6-B The Bombmaker

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Wes

The table slammed into me, knocking me onto the floor.  When I opened my eyes, a thick cloud of dust filled the room.

The only sound I could hear was a high pitched ringing.  My ears and lungs burned, and something sharp poked into my leg.

I crawled backwards, my head spinning, blinking to clear the stinging dust from my eyes.

A pile of bloody glass shards sat where my leg had been lying.  From a damn milkshake cup.  Beyond that, the dust made it difficult to see anything.  I coughed, doubling over.

My mind snapped to my basic tactics training.  Don’t panic.  Get your bearings.  What just happened?  My eyes darted around the room, peering through the smoke and debris.  A bomb.

Right-Hira crouched behind the table, a thin stream of blood running down the side of his head.  He yelled something at me, but I couldn’t hear anything.  The wooden chairs and tables around me had been reduced to rubble, and every window in the building had been shattered.

Bodies surrounded me and Hira.  Waiters, teenagers, Paragon students.  Large blotches of red stained their clothes up and down their bodies, and a thin layer of dust covered every single one of them.

Some of them moved, twitching their fingers or sucking in wheezing breaths.  Most of them didn’t.

Where are Samuel and Eliya?  My breath quickened, making my throat burn.  Both of them had been closest to the blast – the old woman had set it off when they walked past her. Their autonomous bullet defenses should have blocked the shrapnel, but the blast wave would still harm them.

I crawled back towards the metal table Hira had used as cover, taking care to not tread over more broken glass.  That’s the only reason I’m alive.  I poked my head above the top and squinted across the room, towards the pile of rubble and limbs where the old woman had been sitting.

Eliya lay next to the door, unmoving.  A thin red hole had been blown into the side of her forehead, blood pouring out of it.  Both her legs were a mangled mess of blood and bone beneath the knee, and one of her eyeballs looked like a popped balloon.

A wave of nausea came over me, and I leaned against the table for support.  No.  She couldn’t be dead.  Eliya was the toughest person I knew.

I looked back at her.  Despite everything else, her dust-covered chest was rising and falling.  She’s still breathing.  But with the wound to her head, her brain could be in danger, which could mean permanent damage to the delicate structures of her Pith itself.

The wound looked like shrapnel had caused it, which should have been blocked by her ABD.  Was there Voidsteel in the bomb?

Samuel lay next to Eliya, on his back.

Blood covered his perfect forehead and chin, staining his dirty blonde hair.  One of his arms had been ripped off from the elbow down.

The other arm was draped over his torn stomach, where his intestines spilled out, exposed.  A puddle of blood grew beneath him, pouring out from the tear in his abdomen and dripping down his torso and legs.

Oh, scholars.  I gagged.  Tears collected at the edges of my eyes.

His eyelids fluttered, and his chest rose and fell.  He’s alive.  But for how long?

I’m going to find whoever’s responsible for this.

A girl crawled up towards Samuel, coughing up blood.  Marion Hewes.  A Paragon student from Sphinx Squad.

Marion ripped off a piece of a dead man’s shirt and pressed it to Samuel’s stomach.  He groaned with pain.

“Pressure,” she choked out.  “You have to slow the bleeding.  Until help arrives.”  The ringing in my ears had subsided just enough to make out her speech.

Loud cracks rang out from the street, and bullets blew through Marion’s head, filling her with bloody holes.

She dropped to the ground, unmoving.

Outside the front door, a man and a woman sat on a motorcycle, with a machine gun mounted on the sidecar.  Green hands.  Or mobsters from Tunnel Vision.  Possibly armed with Voidsteel bullets.

“Two o’clock, two o’clock!” the man shouted.

The woman turned the machine gun toward me.

I dropped to the floor, and more cracks rang out, bullets clanging into the metal of the table.  They kept going, drowning out all other noise.

Hira grabbed me by the arm, yanking me to one side of the table.  He pulled off my shoe and slid it to the opposite end, so that just the toes were sticking out.

The gunfire focused on the far end of the table.  Bullet holes opened up above where the shoe stuck out, just above the ground so it would hit a person lying on their belly.  The table wasn’t thick enough everywhere.

I closed my eyes and stretched out my Pith, reaching for pieces of paper in the room.  Mostly napkins.  Not enough of an edge to cut properly, but I could feel a few receipts and orders around the kitchen area, and some sheets from a cabinet in the office.

Before I could shoot them at the motorcycle, Hira grabbed my arm.  “Police and Guardians will be here soon!”  Even though he was shouting, I could barely hear him over the gunfire.   “Brin won’t be able to cover it up if you’re arrested!  You’ll fuck over us all!”

“Doesn’t matter,” I hissed.  “Have to fight.”

“No, we don’t!”  Hira pointed to the back door behind him.  “Your ex is going to get a new body when the paramedics show!  We need to get out of here.”

Blood dripped down my cut leg.  Every breath made my lungs burn, and the loud cracks of the machine gun sent stabs of pain through my ears.  I clenched my fists.  “The enemies know Eliya and Samuel are still breathing.  If we leave, they’ll confirm their kills.  But we need to – “

I turned to my right.  Hira was already speed-crawling out of the back door, slipping through the narrow gap and into the alleyway out back.  Bullets blasted into the door where he’d been, opening up dozens of holes.

While they focused on Hira, I slid the paper I’d gathered out one of the broken side windows, out of sight of the two gunmen.

Remembering the gunmen’s locations, I shot the paper at the motorcycle from behind, aiming where the shooter’s necks and faces would be.

They only hit air.  The targets moved.  I swirled the paper up and down, back and forth, combing around the motorcycle to find their new position.

Where did they go?  Their vehicle hadn’t moved, and someone was still shooting the mounted machine gun.  Could they be – 

I spun around.  The man and the woman leapt around the table, swiveling a pair of shotguns in my direction.  They kept the gun firing as a diversion.  And they’d used the distraction to flank me.

The two thugs aimed their guns at me.

Then they screamed, falling to the ground.  Their hands fell off beneath them, blood gushing out of the two stumps where their wrists had been.  The shotguns clattered to the ground, unfired.  

Someone cut their hands off.

The woman writhed on the ground, screaming.  The man was unconscious, passed out from the shock.  In the late morning sunlight, I caught a glint of a thin wire, floating in the air above them.

I stood up to see Samuel standing in the center of the room.  He staggered towards me, clutching his stomach and holding his intestines in his body.  Tears poured down his face, and his shoulders shook from the exertion and pain.

The boy had been torn open, could only see out of one eye, and was covered in blood.  And he was still fighting.

A man with a rifle popped up from behind the motorcycle, out of Samuel’s vision.

Without looking, before I could move, Samuel lifted his arm in the man’s direction, and the man’s arm split off at the elbow.  He fell to the ground, clutching the stump.

I stretched my Pith out, straining to feel the presence of other souls in the room.  That’s all of them.

Samuel stared the floor, blood pouring out of his torn eye.  I stared at him, unable to move a muscle.

Then he collapsed, his guts spilling out beneath him.

I sprinted over to him and grabbed the shirt Marion was using to slow the bleeding.  Sirens rang in the distance as I flipped him over, pushed his guts back in, and pressed down on the opening as hard as I could.

He didn’t need a functioning digestive system for the paramedics.  He just needed a working Pith, and that meant minimizing his blood loss and shock reaction.

“Eyes open!” I shouted.  “Don’t fucking fall asleep.”

Sirens rang in the distance.  Blood soaked into the shirt I was using, making it damp beneath my palms.  As I pressed down, I could feel his guts moving around beneath me, like I was kneading a pile of raw meat.

I retched, holding back the vomit.  “Stay the fuck awake.”

Samuel avoided eye contact with me, turning his head so he was looking away from me.  He coughed, and whispered something under his breath.

“What?”  I leaned closer to hear him better, and pressed harder on his stomach, making him groan.

Go,” he whispered.  “Go.  Go.

I shook my head.  “You’ll bleed out.”

If they catch you – “  Samuel gagged, spitting blood.  “ – both get hurt.  Don’t need you.

The sirens got louder.  Closer.  The police aren’t going to be friendly.

Don’t need you,” repeated Samuel.

Idiot.  I should have done something better, something smarter.  If my reflexes were faster, if I’d picked up on the signs like Hira did, I could have stopped the attack – jammed the bomb, or stopped the old woman.  I need to get stronger.

Tires screeched outside.  A pair of police cars and an ambulance pulled up on the street.

I glanced at Eliya, her chest rising and falling with a bleeding hole in the side of her forehead.  There wasn’t anything I could do for her in this position.  Any damage to her Pith would have already been done.  Hang in there.

Men and women streamed out of the cop cars, hefting pistols and bolt-action rifles, aiming towards the restaurant.

Run,” whispered Samuel.

I ran.

________________________________________

I threw up on Hira’s carpet.

Disgusting.  You stupid alcoholic.  I leaned back on his couch, wiping my lips and taking a sip of ice water to wash out the taste of stomach acid.

“You’d better clean that up,” said Hira.  “Lund pe chadh.  Damn drunk.”

Technically, I wasn’t drunk anymore.  I was covered in dust and soot, bleeding from cuts on my leg, and suffering from the worst hangover of my life, but now I was sober enough to lie on the couch and hate myself.

I’d been vomiting in the bathroom for the past hour, and would have stayed, if it was possible to listen to the radio there.  I needed breaking news, as much of it as I could take, and Hira refused to move any of his devices.

Samuel’s got to be alright.  The ambulance was right in front of me.  Elmidde’s emergency responders had been fast, so fast I’d barely managed to escape while they secured the area.

But Eliya had looked worse.  She could be in a coma.  There could be all kinds of permanent and fucked-up damage to her Pith.

I knew where she’d be taken too: Iphiclus Hospital, the high-end medical center where all injured Paragon students were taken.  But if I was spotted too close to Samuel, the Ousting laws would get both of us in trouble, and the building would be swarming with witnesses.

Ana could have gone in.  Her grey coat status would have gotten her past the front door, and her illusions would be more than sufficient to check in on two patients.

If we were still speaking to each other, it would have been easy.  But we weren’t.

So here I was, lying back on Hira’s couch, half-dead and filthy, listening to some idiot news anchor go on about the day’s horrors, praying they’d release information about the victims amidst all the Broadcast King’s propaganda.

But I had to keep listening.  If I stopped, if I let myself relax and play with my thoughts too much, my mind would slip back into the interior of The Silver Flask with all the dust and blood and corpses, and that awful ringing noise in my ears that I could still hear now if I strained.

I’m not suggesting it was deliberately orchestrated,” said the idiot on the radio.  “But you’ve got to admit, it’s rather convenient for powers that support Paragon Academy and its Guardians, for the people who would want to smear a political organization like Commonplace.  I’m saying that we shouldn’t draw any rash conclusions, and make sure we can trace the attack back to its true sour –

I projected into the radio’s buttons and flipped it off.

“Hira,” I said.  “Can Paragon Academy trace payphones?”

“After a few minutes,” he said, leaning back on a rickety wooden chair.  How is he so casual after surviving a bomb attack?  “But only if they suspect something.”

I sat up, staring at the pool of stomach acid, ice cream, and rum I’d made on the floor.

“I need to ask a favor from you,” I said.

________________________________________

From the other end of the lobby, I watched Hira approach the front desk of Iphiclus Hospital, holding Isaac Brin’s silver business card in front of him.

“I’m one of Major Brin’s assistants,” Hira called out.  My idea.  “I’m here to check on the state of his daughter, Eliya, since his last visit.”

My paper projection on the hospital’s visitor records confirmed that Professor Brin had signed out six hours ago and wasn’t currently in the building.  And the business card of a Scholar-ranked Guardian carried more than enough clout to get something as basic as this.

Hira and the woman at the front desk talked, quiet enough for me to not hear what they were saying.  After a few minutes, Hira turned and walked back towards me.

He punched me on the shoulder as he passed.  It reminded me of Leizu.  “Next drink’s on me,” he said.

I followed him out.  “What happened?”

“Your boyfriend’s fine,” he said.  “The girl’s blind in one eye.”

________________________________________

I’m supposed to feel sad and broken and angry,” said Christea Ronaveda on Hira’s radio.  “That’s what everyone expects after a tragedy like this.

Hira and I had barely exchanged a single word since arriving back at his tiny house.  His refrigerator was out of booze, and it was all I could do to summon up the strength to lie on the couch and listen to the radio.

I’ve felt all of those things before,” said the host of Verity.  “Rage and pain and despair, over and over again, every time I see senseless cruelty.  Every time I hear about a bomb attack, or a shooting, or mental hijacking.  But if I’m being honest, and I literally have to be – “  She paused.  “When I heard about the attack on the café today, I felt nothing.  Bored, maybe.  Exhausted.  But nothing else.  When you’re going through nightmares every day, at what point does it become normal?  Millions of Principality denizens listen to this show and expect me to be intelligent and insightful and some kind of magnificent personality through all this whaleshit.  I’m just some dumbass who has to tell the truth.  And honestly?  Fuck you.  Fuck me.  I’m going back to bed.

I pulled off the bloody bandages on my leg, tossing them aside, then wrapped new ones around my calf.  I’d removed the glass shards and doused the cuts in rubbing alcohol, but now that I was sober, all the burning pain was coming back.

“Samuel looked away from me,” I said.

“What?”  Right-Hira glanced up at me from the floor, lying on his back and taking puffs from his hookah.  His female body fried something in the kitchen.

My mind flashed back to the image of Samuel, lying on the floor with his guts spilling out over him.  Eliya with a bleeding hole in her forehead, blood staining her blonde hair, looking like she’d been shot to death.  And now she’s half-blind.

“Samuel was in agony.  His intestines were spilling out in his hands and he had just saved my life.”  I leaned over, slouching.  “But he still couldn’t look me in the eye.”

“For what it’s worth,” said Hira.  “I knew a lot of people back in Ilaqua.  Family, friends, fucks.”  He took a long puff from his hookah.  Its orange flame glowed in the room’s dim light.  “And none of them would have risked their lives for me.  Not like him.”  He shrugged.  “Or maybe he was just using you as a distraction for those Green Hands.”

“For the longest time,” I said.  “I’ve been surrounded by smart, successful, beautiful people.  I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants and passed out drunk, and every time I did, I heard a sneaking suspicion at the back of my head.  Whispering ‘your friends could do better than you’.”  I stared at the ceiling.  “Now I know.”

“Not that you give a shit about my advice,” said Hira.  “But you’re wasting your time.  Don’t beat yourself with problems you can’t solve.  Don’t obsess about becoming an Exemplar, or ‘forging the stars’, or whatever.”

“Really,” I said.

“Fill your life with the most intense distractions you can find, don’t stop to think, and you’ll never have to wallow in your self-loathing.”  Hira blew a smoke ring towards the ceiling.  “Trust me, I’ve skill-stitched multiple therapists.  All pricks, of course.”

“Distractions.”  I can be good at those.  “Got any good ones?”

Lund pe chadh,” he said, sitting up.

“What does that mean?”

Hira spread his legs and took off his jacket.  He tossed it aside, raising a single eyebrow at me.

I looked him up and down.  He’s pretty enough.  Muscular, too, with a jaw that could cut Voidsteel.  Both his bodies were red-hot.

Then a twinge of regret.  An image of Samuel’s smile, flashing through my head.  You’re not together anymore.  But if I abandoned him, what was I fighting for?  What was the purpose of any of this?

He’s moved on.  The image of Samuel in my mind scowled, turning his head away from me, avoiding eye contact.  A pang of pain shot through my stomach.  He chose a stable life over you.

It’s this or get vomit-drunk again.

“Why the fuck not?” I said.

I reached for the top button on my shirt.

________________________________________

A series of loud bangs shocked me out of my sleep.

Gunshots?  Explosions?  A burst of panic exploded through my mind, and my chest tightened.

No, that’s not it.  My sleep-deprived mind analyzed the noise.  Wooden.  Hollow.  Patterns of two or three.  Downstairs.  Someone was knocking on Hira’s front door.

My eyes snapped open.  Female-Hira’s toes poked into the side of my face, and Male-Hira’s naked torso was draped over my legs.

I extricated myself, sliding backwards off Hira’s bed and crawling onto the floor.  Both Hiras stirred, groaning, and I glanced out the window through the curtains, keeping my face hidden.

It was early morning.  Thick grey clouds obscured the rising sun, casting the dark street outside in dim, flat light.  The pale street lamps were still turned on, casting shadows onto the pavement.

A car was parked on the curb outside.  Its headlights were on, glaring at my face and making it difficult to make out if anyone was in there.

There was nothing else I could see.  No suspicious figures, no bystanders, other than an old man in the distance dragging a food cart down the street.  And no enemies.

Or maybe they’re good at hiding.  But if someone wanted to kill or capture us, why knock on the front door like this?

I glanced back at the bed.  Both of Hira’s bodies were already up and carrying guns, though they were still in their underwear.

Left-Hira loaded a bullet into a heavy sniper rifle and pointed it to the floor.  Right-Hira signaled to me, tiptoeing towards the stairs to the first floor.  He can aim using the downstairs body.

Left-Hira fumbled with the bolt action on the rifle, dropping a bullet in the process.  His stitched skills wore off over the night.  Unless he could copy from someone new, he’d be useless.

As the two of us stepped down the stairs, I projected into the wood, stopping it from vibrating so it wouldn’t creak or make noise.  In the dark living room downstairs, we moved towards the front door.

Through the blurry glass, I could make out four figures standing on Hira’s front porch, carrying weapons and muttering amongst themselves.

Before I could move, a hole exploded above the door.  The crack of a gunshot echoed throughout the living room, and the lead figure leaned to the side, dodging Hira’s bullet.  Hira can aim and fire with different bodies.

The door flew open, and the figure snapped back upright, holding up her hands.  The booby traps didn’t go off.  “Wait, wait!  Don’t shoot, we’re friendly.”  A Neke woman, at least six feet tall.

I know her.  Another one of Isaac Brin’s mercenaries.  The one who had rescued me from Steel Violet and Kahlin, the first time I met them.

“Rose Titan?” I said.  “Don’t shoot, Copycat.”

The Rose Titan waved at me, beaming.  “Hi, Wes.”  She glared at a Shenti man behind her.  “I told you we should have called ahead.”

“It’s – “ I glanced at the clock.  “Five-twenty-one in the morning.  What are you doing here with – ” I glanced outside.  “Three heavily armed soldiers?”

“Isaac sent us to fetch you,” she said.  “Queen Sulphur has been selected for a mission.”  She pressed a business card into my hand, dark green with a bright orange rose.

“Who are we beating up?” said Right-Hira, sticking his hands in his pockets.

The Shenti man tossed a tiny piece of metal to me, and I caught it.  “Shrapnel from the bomb attack on the Silver Flask.”

“And?” I said.

“It matches three much larger suicide attacks on military locations throughout the country in the past year,” he said  “An airfield in Corsair.  An oil refinery north of Arvik.  And a destroyer docked at the port of Malbet.”

“Based on a shipment he intercepted twelve hours ago,” said the Rose Titan.  “Isaac thinks it’s all coming from a single bombmaker, and a single weapons depot.  One intermediate location being used to transport weapons into the Principality from other nations.  And – ”

“- He thinks it’s the coordinates I gave him,” said Hira.  The intel he found from the Broadcast King’s files.

“The kind of weapons stash a billionaire can buy,” I said.  Large enough to wage a war.

“It’s on an abandoned island in disputed territory,” said the Rose Titan.  A round, flat crisp floated out of her bag, looking like a cross between a potato chip and a pancake.  

“If we fuck this up,” growled the Shenti man. “We could start a war.”

“So what’s the objective?” I asked.  “Sneak around?  Gather info on a bunch of shady arms dealers and a bombmaker?”

“Oh, no,” said the Rose Titan, munching into her snack.  “We’re going to kill them.”  She extended another giant cracker towards me.  “Hungry?”

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6-A The Bombmaker

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Wes

The clock ticked in the corner of the kitchen, the only sound in the entire house.

Hira stood at the edges of the room, watching us with both bodies crossing their arms.  Ana clenched her fists, staring me down.  Neither of us spoke.

Ana’s hands were out of her pockets.  She hadn’t made any moves to assemble her machine pistol or draw her cattle prod.  At least, she hadn’t appeared to.

I projected towards her, feeling the position of her gun’s barrel and the handle on her baton.  They match what I can see.  They hadn’t moved – not yet, at least.  But at a moment’s notice, Ana could flip on her illusions and take me out when I wasn’t paying attention.  If I projected into her gun too long, she might notice too.

If we fought, I’d have to rely on my paper to scout Ana’s position, but I didn’t like my odds against a gun at this range.  I didn’t have an autonomous bullet defense, and she could get the drop on me at any time.  Plus, I got the feeling that if anything happened, Hira wouldn’t intervene on either side.

No, if Ana wanted to kill me, I had to strike first.

You worthless piece of filth.  She hadn’t said a single word, and I was already thinking of how to kill her.  Was this how I wanted to treat people?

“Hira’s not lying,” said Ana, “is she?”  She clenched her jaw.  “It makes perfect sense.  Your fixation with the Broadcast King.  Your desire to get back to your old fiancé.  Your style of projection training.”  She shook her head.  “How the fuck did I not I see it earlier?”

There’s no point in lying now.  No matter how hard I denied it, Ana could test me by saying my old name and verifying my mental block.

And maybe she deserved to know the truth.

“Hira’s telling the truth.”  I nodded.  “Once I got back into my family, I was going to give you a body for free – the one that my fitness double Poppy uses.  And all the money I could spare.”  That hadn’t been true when I met her, but it was now.

“If there had been one more member of Steel Violet in the penthouse,” said Ana.  “Or if they’d positioned themselves a little better, or if Hira hadn’t intervened.  We would have died, or worse.  We weren’t ready for that, and you pushed us in anyway.  Because you wanted the rewards all for yourself.”

I held up my hands.  “But we made it – together, we made it through.  And do you know why I’m going to all this effort to get back to my family?”

“No.”

“You could offer me five times the Broadcast King’s fortune, and I still wouldn’t want to go back to my mother.  It’s not about the money, or the power, or the spot at Paragon.  It’s not even about the body.”  Passion slipped into my voice.  “When I was Ousted, I got separated from my fiancé, Samuel Pakhem.  I got separated from Eliya Brin and Leizu Yao, my best friends.  I need to get back to them.”

“Wait.”  Ana’s eyes widened.  “You’re telling me you’re engaged to Samuel?  The guy with the metal wires?  And you’re best friends with Eliya?  The people who I fought the night of my body heist?”  She turned her glare towards me.  “What is this, some kind of revenge thing?  Are you trying to hurt me like I hurt them?”

“No!” I shouted, then lowered my voice.  “No, that’s not it.  I thought you were dangerous, but that wasn’t – that wasn’t it.”

“Explain yourself.”

“I can’t apologize for wanting to go home.”  Desperation slipped into my voice.  “You know what that’s like, don’t you?  I needed those files to get back to my family.”

“Hey, Wes,” Ana stared at the ground, and her voice grew soft.  “Back in that penthouse.  If it was a choice between my life and going home, what would you have picked?”

I didn’t have an answer for that.

I kept sizing Ana up, watching her body language, her clenched fists and downturned eyes.  Is she masking her true reactions with illusions?  She could be setting up a shot behind me right now, and pretending to look withdrawn.  Now I know what Ana’s enemies feel like.

“On the night that I decided to work for Isaac Brin,” said Ana, “I made a promise to myself.  That I would taste Paragon Academy’s mulled cider.  And when I did, it’d be with a friend.”

Cute.  To be fair, Paragon’s cider was bloody amazing.

“It was stupid and naive and childish, but…”  She bit her lip.  “I thought you could be that friend.  I imagined drinking it with you, fighting side by side, helping each other towards a better future.  I almost drowned for you.”  She looked up, staring me straight in the eye.  “I was lonely.  And you exploited that.”

This time, it was me avoiding eye contact.  Weston, you fucking asshole.

“I’m getting shivers now,” she said.  “Whenever I’m not moving a lot, I start to shiver and shake after a few minutes.  I hide some of it with illusions, but it’s getting worse.  At night, no matter how many blankets I throw on, it feels like I’m freezing from the inside out.”  She pulled up her sleeves, showing her bare arms with the bulging grey veins crisscrossing up and down.  “It’s been hard.  To get more than a few hours of sleep a night.”

When I squinted, I could see the movement, just barely: her arms were shaking.

“If I had to guess,” she said, her voice low.  “I’d say it’s anemia of some sort.  It could get worse and leave me bedridden for the rest of the year.  Or something else could snap – something important, like my lungs, or intestines, or kidneys.  I might have much less than a year.”

I felt like throwing up.  If Ana’s objective was to make me feel guilty, she was doing a bloody good job of it.  I’d treated her like a toy, or a Jao Lu piece in a game.  Just like mother would.

But I had to keep going.  For the sake of my family, and Samuel, and Chimera Squad.  I couldn’t back down now.

“What now?” I asked.  “Is Queen Sulphur over?  Are you going to rely on just Hira, now?”  My voice got louder.  “Do you think you can fight Commonplace and the mob with just the two of you?  The jobs are going to keep getting harder.”  I swallowed.  “You still need me.”

Ana stepped forward and slapped me.  It was a soft blow, but my cheek still stung.

“I don’t have many allies,” said Ana.  “I lack offensive power, scouting abilities, and traditional projection power.  I’ll still carry out jobs with you, but – ”  She scowled.  “Clear your things out.  And then get the fuck out of my storage unit.”  She glanced back at Hira.  “Copycat.  Is he hiding anything else from us?”

Both Hiras – both Copycats – shrugged.  “My background checks aren’t perfect, and my Vocation is more art than science.  But I don’t think so.”

“Good,” said Ana.  She leaned close to me, her hands folded behind her back.  “Lie to me again, and we’re done.”  She lowered her voice.  “And if you try to betray me, I’ll break you.”

I blinked.  When I opened my eyes, Ana had vanished.

The clock ticked in the background, the only noise in Copycat’s house.

“She was already gone.”  Hira snorted.  “Dramatic bitch.  Hope she doesn’t hit any of the booby traps on my front door.”  He glanced out a window.  “You want a drink?”

You’re stupid, Wes.  So bloody stupid.  But I couldn’t slow down.

I swallowed, wiping my sweaty hands on the pant legs of my suit.  “I want to make an offer to you.”

________________________________________

I gulped down the last of my Arak cocktail, feeling the warmth in my throat.  “Say what you will about Ilaquans, you people sure know how to put together a drink.”

“Meanwhile,” said Hira.  “You Principians still can’t cook a damn cow.”  He took a swig of his drink and slid his Dancing Painter forward on the Jao Lu board.  His hand slapped the timer between us, and it began to tick down for my turn.

The room wobbled back and forth in front of me.  Hira’s Right body was wearing only a bathrobe and a pair of underwear briefs, which made for a distracting image, considering the size of his pectoral muscles.

I mentally slapped myself.  You’re doing this for Samuel.  Don’t ogle other people.  Even if he was probably ogling my replacement.  As I thought of Samuel, Lyna Wethers’ face popped into my mind, giving me a burst of pleasure at its elegant aesthetics.  Followed immediately by a burst of disgust and horror.

Concentrate.  Just enjoy the game.

In response to Hira’s move, I played my Blue Charlatan in the center hexagon of the board, cutting off his assault.  A second after I slapped the timer, I realized my mistake.  In two plays, he could cut my forces off and put me in a stranglehold.

Thirty seconds later, Hira did exactly that.

“How the bloody fuck are you winning?” I grumbled.  “Oh, right – you’re cheating.”  I’d seen Hira stick his hands in his pockets before the start of the game, the telltale sign of when he was using his skill-stitching Vocation.  Copying skills made his hands flicker with purple lightning, so sticking them in his pockets kept it hidden.

“Of course I copied your Jao Lu abilities, dipshit,” said Hira.  “It wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise.  On my own, I don’t even remember the rules.”

But he wasn’t just playing me at an even level.  He was crushing me.

If I was being honest, the booze wasn’t helping.  I’d downed enough to make this body feel nauseous.  Thank the Scholars for low alcohol tolerance.

It was probably dangerous to be this drunk in the house of someone I knew this little, but what the fuck else was I supposed to do, confront my feelings?  Think about Ana and Lyna Wethers and all the other shit that made me sad and angry?

“What was that offer you mentioned?” said Hira.  “Was it just to get drunk and play the most boring game in the Eight Oceans?”

“It wouldn’t be boring if you challenged yourself,” I grumbled.

Hira leaned forward, smirking.  “What I’m saying is, there are much more entertaining things to do in this city with red-hot people when you’re all hosed up.”

Is he coming on to me?  I slid my pieces forward, forfeiting the game.  “The offer is this.  You’re part of Queen Sulphur now, so you’re getting a share of the profits like me and Ana.  But I don’t need the money.  Not really.”

“You gonna stop wearing those pretty suits and give up your nice briefcase?”

“I’ll figure something out.“  I’ll steal.

“What are you paying me for?”

I clasped my hands together.  “In most of my recent fights, I’ve either gotten my ass kicked, or I’ve escaped just in time.  My mother’s mind-wipe did a number on me.  If I want to counter-Oust my replacement at the end of the school year, I need to get stronger.  And smarter.  I’ll turn twenty next summer.  After that, she’ll be past the maximum age permitted for Ousting.”

“ – Which means you’ll only have one shot.  Fuck this up, and you’ll never get your life back.”  Right-Hira leaned forward, spreading his legs.  “You want me to train you.”

“I was going to ask Ana for help, but…”  I felt another stab of guilt at my gut, and banished it.  But you had to tell her everything.  At this point, I was too tired to be angry at him.

“How many hours a week?”

“As many as you have,” I said.  Before, I’d spend a good chunk of my free time with Ana, or at the bar.  Now, I’d have a lot more.

Hira bit his lip.  “Pay me seventy percent of your share.”

“Forty,” I said.  “We can change it if the training goes well.”

“Seventy.”  Hira scowled.  “Lund pe chadh.”

“Forty-five.”

After some heated debate, the two of us settled on fifty percent of my share.  “I should have copied a stockbroker this morning,” grumbled Hira.  

“What does lund pe chadh mean?” I asked.  “It’s Ilaquan, right?”

“‘May you find joy and happiness in the souls of kinship’,” he said, deadpan.

“Uh huh.”  Yeah, right.

“I’m not going to pull any punches when you do something fuckin’ stupid,” said Hira.  He stood up.  “And I’m not gonna stroke your little Epistocrat’s ego if you start crying.  I’m going to make this training as brutal and fast as possible.  And you only have a year.”

“Good,” I said.  This would give me something else to think about besides my replacement, and Lyna Wethers, and Samuel, and Ana, and what she’d said about our friendship.  Did she really hate me that much?  And would she ever forgive me?  Was she the type of person who would hold a grudge?

And what if she was right about me?

Shut up, idiot.  I had to focus on something else.  “I’ve been procrastinating my training,” I said.  “Because most of it is boring, and I’m shit at motivating myself.  So please, light a fire under my ass.”

“You can stay here tonight on the couch,” said Hira.  “If you drink more, don’t fall asleep on your back.”

“Oh, I’m definitely going to drink more.”

“We’ll begin tomorrow morning,” he said, striding towards his kitchen.  “When you finish vomiting into my trash can.  I know just where to start.”  He turned back to me, a glint in his eye.  “You don’t happen to have a rowboat, do you?”

________________________________________

My biceps ached as I pulled the oar through the water.  “Why am I the only one rowing?” I grumbled.  “I have twice as much of a hangover as you do.”

At the other end of the canoe, Right-Hira lounged back on a pillow, wearing a thick winter coat and a pair of sunglasses.  “Upper body strength.”  He snorted a line of yellow powder off a curved knife, took a gulp from a bottle of sake, and nibbled at the end of a kebab.  “You gotta keep your body in shape.  This is part of your training.”

How are you still in shape?  As far as I could see, Right-Hira was as decadent and lazy as they came.

A chill breeze blew through the morning fog, and I shivered.  Beneath me, the wooden seat was damp, soaking through the seat of my pants.  “Why are we even here?  It’s winter.  You don’t go canoeing in winter.”

“Exactly,” said Hira.  “Did you see how cheap the boat rental was?  And there’s nobody around to watch us do illegal training.  If Paragon caught me teaching projection, they would not be pleased.”  He yawned.  “Sorry.  My other body is still in bed right now.  Catching up from a night of revels.  So I am literally half-asleep.”

