Without it, Copycat’s car won’t start.” I flattened a crease, outlining the shape of the whale’s fins. “The most likely way for her to betray us is by fleeing with the escape vehicle. This way, she won’t be able to leave without us.”
“Unless she hot-wires another car on the street,” said Ana.
“I know what I’m doing,” I repeated. “If she steals another car, Copycat’ll leave a clear trail the authorities can follow. She won’t take the risk.”
In truth, Ana had a point. Crippling the car would only slow Raziah down by a minute or two. My real plan was a little more sophisticated, but that one involved double-crossing Ana too. So I kept it quiet.
“Copycat has some kind of Praxis or Whisper Vocation, too,” I said. “So work with that assumption, and try to deduce it during the job.
Ana bit her lip and increased her pace. “We should have gone with a different plan.”
We arrived at the apartment we’d been using as a staging area, striding through the back door and into John Brahmani’s flat. As I stepped in, I felt a lingering itch in the center of my Pith, an external force trying to pry information from my emotional processing centers.
I shifted the edges of the area it was sensing, making my emotions appear calm and tranquil, rather than tense and dishonest.
The itch disappeared, and Copycat sat up on the bed, grinning. “Not bad.” She leapt up off the bed, floating a coil of rope and a blindfold behind her. “Both bodies are already injected with the seroflourin gas antidote. Ready?”
Ana and I nodded, and I sat down. Copycat pulled my arms behind my back and wrapped the rope around my wrists.
A few minutes later, she’d tied my wrists and ankles, and secured a blindfold over my eyes. I felt a thick poking sensation in my ears, as she stuffed cotton wads into both of them, and an ache in my jaw as she stuffed a gag into my mouth.
I laid down on my back, and felt a heavy pressure on the inside of my forehead. Copycat, pushing my Pith into a forced transference. I could have resisted her, but I just relaxed, letting my soul be pushed out of my body.
A prickly sort of warmth spread across my skin. The tips of my fingers and toes went numb, and the sensation spread up to my hands and feet, then my arms and legs.
The numbness spread up my neck and head, and the senses of my chassis faded away into the background. I had no limbs, no eyes or face or body of any kind.
I floated in a pitch-black void extending in every direction. The world was empty around me, a dark expanse that I could feel, pressing in on all sides.
As I floated, I felt my essence dissolve, like a droplet of ink in a glass of water except a thousand times slower. Without a brain to house it, the structure of my Pith was gradually breaking apart.
A single point of light flickered in the distance, and a force pushed me towards it, accelerating me forward until it filled my vision, blinding me.
I opened my eyes. I was still tied up and blindfolded, but everything else about my body was different. A dozen new sensations flooded into my mind. The dryness of my skin, the proportions of my limbs and digits, the shape of my muscles.
A pair of hands pulled the cotton out of my ears, the gag out of my mouth, and untied my blindfold, letting it fall down my face. Bright, stinging light flooded my eyes, and I squinted.
When my vision cleared, I found myself staring at my old body. Or, well, the body I’d gotten used to. The same light brown hair and freckles. The same tiny pimple on the left side of his forehead. It was tied up on the floor, in the exact position I had been, struggling in its bonds.
Raziah untied me. When I stood up, she held a mirror in front of me.
I was a tall, broad-shouldered Ilaquan man, with light brown skin and a narrow face. Shab Pirzanu. Raziah knelt an uncomfortable-looking Ana down and repeated the process with her and Pirzanu’s assistant, swapping their bodies.
Purple and blue lightning crackled around Ana’s head, as her soul transferred from her grey-veined body into John Brahmani’s. The blue lightning was from Ana, the Whisper specialist.
That meant the purple was from Raziah. She’s a Praxis Specialist. Her Vocation improved and altered her own mind in some way.
It wasn’t much to go on, but it was a start
“He’d better not break it,” I muttered. This body’s voice was deeper and more hoarse than mine.
“You have a point,” said Raziah. “If someone pulled this kind of trick on me, the first thing I’d do is piss myself, just to spite them.”
I wrinkled my nose. “He’d better not. I spent yesterday’s food money on those pants.”
“We’ll leave these two here,” said Copycat. She checked her watch. “One hour and seven minutes to meeting. Get changed.”
The car turned a corner, and the bumpy concrete turned into the smooth pavement of Hightown.
“I’m not sure about this,” said Ana, hunching over in the back seat. She adjusted the sleeves on her dress shirt, uncomfortable. “I can barely carry a conversation with a person my age. How am I supposed to lie to one of the smartest men in the Eight Oceans?”
