7-A The Blue Charlatan

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Wes

Bullets flew through the door, peppering it with holes.

Me, Ana, and Hira dove to the side, pressing ourselves to the floor on the far side of the walkway.  My ears rang, and the glass above us shattered, shards raining down on our backs.

Something ripped in my jacket.  Well, there goes my suit.  Hira had warned me it was a stupid idea to wear one to this mission, but we had been posing as businesspeople.  I had to look the part.

The glass walkway wasn’t long, but far enough to weaken my projection.  And the enemy’s hideout on the other side didn’t have any paper inside.

“Number of targets?” shouted Ana.

“Eleven Piths in the room!” yelled Left-Hira.  “SMGs and assault rifles.  One with voidsteel in their gun.”

They’re out of my range,” Ana said with illusions.  “I can’t use my Vocation on them.

“Lock is Voidsteel deadbolt!” shouted Hira.  “And they’ve got a sightline on us through windows.”

Gas grenades.  I’m about to misdirect with my voice,” said Ana with illusions.  “Breach from above while distracting them with paper,” she said out loud.  Brin had told us one of our targets was a Joiner with enhanced hearing, and they’d be able to hear any strategizing we did out loud.

I flipped open my briefcase and shot a storm of paper forward, headed for the gap at the bottom of the door.  A handful slipped just as they stuffed a person’s jacket into the opening, sealing it shut.

They weren’t enough to deal serious damage to the enemies in the room.  But, squeezed between a pair of tiny origami squares, were a pair of gas grenades, flattened with my Vocation.  In the chaos, they were indistinguishable from the other pieces of paper flying about.

In unison, the three of us pulled gas masks from our belts and slipped them on.

When they were inside the room, I separated the pieces of paper and the grenades expanded back into three dimensions, the pins already pulled.

Shouting erupted from the far side of the walkway.  Black smoke drifted out of the bullet holes in the door.

And at the same time, Right-Hira flung a thin metal cable forward, projecting it towards the door.  It shot through one of the bullet holes and Right-Hira grabbed the end.  Electricity crackled around his palm, and Left-Hira sprinted forward, pulling out lockpicks and kneeling beside the door.  He’s electrocuting the Joiner.  Ana and I followed.

Hira had the door open in three seconds.  The dark gas billowed out of the room and we strode in, leveling our weapons forward.

In a few seconds, the smoke cleared and the room became visible.  All eleven enemies lay on the floor, unconscious.  One of them, the Joiner, had Hira’s electric cable wrapped around his ankle. Guess he’s not immune to the gas either.

A raised hospital bed sat on the far end of the room, with tubes attached to it.

When its contents became visible, I choked.

A person sat on the bed, but not an ordinary person.

The body had no limbs and no face.  It didn’t even have a skull – its head was little more than loose folds of skin around a brain.  The only other features it had were two holes – one in its stomach, and one on its head with a tube attached to it.  More tubes attached to its arms and legs, feeding clear liquid into him from IV bags.

Someone’s Pith is in there.  Someone’s mind was inside that body, forced to experience all that.

“Stay focused,” said Ana, her voice muffled through her gas mask.  “We’re here for the list.”

Right-Hira knelt next to one of the sleeping mobsters, a middle-aged bald man.  Finley Webb.  He injected liquid from a syringe into the man’s arm.

Hira and I stepped back to the edges of the room, and Ana stepped back halfway.  The man’s eyes fluttered open, and blue lightning flickered around Ana.  Transparent images layered over my vision, showing me the illusions Ana was creating for him.

The mirror images of me and Hira lay on the ground, dead.  Ana was invisible.  The unconscious mobsters groaned, waking up, and were guided away by other Green Hands.

Illusions of Steel Violet members strode into the room, hefting shotguns and sniper rifles.  Rozi, the Joiner with Steel Gauntlets, approached Finley Webb.  “What happened here?”  As usual, Ana’s voice imitation was perfect.

“You’re part of Steel Violet,” Webb said.  “Kahlin’s group, yes?  We were attacked.  Mercenaries, probably.  Using gas identical to the stuff that bombmaker made.”  Jun.

The enemy discovered the location of this stronghold moments after we moved an asset here,” said illusion-Rozi.  “We have a spy in our organization.  I need you to think of all the people Tunnel Vision or the boss met with lately and give them to me.

Finley Webb was the lowest-level person we could find in the mob who would have access to that kind of information.  Everybody above him was more well-protected, well-trained, tougher to crack.

“Of course, ma’am,” said Webb.  “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m going to need to ask for your password.”

Not as dumb as he looks.

Both Hiras stuffed their hands in their pockets, purple lightning crackling around four palms.

“We were attacked by a group,” Webb said.  “With a Whisper Specialist who can create illusions.  Just following procedure, ma’am.”

Come on, come on.  Someone would have heard the gunshots.  The police would be on their way.  We didn’t have much time.

Ana’s illusion crossed its arms.  “Drat,” it said.  “Almost thought we had you.

Hira grabbed Finley Webb’s throat from behind and electrocuted him.  He fell to the ground, twitching.

