I had so many regrets.
Letting myself get Ousted. Writing an entire ten-page psych essay on the wrong prompt the night before it was due. Remaining sober through most of my childhood.
But if I had to choose one shitty choice above them all, I regretted teaming up with Copycat the most. Allowing that sultry Ilaquan squidfucker to convince me into this death trap of a mission.
It had been tempting, so tempting to go straight for the Broadcast King and his files. But Ana and I weren’t ready for something on this level. We were improving, but we still weren’t ready.
Steel Violet projected into our clothes, pinning us on our backs. Something wrapped around my hair and yanked my head back, forcing me to look behind and upwards at an angle.
I reached my Pith around me, feeling what they were projecting into. I felt resistance to my Pith in my pants, shirt, and coat. Everything but my socks, underwear, and my belt, which was still too damn tight.
Then I reached around me for paper in the nearby rooms. Nothing. The framed newspapers had been taken off the walls. There was no tissue paper in their cabinets of porcelain, and nothing in or on any of the desks.
That can’t be a coincidence. If they suspected I was the same man as before, they would have known my specialty.
Afzal Kahlin sat on a bench at the side of the room, talking into a phone on top of a piano. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, right here in my apartment. Two, and a third who escaped.” He beamed. “Why yes, that sounds wonderful. I’d love that, thank you. I can’t wait.”
“Stay quiet,” said Ana with an illusion-voice. “I’ll keep using my Vocation to mask our body language.”
Kahlin put the phone on the receiver and strode to the far end of the room, beckoning the four members of Steel Violet with him. Out of Ana’s range.
“Several weeks ago,” Kahlin said to them. “Two people infiltrated Commonplace’s civilian HQ. At least one of them appeared to have a Whisper Vocation that affected people’s sensory perceptions, or a similar sort of effect. They appeared to be Shenti men, though of course, they weren’t caught, so it’s impossible to tell for sure.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, dear.”
“Given the report I skimmed on that matter, their behavior this morning, and my complete inability to read their body language, I believe at least one of these infiltrators may be here with us this morning, and that their range is limited. On the chance that I’m correct, stay on the far side of the room, speak only with Nobukazu crypto patterns, and keep track of their physical projection.”
“Nobukazu crypto?” said Ana.
I had no idea what that was. Probably something I would have learned in one of my later years at Paragon. And if we didn’t know it, we couldn’t mimic it.
Jovira folded her arms. “And what about you, sir? We’re ex-special forces, not gods. If they get the drop on you, there’s only so much we can do to protect you.”
“What would you do, Steel Violet?”
She shrugged. “We would have killed them the moment I found out. Voidsteel bullet. Back of the head. We don’t have any Voidsteel cages or Null Venom. We’re not prepared for an interrogation. As your bodyguards, we have to advise you not to take unnecessary risks. This isn’t your area of expertise.”
“Don’t worry about me.” He turned to the two of us. “Now, let’s get started, shall we?”
Jovira raised a finger, and a chair slid across the floor, landing right behind us. Kahlin walked forward and sat on it, positioned so we were forced to stare up at him. The bottle of arak floated over and filled his glass.
“An ordinary interrogation,” he said. “Might start with a question like ‘who are you working for?’. I would shake you or hit you or threaten with all manners of torture. You would refuse, or make up some lie, and I would escalate.” He took a sip of liquor with a shaking hand. “Not only do I find that barbaric, but it also produces terrible results. Naturally, I’m quite curious to know your motives, but it’d be ridiculous to expect an answer on that right away.”
I spat at him. The trajectory was all wrong, and my head was tilted back, so it fell flat on my forehead. I projected into it and shot the globule of saliva towards his drink. He jerked it to the side, causing it to miss.
“Let’s begin somewhere simple: What I know, and what I can guess. You stole the bodies of Shab Pirzanu and John Brahmani, and used this meeting in an attempt to gain access to my files. As we speak, my people are on their way to these men’s apartments to investigate.”
Fucking scholars. Our real bodies were still tied up in John Brahmani’s building.
“I don’t know what your relationship is with the person who stole my files,” he said. “But if I had to guess, I’d say you probably know them.” He held up the tape recorder. “But the most interesting thing is this. The man who caused permanent damage to my Pith, who managed to get through my bodyguards when the smartest woman in the world could not.”
“You fought Kahlin before?” said Ana in my ear, incredulous. “Why didn’t you tell me? How did you escape?”
By getting my ass rescued. And by exploiting Steel Violet’s key weakness: They cared more about protecting their client than catching me. If his life was at risk, they could be distracted. Judging by how close their members were to each other, the tactic would work if we mortally wounded any of them.
Ana cried out. Her clothes dragged her across the floor and into the corner of the room, out of range of everybody.
