3-E The Empty Book

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Ana

The Commonplace building sat across the street, lit only by a dim streetlamp in the dark and the two crescent moons overhead.

“Ready?”  I asked. I spoke in my normal female pitch and resonance, rather than the masculine disguise I put on for Paragon.

“Not really,” said Wes.  “The plan is subpar. But that’s not going to change anytime soon, so we might as well go.”  He stuck a toothpick deep into his mouth, digging at his molars, visible even in the dark.

I found myself irritated.  “Do you have to do that in front of me?”

He shrugged.   “There’s no food in there, it’s just a fidget.  I like to keep my body moving.”

My partner didn’t seem well-suited for stealth missions.  But then again, I’d got spotted on my last one, so what did I know?

Wes continued, oblivious to my disinterest.  “They were free at the front of the Shenti restaurants nearby.  Just had to pretend I was making a reservation and sneak ‘em out while they were looking the other way.”  He poked his broken pinky finger with one of them, grinning. “Plus, I can use ‘em as weapons with my paper.  And I can fold the packets into origami.”

I clenched my teeth, hoping it wasn’t visible in this light.  “What exactly is your issue with the plan?”

Wes rubbed his bruised neck with his good hand.  “I’m not an expert on much of anything, planning least of all.  But even so, I have to say, how on earth are we supposed to find anything in that bloody labyrinth of a building?”

I leaned my head out of the alleyway we were perched in, looking over the headquarters.  A three-story rectangular construction on the edge of the water, flanked by waterfront cafés and docks.  A flag hung on the front wall, a green circle on a white field, Commonplace’s insignia.

I’d seen the place before while walking through town.  On most days, Commonplace members and the political candidates they backed handed out meals to the homeless in the front, always making sure to pose for pictures.  Just like Clementine.  All fakes trying to boost their public image.  “We find the records room and go through it. Shouldn’t be many people inside.”

“Yes, and how are we planning to sort through an entire building’s worth of records to find illegal evidence?”  He bit into a toothpick, splintering it. “Not just any illegal evidence, evidence Major Brin will pay for.  Evidence Commonplace has every incentive to hide or encrypt or put in code.  We’re only two people and I can’t speed-read for shit.”

I was silent.  The odds weren’t great, but this was our only workable lead.

“And if things go to shit, how are we supposed to escape?” he said.

“Once we’re off their private property, they can’t really shoot us.  We should be safe.”

Wes rolled his eyes.  “They can if they don’t get caught.  And the police will want us too. And if they follow us after we run, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to hunt down our stupid asses later.”

“We should be safe,” I repeated.  I sucked in another deep breath, feeling light-headed.  In truth, all of his points sounded reasonable to me. We knew next to nothing about our target, and our success depended on a lot of things going right.

But I didn’t have any good answers for him.  And I was already sweating, already tensed up like a taut rope.  If I acknowledged his concerns out loud, gave a voice to my whispering panic, I’d vomit, or freeze, or run home to curl up in my sleeping pod.

And I couldn’t miss this shot.  “Can you even run right now?” I looked at the bandages around his fingers and chest.

“Broken rib.  I’ll be fine.”


I glanced at my stolen watch.  “The rally started an hour ago.”  I turned to look at midtown, and a long cluster of lights threading up the mountain.  I made out a dim cloud of smoke gathering above it. Fire.  “Everyone’s attention should be there now.”

In the last sixty minutes, the three guards out front had trickled away one by one, reducing their number to just one.  A young Green Hands with a pistol holstered at his waist.

Takonara,” said Wes.  “Fine, we’ll improvise.  I’m great at it about fifty percent of the time.”

“And the other fifty percent?

 He just grinned.  “Let’s go.”

I wiped my sweaty palms on my shirt and stood up.  Did I forget anything?  I ran through the plan again, going over all the details I might have missed.

Wes pushed my back, and I stumbled forward towards the guard.  Breathe.  Look confident.  I certainly didn’t feel confident.