When he reported this incident to his superiors, he’d tell them that we had failed to extract the list of names from him, that we’d tried using illusions on him, but that it didn’t work.

What he didn’t know was, Hira’s Vocation had been going the whole time.  He’d been thinking about the list while we talked about it, even if he hadn’t said it out loud.

So now, we had it.  A long list of names affiliated with Tunnel Vision’s mob and Commonplace.  A list of targets.

Ana walked to the disfigured body on the hospital bed, touching one of the IV tubes.  “We should get him out of here,” she said.

“You can’t,” said Hira.  “I copied a doctor this morning.  That body is barely hanging on as is.  If we disconnect him, he’ll be dead before we get halfway to a hospital.”

A forced transference would take too long, given the relatively weak strength of our Piths.  Ana shook her head.  “Given your copied skills, can you move him?”

“Not with this equipment.”  Right-Hira glanced out the glass walkway.  “Don’t worry.  Those fellows will take care of him.”

He pointed down at the street.

A pair of police cars pulled up outside the building, and officers stepped out of them, leveling submachine guns towards us.

“Come out with your hands up!” one of them screamed.  Humdrums.  As if raising your hands would do anything to a projector.

Then the cars exploded in a pair of fireballs, throwing the cops aside like ragdolls.

Who did that?

A tall Ilaquan woman landed on top of the burning wreck, wearing a pair of green Voidsteel gauntlets.

Rozi.  The real Rozi.  Steel Violet’s daredevil bass player.  And the woman who’d almost choked me to death twice.

“So,” I said.  “Are we just going to stand around, or – “

Rozi sprinted towards us.

“Run!” shouted Ana.

We ran.  Hira led us down a hallway and a staircase, then pushed open a door to a back alley.

A pair of automobiles were parked in it, covered with a thin layer of late winter snow.  Perfect.

A figure leapt off the roof above us, landing on a dumpster between us and the cars.  Rozi.  Her Joining let her move faster than the other members of Steel Violet, but they could be close behind too.

We don’t have any Voidsteel bullets.

“Listen,” I said, stalling.  “We can talk this through.  I have some suggestions for your comeback albu – “

Before I could finish speaking, she leapt forward, zipping past me in a blur towards Ana.  A wide cloth flew out of her backpack, spreading forward in front of her.

The cloth wrapped around Ana and threw her to the ground, holding her there.  Keeping track of Ana’s position, so Rozi couldn’t be fooled with illusions.  

Rozi leapt on top of Ana, her metal gauntlet moving forward.  She’s taking out Ana first.  With no Voidsteel, the girl’s Vocation was our only weapon that could take her out.

The Ilaquan’s fist smashed into her shoulder, crushing it against the pavement.  Ana cried out in pain.

The other gauntlet whipped down towards Ana’s throat.

Electricity crackled through the air.  Glass shattered in the distance.  Rozi twitched, clenching her teeth.

Right-Hira stood behind her, grabbing a metal cable wrapped around Rozi’s thigh, running current through his hands.

Ana clambered back, throwing the cloth aside.  Left Hira had smashed one of the car’s windows, and fiddled with the wires beneath the steering wheel.

Rozi turned around to face Hira, shaking from head to toe.  It’s not enough voltage.  Hira couldn’t produce enough electricity to kill a normal person.  Which meant it definitely wasn’t enough to disable a Joiner.

Rozi took a step towards Hira, then another.  The two were only a few meters apart.

“In the car!” barked Right-Hira.  Purple lightning flickered around his palms.

We clambered into the car and I flipped open my briefcase, floating out a pair of frag grenades, both flattened by my Vocation.  They hovered above Rozi, out of sight.

Left-Hira connected a pair of wires, and the car’s engine roared to life.  He floored the accelerator, spinning the car around and speeding it down the alleyway.

As it passed Rozi and Right-Hira, three things happened:

Right-Hira let go of the metal cable and leapt on top of the car, bending the metal of the roof to form handholds.

Rozi leapt forward, muscles still twitching, flying towards the back of the car.  At the apex of her jump, Hira kicked her, knocking her back.

And as Rozi fell, I dropped the grenades onto her face.  They snapped back into three dimensions and exploded, shattering the car’s windows and making my ears ring.

The car turned onto a city street, tires screeching.

I glanced out the broken rear windshield.  Rozi sprinted out of the alleyway, running after us and matching our speed.

She drew a machine pistol out of her pocket.

“Down!” I shouted.  Everyone inside ducked down.  Right-Hira clambered forward to the front of the roof, pressing himself flat.

Cracks echoed through the street, and bullets zipped over our heads.  More gunfire rang out from above the car.  Hira’s shooting back.

The gunfire paused, and I poked my head out as Rozi reloaded.  Something hit her in the forehead and she stumbled, but didn’t slow down.  Something else hit her cheek, but didn’t even leave a mark on her.

Bullets.  Even direct headshots from Hira’s sniper rifle weren’t enough to make the Joiner blink.

Both Hiras laughed, as he wove the car through traffic with one body and shot at Rozi with the other.  Is he enjoying this?