Kahlin leaned towards me, and lifted my eyelid with his index finger. His skin was cold and rough. His voice grew soft. “Files. Recordings. You are trying to collect information on me.” He stared into my open eye. “But why? You lack the training and backup of a Guardian. An assassin sent by the Locus would be far more efficient than you. A freelancer, then?”
Don’t react. I made my face blank and impassive. Any tell would give away the game. I felt the Empathy vocation scratching at the edges of my consciousness, and shut it down, giving him zero information.
He flashed me a warm smile. “Ah. You are a freelancer. And a rather resentful one at that. I wonder, is this personal for you?”
Was he getting all that from my body language? How much was he guessing? Damn those analysis vocations of his.
The Broadcast King floated a long wooden pipe into his shaking hand, and began to smoke it. “Would you like to guess who I just got off the phone with?”
“Certainly not a tuner for that piano,” I said. “I’d guess you won’t be playing Corbin’s third symphony any time soon. How does it feel, trying to look dignified when your hands look like they belong to a senile – ”
“Tunnel Vision,” he said.
That shut me up.
Kahlin breathed out a smooth stream of smoke. “She should arrive in about – ” he glanced at his watch, “ – sixteen and a half minutes.”
Ana made eye contact with me from across the room, at the edge of my vision. That’s our deadline. If we didn’t escape by then, we were fucked.
“As you can tell, I can already guess the general outline of what you want. Help me fill in the details, and I will tell her you’re not a threat. I will give you your original bodies back and put you on a ferry out of the Principality. You’ll be safe.”
If I tell you the truth, you won’t let me live. And I would never accept a ferry out of the country. I don’t care how smart you are. I’ll bring you down and save my family. I’ll find the chinks in your armor.
“You’re a liar,” I spat. “You lie to the men and women who read your newspapers. You lie to the struggling people who buy into your pyramid schemes. And you’re lying now. I’m done talking to you.”
Kahlin’s mouth opened wider. “Ah,“ he said. “Interesting.” He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, like he’d just discovered something. “Well, these things take time and finesse. There are some things your mind will only learn through repetition. Helplessness. Obedience. An eagerness to please, and the exhaustion to dull the wits.” He leaned closer to me. “She’s going to enjoy peeling your thoughts apart.”
A dull boom echoed in the distance. It sounded like it was coming from far below.
The four members of Steel Violet perked up. “Uzma needs help,” said Jovira. “Car bomb. Third-degree burns and severed arteries. She’s in serious pain. Needs a replacement body to avoid permanent damage.”
“Go,” said Kahlin. The woman ran off to the elevator. Now there were only three mercenaries, and Kahlin. Rozi with her gauntlets, and two men with a submachine gun and a pair of shotguns.
Still, that was more than enough to tear us apart. Neither of us had an autonomous bullet defense.
Are they fighting Raziah? Had she left a bomb for them?
Kahlin turned back to us. “We have more pressing matters to deal with. Rozi, knock them out, please. No permanent brain damage.”
“Opposition?” Rozi asked.
“Those two don’t have anything planned,” said Kahlin. “They’re trying to think of something to beat us, but there’s no flash of inspiration.”
Damn him. Could his Vocation read minds? Or was he just that good at scanning body language?
Rozi slid on a pair of Voidsteel gauntlets, and took a step in our direction.
The air duct exploded.
An object shot out of it, knocking off the grate and landing on the floor with a thud. Rozi froze, and I squinted at it.
It was a package of printer paper, ripped open at the end.
Glass shattered in the distance, and another package crashed through the window in the neighboring bedroom. It collided with the piano behind me, scattering into a cloud of sheets.
A packet of newspapers sailed out of the same air duct, dumping in a heap on the floor. Someone had scrawled words on the top one in large, dark letters.
For a split second, nobody moved, taking in the situation as I read the message.
That cheeky bitch.
Steel Violet moved. Our clothes yanked me and Ana upside down, hanging us from the ceiling and squeezing our legs and arms.
As we jerked into the air, I projected into the paper, shooting it towards our enemies. Disrupt their aim. I focused on the hands and arms of the gunmen as they raised towards us, making paper cuts in the webbing between their fingers, and vertical slashes along the veins near their wrists.
They dropped their weapons, red blood soaking into their long purple sleeves.
Then I projected into the newspapers, exploding them out in every direction and forming barriers to block their sightlines.
Rozi ripped through my barrier. Damn Joiners. Even the skin on her eyes was too durable for me to cut.
She leapt towards us. She can’t dodge in midair.
I projected into the wooden table and flipped it again, this time shooting it from the side. It slammed into Rozi from her right, knocking her into the adjacent bedroom and out its broken window. A drop of over a thousand feet. Her enhanced durability and strength didn’t make her body any heavier.