Lucky bastard.  My head ached, a thick, heavy pressure crushing it from all sides.  I leaned over, clutching my stomach and pushing down the nausea.

In retrospect, training with a hangover may not have been the best idea.

“Stop here,” said Hira.

I let go of the oar, rubbing my sore arms.  Fog surrounded us, making Mount Elwar a blur above us.  There wasn’t another soul in sight.  As soon as I stopped rowing, the air fell silent.

Hira stepped out onto the water.  The surface ripped beneath his feet, and he lied down on top of the water.  The liquid depressed to fit his body like it was a mattress.  “Now,” he said, floating the pillow beneath the back of his head.  “Did you read the books I assigned?”

“Yes,” I said.  He’d given me a set of chapters from three separate natural science textbooks, dusty old tomes lying beneath a pile of shirts in his bedroom.  Two on physics, and one on chemistry.

“Really?”  He took a swig of sake.

“Alright, I skimmed them.  I was drunk and it was past midnight.”  My eyes had glazed over after the second paragraph, and besides, it was a ridiculous assignment.  “How is any person supposed to go through that many pages in seven hours?”

“You studied at Paragon, you tell me.”  He chewed on a piece of kebab meat, talking with a full mouth.  “Oh.  Right.  You flunked out.”

“I am beginning to regret inviting you onto Queen Sulphur,” I said, massaging my temples.  “You’re the child of a billionaire.  How are you so….coarse?  Where are your manners?”  I reached for the sake bottle, and Hira slapped my hand away without looking.

“You can drink once you’ve trained.”

“But I need to drown my hangover in alcohol.  And I’m freezing.”  Another icy gust blew across the water, and I stuffed my hands into my pockets.

“You want a drink?  Let’s see how much you remember.  State Rashi’s Three Laws.”

I know this.  “First law,” I said.  “To control, you must understand.

Hira nodded.

“Second Law.  The Pith cannot – will not – of the in-itself and the of-itself…fuck.”

“Even Humdrums know the Three Laws,” said Hira.  “How much did you drink last night?”

“I got my memory wiped,” I snapped.  “Just explain them to me again.”

Hira sighed.  “Pay attention, because I won’t repeat this.  Rashi’s Three Laws were discovered by Such-and-Such the Noble, some old fart from the Great Scholars who nobody cares about.”

“Rashi?”

“Whatever.”  He took a swig of alcohol and lifted a single finger.  “First law.”  A book floated from his lap, unfolding in the air.  “To control, you must understand.  If you want to project into something, you need to understand the details of how it works.”

“Like studying chemistry for Physical projection.”

“Yes, and individual Vocations have lots of details to them in their codices.  Rashi’s First Law is why even talented projectors can barely lift a pebble without good training.  And why all the strong Vocation Codices are locked up in Great Libraries.  They don’t want you learning too much.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Paragon Academy is a school.  Learning is the whole point.”

“The Yokusei Pact limits the number of projectors any one nation can have.  And nobody has tried to break it, even during the Shenti War.  Because every projector is a time bomb.  The less of you there are, the easier they can control you.  They’re afraid of people like you and me.”

He doesn’t see the value of stability.  Not all ancient traditions were bad.

Hira tossed a kebab stick overboard and held up a second finger.  “Second law.  Two Piths cannot occupy the same space.

“Like if I wanted to project into something you were already projecting into.”

“You’d have to push my Pith out first.  The same goes for my body.  Though I’d love to boil my father’s brain fluid with water projection, I can’t do it unless I force his Pith all the way out of his body.”  He lifted a third finger.  “Third Law.  Weirdest law.  Pay attention, cause I’m not going to repeat myself.”  He folded his hands across his stomach.  “Projection cannot beget projection.

The concept echoed in my mind.  A memory bubbled up of my tutor, a tall, bone-thin man screaming at me in my mansion’s study room.

“Rings a bell,” I said.  “What does it mean?”

“Skill-stitchers like me,” said Hira.  “Can copy over abilities from the Piths of others.  Mathematics, dancing, martial arts, anything we want, with some caveats.  But if I went to your Headmaster Tau tomorrow and used my Vocation on him, I wouldn’t become the strongest projector on the planet.  Because you can’t use projection to make someone better at projection.”

I scratched my head.  “Well, that’s bloody confusing.  Why’s that important?”

“Well, for one, it means Praxis specialists can’t recursively upgrade their intelligence to make themselves mind-gods.  Their extra smarts don’t make them better at projection, which limits how much they can improve.   It also means you can’t teach someone to project using a Whisper Vocation.  No shortcuts.”  Hira glared at me over his sunglasses.  “There.  That quick enough for your attention span, princess?”

I tapped my fingers on the oar.  “You know, there’s no need to be so harsh.  I’m a fast learner, when the situation calls for it.”

“And when does the situation call for it?”

I shrugged.  “Anytime I’m not bored.  During a fight, sometimes.”

“Alright, then.”  Hira grinned and sat up.  “Let’s see what you can do.”  He held up the bottle of sake in his fist.  “Try to take a sip.  Succeed and I’ll buy you breakfast.”

Shit.  I forgot to eat breakfast again, didn’t I?  I did enjoy fighting, and I’d made a similar offer to Ana when I first met her, but I sensed foul play here.

“No,” I said.  “You’re trying to kick my ass so you can humble me and make yourself feel strong.  I won’t play into your student-teacher power trip.”

“Well, yes, obviously I’m going to crush you,” said Hira.  “But you’ll learn from it.  Or you’ll just get pissed.  Either way, I get to have a fun new experience and wake – “

As he talked, I formed a blunt icicle out of the cold water and shot it at his hand from behind, hard enough to knock the bottle out of his grip.

Without looking, Hira lifted his right arm, dodging the projectile.  In the same motion, he lifted his left pinky finger, and a cold, stinging pain rushed through my body again.  I fell back onto the boat, twitching.

I glanced down at my feet.  A thin rope of water connected a patch of skin on my ankle to Hira’s finger, letting him conduct electricity into me.  How long did he have that there?

“Not bad,” Hira said.  “Distracting me before a quick strike.  But you lack awareness.”  He slapped the water next to him, sending out ripples.  “Can you do a water walk?  Surely one of your seventeen tutors must have taught you.”

So many digs at my wealth.  And yet his daddy was a hundred times wealthier than my family had ever been.

“I don’t think so.”  I remembered some of the fundamentals – the basics of surface tension and adhesion and dynes per centimeter, but there were gaps in my knowledge, conclusions that I knew without understanding the proofs, or independent facts disconnected from outside context.

The water walk was one of the first things you learned at Paragon – I’d learned it years before – but I wasn’t sure anymore.

Hira stood up on the water and extended his hand, several meters away from the canoe.  “Come here and shake my hand, and I’ll give you a sip.”

I focused on what I remembered.  Cohesion and adhesion.  Force over length.  Difference in pressure.  Contact angles.  I reached my Pith out into the water in front of me, willing it to harden, strengthen.

My mind flashed back to the day I’d first learned the water walk.  Samuel had guided me by the hand across his family’s swimming pool, both of us only thirteen years old.

I leaned out of the boat and pressed my palm against the surface of the water.  It bent beneath me, like an invisible skin had been stretched across.

Then I put some of my weight onto it and it snapped beneath me, exploding in a splash of water and swallowing my hand.  I reeled back, flailing my arms to regain balance, and slumped back in the boat.  Something thin and sharp poked into my leg, probably a splinter from the canoe’s damp wood, and the boat rocked back and forth.

My Pith hadn’t even strained.  No green lightning, no headache.  Well, no headache beyond the usual hangover, that is.

At the Golden Moon when fleeing from Lyna Wethers, I’d controlled the water just fine.  Why was I having so much trouble here?

Idiot.  I felt like Ana – too inexperienced to even know the basics.

I projected into the water and tried again.  Then again, and again, and again.  Every time it was the same result.  The water broke underneath me.  I need to refine my technique.

“You’re not going to beat your replacement if you can’t even do a water walk,” said Hira.

“Really?”  I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm.  “I had no idea.  Thank you for the insight, wise master.  Now I know why I pay you so much.”

“If you spent more time studying and less time mouthing off like a fourteen-year-old,” said Hira.  “Maybe you’d actually be smart by now instead of just clever.”

More criticism.  And comparing me to a child.  My mother was fond of that one.

“What is your problem with me, exactly?  Are you this rude to everyone who has the misfortune of talking to you?”

“No.”  Hira tapped his foot on the surface of the water.  “Just the Epistocrat princesses who want to lick off their war criminal mommies so they don’t miss out on their chocolate scones and barrel-aged gin.”

I wrinkled my nose.   “You think I like gin?  What kind of swine do you take me for?”

“You were part of the ruling class of one of the ugliest nations in the world, at one of the most repressive, uptight projection schools, inside one of the nastiest social groups.  And now that you’re free, all you can think about is how to wriggle your way back in.”

So that’s how he sees me.  I clenched the oar handle, tapping my fingers in a rapid, escalating pattern on the wood.

“You’re paying me,” said Hira.  “So I’ll keep kicking your ass until you get better.  But nothing in our agreement requires me to indulge in your petty Epistocrat fantasies.  Your odds are shit, [    ] Ebbridge.”

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

“And even if you do get back to the Southern Typhoon and her fucked-up world, it’s not going to make you happy.”

“I’m not going back for myself,” I hissed.  “I’m going back for my family.  Because I’m loyal to them.  Maybe you find that concept too hard to understand, after dear old dad used you as his lab rat.”

Hira clenched his fist and the boat flipped underneath me, throwing me at the ocean face first.

As the icy water rushed towards me, I reached towards it reflexively, flailing my arms.  I reached.

I bounced off the water.

The surface had been hardened beneath me.

I was doing a water walk.

It felt like the insides of my skull were on fire, and little bursts of green lightning flickered around my arms.  The scabs on my back stung, splitting in places.

But still, I was doing it.

I tensed my muscles, holding myself above the water on my hands and knees.  Hira’s book and his plate of kebabs bobbed up and down in the water around me.

“Unless I ask you,” said Hira.  “Don’t fucking talk about what my father did.”

“Did you set all this up to help my projection?”

As I stopped focusing on it, my projection broke beneath me, sending me splashing into the cold water.

“Lund pe chadh.”

I paddled back towards the capsized boat and clambered onto the top, then released my projection and relaxed my Pith.  “What does that mean?”  I gripped the side of the canoe.

Hira strode towards me.  “It means you’ve got a lot of work to do.”

________________________________________

As per usual, I was bored.

It was remarkable.  Even when things were dire, when I was prepping for the fight to take my life back, I was incapable of concentrating on something.

I sipped my ice cream soda.  If I gave a thoughtful look at the chemistry textbook in front of me, I would look like I was reading it.

Of course, I was just scanning the same two paragraphs over and over again.  Who the fuck cares about the difference between instantaneous and induced dipoles?

Advanced Chemical Principles was written by the worst kind of academic, who couldn’t describe a piece of toast without using every ten-syllable word in the dictionary.  The language was elaborate, the examples were confusing, and the font was so tiny and poorly spaced that I had to squint to read it.

Natural science could be intuitive and beautiful, when the concepts built on one another and flowed in elegant patterns.  But most of the time, you were expected to memorize an equation or a set of rules, rushing onto the next topic before you could fully process the first one.  There was nothing beautiful about that.

It was so much easier to just skim them, cram the night before and wing it when test time came.  But Hira had made me promise not to do that anymore.

So here I was, sitting in the Silver Flask, leaning against an unstable wooden table that wobbled back and forth every time I shifted my weight.  Pretending I wasn’t miserable.

I glanced around the bustling room.  I noted members from Centaur, Phoenix, and Sphinx squads, but nobody who would recognize me in this body.

Most of the other guests had metal tables.  They didn’t wobble.  They didn’t creak.  They were thick and sturdy and weren’t a constant bloody distraction, unlike mine.  How was I supposed to concentrate with all this stimulus?

I glanced up at Hira, who was reading a gun magazine.  “Where am I going to stay?” I asked.

Hira stuffed a fistful of almonds into his mouth, talking as he chewed.  “Shtop dishtracting yourshelf and get back to shtudying.”

I fidgeted with the corner of one of the pages, folding it into an origami leaf.  “Ana kicked me out, homeless shelters are filthy and dangerous, and now that I’ve given you such a big share of my profits, even renting something as cheap as a sleeping pod is going to be tricky.”

“No,” said Right-Hira, leaning back in his chair.  “You cannot stay at my house.”

He catches on quick.  “You have a couch,” I said.  “I’m already paying you money.”

“You’re not broke, and you’re clever.  You’ll think of something.”

“Just give me a month,” I said.  “I’ll find my own place, I just need time.”

He sighed.  “Two weeks,” he said.  “And don’t try to haggle with me, I copied the skills of a very persistent stockbroker this morning and we both know that’s the lowest number you’ll agree to.”

Two weeks.  It wasn’t a lot of time, but I’d solved harder problems with less.

“Now,” said Hira.  “Leave me alone and get back to reading.”

I forced my gaze back towards the book, doing my best to filter out the constant noise in the background.  Students chattering with one another about squad rankings.  The clink of metal utensils on plates.  Swing music from a gramophone.  The clatter of dishes and faint shouts from inside the kitchen.

A middle-aged Neke man picked at the bread of his sandwich, removing the crust.  At the far side of the room, an old woman with chapped lips rubbed her fingers on her thick briefcase, looking half-asleep.  In the corner of the room, Anira Olwyn of Talos Squad touched her finger to a mind-sphere holding the Pith of her squad leader.

Stop, idiot.  Focus.  Why was this so difficult?  Ana was improving.  Her physical projection was inching along towards competence, she could block most common Whisper techniques, and her Vocation was improving in leaps and bounds.  The girl was always buried nose-deep in one of her books.  Why was I having so much trouble with it?

How had I survived nineteen years in my family when I was this airheaded?

The old woman was listening to a popular radio talk show, which I could catch snippets of.  They’re talking about us.

A projector did this,” said the man on the radio.  “Witnesses reported a figure seen flying into the top window moments after the car bomb went off, and Kahlin’s bodyguards all describe grievous injuries from two projectors who stole the bodies of staff to enter the premises.

Kahlin had disclosed a great deal to the local police.  Thankfully, he’d left out most of the details that could identify me or Ana.

Are you suggesting a foreign element?”  A woman.  One of the other hosts of the show.  “One of Kahlin’s enemies in Ilaqua or The Neke Islands.  Or perhaps a private military, like the Droll Corsairs?

Angela, what group of projectors hates Afzal Kahlin the most?  Who did he displace when Oracle Media Group rose to power in this country?”  The man paused.  “Epistocrats. Billionaires with more money than they could ever spend in their lives and an army of ruthless black ops Guardians at their fingertips.  Specifically, the Ebbridge newspaper family.  The nobles who helped keep an entire world of magic secret from the people of this country.

My stomach clenched.  It was just speculation.  They didn’t have any evidence.

House Ebbridge owes millions of pounds to Afzal Kahlin’s private equity firm.  The wealthy have done a lot worse things than murder for much smaller numbers than that.

And they wonder why people are rioting.  When you’re made that powerless, when you’re cornered like that, what choice do you have?  Commonplace just wants stronger regulations, an end to the house of lords, redistribution of bodies.  But when that’s impossible, you get desperate.

As I recalled, this talk show was owned by a company affiliated with Oracle Media Group.  These are Kahlin’s words.  Kahlin’s narrative.  The rhetoric was amping up since our mission, getting more aggressive, more violent.

Water splashed on my shirt.  I jerked back, and saw Hira holding his empty glass towards me.  “You’ve been reading page thirteen for the past twenty minutes.  Were you listening to the radio?”

“It’s difficult to concentrate when I have to listen to your father causing the end of the world over there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Hira.  “No, he’s just trying to end the country.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Been meaning to ask you about that.  How much do you know about your father’s plan?”

Hira shrugged.  “I know the basics.  It’s pretty simple.  Get the public hateful, dehumanizing their enemies, and believing that violence is the only option.  Then when it’s hit a fever pitch, Commonplace and the mob are going to use the weapons they bought with my dad’s coffers.  The ones stored at those coordinates I gave you.  And they’re going to try to burn down this trash heap.”

I frowned.  “Kahlin’s strong, but he’s not a god.  I’ve landed hits on him, and I’m an idiot.”

“He’s unfamiliar with combat.  But he’s not alone.”

“The Principality has,” I counted off on my fingers.  “The Symphony Knight, who can tear through fleets with a single song.  Sebastian Oakes – the Obsidian Foil, who’s never lost a fight against anyone.  And Headmaster Nicholas Tau, the most powerful projector in the world.”

My voice faltered at the last one.  He’s a senile old man.  For all we know, he can’t even project anymore.

“How the fuck,” I said.  “Is your father going to beat all those people?”

Hira shrugged.  “No idea.  But those are his most obvious obstacles.  You really think he hasn’t planned for them?”

“Is that all you know?” I asked.  “You did use your Praxis Vocation on the Broadcast King, didn’t you?  You could read his thoughts, right?”

Hira folded his magazine shut.  “I may have…implied that my Vocation was more versatile than it is.  It lets me skill-stitch over an entire person’s abilities within a few seconds, but each copy only lasts around ten hours.  And every time I copy from a single person, their mind builds up resistance and it gets a little less effective – I can only do it about ten-twenty times on a target, and only for about five seconds at a time.”

“And that’s when you can read their mind.”

“I can experience the target’s thoughts when I’m copying them, yes.  For spurts of five seconds.  And I can’t view their memories unless they use them all the time.”

“So even when you did use it on your father, it didn’t tell you what his plans were.”

“Oh, I didn’t use it on him,” Right-Hira said.  “He built up natural immunity a long time ago.”

The Silver Flask’s front door opened, ringing a bell.  It drew my attention for a split second.

Before I could look away, Samuel stepped into the diner.

I could recognize that dirty blonde haircut even from across the crowded room.  A platinum blonde strode into the room behind him.  Eliya.  My throat tightened.  I felt myself breathe faster, and my grip tightened on my textbook.

Don’t look at them directly.  I watched them out of the corner of my eye, keeping my face turned away from them.  If they spotted me, there could be problems.  And if they were seen interacting with me, Samuel could be Ousted and Eliya could lose her place at Paragon.

The two of them sat down at a table near the middle of the room, just far enough to be out of earshot.  Neither of them so much as glanced at me.  They haven’t seen me yet.  Or were pretending they hadn’t.

“Those people,” said Hira.  “The boy and the girl you’re pretending not to look at.  Who are they?”

“Waiter,” I said, waving him over.  “I’d like a shot of rum, please.”  I turned back to Hira.  “He’s my ex-fiancé.  And she’s one of my former best friends, and Professor Brin’s daughter.  I’m not supposed to talk to them at all.  And we split up on bad terms.”

A look of realization dawned in Hira’s eyes.  “You did this on purpose, didn’t you?”

“What?”

“You suggested that we come to the Silver Flask to study.  And at this time.  You knew when your old buddies liked to visit, and you wanted to stalk them.”  He grinned, clapping me on the shoulder.  “You could have just told me up front.”

“I’m not stalking them,” I snapped.  “This is tactical.  I wanted to spy on my replacement.  She just didn’t show today.”

“What do you gain by watching her eat pancakes?”

“I need to know her strengths and weaknesses.  Where she spends her time and what she cares about.  How she does in class and on the battlefield, and where the fuck she came from.”  I took another glance at Samuel’s table.  “Projectors as skilled as her don’t just materialize out of thin air.  Someone trained her.  Someone good.”

“And you’re going to get all that by watching her eat lunch.”

“Knowing her schedule would be a start, yes.”

Over by their table, Eliya hunched over, whispering with Samuel.  How would she feel if she knew I was secretly working as a mercenary for her father?  Knowing Eliya, I wasn’t sure if she’d slap me or hug me.

She said something, and both she and Samuel laughed, smiling.  My stomach clenched.

The two of them didn’t look sad, or grieving, or anxious.  They looked like they did in the year before I got Ousted.  They were joking with one another, smiling, going out to lunch during their break and enjoying their favorite dishes.

That stung, more than any failure I had today, more than any criticism from Hira.  How long did it take them to adjust?

I thought back to something Ana had told me, when describing her early teens.  The worst loneliness isn’t pure isolation.  It’s watching people have fun without you.

“Waiter,” I said.  “Another shot.”

How much could they have adjusted?  Was life really back to normal?  I would have given anything to have one more conversation with Samuel in private, one more update on his life without me.

I’d need to be drunk, of course, and I’d probably throw my drink in his stupid face, but it’d still be worth it.

“What’d he do to you?” said Hira.  “Or, what did you do to him?”

Three shots later, I spilled everything to Hira.  My engagement with Samuel.  Chimera Squad.  Our secret meetings after I’d been Ousted and how Samuel had abandoned me.

And my resolution to win him back, along with my name and my position in my family.

Why am I being so open with him?  It was the kind of information Hira could use against me, if he wanted to.  He wasn’t the type to offer emotional counsel, and even if he did, there wasn’t much he could do about my situation.

But fuck, it felt good to finally vent to someone about all this whaleshit.  I’d kept all this hidden from Ana, and now that she hated me, that door was shut.

“You should have expected it,” said Hira.

I scowled at him.  “Samuel is the most loyal person I know.”

“People give off that impression because they have the bare minimum of a moral compass and are afraid to challenge authority.  Don’t mistake that for genuine faithfulness.”

“Boy, I bet you’re overflowing with friends.”  I poured my shot into the rest of my ice cream soda and gulped it down.

“The bottom line is, you put your trust in him, and when you needed him most, he left you to the wolves.”

Samuel and Eliya still hadn’t seen me.  “He did what he had to do.  To protect himself and his team.  If he’s seen with me, he could lose everything.”

“Yes,” said Hira.  “And that’s the first and last thing he thinks about every time he pictures you now.  He’s shown you his priorities.  If you rely on him again, he’s going to ‘do what he has to do’ again and again until you learn your lesson.”  He leaned forward.  “I’m considering this part of your training.”

“Insulting the love of my life is training?”

“There are lots of ways to protect your mind.  Whisper defenses.  Killing the right projectors.  Recognizing cult tactics.  And,” he said.  “Not letting the wrong people get your emotions by the balls.  The Neke call that ‘Mental Hygiene’.”

Nothing’s sacred to him.  And I thought I was callous.

“He’s not some kind of monster,” I said through clenched teeth.  “Where did you learn to shit on people so much?”

“Meeting lots of Samuels,” Hira said.

“Fuck you,” I said, raising my voice until it was almost a shout.  “This is none of your business.  Stay away from Samuel.”

Samuel turned towards the source of the noise, and looked straight at me.

My chest tightened.  The world in the background faded to a distant blur.  The two of us made eye contact, staring at each other.

In spite of myself, I smiled at him.

Samuel looked away from me and said something to Eliya, his face pale.  In response, Eliya’s brow furrowed, and she dumped a stack of bills onto the table.  Both of them stood up and walked towards the front door, avoiding eye contact with me.

They walked towards the old woman, and she flipped open her briefcase, peering in.

In the seconds while they passed her, several things happened.

The woman reached her arm deep inside.

Hira grabbed my shoulder and reached his other hand towards the metal table to our right.  It flipped onto its side and shot towards us, spilling fries and soda all over the floor.

As the table rolled between us and the old woman, her briefcase exploded.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




5-E Copycat

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

Copycat finished her Takoyaki ball, spat out the stick, and tightened her grip on Ana’s throat.  “You’re alive,” she said, grinning.  “You tenacious squidfuckers.  I knew you could do it.”

Far behind me, in the night market, someone played a Neke folk song on a flute, a soft, comforting melody drifting through the cool air.  It made our standoff sound a lot calmer than it was.

The young Ilaquan man from the fighting pits pulled the bolt on his sniper rifle, pointing it straight at my face from the rooftop above us.  Moonlight reflected on the pitch-black barrel of the gun.

In response, I tightened the paper over his neck and thigh arteries, drawing a thin stream of blood.  I swirled a storm of sheets around me and Ana, ready to strike at any time.

“Shock Ana again and I’ll cut your pal’s throat,” I said.  “Same goes if you chokehold her.”  I needed Ana conscious for us to have any chance of winning this encounter.

Copycat loosened her headlock a fraction.  “Touch my man and I’ll snap her neck.  And my partner will fill you with shells.”

“This is a Model Eleven Blackburn fifty cal,” said the man on the rooftop.  “It can turn a brain to a gooey pulp from seven kilometers away.  They’ll be wiping you off the street with a mop.”

Ana stirred, groaning.  Copycat forced her on her stomach, pinning her arms behind her.  Ana coughed, having neither the strength nor the training to resist.

Her machine lay on the ground beside her, in pieces.  Her cattle prod still sat in the folds of her coat, hidden from view.

“If you shoot us,” I said.  “Everyone will hear you.  There are cops keeping guard in the market, and they’ll swarm over this location before you can blink.”

Copycat shrugged.  “I’ll get out in time.”

“Then we’ll kill your friend up on the roof before you can take us both out.”

Raziah snorted.  “It’s funny,” she said, “that you think I give a shit about some idiot I hired a month ago.”

“Hey.”  The Ilaquan man said.  “Rude.”

“He helped you rig a game at the fighting pits,” I said.  “Then he knew which smokehouse you would be at, and when.  Then he happened to be close to you as you were headed home, and responded to a nonverbal signal to take the high ground over us.”  I shook my head.  “You’re lying.  You and he have a closer relationship than you’re letting on.”

The Ilaquan man floated the rifle in place with projection and let go of it, sticking his hands into his pockets.  Interesting.  Why was he doing that?

“What I still can’t figure out,” I said.  “Is why you went after Kahlin.  And who was the janitor he mentioned breaking into his files?  I’d guess it was you, big boy.”  I glanced up at the Ilaquan sniper, circling papers over his head.

“And why did you help us?”  Ana coughed, doubling over.  “You blew up a car to distract Steel Violet, didn’t you?  And you shot all that paper into Kahlin’s apartment after you double-crossed us.  You saved our lives.  Why?  That couldn’t have been easy.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Copycat said.  “But I didn’t want you to die.  You’re not monsters, you don’t deserve to get killed, or tortured by Tunnel Vision.  I was confident that with a little assistance, you could get out just fine.  Did you get the info you were looking for?”

“No,” Ana said.

“Shame,” she said.

“That’s why we’re here,” I said.  “To get back what’s rightfully ours.”  I swirled the papers around me and Ana.  “We don’t want to fight,” I lied.  “We just want something – anything we can sell to Brin.”

That had been true until a day ago, when we found out about the bounty on Copycat’s head.  So maybe it would sound believable.  Maybe Copycat and her man would lower her guard, if she couldn’t suss out our true motives with her Vocation, whatever it was.

“Let’s settle this peacefully,” I said.  “Let’s all walk out of this in one piece, yeah?”

The man above us stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets, still floating the gun in front of him.  

Copycat shook her head.  “But you’re not just here for your papers,” she said.  “You found out about the mob’s bounty on me.  You’re here to hurt me.”  She cocked her head to the side.  “And that I can’t allow.”

Damn that Vocation of hers.  How was she doing that?

We all fell silent for a moment.  The flute music drifted through the alleyway, patient and soothing.

“So, um,” said Ana.  “How are we going to resolve this situation?  We could walk away now.  Forget this ever happened, never see each others’ faces again.”

“You hunted me down,” said Copycat.  “For all I know, you’ll come back next week and make a go at me again.  Or you’ll sell my location to some other shit-eating bounty hunter.  This is my house.  You know where I live now.  You must have known there would be consequences.”

“Okay, we give you some collateral, then,” Ana’s voice got faster, anxiety slipping into her speech.  “Some bit of information you can use against us, and then both of us have an incentive to not betray the other.”

While Ana continued her clumsy negotiations, I watched Copycat and the Ilaquan man, who had put his hands back on his weapon.  My eyes rested on both of them at the same time, and something clicked for me.  I squinted, looking closer.

They were breathing in sync.

Their chests rose, then fell at the exact same pace.  When Copycat spoke, they should have gotten out of sync, but the two of them kept breathing in alignment with each other.

Copycat blinked, and the Ilaquan man blinked at the same time.  That can’t be a coincidence.  But if I moved without confirming my theory, both me and Ana would be dead.  I needed to stall for a moment longer.

“You and the Broadcast King,” I said.  “You know each other, don’t you?  If you were his janitor, that must have been a very long con.  No money would be worth that much trouble.  Unless there was something special you were looking for.  Am I close?”

As I spoke, I watched their eyes.  The next five times they blinked, they did so in unison.  That’s it.  I had to move now, before she figured me out with her Vocation.

I projected into the wood of my pencil, using it inside my backpack to draw words on a piece of paper.  I added the sheet to the storm around me, hiding the message I’d written on it from Copycat and the man above.

Copycat replied with some deflecting nonsense.  As she spoke, I rotated my message in front of Ana’s face, angled down so only she could see it.  I moved it too fast to read – holding it in front of her would look suspicious – but slow enough for her to notice I’d written something.

You have a message for me,” said Ana, with illusions.  “Hiding all writing on paper from Copycat’s vision.  Float it in front of me and she won’t see it.  The man up top is out of my range.

I lifted the paper straight in front of her, and she read the words I’d written:

Their minds are connected

Ana’s eyes widened.  The cattle prod under her coat began to move out of its sheath, hidden from Copycat’s view with illusions, with her coat blocking most of the movement.

The Ilaquan man squinted down at her, and stuffed his hands in his pockets.  Do it now.  He was about to figure us out.  Distract him.

“Ana!” I shouted.  “I’ve finally figured out who they are!”

The Ilaquan man’s eyes flitted towards me, for a split second.

At the moment his attention was diverted, Ana stabbed the cattle prod behind her through a hole in her coat, jabbing it into Copycat’s stomach.

She let go of Ana and collapsed, twitching.  

The sniper rifle clattered to the pavement next to me.  Above us, the Ilaquan man convulsed on the rooftop, on his back.

Ana shocked Copycat again, just to be sure, and floated the prod up to shock the Ilaquan man, in case he was playing possum.  We went up to the roof and took the man’s body down next to Copycat’s.

Then Ana leaned against the wall, coughing and panting.

How is she out of breath?  With all the exercise she was getting up to, she should have been in better shape, but she seemed to have even less stamina than before.  She’s decaying.  Even as her projection grew in leaps and bounds, that grey body of hers was getting weaker and weaker.  She might not even last the whole year.

“How did you know,” wheezed Ana, “that would happen?  That hurting Raziah would affect the man up top?”

“I didn’t,” I said.


“Of course,” she said in an exasperated tone.  “Why should I assume anything else?”

“But,” I said.  “Mind-Linked Ilaquan thought-stitchers can sometimes transfer pain to one another through their mental bond.  And they were breathing, and blinking in sync.  I thought I’d make a gamble.”

“So you think they’re thought-stitchers.”

I shrugged.  “What else would they be?”

Ana looked too tired to argue with me.  She grabbed the pistol from Copycat’s belt and stuffed it into her waistband.

“Look for some rope inside her house,” I said.  “We’ve got to tie these assholes up.”

________________________________________

Ana and I brought Raziah and the Ilaquan man inside her apartment, using the keys at her belt to open the front door.  To my relief, nobody from the night market stumbled in on us.

Copycat’s house was filthy.  Clutter covered the floors and tables – old magazines, blueprints of buildings, pink dresses and green suits.  A small mountain of empty jars rose out of the sink in her kitchen, and her cabinets overflowed with bottles of olive oil and boxes of sugar.

Ana shocked both of them a second time, then I applied a chokehold on both of them to knock them out – cattle prods could stun someone in place, but didn’t cause unconsciousness.

“She’s going to break free the moment she wakes up,” Ana said.  “She’s not a Humdrum like Brahmani and Pirzanu – and we don’t have any Voidsteel to hold her.”

“Look around,” I said.  “Let’s find some.  In the meantime, let’s re-shock and chokehold both of them every ten minutes.”

Ana lifted a men’s magazine and a fashion brochure off of the telephone in the kitchen, and dialed the number the mobster had given us to pick up the bounty.

She explained the situation to them as I ransacked Raziah’s drawers, though she didn’t mention our location.  Good.  This house could be full of goodies.  No need to have others busting in and taking our booty.

