Illusion 1, Chapter VII

by Mallard

Mallard’s note: thanks and apologies to China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station, for this chapter. Those who have read the book may notice that I stole a certain small concept.

* * * * * * * *

I wasn’t the only one made nervous by the sewers. The kidnappers bunched up around the automat, as if taking shelter in its bulk, staying only far enough to avoid being speared by one of its ungainly steps. Those I could see kept their fingers on their triggers, and I wasn’t sure if I was more nervous by where we were or by the thought of the men behind us having the same reaction.

No, I shouldn’t lie to myself. At least with guns, you know exactly what you’re in for; I was far more frightened of the sewers.

Even Jedediah Millston, dean of KAMA and one of the most practiced life mages I know did not venture to the sewers lightly. It wasn’t a matter of strength. Anyone, from child to strongman could be taken by some of the nastier creatures in the sewer, or poisoned by the strange, semi-sentient lichens that grew all along the walls. And to slip and fall in the water could be just as bad, if not worse, as chemicals mixed and melded in ways that had never been intended. There’s that old, most likely apocryphal, story of the Paper Man that every child is told, either by parents to instill caution or by bullies to instill fear. Probably a newspaper deliveryman, the Paper Man was carrying a stack of newspapers beneath the city. Why he was delivering papers in the sewers is unknown, and irrelevant. Unbalanced by his stack, he slipped on a patch of mud and fell into the water. Almost at once, his skin began to turn to parchment, his blood to ink. His eyes became nothing more than ink drawings, and though he was no longer human, he was still fully conscious. When he tried to climb out of the water, he simply fell apart, as his skin tore like the thin paper it was. He died screaming, and left behind nothing but a mass of soggy scrip and a spot of dark ink that slowly dispersed.

Apocryphal maybe, but given what I’ve seen and heard of the sewers, and what I’ve seen in some of the research laboratories at the academy, I wouldn’t put it outside the realm of possibility.

To my relief, and that of my captors, we only spent a total of maybe twenty minutes in the sewers before we took another side tunnel. This one was much better constructed than the paths we had taken before, a proper concrete tunnel rather than a rat’s highway through random structures. It ended in a heavy steel door, the solidity of which was reassuring until I got close enough to see the enormous dents and gouges in the solid chunk of foot-thick steel. Something had clearly tried to get through, and despite the shear mass of the door, had come a lot closer than was comforting.

We had several tense moments while the leader of the group manipulated the door, and I heard a quiet chittering behind us as we filed through. I was all too happy when the heavy door slammed shut behind us, bolts as thick as my leg driving into the stone walls on all four sides of the door.

With the entrance to the sewers sealed off, everyone relaxed somewhat. All except the two guarding Robert and I put their pistols into holsters or rested their army-issue rifles against a wall. One of them took a lantern and moved off a little into the distance, and a moment later, gaslight flooded the area as the wall lamps glowed to gentle life. These were the first working lamps I had seen since entering the sewers, and I wondered whether these wild mechanics had repaired them or whether they were regularly used.

The lights revealed a large tiled chamber, with several other doors also sealed off with steel doors. One caught my eye in particular, emblazoned with the all-too-familiar crest of KAMA: a stylized branching tree, winged on one side by a bright sun, on the other by a dark moon. It was a symbolic representation of the three general fields of magic: naturalism, life magic, and mentalism. For the curious, I fall under the first group, though several layers deep. As an illusionist, I am a practitioner of light magic, which is a subset of fire, which of course is a subset of naturalism. Most mages are naturalists of some sort, once you dig deep enough.

The presence of the crest meant that the door led to one of the many deep basements of the university, where dangerous chemicals and books were stored, where they held labs for the advanced students, and where some particularly shady business was conducted. Not officially, of course. Jedediah Millston wouldn’t stand for it. But not all of his faculty had the same moral backbone, and there is quick money to be made in peddling various potions and papers among the criminal underground, and it was an ongoing problem for both the university and the police.

Robert and I were unshackled from the chains welded to the automat’s back, and led to sit in a corner. The leader–who still showed no obvious magical malady though every member of his little band had some visible injury–told us in a bored voice that if we moved, we would be killed. It was unsettling. I have found that the captors who appear to care the least are often the most dangerous.

Once again I was surprised by the efficiency of the little band. The sled was unloaded in record time, the wooden boxes stacked once again to one side, and the band got to work dismantling the harness. No one bothered to cover the boxes now, and I was not at all surprised to see the word “DANGER” stenciled in red on the side of each crate. Explosives, perhaps, or poison. The automat was clearly designed to drill through the outer wall of the university–or, more likely, to drill out the locks on the door–and carry the contents of those boxes inside. Ultimately it didn’t matter what was in them; it could hardly be flowers and puppies. Though, releasing a pack of curious pups in some of those labs could certainly cause a lot of damage…

But I digress.