It wouldn’t take her out, but it would slow her down.
I focused my attacks on the two remaining members of Steel Violet, going after more webbing, their wrists, and their eyes. These ones couldn’t harden their skin.
Sorry. I found myself wincing as I felt the paper slice into their flesh. I really like your music.
The cloud swirled around them, blocking my view of them. A second later, our clothes stopped holding us up, and we both fell to the floor. The tight buckle on my belt jabbed into my stomach, and I cried out in pain.
Cracks echoed through the room, and something stung in my left calf. The man’s submachine gun hovered in the air in front of him, not needing his hands to aim and fire.
I clutched my leg and groaned under my breath, feeling the warmth of my blood trickling down my leg. It’s not too bad. He’d missed all the major veins and arteries, barely more than a graze. Keep moving.
I projected into both me and Ana’s clothes, filling them with my Pith. Rashi’s Second Law meant Steel Violet would have to push me out before controlling them again, and I had the defensive advantage now. They were stronger than me, but if the fight was short, I could keep them from yanking us around.
Ana ran closer to me. “Kahlin’s headed West,” she said into my head.
I grabbed her hand and sprinted through the west door, still attacking with my paper as we left. More blind gunshots rang out around us, and one grazed my shoulder, causing a sharp burning sensation.
I reached around with my Pith, and found Kahlin sprinting two rooms away from us, just out of our sightlines.
I shot a cloud of paper at him, and felt around his body. His long sleeves and pants were squeezed close against his body, his collar was flipped up, and he’d wrapped his coat around his face and neck, protecting all of them from my cuts.
Bastard is learning.
I thought back to when we’d been walking through the hallways, and what he’d been wearing. Karrar Raja flat front dress pants, in a purple so dark it almost looked black. Lavish, but tasteful. The cuffs on them sat just an inch or two higher than his shoes.
Not long enough to cover all his bare skin.
I slid my paper down to his ankles and sliced, cutting his skin and flesh in dozens of places. The edges didn’t go deep enough to slice his tendon, but managed to get a couple of veins and arteries. After a few seconds, I felt his Pith fall to the floor.
“Left door, then right!” I shouted out. If we could take Kahlin hostage or mortally wound him, we could beat Steel Violet without having to outfight them.
We ran through the doorways, bullets whizzing past our heads. As we sprinted through the living room, a shot hit Kahlin’s expensive fountain – the one with the water from the deep ocean.
Black liquid dribbled onto the table. It steamed, burning a hole through the wood.
How are they still shooting through all that pain? If my eyes got paper cuts, I would probably be screaming in agony on the floor, not carrying out a fight. It was a testament to Steel Violet’s endurance.
We turned a corner, to see Kahlin crawling away from us in the next room. A trail of blood extended behind him, pooling beneath his ankles.
The door between us slammed shut and locked with a click. I projected into the door mechanism, only to feel my Pith bounce off someone else’s. They’re blocking me.
I focused on defense, throwing up more barriers of paper to block Steel Violet’s vision – those that could still see, anyways. Hopefully, they’d be in too much pain to feel our location using projection. Scanning an area took much more effort than normal projection, and the living room was huge – almost as big as the one in my mansion.
I kept cutting all the exposed skin I could find on their body, and some that weren’t exposed. Arms, legs, wrists. I used my Vocation to dimensionally flatten pieces of paper and slide them through narrow spaces they were squeezing shut.
A pipe burst through the wooden floor and bent upwards, showering the members of Steel Violet with water. The liquid formed a thin sheath around their bodies, stopping all of my paper attacks. I don’t have the strength to break through it. My paper got stuck in the liquid like a bug in amber.
The two members of Steel Violet limped forward, and their aquatic armor moved with them. Blood poured out from their wounds, filling the clear liquid with clouds of red.
The only gaps in their liquid armor were in front of their faces, where they’d stretched pieces of cloth from their shirts as a sort of breathing mask. Somehow, my cuts on their eyes hadn’t blinded them.
Fucking scholars, how am I supposed to attack through that? I threw up further layers of paper barriers, ducking into a corner of the room with Ana next to a table with a lamp. That won’t slow them down for long. But it was hard to think of a plan and move my paper at the same time. I’m shit at multitasking. My career at Paragon had confirmed that many times over.
One of the Steel Violet men wielded a giant flattened water tentacle, swinging it through my walls of paper. Sheets stuck to it, soaking with water and becoming absorbed into it. His water projection was stronger than my paper control.
Piece by piece, he was eating up all my weapons.
Think, think. I still had sheets of paper in the room with Kahlin, even if he was also armored now, and I could fit much more under the door. His ankles were the only things that were exposed. I had one trump card left with me, but it wouldn’t work in these circumstances.