Rozi caught up to us again and leapt towards the back of the car.  Hira swerved to the left, and the Ilaquan’s finger grazed the edge of the window.  On the roof, Hira’s other body kept hitting headshots, but they didn’t seem to do much.

I reached into my briefcase, checking my supply.  No grenades left.

And how is she evading Ana’s illusions?  She had to be projecting into some part of the car, ensuring that she knew our position.  Hira must be stopping her from jamming the engine.

Rozi got closer, her arms and legs pumping.  The street narrowed around us.  If we swerved to avoid her, we’d hit a building or a car.

Blue lightning flickered around Ana’s head.  She looked away from Rozi, towards a car driving behind us.

The car’s driver widened her eyes, then jerked her wheel, swerving to the left.

The car crashed into Rozi, throwing her through a glass storefront with a crash.  With Ana’s illusions over her, the merc had no time to react.

The other car stepped on the brakes, screeched, and crashed into a light pole, slow enough to avoid the worst injuries.  I hope the driver’s alright.

A second later, Hira swerved onto a side street, out of sight, and brought the car to a halt.  Another car screeched to a stop next to us, and the driver got out, holding his hands up.  Ana’s illusions.

We clambered out and got in the man’s car, while he got in ours.  We drove away in opposite directions, keeping our heads down.

We drove for another ten minutes in silence, without any signs of people following us.

And we left another prisoner to be tortured.  Whatever poor bastard was inside that disfigured custom body.  Just like when we’d broken into Commonplace headquarters, and almost gotten killed over those mind-spheres.

But this time, Ana hadn’t hesitated.  No playing the hero.  She’d recognized that saving him was impossible.

Right-Hira turned the car off, grinning ear to ear.  “You all still alive back there?  Any life-threatening injuries to cry over?”

“My suit is ruined,” I said.  “But otherwise, I’d say I’m fine.”

Ana groaned.  I turned to her.

Her shoulder was covered in blood.  She clutched it with her other hand, clenching her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut.

“Rozi’s first punch,” she spat out, squirming in her seat.

That’s bad.  Even though it didn’t look life-threatening, Ana’s decaying body meant she might not heal it properly.  Or worse, if her immune system was compromised, it might get infected.

How much pain must she be in?

“Did you get the list?” Ana said, staring at Hira.

Hira nodded.

Ana shoved open the door, stepping out of the car.  “Let’s go,” she said.  “We’ve got a bounty to collect.”

________________________________________

I strode into the scrapyard, past piles of metal junk.

The two moons overhead had shrunk to thin crescents.  It was hard to see anything in the darkness, but I could make out the creak of rusty wheels ahead of me, along with the sound of crashing waves.

I found Jun at the edge of the ocean, pulling a cart filled with metal behind him, his wispy grey beard blowing in the wind.  He looked rather spry for someone with such an old body.

“Kuang,” I called out.  “Grandpa.”

“Weston!”  He ran to me and hugged me.  I didn’t hug him back.  When he broke off, he jabbed his finger in my face.  “And I’m basically your age.”

“Sure, Grandpa.”  I reached into my pocket and handed him an envelope filled with bills.  “Your share from the mission.”

He shook his head, making his grey hair shake.  He’d combed and straightened it since his imprisonment, and now he looked more like a regular old man, and less like a mad beggar.  “Keep that.  I wasn’t on the mission.”

“But you made our knockout gas.”

“It is as you say.”  He smiled at me.  “But I don’t need it.  Give it to Ana for her new body.  A lovely Maxine Clive.”

I snorted.  “She could work for a century, and she wouldn’t have enough for that brand.”  Plus, she’d look like my mother.  And I didn’t need that image in my head.  I stuffed the envelope back into my coat.  “I had to bribe the night guard to get in.  What are you doing here so late?”

“It’s busy during the day.  I enjoy the quiet.”  Jun grabbed a chunk of metal and dropped it in his cart.  “The waves give me great calm.”

“And why are you carrying that by hand?  You are a projector, right?”

“I need to conserve my Pith’s energy.”  One of the waves splashed water onto his shoes.  “And besides, I like doing things by hand.  Like when I cleaned your room.”

I stopped.  “You did what?”

“It was filthy,” he said.  “Empty beer cans and crumpled paper and one takeout meal under your bed that you just…forgot about, I think.  You all looked too busy to clean, so I thought I’d do you a favor.”

“Do me another favor,” I said, “and I’ll pour that rotten takeout onto your bed.”

“I don’t have a bed,” he said.  “I sleep on the couch.  Don’t worry, I didn’t mess with any of your stuff, I just got rid of the trash and dust and whatever orange stuff was growing on the bathroom sink.”

“Hira’s apartment is filled with lethal booby traps,” I said.

“It is as you say,” he said.  “I cleaned those too.  And some of them were just shoddy work, if I’m being honest.  So I fixed them.”

After a bit more walking, we reached an open space next to the crashing waves, with a loose pile of scrap strewn in the middle.  Jun overturned the cart, adding new materials to the heap.