Just outside of my range, the guard turned to me.  His hand dropped to his side, next to his holster. Not touching it, but only a moment away from pulling it out.  I raised my arms, turning my open palms towards him.

When I felt him get inside my range, I pictured green circles tattooed on the backs of my hand, and pushed the image into his mind.  In the darkness, I changed my hair color to a bright blonde, erased the grey veins on my face, and made a handful of small alterations to the bones in my skull.  It wouldn’t do to leave such a unique description.

I flipped my hands back around, showing my illusory tattoos, pretending to be another Green Hands.

The man relaxed, lowering his gun hand.  “Hey. You been uptown? Keep hearing news on the radio.” A single key stuck out of his back pocket. Not for the front door. He wouldn’t be authorized for that.

It’s working.  I nodded, still holding up my mental projection.  “Fucking – fucking bastards.” My voice was hoarse and stuttering.

“Biggest rally we’ve ever had, and I’m guarding a door.  Just my luck. What’re you here for, anyways?”

I swallowed.  “Here to deliver a package from a Joseph Centino to Angela up top.”  Wes had given me the names. Using just first names makes you sound more familiar, he had told me, makes the lie stronger.  I reached into my bag, pulling out a manila envelope.

The guard nodded.  “No problem. Password?”

Fuck.  We didn’t have that.  This was just their public-facing office, why would they use passwords?  Think, think.

“Do you have the password?”

I froze.  What am I supposed to do?  “Um.  I, um.”

“Well?”

Stall.

I layered on a visual illusion of myself speaking to the guard, turning my real self invisible.  Then, I gestured at the alleyway, calling Wes over.

I had my illusion rifle through her pockets and wallet.  “Sorry. So sorry, one – one sec. My guy gave it to me this morning, but I uh.  One sec.” I imagined Wes vanished, turning him invisible in my illusion.

“If you want, you could just give the package to me and I could pass it on at the end of my shift.”

“I swear, I have it.”  Wes jogged towards me from the alleyway, a confused expression on his face.  I put my finger on my lips. He can still hear us.

Wes mouthed something that looked like what the fuck.  I gestured to the locked door behind the guard, miming an opening motion with my palms.  There were two deadbolts above the handle. He’ll figure something out.

“I can take it, it’s really no trouble.”

Behind the guard, Wes raised his hands toward the deadbolts, and green lightning flickered around them.

Then he pushed the door open and peeked his head in.  How did he unlock it?  Mercifully, the hinges didn’t creak.  He waved to me, beckoning me inside. I layered on an illusion of the door being shut, in case the guard looked behind him.

I had my illusion-self sigh.  “So sorry,” I said, shoulders bunched up.  “I, uh, can’t seem to find the paper on me anywhere.  Scholars, I’m such a klutz.” That part was true, at least.  “I’m going to give my boss a call and see if I can get the password again.”

The guard adopted a sympathetic expression.  “Sorry for the hassle. Best of luck.”

I nodded, bobbing my head up and down.  “Uh, thanks. Thank you. Thank you.” I had my illusion walk back down the street, and stepped around the guard with my real, invisible self, going through the door.  My illusion turned the corner, going out of sight, and I banished it.

Wes closed the door behind us, then let out a deep breath.  I heard a faint click from the two deadbolts. He walked down the wooden hallway, and I followed him.

Only a handful of dim yellow lights were on inside.  The whole place was empty. Dead silent. More green circle flags and posters were stuck to the walls, along a few job postings.  Fold-up tables leaned against the walls, and the floor was damp, probably from mopping.

In short, it seemed like an ordinary community building.  On the surface, at least.

“I thought you couldn’t project into metal,” I whispered.  “And don’t some of those locks have Voidsteel components?”

“My Physical Vocation,” he said, at a normal volume, grinning.  “Can’t move it, but can shrink it just fine. And the deadbolt part of those locks were just normal metal.”

“Lower your voice,” I whispered.  “There are probably still people here.”