I ran over to the lamp and projected into the metal wiring, ripping it out of the insulation.
“What are you doing?” said Ana with illusions.
I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing. I touched the wires to each other and held pieces of paper around it. The electricity crackled, and sparks fizzled off of it. A short circuit. Physics 101.
The sparks landed on the pieces of paper, and they caught fire. I held more pieces of paper on top of them, and the fire spread to them. As I did this, I stuffed more paper through the space under the door, filling Afzal Kahlin’s room with sheets.
Then I slid the burning paper underneath and paired it with the other sheets. In a matter of seconds, Afzal Kahlin was surrounded by burning paper. He was still lying on the floor, covering his face with his jacket, so he couldn’t see it.
I floated my army of burning paper above him, flattening myself into the corner as gunshots and shotgun blasts rang out around me. In unison, I dropped them all on him. Dozens and dozens of flaming sheets of paper falling on his flammable clothes.
I felt the pieces of paper on him rotate around, as he rolled to snuff out the flames. As he did, I felt his clothes shift, and the slightest of gaps open in his waist.
I slid two in the gap, hardened them as much as I could, and sliced into his inner thighs. My control weakened as the paper slid deeper, but I still managed to make two clean incisions on his femoral arteries.
Those channels pumped a lot of blood. With cuts like this, you could bleed out within a few minutes. Steel Violet would have to get him a replacement body right away, which would distract them further.
“Femoral!” shouted Kahlin from the next room. He knew just as well as I did.
The submachine gun ceased fire, and one of the men ran through the paper barriers and flung open the door, his clothes soaked with blood. The liquid armor splashed to the floor around him. He ran to Kahlin, slamming the door behind him.
And now there’s only one. Who was already bleeding from countless paper cuts. He floated a pair of shotguns beside him and shot them in our direction, shattering the lamp into pieces.
He’s still half-blind. A paper cut on the eye had to hurt. And he was too exhausted to scan the room for us.
Another blast took out a chunk of the wall next to us.
“Hide my movements. I’m going to yell some misdirection,” said Ana with illusions. “Stay back!” she shouted out loud. Or at least, I thought she shouted. My ears were ringing from all the gunfire, and I could only make out faint echoes of all the other sounds. “Wait for him to bleed out!” she added.
He wouldn’t bleed out, of course. I hadn’t hit any major veins or arteries.
I altered the shape of my paper walls, curving them into layers of circles around the last Steel Violet man. There wasn’t much left. He shot jets of water from his armor, blasting holes in the barriers.
Ana slipped off her shoes and sprinted around him on silent feet, stepping closer and closer. When she was within twenty-nine meters of him, blue lightning crackled on her fingertips. Her illusions are on him now.
She stepped behind him, forming an icicle in her hand out of the water left on the floor.
Then she stabbed it into his spine. It punched through his liquid armor with ease, and he collapsed onto the ground, twitching, blood pouring out of it.
I wrinkled my nose. This level of violence was starting to make me feel uneasy.
“Let’s go!” I barked. There was no way we could take multiple members of Steel Violet in a fair fight. They had Kutta training and were skilled projectors to boot. We’d distracted as many of them as we could, forcing them to protect their own rather than chase us down.
We ran for the door, throwing it open. No projection to hold it shut anymore.
It was time to leave. But first, I had a stop to make.
I ran across a room, then turned right and sprinted down a hallway.
“What are you doing?!” shouted Ana. “The elevators are that way!”
But the file room isn’t. If I couldn’t get incriminating evidence on the Broadcast King, then all of this would be for nothing. My family would still be in debt, and I’d be back to square one – worse than square one, since the Broadcast King would increase his security after this.
I reached the file room door. Raziah broke in here. Bloodstains littered the floor and walls, and the lock had been smashed. The door was wedged into the frame.
Ana ran up behind me, breathing heavily. “Wes, we need to leave. We don’t have time to go through files. The other members of Steel Violet will be back soon” Her eyes widened. “We can’t take any of them. And Tunnel Vision is on her way.”
“If we don’t have any intel, Major Brin won’t give us a bounty,” I said. “If you want to afford a working body, you can’t miss any of these jobs.” I ran forward and slammed the door with my shoulder, knocking it into the ground.
Rozi stood in the center of the room, staring straight at us.
“Hi,” she said.
She leapt forward, flying across the room in a single bound. Her Voidsteel gauntlets grabbed our throats, tackling us. My back slammed onto the floor, knocking the wind out of me. When I tried to take a breath, her gauntlet squeezed my windpipe, and I choked.
Rozi knelt on top of us, pinning us to the ground with her knees.