“Ah.”  He beamed.  “Magnificent.  We’ve got everything we need.”  He crawled on top of the pile like it was a feather bed and lay down on his back, relaxing.  “You could have just left the envelope on the couch,” he said, “but you came here in person.”

“I wanted to see your Vocation in action,” I said.

“And?”

“And I wanted to ask for your advice.”

“Might I ask why?” he said.  “I’m a Shenti terrorist.  An Eastern Dog.  I hail from the nation that tried to conquer the world, that butchered its citizens in camps.  And I built bombs for them.  You Principians despise us.  Of all the countless people in the world, why ask me for advice?”

Because I’m an idiot.  “I know what I’m doing,” I said.  “I just don’t have a lot of people to talk to.”

“Because Anabelle is mad at you.”

“Yes.”

Jun put his hands behind his head, bunching up his long grey hair like a pillow.  “What did Hira say?”

“‘Screw her, punch it out, or both, but leave me the fuck out of it.’  I believe those were his words.”  I fidgeted with a piece of paper in my pocket.

“I have only spent a little time with her,” said Jun.  “But I don’t think she’s interested in either of those things.”

“I want her to trust me,” I said.  “For the good of the group, so we can watch each other’s backs.”

“And that’s the only reason.”  He looked at me.

“Don’t give me that knowing look, grandpa,” I snapped.  “She was my friend.  Now she’s not, and I don’t expect that to change.  I’m not going to waste time trying to turn a lump of charcoal back into a tree.  I need to resolve this with her so we don’t die.  So we can work together like we used to.”

The Rose Titan’s voice rang in my head.  Start with Humility.  Take a brutal look at yourself and drown your ego in the ocean.

A storm of green and purple lightning flickered around Jun’s wrinkled body.  The metal beneath him creaked and groaned, then expanded, floating in the air and lifting him.

Hundreds of small things happened in unison.  Tiny bits of scrap pressed next to each other and shot off sparks, welding themselves together.  Larger pieces of metal turned red-hot and bent themselves into different shapes.  Nuts, bolts, and screws pushed themselves in, fastening parts to each other.

The lightning grew, bright enough to obscure my vision.

When the light faded, Jun was sitting on the dashboard of a metal car, complete with rubber tires and cushions on top of metal chairs.

I gaped at him.  How the fuck did he do that?

It had to be his Vocation.  Green and purple lightning meant it covered both the Physical and Praxis schools of projection – a hybrid specialty.  It affected the concrete world and his own Pith.  He could understand a blueprint well enough to assemble machines in moments, carrying out maybe a hundred operations in parallel, all in a small space.

Jun collapsed back on the hood, wheezing.  Sweat coated his grey hair.

I still don’t trust you, Shenti.  I didn’t like his intense friendliness, or how fast he’d inserted himself into Queen Sulphur, or his history with the Shenti military.  Leizu in Chimera Squad had such a history too, but she’d proven her loyalty to the Principality.  Kuang hadn’t.

But genuine vulnerability was one of the faster ways to get in a person’s good graces.  And I did have nobody else to talk to.

“Give her space,” he said, folding his hands in front of him.  “Accept that you have made a mistake, that you have hurt someone.  Forgiveness is her choice, not yours.  All you can do is make yourself worthy of it.”

He patted the side of the car, and the engine revved to life.

“You know,” I said.  “For a terrorist in his twenties, you sure do give advice like an old goat.”

“It is as you say.”  Jun crawled to the front seat and gripped the steering wheel.  “Get in,” he said.  “Want to learn how to make dumplings?”

________________________________________

I glanced out Hira’s front window, past the scrap car sitting outside.

“Stop it,” said both Hiras in unison.  “She’s not coming.”

Just like last time.  I wrapped a flat piece of dough around the ball of meat, pinching it together at the end.

“Magnificent,” said Jun, smiling.  “You have a natural talent for this.”

“I fold a lot of origami.”

An hour later, the wontons were done boiling and we’d started a game of Jao Lu.  And Ana still hadn’t shown up.

“She’s probably studying,” I said.  “She’s got a very full plate.  And dinner parties aren’t her thing.  On account of her taste buds and all.”

“Or she hates you,” said Right-Hira, dropping his wontons into a bowl of spicy sauce.  He tipped the bowl back, drinking it like soup.

“Thanks, Hira.”  I took a gulp of sake, finishing my glass.

“Fuck,” he said.  “These are good.”  He turned to Jun.  “Were you a Cooking God in a past life?”

“Just a fan of good food.”  Jun pouted, moving his Chameleon Spy to another hex on the game board.  “This is a game my people invented, and I’m losing at it.”

“Your mind has slowed with age,” I said, moving my Blue Charlatan to intercept him.

He sighed, his wrinkles drooping.  “Again, you know I’m twenty.”

Three turns later, I defeated Hira, then cut off one of Jun’s key resources.  His forces endured a slow, painful loss.

“One more?” I said.

“Apologies,” Jun said.  “My body grows tired early in the evening.  I need to keep it rested to avoid hip injury.”  He stood up, bones cracking.

“Hira?”

