"I see you."
I opened my eyes. Even in the dark quiet of the basement, my world seethed. Beneath the weight of the corpse draped over my lap, crammed into my safe place below the stairs, I felt the membrane of my sanity growing thin. I clutched the satchel at my side, breathing comfort at the soft ceramic clacks that came from its shifting contents.
"No you can't," I said. "I don't exist."
She crouched in the rafters above the stairs, peering down at me. Except for the vague silhouette of her body against the deeper shadows behind her, all I saw of her was a sliver of face, lit by a shaft of moonlight from the window across the room. She might have been fifteen or sixteen, only a handful of years older than myself, with the solid build and ruddy complexion of an Outlander. It seemed an easy conclusion that she didn't belong in the Academy.
"What's your name?" she asked. She tilted her head, and dark hair fell over glittering sapphire eyes.
"Laertes," I said.
"You're a Phantom," she said. "An assassin. Race of devils."
Phantom. That word came loaded with years of doctrine, pounded into my mind out of books and brains. "We are the architects of dreams," the prefects said, "artisans that work at the looms of human consciousness, weaving minds from memes, tapestries of belief from disjoint threads of thought." The mantras of our creed echoed in my mind, a chorus of demons awakened by the invocation of their name. And with them came, unbidden, the foreign prejudice of the man who lay in my lap.
Make sure you kill the little bastards. Every one of them.
"We only kill ideas," I said.
Her pretty teeth flashed out of a wry smile. "And people, sometimes."
I looked down. He was dead, sure enough. Hollow eyes stared out of a face that oozed blood from every orifice. I withdrew my probes from his hindbrain, lifted my hand off the back of his neck to watch them curl and whip as they retracted into my fingertips.
"It was an accident," I said. "He struggled."
She pointed at the badge on his chest. "He's a fed."
Outside, muffled by walls and distance, came the staccato cracks of automatic gunfire.
"There are feds everywhere," I said. "Killing everybody. The F'yer sent them. Do you know what 'coup' means?"
A pair of memories collided on that word, one recognizing it in that abstract, textbook context they pound into your head daily during classes; the other reacting to it with the cold detachment of a soldier sent to put it down.
"They're going to kill us. They have to kill all of us, so the rebels can't use us. It's okay, though. They're not going to find me. I don't exist."
She barked a laugh; uncurled from her hiding place in the crotch of a support bracket and hopped down onto the stairs. The sharp sound of her landing echoed through the basement.
"They're not going to kill me," she said. "Do I look like a damn Phantom?"
"They're going to burn this place to the ground."
"Then come on," she said. "Let's get out of here.
I stood up slowly, heaving against the body to roll it out of my way. I wiped my fingers on his tunic, not wanting to get blood everywhere. Idiotic anxieties chummed my mind — if the prefects found out, they'd lower my marks, and I'd get stuck cleaning showers for a week. And if the boys back in the unit found out I'd gotten iced by some kid, I'd never hear the end of it.
I shook the thoughts away, realizing how foolish they sounded … and that one of them wasn't even mine. I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes, trying to squeeze the crazy out. When I looked up again, I found the girl right in front of me.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked.
"Sorry," I said. "I'm okay. Just … muddled. Identity dissolution. Happens sometimes when you don't make a clean interface."
She looked at the body. "Clean interface…?" She shuddered. When she turned away again, I noticed the constellation of fresh punctures on the back of her neck. I winced.
"What's your name?" I asked as we climbed the steps to the basement door. "I don't recognize you from the Academy dorm."
"Kalla," she said. "I don't live here. Just seemed like a good place to get in out of the gunfire."
"I don't think—"
She threw her hand back to cover my mouth. "Don't blather," she said. "You talk, you get us both killed."
She ducked down near the top step to peer through the crack under the door. I looked out with her. No sign of anyone, no sounds of motion, but they might have stationed guards nearby, out of sight. And they'd be under orders to keep quiet, with their backs to the walls.
My attention drifted to the marks on her neck. I reached out to touch them, fascinated by their pattern. Not quite like I would expect a Phantom's marks to look like—
She wheeled around. For a second, I thought she might scream. She caught my wrist in a white-knuckled grip, fingers flexed like talons. "Don't touch me!" he hissed through clenched teeth. "Don't ever touch me!"
"Sorry. I thought … you might be hurt."
"I don't need you raping my mind!"
She glared at me for a second before turning back to the crack in the door. "I can't tell if there are any more out there," she said. "You can take them if there are, right? You handled the one down there just fine."
I shrugged. "He got sloppy," I said. "Came down to take a piss. Didn't keep his back to the wall."