I punched her face, her throat, jabbed my finger at her eye, rotated my weight so she would slide off of me. She didn’t even flinch. Damn Joiners. She’d made her body immune to blunt force as well as slashing.
And her knee was on top of my belt buckle. In this position, I couldn’t get to it.
She’s not pinning your hands. I snapped my fingers. Blue lightning crackled around Ana’s body.
“Illusions are up,” said Ana’s illusion-voice. “She can’t hear us or see our movements.”
My lungs were on fire. Black dots appeared across my vision, flickering in and out of existence. The cold fingers of the gauntlet tightened on my throat.
I wheezed out the last remaining air in my lungs. “Move her left knee,” I whispered as loud as I could. The noise I made was barely a faint hiss.
“Understood. Moving her left knee. Brace yourself.” The blue lightning expanded around Ana, forming a small cloud over her skin.
Rozi’s eyes flitted towards the end of the hallway. In a single motion, she jerked upright and lifted the two of us, holding us between her and the eastern doorway. Her knee moved away from my waist, lifting off my belt buckle. My legs twitched, unable to touch the ground.
“Come to save your comrades?” she said, staring into empty space. Her grip loosened on my throat. “Put down your weapons now, and I won’t squeeze their necks into jelly. Do you think you can really – “ She stopped, and smiled. “Ah. An illusion. Do you think making up fake enemies is enough to trick me? You can’t fake the results of projection.”
My lungs sucked in a breath. “I liked you better as a pop star,” I said.
I reached beneath my belt buckle and pulled out a flat metal square.
It was the same principle as the part I’d removed from the car: I’d squeezed its dimensions with my Vocation, and the tightness of my belt had kept it flat, without requiring any further projection on my part.
Hidden from her view, I raised the metal square to her face, and it expanded back into three dimensions.
Or rather, they did. Four of Raziah’s seroflourin gas grenades, with the pins already removed. My Vocation had kept them from releasing their contents on their own, and the pressure had built inside them.
A cloud of yellow gas ballooned out, filling Rozi’s eyes and throat. She let go of us and dropped to her knees, covering her eyes. A soft groan of pain escaped her lips.
Other members of Steel Violet hadn’t flinched when I’d given them paper cuts on their eyeballs. If she was reacting like that, it had to hurt.
Just like I thought. Her Joining strengthened her skin, but it didn’t make her mucus membranes immune to chemicals. Despite being a talented Joiner, the woman was no Immaculate Vanguard. A concentrated dose like that would be agonizing, if not lethal.
I landed on my ass, and clambered backwards, out of the reach of Rozi’s hands. My lungs sucked in gasping breaths, and I coughed. The injections Copycat had given us were legitimate – we were immune to the effects of the gas, but it still made the inside of my throat itch. My neck ached from where her fingers had dug into my skin.
“Keep your distance!” I shouted to Ana. “She might not be as hurt as we think!”
Rozi crawled towards the file room, kneeling underneath the door frame. She raised her hands forward, clenching them into claws. Her coat and shirt drifted above her body, spreading to form a barrier on the top half of the door and behind her.
I can’t pull the papers out like this. And there was no time to send them through the ducts and retrieve them later.
“Wes,” said Ana. “Let’s go! We can’t get the files like this, or sort through them. We are out of time.”
No. No, that can’t – “Use your illusions!” I shouted. “Get her to move, or give me a space to slip in, or – “
“Wes!” she said. Through the haze of yellow gas, I saw her push herself upright and extend a hand towards me. “I know how important this is to you. But if we stay here, we will die, or worse. Take my hand.”
Rozi grabbed the wall for support, and pulled herself to a standing position. She groaned again, and vomited onto the floor. She’s recovering. In a few minutes, she might be back to normal.
I clenched my fists until the brown skin on this body’s knuckles turned pale white. Damn Rozi. Damn Afzal Kahlin. And damn you, Copycat, you damn hornet.
My family and my future would have to wait.
I took Ana’s hand.
Ana pulled me to my feet, and we ran. After another room and another hallway, we reached the elevator and slammed the button, scanning the other entrances to the room.
The elevator arrived with a little ding, and we clambered in, pressing the button for the first floor. We slid towards the ground, as smooth as before, as shouting echoed from above us.
If they cut the cables, we’re done for. But the stairs were too slow, and neither Ana nor I was capable of flight yet. And there were potentially two more members of Steel Violet waiting for us at the bottom.
I tensed my shoulders as we descended. The early morning fog had cleared, and the sun rose above the rooftops of Elmidde, bathing them in warm yellow light. It shone around the black silhouette of Paragon Academy above us.
When the doors opened, smoke poured into the elevator. More came in from the front door, filling up the lobby. The lantern vine in the chandelier had dimmed, and was recoiling away towards the ceiling.