No one paid attention to us now, focused as they were on the automat. Whatever they were doing would probably go quickly. If I was going to do anything, it had to happen now. I leaned against the wall, bringing up my knees and resting my manacled wrists on them. No one glanced our way. I was just shifting to a more comfortable sitting position, not getting ready to rush them, after all.

Now the tricky part. I know exactly what I look like, having spent much time studying my appearance in the mirror. It’s not vanity, but necessity, if I’m to make a realistic illusion of myself. But I didn’t know what I looked like at just that moment. I’m sure my face was dirty, my clothing rumbled, my hair unkempt. I couldn’t duplicate it exactly.

But then again, I didn’t have to.

One thing that few consciously realize about illusion is that most people don’t expect it. At least, if you do it right. If a slobbering fantastical beast suddenly appears in a room, people will get startled, but unless that’s your only goal, they’ll soon realize that it can’t be real and will dismiss it as an illusion. But, however impressive such monsters might be, I’ve found the best illusions are the most subtle. Like making a comrade in battle appear two steps to one side, so that well-aimed bullets fly harmlessly past. Or making a bayonet look a few inches shorter, so the enemy reacts just a hair slower, and dies instead of dodging. Or, making it look as if you are sitting still against a wall, resigned to your fate, when you are in fact inching slowly to your right to get to a position behind Robert.

The boy started when he felt my fingers on his head, but he made no noise and soon I managed to loosen his gag just a little, despite the manacles. Enough so that he might talk. He turned, and his eyes widened in surprise as he saw only stone wall, and myself apparently sitting a couple feet away, staring off into the distance.

“What–” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. I shook my head, but of course he couldn’t see me. I bent forward, bumping against his bound hands with my head. He jumped, but managed only a thin squeak that didn’t carry far. I hated to think it, but it was probably fortunate that he had been bound and gagged for the better part of four days. The less noise he could make, the better.

Credit where it’s due though: the kid was no idiot. It took him a few seconds to find the knot on my gag, but he knew what I wanted and managed to untie it without too much trouble.

“Thanks,” I hissed. He merely nodded, staring several inches to the left of where my head actually was, seeing only the blanket of stone wall I had pulled over myself. If he concentrated, he might see ripples when I moved, but could not see my features any more than the kidnappers.

“Are you well enough to talk?” I asked. I hated what I needed to do, and I would much rather have let the boy rest, but I didn’t have a lot of choice. Again, Robert nodded, though his face looked gaunt and drawn.

“What do you know about these people?” I whispered. The more I knew, the more options might be open to me. More than the zero I had at the moment, anyway.

“They hate magic,” he said instantly, as if that was their sole defining characteristic. Which was a succinct beginning, and nothing I hadn’t expected. “It’s all they talk about. I think they want to hurt everyone who uses magic,” he continued. Which was also not surprising. “They’re going to blow up the foundation pillars in the university,” he finished.

They were going to what the what?

My first response was that it was ludicrous. The product of clearly deranged minds. The foundation pillars were solid stone and as wide as I was tall. A single automat could never…

Could it?

And if it could, what would that mean?

KAMA, like all of the city, had grown from humble beginnings and to no particular direction. The basements had been added some time after the main aboveground structures, and in order to keep the building from collapsing in on itself, enormous columns had been put in place to support the incredible weight of the building. Destroying them was an unlikely proposition, but if the automat succeeded…if even one pillar were taken out, great swaths of the aboveground structure would collapse, causing irreparable damage and killing or injuring hundreds. It wouldn’t destroy the university utterly. But it wouldn’t need to. Acts of terrorism never need to. It was a statement to these people. Harmed by magic in the war, hurt in ways that should have been impossible, they were lashing out in the most direct way they could. It was a statement, and a terrible one.

I didn’t bother questioning Robert further, and he volunteered no information. I worried that he was so quiet and withdrawn, and I knew he was going to be in for some intensive therapy if I ever got him back topside.

When. I meant when.

The anti-magic group worked diligently, oblivious to our whispered conversation. I moved back to take the place of my illusion, so I wouldn’t have to hold on to it any more. If one of them looked my way right during the transition, they would have seen my outlines shift slightly as my real body took the place of the fake image. But that could easily be mistaken as a trick of the light, or a full-body twitch on my part, or fatigue on theirs. Like I said: no one expects to be fooled. Illusion capitalizes heavily on this.

