5-C Copycat

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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.”

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