Hira didn’t respond, slumped over asleep on his chair.  I’d seen him down a handful of pills earlier, and at least as much alcohol as me.

“I’ll take her upstairs,” Jun said.  “Turn her on her side in case she throws up.”

I nodded, my foot tapping against the leg of the table.  Everyone’s busy or asleep.  No one had time.  What was I supposed to do, then?

Fine, then.  I could be productive.

If I wanted to counter-Oust the pretender and get my life back, I had to do more than get rid of the Broadcast King.  I’d have to study.

Two hours later, I was not studying.

I was trying, of course.  I’d stacked up textbooks on the table in front of me, and laid out pencils, pens, and paper from my briefcase for note-taking.

But the room had poor heating, and the winter air outside was below freezing.  Even under a blanket, I was shivering, distracted.

On top of that, Hira’s second bedroom only had a single overhead light, sporting two dim bulbs that flickered every few minutes.  I had to squint to read the textbooks, and if I read for more than five minutes at a time, I got a headache.

Focus, idiot, focus.  But it was so hard.  Every time I went back to the words, they appeared more dense and insurmountable.

So I folded origami to try and get my mind back in order, paced back and forth until I was practically bouncing off the walls, tapped and fidgeted in every pattern I could think of, as the wine I’d chugged earlier began to wear off.

Why is this so difficult?  Was my mother right?  Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Lyna Wethers’ face flickered into my mind, cold and smirking and perfect.  Samuel avoided eye contact with me on the floor of the Silver Flask, bleeding out, still desperate to avoid me.

I need a drink.  If I got the amount just right, I could cool down my frantic mind without crippling it for the night.

I tiptoed down the stairs to Hira’s tiny kitchen and pulled open the cabinet where he kept his liquor.

It was empty.  What?

I pulled open another cabinet, then another.  We didn’t drink all the booze tonight.

“Looking for this?”  Right-Hira’s voice rang out from the dark living room.  I jumped, spinning around, and projected into the light switch to flip it on.

Copycat’s male body sat on a couch, lying back in a bright orange bathrobe, puffing on his purple hookah.  He wiggled a bottle of arak in his other hand.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.  “Why are you keeping it from me?  Are you my mother now?”

“I hope not,” said Hira.  “That’d make our screwing very unfortunate.”

I don’t have time for this.  “Hand it over,” I said, striding towards him.

Hira sucked in hookah smoke.

“You know those things will kill you, right?”  And he can’t swap out of these bodies.

He exhaled and blew the smoke in my face.  It smelled like sour cherries.  “Yup.”

“What do you want?” I said.

“Let me guess.”  He spoke back and forth between his two bodies.  “You tried to study, failed, then slipped into a spiral of self-loathing and apathy.  Now, you’re trying to drink away that memory.”

I scowled.  “Did you copy a shrink?”

“No.”

“Well, maybe you should have.”

“Let me be clear,” said Hira.  “This whole save-your-family thing, I think it’s fucking stupid.  Your mom is a monster, your dad is complicit, and your ex-fiance is a sniveling coward.  You shouldn’t go back to them, and – “ he lifted the arak bottle, “ – I think drinking to an early grave is a great lifestyle.”

“But.”

“But,” he said.  “You’re paying me money to teach you, and you’re going to pay me more if you win.”  He leaned back.  “Do you want to win?”

“Yes.”

Hira tossed the liquor bottle over his shoulder.  It smashed on the floor, soaking into his rug.

“Then get your books, pour yourself some tea, and let’s get the fuck to work.”  He folded his legs.  “I will make your idiotic dream come true if I have to drag you by your fingernails along the way.”

“Thanks, Hira.”

I poured myself a cup of tea, floated down my books from upstairs, and sat down across from him.

There was no burst of energy or determination in my veins.  I felt as frightened and unfocused and tired as I did an hour ago.  And I wanted more than anything to get drunk, or play Jao Lu, or listen to the radio or watch something on one of those fancy new television sets.

Anywhere else.  Please, scholars, let me be anywhere else but here.  I don’t want to forge the stars in my image.  I would rather scratch my eyes out with rusty nails than read another bloody word about covalent bonds.

I sat down at the coffee table, next to Hira.  And I flipped open the book.

________________________________________

The next days went by in a blur.  Then the next weeks.  I wasn’t good at keeping track of time.

Hira, damn him, kept me studying and sober the whole time.  We spent more hours than I could count cooped up in his living room, poring over my science books, all while the two-bodied bastard lay back on his couch, smoking his hookah and drinking all the alcohol he was keeping me from.

Studying got easier with someone there to quiz me and yell at me and explain the hard concepts.  But the work was still boring enough to make my eyelids droop.

Still, that wasn’t the worst of it.  Without anything to drink, I began to experience withdrawal symptoms.

At first, the pain was bearable.  Just a little nausea, sweat, and shivering.  If I took deep breaths and kept the trash can close, it was easy.  I just had to wash out the taste of stomach acid, and make sure I didn’t heave onto anything important.