"Are you sure it's them we need to worry about? What if they're here to protect you? Maybe it's the rebels who want to kill you?"
I glanced down into the darkness, at the faint moonlight glitter off the dead soldier's badge. "I'm sure," I said.
"Why would the F'yer want to butcher his own operatives?"
"We're only good for quelling insurrections before they go hot. No one thinks about what they're doing once the shooting starts. He has no use for us now, and we'll only be a liability if the rebels acquisition us."
"Not one much for state loyalty, are you?"
I shrugged again. "Not unless they make that part of my payload."
She glanced back at me over her shoulder, something unidentifiable in her eyes. An odd mixture of horror and intrigue … like she'd never heard any of the stories. Or maybe she'd only heard the true ones. Something flashed through her thoughts, so close to the surface that it cast a tantalizing shadow on her face. But she turned away before I could tease out an analysis. She pulled the door open a crack and whispered urgently, "Go."
"We don't know what's out there."
"We won't unless we check — and we can't stay here! Now go! If there's anyone out there, you can sneak up on them, too. Hurry!"
I poked my head through the door, half expecting it to be blown off. Not a sound. Not a movement anywhere. Just the cool brush of a draft through an open window, the vague mingling scent of cinnamon and spiced oils off the stainless steel surfaces of the kitchen the door opened into.
"Hold this," I said, thrusting my satchel into Kalla's arms.
"What is it?"
"Holographic storage. Mindstate backups of the headmaster and his council. They tell us, if anything goes wrong, to get copies from the vault and run away. I figure, things can't be any more wrong than this."
"That's your headmaster?"
"No. Just a snapshot of his mind. The headmaster is dead. Soldier in the basement killed him. They can re-embody him, if I can get him out of here."
I unbuttoned my shirt; dropped my pants. Kalla crouched on the edge of the stair, fingering the clasp of the satchel and eyeing me narrowly. I caught my breath as the cold air hit my skin, closed my eyes and tried to focus on the sensation — turning it inside out, following its roadmap into myself. I found that deeply buried fiber of instinct and tugged it. I flushed, a rush of blood boiling to the surface of my skin. It burned through me, churning heat as the chromatophores at the top of my dermis dilated and swelled. I glanced down at my hand, at the creeping shade sliding over it, itching toward my fingertips.
I smiled at Kalla, though by now she would only see my teeth and eyes. "Demons of air and darkness," I said. "The stories are true."
I nudged her back down the stair and eased the door open. Stepping out, nose up, ears open, I surveyed the room again, eyes wide to drink the darkness.
I wondered at the time, at how long he'd been in that basement, and how much longer it would be before the soldiers pulled out and the bombers moved in. Two mental maps floated superpositioned in my head — one with the routes I took every day to and from classes, the other with meticulously studied patterns of suppression. They knew these corridors as well as I did. It should have been impossible to hide from them. But they also knew which hiding places lay in blind alleys. Why waste bullets when the firebombs were on their way?
A few paces from the door, a whiff of sweaty musk threaded under my nose. I hit the wall, willing myself flat, praying they didn't have thermal gear pointed in my direction. There, leaning in the doorway across the room, I found the first one. He leaned with his back to the wall, visor up, sweating in the subtropical night. Follow his eyes … and there his partner paced, his back to me, meandering along my wall.
I minced closer, careful to pick my feet up, feeling every press of footpads onto the cold hardwood — envisioning blazing thermal footprints trailing back to the door. Speed and stealth are never synergistic … but often one is the greater of the other. I curled my toes, hunting that opening. That one unguarded moment….
He turned, and I moved — a flash against the shadows. The other one must have seen something, because he jumped. But before he'd fumbled a useful hold on his rifle, I had his fellow by the neck. I drilled my probes under the cuff of his helmet, through the foramen magnum and into the medulla. No time to subvert the motor cortex, so I simply pumped a charge into his hindbrain, and he went rigid — standing there with me like a translucent monkey on his back, this horrified look frozen to his face.
I grabbed the sidearm off his hip and pumped a short burst into his partner's face. He staggered back two reflexive steps and then dropped onto one knee. He slumped to the floor, and his visor fell shut.
Quiet settled, laced with the dying ring of gunshots.
"Let's play a game," I whispered to the one in my grip. I willed the probes deeper, imagining them branching through his brain in intricate fractal patterns, machines the size of molecules scattering from their probe tips, suffusing his mind, subverting his neurons and screaming his thoughts back through the hissing noise of life.
