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 pistol 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.”
“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. 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 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.”
“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.”