He shook his head.  “Whisper and tiptoe, and they’ll be onto us the moment they see us.  Look like you belong, and they won’t give a shit.”

I straightened myself, listening to his instructions.  As if on cue, we turned the corner and passed a woman carrying a stack of folders.  My stomach clenched, and my skin felt cold.

Wes nodded at her, and she nodded back.  We passed her, stepping up a staircase. Wes flashed a knowing look at me, as if to say I told you so.

On the way to the office on the top floor, we passed a pair of janitors and a man hefting a shotgun.  The latter gave us an odd look as we went past, but as we got close, I layered an illusion of green circle tattoos on our hands, and nobody challenged us.

In a room next to the stairwell, two men huddled around a radio, listening to a newscaster’s voice.  It was too far away to make out, but I caught the phrases ‘riot gas’ and ‘fire’. Whatever was going on with the rally, it sounded bad.

The office we were looking for was Angela Bexley, Commonplace’s second-in-command.  The right hand woman of John Calpeur, who’d gone on Verity yesterday.  The door was locked from both sides, but after a few seconds of fiddling with his object-flattening Vocation, Wes had it open.

We entered, shut the door, and went straight for the file cabinets.  There were four of them, each four drawers high, plus more drawers underneath her desk.  “What do you think is the fastest way to sort through them?” I asked.

Wes shrugged.  “No fucking clue.”

I sighed.  “I’ll start on the left.”  I pulled out the top drawer of the leftmost cabinet, craning my neck to peek into the contents.  The first file was labelled AV1, the second, AV2.  Fuck me.  They were using some sort of index method to sort their files instead of labels.  That would mean we’d have to go through all of the papers one by one.

“There’s no way we’ll get through all these before morning,” said Wes, flipping through the rightmost cabinet.

“Project around.  Look for hidden compartments,” I said.  “Then we’ll get through as many as we can.  Nobody should be coming through here for the next few hours, and it might faster than we think.”

Wes nodded, grinding his teeth.

Two excruciating hours later, we’d only gone through one and a half cabinets each.

The damn things were more densely packed than I’d thought.  “When I pitched myself to you,” muttered Wes, “I expected firefights.  Projection battles. Explosions. And I’m sorting through files.”

Faint voices trailed in from outside.

“Shh,” I hissed.  Wes went silent and flicked his wrists.  The papers we’d taken out flew back into their proper folders.  The cabinets were still open.

I dragged him next to the door, projecting an auditory illusion into his ears.  “People are coming,” it said.  “Stay silent and out of their way, my illusions only work on one sense at a time.  Slide the cabinets shut in three, two, one –

I felt the minds up ahead.  Two people.  I pushed an auditory illusion onto both of them, editing out the sounds from inside the room, and waved my hand at Wes.

He shoved the cabinets shut with a metallic ring, and ran back to me.

The lock on the knob clicked, and the door swung open.  Two women stepped inside. The first one had short blonde hair and a bright green jacket, a nervous smile painted across her face.  Angela Bexley.  I’d seen her before in newspaper clippings, railing against the unregulated excesses of Paragon Academy, and the threat it posed to ‘ordinary citizens’.  She stepped to the side of her desk, leaving the chair open.

Still well within ten meters, enough to keep us invisible to both.

When the second woman strode in, the temperature of the room seemed to drop.

She was at least a head taller than Bexley, wearing a dark grey tuxedo.  Her light brown hair was tied back in a thin ponytail beneath a black bowler hat, long enough to almost reach her waist.

But when she gazed around the room, her most striking features were her eyes.  Large and bloodshot and wide, staring intently at everything they fell on. When her vision passed over us, I swore she was looking straight at us.

I hadn’t seen any pictures of her, but I saw enough details to guess her identity.

Tunnel Vision.  Clementine’s boss.  The anonymous woman who’d taken over half the Mob in Elmidde over the last six months.