The interface came quick and easy this time. Crack the mind; drink its understanding. They don't supply us with payloads unless we're meant for a mission. So all I had to give him in return was my own fear. He started shaking as I drew away, retracting my probes. He dropped into a quivering heap, sobbing at the deaths of friends and family he had never known.
I put the pistol to the back of his neck and fired.
I don't recall dropping the gun, or sitting down beside the body. Kalla's touch shook me out of a deep haze, exploding across my forearm, driving slivers of reality through the surface tension of my thoughts.
"He's here!" I said. My mouth moved for me, echoing the memories of two men now, crowding me out of my head. "The F'yer is here! He's hunting us! He wants to see to it personally that they kill every last one of us, before they take him away into hiding!"
"You're not cloaked anymore. Why aren't you cloaked?"
I looked at her. Her eyes had gone dark and looming with panic. "You will know him not by his face, but by his word," I said. "He's hunting us. He's hunting…."
She hauled me up and slung my arm over her shoulder. "Don't check out on me, dammit. I need you to get me out of here. Which way to a safe exit? I don't know this place like you do."
"That door," I said. "Turn left. Keep low." I saw their patrols now; knew where each of them had last checked in from. I saw them on my mental map, and by virtue of the updated dataset my second take had provided me, I saw how they were moving.
"Where are the backups?"
"Right here," she assured me. "Walk, dammit! Don't make me drag you."
I got my feet under myself and made them move. Whether or not I was walking — I guess she didn't complain, so I must have been. She led me through the corridors, poking frantic glances down adjoining hallways as she crossed junctions. She knew the layout better than I'd expected. I wondered how long she had been here, and how she'd avoided the patrols on her own.
"Laertes?" We'd come to a locked door. "Where's the key?"
"It's automatic, but they've cut the power."
"Damn!" She shoved me against the wall and turned her attention to a window. Those old, rusty latches had never been opened in my recollection. I smiled as I watched her trying to wrench it open, heaving the weight of her body against a little lever barely the size of her finger.
And those marks on her neck snagged my notice again, dark against the porcelain glow of her skin in the moonlight. Were those a Phantom's marks? Had she run into another student before me? Maybe he'd had a payload….
I reached toward her, curiosity overriding caution, probes sliding from their sheaths.
"Help me!" she snarled.
I caught her arm as she jerked back. The probe tips bit flesh, and she froze. Her face contorted into an expression I'd never seen. "Oh, God, no!" she mouthed, but no sound escaped her lips.
I slid the probe along the loose spine of an adolescent into the brain. That seat of humanity, unupholstered by contrived appearances. The substance of the mind laid bare. Somewhere in there dwelt the resolution to a contradiction I had only just noticed. In the midst of a swirling haze of crazy … that one thing suddenly came clear.
Her thoughts were plastic, unset like a sculpture waiting for the kiln. Someone had been here not long ago, and had delivered a payload that had changed everything. A pang of guilt shot through me. I wondered if she even remembered who she'd been before … but it was gone. Shades of a past, tucked into the deepest recesses of the subconscious, suppressed, displaced by the complex machinations of heavy neurological restructuring. I wondered how long a hack like this would take. Not a hack, but a total rewrite. Her name was Kalla … but the Kalla now was not the Kalla who'd been born with that name.
"You will know me not by my face, but by my word," I said.
"Tell me," I whispered. "Tell me … and I'll hide you so that no one will ever know…."
Schadenfreude. The word bubbled through her thoughts at the same time her lips curled around it. I touched her cheek, and flashed her that wry, feral smile she had first shown me, but that I only now really understood.
And I unloaded the only payload I could find: All the crazy, all the composite chaos of two minds snipped from their native substrate and packed into a young boy's skull. It wouldn't take; it wouldn't integrate well, even if I'd had years to work on it. It would be a bad sculpture, shaped out of the malleable bulk of a shattered mind … but it would be the one to set in the kiln of time. By the time anyone found out, it would be too late to fix it.
The locked door burst open, splintering part of its frame. Dust and light poured in from the far side. Squinting into it, I saw the muzzles of weapons and the glint off military helmets. I raised an arm to shield my eyes, and retracted my probes from Kalla's neck under its cover.
"Show your face!" the soldier shouted.
"Schadenfreude," I grunted, never lowering my arm.
A beat of silence, and one of the rifles lowered.
"F'yer Aurick? We have to leave, sir. The bombers are on their way."
I let them take me, let them carry me out the door, my satchel clutched in my arms. One of them stopped next to Kalla, weapon poised over her as she lay curled on the floor, quietly weeping. Silently screaming.
"What about her? Who is she?"
"Just some girl," I said. "Take her clear and let her go. She's no threat to anyone."