But then I had to go to sleep.  And I couldn’t.  It wasn’t just the shivering and nausea.  I felt twitchy, even more than usual.  No matter how exhausted I felt, I couldn’t keep still for more than a few seconds.  Every position I took in my bed felt uncomfortable, making me toss and turn and tap my fingers.

I was too tired to get up, and too jittery to sleep.  Dizzy, exhausted, with a heavy stomachache.  I spent the entire night like this, crawling out of bed when light began to stream through my windows.

A drink would have put me to sleep in a moment, but here I was, being responsible.  It was infuriating.

On the second night, I got just as little sleep.  On the third, maybe half an hour.  By the fourth evening, I was wobbling back and forth on my feet, drifting in and out of consciousness, and collapsed on the bed without getting anything done.

After a few more days, the symptoms had faded and I was able to sleep a normal amount.  But the burning desire to drink stayed.

“I really was a high-functioning alcoholic, wasn’t I?” I muttered to Hira one time.

“Interesting word choice,” said Hira.

“Alcoholic?”

“High-functioning,” he said.

“Thanks, Hira.”

Four separate times, Hira caught me sneaking out of his bedroom to get alcohol.  On the fourth, I got caught in one of his booby traps while trying to climb out of the second-story window.  Opening it sent a massive electric shock through my body, knocking me out and sending me leaning off the edge.

If Hira had slower reflexes, I’d have fallen to the pavement head-first, then blasted with a pair of anti-personnel landmines under the front doormat.

After that, I didn’t try to break into Hira’s liquor stash.  I just lay in my bed and endured the overwhelming thirst.  Distractions made it easier.  Folding origami – not just cranes, but more complex shapes and animals – Oracle Snakes, houses, geometric objects.

To deal with the overwhelming boredom at night, I started experimenting with my Physical Vocation more.  I’d done it already during my spare time at Paragon, but the process had become dull.

In the field, I’d discovered I could maintain the dimensional flattening, without using my Pith at all.  How had I not thought of that earlier?  It seemed so obvious now.

There had to be deeper insights.  My Vocation was exciting again.

And now, when I used my Vocation for more than a few minutes, it drained all the energy out of my Pith, exhausting me and helping me fall asleep.

So every night, I fiddled with my Vocation until my skull felt like it was cracking.  Then I released it, and felt myself slide into the blissful abyss.

After several weeks of this, I learned a few things about my Physical Vocation:

1.  The whole flatten-between-pages trick only worked for a day or so.  After that, the squeezed object turned into a hunk of flattened metal, or glass, or whatever it was made of.

2.  The rate at which this happened was inconsistent.  Different objects decayed faster, or slower.  I only figured this out after Jun told me to record the times, an excruciating task that involved staring at the clock and scribbling numbers into my notebook.  I hadn’t the faintest idea why, though.

Throughout, Ana made herself unavailable.  The obstinate grey bitch locked herself in her capsule to study, refusing to talk to anyone.  Without a key, I couldn’t even get in the building, and she wasn’t available via the phone.

On the second day of spring, when the sun crept out from behind the clouds and warmed the chill air, that changed, after Isaac Brin gave us our next job.

________________________________________

The mobster shot his right-hand woman in the back.

It wasn’t his fault.  He thought she was me.

The high-powered rifle round blew straight through her chest, turning her ribcage into a red hole.  She dropped to the ground, splattering blood on the train station’s floor.

Half a dozen of the mobster’s friends aimed at Ana from the walkway two stories up, with shotguns, submachine guns, and a pair of projected fireballs.

But they didn’t fire.  Ana had positioned herself so that the mobster was between her and them.  To hit her, they’d have to shoot through their boss.

The mobster, affected by her illusions, aimed his battle rifle at his friends and pulled the trigger, shooting through another man’s neck.  Ana loosed a burst from her suppressed machine pistol, grazing one of them in the arm.

Her aim is improving.  A month ago, she wouldn’t have hit any of them.

Before the gunmen and the projector could garner the courage to shoot their friend, I floated a flattened concussion grenade beneath their feet.  One bang later, all of them were on their knees, covering their faces from countless paper cuts.

Jun sure knows how to put together these things.  Though the old man was still refusing to make anything lethal.

Ana’s illusioned mobster stretched his arm out.  A grenade launcher blew out of a crate.  As it flew into his hands, he pulled the trigger.  The projectile shot forward, impacting the edge of the ceiling.

The explosion knocked me back, and I slammed into a pillar, getting the air knocked out of me.

I looked up.  The entire walkway had become a gaping hole in the wall, surrounded by splintered wood and metal shards.  The six enemies lay flat on the ground, covered in dust and blood.  I floated a sheet of paper on each of their necks.

No pulse.  None of them were playing dead.

In the distance, I saw Hira approaching from another one of the train buildings, having cleared it out single-handedly.

The original mobster was the only one left alive, knocked back by his grenade.  He pushed himself back to a standing position, still under Ana’s illusions.

“Alright,” he sighed.  “We got them.  And we got the illusion girl first.  Is everyone alright?  Sound off.”

Ana shot him in the back of the head.  The suppressed pistol made a muffled crack, and blood splattered on the wall next to me.