“Yes,” said Ana into the phone.  “Yes, I understand.  Alright, we’ll meet you there.”  She put the phone back on the receiver.  “Third and Barkwilde.  An abandoned square near the piers on the other side of the island.   We give them Copycat in an hour, and they give us the money.”

I threw open a cabinet and pulled out two pairs of Voidsteel cuffs.  Convenient.  “That’s some salary, huh?”  I tossed them to Ana, and she cuffed both Raziah and the Ilaquan man, tucking the keys into a coat pocket as I moved through the rest of the house.

Copycat’s bedroom was even messier than her kitchen.  Empty beer bottles covered the floor, along with the brown paper bags they came inside.  Stacks of prepackaged noodles filled an entire bookshelf, and a mountain of records had been scattered around the phonograph on the bedside table.

“Now, we look for the papers,” said Ana.  “Raziah’s not stupid, she’ll probably have precautions around her valuables.”  She frowned, tapping her foot.  “We have to be meticulous and careful.  If we make the wrong move, we could activate a booby trap, or a device that will burn the papers before we can get to them.  And that’s if we can find them.  She’s probably hidden them somewhere difficult.  A place that even experienced Guardians couldn’t find.”  She paced around the room, looking underneath furniture.  “This could take hours.”

“I found them,” I said.  “They’re right there on the floor.”

I pointed next to the bed.  The files had been scattered on top of a stack of gun magazines, and were covered in brown coffee stains.  The Broadcast King’s seal was engraved across the top of the folder, a visual representation of a radio signal emitting from a purple index finger.

“Read them on the way,” said Ana.  “We should go now to scout out the place in advance, in case they try to double-cross us.  And we need to find a way to move these bodies.  And maybe hide our faces, to make sure none of those mobsters recognize us.”

In Raziah’s closet, we found a pair of ski masks.  Blue for Ana, white for me.  It clashed with the style of my suit, but we were on a clock.  One had to make do.

Then we went out to the night market and rented a massive cart, the kind used to hold pieces of wood or truly epic amounts of vegetables.  Both Raziah and the Ilaquan man fit inside, and though the blanket we threw on top of them looked suspicious, the streets outside the market were empty of people.

Ana pushed the cart through the dark streets, the wheels rattling on the uneven cobblestones.  Intermittent shocks and chokeholds ensured that both Copycat and her male mind-partner stayed unconscious.

As we walked to the rendezvous point, I flipped open the Broadcast King’s file and began to read.

As I read, I got more and more confused.  The language reminded me of the many lab reports I’d had to write for my natural science courses at Paragon, and I often had to read the same paragraph multiple times before any of the jargon.

There were a few files, one of which described the functions of Conduits, a particular Vocation that let two people merge their Piths and communicate at any distance.  Another one, more confusing, described wheat production numbers for the last quarter.  The file described a series of pneumatology experiments carried out on the Pith of eleven children between the ages of nine and thirteen.  The details were sickening.  Drugging with Nudge powder.  The force application of psychedelic drugs alongside sedatives.  Solitary confinement for months.

One man, Doctor Edra, had applied a Whisper vocation to the children that stimulated the sensation of burning alive.

The purpose of the experiments was to strengthen and test the limits of the childrens’ Praxis and Whisper Vocations.  They had all developed their projection skills at a young age, and were forced to use them on other test subjects.

One by one, they were deemed unfit and excused from the experiment, though the paper didn’t specify why.  Doctor Edra wiped all their minds and released them onto the streets.

Except one.  A single one of the children passed all of the fucked-up tests.   A child of unspecified gender with a Praxis Vocation strong enough to win Kahlin’s approval.

Or at least, I thought it was Kahlin’s approval.  The Broadcast King’s name wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the documents – there were only references to the ‘project leader’, who both funded the project and ordered many of the operations.  The only sign of his involvement was the seal on the folder, and the fact that it came from his penthouse.

My stomach clenched.  This isn’t enough to prosecute.  I was no legal expert, but I couldn’t imagine these documents leading to any kind of results for my family.

Why did I think it would be that easy?  Of course Kahlin had kept his name off of incriminating files.  Of course he’d covered his tracks.  You fucking idiot.  If I wanted to prosecute him, I’d need more evidence, better evidence.  The details of this were horrifying enough, but they didn’t tie to Kahlin clearly enough.

I went over it again, reading between the lines, and began to get a hunch about the details.  Something seemed familiar about the Vocation of the one remaining child.

It was a Praxis Vocation, that let the child skill-stitch abilities from anyone at astounding rates.  In under ten seconds, the child could copy over every single skill a target had.  In moments, they could become a master at an instrument, or sharpshooting, or cooking, depending on who they used it on.

Also, the Vocation gave a limited thought-stitching effect.  For a few seconds while they copied over someone’s abilities, the child could experience parts of their thoughts.  Mind-reading, with some hard limitations.

And the kicker: the Vocation caused moderate strain on the child’s Pith, so purple lightning would flicker around their hands whenever they used it.

“Who do we know,” I said to Ana, “that sticks their hands in their pockets a shitload?”

Both of us looked at the covered cart, where Raziah lay fast asleep.

“What did they do to her?” Ana asked.

“A lot,” I said.  “Most of which isn’t even mentioned in these files.”

Ana stopped pushing the cart.  We had arrived in the square for the rendezvous, an empty stretch of dark cobblestone, lit only by a single faint street lamp in the corner.  Empty food wrappers, metal cans, and cigarette butts littered the pavement.

“The kid escaped,” I said.  “They’re still looking for her.”

“But why?” Ana whispered, her face gaunt.  “Why would they do something like that?”

“It doesn’t say.  Some nefarious top-secret confidential shit.”  I lifted the blanket, staring at Raziah’s face.  “That’s why Kahlin put out the bounty on Copycat.  Not for revenge, or the papers.  He wanted his experiment back.”  He wants to control her again.

Both of us fell silent.  I was sure Ana was thinking the same thing.

“She still double-crossed us,” said Ana.

“But she saved our lives too,” I said.  “And think about why she’d take papers like this.  As far as I can tell, all this information is stuff Raziah would already know.  Except for one thing.”

“Which is?”

“Doctor Edna,” I tapped the paper.  “Even if that’s a fake name, it has a whole bio on him and his qualifications.”

“So she wants revenge?”

“Or,” I said, “a cure.  For her and the other kids that got fucked up by his Whisper Vocations.  It’s a tall order, but if you were to look for something like that, you’d want to start at the source.”

“I guess she didn’t do it for the money,” said Ana.

We’re doing this for the money,” I said.

A long silence extended after I spoke, as my words sank in.

“She could have told us,” said Ana.  “We could have worked together to take the papers.  She’s not trustworthy.”

I thought of all the double-crosses I’d planned.  Until a moment ago, I was about to betray Ana, the only real friend I had left, and take those papers for myself.

I looked away from Ana.  “Maybe we’re not trustworthy.”

She didn’t have anything to say about that.

“Ana,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  I know how much you need this reward money.  I know it’s life or death for you.  But if we sell these two off to Kahlin, so Raziah can go through that hell again, I won’t be able to live with myself.”

Ana’s throat tightened.  She stared at the ground, squeezing her eyes shut.

Her hand reached forward and pulled off the blanket, while her other hand fit the key into the Voidsteel handcuffs, undoing them.  Copycat and her companion didn’t move, still unconscious.

“Now what do we do with her?” I asked.

The rumble of a car engine echoed in the distance, getting louder and louder.  No, not in the distance.  Close enough to be heard.  Fucking scholars, not now.  Had it been an hour already?

“They’re early,” said Ana.  “Can we move the cart – “

“No.  No time.”  I threw the blanket back over the two sleeping mercenaries, and adjusted my white ski mask, making sure my face was fully concealed.

Four seconds later, the light of a car turned a corner onto the street in front of us, barreling straight towards us.  It accelerated down the cobblestone, splashing through puddles of rainwater.  Are they going to run us over?

When they entered the square, the driver slammed on the brakes.  It screeched, skidding on the pavement as it shot towards us.

The car stopped just five feet in front of us, white smoke hissing off its tires.

Takonara.  These mobster shitheads wouldn’t agree to let Copycat go.  We’d have to fight them.  And we hadn’t scouted out the area yet.  Tunnel Vision’s people had shown up almost as early as we did.

A tall, slender man stepped out of the car, boasting smooth pale skin and dark red hair.  A submachine gun was slung over his shoulder, and he carried a smooth black suitcase in his long fingers.

That’s a nice suitcase.  Now that Steel Violet had taken mine, I needed to procure a new one.

How do we play this?” asked Ana.  “I can get behind them, throw up some illusions and shoot them in the back.  But the mobster has no gun at his waist, which means he’s a projector.  He might have autonomous bullet defense, and we don’t have Voidsteel rounds.

“Good evening,” said the mobster.  “I will be quick.  At this hour, I’m sure neither of us would like to dally.  Is the target in there?”  He pointed to the cart.

“One moment,” I said.  Buy time.  “Show us the money.  Prove you’re not double-crossing us.”

“That’s not how it works,” he said.  “When you deliver the goods, you will receive a phone number to call in exactly twenty-four hours.  That’s what’s in the briefcase.  Then you’ll get the secure location of a bag containing thirty thousand pounds.  Otherwise, what’s to stop you from attacking us and taking the money?”

“That’s a good point,” I said.  Damn him.  And damn Tunnel Vision.

One of the men strode to the far side of the square, inspecting it with a bolt-action rifle in his hands.  He’s outside Ana’s range.

“But if you just give us a piece of paper,” I said, “how can we trust you?  What’s to stop you from dicking us over and giving us the phone number of an ice cream parlor somewhere?”  Go after the projector first  And his Vocation was still a wild card.

But this wasn’t like Kahlin and Steel Violet.  These people didn’t have replacement bodies on hand.  If I cut their major arteries open, they’d be goners.  I had to hurt them without bleeding them dry, incapacitate them without breaking them.

“Enough,” said the mobster.  “I tire of this.  My superior’s reputation speaks for itself.  All those who doubted her in this business are either working for her or are lying at the bottom of the bay.”  Before any of us could react, he strode forward and yanked off the blanket on the cart.

The mobster’s eyes widened with confusion.  His brow furrowed.  “There’s no one in there.”

Did Ana use an illusion?  I glanced over to the cart.  It was empty.  Even the Voidsteel handcuffs had vanished.

“What the fuck?” growled the mobster.

Strike now, I thought.  While they’re distracted.

“If you’re trying anything,” hissed the man, “You – “

I caught a blur of motion out of the corner of my eye, something moving fast across my peripheral vision.  Footsteps clapped on the pavement behind us, and I heard the crackle of electricity in the air.

The man and the woman accompanying the mobster dropped to the ground, twitching.

Raziah and the Ilaquan man leapt over them and sprinted towards the cart.

The man leveled his submachine gun at Raziah.  Ana and I dropped on our stomachs, sending stabbing pain from my half-broken rib and fingers.

As the mobster pulled the trigger, Raziah threw a thick steel bar at the gun, holding it lengthwise in front of the barrel.  The cracks of automatic gunfire were followed by the clang of metal, as bullets ricocheted off Copycat’s improvised shield.

A few rounds seemed to get through, but none seemed to hit Raziah, getting deflected just an inch away from her skin and impacting on the pavement.  Copycat has an ABD too.  And the mobster wasn’t rich enough for that much Voidsteel ammunition.

Before Raziah or the Ilaquan man could reach him, the mobster flew off the ground, lifted by his clothes.  Out of Ana’s range.

He whipped his hands forward, and the cart flipped off its wheels, shooting towards Copycat.  Copycat leapt over the massive projectile, running over the top of it and firing a pistol back.  After a few shots, she threw it aside.  Just ordinary bullets.  And the mobster had an ABD.

Ana and I crawled away, keeping an eye on the fight.  “Don’t reveal your projection unless you have to,” said Ana.

The mobster projected into the trash on the street, crumpling metal cans and glass bottles into orbs the size of watermelons.  He circled them around Raziah and the Ilaquan man, then shot them from above and behind, keeping them out of their sightlines.

Copycat and her companion bobbed and weaved, light on their feet, dodging the projectiles with ease despite not being able to able to see them.

The Ilaquan man leapt into the air, floating up to the mobster’s level, and threw a jab at his nose.

As the mobster dodged the punch, the Ilaquan man whipped his leg around in a blindingly fast roundhouse kick.

The mobster jerked back, and only half of the Ilaquan’s shoe connected.  It hit his nose, and the man dropped like a rock in front of the car.

He bounded to his feet, and the car drove into him.

The front bumper slammed into the side of his hip, tossing him aside like a ragdoll.  He fell to the ground and the car kept going, driving straight over his left ankle.  Raziah projected the controls.

The car braked.  Raziah clambered over the hood and leapt onto the mobster, grabbing him by the throat.  Her palm crackled with electricity, and the mobster twitched.  Blood soaked into his pants from his hip and foot, both of which had been under the wheels.

The Ilaquan man tossed one of the mobster’s pistols at Raziah overhand.  She caught it midair without looking at it, and pressed the barrel to the mobster’s knee.  His ABD won’t deflect the bullet at that range.

There was a sharp crack as she pulled the trigger, and another trickle of blood from the mobster’s leg.  Calm, she stood up and walked over to one of the other mobsters.  She and the Ilaquan man kneecapped them with the same process.

Then Raziah put another round into the projector’s rear parts.  Just to be sure, I guess.

She could have run away.  I opened my bag full of paper, watching the movements of both of them.  But she chose to help us instead.  Again.  Why was she so interested in saving our lives?

Raziah and the Ilaquan man strode towards us, the woman’s pink shirt and pants splattered with blood.  She extended her hand, grinning, and both of them spoke in unison.  Both Copycat and the young man who’d accompanied her.

“Hi,” they said.  “I’m Hira Kahlin.  Wanna get out of here?”

________________________________________

This week just keeps getting stranger.

I hunched over in the back seat of the mobster’s stolen car, clutching his stolen fish leather briefcase on my lap.  Raziah – no, Hira, drove the car away from the town square, her foot on the accelerator.  Her male companion, who was also Hira, I guess, sat next to her, carrying a sniper rifle.

How can they both be the same person?  And that last name.  Kahlin.

The engine revved, and Ana recoiled.  The grey-haired girl held onto her machine pistol with a sweaty hand, glancing behind us every ten seconds to check for pursuers.

“You gave us a fake name,” I said.

“Of course I gave you a fake name, you novice dipshit,” said the female-Hira.  “What, you think I was going to just tell you I was some billionaire’s long-lost kid?”

Right, she’s Kahlin’s daughter, too.  Son.  Both?  Not sure.  This was all happening so fast.

I dropped Kahlin’s folder into the boy’s lap.  “Sorry.  For taking these,” I said.  “And for electrocuting you,” I added.  “And for choking you out thirteen separate times.  And for almost selling you to the Broadcast King to be experimented on for the rest of your life.  Wait a minute, why aren’t you trying to kill us?  And how can you both be Hira Kahlin?”

“Does he ever shut his trap?” said the Ilaquan boy.  Male-Hira.

“No,” me and Ana said, simultaneously.

“Here’s how we’re both Hira,” the boy and the girl said.  “One Pith, two bodies.”

“No,” said Ana, “That’s impossible.”

“Are you a Conduit?” I asked.  Those were rare, but not unheard of.

The two Hiras shook their heads.  “Conduits are two or more separate Piths that have merged, partly.  They can share thoughts at any distance, and transmit Piths from one to the other.  I’m one person.  One mind.  I was halfway through a transfer when something went wrong.  Now I’m stuck in both.”

“That doesn’t happen,” said Ana.  “All those types of transfers end with the person’s death.  The two halves can’t communicate with each other.  A Pith can only exist in a single body at a time.”

Both the Hiras – both of the Copycats – shrugged.  “Believe it or don’t.  It’s true either way.  The male and female chassis connect fine as long as they’re within a few kilometers of each other.”

Well, they’re not trying to kill us yet.  If they wanted to, they’d probably have taken us out along with the mobsters.  Keep her talking.  We could think of something in the meantime.

“So,” I said.  “Are you a he or a she?”

“Don’t give a shit,” said both Copycats.

“But, I mean,” said Ana.  “Do you have a preference?  For one or the other?”

“That fight give you brain damage?” he said.  “You know what ‘don’t give a shit’ means, right?”

Well, that’s going to be confusing.  “Don’t press him,” I whispered to Ana.  “He’s clearly very trigger-happy.”

“Look,” said the female-Hira, “The left half of my brain is filled with my Pith in my female body, and the right half is filled in my male body.  In each body, I’m only using half the brain.  So I call the two bodies Left and Right.  So if you get mixed up, remember this: Left is a lady.  Alliteration.”

Left is the female body, right is the male body.  Both of them were the mercenary Copycat, and the child of Afzal Kahlin.  If I said it out loud in my head, it started to make a little more sense.

“Now here’s the thing,” said Left-Hira, “I betrayed you, you beat me up a little, I’d say we’re even.  And I don’t think we gotta fight each other.  We share a lot of enemies.  My dad for one.  Manipulative piece of shit.”  She brushed a strand of brown hair out of her face.

Right-Hira glared at Ana.  “I’m talking to you, grey-boy.  You can stop eyeing that cattle prod you got hidden there.  Illusions or no, I’ll still rip your fingers off.”

Ana moved her hand away from her coat pocket.  “We needed the money from your father’s files, but the stuff you stole is worthless to our employer.  You want us to be even?  Pay us back.”

“Yes,” said Right-Hira.  “I figured you’d make it out, but you didn’t deserve to be fucked like that.  I can give you something in return.  Information that I guarantee is more valuable than anything you could have filched off his penthouse.”

“Elaborate,” I said.

“The location of his weapons stash.”

Ana tensed up.  “What?”

“They’re all working together – Tunnel Vision running the mob, my father with his media conglomerate, and Commonplace, with whoever is leading it at the top of all of it.  They’re preparing to burn this little rock to the ground.  And to do that at scale, they need weapons.  Small arms and ships and planes and bombs and tanks and Voidsteel.  My father is helping with this process.”

“You’re Ilaquan,” I said, “Why do something that’ll help the Principality?”

Left-Hira shrugged.  “I don’t care, honestly.  But if Commonplace wins, my idiot genius father will become one of the most powerful men in the world.  Well, top ten, anyways.  And if that happens, I’ll throw a big hissy fit.  And then kill myself.”

Right-Hira scribbled down coordinates on the back of a paper napkin and tossed it to me.  I projected into it, floating it into my hand.

“Your boss will know where this is,” he said.  “And he’ll probably throw a fat stack of cash your way.”

I shook my head.  “I want to know more.  You intervened twice to help us out, at risk of your own life.  You could have run at Kahlin’s penthouse.  Or just now with the mobsters.  You didn’t.  Why?”

Left-Hira turned the car onto a bridge, driving off the outer islands and into Lowtown.  “After your job with Honeypot, I did a little digging on the two of you.  You’re on the Scholar of Mass’s payroll, but you turned down money when it went against your moral code.  Plus, you killed Lyna Wethers, escaped Steel Violet, and managed to beat me.”

What’s the point of all the flattery?  Not that it didn’t feel nice, but most people only talked this way when they wanted to sleep with me.

“What’s the point of any of this?” I said.

“My good old pa’s hunting me down,” said Right-Hira.  “You read the file, so you know the basics.  Until recently, he only knew a little about my whereabouts, but I used this body to pretend to be a janitor in his staff.  And I used my Left body to help myself escape.”

“And?”

“Now he knows exactly what I look like.  And he’s probably figured out my two-body gimmick, too.  To top it off, he already knows exactly what my Vocation can do.  So,” Right-Hira cracked his knuckles.  “I need someone to help watch my ass.  Every other mercenary in this city would sell me out at the drop of a hat.  Especially when my father ups the reward.  And no one wants to be on Tunnel Vision’s bad side.”

“So go to Paragon,” Ana said.  “They specialize in that sort of thing.”

Both Hiras laughed.  For female Left-Hira, it was more of a cackle, and for male Right-Hira, more of a deep-throated guffaw.  “After all the shit I’ve done?  The illegal projection on Principality soil?  They’d blend my brain into soup and pour it in the ocean.”

“So go overseas,” Ana said.  “The Shenti or the Neke or Ilaqua.  There are four Domains, you don’t need to stick in this one.”

“Shenten is a bombed-out frozen ruin filled with warlords, terrorists, and pissed-off commandos.“  Right-Hira counted out on his fingers.  “The Neke Islands are more corrupt than a clip joint – even easier for my father to pay off.  And my home, well,” he chuckled.  “Ilaqua is luxurious, pretty as a painting, and more dangerous than the rest of them combined.”

I know where this is going.  “You want to join us,” I said.  “Why should we help you?  Why let you be a part of Queen Sulphur?”

“I saved your asses twice.”  Right-Hira rolled his eyes.  “I have skills – any skill you could imagine.  I know Elmidde’s underworld.  And I have an abundance of common sense.”

I scowled, struggling to unclasp the lock on the mobster’s briefcase.  “Are you implying that we lack common sense?”

“Also, I have a house.  With a shower and a bathtub.”

“You’re hired,” I said.

“We’re not moving in with you,” said Ana.  “You were holding a gun on us less than two hours ago, and you double-crossed us less than a week ago.”

Hira circled the car back around, and drove up in front of her house, a squat yellow building with thick curtains over the windows, squeezed between two other residences.  The Neke night market had closed up, and the streets were empty and dark again.  It was cramped, but next to Ana’s storage unit, it looked like paradise.

“How about this?” I said.  “You can join us for one job.  Then we’ll see if you’re trustworthy.”

“And we’ll need to vet you with Brin,” Ana said.

“Sure,” he said.  “Long as you don’t tell him about my second body.  Good to keep a few cards up the sleeve.”

“And we’ll need full use of your shower and bathtub,” I added.  “Especially if you have any of those fancy new Ilaquan bubble baths.”

“Agreed,” Hira said.  “But one caveat.  Come inside.”  He parked the car and stepped out with both bodies.

I followed, but Ana hesitated.

Right-Hira rolled his eyes.  “If I wanted to kill you, I’d have done it a lot sooner than this.”

Ana stuffed her hands in her pockets and stalked after us.

Right-Hira inserted a series of keys into the multiple locks, moving his hands up and down.  “Don’t try to open this yourself.  Last spring, I got high one night, copied the skills of an engineer, and installed a shitload of booby traps and hidden escapes around the entrances and emergency exits.  I’m not even sure if I remember all of them.”

Good thing we waited to ambush her last time.  If we’d tried to break in before she unlocked the front door, we could have met a nasty fate.

Left-Hira shut the door behind us and pulled out her purple hookah.  She unfolded it, lit it, and took a few puffs, making Ana cough.  “Here’s the thing.  You don’t trust me fully, and I don’t trust you either.  We need to earn it from each other, and until we do, I’m not a real member of…Queen Phosphorus, was it?”

“Queen Sulphur,” said Ana.  “Like the butterfly.”  Where’s he going with this?

“Right, Queen Sulphur.  Anyway, to do that, we need to be honest with each other.  So I’m going to put all my cards on the table.  I found out some stuff while investigating both of you.”  She sucked on the hookah and breathed out a cloud of smoke.

Oh, fuck.  I couldn’t let it show on my face.  Maybe he’s not talking about you.

“Ana,” Hira said, “I know you’re masquerading as a Grey Coat at Paragon Academy, pretending to be a boy named Ernest Chapman as a potential alternate route to getting a fresh body and a shot at being a Guardian.  If they found out about your merc gigs, Paragon would hunt you down like a wounded deer and fillet you, but Wes, you’re already aware of that.”

Oh, thank the Scholars.  She wasn’t talking about me.

“You, Wes, on the other hand, are a fucking liar,” Hira said.  “Your name isn’t Weston Brown.  It’s [    ], the Ousted former heir of the Ebbridge House.”

As it slipped through my perception, the word made my ears explode with static.  I clenched my teeth, my eardrums aching.  My stomach felt like it was falling.  No, no, NO.

Both Hiras stared at me.  “You’re trying to implicate my father, the Broadcast King, in a crime so you can earn your family’s favor.  So you can win back your old position in the family, by Ousting your current replacement.  You joined forces with Anabelle Gage to use her as a tool.  If you’d taken any incriminating documents from my Dad’s penthouse, you would have stolen them from both me and Ana, and given them to your mother.”

Ana turned to me.  Her eyes widened.

“Ana – “ I said, holding up a hand.

“Gage, you’re the illusionist here.  But [    ] Ebbridge,” said both Hiras in unison.  “Has been playing you this whole time.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




5-D Copycat

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

I had so many regrets.

Letting myself get Ousted.  Writing an entire ten-page psych essay on the wrong prompt the night before it was due.  Remaining sober through most of my childhood.

But if I had to choose one shitty choice above them all, I regretted teaming up with Copycat the most.  Allowing that sultry Ilaquan squidfucker to convince me into this death trap of a mission.

It had been tempting, so tempting to go straight for the Broadcast King and his files.  But Ana and I weren’t ready for something on this level.  We were improving, but we still weren’t ready.

Steel Violet projected into our clothes, pinning us on our backs.  Something wrapped around my hair and yanked my head back, forcing me to look behind and upwards at an angle.

I reached my Pith around me, feeling what they were projecting into.  I felt resistance to my Pith in my pants, shirt, and coat.  Everything but my socks, underwear, and my belt, which was still too damn tight.

Then I reached around me for paper in the nearby rooms.  Nothing.  The framed newspapers had been taken off the walls.  There was no tissue paper in their cabinets of porcelain, and nothing in or on any of the desks.

That can’t be a coincidence.  If they suspected I was the same man as before, they would have known my specialty.

Afzal Kahlin sat on a bench at the side of the room, talking into a phone on top of a piano.   “Yes,” he said.  “Yes, right here in my apartment.  Two, and a third who escaped.”  He beamed.  “Why yes, that sounds wonderful.  I’d love that, thank you.  I can’t wait.”

Stay quiet,” said Ana with an illusion-voice.  “I’ll keep using my Vocation to mask our body language.

Kahlin put the phone on the receiver and strode to the far end of the room, beckoning the four members of Steel Violet with him.  Out of Ana’s range.

“Several weeks ago,” Kahlin said to them.  “Two people infiltrated Commonplace’s civilian HQ.  At least one of them appeared to have a Whisper Vocation that affected people’s sensory perceptions, or a similar sort of effect.  They appeared to be Shenti men, though of course, they weren’t caught, so it’s impossible to tell for sure.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Oh, dear.”

“Given the report I skimmed on that matter, their behavior this morning, and my complete inability to read their body language, I believe at least one of these infiltrators may be here with us this morning, and that their range is limited.  On the chance that I’m correct, stay on the far side of the room, speak only with Nobukazu crypto patterns, and keep track of their physical projection.”

Nobukazu crypto?” said Ana.

I had no idea what that was.  Probably something I would have learned in one of my later years at Paragon.  And if we didn’t know it, we couldn’t mimic it.

Jovira folded her arms.  “And what about you, sir?  We’re ex-special forces, not gods.  If they get the drop on you, there’s only so much we can do to protect you.”

“What would you do, Steel Violet?”

She shrugged.  “We would have killed them the moment I found out.  Voidsteel bullet.  Back of the head.  We don’t have any Voidsteel cages or Null Venom.  We’re not prepared for an interrogation.  As your bodyguards, we have to advise you not to take unnecessary risks.  This isn’t your area of expertise.”

“Don’t worry about me.”  He turned to the two of us.  “Now, let’s get started, shall we?”

Jovira raised a finger, and a chair slid across the floor, landing right behind us.  Kahlin walked forward and sat on it, positioned so we were forced to stare up at him.  The bottle of arak floated over and filled his glass.

“An ordinary interrogation,” he said.  “Might start with a question like ‘who are you working for?’.  I would shake you or hit you or threaten with all manners of torture.  You would refuse, or make up some lie, and I would escalate.”  He took a sip of liquor with a shaking hand.  “Not only do I find that barbaric, but it also produces terrible results.  Naturally, I’m quite curious to know your motives, but it’d be ridiculous to expect an answer on that right away.”

I spat at him.  The trajectory was all wrong, and my head was tilted back, so it fell flat on my forehead.  I projected into it and shot the globule of saliva towards his drink.  He jerked it to the side, causing it to miss.

“Let’s begin somewhere simple: What I know, and what I can guess.  You stole the bodies of Shab Pirzanu and John Brahmani, and used this meeting in an attempt to gain access to my files.  As we speak, my people are on their way to these men’s apartments to investigate.”

Fucking scholars.  Our real bodies were still tied up in John Brahmani’s building.

“I don’t know what your relationship is with the person who stole my files,” he said.  “But if I had to guess, I’d say you probably know them.”  He held up the tape recorder.  “But the most interesting thing is this.  The man who caused permanent damage to my Pith, who managed to get through my bodyguards when the smartest woman in the world could not.”

You fought Kahlin before?” said Ana in my ear, incredulous.  “Why didn’t you tell me?  How did you escape?

By getting my ass rescued.  And by exploiting Steel Violet’s key weakness: They cared more about protecting their client than catching me.  If his life was at risk, they could be distracted.  Judging by how close their members were to each other, the tactic would work if we mortally wounded any of them.

Ana cried out.  Her clothes dragged her across the floor and into the corner of the room, out of range of everybody.

Kahlin leaned towards me, and lifted my eyelid with his index finger.  His skin was cold and rough.  His voice grew soft.  “Files.  Recordings.  You are trying to collect information on me.”  He stared into my open eye.  “But why?  You lack the training and backup of a Guardian.  An assassin sent by the Locus would be far more efficient than you.  A freelancer, then?”

Don’t react.  I made my face blank and impassive.  Any tell would give away the game.  I felt the Empathy vocation scratching at the edges of my consciousness, and shut it down, giving him zero information.

He flashed me a warm smile.  “Ah.  You are a freelancer.  And a rather resentful one at that.  I wonder, is this personal for you?”

Was he getting all that from my body language?  How much was he guessing?  Damn those analysis vocations of his.

The Broadcast King floated a long wooden pipe into his shaking hand, and began to smoke it.  “Would you like to guess who I just got off the phone with?”

“Certainly not a tuner for that piano,” I said.  “I’d guess you won’t be playing Corbin’s third symphony any time soon.  How does it feel, trying to look dignified when your hands look like they belong to a senile – ”

“Tunnel Vision,” he said.

That shut me up.

Kahlin breathed out a smooth stream of smoke.  “She should arrive in about – ” he glanced at his watch, “ – sixteen and a half minutes.”

Ana made eye contact with me from across the room, at the edge of my vision.  That’s our deadline.  If we didn’t escape by then, we were fucked.

“As you can tell, I can already guess the general outline of what you want.  Help me fill in the details, and I will tell her you’re not a threat.  I will give you your original bodies back and put you on a ferry out of the Principality.  You’ll be safe.”

If I tell you the truth, you won’t let me live.  And I would never accept a ferry out of the country.  I don’t care how smart you are.  I’ll bring you down and save my family.  I’ll find the chinks in your armor.

“You’re a liar,” I spat.  “You lie to the men and women who read your newspapers.  You lie to the struggling people who buy into your pyramid schemes.  And you’re lying now.  I’m done talking to you.”

Kahlin’s mouth opened wider.  “Ah,“ he said.  “Interesting.”  He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, like he’d just discovered something.  “Well, these things take time and finesse.  There are some things your mind will only learn through repetition.  Helplessness.  Obedience.  An eagerness to please, and the exhaustion to dull the wits.”  He leaned closer to me.  “She’s going to enjoy peeling your thoughts apart.”

A dull boom echoed in the distance.  It sounded like it was coming from far below.

The four members of Steel Violet perked up.  “Uzma needs help,” said Jovira.  “Car bomb.  Third-degree burns and severed arteries.  She’s in serious pain.  Needs a replacement body to avoid permanent damage.”

“Go,” said Kahlin.  The woman ran off to the elevator.  Now there were only three mercenaries, and Kahlin.  Rozi with her gauntlets, and two men with a submachine gun and a pair of shotguns.

Still, that was more than enough to tear us apart.  Neither of us had an autonomous bullet defense.

Are they fighting Raziah?  Had she left a bomb for them?

Kahlin turned back to us.  “We have more pressing matters to deal with.  Rozi, knock them out, please.  No permanent brain damage.”

“Opposition?” Rozi asked.

“Those two don’t have anything planned,” said Kahlin.  “They’re trying to think of something to beat us, but there’s no flash of inspiration.”