The room was empty. All the people had left.
“Let’s go!” I shouted. We ran towards the exit. My eyes stung from the smoke, and I coughed, breathing it in.
“Watch for Steel Violet!” shouted Ana.
We burst out of the door, where the smoke was thicker.
The street was in chaos. The blue sedan Copycat used to drive us here was a smoking wreck in front of the Kesteven Building. Flames licked over its hull, and the wind blew the smoke into the building. Even ten feet away, I could feel the heat on my face. Raziah’s car bomb. It had given us the space we needed to escape.
Still, I hoped it hadn’t killed anyone.
The busy Hightown street corner had emptied. The pedestrians had fled the sidewalks and luxury storefronts, and all the nearby cars turned onto other streets, or drove a wide berth around the sedan.
Steel Violet was nowhere to be seen. The members watching the lobby had vanished. Copycat must have done a number on them.
Sirens whined in the distance. The fire brigade. Or the police. Or both.
Ana sprinted into the street, next to the path of an oncoming car. It zipped past her, then screeched to a halt, its tires burning on the pavement. “Come on!” she shouted. She ran to the car, pulling open the door and clambering into the backseat.
I ran after her, leaping in and slamming the door shut.
Blue lightning crackled around Ana’s forehead. The driver, a middle-aged man with glasses, looked at the empty passenger seat, his hands shaking on the wheel. “Yes!” he shouted. “Yes, I’ll do it. Yes, I know where that is.” He closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and began to drive.
A message flickered across my vision. Ana’s illusions.
Threatening him with illusion. Only visual. No sound. Don’t say anything out loud.
I nodded at Ana. We sped down the street to the intersection, and the message changed.
Using fake faces and an address far from capsule hotel
I nodded again. We didn’t want law enforcement, Kahlin, or the mob honing in on our location. Though by now, they probably had our original bodies in custody.
As the car drove away, I stared out the window, back at the Kesteven Building and the top floor with Kahlin’s penthouse. From over a thousand feet below, I could barely make it out.
A small, dark figure flew straight into the building at the speed of a fighter plane. It smashed through the windows on the top floor and vanished into the apartment.
Tunnel Vision. We barely made it. Sixty seconds later, and the mob boss would have flown to the first floor and hunted us down.
If I’d tried to take the files, she would have caught us. Ana was right, damn her.
I’d made all my careful plans. I’d even set up that trick with the gas grenades and my Vocation. And it still wasn’t enough.
And I wouldn’t get another shot like this. Kahlin would beef up his defenses now. He might even store his files in a more fortified location.
If I wanted to bring him down, I would need to be stronger. I would need a lot more practice. I would need a body other than Shab Pirzanu’s.
And I would still need the help of Anabelle Gage. Even if I had to trick it from her.
“- Backstabbing, chain-smoking foreign pink harlot,” I hissed, downing my thirteenth cup of tea.
“Um, yes,” said Ana, running her fingers through her messy grey hair. “We’ve been on this for the past thirty-four minutes. Could we talk about something different?”
I bent over the cafe table, folding empty sugar packets into origami. With my other hand, I fidgeted with my pencil, tapping out rhythms on the table, my broken fingers still healing. “She’s probably sitting in a bathrobe at her cushy apartment, smoking that hookah with those smirking little lips, having a laugh at how gullible we are.” My leg bounced up and down under the table.
“That’s a very specific image. Have you seen her apartment?”
“I’m extrapolating,” I snapped. I waved the waitress over. “Another pot of the jasmine. Stronger.” I glanced at the empty packets coating the table. “More sugar, too.”
She glared at me. “One more pot, then I’m cutting you off before you break a bone.”
I glared back at her, making my leg bounce even faster. “More tea.”
Ana took a sip from her glass of water. It was a relief to see her back in her normal body. Or the one I was used to, at least.
Copycat had left both Pirzanu and Brahmani in Ana’s storage unit, tied up and gagged on top of my mattress, still swapped into our bodies.
We’d gotten rid of them at three in the morning, in front of a homeless aid center on the opposite side of the city from the capsule hotel. We performed the swaps without issue and left them tied up, and blindfolded on the steps of the building, where they’d get picked up in a few hours.
Just like that, we had our normal bodies back again. Broken bones and all.
Ana was pleased that Copycat hadn’t screwed us out of our bodies, and made some guilty noises at the minor injuries we’d suffered during the mission. But it made me even more pissed. Copycat – Raziah had every step planned out. If that even is her name. And she thought we were too incompetent to retrieve our bodies in time.
Plus, Pirzanu and Brahmani had been in the clothes for far too long, and they were filthy. I threw all of them in a trash bin and had to take three consecutive showers in a row at the gym when it opened.