According to Clementine, she’d earned the name from the single-minded focus she’d had during her rise to power, when she’d slaughtered dozens of wealthy crime families to carve her way to the top.  Casino owners and corrupt police chiefs, millionaires and projectors. All vanished, until fishermen found their bodies floating in the ocean.

“Your security is weak,” she said, her voice harsh.  Every word was like a lit fuse, as if she were suppressing immense rage.  “I noticed at least six vulnerabilities that someone with basic competence could exploit.”

Bexley pursed her lips.  “Many of our Green Hands are at the rally.  These are abnormal circumstances.”

“The exact kind of circumstances anyone with half a brain will seize on.  Our enemies do not care about your excuses.  Only the holes they leave.”  Tunnel Vision’s expression and tone had hardly changed, but it felt like she was about to explode.

Bexley bowed her head, gritting her teeth.  “Apologies, ma’am.”

“All the same, it provided a discreet excuse for me to enter.  In my circumstances, body-swapping leaves me vulnerable.” She walked to the other end of the room, and I took a few steps to keep her within ten meters.  “Tell me about the figurehead.”

Wes looked at me in confusion.  Figurehead?

Bexley reached under her desk, pulling out a file.  “Information quarantine has been maintained at full capacity.  Calpeur suspects nothing. He still believes we’re a political group with no ties to violence.”

Tunnel Vision strode back to the open door.  Angela Bexley jogged to follow.

Now what do we do?  Listening in to their conversation got the best information we’d seen all night.  We couldn’t let more slip through our fingers.

While I projected our invisibility onto her and Bexley, I pushed another visual illusion onto Wes, scrawling letters in the air in front of him.

Follow next to them.  If others see us out of my range, they’ll think we’re part of their conversation

Wes and I followed the pair, flanking them on both sides as if we were talking to them.  My visual illusions kept us invisible. Hopefully, our footsteps weren’t loud enough to be heard by either of them.

“Calpeur will be replaced soon,” said Tunnel Vision as they descended a staircase.  “He served his purpose by going on Verity and preaching our innocence.  One of Kahlin’s ideas. If he suspects he’s being played, or that there are criminal elements under the surface, he’ll spill everything to the authorities.”

My breath caught in my throat.  John Calpeur, the so-called leader of Commonplace, was no more than a puppet.  Christea Ronaveda’s Vocation prevented him from lying on Verity, and blocked falsely implanted memories, but as far as he knew, he’d been telling the truth.

Bexley smiled at the news.  She’s next in line.

“Shred any relevant files here by tomorrow night,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We’re cutting this sector off from military operations, too.”

Bexley’s smile curdled.  “What?”

“There’s too much risk connecting our private ops so closely to your public face.  You should have done it months ago.”

We passed the two men huddled around the radio.  They took one glance at us, then looked away, avoiding our gazes.  We descended another two flights of stairs, ending up in a dimly lit basement.

Bexley clenched her teeth.  “The boss won’t like this.”

Tunnel Vision laughed.  “It was her idea.”

The boss?  That meant there was another person behind all this.  Pulling the strings of Tunnel Vision, Commonplace, and the Broadcast King all at once.

Bexley stopped, turning to the mobster to implore her.  “Large swaths of the populace still hate and fear Commonplace, or see Guardians as comforting.  The public front needs to work in tandem to – “

“Leave that to the professionals.”

“The prison breaks?”

“To restate the obvious, leave it to the professionals.”

Bexley straightened her suit.  “Where will I be reassigned? Am I being promoted to operations?  Am I taking Calpeur’s place?”

Tunnel Vision turned her burning glare on Bexley.  “You are not to be assigned to any position.”

Bexley’s mouth tightened.  “You’re firing me.”

“Yes.”

The volume of Bexley’s voice went up.  “I’ve worked here for two and a half years.  Calpeur appreciates my work. And so does the boss.  I received stunning performance evaluations from – “

“I studied you,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You’re a careerist. At this organization, you chose personal advancement over efficiency almost every time.  Public short term gains over long-term growth. The Corth Ravon project. Elizabeth Trabae’s death. The protests four months ago.  By my numbers, you’ve tanked nearly every event you’ve been in charge of. You always managed to shift the blame to someone else, when your managers were incompetent enough to believe you.”