The man dropped to the ground.  Ana exhaled, taking deep breaths, and the energy seemed to drain out of her.  She rubbed the circles under her eyes, stretched her neck, and straightened herself up, adopting a cold, flat expression.

“Brin didn’t say we had to kill the target,” I said.

“He didn’t say we had to spare him, either.”  Ana stuffed her gun into a holster on her thin blue combat suit.  “Come on.  We’ve got a bounty to collect.”

Her expression hadn’t shifted at all when killing those people, when shooting a man in the back of the head.  Is she practicing the new Vocation?  After our encounter with the Broadcast King, Hira had started teaching the two of us Stone Mask, a relatively simple Praxis vocation to flatten our microexpressions and body language, to make it harder for people like Kahlin to read us.

After some practice, we’d both gotten it down.  But the Vocation took a lot of energy.  It wouldn’t make sense to use it in battle.

Maybe Ana just didn’t care.  Or was too exhausted to feel anything about her kills.

This was the third mission this week and the fourteenth this month.  After getting that list of Tunnel Vision’s affiliates, we’d been doing them faster and faster.

I didn’t mind – the danger was thrilling, the extra spending money was great, and deadly jobs gave me a legitimate excuse to avoid studying.  But Ana’s ruthlessness had been growing with her Vocation range.

Ana walked away, stepping over one of the bodies she’d made.

As she receded in the distance, I called out to her.  “Hey!  Do you want to train together?”

She ignored me.  She’d ignored previous offers to study together, too.  The only time she talked to me was she asked me to take care of her green cat, Cardamom for a period, so it could live with me and Hira instead of a capsule hotel.  And because she was too busy to take care of it.

I’d accepted, reluctantly, and she’d barely said a word to me otherwise, other than going over strategy and shouting orders during missions.

She’s going to die in that sleeping pod, I told myself.  Studying away until one of her eyes pops like a balloon.  Or maybe that would be me.  Studying was hard.

While I studied, Cardamom the cat started snuggling up to me, walking on top of my notes, sitting on my textbooks, and nuzzling my hands

The first time, I picked him up, locked him in Hira’s bedroom, washed my hands for two minutes.  Then I used paper projection to pick off all the bits of loose fur near my workspace.  I was poor, for now, but I was not about to get diseases from a bloody cat.

But I still found him adorable.

His big, innocent eyes, his fluffy green fur, his soft, contented purring.  In my original, sanitary body, none of those things would have swayed me.  But like most poor people, this idiot had already gotten his brain infected with Maojun bacteria at some point, and now I was stuck thinking cats were cute.

I had to admit: It was too late to avoid infection now.  So after a week of his interruptions, I stopped pushing the cat aside.  “You can stay,” I muttered at him.  “Just don’t expect any cooing or bloody pampering like you got from Kaplen or Ana.”

The green cat nuzzled my hand again, but I didn’t stop him this time.

More time passed in a haze.  More jobs, more studying, more planning.  My broken fingers finally finished healing.  Fighting mobsters and Green Hands over and over again.  Turning pages over and over again and scanning tiny lines of text until my eyes ached.  Reviewing it back again with Hira.

But after all my hard work, all of Hira’s tough love, it never got easier.  Whenever Hira left the room, my motivation drained away.  Even when he was with me, concentrating was an excruciating task, and so much of the information I tried to cram into my head just trickled out the back, no matter what mnemonic tricks I used.

I could analyze, improvise, solve problems on the spot, but memory?  Memory was bloody impossible.

Maybe Hira’s teaching style just didn’t click with me.  But Paragon’s teaching style didn’t click with me either, no matter how many hard-ass teachers I cycled through.  Throughout generations of professors at the academy, Tybalt Keswick was the only one who’d had a reputation for slow, patient teaching that fine-tuned to each student’s strengths and weaknesses.  Students had loved him.

But the Pyre Witch had burned him to death during her frenzied rampage.  Almost a decade before I enrolled.  Just my luck.

To procrastinate, I played Jao Lu with Hira, who got bored like I did, just slower.  Seducing him was even easier.

You’re sleeping with some crazy foreign mercenary, Eliya said in my head, just to avoid studying.  I imagined her rolling her eyes at me.

In my free time, I did surveillance on the Broadcast King.  I read his newspapers, listened to interviews he’d done and spied on high-profile elites that knew him well.  And Hira, of course, knew a fair bit about his father, down to which brand of perfume he used.

According to him, Afzal Kahlin was a narcissist.  This was not news to me.

But more relevantly, he was a principled narcissist.  Or at least he had some principles – the man made oceans of money funneling addicts towards cigarette companies and pyramid schemes.  But he was joining Commonplace and trying to take over the country as part of a bigger scheme: using the Principality to defeat the ruler of Ilaqua, the Locus.

“The smartest woman in the world,” I said.  That’s what he meant.

“Most selfish, maybe,” snorted Hira.  “Only bitch I’ve met with a bigger ego than dad.”

According to Hira, Kahlin was, in fact, lonely and insecure.  His Praxis vocations made him look down on other people, and all the people he could connect with were gone from his life.  And despite his intelligence, there were often gaps in his knowledge.