In the cafe, Ana clenched her teeth, tightening her grip on her water glass. “We should have just killed him,” she said under her breath. “Deny the enemy a valuable resource.” She still thinks Kahlin was behind Honeypot’s release. She was willing to kill based on the lie I’d made up.
“Then Steel Violet would have killed us. Or if we somehow made it out of that, Tunnel Vision and her mob henchmen would have peeled our skin off with cheese knives.” I folded the empty packet into an origami frog. “We did what we had to.”
“He – “ Ana took a deep breath. “He’s responsible for Kaplen. And every other innocent person on the Golden Moon.”
“Yeah,” I lied. “I’m sorry. That bitch outsmarted both of us.” Damn her. I thought there would be a betrayal, but after the escape, when we’d already done the hard work – not in the middle of the bloody operation. I still didn’t know how she’d gotten into the file room.
I was supposed to do the damn double-cross. I’d fucked up. The images of Samuel and Chimera Squad floated into my mind, alongside my father. Every day, they felt more distant, more like a faint memory from a past life. And Lyna Wethers’ face grew clearer.
Piece by piece, my loved ones were slipping away from me. If I got too used to life on the outside, I would never get to go home.
Ana hunched over, the grey veins on her neck bulging. “How am I going to sell this to Major Brin?”
“Sell what? It wasn’t an official mission.”
“But we still failed. And gave the enemy detailed information.” Ana counted off on her fingers. “They know the range and limits of my illusions. They know about your paper control, and your Vocation. The next time we fight them, they’ll be ready for us.”
The waitress arrived with my tea, and a basket full of sugar packets. I sighed, and started ripping them open by the dozen, using paper projection to pour them into my cup en masse. “I’m gonna need more booze.”
“This is a setback,” said Ana. “A huge one, especially when you factor in my living expenses. I don’t know if there’s any way to salvage this.”
“Maybe there is.” I put down my cup and sat up. “We take the papers back from Copycat.” My fingers tapped on the table in a rapid percussion. “I was projecting into those papers. She stole a single specific file.”
“ – Which means she knew what she was looking for,” said Ana. “And she filched something valuable.”
I jabbed my finger into the wood of the table. “Exactly. If we can take it, we don’t go back to Brin empty-handed.” And I can get some revenge on that smug asshole.
What if Copycat had already taken the papers I needed?
“I’m not sure,” said Ana. “We still don’t know what her Vocation is, and she trounced you the last time you two sparred. By this point, you’d think we’d learned our lesson about taking on enemies way above our weight class.”
I grabbed a cookie off of my plate, stuffed it into my mouth, and chewed it into a pulp. “We outsmarted Steel Violet.”
“We poked them and ran away.”
“It was smart running,” I said. “A tactical retreat after outmaneuvering them in the field of battle.”
“But even if we could take her,” said Ana. “How do we find her? She must know we escaped by now, and she knows we’re aware of the fighting pit. She’s not going to be in any of the obvious places. How are we supposed to track her down?”
My leg stopped bouncing. I projected into the pile of origami packets on the table and swept them into the trash. Then I smiled. “Through her unhealthy habits.”
Ana walked out of the Sanguine Smokehouse. She stepped into the alleyway I sat in.
“Did you get it?” Ana had illusions and the people inside would recognize my face.
She nodded. “Copycat said that she was leaving for a while and coming back in a few months. The people I talked to don’t know how to contact her. I used the disguise of Isaac Brin, so hopefully they won’t spill anything to our target.” She leaned against the wall. “What next?”
“We trawl all the nearby Ilaquan-style smokehouses,” I said, “With affordable pricing. If Raziah went here that often, she wouldn’t live too far away. We use your illusions to impersonate Copycat, and see if any of them recognize her. Failing that, we can also impersonate another Guardian or one of Tunnel Vision’s mobsters.”
Ana nodded. “I’ll get a phone book.”
It took three days and nine locations before we got our first lead. In between the fifth and the sixth, Ana stopped by a store to buy a short black cattle prod. “I don’t want to kill her,” she said. “And I don’t want to hurt her badly, if I can avoid it. My machine pistol won’t cut it. If I can get within range of my illusions, I can make it quick.”
“She’s not gonna let you get within range,” I said. “Moment she sees you, that girl’s gonna give you a projection wedgie that’ll rip you in half. Then she’ll throw you to the far side of town.”
On the seventh location, we met one of Tunnel Vision’s mob flunkies, a bald man with dark glasses. After Ana threw a disguise over our faces and voices, we asked about Copycat, and he gave a fascinating response.
“There’s a bounty on the bitch,” he drawled. “But only if she’s alive. She shows up dead, and we’ll force you into a mind-sphere and dump you in the ocean.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Thirty thousand pounds.”