Damn him.  Could his Vocation read minds?  Or was he just that good at scanning body language?

Rozi slid on a pair of Voidsteel gauntlets, and took a step in our direction.

The air duct exploded.

An object shot out of it, knocking off the grate and landing on the floor with a thud.  Rozi froze, and I squinted at it.

It was a package of printer paper, ripped open at the end.

Glass shattered in the distance, and another package crashed through the window in the neighboring bedroom.  It collided with the piano behind me, scattering into a cloud of sheets.

A packet of newspapers sailed out of the same air duct, dumping in a heap on the floor.  Someone had scrawled words on the top one in large, dark letters.

For a split second, nobody moved, taking in the situation as I read the message.

You’re Welcome

That cheeky bitch.

Steel Violet moved.  Our clothes yanked me and Ana upside down, hanging us from the ceiling and squeezing our legs and arms.

As we jerked into the air, I projected into the paper, shooting it towards our enemies.  Disrupt their aim.  I focused on the hands and arms of the gunmen as they raised towards us, making paper cuts in the webbing between their fingers, and vertical slashes along the veins near their wrists.

They dropped their weapons, red blood soaking into their long purple sleeves.

Then I projected into the newspapers, exploding them out in every direction and forming barriers to block their sightlines.

Rozi ripped through my barrier.  Damn Joiners.  Even the skin on her eyes was too durable for me to cut.

She leapt towards us.  She can’t dodge in midair.

I projected into the wooden table and flipped it again, this time shooting it from the side.  It slammed into Rozi from her right, knocking her into the adjacent bedroom and out its broken window.  A drop of over a thousand feet.  Her enhanced durability and strength didn’t make her body any heavier.

It wouldn’t take her out, but it would slow her down.

I focused my attacks on the two remaining members of Steel Violet, going after more webbing, their wrists, and their eyes.  These ones couldn’t harden their skin.

Sorry.  I found myself wincing as I felt the paper slice into their flesh.  I really like your music.

The cloud swirled around them, blocking my view of them.  A second later, our clothes stopped holding us up, and we both fell to the floor.  The tight buckle on my belt jabbed into my stomach, and I cried out in pain.

Cracks echoed through the room, and something stung in my left calf.  The man’s submachine gun hovered in the air in front of him, not needing his hands to aim and fire.

I clutched my leg and groaned under my breath, feeling the warmth of my blood trickling down my leg.  It’s not too bad.  He’d missed all the major veins and arteries, barely more than a graze.  Keep moving.

I projected into both me and Ana’s clothes, filling them with my Pith.  Rashi’s Second Law meant Steel Violet would have to push me out before controlling them again, and I had the defensive advantage now.  They were stronger than me, but if the fight was short, I could keep them from yanking us around.

Ana ran closer to me.  “Kahlin’s headed West,” she said into my head.

I grabbed her hand and sprinted through the west door, still attacking with my paper as we left.  More blind gunshots rang out around us, and one grazed my shoulder, causing a sharp burning sensation.

I reached around with my Pith, and found Kahlin sprinting two rooms away from us, just out of our sightlines.

I shot a cloud of paper at him, and felt around his body.  His long sleeves and pants were squeezed close against his body, his collar was flipped up, and he’d wrapped his coat around his face and neck, protecting all of them from my cuts.

Bastard is learning.

I thought back to when we’d been walking through the hallways, and what he’d been wearing.  Karrar Raja flat front dress pants, in a purple so dark it almost looked black.  Lavish, but tasteful.  The cuffs on them sat just an inch or two higher than his shoes.

Not long enough to cover all his bare skin.

I slid my paper down to his ankles and sliced, cutting his skin and flesh in dozens of places.  The edges didn’t go deep enough to slice his tendon, but managed to get a couple of veins and arteries.  After a few seconds, I felt his Pith fall to the floor.

“Left door, then right!” I shouted out.  If we could take Kahlin hostage or mortally wound him, we could beat Steel Violet without having to outfight them.

We ran through the doorways, bullets whizzing past our heads.  As we sprinted through the living room, a shot hit Kahlin’s expensive fountain – the one with the water from the deep ocean.  

Black liquid dribbled onto the table.  It steamed, burning a hole through the wood.

How are they still shooting through all that pain?  If my eyes got paper cuts, I would probably be screaming in agony on the floor, not carrying out a fight.  It was a testament to Steel Violet’s endurance.

We turned a corner, to see Kahlin crawling away from us in the next room.  A trail of blood extended behind him, pooling beneath his ankles.

The door between us slammed shut and locked with a click.  I projected into the door mechanism, only to feel my Pith bounce off someone else’s.  They’re blocking me.

I focused on defense, throwing up more barriers of paper to block Steel Violet’s vision – those that could still see, anyways.  Hopefully, they’d be in too much pain to feel our location using projection.  Scanning an area took much more effort than normal projection, and the living room was huge – almost as big as the one in my mansion.

I kept cutting all the exposed skin I could find on their body, and some that weren’t exposed.  Arms, legs, wrists.  I used my Vocation to dimensionally flatten pieces of paper and slide them through narrow spaces they were squeezing shut.

A pipe burst through the wooden floor and bent upwards, showering the members of Steel Violet with water.  The liquid formed a thin sheath around their bodies, stopping all of my paper attacks.  I don’t have the strength to break through it.  My paper got stuck in the liquid like a bug in amber.

The two members of Steel Violet limped forward, and their aquatic armor moved with them.  Blood poured out from their wounds, filling the clear liquid with clouds of red.

The only gaps in their liquid armor were in front of their faces, where they’d stretched pieces of cloth from their shirts as a sort of breathing mask.  Somehow, my cuts on their eyes hadn’t blinded them.

Fucking scholars, how am I supposed to attack through that?  I threw up further layers of paper barriers, ducking into a corner of the room with Ana next to a table with a lamp.  That won’t slow them down for long.  But it was hard to think of a plan and move my paper at the same time.  I’m shit at multitasking.  My career at Paragon had confirmed that many times over.

One of the Steel Violet men wielded a giant flattened water tentacle, swinging it through my walls of paper.  Sheets stuck to it, soaking with water and becoming absorbed into it.  His water projection was stronger than my paper control.


Piece by piece, he was eating up all my weapons.

Think, think.  I still had sheets of paper in the room with Kahlin, even if he was also armored now, and I could fit much more under the door.  His ankles were the only things that were exposed.  I had one trump card left with me, but it wouldn’t work in these circumstances.

I ran over to the lamp and projected into the metal wiring, ripping it out of the insulation.

What are you doing?” said Ana with illusions.

I know what I’m doing.  I know what I’m doing.  I touched the wires to each other and held pieces of paper around it.  The electricity crackled, and sparks fizzled off of it.  A short circuit.  Physics 101.

The sparks landed on the pieces of paper, and they caught fire.  I held more pieces of paper on top of them, and the fire spread to them.  As I did this, I stuffed more paper through the space under the door, filling Afzal Kahlin’s room with sheets.

Then I slid the burning paper underneath and paired it with the other sheets.  In a matter of seconds, Afzal Kahlin was surrounded by burning paper.  He was still lying on the floor, covering his face with his jacket, so he couldn’t see it.


I floated my army of burning paper above him, flattening myself into the corner as gunshots and shotgun blasts rang out around me.  In unison, I dropped them all on him.  Dozens and dozens of flaming sheets of paper falling on his flammable clothes.

I felt the pieces of paper on him rotate around, as he rolled to snuff out the flames.  As he did, I felt his clothes shift, and the slightest of gaps open in his waist.

I slid two in the gap, hardened them as much as I could, and sliced into his inner thighs.  My control weakened as the paper slid deeper, but I still managed to make two clean incisions on his femoral arteries.

Those channels pumped a lot of blood.  With cuts like this, you could bleed out within a few minutes.  Steel Violet would have to get him a replacement body right away, which would distract them further.

“Femoral!” shouted Kahlin from the next room.  He knew just as well as I did.

The submachine gun ceased fire, and one of the men ran through the paper barriers and flung open the door, his clothes soaked with blood.  The liquid armor splashed to the floor around him.  He ran to Kahlin, slamming the door behind him.

And now there’s only one.  Who was already bleeding from countless paper cuts.  He floated a pair of shotguns beside him and shot them in our direction, shattering the lamp into pieces.

He’s still half-blind.  A paper cut on the eye had to hurt.  And he was too exhausted to scan the room for us.

Another blast took out a chunk of the wall next to us.

Hide my movements.  I’m going to yell some misdirection,” said Ana with illusions.  “Stay back!” she shouted out loud.  Or at least, I thought she shouted.  My ears were ringing from all the gunfire, and I could only make out faint echoes of all the other sounds.  “Wait for him to bleed out!” she added.

He wouldn’t bleed out, of course.  I hadn’t hit any major veins or arteries.

I altered the shape of my paper walls, curving them into layers of circles around the last Steel Violet man.  There wasn’t much left.  He shot jets of water from his armor, blasting holes in the barriers.

Ana slipped off her shoes and sprinted around him on silent feet, stepping closer and closer.  When she was within twenty-nine meters of him, blue lightning crackled on her fingertips.  Her illusions are on him now.

She stepped behind him, forming an icicle in her hand out of the water left on the floor.

Then she stabbed it into his spine.  It punched through his liquid armor with ease, and he collapsed onto the ground, twitching, blood pouring out of it.

I wrinkled my nose.  This level of violence was starting to make me feel uneasy.

“Let’s go!” I barked.  There was no way we could take multiple members of Steel Violet in a fair fight.  They had Kutta training and were skilled projectors to boot.  We’d distracted as many of them as we could, forcing them to protect their own rather than chase us down.

We ran for the door, throwing it open.  No projection to hold it shut anymore.

It was time to leave.  But first, I had a stop to make.

I ran across a room, then turned right and sprinted down a hallway.

“What are you doing?!” shouted Ana.  “The elevators are that way!”

But the file room isn’t.  If I couldn’t get incriminating evidence on the Broadcast King, then all of this would be for nothing.  My family would still be in debt, and I’d be back to square one – worse than square one, since the Broadcast King would increase his security after this.

I reached the file room door.  Raziah broke in here.  Bloodstains littered the floor and walls, and the lock had been smashed.  The door was wedged into the frame.

Ana ran up behind me, breathing heavily.  “Wes, we need to leave.  We don’t have time to go through files.  The other members of Steel Violet will be back soon”  Her eyes widened.  “We can’t take any of them.  And Tunnel Vision is on her way.”

“If we don’t have any intel, Major Brin won’t give us a bounty,” I said.  “If you want to afford a working body, you can’t miss any of these jobs.”  I ran forward and slammed the door with my shoulder, knocking it into the ground.

Rozi stood in the center of the room, staring straight at us.

“Hi,” she said.

She leapt forward, flying across the room in a single bound.  Her Voidsteel gauntlets grabbed our throats, tackling us.  My back slammed onto the floor, knocking the wind out of me.  When I tried to take a breath, her gauntlet squeezed my windpipe, and I choked.

Rozi knelt on top of us, pinning us to the ground with her knees.

I punched her face, her throat, jabbed my finger at her eye, rotated my weight so she would slide off of me.  She didn’t even flinch.  Damn Joiners.  She’d made her body immune to blunt force as well as slashing.

And her knee was on top of my belt buckle.  In this position, I couldn’t get to it.

She’s not pinning your hands.  I snapped my fingers.  Blue lightning crackled around Ana’s body.

“Illusions are up,” said Ana’s illusion-voice.  “She can’t hear us or see our movements.


My lungs were on fire.  Black dots appeared across my vision, flickering in and out of existence.  The cold fingers of the gauntlet tightened on my throat.

I wheezed out the last remaining air in my lungs.  “Move her left knee,” I whispered as loud as I could.  The noise I made was barely a faint hiss.

Understood.  Moving her left knee.  Brace yourself.”  The blue lightning expanded around Ana, forming a small cloud over her skin.

Rozi’s eyes flitted towards the end of the hallway.  In a single motion, she jerked upright and lifted the two of us, holding us between her and the eastern doorway.  Her knee moved away from my waist, lifting off my belt buckle.  My legs twitched, unable to touch the ground.

“Come to save your comrades?” she said, staring into empty space.  Her grip loosened on my throat.  “Put down your weapons now, and I won’t squeeze their necks into jelly.  Do you think you can really – “  She stopped, and smiled.  “Ah.  An illusion.  Do you think making up fake enemies is enough to trick me?  You can’t fake the results of projection.”

My lungs sucked in a breath.  “I liked you better as a pop star,” I said.

I reached beneath my belt buckle and pulled out a flat metal square.

It was the same principle as the part I’d removed from the car: I’d squeezed its dimensions with my Vocation, and the tightness of my belt had kept it flat, without requiring any further projection on my part.

Hidden from her view, I raised the metal square to her face, and it expanded back into three dimensions.

Or rather, they did.  Four of Raziah’s seroflourin gas grenades, with the pins already removed.  My Vocation had kept them from releasing their contents on their own, and the pressure had built inside them.

A cloud of yellow gas ballooned out, filling Rozi’s eyes and throat.  She let go of us and dropped to her knees, covering her eyes.  A soft groan of pain escaped her lips.

Other members of Steel Violet hadn’t flinched when I’d given them paper cuts on their eyeballs.  If she was reacting like that, it had to hurt.

Just like I thought.  Her Joining strengthened her skin, but it didn’t make her mucus membranes immune to chemicals.  Despite being a talented Joiner, the woman was no Immaculate Vanguard.  A concentrated dose like that would be agonizing, if not lethal.

I landed on my ass, and clambered backwards, out of the reach of Rozi’s hands.  My lungs sucked in gasping breaths, and I coughed.  The injections Copycat had given us were legitimate – we were immune to the effects of the gas, but it still made the inside of my throat itch.  My neck ached from where her fingers had dug into my skin.

“Keep your distance!” I shouted to Ana.  “She might not be as hurt as we think!”

Rozi crawled towards the file room, kneeling underneath the door frame.  She raised her hands forward, clenching them into claws.  Her coat and shirt drifted above her body, spreading to form a barrier on the top half of the door and behind her.

I can’t pull the papers out like this.  And there was no time to send them through the ducts and retrieve them later.

Wes,” said Ana.  “Let’s go!  We can’t get the files like this, or sort through them.  We are out of time.

No.  No, that can’t – “Use your illusions!” I shouted.  “Get her to move, or give me a space to slip in, or – “

Wes!” she said.  Through the haze of yellow gas, I saw her push herself upright and extend a hand towards me.  “I know how important this is to you.  But if we stay here, we will die, or worse.  Take my hand.

Rozi grabbed the wall for support, and pulled herself to a standing position.  She groaned again, and vomited onto the floor.  She’s recovering.  In a few minutes, she might be back to normal.

I clenched my fists until the brown skin on this body’s knuckles turned pale white.  Damn Rozi.  Damn Afzal Kahlin.  And damn you, Copycat, you damn hornet.

My family and my future would have to wait.

I took Ana’s hand.

Ana pulled me to my feet, and we ran.  After another room and another hallway, we reached the elevator and slammed the button, scanning the other entrances to the room.

The elevator arrived with a little ding, and we clambered in, pressing the button for the first floor.  We slid towards the ground, as smooth as before, as shouting echoed from above us.

If they cut the cables, we’re done for.  But the stairs were too slow, and neither Ana nor I was capable of flight yet.  And there were potentially two more members of Steel Violet waiting for us at the bottom.

I tensed my shoulders as we descended.  The early morning fog had cleared, and the sun rose above the rooftops of Elmidde, bathing them in warm yellow light.  It shone around the black silhouette of Paragon Academy above us.

When the doors opened, smoke poured into the elevator.  More came in from the front door, filling up the lobby.    The lantern vine in the chandelier had dimmed, and was recoiling away towards the ceiling.

The room was empty.  All the people had left.

“Let’s go!” I shouted.  We ran towards the exit.  My eyes stung from the smoke, and I coughed, breathing it in.

Watch for Steel Violet!” shouted Ana.

We burst out of the door, where the smoke was thicker.

The street was in chaos.  The blue sedan Copycat used to drive us here was a smoking wreck in front of the Kesteven Building.  Flames licked over its hull, and the wind blew the smoke into the building.  Even ten feet away, I could feel the heat on my face.  Raziah’s car bomb.  It had given us the space we needed to escape.

Still, I hoped it hadn’t killed anyone.

The busy Hightown street corner had emptied.  The pedestrians had fled the sidewalks and luxury storefronts, and all the nearby cars turned onto other streets, or drove a wide berth around the sedan.

Steel Violet was nowhere to be seen.  The members watching the lobby had vanished.  Copycat must have done a number on them.

Sirens whined in the distance.  The fire brigade.  Or the police.  Or both.

Ana sprinted into the street, next to the path of an oncoming car.  It zipped past her, then screeched to a halt, its tires burning on the pavement.  “Come on!” she shouted.  She ran to the car, pulling open the door and clambering into the backseat.

I ran after her, leaping in and slamming the door shut.

Blue lightning crackled around Ana’s forehead.  The driver, a middle-aged man with glasses, looked at the empty passenger seat, his hands shaking on the wheel.  “Yes!” he shouted.  “Yes, I’ll do it.  Yes, I know where that is.”  He closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and began to drive.

A message flickered across my vision.  Ana’s illusions.

Threatening him with illusion.  Only visual.  No sound.  Don’t say anything out loud.

I nodded at Ana.  We sped down the street to the intersection, and the message changed.

Using fake faces and an address far from capsule hotel

I nodded again.  We didn’t want law enforcement, Kahlin, or the mob honing in on our location.  Though by now, they probably had our original bodies in custody.

As the car drove away, I stared out the window, back at the Kesteven Building and the top floor with Kahlin’s penthouse.  From over a thousand feet below, I could barely make it out.

A small, dark figure flew straight into the building at the speed of a fighter plane.  It smashed through the windows on the top floor and vanished into the apartment.

Tunnel Vision.  We barely made it.  Sixty seconds later, and the mob boss would have flown to the first floor and hunted us down.

If I’d tried to take the files, she would have caught us.  Ana was right, damn her.

I’d made all my careful plans.  I’d even set up that trick with the gas grenades and my Vocation.  And it still wasn’t enough.

And I wouldn’t get another shot like this.  Kahlin would beef up his defenses now.  He might even store his files in a more fortified location.

If I wanted to bring him down, I would need to be stronger.  I would need a lot more practice.  I would need a body other than Shab Pirzanu’s.

And I would still need the help of Anabelle Gage.  Even if I had to trick it from her.

________________________________________

“- Backstabbing, chain-smoking foreign pink harlot,” I hissed, downing my thirteenth cup of tea.

“Um, yes,” said Ana, running her fingers through her messy grey hair.  “We’ve been on this for the past thirty-four minutes.  Could we talk about something different?”

I bent over the cafe table, folding empty sugar packets into origami.  With my other hand, I fidgeted with my pencil, tapping out rhythms on the table, my broken fingers still healing.  “She’s probably sitting in a bathrobe at her cushy apartment, smoking that hookah with those smirking little lips, having a laugh at how gullible we are.”  My leg bounced up and down under the table.

“That’s a very specific image.  Have you seen her apartment?”

“I’m extrapolating,” I snapped.  I waved the waitress over.  “Another pot of the jasmine.  Stronger.”  I glanced at the empty packets coating the table.  “More sugar, too.”

She glared at me.  “One more pot, then I’m cutting you off before you break a bone.”

I glared back at her, making my leg bounce even faster.  “More tea.”

Ana took a sip from her glass of water.  It was a relief to see her back in her normal body.  Or the one I was used to, at least.

Copycat had left both Pirzanu and Brahmani in Ana’s storage unit, tied up and gagged on top of my mattress, still swapped into our bodies.

We’d gotten rid of them at three in the morning, in front of a homeless aid center on the opposite side of the city from the capsule hotel.  We performed the swaps without issue and left them tied up, and blindfolded on the steps of the building, where they’d get picked up in a few hours.

Just like that, we had our normal bodies back again.  Broken bones and all.

Ana was pleased that Copycat hadn’t screwed us out of our bodies, and made some guilty noises at the minor injuries we’d suffered during the mission.  But it made me even more pissed.  Copycat – Raziah had every step planned out.  If that even is her name.  And she thought we were too incompetent to retrieve our bodies in time.

Plus, Pirzanu and Brahmani had been in the clothes for far too long, and they were filthy.  I threw all of them in a trash bin and had to take three consecutive showers in a row at the gym when it opened.

In the cafe, Ana clenched her teeth, tightening her grip on her water glass.  “We should have just killed him,” she said under her breath.  “Deny the enemy a valuable resource.”  She still thinks Kahlin was behind Honeypot’s release.  She was willing to kill based on the lie I’d made up.

“Then Steel Violet would have killed us.  Or if we somehow made it out of that, Tunnel Vision and her mob henchmen would have peeled our skin off with cheese knives.”  I folded the empty packet into an origami frog.  “We did what we had to.”

“He – “ Ana took a deep breath.  “He’s responsible for Kaplen.  And every other innocent person on the Golden Moon.”

“Yeah,” I lied.  “I’m sorry.  That bitch outsmarted both of us.”  Damn her.  I thought there would be a betrayal, but after the escape, when we’d already done the hard work – not in the middle of the bloody operation.  I still didn’t know how she’d gotten into the file room.

I was supposed to do the damn double-cross.  I’d fucked up.  The images of Samuel and Chimera Squad floated into my mind, alongside my father.  Every day, they felt more distant, more like a faint memory from a past life.  And Lyna Wethers’ face grew clearer.

Piece by piece, my loved ones were slipping away from me.  If I got too used to life on the outside, I would never get to go home.

Ana hunched over, the grey veins on her neck bulging.  “How am I going to sell this to Major Brin?”

“Sell what?  It wasn’t an official mission.”

“But we still failed.  And gave the enemy detailed information.”  Ana counted off on her fingers.  “They know the range and limits of my illusions.  They know about your paper control, and your Vocation.  The next time we fight them, they’ll be ready for us.”

The waitress arrived with my tea, and a basket full of sugar packets.  I sighed, and started ripping them open by the dozen, using paper projection to pour them into my cup en masse.  “I’m gonna need more booze.”

“This is a setback,” said Ana.  “A huge one, especially when you factor in my living expenses.  I don’t know if there’s any way to salvage this.”

“Maybe there is.”  I put down my cup and sat up.  “We take the papers back from Copycat.”  My fingers tapped on the table in a rapid percussion.  “I was projecting into those papers.  She stole a single specific file.”

“ – Which means she knew what she was looking for,” said Ana.  “And she filched something valuable.”

I jabbed my finger into the wood of the table.  “Exactly.  If we can take it, we don’t go back to Brin empty-handed.”  And I can get some revenge on that smug asshole.

What if Copycat had already taken the papers I needed?

“I’m not sure,” said Ana.  “We still don’t know what her Vocation is, and she trounced you the last time you two sparred.  By this point, you’d think we’d learned our lesson about taking on enemies way above our weight class.”

I grabbed a cookie off of my plate, stuffed it into my mouth, and chewed it into a pulp.  “We outsmarted Steel Violet.”

“We poked them and ran away.”

“It was smart running,” I said.  “A tactical retreat after outmaneuvering them in the field of battle.”

“But even if we could take her,” said Ana.  “How do we find her?  She must know we escaped by now, and she knows we’re aware of the fighting pit.  She’s not going to be in any of the obvious places.  How are we supposed to track her down?”

My leg stopped bouncing.  I projected into the pile of origami packets on the table and swept them into the trash.  Then I smiled.  “Through her unhealthy habits.”

________________________________________

Ana walked out of the Sanguine Smokehouse.  She stepped into the alleyway I sat in.

“Did you get it?”  Ana had illusions and the people inside would recognize my face.

She nodded.  “Copycat said that she was leaving for a while and coming back in a few months.  The people I talked to don’t know how to contact her.  I used the disguise of Isaac Brin, so hopefully they won’t spill anything to our target.”  She leaned against the wall.  “What next?”

“We trawl all the nearby Ilaquan-style smokehouses,” I said, “With affordable pricing.  If Raziah went here that often, she wouldn’t live too far away.  We use your illusions to impersonate Copycat, and see if any of them recognize her.  Failing that, we can also impersonate another Guardian or one of Tunnel Vision’s mobsters.”

Ana nodded.  “I’ll get a phone book.”

It took three days and nine locations before we got our first lead.  In between the fifth and the sixth, Ana stopped by a store to buy a short black cattle prod.  “I don’t want to kill her,” she said.  “And I don’t want to hurt her badly, if I can avoid it.  My machine pistol won’t cut it.  If I can get within range of my illusions, I can make it quick.”

“She’s not gonna let you get within range,” I said.  “Moment she sees you, that girl’s gonna give you a projection wedgie that’ll rip you in half.  Then she’ll throw you to the far side of town.”

On the seventh location, we met one of Tunnel Vision’s mob flunkies, a bald man with dark glasses.  After Ana threw a disguise over our faces and voices, we asked about Copycat, and he gave a fascinating response.

“There’s a bounty on the bitch,” he drawled.  “But only if she’s alive.  She shows up dead, and we’ll force you into a mind-sphere and dump you in the ocean.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Thirty thousand pounds.”

I whistled.  “A bounty from who?”

“You’re new at this, aren’t you?”

Despite my best efforts, the man refused to give up any more information on the bounty.  He gave us his business card, a sleek yellow piece of paper, with a number on it to call if we ever caught her.

The amount was more than Brin would ever give for Afzal Kahlin’s files.  For me, the incriminating papers were important, not the money.  For Ana, though, it was the difference between life and death.

I’ll let her have all thirty thousand, I thought to myself.  I would get the incriminating evidence and save my family, and Ana would get a fat stack of cash, almost enough to buy a new body.

A fair trade, one that made me feel better about double-crossing her.

After some discussion, Ana agreed to turn Copycat in for the bounty.  The girl was a remorseless killer, and had betrayed us besides.  When I imagined what Tunnel Vision’s mob might do to her, I pictured the mind-spheres we’d seen at the Commonplace headquarters.  The ones being tortured with rock hammers.

I felt a twinge of guilt, but stifled it.  You don’t owe her anything.  For all we knew, they were just going to interrogate her and give her up to the police.

On the third day, we finally tracked Raziah – Copycat – down to a smokehouse on one of the outer islands, across a bridge from Lowtown.  One of the men running the front desk recognized Raziah’s face, and gave us the time of her next appointment: Tomorrow, at 11:30 PM.

We staked her out from an alleyway, in a pool of darkness far away from any of the faint streetlamps.  At a little over half past midnight, Ana spotted a young Ilaquan woman walking out the back door.  Narrow eyes, unkempt black hair, sporting a bright yellow dress with a small purple hookah folded up in her bag.  That’s her.

When Raziah turned a corner, we sprinted after her with our shoes off until Ana could use her Vocation.  She’d pushed the range on her illusions to over thirty meters.

After that, we could tail her with no problem, as long as we didn’t make too much noise.  To her, we were invisible.

We followed Copycat through the dark streets, past closed storefronts and dark houses.  North Island was one of the lowest elevations in the city, and some of the buildings closest to the water had flooded.  Rising water.  A road that had run along the beach now sat partly underwater.

Raziah strode down it, walking across the moonlit surface of the water, hand stuck in her pockets.  A colony of matrix fish swarmed beneath her feet.

Neither of us can do a water walk.  I led Ana around the edge of the road, clambering over rubble and skirting away from puddles that would make loud noises.  After a few minutes, Copycat turned towards the center of the island.

The streets were lit up ahead of her.  As we walked, the buzz of human voices got louder and louder, and we found ourselves at the edges of a Neke night market.

That’s right.  North Island was filled with Neke immigrants, and apparently, markets like this were everywhere in their home islands.  The Hateshinai night market in the Floating City was rumored to span miles, dwarfing all the competition.

This one, in comparison, was small.  And a bit dirty.

Roadblocks cordoned off two whole blocks.  The streets overflowed with food stalls, carts, and trinket salesmen.  Neke men and women hawked chicken skewers, sponge cake, and jewelry to customers from all over the city.

Raziah strode through, stopping to buy a glass bottle filled with a bubbling purple liquid and a fried takoyaki ball on a stick.

Is this a trap?” said Ana.  She reached into the pockets of her ratty black coat, feeling for her disassembled machine pistol and her cattle prod.  “Could she be trying to lose us in the crowd?

That girl gets frightened about everything.  Even her illusion-voice sounded nervous.

Still, Copycat had ambushed me before.

I reached behind me and unzipped the top of my backpack with my good hand, freeing the stack of paper inside.  Those Steel Violet bastards had taken my briefcase, so I had to make do with this.

After winding through the market, Raziah stepped into an alleyway behind a noodle stand.  This must be close to where she lives.  We followed her, and Ana assembled her gun, the pieces of the suppressed machine pistol floating together.  Copycat stepped up to a house squeezed between two buildings and unlocked the front door.  Something made a clicking noise in the wall in front of her.

Ana stepped close to Copycat, her feet clanging as they crossed a large metal grate over the ground.  Blue lightning crackled around her, disguising the sound.

I caught a flit of movement out of the corner of my eye, something moving on a rooftop of an apartment high above us.  On instinct, I shot my storm of paper upwards.

Ana collapsed onto the metal storm drain, convulsing.  As my paper flew over the rooftop, a man poked his head over the top and leveled a dark purple sniper rifle at me.  My paper landed on his neck, arms, and legs.  Places that could be lethal if I cut them.

A standoff.

It took a moment to recognize his face.  Clean-shaven, handsome, muscular.  The Ilaquan from the pits.  The man who’d rigged a fight with Copycat, and directed me to her weeks ago.

Raziah knelt behind Ana, wrapping her forearm around her throat.  She grinned, and took a huge bite out of her takoyaki, chewing it slowly.

“Not bad,” she said, through a mouthful of food.  “I almost didn’t notice you.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




5-C Copycat

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

The Ilaquan woman, Rozi, led us through the lobby.

She’d been a bass player for Steel Violet while they were a girl group.  According to the magazines, her favorite food was wonton soup, she harbored a crush on one of the Four Daydreamers, and she had a pet matrix fish named Tim.

And her grip was strong enough to crush my throat like tin foil.

My loafers clicked on the spotless marble floor of the entrance hall, as we exchanged the subconscious keys and security questions that Copycat had stolen for us.  Above us, a glowing network of vines hung from the ceiling, sprouting glimmering blue flowers in the shape of a chandelier. As we passed underneath it, one of the vines stretched down and dropped its flower on my palm.

“Don’t mind the beacon vine,” said Rozi.  “That just means it likes you.” She smiled at me.  “According to Neke folk religion, it means you’re destined to find love tonight.”

“My girlfriend will be thrilled,” I said.  Harper had told me about Pirzanu’s long-distance girlfriend.  “She’s been looking for a third for ages.” Ilaquans loved polyamory, right?  Polyamory, dance clubs, and high-functioning alcoholism were pretty much the foundation of the Glass Oasis, as far as I could tell.

And according to Harper, Pirzanu was known to be a sharp-tongued, cheerful man who was fast with compliments and even faster with quips.  I had to mirror his personality to have a chance of fooling Kahlin.

Ana said nothing, staring at the floor as she followed two steps behind me.  Good, she’s finally listening to me.  I could smell her sweat from two paces in front of her.

Behind a glass wall at the restaurant next to the lobby, a Neke man glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, before returning to his conversation with the woman across from him.

I glanced at a mirror to my left, looking at him indirectly.  As soon as my gaze was turned away from them, both the man and the woman turned to watch me.

Kahlin’s people.  Two soldiers he’d sent to guard the lobby in plainclothes and keep an eye on us.  Probably more Steel Violet members in different bodies.

We reached the elevator doors, and the legs of my pants squeezed my ankles.  An invisible force felt up my pants, then pinched all over my shirt, coat, and the tight belt around my waist.

“Apologies,” said Rozi.  “I have to project into your clothes to check for weapons.  It’s just procedure, it’ll only last a moment.” Just procedure?  Steel Violet, glamorous though they were, weren’t Guardians, or registered exceptions in the Principality.  If they got caught doing this much project, Paragon would be pissed.

After a few seconds, my clothes went limp.  “All good?” I asked.

She pursed her lips.  “The check is all good, but I’m afraid you have to leave your briefcase here, Mr. Pirzanu.”