That was all useful, but I had no way to apply it.  Kahlin had upped his security, and met with even fewer people than before.  The man traveled almost exclusively in his blimp or his penthouse, and in the rare moments he didn’t, he never stuck to the same schedule.

In short, I was fucked.  The tricks I’d pulled earlier wouldn’t work again.  And I couldn’t even get close to try out something else.

But sooner or later, Commonplace was going to make their big play, and Kahlin might expose himself.  I just had to wait.

So for the time being, I switched to a different enemy: My replacement.  To Oust her and return to my rightful place in the Ebbridge family, I’d have to get an offer from my mother, outperform her at written tests, and defeat her in single combat.

She’d crushed me last time.  And she’d have a year of Paragon training behind her.  And if she succeeded at charming Samuel and Chimera Squad, she could know my Vocation, my tactics, my weaknesses.

I’d have to be unpredictable, creative, aggressive.  To nullify her energy-draining Vocation, I’d either have to beat her fast or avoid her completely.  Swarming her with paper like usual wouldn’t work.

I was finding new uses for my Vocation.  That’d be useful.  But the best weapon I could have was information.  I barely knew anything about the bitch.  The best source I had in Paragon was Ana, but she wouldn’t want to help me.  The academy had tight security these days, so I couldn’t just break in to steal her records.  The deceleration field on the outside prevented most attacks from the air – the only real way in was through the cable car, and that had some of the tightest security in the Eight Oceans.

No, the best option I had was to conduct surveillance on her.

“You’re going to stalk her?” said Hira.

“I’m going to conduct surveillance on her,” I said, then sighed.  “Yes, I’m going to stalk her.  She destroyed my life.”

“Don’t get caught.”  He took a puff of his hookah.  “The last time one of my exes tried to follow me, I threw a glass of wine on his suit.  Then I shot him in the head.”

Finding my replacement wasn’t easy.  She lived in the dorms, so she spent almost all her time at Paragon.  And Jun’s Commonplace bomb had blown up the Silver Flask, so there was no reason for her to leave the exquisite food at the dining hall.

So I sat in a cafe overlooking Darius Street, the road to the cable car station.  I did this at the start and end of the school day, along with the most common times classes got out.  I dragged Hira with me, and we did more studying there, in between pots of pitch-black tea and games of Jao Lu, always keeping an eye on the road.

After a week and a day of this, I spotted her.  The body I’d been wearing for almost two decades.  The name I couldn’t remember or hear anymore.

Walking down the street from the cable car alone, carrying a bag full of books with a smug, self-satisfied expression on her face, pitch-black hair tied back in a ponytail.  Bitch.  Or bastard.  I wasn’t sure which one was more applicable, or insulting.

I slid my chair back, so I was out of her sight.  Once she’d passed us, I stood up, picking up my things.

“Have fun,” Hira said.

I tailed my replacement through the streets of Hightown.  When she got on a trolley to Lowtown, I paid a taxi to follow it, keeping my hat on and my suit jacket tight.  Can’t get too close.  This had been her body for almost two decades, and she’d recognize it in a heartbeat.

As she wound through side streets, the crowds grew sparse, and tailing her grew harder.  But despite a few close calls, I managed to follow her to a hole-in-the-wall Shenti bakery.

From a concealed angle on the street, I watched the girl sit down at a table across from another person I couldn’t quite make out.  She ate a sponge cake, one of the ones rolled with cream, and engaged in an animated discussion.

I froze.

The person she was talking to wasn’t eating anything.  There wasn’t even a drink in front of them.

“Takonara,” I muttered.  “Takonara.

No, that can’t – That couldn’t – 

I walked forward, as close as I dared, and glanced at the bitch’s conversation partner out of the corner of my eye.  And there was no mistaking it.  I could have recognized that hair, those veins, that face from a hundred yards away.

Anabelle Gage.  Anabelle Gage was friends with the enemy.

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6 thoughts on “7-A The Blue Charlatan

  1. Hi all! I’m happier with this episode than with Episode 6. It’s still setting up a lot of dominoes, and this chapter took a fair bit of edits, but I’m not displeased with how it turned out. Nothing fancy, but I think it gets the job done.

    Also, Pith now has an official discord server! If you feel like discussing the story some more, feel free to join! And let me know if it works for you, I’ve never run one of these before.

    Thanks for reading!

  2. That was some good action! And it’s nice to see Wes make an effort, even if it doesn’t give her good results.

    One thing stood out though:
    “Hira couldn’t produce enough electricity to kill a normal person. Which meant it definitely wasn’t enough to disable a Joiner.”

    This line feels a little weird because just earlier this chapter(when they’re storming the hideout) Hira is electrocuting a joiner into unconsciousness by using a conductive wire.

    • The gas knocked the first Joiner out – the electricity just stunned him. Should have been clearer with that, edited for clarification, thanks!

  3. Why in the world is Ana still using her old body when she has so many chances to get a new one? For example in this chapter she has a mobster right in front of her and she just shoots him?

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