The sled that had carried the explosives was taken apart and put back together, as a sort of saddle or harness that gripped the back of the monstrous automat. Chains dribbled from the fixture all across the automat’s back, and I realized their purpose as the group began to unpack the wooden boxes, taking the small explosive spheres from within and securing them carefully to the automat’s back.

As they fitted the explosives on the harness, several of the mechanics lifted armor plates on hidden hinges, raising them up and down, as if testing a mechanism. I had thought the plates were all solidly welded together to protect the machine, but they weren’t armor at all, I now saw. They were blast plates. And though they looked random and childish while they lay flat on the automat’s back, once the men raised them into position, they formed a crude but effective shield behind various explosives, designed to reflect and direct the explosive energy in one direction only. Not all the plates lifted properly on their hidden hydraulics, and I realized that this final stage must have been what they were working on when Scott and I had caught them in the act. It wasn’t optimal now, but then, it really didn’t need to be. It would work. I was more and more convinced of this fact as they continued to unpack boxes, stacking explosives all over the automat, one layer deep, then two, then three, so that it looked like nothing so much as a dust-covered mite blown up to ridiculous size.

It was only when the empty boxes were being stacked to one side that I noticed the two chains welded to the plates of the automat had been left empty. They weren’t meant for explosives.

The group turned toward us, their intent obvious now that I knew the plan. There was no time for finesse. I took a deep breath and pulled in the lamplight around us, then sent it forth.

“Don’t say a word,” I hissed at Robert, and a second later, two crude clones of us burst into being and began to run along the wall toward the nearest door, one that did not lead to the sewers.

Sudden gunfire filled the stone chamber, deafening me in the enclosed space. Bullets struck stone harmlessly, and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief that all the guns were aimed at my phantoms, and not at us.

“Grab them!” the leader roared, the first show of any emotion I had seen from him. The others continued to fire, the slightly softer explosions of multi-shot pistols alternating with the ear-shattering booms of the rifles.

My phantoms turned the corner, as I pulled Robert awkwardly in the other direction. We couldn’t move fast, hobbled as we were by the shackles and the need to make no noise. But we moved.

They realized the ruse when one of the men, out of bullets, ran after the the two illusions through the door they had just “exited” into a dark tunnel. Which meant that he ran headlong into a solid steel door. He roared in pain and grabbed his face, temporarily drowning the gunfire.

“Magic,” one of them spat, and at the moment I couldn’t blame them. Not exactly. Their reaction might be wrong, but could you really fault such a group, harmed by the arcane arts as they were, for hating mages? I know what it’s like to be full of righteous feeling, and it’s easy to want to harm someone to pay for your own hurts. Wrong, but easy.

“Enough,” the leader said, his voice as flat as before, the earlier anger choked out of his tone. “Guard the exit. You two, start the automat.” His men scurried to obey, keeping one hand on their pistols, and a moment later the automat shuddered to life, chains and explosives rattling alarmingly. It took a hesitant step forward, then another, regaining its stumbling gait from before.

“We are leaving.” He overrode the shouts of anger that this prompted and directed the group toward the door to the sewers. I realized what he was doing, and couldn’t help but feel a flash of respect. Rather than chase an effectively invisible enemy around the room, he would just leave and lock me in to die.

And Robert.

“Take the boy!” I shouted, and as one the group raised their guns, pointing them into empty space.

“I would have,” came the calm reply. “Only you need die, mage. The boy was innocent, until you took him. He holds no responsibility for the harm that was done to me and mine by the Republic. But because of your actions, he will die. Perhaps you will feel something for that, in your last moments of life.” He seemed to hesitate, to struggle with something internally, and as he did so his band filed out through the steel door behind him. “He deserves to die no more than she did. In doing this, perhaps I become no better than you. But I have no choice now.” He withdrew, then hesitated again. He reached into his pocket and pulled something from within. A pistol. My pistol, I realized a moment later.

“Do the child a favor, mage,” he said, and tossed the weapon into the room. And then he was gone, and the only sound was that of the laden automat, lumbering slowly toward the door to KAMA, and the foundation pillars.

The chamber was big, but not big enough. In an enclosed area, if the bombs did not kill Robert and I outright, they would suck away the oxygen and we would merely suffocate to death. I needed to stop it. But how? I am an illusionist. A very good one, too. I can fool any human alive, any living thing almost.

But an automat is metal and steam and clockwork. It has no mind to trick. There was nothing my magic could do. And Robert and I would die for it.

* * * * * * * *
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