“Don’t oversell him,” said Raziah, loading her trench shotgun with one hand. “In his own special way, he’s a fucking idiot.”
“Just keep quiet, Mr. Brahmani,” I said. “You’re only my assistant. I’ll be expected to do most of the talking. Be shy and demure, and they won’t ask you too many questions.”
I glanced at myself in the rearview mirror, and admired how good my suit looked on Shab Pirzanu’s body. His shoulders were larger than mine, so the jacket sat tight on my back, but it still looked dapper.
“Right. Thanks, Wes – Mr. Pirzanu. I’ll maintain visual illusions on Kahlin so he can’t read our body language.”
The car drove by mansions and lavish tea houses, massive swimming pools and luxury steakhouses. We drove up a hill, and passed by a sign marking the Elmidde Botanical Gardens. My father had taken me there as a child, when the demands on my performance had been less high. We’d sit on park benches, spreading unholy amounts of jam on our scones and tossing the scraps to the pigeons.
When I got back, maybe I’d ask him to go with me again.
“Remind me,” said Ana to Copycat. “Why aren’t you in one of these bodies? You’re much more experienced with this sort of thing.” She still didn’t look pleased to be inhabiting someone else’s body.
“Both of you have to be in Kahlin’s apartment,” she said. “We need both his fine-tuned paper control and your illusions to make the plan work.”
That was her answer when I’d asked her the same question earlier. But she wasn’t entirely right. I was necessary for this part of the plan. Ana was not. More likely, she wanted us occupied with Kahlin’s guards in the apartment while she ran with the papers.
But that was fine. I’d prepared for that.
Copycat turned down a bustling street filled with storefronts. She circled to the far side of the block to park.
“Is this your car?” Ana asked. “Did you steal this?”
“You really wanna know?”
I sighed. “Guess it doesn’t matter.” I projected into the metal in the car’s ignition, and used my Vocation, flattening the piece that connected the key-turning to the rest of the car. Rather than holding my Pith inside the object, I pushed it into a narrow gap between the hood and the engine, then released my Pith.
Without my Vocation, the dimensionally flattened piece of metal would want to snap back to its normal shape, but the rest of the car was blocking it, and it had almost no expansion force.
Now, if Raziah wanted to leave without us, she wouldn’t be able to start the car.
“Alright,” she said. “I’ll be five floors below you, room 7251.” She’d taken us to the room in question yesterday, and we’d stowed all our gear there while scoping out the building.
“Don’t move the car,” I said. “If you’re circling the block, or parking anywhere closer, it’ll look suspicious.”
“So, um.” Ana lifted her arms. “Does anyone have a towel? Or maybe a change of clothes?” A wave of body odor hit me, and I wrinkled my nose. Two dark spots sat in her armpits, where approximately two bucket’s worth of sweat had collected.
“Yuck,” I said. “Raziah, do you have any Ataraxia?”
Copycat shook her head from the front seat. “She’ll get used to these sorts of things.” The Ilaquan girl shrugged. “Or she won’t, and you’ll both die.”
“I’m fine in battle,” muttered Ana. “It’s just this lying thing that I can’t do.”
“Wow,” said Raziah, her voice thick with sarcasm. “It’s a good thing your Vocation doesn’t rely on trickery, then.” She finished loading her trench shotgun, sliding it next to her seat. “Just relax. Try to have fun.”
She’s not helping. “Mr. Brahmani would be nervous in this situation too,” I said. “It’s basically an interview for the biggest job of his life. Play into that, and don’t talk too much.” I grabbed my brown fish leather briefcase and pulled open the car door, stepping outside.
Ana followed me, moving onto the sidewalk. I patted her on the arm. “You’ll be fine,” I murmured.
She nodded, taking slow, deep breaths as we walked around the block.
As we passed the high-end chassis stores and cute tea shops and mansions, I reviewed the two plans in my head. The one Copycat had given us, and the one I was using for myself.
There would be improvisation, of course. A great deal, if things went to shit. But that was what I was best at.
A few pieces of paper. If they were the right pieces of paper, that’s all I needed to throw Afzal Kahlin in prison and invalidate the debt my family owed him.
We ascended the steps of the Kesteven Building and pushed through the transparent revolving door.
An Ilaquan woman strode across the pale marble floor towards us. It took a moment for me to recognize her: Rozi, the Steel Violet joining specialist who’d choked me out so many weeks ago. “Good morning, gentlemen,” she said. “If you’ll follow me, Mr. Kahlin is waiting for you upstairs.”
A part of me wanted to ask for her autograph. Another part of me wanted to shoot her.
I beamed. “Wonderful,” I said. “I’ve been looking forward to this.”