Shit.  I lifted it and unclasped it, showing the stacks of paper inside.  “There’s nothing in here. Just documents I need for the meeting. Scan it if you’d like.”  In case things go to shit, and I need to cut some people up.

“I did,” she said.  “It’s just policy, I’m sorry.  Mr. Kahlin’s secretary should have explained it over the phone, I think.”

I smiled.  “It must have slipped my mind.”  I closed the briefcase and handed it to her.  There goes my weapon.

The elevator doors opened, and we stepped in.  Rozi inserted a Voidsteel key into a hole beneath the buttons, and the floor lifted us upwards.  The climb was so smooth I could barely feel it.

The elevator, like most of the Kesteven Building, was made of jade glass, and the walls were transparent.  Through them, we could see the rooftops of Hightown descend beneath us. I could pick out the estates of the Tanwen, Oakes, and Daventry families.

I squinted.  In the distance, I could make out the edges of the Ebbridge Mansion.  The pale white rooftops and lush gardens and octagonal towers.

Right about now, my replacement would be finishing up her weekly breakfast with my parents.  And Samuel. I imagined the imposter scarfing down strawberry shortcake like an animal, smiling at my father, at Samuel.

I imagined them smiling back.

Then I imagined my family selling the mansion.  I imagined the cherry trees in the garden withering, getting chopped down by a new owner.

Afzal Kahlin had decimated my father’s newspaper business, then sunk us deep into debt to eliminate his competition.  If my mother hadn’t been so desperate for money, she might have never decided to Oust me.

The Broadcast King had destroyed my family.

I’m going to enjoy throwing this squidfucker in jail.

“John Brahmani, right?”  Rozi extended her hand to Ana, beaming.  “I’m a huge fan of your work in Designer’s Review.  I’m so thrilled you and Mr. Pirzanu are working together.”

Ana shook Rozi’s hand, flashing a nervous smile.  “Um. Thank you.”

“Just between you and me,” she said.  “For the texture scheme, do you think you’ll go with Sanjrani or geometric patterns?”

My stomach clenched.  It’s a trap.  Neither of those choices was in the style John Brahmani specialized in.  I’d crammed Raziah’s stack of design magazines last night at four in the morning, but Ana was still swamped with schoolwork, and I wasn’t sure how much she’d studied.

Ana bit her lip.  “I think we’ll, um, have to see the penthouse first.”

Rozi laughed.  “I understand. You introvert types don’t want to chat with strangers.  I’ll get out of your hair and just show you to Mr. Kahlin.”

Rozi was mind-linked to the other members of Steel Violet.  The other nine brains of their freakish hive mind would be analyzing this interaction right now, and at least one of them would have skill-stitched in some social analytic techniques.

And Kahlin would be even better.  We couldn’t afford more fuck-ups like this.

The view of the outside vanished, as the elevator ascended into a dark shaft.  After a few seconds, a little bell went ping, and the doors slid open.

The apartment before us wasn’t like any I’d seen before.  The walls were pitch-black, with almost no windows. Bright yellow lights flooded the rooms, illuminating thick plush couches and engraved wooden tables with newspapers on top.

It reminded me of casinos – day was identical to night, and the corridors twisted and turned in the most confusing ways.  As if it was designed to get you lost.

Still, the furniture was tasteful.

First, I thought.  We find where the files are.

A handsome Ilaquan man with thick eyebrows and a heart-shaped face stepped in front of us, dressed in a magnificent purple tuxedo.   He gave us a warm smile, his hands twitching.

When he spoke, I didn’t understand a word he said.  I caught a few words – ‘Amdeed’, ‘Ghar’, ‘Shareef’ – but couldn’t translate any of them.  He’s speaking Ilaquan.

Ana’s shoulders tensed, and she began to tap her foot.  She’s not hiding it well.

Ana was disguising our body language, and we could both block attempts to read our emotions.  But none of that would matter if we couldn’t speak the right language.

“I’m sorry,” I gave a little laugh.  “I don’t speak Ilaquan very well anymore.  I’ve barely used a word of it since coming to this country.”  Shab Pirzanu had immigrated to the Principality nine years ago.

Kahlin gave a larger laugh.  “Surely, one doesn’t lose a language that quickly.  Certainly not your first one, no?”

Think of something, think of something.  Raziah – Copycat – had told me that Pirzanu had used the Common Tongue over the phone.  Say something, idiot.

As I opened my mouth, Kahlin patted me on the shoulder, hard enough to shake me.  “I jest. I jest. The Common Tongue will do just fine.” He beckoned us, and we followed him further into the apartment.

As we passed through a parlor, I noted a fire alarm in the corner of the room, a small nondescript lever beneath a framed newspaper photo.  Remember that.  If things went bad, I could pull it and alert Copycat.

A servant in a tuxedo vest stepped up next to me.  He lifted his hand, and a platter covered in thin, beige crisps floated towards us, next to a bottle of arak and a trio of crystal glasses.  Kahlin’s not using projection.  Still trying to look like a rich Humdrum.

“Fried chicken skins,” said Kahlin.  “Sprinkled with Kabrian pepper flakes.  And arak from my old vineyard outside the Glass Oasis.  Try some, please.”

I accepted a cup and crunched down into one of the skins.  My mouth exploded with burning spice. An overwhelming wave of heat washed over my tongue, and I took a swig of arak to cool my palate.  Even with the sweet liquor filling my mouth, it still felt like a volcano erupting on my taste buds.

As I panted, breathing in and out, the thick flavor of the chicken hit me, mixed in with a sharp edge of salt and the hot aftertaste of the peppers.  As I savored it, I felt a slight itch at the edge of my consciousness, a sensation I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t trained for it.

Empathy.  Kahlin was scanning our emotions when we were distracted by the spice.  I focused on my Pith, shifting the tiny areas he was observing, so it looked like I was thrilled and awed, rather than dishonest and calculating.

Ana avoided eye contact with the waiter.  “Oh, um. Thank you. My palate is delicate, and liquor makes me light-headed.  So sorry.”

“Water?” said Kahlin.  Ana nodded.

As we walked, the belt on my suit dug into my waist.  Did I make it too tight?  We entered a dining room with a long silver table and no windows.  “Are there any windows in this place?” I asked.

Kahlin chuckled.  “Just a few. In one of the bedrooms at the edge.  I hope that’s not a problem.” He indicated his hand around the dining room.  “What do you think? You insisted on seeing it in person. Do you have thoughts on how you’d decorate this?”

Ana said nothing.  I flashed a smile at Kahlin.  “Let’s see the whole thing before coming to any judgments.  Both of us work best with a more holistic picture.” Also, I know nothing about interior decorating.  I’d crammed just enough last night to spitball for sixty seconds, but there was no way I could carry a whole conversation about it.

“But if you had to guess,” said the Broadcast King.

“If I had to guess, I’d choose layered fabrics and clean lines with a strong focus on texture.”  I’d read that bit about the Chutani Style in one of Raziah’s magazines. “But really, what matters is your preference.  Your desires for your space. And what the rest of the apartment looks like, of course.”

Kahlin nodded, and led us to another set of rooms.  After a few minutes, we found ourselves staring down a hallway covered with framed newspapers.  He approached one of them, grinning. “I want to either spread these all over, or concentrate them in one place.  These are the biggest stories my companies have covered.”

I squinted at a headline.  “Shenti woman butchers over five thousand sailors.”  Bloody monsters.  My mother had told me a story about this.  The Shenti had no mercy.

“The Edwina Massacre,” he said.  “A single Joiner butchers an entire carrier group with her bare hands.  The first contact most of us Humdrums had with the world of projection. After the Pyre Witch, of course.  Single-handedly brought my first newspaper here to prominence.”

By destroying my father’s.  The Elmidde Chronicle had been passed down in my family for generations, protecting the world of projectors from exposure.  Any time a Humdrum came forward with a wild tip about wizards and magic, they would listen patiently, isolate him, and wipe his memory.

Until the Pyre Witch’s war crimes exposed everyone, and this prick brought it crashing down around our ears.  Now, every Humdrum and their uncle wanted to lock up Epistocrats, disband the House of Lords, and give out free bodies to everyone.

Kahlin led us down the hall, pointing out more historical events his propaganda companies had profited off of.  The dissolution of the Conclave. The founding of parliament. The Spirit Block and the end of the Shenti War.

We came to the end of the hallway.  “This is an exposé we did on money laundering by the Elmidde Chronicle and its owner, Lord Athel Ebbridge.”  My father.  Afzal Kahlin looked at me, and I felt the itch of the empathy Vocation on me.

I disguised my rage from his projection.  Don’t show any reaction.  Don’t react.  I forced a smile on my face, as we passed a bored-looking janitor dusting behind the frames.

“What’s this room over here?”  I pointed to a closed door at the end of the hallway.

“The one I’m not interested in decorating,” said Kahlin.  “A friend is staying there, and he’s very particular. Let’s move on.”

I projected into the room, feeling around with my Pith.  No one’s in there.  Kahlin was lying.

But there were two stacks of paper, laid horizontal on top of one another in a file cabinet.  That’s it.  Ana’s voice echoed in my ear, created by an illusion.  “Is that the room?

“Yes,” I said, responding to both Ana and Kahlin.  “Let’s move on.”

As we stepped into the next room, I reached for the mechanism in the file cabinet, twisting the steel lock open, then sliding the file cabinet open.

It wouldn’t budge.  Something else was blocking it.  I felt around it with my Pith, noting various ordinary metals and oak wood.

An object sat in front of the file cabinet, wrapped around the handle.  An impenetrable barrier my Pith couldn’t project into.

Voidsteel.  The file cabinet was sealed with a Voidsteel padlock.  I couldn’t open it with projection.

The plan was to feed the papers through the air ducts, transporting them five floors down to Raziah.  We weren’t even supposed to enter the room.

How the fuck are we supposed to steal the files now?

I glanced behind us.  A member of Steel Violet stood at the far end of the hallway with a submachine gun.  Far out of range of Ana’s Vocation. Another stood beside Kahlin, watching us.

With that positioning, Ana could only put illusions on one of them at once.  We’d need something more to get into the file room.

Kahlin led us into the next room, a black marble bathroom with a shower big enough for three people.  Think, idiot, think.  How could we get those files out?  The longer we spent here, the worse our odds were.

The bathroom was smaller than the other rooms.  In here, the two guards and Kahlin all stood within Ana’s range.

The next time Ana glanced in my direction, I scratched my wrist.  The signal we had agreed on for a private conversation. Blue lightning crackled around her, as Kahlin made some noises about how the shower worked.

“I can’t trick two senses for long,” said Ana through clenched teeth.  “Talk fast.”

“Voidsteel padlock on the cabinet,” I said under my breath.  “I can’t steal the files from outside the room. Need a key to open it, and I don’t know where it is.”

Ana bit her lip for a moment.  “Is the cabinet voidsteel?”

“No,” I said.

“Are the screws on it voidsteel?”

It took a moment for me to understand.  “Got it,” I said. I should have thought of that.  Ana’s illusions moved to match our positions, then faded.

“ – and that’s all the rooms in the penthouse,” said Kahlin.  “Shall we go to the dining room to discuss your thoughts?”

The dining room was on the opposite side of the penthouse.  Ana’s plan wouldn’t work from there.

“Could we talk somewhere with warmer light?” I asked.  “I’ll think better like that.” And those rooms are closer to the file cabinet.

“Of course.  The living room should suit that purpose.”

When we arrived at the living room, I sat down on the chair closest to the file room, minimizing the distance between me and my target.  As I sat down, my belt dug into my waist again.

Break open the cabinet from the back,” Ana’s illusory voice echoed in my ears.  “Then feed the papers into the ducts.

I stretched out my Pith far behind me to the file room, and felt the metal outline of the cabinet.  Pain stabbed through my skull. It was barely in the range of my physical projection. Just reaching it this far was already a strain.

Projection force fell off with distance.  At this range, I could take off the screws, but if I strained myself any more, the sheer effort would produce green lightning around my body.  And unless I did it just right, I’d make a ton of noise, too.

I felt for the first screw holding down the top of the cabinet, and began to untwist it.  To take off the back of the cabinet, I first needed to remove the top.

I couldn’t do more than one screw at a time without giving off lightning.  This would take a while. We had to stall and maintain our cover.

“What’s that?” I said, pointing to the middle of the table.  A dust sheet sat on a large box-shaped ornament. I spun the screw around and around.

One of the Steel Violet guards lifted a finger, and the dust sheet flew off, revealing two objects in a glass box.  A small fern that had been set on fire, and a pitch-black, flat silhouette of a fountain.

“A plant from the Infinite Peak,” he said.  “A jungle blooming on the highest mountain in the world.  It regenerates itself perfectly, even through flame. Even without sunlight and water.”

The smokeless fire crackled up and down the whole length of the fern, but the plant stayed aloft, unharmed through it all.  A hole at the bottom of the box pumped oxygen into the space to be consumed.

I finished undoing the first screw, and moved to the second one.

My eyes stared at the silhouette of the fountain.  I leaned to the side, looking at it from another angle.  It’s not a silhouette.  It was a real fountain, but the water trickling through it was so black, so dark that it looked two-dimensional.  The liquid devoured every speck of light that touched it.

It was like a hole cut out of reality.

“That water,” said Kahlin.  “Was taken from twenty-one thousand feet below sea level.  Far below the maximum legal depth.”

The highest and lowest spots in the world.  Desolate places that nobody came back from, filled with the ruins of the Great Scholars.  Just looking at them made me feel uneasy.

I finished the second screw, and started on the third.

“You would not believe how hard it was to get those.  Together, they cost more than the penthouse did.”

I undid the third and fourth screws, floating them onto the ground.  Then I extended my Pith into the whole top panel of the file cabinet, and pushed upwards.

Burning pain exploded in the back of my head, and I bent over, snapping my soul back inside the confines of my skull.  If I go any harder, I’ll be blowing lightning all over the place.

I extended it again, and tried sliding it off, but it refused to budge.

If I scratched my wrist for Ana, she could throw illusions over the guards to hide my lightning while I finished.

But the members of Steel Violet were spread around the edges of the room.  At least one of them stood outside of her range. In their current positions, she couldn’t put illusions on all of them at once, no matter where she was in the room.

Get them in range, then.  A servant poured me another glass of Arak and floated a glass of ice water over to Ana.

Kahlin leaned forward in his chair.  “But enough of my bragging, tell me about yourselves.”  He looked straight at Ana. “John, you travelled to the Glass Oasis last month, didn’t you?  It’s been years since I’ve visited. How is it, these days?”

My throat tightened.  Is this a trap?  If Ana gave the wrong answer and Kahlin had done a proper background check, she could expose her identity.  I had no idea whether John Brahmani had visited the Glass Oasis last month.

Judging by her silence, she didn’t know either.

Ana blinked, avoiding eye contact with Kahlin.  She glanced at me. “Um,” she said.

The Broadcast King laughed.  “You don’t need to worry. Billionaires don’t bite.  I don’t judge my interior decorators for their skill at small talk.  You’re doing just fine.”

“The Glass Oasis,” said Ana.  “Was and will always be the most beautiful city in the world.”

Kahlin gave a contented sigh.  “That is good to hear. I should like to go back there one day.”

“Why don’t you?” said Ana.

What the fuck?  Why was she asking such a bold question?

Kahlin chuckled at this.  “You’re not as timid as I thought.  Most people would just do the polite thing and ignore the elephant in the room.”  He glanced at one of the members of Steel Violet. Jovira. The shy, introverted drummer of the group.  “The Locus of Ilaqua and I are still having a little disagreement. As long as she rules the country, it will not be a welcome home for me.”

Something clicked in my mind.  This is an opportunity.  I bumped my hand into my drink glass, spilling it on the tablecloth.  “Forgive me,” I said, slurring my speech ever so slightly. “I don’t – I don’t drink very much normally, and this body has a naturally low tolerance.”

I wasn’t even a little bit drunk.  This body had an even higher alcohol tolerance than my one at Paragon.  But this would help sell the next bit.

I waved at two of the guards.  The ones outside of Ana’s range.  “You. Yes, you. You two are Ilaquan, yes?  You are my countrymen.”

“Yes?”  The guards looked confused.

I beckoned them over.  “Sit down, have a drink.”

Jovira glanced at Kahlin, waiting for an order.

“I’m sure they would just prefer to do their jobs,” said Kahlin.  “Let’s just continue with the meeting.”

I gesticulated with my hand.  “No, no, forgive me if I overstep.  But – “ I stood up. “This is important for the process.”

Kahlin turned his piercing gaze to me.  “How so?”

“If I am painting on the canvas of this demesne,” I said, spitballing.  “I must know the people inside and their connection to its culture. All the people.  If I don’t talk with them, I won’t get to know the space as well.”  It was all whaleshit, of course, but interior designers could get away with a little artsy ridiculousness.

Kahlin pursed his lips, then nodded.  The guards drew close and sat down at the table.  They’re all in range now.

Then the question.  Something to occupy their time and pluck at their nerves to stall them for the longest possible time.  Even if it had nothing to do with interior design.

“What do you think of the current Locus?” I asked.

Then I scratched my wrist.  A second later, blue lightning exploded out around Ana’s head, as she threw up visual and auditory illusions over everyone present.

“Hide my lightning and the sound,” I said.  “Keep them in range and stall them as long as you can.”

“Got it.”  Ana understood in an instant.  Her eyes flitted back and forth between the three Steel Violet members and Kahlin, watching their movements.

I sat down and reached my Pith behind me, extending it into the metal roof of the filing cabinet.

Then I heaved.  Bright green lightning flickered around me, mixing with Ana’s blue.  Stabbing pain shot through my forehead. It felt like I was trying to lift a semi-truck with my head, though the sensation was concentrated in my head.

I felt one edge of the metal lift upwards.  Then the other. I bent over, clenching my teeth and pressing my fingers into my aching temples.

As soon as it was high up enough, I yanked sideways, accelerating it towards the center of the room.  I could hear Kahlin and Steel Violet talking, but their voices blurred into the background.

I set it on the ground as soft as I could, minimizing the noise the metal would make on the wooden floor.  When I let go of it, sweat was trickling down my back, and the room was wobbling in front of me.

Giant red letters materialized in the air in front of me.  Ana.

~30 seconds

I reached for the screws on the back of the cabinet, the only two remaining ones.  Faster, faster.  I spun them counter-clockwise, green lightning flickering over my skin.  Another message appeared in front of me.

~20 seconds

The ringing sound of a bell cut through the air, piercing my ears.  I stopped twisting the screws, and the lightning vanished. A moment later, the blue lightning did the same.

“What’s going on?!” I shouted over the clamor.

Fire alarm?  No, the noise was loud, but coming from a particular direction; another room in the penthouse.  A moment later, I pinpointed just where.

The file room.  Had I set off the alarm?

The members of Steel Violet had already leapt away from the table.  They sprinted to the doors, covering all the exits of the room.

“What’s going on?!” I shouted again.

“Something set off the alarm in my file room,” said Kahlin, his voice measured.  “My bodyguards are securing the area.” He looked at the two of us, watching our movements.

Before I let my Pith snap back into my body, I felt the screws on the file cabinet pull themselves out.  Something removed the back of the file cabinet, and a hand reached into the papers, pulling a file out.

Someone else is breaking in.  Someone using us as a distraction to take the files for themselves, who knew the exact perfect time to strike.

I could guess who it was.  Copycat, you incorrigible bitch.

I projected into the papers the person took, yanking them sideways to dislodge them.  Those are mine.  The papers pressed against something hard, so I pulled the other way, down, and up.  They’re in a bag.  And I couldn’t apply enough force to take them out – not without shooting lightning off again.

I left my Pith inside the papers, tracking their position and movement.  They moved sideways at a running pace, outside the room, then turned into another room and stopped for a moment.  Did Steel Violet corner her?

The papers dropped ten stories.  They shot downward, accelerating until they were out of the range of my projection.  She threw them out a window.  She must have known where they were going to land.  That backstabbing trollop.

I could worry about that later.   We had bigger problems.

I felt a force press at the edge of my Pith.  Nudging.  I pushed back, reasserting control.  A moment later, the force pressed at other parts of my mind, attempting Basic Sleep and Empathy in quick succession.

As I fended them off, my eyes flitted around the room, watching the three members of Steel Violet and Kahlin.  Do they know?  Do we bluff or fight?

Kahlin stood up.  “It’s not safe here.  My bodyguards will escort you to a more secure room until the police arrive.”

“What room?” I asked.

“The south bedroom,” said Jovira.

That’s the farthest room from the elevator.  And it only had one door.

Ana’s illusion-voice echoed in my ear.  “Play along or fight?  Play along or fight? Are they going to trap us in the room?

“Let’s go,” said Jovira.  “There isn’t much time.” She stepped out of the room, flanked by two more members of Steel Violet.  They moved with military precision, sweeping the rooms ahead of them with their weapons.

I followed her.  After a moment’s hesitation, Ana stepped after me too.  “Play along or fight?

I’m not sure.  As we walked after the three guards, a fourth stepped out from behind a grand piano, hefting a shotgun.  “Stay close,” he said.

If we played along, we risked getting caught in their trap.  But our cover might not have been blown. If we fought and exposed ourselves, we’d probably get our asses kicked.

Steel Violet would know how to handle their guns.  They would be experts at martial arts, projection combat, and military tactics, thanks to their skill-stitching.  And they could communicate with each other’s Piths directly, which would fuck up Ana’s Vocation.

Odds were, they’d have Voidsteel bullets too.

Scholars fuck me with a tentpole, why didn’t I study harder?  I could be eating a beef turnover in bed with Samuel, and listening to him complain about the mess.  I could be crushing Leizu in Jao Lu, or going out dancing with Eliya.

Stop whining and think of something, idiot.  “I know what I’m doing,” I muttered under my breath.

“What was that?” said Jovira.

“Oh, nothing, nothing.”  Play along or fight?  Do we play along or fight?

I’m going to try something,” Ana’s illusion whispered.  “Get ready.

As I walked, the outline of my body faded, becoming invisible.  An illusion of my body moved in its place, striding forward. I glanced to the right.  The same thing happened to Ana, an illusion replacing her.

All the bodyguards are in range.  I wasn’t sure how long that’d last, though.

The illusions stopped walking forward, and began to back up, raising their hands.  The illusion of Shab Pirzanu spoke in my place. “Um, guys. I think we’d rather leave, actually.  Can we leave?”

In unison, all four of the Steel Violet guards turned to look at the illusions.  I ducked to the side, making sure I wasn’t in their line of fire.

“Please,” said illusion-Pirzanu.  “Can you escort us to the elevator?  Or the emergency stairs? We’ll call a cab downstairs.  We don’t want any part of this, whatever it is. Please.”

It’s a test.  If Kahlin and his goons were onto us, they wouldn’t want to let us go.  Play along, or fight?

The four men and women paused.  “One moment, please,” said Jovira.  They’re discussing it in their minds.

All four raised their weapons and opened fire on the illusions.  Deafening cracks rang in my ears. Bullets tore through the furniture, tufts of cotton and fabric going flying.

Fight,” said Ana.

I pulled the fire alarm.  A loud, painful bell rang throughout the rooms.

Odds were, Raziah had double-crossed us, and was now headed far away from the Kesteven building.  She’d backstabbed us before I expected her to. As a result, the countermeasure I’d prepped was useless.

But if there was even the slightest chance of the cavalry coming, I had to take it.

I reached for a weapon, projecting into the wood of the coffee table behind us, preparing to flip it in Steel Violet’s faces.

The illusions of our corpses fell to the ground, riddled with bullet holes and bleeding all over the carpet.  Jovira knelt to feel the pulse of one of them, then paused. Her finger passed through the illusion, and her eyes narrowed.

Shit,” muttered Ana in my ear.  “My illusions don’t work on touch

Do something,” I hissed.  “Keep their attention away from –

My pants squeezed tight on my legs, choking them.  Clothes projection.  Then they yanked my legs out from under me, and the room spun around me.  My back slammed into the floor with a dull thud, and pain exploded across my spine.  Ana dropped to the floor beside me.

I yanked the table towards me, flipping it into the four guards from behind them.

They dropped to the ground in unison, dodging my attack.  The table crashed into the wall behind me, falling to the ground.  In the same motion, they rolled forward to me and Ana, raising their weapons to our faces.

Jovira’s finger hesitated on the trigger of her submachine gun.  Then she nodded. “Understood, sir. Not a problem.”

The ringing stopped.  The fire alarm went silent.

Afzal Kahlin stepped into the room, his mouth curled up a wide smirk.  He floated a small wooden object beside him with two spinning wheels. I had to squint to see what it was.

Voices played from the speakers inside it.  Kahlin’s voice. “Don’t worry,” it said.  “I’m not going to rob you blind.  Money is of no concern to me. I’m interested in what comes after your little coup.

My throat clenched.  That’s my tape recorder.  From his meeting with Joseph that I’d spied on.  When I cut his neck open.

Takonara.

The Broadcast King folded his shaking hands together.  “Hello again.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




5-B Copycat

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Wes

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.

Wait, gown?

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, it’s 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?”

I nodded.

“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.

He’s deflecting.

“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.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




5-A Copycat

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

Ataraxia was a wonderful drug.

It was a common sedative, distilled from the Gauri flower in the Neke Islands.  When I took it, it quelled the fear in my mind, the growing sense of panic. It turned down the volume in my Pith until it was all smooth and quiet and simple, and I could forget how disgusting I felt.

I’d never needed it until I hit puberty in my new body, at which point I wanted it all the time.  My parents were too poor to afford it consistently, but the rare times I got to experience it was sheer bliss.  Now, I had to save every penny.

But still, I was taking it now.

I scanned down the lines of a pneumatology textbook, reading about the proofs for Rashi’s Third Law with Whisper and Praxis Vocations.  Recursive upgrades to intelligence are impossible with all forms of mental projection, even through indirect improvement.  In the Kellett Experiments of 482, patients whose sleep efficiency was enhanced showed no improvement to their projection, despite measurable improvements to memory and cognition.

It was a tough textbook.  I closed my eyes, imagining myself back home, in the Agricultural Islands.

I shifted on the bench, to better catch the early morning sunlight streaming through a window.  Three other assistants sat next to me, and one full student. Three grey coats and a blue. Nobody said anything to each other.

The student was hunched over, her eyes red from crying.  Me too, sister.   Kaplen might have been the worst case, but he wasn’t the only student that got hit by Honeypot.  Reports were, a whole seven other Paragon students had been on that yacht, and six of them had been permanently affected by Lyna Wethers’ Vocation.

The door in front of us opened, and another assistant walked out, letting out a breath of relief.  A woman in a yellow dress stepped out behind him. “Next,” she said. “Ernest Chapman.”

I stood up, and she led me into the room.  After I stepped in, the door swung shut behind me.

“Morning,” she said.  “I’m Stella Hargreave, a Guardian from Paragon counterintelligence.  Sorry to make you get out of bed this early. I know you grey coats have a harder commute than the students.”  She flashed me an apologetic smile. “You know how the admins here get about their schedules. Promise this won’t take too long.”

I imagined my face as sad, but calm and composed, then projected into her Pith, pushing the illusion onto her perceptions.  Then I nodded.

The other students didn’t know it, but according to Brin, Ms. Hargreave had trained in a Praxis vocation that let her analyze body language.  With it, she could suss out guilt, dishonesty, and all other kinds of emotional information. Now, all she’d see was a grieving assistant with nothing to hide.

A teapot floated in front of her, pouring her a mug of mulled cider.  The scent of apples and cinnamon and cloves was intoxicating. “Can I offer you some?”  The teapot flew towards me and hovered over a mug.

No thank you, ma’am,” I said.  “Not in the mood.”  And I can’t taste it.

As I spoke, I layered on an auditory illusion, making my voice sound level, not giving away any details in my tone.  The strain sent aches through my head, but it only lasted a few seconds at a time.

Nobody will tell me what’s happening,” I said, feigning ignorance.  “Why is everyone being interviewed?  Is this about the attack last week?

Hargreave put a hand on my shoulder.  “You’re not in trouble, sweetie.” Her voice was warm, quiet.  “We’re just trying to get a better picture of what happened.”

You’re trying to find out who killed Honeypot.  Paragon knew a rogue Whisper specialist had taken out Lyna Wethers a week and a half ago, but they didn’t know who.  Hargreave was friendly now, but if she found out I was on that yacht, I’d be thrown in prison or worse in a heartbeat.

“I understand you were friends with Kaplen,” she said.  “Please forgive me for broaching the subject again.”

I didn’t need an illusion to look miserable about that.

It’s alright,” I lied.

“Do you know anything about what happened that night?”

Mental hijacking,” I said.  “Some projector fucked up his mind to make him obsessed with her, and then – “ I closed my eyes, and let the grief flow through me, quelling some of my nerves.

Hargreave didn’t just analyze body language.  According to Brin, she was trained in Empathy, a technique that let her read people’s emotions directly from their Piths.  The technique to block it wasn’t hard, but I hadn’t learned it yet.

Brin couldn’t interrogate me himself without it looking strange, so he’d given me the date and time of the surprise interview, and a trio of Ataraxia pills that would keep me just lucid enough to talk without slurring my words.

To someone with the Empathy vocation, my Pith would look nervous, but not panicked – a normal reaction for an innocent person called into an interview like this. With a hefty dose of disgust and misery.

“Do you know anything else?” she asked.  “About what happened to him, or who did it?”

I shook my head.  “Don’t think so.

A file floated out of a desk cabinet and opened in front of her.  “Now, I understand you haven’t found your primary Vocation yet,” she said.

I nodded.  “My Pith is blue, so I know I’m a Whisper specialist, but that’s all I know.”  Most Piths were white or grey until someone discovered their Vocation, but there were a few exceptions, so it was a plausible lie.  I maintained my visual and auditory illusions, masking any involuntary signs of lying I might be giving off.

There was a long pause in the conversation, as Hargreave flipped through her file, sipping her cider.  Then, in a flash, her eyes flicked towards me, making contact. “Were you on that boat, Ernest?” she asked.

I held my breath.  “What boat?”  I exhaled slowly.  Close save.  She was trying to catch me with information I wasn’t supposed to have.

“Nothing you need to worry about.”  She smiled at me. “You’re safe here.  The perpetrator is no longer a threat.”  She stood up. “That’s all.” A pen lifted itself up and scrawled on a piece of paper.  “And for your trouble, I’ll give you a permission slip to eat breakfast at the banquet hall for a day with the students.”

The paper floated into my hand.  “Thank you.”  I stood up and turned to leave, then hesitated.

“Something wrong, dear?”

“What will happen to the other ones?” I asked, dropping my auditory illusion.  “There were other students beside him, weren’t there? Who got – affected.”

“The ones who can continue their schoolwork will keep going.  The ones who can’t will find other paths.”

“That’s it?” I said.  “You won’t try to find a cure, or pay for them through therapy, or – “  I forced myself to stop before I showed my anger.

Hargreave’s smile faded, and her voice hardened.  “Most Guardians don’t experience what you did until a few years after graduating.  It’s harder when you’re younger. But I’ll give you the same advice I gave them.” She stepped in front of me and grabbed the door handle.  “Treasure what you had. Then let it go. You’ve got a job to do.”

She pulled open the door, and I stepped out, feeling sick to my stomach.  I walked down the hallway, towards the rising sun shining through a window.

Hargreave’s voice echoed behind me.  “Next.”

________________________________________

Lorne Daventry whipped his palm forward, and a thick plate of sheet metal flew in front of him.  The lightning bolt crashed into it, dissipating on its surface.

Naruhiko leapt forward, wielding a long whip of water, and used it to connect a corner of the metal to the leg of Jen Banebrige.  She twitched, electricity running through her body, and another whip of water ripped the armband off of her.

Cyclops Squad was the number one ranked squad in Paragon, and Golem Squad was slaughtering them.  Only two Cyclops remained, but Lorne hadn’t lost a single fighter.

Matilla Geffray, the newest member of Golem, floated a cloud of swirling sand behind the two remaining enemies, grinning.  Lorne barked a command that I couldn’t hear, and the cloud shot forward and expanded, engulfing the Cyclops in a sandstorm from behind.

Matilla was Kaplen’s replacement, a rising talent in the first-year class who’d been pulled from another squad.  It had taken the professors less than two weeks to fill his spot, to go back to routine like the Golden Moon had never happened.

At Paragon Academy, it was business as usual in just ten days.  A few people could still be seen crying for their friends, and a few people got moved to fill empty slots in squads.  That was it. And it made me fucking furious.