The mobster towered over the shorter woman, who stepped back, looking at her feet.

Tunnel Vision continued.  “You leveraged the respect of others into bonuses and promotions and making your peers look worse than you, rather than meaningful change.  You are the worst kind of parasite, an incompetent beetle of the highest order.” She lifted her hand towards Bexley’s head, and a spark appeared in between her fingers.  “And you have crawled far too high into this organization.”

I froze.  Is she going to kill her?  Or worse.  Should me and Wes step in?  Could we even do anything, with our limited array of weapons?

“Please.”  Bexley’s voice was little more than a whisper.  “Please.”

Tunnel Vision flicked her forehead, and Bexley flinched.  The spark fizzled out. “Order the shredding, then report to your assigned safehouse.  You’ll be precision-wiped of everything in your security clearance by end of week.”

Bexley managed a tiny nod, inching her head down, then up.

Tunnel Vision opened the door next to her, revealing a small room.  I reached my Pith forward, adding my illusion to the dozens of minds inside.

Then I stopped.

A bed sat in the corner, covered in glass mind-spheres, each the size of a melon, flickering with branching webs of lightning within.  There were at least two dozen. Each one of those has a person’s Pith inside it.

The man touched his palm to one of them, closing his eyes.  He’s talking with it.  He took his palm off, and shrugged.  “Fine, have it your way.” He pulled a tiny rock hammer from his belt, and swung it at the sphere.

There was a hard ringing noise as it struck the globe.  Cracks spiderwebbed out through the point of impact, but the hardened glass didn’t shatter.  The lightning inside tripled its speed, bouncing off the walls and crackling in response.

The connections of a mind-sphere were as vital as the neural connections of a brain.  How much must that hurt?  I felt sick to my stomach.

The man pressed his hand to the glass again, calm.  “There, that’s better.” He smiled and set it down on the bed, picking up another one.  Glancing at Tunnel Vision out of the corner of his eye, he nodded at her.

Tunnel Vision nodded back and shut the door.  “Some people who know they’re about to get mind-wiped write things down in secret, so they can read them and pick up the memories again.”

“I – I won’t do that,” said Bexley.

“Good,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We have plenty of mind-spheres.”

Bexley nodded.  The message was more than clear enough.

The man stood up, walking to the far end of the bed, where there were more spheres.  He flitted out of my range, and my illusion dropped out of his mind.

I flattened myself against the wall, out of his sight.  Wes mirrored me. If anyone else comes by, they’ll be on to us right away.

Tunnel Vision strode back down the hallway.  After a few tense seconds, Bexley followed her, as Wes and I kept close pace behind them.  If they get more than twenty meters apart, I can only hide ourselves from one of them.

The mobster shut the door, her footsteps echoing on the wooden floor.

Bexley clenched her teeth, squeezing her eyes shut.  When the footsteps faded into silence, her face contorted, shaking.  Then she spun around and punched the wall next to her, a low thud that left a faint red mark on the plaster.

She stared at her scraped knuckles, a thin rivulet of blood running down the back of her hand.  The energy seemed to drain out of her, and she slumped over, plodding to the other end of the hallway.

Me and Wes followed her, keeping up the illusion, stopping when she opened the door and shut it behind her.

When her footsteps, too, grew dim in the distance, I exhaled, massaging my temples.  I realized how fast my heart had been beating, and that my armpits and back were soaked with sweat.  My lungs sucked in a deep breath.

“Fuck,” muttered Wes.  “Fuck.”

I didn’t want to admit how lucky we’d just gotten.  One goon getting suspicious of us, one projection scan from Tunnel Vision, and we’d be in a glass sphere in that room next to us, getting interrogated with a rock hammer.