I whistled. “A bounty from who?”
“You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
Despite my best efforts, the man refused to give up any more information on the bounty. He gave us his business card, a sleek yellow piece of paper, with a number on it to call if we ever caught her.
The amount was more than Brin would ever give for Afzal Kahlin’s files. For me, the incriminating papers were important, not the money. For Ana, though, it was the difference between life and death.
I’ll let her have all thirty thousand, I thought to myself. I would get the incriminating evidence and save my family, and Ana would get a fat stack of cash, almost enough to buy a new body.
A fair trade, one that made me feel better about double-crossing her.
After some discussion, Ana agreed to turn Copycat in for the bounty. The girl was a remorseless killer, and had betrayed us besides. When I imagined what Tunnel Vision’s mob might do to her, I pictured the mind-spheres we’d seen at the Commonplace headquarters. The ones being tortured with rock hammers.
I felt a twinge of guilt, but stifled it. You don’t owe her anything. For all we knew, they were just going to interrogate her and give her up to the police.
On the third day, we finally tracked Raziah – Copycat – down to a smokehouse on one of the outer islands, across a bridge from Lowtown. One of the men running the front desk recognized Raziah’s face, and gave us the time of her next appointment: Tomorrow, at 11:30 PM.
We staked her out from an alleyway, in a pool of darkness far away from any of the faint streetlamps. At a little over half past midnight, Ana spotted a young Ilaquan woman walking out the back door. Narrow eyes, unkempt black hair, sporting a bright yellow dress with a small purple hookah folded up in her bag. That’s her.
When Raziah turned a corner, we sprinted after her with our shoes off until Ana could use her Vocation. She’d pushed the range on her illusions to over thirty meters.
After that, we could tail her with no problem, as long as we didn’t make too much noise. To her, we were invisible.
We followed Copycat through the dark streets, past closed storefronts and dark houses. North Island was one of the lowest elevations in the city, and some of the buildings closest to the water had flooded. Rising water. A road that had run along the beach now sat partly underwater.
Raziah strode down it, walking across the moonlit surface of the water, hand stuck in her pockets. A colony of matrix fish swarmed beneath her feet.
Neither of us can do a water walk. I led Ana around the edge of the road, clambering over rubble and skirting away from puddles that would make loud noises. After a few minutes, Copycat turned towards the center of the island.
The streets were lit up ahead of her. As we walked, the buzz of human voices got louder and louder, and we found ourselves at the edges of a Neke night market.
That’s right. North Island was filled with Neke immigrants, and apparently, markets like this were everywhere in their home islands. The Hateshinai night market in the Floating City was rumored to span miles, dwarfing all the competition.
This one, in comparison, was small. And a bit dirty.
Roadblocks cordoned off two whole blocks. The streets overflowed with food stalls, carts, and trinket salesmen. Neke men and women hawked chicken skewers, sponge cake, and jewelry to customers from all over the city.
Raziah strode through, stopping to buy a glass bottle filled with a bubbling purple liquid and a fried takoyaki ball on a stick.
“Is this a trap?” said Ana. She reached into the pockets of her ratty black coat, feeling for her disassembled machine pistol and her cattle prod. “Could she be trying to lose us in the crowd?”
That girl gets frightened about everything. Even her illusion-voice sounded nervous.
Still, Copycat had ambushed me before.
I reached behind me and unzipped the top of my backpack with my good hand, freeing the stack of paper inside. Those Steel Violet bastards had taken my briefcase, so I had to make do with this.
After winding through the market, Raziah stepped into an alleyway behind a noodle stand. This must be close to where she lives. We followed her, and Ana assembled her gun, the pieces of the suppressed machine pistol floating together. Copycat stepped up to a house squeezed between two buildings and unlocked the front door. Something made a clicking noise in the wall in front of her.
Ana stepped close to Copycat, her feet clanging as they crossed a large metal grate over the ground. Blue lightning crackled around her, disguising the sound.
I caught a flit of movement out of the corner of my eye, something moving on a rooftop of an apartment high above us. On instinct, I shot my storm of paper upwards.
Ana collapsed onto the metal storm drain, convulsing. As my paper flew over the rooftop, a man poked his head over the top and leveled a dark purple sniper rifle at me. My paper landed on his neck, arms, and legs. Places that could be lethal if I cut them.
It took a moment to recognize his face. Clean-shaven, handsome, muscular. The Ilaquan from the pits. The man who’d rigged a fight with Copycat, and directed me to her weeks ago.
Raziah knelt behind Ana, wrapping her forearm around her throat. She grinned, and took a huge bite out of her takoyaki, chewing it slowly.
“Not bad,” she said, through a mouthful of food. “I almost didn’t notice you.”