Deon touched the grass, turned it to coal dust, and ignited it.  Flashes of red and orange fire lit up the inside of the sandstorm, as shouts came from within.  The noise made my ears ring and ache, still sensitive from Wes stabbing them with toothpicks.

Lorne flew above them, shot down a cable inside the chaos, and pulled out an armband.  One left.  He shouted at Matilla, and she dispersed the sandstorm.  Deon clapped his hands, and the fire on the grass was snuffed out.

Ralph Corbiere lay on a pile of sand, the leader and last standing member of Cyclops Squad.  Half of the silver hair on his head was burnt black, and soot marks covered his pale cheeks. He took heavy breaths, exhausted.

Deon, Naruhiko, and Matilla moved forward.  Lorne held up a fist, and they all stopped. The subtext was clear.  This one’s mine.

Harpy – Professor Tuft – would have yelled at him for that.  Always confirm the kill.  That was true even in a nonlethal squad battle.  Don’t play with your food and let them find a way out.

But Lorne had a different objective in mind.  Until now, Cyclops Squad had been the undisputed number one team in the standings.

Lorne wanted to humiliate them.

And I was waiting on him, carrying a jug of hot cider and a giant bag of sesame crackers for when he was done.

Serving him like this made me feel sick, but I had to pursue every option.  Major Brin hadn’t offered any new jobs in the last ten days, and Wes still hadn’t found out how to break into the Broadcast King’s bases of operation.  With Lorne’s recommendation, I’d have a route into Paragon, even if I was too poor to buy a body.

So I sat here, twiddling my thumbs and poring over my notes.  Tasia was supposed to meet me here to prep for the Tactics exam tomorrow, but she hadn’t shown up to any study sessions this week.

Maybe she was still grieving, but I had my doubts.  She’d been friends with Kaplen, not me. Odds were, she was taking this opportunity to back away from the weird kid with the grey veins.

Ralph Corbiere groaned, pushing himself into a sitting position.  As he stood up, Lorne wrapped a cable around his ankle and yanked him off his feet.  The cable lifted upwards, hanging Corbiere upside down.

Corbiere projected into his clothes, jerking himself downward, but couldn’t budge himself.  Lorne flicked a hand, and streams of mud blasted the boy from one side, then the next, filling his eyes with filth.

Another cable wrapped around Corbiere’s other ankle and spun him around, making him dizzy.  The mud washed over him, again and again, until every inch of him was coated.

Lorne pushed out Corbiere’s cloth projection, and ripped off his shirt and pants.  The leader of Cyclops Squad was in his underwear, upside down, and covered in mud.

Lorne snickered.  Then laughed. Deon, Naruhiko and Matilla joined in, and he looked at me, observing my reactions.  Watching what I’d do.

I took in a deep breath, then laughed with them.

What else could I do, if I hoped to win Daventry’s favor?  Disgusting, a part of me hissed.  You’re just as bad as they are.

Other spectators watched with me.  No professors were watching. And when this was over, no one would report this.

Lorne let go of Corbiere’s ankles, and as the boy fell, ripped off the armband with his bare hands.  

Victory.  An overwhelming one for Golem Squad.  And if this battle had been easy for them, they’d climb to the top of the rankings within the month.

Lorne hugged and clapped his squadmates on the back, grinning ear to ear.  They strode over to me, and I cracked open my snacks.

Excellent job, Matilla,” said Lorne.  “In the last week, Golem Squad has performed better than we ever have in our history.”

Matilla beamed.  “I think I overextended at the start, and should have flanked halfway through with their Whisper specialist, but I’m glad I didn’t let you down.”

Scholars,” said Lorne.  “It is incredible to have three teammates who can analyze their performance.  We’re sure to finish number one this year, now that we’ve lost the dead weight.”

My stomach jerked.  I felt a hot pressure building inside me, making my arms shake.  I clenched my fists.

Don’t say anything.  It would be stupid to talk back to them.  He might even be baiting me to test my loyalty.

But Kaplen deserved better than that.

“You shouldn’t talk about your squadmate that way,” I said, forcing myself to speak at normal volume.  “He did his best.”

“He did,” said Lorne.  “But he was stupid. If he was smart, he wouldn’t have ended up where he did.”  He gulped down the mulled cider. “He was out of his league. The Eight Oceans are full of people who can break minds, and Paragon’s students are targets.  If you can’t defend yourself, you’re a danger to yourself and others.” He stared at me. “Ingolf should have been expelled for his own sake. If he had been, he might still be alive.”

My face grew hot.  Don’t do anything.  I closed my eyes.  Pretend you’re somewhere else.

Was there some way I could hurt him without him noticing?  If I used my Vocation to make one of his squadmates attack him, then he wouldn’t notice.  Or if I tricked him into attacking other students, then he’d get in trouble with the professors.  But he’d suspect foul play, and might trace it back to me.

“Well, Chapman?” asked Lorne.  “What do you thi – “

A blue and purple ball of electricity flew through his chest, dissipating as it passed through him.  His eyes widened, and he dropped onto the grass, unconscious.

Tasia stepped up behind him.  Orbs of lightning flickered around her fists.  She stared down at Lorne, eyes wide and frightened.

Deon, Naru, and Matilla stepped between her and their leader, floating metal, water, and sand beside them.  “One more step,” said Deon.

“Three on one,” Tasia said, her voice shaking.  “You could probably beat me. But I would make it very, very painful for you.”  The orbs of light grew around her, expanding to wide, flat disks.

Golem Squad stared her down for what felt like minutes.  Every member of the audience was watching them, and some of them had backed up.  The orbs crackled, Deon’s fingers twitched, and Matilla’s sand circled overhead.

Deon stepped around Tasia and strode across the wooden bridge to the main building, floating the unconscious Lorne above him.  Naru and Matilla followed him.

The lightning faded around Tasia, and she broke into a wan smile, looking in my direction.  “Lunch?” she said. “On me.”

________________________________________

I dug into my salad, shoveling bread and meat into my mouth.  I couldn’t taste any of it, but it was free food and I needed every damn penny.

And I needed something to fill space in the conversation.  Tasia was silent, and I wasn’t sure what to say either. A long, painful silence extended between the two of us, as we ate our food and listened to the ambient noise of the Silver Flask.  Plates and silverware clattering, waiters shouting orders from the kitchen, and the hum of Paragon students talking to their friends.

Tasia avoided looking at me, keeping her gaze on her pomegranate soup.  She rubbed the dark circles under her eyes, and ran her fingers through her tangled black hair.

Not half an hour ago, she had looked ready to cut Golem Squad to pieces.  Here, she just looked exhausted.

Fuck it.  I couldn’t stand it anymore.  “You weren’t at the study sessions this week,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” said Tasia, still looking away.  “Was busy.”

“I have a favor to ask.”

“Of course,” she said.

I exhaled, then pulled a stack of books out of my bag.  “He took them out from Level One of the Great Library for me.  I can’t return them because they’re above my access.” I’d get thrown in jail for even having these.  “I know it’s a huge favor, but – “

“I’ll do it,” she said.

My shoulders sagged with relief.  “Thank you,” I breathed. “Thank you.”

“I have something, too.”  She unzipped her backpack, and hefted it onto the table.  A green ball of fur curled up at the bottom.

Cardamom.  Before, he would have bounded out to greet me.  Now, he was refusing to come out. His yellow eyes glinted in the dark of the bag.

“His parents are allergic, and Admiral Ebbridge refused to have a cat in her estate.  Didn’t want to get her chassis wardrobe all diseased.” A note of sarcasm slipped into her soft voice.  “And besides, what would people think?”

I reached into the bag and stroked his head.  “How has he been doing?”

“I tried keeping him in Alabaster Hall this week, but everyone’s afraid of getting infected.  They got my dorm chief to officially ban him. I’ve got twenty-four hours to get him out of the building for good.”

The puzzle pieces fell into place for me.  “You want me to take him.”

Tasia nodded.  “You don’t need to.  I know you’re busy too.  But it’s this or a shelter.”  She folded her hands across her lap, staring at her feet.  “I just thought I’d ask.”

I reached into the bag and pulled out Cardamom, setting him down on my legs and petting him.  “It’s okay,” I murmured. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

It would take time and money to manage him, and I was short on both.  I wasn’t sure I could find a proper space for him between my storage unit and pod, and I had no idea how to take care of a pet.

But still, I couldn’t abandon him.

“I’ll take him,” I said.

“One more thing,” said Tasia.  “What happened that night? After he told me to get out of his room.”

I helped him kill himself.  “I don’t know if he’d want me to say it.”

Tasia bit her lip.  “You leave the hospital.  Six hours later, he’s been poisoned and his corpse is covered in bloody vomit.  Please. Tell me more. If he held you to confidence, leave those parts out, but can you at least give me something?”  Her eyes implored me.

I closed my eyes.  Would Tasia report me for giving poison to Kaplen?  She’d wanted to cure him, but she’d also talked to him.  She knew how much pain he was in.

Tasia would understand.  And she’d been his friend too.  She deserved the truth.

“Kaplen begged me to help him take his own life,” I said, still closing my eyes.  “I offered him a lethal dose of a drug I possessed, and he took it.” I left out the part about how he’d blackmailed me.

Tasia slumped back in her chair, her chest rising and falling.  After a long silence, she spoke. “The doctors said it was poison,” she whispered.  “How could you have had poison on you?”

“I went through a difficult time,” I said.  “I hated my body, and wanted to take my own life, so I bought them off the black market.  I resisted the impulse when I became a Grey Coat, but I never threw them away.” It was only half a lie.

“You…”  Tasia trailed off.  Her eyes looked sunken.  All the fight had drained out of her.

“Are you mad at me?”

“No.”  She shook her head.  “You did – you did what you thought was right.  But there had…there had to be another way. I could have researched his condition, or therapy, or something.”

“I told him the same thing,” I said.  “He didn’t think a Projection-based cure was possible.  And he said he’d already tried everything else.”

“It’s just – “ Tasia took a deep breath.  “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a case like this.  I knew I’d see more. I just didn’t think it would be so soon.  And with more people that I – “ She stopped herself, and wiped tears from her eyes.

I put a tentative hand on her shoulder.  Is this how people comfort their friends?  “Sorry,” I said.  “I know Kaplen was the one holding us together,” I spoke his name for the first time in our conversation.  “And I’ve seen your exam scores. You don’t need any help with schoolwork.”

“What are you saying?”

“I understand if you don’t want to spend time with me anymore.”  I stared at my salad. “I don’t want to waste your time, and I won’t hold anything against you if you want to go your own way.”

Tasia shook her head.  “No, no.” She leaned forward and hugged me, then let go, uncomfortable.  “I mean, if you want to do other things or hang out with other people or if you think I’m weird that’s fine, but I’d still like to study together.  Or at least do things together, if you don’t want to study. As friends. More than we were before. Like see a movie at the multiplex or play Jao Lu or talk about our favorite comic books.  If you read comic books. I would like that.”

I cracked a hint of a smile.  “I’d like that too.”

Tasia smiled back at me.  “Chem studying? East Pavilion?  Same time day after tomorrow?”

I nodded.  “This polymers unit is going to kill me.  Please help.“

Her eyes lit up.  “It’s not as confusing as it seems.  Some beautiful, elegant patterns emerge, once you start delving under the surface.  Then it all falls into order.“

A part of me believed that she actually liked me as a person.  That she saw a kindred spirit, or respected some qualities of my personality, or trusted me on some level.  But there was another explanation for why she wanted to be my friend. A much simpler one, that made more sense given the context.

She didn’t have anyone else.

________________________________________

I pulled the trigger, opening fire on the target downrange.  The machine pistol jerked back in my hands, and I clenched my teeth.  I shot at it five more times, emptying the clip. Even with earmuffs, it made my ears hurt.

“Fuck me,” I muttered.  Despite being less than ten feet in front of me, the paper cutout of the man had exactly zero holes in it.  “How am I so shit at this?”

“Your stance is wrong,” said the instructor.  “Unlock your arms and relax your shoulders. Stay balanced.  And your grip is way too loose. That’s a common mistake with beginners.”

I reloaded the gun, fumbling with the bullets, then relaxed my upper body, squeezing the grip as tight as I could.  “Better?”

The instructor pulled my earmuffs back up, and nodded.

I imagined the paper target was the Broadcast King, and pulled the trigger two more times.  Two more misses. “Squidfucker.”  I set the gun down on the table beside me.

“You’re flinching before you shoot.  It’s throwing off your aim.”

“Are all your students this bad at first, or is it just me?”

The instructor shrugged.  “It’s not like the movies.  Shooting takes practice, and even then it’s hard to be accurate at range.”

“Without you, I’d be hopeless.”  Fortunately, it turned out a premium membership and Isaac Brin’s silver business card was enough to get you luxury treatment at a firing range like this, including free instruction and comped ammo.  Alignment Shooting Sports was too large and bureaucratic to notice my illusions on their desk clerk, and didn’t have any system that required registration numbers.

Plus, they were large and had five other locations around town, so I didn’t feel too guilty about tricking them.

I squeezed the trigger four more times, doing my best to follow his instructions.  Relax.  If I was going to take on the monster who’d freed Honeypot, I needed to be better in combat.

When I lowered my gun, the target had a single hole in its right arm.

“It’s a start,” said the instructor.  He looked me over. “Say, you don’t have any health issues with your upper body, do you?”

Are my body’s defects throwing off my aim?  If so, my aim was likely to get worse, not better, as time went on.  The tips of my fingers were more numb than they’d been weeks ago, and they seemed less dextrous and more grey than they’d been the night I’d stolen the body.

“I’ll keep coming here to practice,” I said.  “But if a home invader came into my house tonight, and I needed to use it, is there any advice you could give?  Basic beginner tools to offset my bad technique.”

The instructor frowned.  “Get close enough to never miss.  Or invest in a knife.”

A voice echoed from behind me.  “Why is there a giant cat in my bedroom?”

I glanced behind me.  Wes strode down the range towards me, scowling, fidgeting with a pencil.  I nodded to the instructor. “I’m done for the day, I think. Appreciate the help.”  The instructor stepped away, and I folded my arms, turning to Wes. “I adopted him. He had nowhere else to go.”

“You know cats are a sign of poverty, yes?”  Wes stomped up next to me. “If we have one, everyone’s going to think we’re filthy and poor.”

“We are filthy and poor.  You live in a storage unit.”

“Yes, and that’s bad enough,” he said.  “No reason to make it worse for us.”

I pursed my lips.  “You and Cardamom are sharing the space.  As long as he’s not peeing on your mattress, he stays.  If you don’t like that, you can find free lodging somewhere else.”

“Well,” said Wes.  “I hope you’re better at pet care than shooting, because…”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I suck.”

“You’ll improve.  And with your Vocation, you can put the barrel to their forehead if you need to.  That’s what makes you deadly, not your shitty impression of a Shenti Commando.”

He’s being supportive?  That might have been the first positive comment he’d given me.  And after our drunken heart-to-heart ten days ago, he didn’t seem fazed at all.

“Hey,” I said.  “How are you holding up?  I know it hasn’t been easy for you.”

He rolled his eyes.  “Fine, mom. Back’s a little cut up from the glass, but that’s it.  And the broken rib. And my fingers still hurt. And the bruises on my neck.  But that’s it.”

If you say so.  “How’s the prep been going?  You said you had a lead on the Broadcast King.”

Wes scowled.  “His Zeppelin is almost always in the air.  When it’s not, it’s heavily guarded at an airfield with lots of open spaces around it – not many places to hide.  Most of its staff live on it, and those who don’t are accompanied on and off by further security forces, and are often wealthy enough to have their own guard presence.”

“Your point?”

“The zeppelin is off-limits.  Short of a miracle, we’re not getting on there.”

“And the penthouse?”

“Also a damn fortress.  None of my leads have panned out.”

I clenched my teeth.  “What if we ignore his papers?  Ignore the information bounty. Next time he leaves his house, we take out his guards and jump him.  We know he was behind Wethers’ release.” That was enough for him to be guilty.

Wes held up his hands.  “Brin hasn’t sent us anything lately.  If we don’t give him an information bounty, we won’t get paid.  You still like money, right?” He leaned forward. “But I did think of something that could get us in the penthouse.  Something you could do, inside Paragon.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “Oh?”

“Blueprints,” he said.  “They should be in a higher level of the Great Library, which you have access to now.  It could give us security flaws, room layouts, everything we’d need to break in without getting caught.”

“I don’t have access. I’m a Grey Coat, I have a level zero library card.  And Paragon guards its books more than its students. I would not be able to pull that off in a lifetime.”

“It doesn’t have to be you,“ he said.  “You know anyone who could rent the blueprints out for you?”

Tasia’s face popped into my head.  “Maybe.”

________________________________________

Tasia sat at a table alone, poring over a tome and scribbling down notes.

The glowing pillar in the center of the Great Library flooded the room with sunlight, so you could almost forget it was eleven at night.  But her face gave off clues. Bloodshot eyes with dark circles under them. Messy black hair. The girl was even more sleep-deprived than before.

Tasia gulped down the rest of her tea, and clenched her fist.  An orb of crackling blue and purple lightning appeared around it, then dissipated.  Experimenting with her Vocation.

She glanced in my direction.  “Scholars, I’m late for our study session, aren’t I?  I’m so sorry, I got distracted.”

I approached her.  “You’re acing every class, and you never have to ask a single question in our meetings.  What’re you studying?”

She paused for a moment, thinking it over.  Whatever it was, she’d been researching it since she came to Paragon, and using her highest-level library card to get access to information.

As far as I could tell, she’d spent more time on this project than anything else, but she hadn’t said a word about it to me.

“I can tell you the basics,” she said.  “But the details involve books from Levels Two and Three, so I can’t go over those.  And you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

I nodded.

She flipped the book to a diagram: a three-dimensional web of dots, most of them connected by dozens of lines.  “Know what that is?”

“It’s a Pith, right?” I said.  “Or, part of one. It’s a network of maybe a dozen Soul Particles, but even the Pith in an ant’s brain has hundreds of thousands of them.”

“Almost.”  Tasia lifted a finger.  “This is from a dead person.  The Great Scholar Belatsunat kept switching to younger bodies as her Pith aged, to ensure she wouldn’t die of physical ailments.  Before her mind withered, she insisted that her apprentices study her Pith as she died, to learn more about the secrets of Null Particles.  She even ordered some of them to use Whisper vocations as she passed, to test what kind of reactions a sapient mind would have as it lost consciousness.”

“What did they find?”

“Null Particles are dead Soul Particles, yes?  Over time, they build up in your Pith as it ages and replaces particles, and cause dementia, general loss of functionality, and eventually death.”

“But some people get more or less of them.”

Tasia smiled.  “Yes. When the Neke go through the Liminal, the reincarnation slows down the buildup of Null Particles.  It’s how they can live so long. However, the general principle is, the more a mind is altered, the faster Null Particles build up.  If you install lots of Praxis vocations and have other people modifying your Pith all the time, you’ll build them up faster and die much younger.  So – ” She stopped herself.


“So, what?  What does some Great Scholar’s pneumatology book have to do with that?“

Tasia stared at her feet.  “The science is interesting and all, but now that I’m saying it out loud, it sounds stupid.  You’ll think I’m stupid.”

I laughed at that, and Tasia shrunk back further.  “No, no. I mean, your grades are better than anyone I know.  Even Lorne. Whatever you’ve been working on, I’m sure it’s incredible.”

Tasia smiled at me.  “Despite how many advancements we’ve made in the past few centuries, we still know so little about Null Particles and how they work.  But there are myths of Great Scholars learning how to manipulate them, control them.”

“And?”

She took a deep breath.  “I’m searching for the key to immortality.”

I sat down on a chair and rubbed my eyes.  “I’m sorry, what? But didn’t you tell me earlier that everyone’s tried it?  And that nobody was close?”

“The soul is mortal, but it doesn’t have to be.”  Taisa’s eyes lit up.  Eagerness slipped into her voice.  “Projectors are creating new paradigms all the time – thirty years ago, we didn’t have fabricated bodies, and now they’re everywhere.”

“Sure, just, I mean – “ Don’t belittle her.  “Wait a minute.  Didn’t you tell me that Epistocrats have been trying that for millennia?  The Great Scholars too? And that nobody was close?”

“They haven’t been working the problem with modern knowledge.  And they didn’t have my Vocation – I’ve already been able to use it to modify Piths and Null Particles.”  She exhaled. “And I have to.”

“Why, though?”  I said. “Aren’t there a million and one philosophers and religions explaining why you shouldn’t live forever?”

“Do you know what the Eternalists were?”

I shook my head.

“A long story,” she said.  “I’ll tell you some other time.  But here’s the bottom line:” she said.    “There’s no afterlife. When you die, your consciousness is extinguished forever.  Not an endless black void, not judgement by gods. You simply cease to exist. Pith aging is the one disease that we haven’t found a cure for – everything else can be fixed with modern medicine, or a new body.

But there are so many people without modern medicine or new bodies.  I didn’t say that out loud.

“If we solve that,” said Tasia.  “Then we could live for as long as we liked.  We could modify and improve our Piths without shortening our lifespans, and ascend to new levels of cognition and emotion.  We can become Exemplars and forge the stars in our image.”

“But why you?  Why do you have to?”

She looked away from me.  “It’s just something I care about.”

There’s a reason she’s not saying.  But it would be rude to press her, so I switched topics.  “I came here because I wanted to ask something of you.”

“Sure, what do you need?”

“I have a friend who’s in trouble,” I half-lied.  “And I need to help him.”

An orb coalesced around her fist.  “You need backup?”

I shook my head.  “It’s a sensitive topic, and I can’t discuss the details.”  This is going to be a tough sell.  “We need information.”

Realization dawned in Tasia’s eyes.  “Ernest, I can give you my time and effort – as much as you need, but please don’t ask me for that.”

“The relevant books are in Level Two of the library.  No Vocation Codices. No projection, nothing dangerous.  Just some stuff that’s a little beyond my clearance.”

I would ask Tasia for a large collection of books, with the actual blueprints I needed buried in the request.  That way, she wouldn’t know I was going after the Broadcast King.

Tasia bit her lip, looking even more exhausted than before.  “I can’t. I returned his books for you, but I can’t do more than that.  My position is too fragile.”

“Are you talking about your family?”  Lorne had told me Tasia had obtained her position by ousting another Epistocrat, but I didn’t want to pry.  “It doesn’t have to be risky – you can memory burst pages, then reconstruct them outside without having to steal physical copies.”

Tasia’s face reddened.  “It’s not just about the risk to me.  It’s about principle.  I trust that you won’t abuse whatever I’d take out for you, but what if someone steals them from you?  What if Commonplace terrorists tail you when you get off the cable car? What if someone reads and copies them without your knowledge?”  She crossed her arms. “You’re wonderful, Ernest, but you can’t guarantee the safety of whatever I give you.”

I held up a hand.  “I understand. But I’ll only be using them for a moment.  And if someone else gets access to these, is it really the end of the world?”

Tasia’s face darkened.  “How much do you know about the Pyre Witch?”

I shrugged.  “The basics. I never read any books on her, but I know the general outline.”

Tasia pulled up a chair and sat down across from me.  “Admiral Ebbridge explained the whole story to me. Including the stuff kept from the general public.”  Her voice went quiet. “She was a Guardian, once. She had red flags in her psych evals, but her raw talent and intellect convinced them to let her in.”

“What kind of red flags?”

“During the entrance exam, she aced the official psych eval.  But on the unofficial one, the one they don’t tell applicants about?  Sadism, anger management, violence. Lack of empathy. In reality, she was probably even worse than her scores suggested, because she may have been gaming the test.  But the Paragon professors thought they could temper her.”

“But they didn’t.”

“It looked like it was working.  Over time, she pretended to improve, followed rules and said the right things to gain further access, all while getting perfect grades in her classes.  Until they gave her a level five library card, and she gained access to powerful vocations. Ancient vocations, the stuff they’ve kept under lock and key since the fall of the Great Scholars.”

“Then she went crazy.”

“During the Shenti War, the treaty of silence was still in effect.  The world of projection was still hidden from the Humdrums, and Guardians fought Shenti projectors in secrecy.  But that wasn’t enough for her. Once she awakened her bloodlust, and once she had the vocations she wanted – “

“I know.”

“She killed the enemy’s Humdrum soldiers.  Set whole mountains ablaze to butcher their troops.  Then, when that wasn’t enough, she turned to their civilians.  She broke the treaty of silence, exposed our world to the Humdrums.  To retaliate, the Shenti sent joiner commandos against our fleet, and butchered a whole carrier group.”

“The Edwina Massacre.”  The event Clementine claimed she’d fought in.  “What’s your point here, exactly?”

 “Paragon sent a squad under Professor Keswick to take her in.  Keswick was one of the strongest and kindest Guardians in the school.  Scholar-ranked. And she burnt him alive. Only Headmaster Tau was strong enough to strike her down.  Since then, Paragon doesn’t let in anyone with problems from their psych eval, and only a tiny handful of people have access to levels four through six of the library.  Information has to be protected, at all costs.”

“But I don’t need vocation codices.”

“I know,” she said.  “But still. We have to trust in the rules to keep us safe.”

And how did that work out for Kaplen?  At this rate, I was never going to avenge him.  I sighed. “Thanks anyway.” I stood up and stepped back from the table.  “Happy studying.”

How the fuck do I explain this to Wes?

________________________________________

I strode down the concrete hallway of King’s Palace Sleepbox and Depot.

Wes wasn’t in his storage unit, so the boy was probably getting drunk at a bar somewhere.  I could postpone telling him about my failure until tomorrow morning. Then we could formulate some other plan, or choose to target Afzal Kahlin while he was outside.

Either way, we weren’t going to let that bastard get away.  In the meantime, I had to deposit the money I’d earned from the Honeypot job at the bank account Brin had set up for me.  And find out what cats ate.

I stepped into my room, sliding off my jacket and rubbing my eyes.

Wes sat at the foot of my sleeping pod, a briefcase in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.  His light brown hair had become a tangled mess, and his suit was wrinkled.

“Ana,” he slurred.  “I found a way into his penthouse.”

“What?  Are you alright?”

“It’s going to be dangerous.”  He stood up, leaning against the wall.  “And there’s a tiny chance we might fall thousands of feet to our deaths, but – “ He walked to the door.  “You know, it’s best if I show you.”

Thirty minutes later, we stepped off a tram headed up the western slope of midtown.  Wes led me through empty streets, past rows of petite houses. This was one of the few places in Elmidde that resembled a suburb.

Just the walk was enough to get me exhausted, short of breath.  Were my lungs still damaged from almost drowning? Or was I just tired after everything else?  I wanted to crawl back into my capsule and sleep for a year, not follow Wes on a drunk adventure.  This had better be good.

Wes turned past a streetlamp and into a side alley between two squat apartment buildings.  He clambered over a wooden gate and opened it from the inside for me, then led me across a lawn.

“Are we breaking into someone’s house?” I whispered.  Fuck me, I should have brought my gun.

“Calm down, Miss Neurotic,” he said at full volume.  He opened a door, leading me up a small staircase, then down a hallway.

At the second door on the left, Wes pulled out a key and unlocked it, opening it to reveal a one-bedroom flat.  It was filled with clutter: beer cans on the floor, piles of dirty dishes in the sink, and clothes for both men and women strewn across the coffee table.

A steaming cup of tea sat on the kitchen counter.  In the corner of the room, a record spun on a phonograph, playing a catchy swing tune from an I-Pop band.  Steel Violet, probably.

“Someone was just here,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Wes.  “About that.” He pulled back the covers on the twin bed.

Two men lay on the bed with their arms and legs tied, gags in their mouths, and blindfolds over their eyes.  As soon as the cover moved, they began to twist back and forth, trying to wriggle out of their bonds.

“You can talk,” he said.  “They have earplugs in.”

I stepped back.  “Um, Wes,” I said.  “Why the fuck did you kidnap these people?  Who are they?”

“Us,” he said.  “In forty-eight hours.”

I blinked for a moment, as I took this in.  “Let’s pretend I go along with that.” And that it isn’t horrifying.

“You want to go after Kahlin, right?  The guy who broke out Wethers? This is how you do that.”

“But, um, who the fuck are they?  And how’d you kidnap them? And whose apartment is this?”

The door swung open behind us, and I spun around, reaching my Pith forward.  Wes held up a hand. “It’s alright, she’s with us.”

An Ilaquan girl stood in the doorway, decked out in a bright orange blouse and skirt, a belt of ammo slung around her neck.

Her bright red lips broke into a grin, and she hefted a trench shotgun off her shoulder.  She took a puff from a small purple hookah in her backpack, blowing out thick smoke that smelled like sour cherries.

“Anabelle Gage,” she said.  “I’m Copycat. Let’s get started.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



4-F – The Broadcast King

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



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.”

“Yes.”

“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 behind them.  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.”

“Fuck you.”

“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.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




4-E The Mortal Soul

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

I opened my eyes to a starless sky.

An endless black expanse stretched across my vision, visible through the broken ceiling of the tower.  Back when this building was whole, when the Great Scholars had walked its halls, the heavens had been a glimmering canvas, a realm of endless possibility.

But it was all dark now.  Drowned and faded away like their entire civilization.

All dark.

I coughed up a mouthful of water, gasping for air.  My throat and chest burned, and I spat it out.

A wave of nausea rushed over me, and I vomited up seawater onto the metal floor beside me.  A chill breeze passed over my wet clothes, and I shivered.

“You need to change soon,” a familiar voice said, “Or you’ll get hypothermia.”

I turned to look at it, and saw Isaac Brin, dressed in his Guardian’s cloak and armor, standing over me.  Wes sat behind him, leaning against a pedestal. His eyes stared blankly ahead. My suit jacket and weapons had been taken off, and were scattered around me, and my wig had fallen off in the water.

My lungs sucked in deep breaths.  Each one ached more than the last.  I crawled up to a sitting position, leaning against the rusty metal wall behind me.  “I’m alive.” I croaked, my voice hoarse. “How?”

Brin indicated his head to Wes.  “Mr. Brown used his physical projection to help pull you out of the water.  Consider yourself fortunate. If he hadn’t leapt in so fast, you would have been too far gone.  Past a certain point, the average success rate of CPR is less than ten percent.”

Wes saved my life.  My chest rose, sending more stabs of pain through my lungs.

“You seem to be breathing fine, but your body is at high risk of pneumonia, wet lung, and possible brain damage from your asphyxia.  It could happen in a week, or a year, and given your fragile state, any of those could be fatal.”

I pulled my knees to my chest, rubbing my shivering arms.  In a year, I’ll be dead anyway.  And it wasn’t like I had the insurance to treat any of those.

“You got my signal,” I said.

Major Brin nodded.  “It took me two minutes to discern your location, and three minutes to arrive here.  The police and coast guard showed up half an hour after.”

I glanced through the hole in the wall behind me.  Three white patrol boats flanked the Golden Moon on all sides.

Cops and soldiers swarmed over the yacht, herding dead-faced party guests into rows.  Spotlights from the coast guard boats cast glaring white beams on the main deck. Tables were overturned.  Smashed wine bottles, flipped platters, and piles of food littered the floor.

The men and women shuffled forward in unison, demure and compliant.  They’re used to following orders.  Most of them were still wearing their party masks.

Major Brin pushed my head back behind the wall.  “Stay out of sight,” he said. “Don’t let the people on the ships see you.  I kept the two of you here so you could avoid the cops questioning you. We’re not allowed to memory-wipe all the Humdrums now, so cover-ups are a bit trickier.”

I wiped a strand of wet, grey hair out of my face.  Even though I’d just woken up, it felt like I’d pulled five all-nighters in a row.  “How long was I out?”

“Few hours,” he said.  “The police took in the guards here for questioning and analysis, but they still haven’t cleaned up everything.”

I looked down.  A corpse sat several yards to the side of me.  Its head and neck were a red pulp, a misshapen pile of flesh, brain, and bone.  Blood pooled around it, most of it dripping through a hole in the metal floor.

Its features were unidentifiable, but it wore a bright green gown, and the edge of a wrinkled blue party mask stuck out of the crimson mush that had been its face.

Lyna Wethers.

Then: I did this.

“Mr. Brown told me her guards turned on her,” said Brin.  “Went from shocking him to bashing her head in a heartbeat.  She was likely unconscious in the first few seconds. No time to project or swap bodies.”  His voice turned softer for a moment. “Was this your first?”