Another tap echoed from inside the interrogation room.  I swallowed. “We should help those people.” I spoke under my breath, listening for the footsteps of anyone who might be coming back to the basement.  “They’re getting tortured.”

Wes shook his head.  “That creep communicated with a mind-sphere, which means he’s a projector.  We have no idea how strong he is, or what his specialty is. And, though I don’t like to admit it, it won’t take much to crush us.  And Tunnel Vision might come back.”

The thought of Tunnel Vision returning was enough make my chest tighten.  I ignored it. “You saw what he was doing. We can’t just leave these people.”

Frustration slipped into Wes’ voice.  “This guy is almost definitely above our level.  Let the cavalry handle this one. There’s a reason we have Guardians.”

“By the time we can leave a dead drop for Major Brin, they’ll all be gone.  The police are too busy with the riots to respond to a random tip.” I ground my teeth together, pushing down the lingering panic.  “There is no cavalry.”

Wes inched up to the door, pressing his ear up to it, then stepped away.  “There’s no paper I can use in that room, and he’s out of range for your illusions.”

“Those are people Commonplace is torturing.  Even if you don’t give a shit about them, they will absolutely have intel worth a bounty.”

Wes jogged to the other end of the hallway, listening at the door.  “Every minute we wait here is another minute a guard can come back, or for the torturer to spot us.  The mobster mentioned prison breaks. That and the rest of their conversation ought to be enough to scrape a few pennies from Brin.”  He opened the door, peeking through. “Coast is clear. Let’s go.”

I walked over to the torturer’s room.  “Get ready,” I whispered to Wes.

“No, no – “ said Wes.  “Don’t – “

My fist rapped on the door.  “Hey!” I yelled. “Boss wants to see you!”

The torturer’s voice was confused.  “Who are you guys?”

“I – “  What was a good bluff?  My mind was drawing a blank.  Fuck.  I stretched my Pith into the room, feeling the man’s consciousness just beyond my Vocation’s range.

Wes spoke up.  “John and Milton, from Angela’s office.  She said something about cleaning up.” How does he come up with these lies so fast?

I felt the man stand up.  His Pith drew closer to the door.  Thirteen meters. Twelve meters. Eleven.  I imagined me and Wes invisible again, replacing us with two Green Hands, preparing to push the illusion  into his mind.

I felt a warm, soft presence worming itself inside my mind.  Nudging.  “Hey!”  I shouted to Wes.  “He just Nud – “

“Don’t move or project.  Shut up, unless I say so.”

I froze, my Pith snapping back within the confines of my mind.

Fuck, fuck, NO.  I reached for all of Brin’s techniques, all of the study I’d done, pushing back as hard as I could.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wes running towards me, unaffected.  Unlike me, he knew how to defend himself.

Gunshots rang out from within the room, echoing throughout the hallway.  The torturer shot his gun.  “There, that ought to get the guards running over here.”

Think, think.  How could I get out of this?  I couldn’t speak, or project, or move.  Every tool in my arsenal was unavailable.  Brin was right.  Without real defenses, I was useless.

I couldn’t see Wes, or move my eyes or head to see where he went.  Had he ran for the other door? If he concluded I was a lost cause, he might have just abandoned me.

“Now,” said the torturer, footsteps getting closer to the door.  The pressing force of his mental projection was still wrapped around my mind.  “Kill the one who isn’t Nudged. You can use all projection and skills.”

My body moved of its own volition.

It turned to Wes, pushing an illusion of my invisibility onto him.  My fists clenched, preparing to strike his throat, then behind his ear.  They would hit hard enough to break the bones in my hand. Hard enough to crush his larynx, choking him to death.

Fight, my mind screamed.  Fight.  Don’t kill him.  If I couldn’t pull my brain together, both me and Wes would be tortured to death, just like the poor fuckers inside that room.

My body ignored it.

The boy was clutching something in his fists, sprinting towards me.  Fifteen feet. Ten feet. Almost within striking range.

He sucked in a deep breath, and screamed something.

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