I nodded.

I thought I’d feel disgusted at such a bloody, mangled sight, or horror at having taken a person’s life.

But I just felt vindicated.  And relieved that she wouldn’t be able to hurt any more people.

After the night’s events, I felt exhausted, hollow.  But when I looked at Honeypot’s body, I felt relaxed.

Killing her hadn’t been a calculated decision.  It had been an impulsive moment of rage. But if I went back in time, right now, would I act any differently?

I thought of the room at the bottom of the Golden Moon.  Of the pile of thralls, crawling over each other, licking up rotting garbage like pigs.  I thought of Kaplen, blinded, drained of all joy and motivation, slumped against a wall, and of Wes, twitching from a dozen electric shocks.

No, I thought.  I would break her, again and again.

Thinking of Wes reminded me of his presence.  I stared at him. He ignored me, staring into the distance, leaning back and taking shallow breaths.  He looks like – 

A twinge went through my stomach, and I recoiled.  “Major Brin,” I said. “Wes was exposed to Lyna Wethers and her Whisper Vocation for an unknown amount of time.  How can we tell if – “

Brin held up a hand.  “I scanned the Piths of the guests we confirmed as compromised by Honeypot’s Whisper Vocation.  It’s a difficult technique, but I’m chief of counterintelligence. It’s practically a requirement.  It has a hard time detecting a lot of alterations, but Wethers wasn’t subtle. After trial and error scanning people’s pleasure centers, I identified some general patterns for when people lost their full autonomy to her.”

“And?”

“Once I refined the test, over seventy percent of the people on the boat tested positive.”

“And I was negative,” said Wes.  He didn’t look offended at my suspicion.  He just kept staring forward, dripping water into a puddle underneath him.

In spite of Brin’s instructions, I peeked through the hole again, gazing at the Golden Moon.  Soldiers strode up from the stairs below, carrying men and women on stretchers onto the coast guard boats.  All of them were tied down, and many of them were writhing under the ropes.

I couldn’t see Kaplen, but I knew he was one of them.

“How the fuck did this happen,” I growled.  “Wethers was supposed to be in prison for the rest of her life.  She’s not even platinum-ranked. I thought you people were good at dealing with rogue projectors.  Why was she even left alive?”

“Lyna Wethers was a gold-ranked projector, just below the cutoff for execution in the case of criminality.”  Brin frowned, crossing his arms. “But still, projector prisons for gold ranks and under are very high-security, and tailored to each individual’s skills.  For Wethers, guards were drilled to limit their time with her, undergo routine psychological evaluations, and stay outside her range at all times. She was kept dosed on Null Venom to block her from Whisper or Physical projection, with a long overlap in between doses to account for errors.”

“It wasn’t enough,” I said.  I couldn’t keep the anger from slipping into my voice.

“That’s the thing,” said Brin.  “Someone made a mistake with the scheduling of the Null Venom.  On the same day a guard was assigned to her for hours at a time.  And both the alarms and the line to the contingency teams were malfunctioning.  All this in a prison that almost nobody knows the location of.”

“So you have a traitor inside.”

“But I did an investigation afterward.  There was no paper trail, no evidence of Whisper Vocations, no spies.  They were all total coincidences, a random series of clerical errors. Except they all happened at the same time.  I’ve been in counterintelligence for over a decade. I don’t get stumped very often.” He ground his teeth together.  “Someone broke her out. Someone smart.”

“Why?”

“Can’t be certain,” said Brin.  “But I can guess. Tomorrow, this story is going to be in every paper across the Principality.  Along with the fact that Wethers used to be a Guardian.”

I swallowed.  “They did all that, just to make Paragon look bad?”

Brin knelt down and rifled through my possessions.  The snub-nose revolver, the voidsteel push knife. He picked up the pillbox and brushed water off of it.

“Was that why you sent us instead of Guardians?”

Brin nodded.  “Since the Edwina Massacre and the foundation of Parliament, our government’s been strict about transparency.  If we sent in Guardians, they’d know, and then the Humdrum public would know. I was hoping the two of you could have been discreet.  That was clearly a mistake.”

My voice was flat.  “Are we fired?”

Brin flipped open the pillbox.  The white Kraken’s Bone tablets inside were dry, unscathed by the water.  The box was waterproof.  Though it wasn’t like they had done any good.

Brin closed it and tossed it back to me.  It bounced off my chest, and I fumbled for it.  “Keep that. Keep all your weapons.” He reached into his coat, and dropped a thick yellow envelope next to me.  It thudded as it hit the ground. “You’ll need them on your next job.”

I pulled the envelope open.  It was filled with stacks of bills, all tied together in bundles.  A quick count estimated the total as around four thousand pounds. Two thousand when counting for Wes’ share.

It was more money than I’d ever seen in one place.  Forty-one thousand to go.  But the next jobs would pay much more.

“Two thousand is my usual starting number,” said Brin.  “But this was a tough one for a newbie, so I doubled it.”

I projected into the water in my shirt and pants, squeezing it out and pushing it into a hole in the floor.  I pulled my knees closer to my chest, hunching down against the chill wind.

“Does it get easier than this?” I asked Brin, staring at my feet.

“No,” said Brin.  “But you do get used to it.”  His face was impassive.

I don’t want to get used to it.  I didn’t want to become like Brin, callous and indifferent to human suffering.  When I saw cases like this, I wanted to feel the pain, the devastation.

The alternative was apathy, nihilism.  Accepting a broken world and giving up on trying to change it.

A pair of flight harnesses floated from beneath Major Brin’s cloak.  One landed on my lap, the other on Wes’s.

“Put those on,” said Brin.  “I’m taking you back to the city.  Do you want me to drop you at King’s Palace, or somewhere else?”

Wes spoke up, looking at me.  “There’s a twenty-four-hour liquor store across the street from your place, right?”

“Yes.”

“King’s Palace,” said Wes.

“Same for you?” asked Brin.

I glanced back towards the ship, and the stretchers being carried onto it.  Kaplen’s there, somewhere.

“Where are the victims being taken?” I asked.

________________________________________

The hospital waiting room was packed.  Men and women filled every seat, biting nails and shifting back and forth, muttering to family members and arguing with nurses.

In spite of all that, it was quiet when Brin and I walked in.  Everyone whispered or stayed silent, absorbed in their thoughts.

A man talked in urgent undertones to a woman behind the front desk.  I caught the words “wife” and “son”. A doctor led a woman through the set of double doors on the far end of the room, leading into the central area of the hospital.  As soon as they shut, muffled shouting echoed from inside.

How many wives are here?  How many husbands?  How many marriages and romances did Lyna Wethers ruin tonight?  How many people would come home to their spouses, and find themselves incapable of loving them?

How many of them would be pining after a dead monster for the rest of their lives?

I shifted my button-down shirt, uncomfortable, and adjusted my dark blue pajama pants.  The dry clothes Brin had given me were several sizes too small, and felt scratchy on my skin.  But they didn’t smell like dried saltwater, and they weren’t damp.

“Here’s how it’s going to go,” said Brin under his breath.  “You, Ernest Chapman, were woken from your bed by a Paragon representative, because you are a friend of Kaplen Ingolf’s, and came here without changing.  You know nothing about Lyna Wethers, the Golden Moon, or the masquerade ball.  Speak as little as possible: you being here is a privilege.  Understand?”

I nodded.

We sat in silence for half an hour, watching doctors and nurses and concerned loved ones file in and out of the door.

I held onto the question I’d been dreading, stewing over it and rephrasing it in my mind as I folded and unfolded my legs, staring at the clock and biting my lip.

Finally, it spilled out of me.  “Can you cure them?” I asked Brin, under my breath.  “You scanned their minds. You know what the Vocation looks like, now.  That’s almost as good as having a codex.”

The major shook his head.  “Those areas have been destroyed and written over.  It would be like trying to rebuild a burnt house by gluing together its ashes.  Without a blueprint. The truth is, most new Whisper Vocations can’t be defended against, and usually can’t be undone either, when they have lasting effects.”

I leaned forward.  “But what about Headmaster Tau?  He’s the greatest projector alive.  He made the Spirit Block. He’s bent the laws of reality.”

Brin sighed, massaging his temples.  “Do you know how many mental hijacking cases happen in the Principality every year?”

“Too many.”

“And what would happen if the headmaster tried to fix all of them?  If he spent all his time dashing from case to case, neglecting his most important duties?”

“What’s more important than this?”

“There’s no telling he’d be able to solve this anyways.  Creating whisper defenses and cures is cruel, tiring work that usually involves trial and error and access to the Vocation itself in action.”  Brin gazed towards the double doors that led into the hospital. “If they’re lucky, they’ll just lose a marriage or a girlfriend.”

In a far corner, a girl my age began to sob, one of the only noises in the room.  She wiped her nose on the long sleeve of her sweater, and gripped the armrest of her chair.  Nobody acknowledged her. None of the people next to her said anything, or so much as looked in her direction.

“And Kaplen?”

Brin fell silent.  After a long pause, he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, looking towards the main entrance of the room.

“Have you been through something like this before?” I asked.

Brin said nothing, but got a strange look in his eyes.  I wasn’t sure if he was exhausted or terrified. That means yes.

Two men and a woman strode into the room, wearing black suits.  A tall, muscular man with a thick brown beard, a blonde woman with dimples, and a lithe Shenti man with electric blue hair.

Several people in the room glanced at them, muttering.  I recognized them right away. Sebastian Oakes.  Penny Oakes. Charles Hou.  The Obsidian Foil, and the official Scholars of Synthetic Gas and Biology, respectively.

Three professors at Paragon, and all celebrities in their own right.

Professor Oakes floated a cloth-covered picnic basket beside him.  Next to him, it looked tiny. He strode in front of us, inclining his head towards Major Brin.

“Professor?” I said.  “What are you doing here?”

Professor Oakes clasped my shoulder with his hand.  “One of my students is hurt, Mr. Chapman!” He spoke at full volume, his voice filling the room.  “I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t come to see him.”

Penny Oakes hugged him, giving us a warm smile.  “My husband always knows how to care for people.”

Professor Oakes clenched his teeth, speaking under his breath.  “If I’d been there on that ship…” His voice was taut.

“You can’t be everywhere at once, love.”  Penny squeezed his hand, and his shoulders relaxed.  After this whole nightmare, it was nice to see people as kind and sincere as these two.

Tasia stepped into the waiting room.  Her long black hair was tousled, and she was wearing pajamas in lieu of real pants.  She massaged her puffy, bloodshot eyes. She’s been crying.

We made eye contact, and I stood up without thinking.  She rushed towards me and hugged me. I wrapped my arms around her, taking in deep breaths.

We held the embrace for several seconds.  There were no words exchanged between us. Just the silent understanding of each other.

We’d never been close.  Neither of us had ever opened up to each other.  But both of us cared about Kaplen. Tonight, that was enough to bring us together.

A pair of bright green cat ears poked out of the top of Tasia’s backpack.  The girl let go of me and reached behind her, pushing it down and zipping the top up most of the way.

“You brought Cardamom?” I whispered to her.

“I smuggled him out of Kaplen’s room,” she murmured.  “Don’t tell the professors.”

I glanced at Brin, Oakes, and Hou.  None of them were looking at us. “Where’s the rest of his squad?” muttered Brin.

“Lorne Daventry and the rest of Golem Squad were woken up and informed,” said Oakes.  “But they declined the offer to come.”

Of course they did.  Selfish pricks.  And if they hadn’t bullied Kaplen so much…

Brin shook Oakes’ hand.  “I have to manage the rest of the ship’s mop-up.  We’ve got hundreds of victims, who might be perps too.”

“Make us proud,” said Oakes.

Brin strode out of the room, giving me a significant look as he passed me.  A reminder to keep my mouth shut about the illegal operation I’d just conducted for him.

Professor Oakes walked up to the front desk and had a quiet, animated conversation with the woman there.  Two minutes later, a nurse opened the door for us, beckoning us into the hospital.

The corridors were painted bone-white.  The smell of antiseptic hung in the air, mixed with the fainter odor of blood and pus.

It brought back memories of the days before I’d had this body, of months stuck in a bed with scratchy sheets, covered in bedsores.  Unable to think through the constant, exploding headaches. I was alone for hours at a time, while my parents went to work and the nurses attended on other patients.  I’d stared at the bright green wall for hours, drowning in pain and wondering what I’d done to deserve this.

Well, Kaplen won’t be alone.  He would have that much, at least.

After ascending two staircases and going down a hallway, the nurse stopped us in front of a door, holding up a hand.

A conversation echoed from behind the door, just loud enough to be heard.  An older woman’s voice, crackling from a speakerphone.

The woman sounded urgent.  “- doesn’t have to be over.  So many people go blind later in life and master all the relevant skills.”

There was a brief silence.  Kaplen said nothing.

The woman’s voice grew softer.  “If you think we’re mad about the scholarship, it doesn’t matter.  We care about you. Your father and I are – we are so incredibly sorry for the pressure we’ve put you through.”  Her voice grew strained. “Whatever path you take, we’re sure you’ll make the right choice.”

Still nothing from Kaplen.

“Here’s something your father suggested.  We’ll quit the factory and the port. We’ll get on a ferry to Elmidde and find jobs here.  You can stay with us instead of those Paragon dorms. We’ll be here for you, and we can help take care of you.   Anything you need.” Her voice perked up. “And you can take us to one of those famous city bakeries you keep gushing about.  Would you like that?”

Kaplen’s voice was a flat monotone.  “I don’t care.”

“But – please, don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine. We’ll adjust.  Do you think you’ll be alright without someone to help you?”

“I don’t care.”

“Do you want to talk a little more, then?”  Desperation crept into his mother’s voice. “You could talk about something fun you’ve been doing, or your friends.  Or – or I could tell you about my new Jao Lu group. I – “

“Nurse,” said Kaplen.  “I’m done.”

“Bye, sweetie,” his mother was desperately trying to sound upbeat, and failing.

There was a click.  Then silence.

A nurse opened the door from the inside, beckoning us in.  The three professors stepped in first. Tasia and I went in after.

Kaplen was uninjured.  There wasn’t a single blemish on his body, save for dark circles under his eyes from a lack of sleep, and his red hair being tousled.

Despite that, he was probably worse off than most of the patients in this hospital.

Oakes floated his wicker basket onto the bedside table.  “Hi, Kaplen. It’s Professor Oakes, from Chemistry class.”

“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.

Oakes ignored him.  “I brought you some goodies to cheer up your visit.  The last time I ate hospital food, I wanted to throw up.“  He unwrapped the paper on top of his gift basket. “This thermos has Penny’s pumpkin soup.  She’s chemically perfected the recipe over the last decade.” He pulled out another thermos.  “And this one has some of Paragon’s mulled cider.”

“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.

“Look,” said Oakes.  “I understand if you don’t want to talk to me.  I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But happiness is a choice.  You’re young and strong. This is probably the last thing you want to hear, but you will be alright, in the long term.”

Sebastian Oakes patted Kaplen on the shoulder, and the boy clenched his fist.  Professor Oakes removed a glimmering black business card from his wallet and slid it on the table next to the basket.  “In case you ever want to talk. May you strive to become an Exemplar.”

“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.

Oakes stepped out of the room.  His wife followed him. Maybe they got the message.  

Professor Hou took one last look at Kaplen.  The man was a playboy, a foreign blue-haired diva in a professor’s uniform.  I wasn’t even sure why he came. The man wasn’t exactly known for his emotional intelligence, or his seriousness.

“It’s tough,” he said.  “No promises. Stay warm.”  And then he was out the door.  That’s unexpected.  It was just Tasia and me now.

Tasia raised her hand, and a hardcover cookbook slid out of her backpack, flipping open in front of her.  The cover read: A Moron’s Guide to Baking.

“I memory bursted a few recipes from other books too, so I know them by heart.”  She pointed behind her. “The hospital has a kitchen downstairs, and I convinced the lady in charge there to let us use it.”  She held the cookbook in front of Kaplen’s face. “Brantwick’s stopped selling their raspberry-chocolate chip scones, and think if we modified one of the recipes here, we could – “

She stopped.  Kaplen hadn’t reacted to a single thing she’d said or done.  If he wasn’t breathing and shifting his position, I’d have thought he was dead, or in a coma.

“Look,” said Tasia.  “I’m not here to pressure you with plans for the future or throw advice at you.  I just want to do something fun with you. So does Ernest.”

Cardamom crawled out of Tasia’s bag and leapt onto the floor.  The green cat ran to Kaplen’s bed, jumping up onto the mattress next to him.

He nuzzled Kaplen’s face, rubbing the top of his head over the boy’s cheek.  Kaplen recoiled, pulling away on the pillow.

The cat persisted, padding forward and curling up beside Kaplen’s neck.  He purred, swishing his tail back and forth and sinking into the sheets.

Kaplen pushed Cardamom with a hand, shoving him off the bed.  The cat dropped like a rock, and landed on its paws with a thud.

A second later, he turned around and crouched to jump back onto the bed.  Kaplen threw his water glass at Cardamom, and it shattered on the floor next to him.  Water splashed onto Cardamom’s green fur, and the cat backed away, confused.

“I know you can’t see, but that’s Cardamom.”  Tasia picked the cat up. “Kaplen, that’s Cardamom, he’s just trying to say hello.”

“Get it away,” he said.

“He’s your friend.  Don’t let the hijacking make you forget about that.”

“It was never my friend,” said Kaplen.  “A bacteria in my brain made me think I cared about it.  Now, something else took over my brain and changed that. My friendship with it was just as hollow as the platitudes Professor Oakes just dumped onto me.  People with easy lives always say it gets better, because they’re incapable of true empathy.“  He made eye contact with Tasia. “Where’s Lyna? You know, don’t you, Nell?”

Tasia bristled.  Why did he call her Nell?

“Kaplen,” she said, “I understand your frustration.  And I’ve read the same books as you on Whisper Specialists.  But mental hijacking doesn’t have to be permanent.” She grasped Kaplen’s hand.  “I’ve been studying Whisper Vocations and Null Particles all semester. If I devote myself to the task, I think I’ll be able to reverse some of the damage.”  Her eyes sparkled. Her voice was confident, upbeat. Or trying to sound that way. “We can fix this.”

There was a long pause between them.  None of us said anything.

Only a week ago, I’d imagined us all going to Paragon together.  I’d pictured our trio becoming best friends, fighting side by side, going on adventures and defending the Principality together.

“I want to talk to Ernest alone,” said Kaplen.

Tasia’s face sagged.  The enthusiasm leaked out of her like a deflating balloon.  She clenched her teeth, and rubbed her reddened eyes furiously, wiping away tears.  Her lips moved, and she muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t hear.

Without another word, she turned and stepped out of the room, carrying Cardamom in her arms.

The door clicked shut behind her.  And then we were alone.

Outside the window of the hospital room, this part of Midtown was dark, with only a few street lamps outside and a few lit-up residential areas.  The rest of the hospital had quieted down.

How late is it?  I glanced at the clock on the wall.  2:16 in the morning.  Part of me wanted to drop on a couch somewhere and nap for a week.  Another part of me was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep for a long, long time.

Kaplen broke the silence.  “Where’s Lyna?”

I couldn’t bring myself to lie to him.  He’d find out sooner or later.

“She’s dead.”  I killed her.

A small sigh escaped Kaplen’s lips, and he stared at the wall across from him.  “Ah,” he said.

There was another silence.  I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say.  I’m trying to help you.  Why can’t I help you?

“Of all the people in this building,” said Kaplen.  “You might be the only one who understands just how fucked I am.”

“You’re not in your right mind.  It’s hard to believe, but there are solutions to this stuff.  They’re going to try – “

“Antidepressants?“ he said.  “Behavior therapy? Praxis Vocations?  Psychodynamic counseling? Meditation?”  His voice tightened. “How many of those do you think I’ve tried over the last few years?  Do you think I’d be lying here if they’d worked? And that was when I had normal mental problems.“

I wanted to escape this room.  I wanted to travel back to weeks ago, when Kaplen and me and Tasia were happy together.  Was he, though?

“You helped me once,” I said.  “By teaching me the true meaning of the Empty Book.”  Let me repay the favor.  “I thought I was worthless, just like you did when you were a Grey Coat.  Remember your own advice.”

“You can try to write the next page,” said Kaplen.  “You can use projection and grit and all the inspiration in the Eight Oceans to try and become a better person.  You can strive to become an Exemplar.” He looked me in the eye. “But in this world, others can rip pages out. They can erase the identity you’ve worked for, and write their own words in the blank space.”  He clenched his teeth, the only expression I’d seen from him all night. “Our souls are just toys to the people with real power.”

Yell at him, a part of me said.  Slap some sense into that idiot.  He was wrong, he had to be wrong.

But I said nothing.

“And so,” said Kaplen.  “I have a request for you.  Go to a corner store, buy a straightedge razor, and smuggle it in here.”

I stared at my feet.  Everything felt distant again, just like on the Golden Moon.  Like I was watching some puppeteer move my arms and legs and lips, making my decisions for me.

“Security screens patients, not visitors,” said Kaplen.  “It should be easy.”

My insides felt like I was falling, a dizzying, hollow sensation growing out from my stomach to the rest of my body.

“I can’t do that,” I choked out.

“Let me tell you what my future looks like,” said Kaplen.  “My friends and family are going to make me try the things I once loved.  Baking and parties and learning and spending time with my loved ones. Over and over again, until the last drop of pleasure is squeezed out of them, and I begin to hate them.  The truth is, there was only one solution that could make me happy again.”

Lyna Wethers.  I raised my head, forcing myself to look at Kaplen.

“My reward centers were already broken.  She took what little was left and made them work for her.”  He closed his eyes and smiled. “When I think of her smile, I feel content for a moment.  More than anything I get from my professors or parents or pets or friends.  Or you.” He opened his eyes again, glancing back at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“But Lyna is dead.  And every day I spend in this hospital costs my parents more money.  Every day I spend in school, in treatment digs deeper into funds they don’t have, drowning them in debt.”

“You can get a job,” I said.

“I can’t sum up the motivation to get out of bed, much less maintain a job as a newly blind man.”

Think, idiot, think.  I could beat Paragon students and ex-Guardians with my tactics, I could come up with something here.  There had to be something that could pull Kaplen off the ledge, I just wasn’t seeing it yet.

“I care about you,” I said, letting the desperation seep into my voice.  “Tasia cares about you. So many people love you, so much. If you die. It will break everyone.”  It’ll break me.

“I’ve thought about this,” said Kaplen.  “This way, I’ll go out as a simple tragedy, a poor victim of mental hijacking.  The pain that my loved ones will feel will be brief and simple. You’ll all get over it within a few years, I’m guessing.  Maybe less for you. You only knew me for what, a month?” His voice grew quieter. “But if I drag it out, it will be a thousand times worse.  I will die resented and loathed, as the boy they couldn’t cure. As the disgusting, worthless monster who couldn’t love anymore. Who dragged everyone down with him.”

As his voice grew softer, I leaned closer to listen to him.

“Simple calculation,” he said.  “One cheap life against the happiness of many others.  Please, Ernest.”

“No,” I forced out.  “Your soul has to be worth more than that.”

I felt someone trying to Nudge me, and I edited my mind away from it, resisting the assault.  Is he – 

“Taught you too well, didn’t I?”  Kaplen sighed. “I know you’re lying to Paragon.”

Something jerked in my stomach.  I forced down the panic, compelling my body to stay calm.  “What?”

“That voice.  That desperation.  I knew it was you the moment you spoke to me on the Golden Moon.  You made it sound like a girl’s, but you’re not as subtle as you think you are.”

I shook my head.  “Kaplen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I got a full report from the nurses of all the other Academy students and assistants at that party.  Your name never came up. ‘Ernest Chapman’ never went to the masked ball.” He looked over my body. “And you show up to class with injuries all the time.  Bruises. Scrapes. Minor cuts. You try to cover them up, but I see.”

My machine pistol shifted in its concealed holster, and I grabbed it, pushing it back down.

“And,” he said.  “There’s a gun in your pocket.  With the serial number filed off.”  His face hardened. “I don’t know who you are, what your real name is, or what you intend with Paragon.  But I imagine it’s something quite illegal. Go ahead, Ernest.  Prove me wrong.”

“I live in Lowtown,” I said.  “I need to defend myself. That’s why I have the gun.  The civilian application process is too bureaucratic, so I got this one off the black market.”  It was a terrible lie, but it was the best I could come up with on the spot. “Kaplen, you’re not thinking straight.”

Kaplen shook his head.  “When I tell the people in Paragon, they’re going to investigate you.  Whatever you’re doing, they’re going to know everything. Your plans will be over.  Your life will be over.  Help me, and I won’t say a word.  Please.”

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to him.

“You don’t have the Whisper Vocations to control me,” he said.  “You have no leverage. Your only way to save your life is to give me what I want.  To help me.”

I ground my teeth, staring out the window, away from him.  “I – can’t,” I forced out. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re disgusting, you know that?” said Kaplen.  “You made me feel sick the moment I saw you. Every kid who knows you in Paragon is laughing at you.“  His voice got louder. “I should never have gotten within a hundred feet of you. I helped you because you made me feel better about myself.”  He was almost shouting now.  “Because of all the losers and freaks I knew, you were the only one worse than me.  And I would gut you a thousand times over just to spend another minute with her.”

He grabbed my hand.  His eyes weren’t mocking, or angry, or cruel.  They were pleading.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the metal pillbox.  It felt like I was deep underwater, and all my motions were slowed down.  Like I had to push past a thick, unseen pressure with every movement.

I flipped open the box, and shook seven white tablets into the gift basket on the table.

“What are those?”

“Ventrinol.  Kraken’s Bone.  Take all of them at once.  It won’t be painless, but it will be quick.  Especially on an empty stomach. The pills cause damage to your nervous system in such a way that makes it impossible for them to transfer your Pith out, so they won’t be able to force you into another body.”

The poison had been meant to knock out Lyna Wethers.  And now I was using it to kill one of her victims.

Kaplen sighed, relaxing back onto his bed.  It was the most relieved he’d looked all night.  Not happy, but relieved, like he’d just finished a long run and finally got to rest.

“I’ll take them in a few hours,” he said.  “Nobody will know where they came from.”

Brin will know, I thought.  But Brin, of all people, might understand the choice I’d made.

“You can leave now,” said Kaplen.

I’m sorry, I thought.  I wish I could have taken your place.

I closed my eyes, and pretended I was somewhere else.  I imagined flying out of the hospital room, away from the stench of rubbing alcohol and stale body odor, back into the past when none of the horrors of tonight had happened.  I pictured my voice carrying back to the night on that grassy ledge behind Alabaster Hall, where Kaplen and Tasia and I stood together, learning the true meaning of the empty book, staring over the glimmering lights of Elmidde below.

The world had seemed so full of possibility.

I imagined talking to the person who Kaplen was.  The Pith, the identity that he had before Lyna Wethers cut it into pieces.  The boy who believed in the Empty Book.

“My name is Anabelle Gage.  My real name.” I squeezed his hand.  “Thank you.”

Kaplen’s face was blank, not reacting to anything I said.


I walked to the door, and flipped off the lights.

________________________________________

When I arrived back at the storage unit, Wes was already drunk.

The boy was flopped back on his mattress, surrounded by the crumpled newspapers he was using as bed sheets, and the indigo blanket he put underneath.  In one hand, he held a large bottle in a brown paper bag. In the other, a glass. The room was filled with the stench of black licorice and sweat.

Wes laughed as I pulled open the door, lifting up a second glass.  “I bought one for you too!” he slurred, pouring cloudy white Arak into it.  “On me!”

I don’t drink.  Even when things had gotten rough with Clementine, when I’d been stressed out of my mind, unable to go to sleep, I hadn’t given in to the temptation to dull my own thoughts.  On any other night, I would have refused him.

I sat down across from him and grabbed the glass.  “Fuck it.” I tilted it back, gulping down a mouthful.

A tangy, sweet taste filled my mouth.  My throat burned, and I coughed, spitting out half of it.  “Scholars, that’s strong.”

Wes cackled, rocking back and forth.  “Slowly, slowly. That’s a hundred proof.  Not watered down.”

I took a smaller sip.  This time, the burning heat was softer, easier to manage.

“How was your trip?” asked Wes.  “Did you know one of the victims?”

I thought about lying about Paragon, of hiding my connection to Kaplen.  The fewer people knew about my double life, the better. But I didn’t find myself caring anymore.

“Kaplen Ingolf,” I said.  “I’m an assistant at Paragon.  A grey coat.” I explained my situation to Wes.  My first night with Brin, Lorne Daventry, becoming friends with Kaplen.  Everything.

As I explained, I drank, and as the conversation went on, I felt a warm, thick cloud expanding through the inside of my skull.

“He was kind and smart,” I said.  “He loved baking, and cats, and learning new things.   He helped people when he didn’t have to, without expecting anything in return.”  I took a larger sip of Arak.  “And then, he was someone else.”

Wes raised his glass.  “To Kaplen.”

“To Kaplen.”  We drank. I coughed and hacked, doubling over.  My lungs were still screwed up from almost drowning less than five hours ago, and my ears still ached from when Wes had stabbed them with toothpicks.

“Before Brin showed up on that tower,” mumbled Wes.  “I thought you were fucked for sure. Can I ask you a question?”

I shrugged.

“You get to be a Paragon assistant.  Why are you working for the Major and risking your life?  Are you really that desperate for the money?”

“My body’s going to keep decaying, piece by piece.”  I held up my arm, covered in crisscrossing grey veins.  “I’ve got maybe a year before one of my major organs crumbles to dust, and…”  I trailed off.

Wes took a swig.  “Scholars,” he said.  “How’d you end up like that?”

“Two weeks after my eighth birthday, I got a headache and stayed home from school.  My parents thought it was just a seasonal illness. Then it stayed for a week. Then a month.”  I hunched over. “The doctors determined that I had Loic’s Syndrome, a genetic disease that chokes your cerebellum and brainstem.”

“I’m sorry,” Wes said, looking away from me.

“I spent the next fourteen months in and out of the hospital, confined to my bed, unable to think of anything besides the pain, desperately hoping that the symptoms would clear.  They didn’t. And my parents had to give everything they had for this pile of junk.” I gestured to my body. “Then, turns out this thing is broken too. We couldn’t sell it, and we couldn’t afford a proper one to replace it.”

“What  – “ Wes took a gulp,  “ – the fuck kind of bastard sold that to you?”

“A company called Sapphire Industrial,” I said.  “With lower prices than everyone else. I tried hunting them down afterwards, so they couldn’t exploit other families like mine.  But they weren’t in any records. They were a shell company of a shell company, most likely, and there were hundreds just like them across the Eight Oceans, all independent, scamming gullible fucks like me.  I was so stupid.”

“You were nine,” said Wes.

“My parents spent so much on this body.  I think it broke them a little, to see it falling apart, piece by piece.”  I took a sip of Arak.  “But when I discovered I could project, and I asked if I could go to Paragon, they refused.”

Why?” Wes sounded dumbfounded.

“My mother is half Shenti,” I said.  “I don’t think she likes Guardians. But more than that, they didn’t think I could get in.”  My hands tightened around my glass. “They didn’t want my last years to be in pain, struggling to achieve something beyond my abilities.”  I let out a bitter laugh. “Maybe they were right. But I stole their money all the same. Enough for a ferry ticket and a week in Lowtown.”

Why are you telling him all this? a voice in my head reminded me, he’s not your friend.  But I kept talking.

“If I ever make it out of this body,” I said.  “I’m going to pay them back a hundred times over.  Every penny past my food and rent, I’ll be shipping back to my home in the agricultural islands.”

Wes gulped down his drink.  “That’s a good reason to fight.”  His face adopted a contemplative look.  “A person shouldn’t just fight for herself.  She shouldn’t.”

“That’s part of it,” I said.  “But there’s another reason that scares me.  Since that first trip to the hospital, for the better part of my life, I’ve felt hollowed out.  A part of me knew, deep down, that I would never make new friends or become a Guardian or live a full, happy life.  Beneath all the hopes, beneath all the dreams, I was certain that I would wither away, forgotten by everyone who mattered.  I spent so many years in desperation, rotting away in body and soul.” I took a deep breath. “But when I was floundering in that water tonight, I didn’t feel empty.  I felt righteous. I felt angry.   My mind was sharper than it had been in ten years.”

Wes said nothing.

“Do you think that’s frightening?” I said.

Wes refilled his cup.

“I don’t want to become a monster,” I said.  “I don’t want to become a brute who rationalizes her own cruelty.  I don’t want to make up ends to justify my means.” I put down my glass in the corner of the room.  “That’s why I want to ask a favor from you.”

“What favor?”

“There’s a good chance my brain may decay with the rest of my body, and damage the Pith inside as a result.”  I didn’t trust Wes, couldn’t trust him.  But there was no one else.  “If I get to a point where I can’t recognize myself.  If I can’t move, or don’t know where I am, or – 

I thought of Kaplen on the hospital bed, threatening to expose me so I’d help him take his own life.

“ – or if I lose my most fundamental moral values.  If my mind goes past the point of no return.“ I reached inside my jacket, and pulled out the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone.  “I want you to feed these to me. Seven at least.”

Wes was still for a long moment.  The room was dead silent.

Then he nodded.

The room wobbled back and forth, a thick dizzy sensation layering over my thoughts.  I put down a hand to steady myself. “But until then,” I said. “I’m going to find the people who broke Lyna Wethers out of prison and set her loose on the people of Elmidde.”

“About that,” said Wes.  “While she was with me on the roof, she mentioned something.  She told me that she would make me confess to dozens of other crimes she’d committed.  She said that thirty-four newspapers in this country would make sure everyone knew how evil and disgusting I was.”

“And?”

“Do you know who Afzal Kahlin is?”

“Some rich Ilaquan, right?”

Wes nodded.  “He’s a media billionaire from Ilaqua, but he has fingers in pies around the Eight Oceans.  Radio shows, television, magazines, and newspapers. Want to guess how many he owns in the Principality?”

“Thirty-four,” I said.  “How do you know all that?”

“My father was a journalist.  You pick up some stuff.”

“You think he broke Wethers out?”

Wes shrugged.  “Can’t say for sure.  Not unless we get more information.”

I leaned forward.  “Where does he keep his records?”

“In theory, in a corporate library, but those are all public, so we won’t find anything there.”  Wes fidgeted with a piece of newspaper. “And if he’s competent, he won’t be handling anything shady directly.  He’ll be using couriers, encrypted messages, layers of loyal underlings who won’t talk.”

“So we’ve got nothing.”

“But.”  Wes lifted a finger.  “He’s a known recluse these days.  Apparently, he spends the vast majority of his time in his luxury airship, and in his penthouse.  If he’s making secret communications there’s bound to be evidence there.”

I nodded.  “We’ve got our next mission, then.”  A job above my pay grade, as usual, but my pay grade was minimum wage, and I couldn’t live on that salary.

Wes put down the paper, glass, and bottle.  He shuffled towards me and crossed his legs under him.  “Don’t think I ever said thank you. For rescuing me. A few more minutes with her, and…”

“You too,” I blurted out.  “You didn’t have to pull me out of the water.”

“One of the big reasons I’m a mercenary,” said Wes, “is that I’m trying to get back to someone.  A person who I love more than anything. A few more minutes, I could have lost…I could have lost – ”  He gulped. “I need to be stronger, much stronger, to get them back.”

The storage unit fell silent again.  We sat next to each other, neither of us saying a word.

I extended my right arm to Wes as if to shake.  The two of us made eye contact.

“We’ll get your love back,” I said.  “We’ll get my body back. I promise.”  I’ll taste that mulled cider with a friend.  Maybe that friend was Wes.

He clasped my arm, and I mirrored him.  “I’ll fight for you, Anabelle Gage.”

“As long as our minds are free, we can still fight for each other.”

When I said this, Wes let go of my arm.

“What’s the matter,” I asked.  Did I say something wrong?

“Brin was right about his test for Lyna Wethers’ Vocation,” he said.  “I can still make the same choices. I still love the people that I love.  I’m not a brainwashed thrall. You got to me in time.” His voice was faint, tired.   He slumped back on the wall, one of his eyes half-shut. “But she still used her projection on me.  When I rest my mind. When I leave the smallest opening in my thoughts, I picture her face. Her sallow, stretched cheeks and the circles under her eyes.  The strands of loose hair over her thick forehead and her smirk as she chipped away at my mind, piece by piece.”

Wes stared at me with bloodshot eyes, both horrified and resigned.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

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4-D The Mortal Soul

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Ana

Lyna Wethers was on the move.

She strode down the central staircase of the Golden Moon, going in the same direction as Kaplen.  I followed as close as I could, keeping track of her Pith’s position with my projection.

If she gets to Kaplen, she’ll – 

No, I couldn’t think about that.  If I got caught up in my anxieties, I wouldn’t be able to save him.

I descended the spiral staircase, just half a floor above her.  Stay within twenty meters.  In that range, I’d be vulnerable to her Whisper Vocation too, but I had to keep my illusions on her.  Had to stay hidden.

Below, Honeypot had stopped at the bottom of the staircase.  I cast my Pith out around her, and felt the Pith of a guard in front of her.  I added my illusion onto him as well, making myself invisible to both of them.

I continued down, hanging just a few paces behind Wethers’ back.

“Evening, ma’am,” said the guard.  “Going below?”

Honeypot sounded irritated.  “What does it look like?”

The guard bowed, and unlocked the deadbolt on the door, opening it.  “My apologies.”

I stepped close to Wethers, walking less than two feet behind her, and followed her through.   The door grazed my suit jacket as the guard pulled it shut.

Wethers strode down a carpeted hallway.  Further down, twin rows of doors extended on both sides.  The private rooms.  Wes had told me about these during our planning session.  These were our best shot at getting Honeypot alone and knocking her out.

My hand tightened around the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone in my pocket.  I’m sorry, Wes.  It was reckless to go in this early, but if I waited for the perfect moment, Kaplen’s brain would be turned to mush.  Wes couldn’t know that. Though if he did, he’d still stay back.

But there was a strategic value in going in, too: If we waited too long, Honeypot would control the entire ship, and we’d be fucked one way or the other.

Two guards approached us from the other end of the hallway, outside my Vocation’s range.  I edited my illusions on Wethers, making them walk past without saying anything.

They walked past her, and stopped at me.  My stomach clenched, and I switched my Wethers illusions to auditory, blocking out the sound of the guards’ voices.

“Who are you?”  One of the guards said.

I projected into their minds, faking Honeypot’s voice calling out from behind.  “He’s with me.

The guards nodded, and walked past me.  I ran to catch up to Wethers, maintaining my illusion on her.

The swing music from the band echoed from above, muffled by the ceiling.  The red carpet on the floors softened the sound of my footsteps.

Another guard stood at the end of the hallway, in front of a huge, round steel door, like the kind you’d see on bank vaults.  The panic room.  According to Wes, the lock on it was pure voidsteel.  If Wethers made it in here without us, our chances of capturing her went to almost zero.

The guard looked at me as I approached, suspicious.   Before he could say anything, I projected an audio illusion into his mind, of Wethers talking, letting my visual illusions on Wethers drop for a moment.  “He’s with me.  Don’t ask questions.

To the guard, it would look like Wethers was talking without moving her lips, but I hoped he would attribute that to her various projection powers.

“Let me in,” said the real Honeypot.  I resumed my illusion on her, making myself invisible to her.

“Certainly, ma’am.”  He pulled out a keyring and twisted keys in several holes on the door.  Honeypot stepped forward and tapped the steel twice with her fingernail.

Mechanisms inside the door creaked, and it opened.  A hand opened it from inside, and I projected my Pith forward, adding my invisibility to the guard inside.

The panic room wasn’t a room.  It was another staircase, descending onto a lower level of the ship.  But it looked nothing like the rest of the Golden Moon.  The stairs and walls were metal, and the ceiling was low.  Lamps hung from the ceiling, shining harsh pale light on Honeypot’s green dress.

It looked like something you’d see on a battleship, rather than a luxury yacht.

Lyna Wethers stepped in, and I followed her.  The guard shut the thick door behind her with a metallic groan, and the muffled music from the deck cut out.  The panic room was dead silent, soundproof.

Wethers strode down the staircase, her high heels clanging on the metal steps.  I slid off my shoes, grabbing them in my hands, and followed in my socks.

The lower level was a hallway, laid out the same way as the staircase, austere and cold, with no windows.  The lights got dimmer as they went further down, and the far end of the hallway was too dark for me to make out.

Honeypot opened the door to her right, stepping in.  Inside was a cramped office, complete with a desk filled with cabinets, a small machine pistol, and a radio.

There was an empty whiskey glass on the desk, next to a bottle of gin.  Perfect.

As I reached for the pillbox in my pocket, Wethers poured herself a glass and gulped half of it down.  She put it down and grabbed a folder from a cabinet, reading it.

Kaplen must be at the other end of the hallway.  I didn’t have a lot of time.  But as long as she was here, she was out of his range.

Maintaining my visual illusions, I flipped open the box and dropped a single white pill into her glass.  It dissolved into the clear gin, making a faint white cloud that faded in seconds. One would knock her out.

I’d use illusions to clear the guards and thralls on the level above, and deposit her in one of the private rooms.  Then I’d find Wes and we could make our escape.

Honeypot didn’t take a second sip.  She just pored over the documents, flipping from one page to the next.  I glanced over her shoulder, reading what she had. It looked like a list of passwords and addresses, each corresponding to one another.

Wethers reached into the cabinet, pulling out an envelope and slicing it with a letter opener.

She shook it, and ten library cards fell out.  They were blue, silver, gold, their otherworldly materials shimmering even under the dim light.  The highest one went up to Level Three in the Great Library.

Quinten Keswick.  Gillian Apworth.  I was certain I’d seen Gillian talking in Harpy’s tactics class, and Quinten had talked to us on the deck.  How many Paragon students has she taken?

With people like this, Honeypot was well-positioned to infiltrate Paragon.

I didn’t see Kaplen’s name mixed in.  But some of the cards were flipped upside-down, and I couldn’t reach for them without risking a collision with Wethers’ hand.

Wethers took out a slip of paper and copied down the serial numbers on the back of the cards.

There was a knock at the door.  Two sharp thuds. I reached my Pith forward, adding my invisibility illusion onto the new person.

Lyna Wethers opened the door, to reveal a middle-aged woman with short, ragged blonde hair and tired eyes.  She wore a bright green dress, and a blue party mask hung around her neck.

I choked on my next breath.

Another Lyna Wethers.  No, an imposter wearing a copy of her body.  Or they were both imposters.

The second Honeypot strode into the tiny room, and I backed against the wall.  My Vocation couldn’t alter touch sensations, and if one of them bumped into me, I’d be done for.

“Gods, you’re beautiful,” said the first Honeypot.

“How is the work going?” asked Honeypot number two.  “I’m Marjorie.” She was identical to the first one, but her dress was covered in dirt and stains.  Dark purple circles were etched under her eyes.

I slipped past the first Honeypot and crawled under a desk, squeezing myself into a corner and keeping myself invisible to them.

“I’m Ingrid.  Slow,” said number one.  “Where’s the real Lyna?”

“Upstairs,” said Marjorie.  They’re both imposters.  “With Jeylen.”

My stomach sank.  The real Honeypot is closer to Wes.

Ingrid rolled her eyes.  “Jeylen gets to be with the party and her, while we’re stuck down here with those.”  She indicated her head down the hallway.

Marjorie folded her arms.  “Why are we even keeping them around?  We could tie rocks to them and toss them in the sea, and they’d smile all the way down.”

“How else is Lyna going to test her limits?  Cut down your sample size, and your results curdle like milk in the desert.”  Ingrid put a hand on Marjorie’s shoulder. One twin to another. “Lyna will avenge her greatest love.  If we want the same passion from her, we have to earn it.”

They must be keeping prisoners here.  And Kaplen was one of them.

But if the real Honeypot was upstairs with Wes, he might need my backup.  He might be in trouble. And if Kaplen saw my face or heard my deeper voice, he’d connect it to ‘Ernest Chapman’ in an instant.

And there would likely be more enemies down the hallway.  I couldn’t make myself invisible to all of them.

But they were running experiments on the people here.  And Kaplen may not have figured out his Vocation yet, but he could project.  We could use his help.

Who did I care more about?  Kaplen Ingolf or Wes Brown?

Sorry, Wes.

I crawled past the two Honeypots to the door, and created an illusion of a guard leading me down the staircase.  When they looked away, I added some footsteps too.

My guard illusion walked back up the staircase.   I had the Ana-illusion move where I was, and then dropped my Vocation.  To them, it’d look like a guard had just taken me down here as a new thrall.

“Another one?” said Ingrid.

I used my illusions to make myself look awe-struck at the Lynas, adding some tears running down my face.  “E – eat anywhere nice lately?”

Marjorie looked me over.  “You don’t have to use the code, sweetie.  We’re all friends down here.”

“T – there are two of you?”  In the illusion, I made my eyes bulge, putting on my best dazed impression.

“It’s complicated,” Ingrid sighed.  “Let’s get back in.” She strode back down the hallway, fading into the darkness at the far end.

Marjorie nodded.  “I’ll take this one.”  She stepped forward and took my hand.  “Follow me.”

I blinked, gaping at her.  “Where?”

“This way.  Don’t worry, you’re safe now.”  She walked down the hallway, slow and deliberate.  Her hand was cold on mine, guiding me forward.

I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths.  If you panic now, they’ll catch onto you.

The light bulbs strung above us got darker as we went forward, step by step.  Inch by inch. The temperature dropped in the hallway, and my skin prickled.

The hallway ended, and we pushed past a curtain at the end, hung over in place of a door.

We found ourselves in a square room, made of the same metal as the rest of the panic room.  It was as wide as the ship, but the ceiling was short, just a foot taller than the top of my head.

The entire room was lit by a handful of faint orange ceiling lamps, making it hard to see.  The sound of voices filtered into my ears – many voices, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.  I squinted to see what was in the middle of the room.

When my eyes adjusted, I flinched.  My legs froze, unable to take another step.

Men and women crawled on the grey steel floor, wearing stained, wrinkled suits and gowns, their masks all taken off.  Some were on their hands and knees. Others were on their bellies, pulling themselves forward with their legs hanging limp behind them.

They were gathered in tight groups.  At the center of each one was a Lyna Wethers in a green dress, standing above them all.

Some of them were unconscious, or dead, lying flat in a ring around one of the Lynas.  The others crawled on top of them like they were part of the floor, crushing them beneath their collective weight and forming a pile of bodies.

As I got closer to a group, I saw their eyes.  Bloodshot and wide open, with dark circles underneath, and focused on the fake Wethers.  Their intent didn’t seem lustful, but reverent.

As Marjorie approached, several outliers in a group made a whining noise from their throats, and dragged themselves towards her.  Others wailed, or sobbed, or whimpered, falling at our feet and reaching towards Marjorie.

Marjorie took their hands, one at a time, and squeezed them.  “Hi,” she whispered to each one of them. “Hi. Hi.”

I tapped one of them on the shoulder.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

He responded with a whimper, opening and closing his mouth in my direction.  His face screwed up with effort, and a gurgling noise came from his throat.

I realized why I couldn’t understand the sounds they were making.  They all have aphasia.  They were mute.  Half of them felt around them with their hands, bumping into walls and each other.  Blind, too.

Forcibly making major alterations to someone’s Pith often came with side effects.  The more alterations, the more side effects. Wethers’ Vocation was no exception.

One Lyna hefted a bucket in the middle of her throng.  She dipped a wooden spoon into it, scooping out a heap of rotten, damp oatmeal.  She fed it to the men and women around her, pouring it into their mouths one by one.  Her thralls lapped it up, porridge dribbling down their chins.

They were like animals.  Livestock. And the fake Honeypots were herding them like cattle.

Soon after they ate the oatmeal, the men and women dropped to the floor, unconscious.  The Lyna in the middle of them dragged them by their feet to the corner of the room, checking their pulse.

The Lyna placed a finger on the neck of one girl, sighed, and dragged her to the end of the hallway, separate from the others.  She’s dead.

Marjorie let go of my hand.  “See? You’re safe.”

I suppressed my nausea and forced a smile onto my mouth.  “Thank you.” I climbed out of the circle of blind, mute men and women and looked back.

A thirty-year-old woman took my place, clinging to Marjorie’s leg like it was her mother’s.  She rocked back and forth, eyes wide with terror or shock or devotion.

Marjorie stroked the woman’s hair, petting her like one would a dog.

There were dozens and dozens of people packed into this room.  Maybe two hundred, if you counted the handlers, who were also under the real Lyna’s sway.

Where’s Kaplen?  I scanned the room, casting my gaze into every corner.  The dim light made it hard to make out faces.

Did they kill him?  Did they dump his body into the sea already?  My breath quickened.

A boy with red hair sat in the far corner of the room, slumped against the wall, with no mask.  He wasn’t moving.

I walked towards him, as fast as I could without looking conspicuous.  As I moved through the center of the dark room, the stench of blood, weeks-old body odor, and moldy porridge filled my nostrils, and I gagged.

As I got closer, I made out the round face, the dimples and the freckles.  That’s Kaplen.  He was sitting alone, far from any of the groups in the middle, or any of the other individuals spread along the outside of the room.

My pace quickened, and I projected towards him, and felt the network of his Pith glowing inside his mind.  His chest was rising and falling. He’s still alive.

I threw up an illusion to disguise my appearance, replacing my appearance with that of a blonde girl my age, wearing the same suit and with a similar haircut.

“Hi,” I said, kneeling in front of him.

I spoke with a higher pitch and a softer resonance, closer to the feminine voice I naturally used.  Kaplen was used to how Ernest Chapman sounded, so this way, maybe he wouldn’t recognize me.

Kaplen said nothing, ignoring me.

“Hi, I’m Clara.  Nice to meet you.”

Silence.  Is he in a coma?  I took his hand in mine, shaking it.  He yanked his arm back, recoiling from my touch.  Not in a coma.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Still nothing.

I took a deep breath, and asked the question I was most frightened to ask.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

Kaplen opened his mouth as if to speak, taking in a breath.  I froze. The air of the room felt like ice on my skin. I watched him for several long seconds, blood rushing in my chest.

“Eat anywhere nice lately?” I repeated.  Don’t give the code answer.  Please don’t give the code answer.  If he responded with that, then it would be too late for him.

“No,” mumbled Kaplen.

Thank the scholars.  Honeypot hadn’t taken control of him yet.  What’s he doing here, then?  If they were running experiments in this room, then they might have taken him here so Wethers could test her Vocation on a fresh subject.

Why is he like this, then?  Judging by his state, they might have drugged him to keep him docile.

If that was the case, I needed to suss out his mental state, find an opening, and convince him to leave with me.  If I left him, he’d be at the mercy of the fake Lyna creeps here.

I tried another series of questions.  “What are you doing here? What brought you to Bhais Baldana?  You like masquerade balls?”

“I liked parties,” he said.  His voice was a hoarse monotone.

Keep him talking.  If we talked more, I could convince him to leave with me, and I could get him to a safe place before going up to help Wes.  “Why did you like parties?”

“When you go to sleep,” said Kaplen, his speech slurred.  “You have to confront the fact that you’re going to have to wake up and confront the day.  Parties are a great way to avoid that, for a time.”

“Avoiding what?”

“Personal failure,” said Kaplen.  “Selfishness. Exhaustion.”

“You seem smart,” I said.  You got into Paragon.  “You can change your circumstances.”

“People told me that a lot when I was young,” he said.  “My parents. The fool who let me into Paragon. That I was smart and earnest.  They put their money and power and trust in the hands of a selfish deadbeat. How do you think I repaid them?”

“But you still care about them.  You still care about things.” You care about Cardamom and baking and learning.  You care about me and Tasia.  It felt like someone was twisting a corkscrew through my guts.  “You can keep fighting. You’re capable of change.” Take your own advice.  Write the next page.

“I tell people that a lot.  And believed it, at some point.”  He sucked in a deep breath. “But to be honest, there’s only one thing that’s made me feel like my old self again.”

No.  Please.

“Do you know where Lyna is?” asked Kaplen.

No, that can’t be right.  He hadn’t answered the password correctly.  He couldn’t be controlled by Honeypot.

Unless he was just taken over.  The purpose of the code was to identify other thralls on the deck of the ship.  If he was taken down here right away, there was no point in teaching it to him.

“Where’s Lyna?” he asked again.  “The ones in this room are fake. They have her voice, but lack the nuances of her personality.”

It’s alright.  I didn’t know how heavily Wethers had used the Vocation.  Kaplen could still have basic autonomy. He could go through therapy, or something.

“I want to find her,” said Kaplen.  “But it’s so dark down here.” He waved his hand around me, reaching it in my general direction.  He touched my face with it, feeling its contours, staring straight past me. “Where’s Lyna?”

The realization hit me.

He can’t see me.

He’s blind.

My vision and hearing went blurry.  I felt dizzy, lightheaded. I watched my chest rise and fall like waves on a seething ocean, up and down, taking huge, rapid breaths.  My senses were faint, quiet, like the volume on them had been turned down.

It felt like I was watching myself from a far distance.  As if my Pith were floating far, far away from my body, dissolving into nothingness, while my chassis continued to move and act on its own.

“Please,” said Kaplen, feeling for my hand and taking it in his own.  “She’s my only chance. Where’s Lyna?”

This is permanent.

He already had endogenous depression, and she broke all the reward centers of his Pith.

My body stood up, pulling his hand off of mine.  “Stay here,” it said. “I’m going to go fetch the real Lyna.”

I strode towards the curtain covering the room’s only exit.  There was a fake Honeypot leaning against the wall next to it, smoking a cigarette.

When I got within twenty-five meters, I projected into her Pith, making myself invisible to her, and made the curtain look still.

My body pushed through the curtain, speed-walking down the hallway, out of the darkness and back into the light.

My breathing was shallow, rapid.  My jaw was clenched. My feet moved of their own accord, carrying me to the office at the other end of the hallway.

The machine pistol sat on the desk, a sleek metal weapon with two blue stripes running down the sides of the barrel.  My hand stuffed it in an inner coat pocket, tight enough where it wouldn’t get jostled around easily.

My hand yanked open the cabinets on the desks, sorting through the contents inside.  They threw aside a lighter, a box of cigars, and a bottle of arakNo incriminating evidence.

Then my hand grabbed the radio, twisting the dials and tuning it to the frequency of the local police scanner.  The static crackled, fading out and becoming a muffled man’s voice ringing from the speaker. He was muttering about a seven-eight-three at some address in lowtown.

“Please help!”  I whispered as loud as I can.  “Please, scholars, help me.”

Who is this?” crackled the radio.  “Identify yourself.

“I’m on the Golden Moon yacht.  I don’t know where we are, but we left the port a few hours ago for this party.  Please, you have to help us.”

This is a channel for law enforcement communications only, if you are not a member of –

“There aren’t any phones,” I said.  “Please. I think – I think they’re killing people here.  Or worse. Some kind of Whisper Specialist. Please, you have to come, they’re going to kill everyone.”

Please stay on the line while we contact the relevant department.

“Someone’s coming,” I said.  “They’ve got guns and they’re going to kill us all.  The Golden Moon yacht.  Please.”

Sir, please stay on the –

My hand reached forward and turned off the radio.  I’d mentioned projection and violence, which should be enough for them to contact Paragon and the city’s Guardians.  And that meant Major Brin would know.

I ran out of the office and up the staircase.

My senses had returned to me, but it still felt like I was in some sort of dream.  The world around me felt unreal, almost. Like I was seeing the world through a thick haze, and my subconscious was puppeteering my body, moving my limbs and thinking all my thoughts for me.

A few auditory illusions, and I was past the guard at the top of the stairs and out the giant metal door.

I ran down the hallway, dress shoes thumping on the carpeted floor.  The gun bounced against my chest. Damn this suit.  The jacket was tight, constricting my shoulders.

A guard pulled open the door on the far side of the hallway and stared at me, a good forty meters away.

I stopped running, freezing in my tracks.  Can I lie to him?

The man glanced at the pistol at his waist.

I sprinted towards him, arms pumping.

The guard reached for his pistol, pulling it out of his holster.  Thirty meters.

He lifted it, aiming it at me.  Twenty-five meters.

I projected at his mind, layering an illusory version of myself on top of my body, and turning my real body invisible.  I dove to the floor, and he pulled the trigger.

A deafening crack rang in my ears.  I made the illusion of myself stagger back, with a bloody hole in its chest. It dropped to the ground, dead.

I stood up with my real body, maintaining the illusion.  The guard ran forward, training his gun on the fake corpse of me, and I pressed myself against the wall to avoid him, running through the door.

I clambered up the staircase four steps at a time, extending my Pith upwards and feeling a pair of glowing Piths running down just as fast.  More guards.  Investigating the gunshots.

I projected into their minds, making myself invisible to them, and flattened myself against the wall to stay out of their way.

The guards ran past me, both carrying their pistols.  One of them brushed my suit jacket. Another one bumped past my back, and glanced at me.  Seeing empty space in place of my body, he moved on, sprinting down the hallway.

I continued upward, running to the main deck.  In the main dining room, the partygoers were chatting and nibbling on appetizers like nothing had happened.  I slowed my pace to a fast walk, blending in among them.

Another two pairs of guards ran for the stairwell, drawing pistols.  I didn’t have a lot of time. Sooner or later, the guards would realize I slipped past them, and they knew my description now.

I need to find Honeypot.

Outside, on the main deck, a few dozen men and women were gathered around the starboard side of the boat, gazing over the edge at something in the ocean.

I pushed open the door to the dining room and ran towards them.  They were pressed to the railing, shoulder to shoulder, making it difficult to see what they were looking at.

I slid around the edge of the group, leaning forward.

Everyone was staring at the ruined metal tower, the Great Scholars’ skyscraper jutting out of the black water a short distance from the boat.  Something, or someone was on the third floor, their pale skin visible through a large hole in the wall. I squinted to see better, as my vision adjusted to the darker light.

When I saw what was happening, my stomach dropped.  Blood rushed through my chest and face, heating up my skin.

Honeypot stood on the third floor in her signature green dress, hands folded behind her back.

Wes was lying on his back beneath her, twitching.  A guard touched a cattle prod to his neck, and Wes’ body shook.  Another guard kicked him in the stomach, then poked his electric baton into Wes’ leg.

The boy’s suit and face were covered with red bloodstains.  He’s in too much pain to project.  And I didn’t see any paper around him.

Lyna Wethers stared down at him.  Blue lightning crackled around her hands.  She’s the real Honeypot.

She’s taking him over.

Wes would become just like Kaplen.  Or worse. Mute, crawling. A half-dead, hollow slave to Honeypot, unable to experience pleasure or joy through anything other than her.

The water lapped up against the side of the boat.  Men and women muttered to themselves, watching the action on the far side of the building.

The building was far out of my Vocation’s range.  I couldn’t aim well enough to hit anything with my new machine pistol, and if I illusioned one of the guards here to shoot at Wethers, they’d just as likely hit Wes with their bullets.

The only boat was locked up with a Voidsteel lock, and the key was nowhere to be found.  And I couldn’t swim.

I felt a sort of pressure building in my eyes, like I was about to cry.

But I didn’t cry.  I felt nauseous and hot and out of breath from my running.  But I didn’t cry. I just let the pressure build inside me, filling up every inch of my body.

The world on the other side of the tower gained a sharp sort of clarity.  The two guards with cattle prods. Wes. Lyna Wethers. Everything else to the side and behind blurred into background noise.

I slid off my jacket and shoes, ripping off my black party mask.  My belt, pants, and shirt were too tight to remove. Not with the time I had.

I leapt over the side of the Golden Moon, stretching my Pith thirty feet beneath me into the water.  Liquid-air interfaces.  Cohesion.  I willed the surface of the ocean beneath me to harden, solidify.

My feet slammed into the water, and it bent beneath me like a trampoline, absorbing my momentum.  It was like an invisible cloth had been stretched over the top.

A splitting headache exploded inside my skull, and blue lightning crackled around my legs.  I couldn’t keep this up for long. Go.

I sprinted forward across the surface, hardening and holding up the water beneath me.  It felt like my brain was bursting within my skull.

The water quivered beneath my feet, as the tower drew closer and closer.  Wind rushed in my ears, and the blue lightning spread to my chest and arms, crackling around my entire body.  The side of my stomach ached, a stabbing cramp right under my rib cage.

I stretched out with my Pith, reaching forward and upward towards Honeypot’s guards.  It came up short. I’m still out of range.  I was almost at the base of the tower.

My control of the water slipped.  As one of my feet came down, the surface turned to liquid again.  My foot sunk in, tripping me and throwing me forward.

I belly flopped onto the ocean, two feet in front of the tower, and my projection broke, crashing me into the sea.  The headache was overwhelming, like a drill being inserted into the back of my head. I reached for the water around me, but it felt so heavy, so thick.  I couldn’t summon up the energy to move it.

I kicked my feet, thrashing in the water and pulling my arms through the water.  I’d seen guidebooks on how to swim before, but scholars, it was harder than it looked.

The tips of my fingers grazed the cold metal wall of the tower.  My hand scrabbled against the steel, trying to grip onto something, but there was nothing.  The wall nearby was rusty, but unbroken, a flat surface with no handholds.

I kicked with my legs, splashing in the water to keep my head above the surface.  My shirt and pants clung to my body, heavy, weighing me down. My head dipped below the surface as I took in a breath, and my throat sucked in liquid.  I surfaced again, coughing water out of my mouth.

I stretched my Pith above me again.  This time, I felt four other Piths. One lower down, two standing above, and a third to the side.  Wes, the guards, and Lyna Wethers.

As I struggled to stay afloat, I imagined specific changes to the world, forcing them onto their sensory inputs.

I layered over Wes, replacing his body and face with Lyna Wethers’, making it look like Honeypot had been kicked into his position, and that Wes had rolled to the side, unconscious.  I made the movements look natural, realistic, transitioning smoothly from reality to illusion.

Then I replaced Honeypot’s image with another woman, a female Guardian aiming a gun at Honeypot.

In real life, Honeypot was still standing next to Wes, but to the guards, it looked like she was lying on the ground, and someone else was about to shoot her.

Above me, through holes in the wall and floor, I saw one of the guards swing his flashlight into the real Honeypot’s face, mistaking her for a threat.  Lyna Wethers dropped to her back, and the other guard jabbed her stomach with his prod, shocking her.

Lyna Wethers’ men were beating her to death, believing that they were defending her.  I could hear the dull thuds of their metal batons on flesh and bone.

My head dipped beneath the surface, cutting off my oxygen, but I was still in range.  I layered on auditory illusions, straining my tired Pith even further. The headache grew, and it felt like the insides of my skull were being scraped away with a rusty knife.

I edited out Lyna Wethers’ real voice with my Vocation, replacing it with a replica I was controlling.

Neck and face!” my illusion yelled to the guards in Honeypot’s voice.  “Hit her neck and face!  Don’t let the Guardian project!

The guards obeyed, smashing their batons into Lyna Wethers’ neck and face.  She shook, current running through every nerve in her body.

As I strained more, the blue lightning expanded, swirling around in an underwater storm.  My Pith screamed at me to stop, to withdraw my projection before it broke me, but I held onto it, reaching and reaching as I sank and sank.

Drowning wasn’t anything like it was in the movies.  There was no screaming, no splashing, or the opportunity to cry for help.  It was dead silent, as my arms and legs moved back and forth under the water, getting more and more exhausted.

Break her!” I screamed with my Lyna illusion, into the guard’s ears.  “Break her and break her and break her and break her and break her.”

My lungs burned.  The pressure inside my chest built and built, as I held in my last breath and maintained my illusion.  The world under the surface was dark, blurry. Or was my vision getting fuzzy? My body was tired, so tired, and the ocean was so cold.

I gasped, and bubbles escaped through my mouth.  My lungs sucked in an involuntary breath of water, and I choked, spasming.  I couldn’t tell whether I was breathing out, or in, but still, I held up my illusion.

Break her!” I imagined Lyna howling to her guards.  I imagined her voice cracking, the spitting rage etched onto her face.  “Break her!”  For a moment, I couldn’t tell if she was roaring, or if I was.  “BREAK HER!”

The two moons seemed to spiral around me as my body spun in the water.  I sank out of range, and my Pith snapped back into my skull.

In the far distance, I heard a boy’s voice shouting my name.  A large, dark object splashed into the water nearby, too blurry to make out.

I’m sorry, Kaplen.

The world faded away, and my eyelids fluttered shut.

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