Samuel wasn’t supposed to break under pressure.
He’d been trained. His mind had been molded by years of intense study under impossible conditions, so that even when he was sleep-deprived, wounded, exhausted, and desperate, he could wade through the fiery nightmare of a modern battlefield and save lives.
Paragon Academy’s curriculum was fine-tuned to keep every student exhausted and terrified and constantly studying, in preparation for the struggles they’d face as Guardians. But Samuel had remained cool and rational through it all, through three-hour duels and ten-page essays and weeks of night patrol. His grades were the best of anyone he knew.
Recently, a criminal had blown his leg off with a shotgun, turning his knee into a shredded tangle of flesh and pain. And he still hadn’t panicked. He’d pushed through the pain to alert the nearest guards, and get paramedics on scene before there was any serious damage.
So why was today different?
A wave of water crashed into him, twice as tall as he was and many times as wide. It threw him back, driving him away from Chimera Squad and towards the edge of the arena. Samuel forced his eyes shut as it jetted into his face, filling his mouth.
He projected into the metal cable next to him, wrapping one end around his hand. The other end shot towards the flagpole in the middle of the squad, curling around it several times. The line went taut, anchoring him, and he jerked to a halt, water rushing past him.
When the wave passed, Samuel dropped to his knees. Brushing a wet strand of dark blonde hair out of his face, he squinted in the afternoon sun, scanning his surroundings.
Chimera Squad, dressed up in combat suits, was surrounding a flag planted on the top of the grassy hill at the center of the pavilion. He noted Eliya, floating two large ice shards behind her. Leizu, swinging a heavy double-sided glaive like it was a twig.
And the imposter. The one who had stolen Nell’s body and started this misery.
The flag, like the armbands they all wore, was painted a bright green. Our opponents, wearing orange bands, flanked them from two diagonals. The members of Golem Squad.
Naruhiko, the Neke boy who had launched the wave, gathered up water behind him from pools and puddles, preparing another tsunami. Lorne Daventry, Golem’s leader, floated thirty feet above him, riding a large pile of scrap metal like it was a magic carpet.
As Samuel ran back up the hill, Deon, another Golem member touched his palm to the ground, and a thick ring of grass around the base of the hill turned pitch black, crumbling into powder, with a single opening on the side opposite to Samuel. His vocation. With a touch, Deon could project into large swaths of organic material and transform them into coal dust.
A spark materialized on the tip of his finger, and he tapped the edge of the circle. It exploded into a wall of flames, and Samuel crawled back to evade it. His suit would protect him from any serious burns or injuries, but only for a limited time. He was cut off from the rest of his squad, and the flag they were supposed to defend.
The last Golem charged forward through the opening, yelling. Kaplen Ingolf.
Kaplen floated a pair of plywood boards in front of him as shields, shooting a wooden rod forward in an attempt to hook Eliya’s green armband and take her out of the match. Foolish, thought Samuel. Those aren’t thick enough to block anything.
Sure enough, Eliya sidestepped his attack and shot one of her chunks of ice at him, smashing the wood into splinters. A second later, she extended her hand towards him and pinched her thumb and index finger together. Kaplen went limp, collapsing to the ground and rolling down the hill, accidentally dodging an orb of energy thrown by Nell.
Mental stunning. Eliya’s Whisper Vocation. It was only temporary, though. Three seconds later, Kaplen was crawling to his feet, dirt and grass staining his face.
While he was occupied, Eliya broke her other chunk of ice into shards, and shot them behind her at the fire. They evaporated, cutting a temporary path through the ring of flames. She sprinted through it, heading straight for Samuel. After a moment’s hesitation, Nell followed her.
Leizu, the last one still inside, grabbed the flagpole with one hand, and ripped it out of the ground. That thing was planted in concrete. Not a problem for a joiner of Leizu’s caliber. She leapt twenty feet into the air, soaring over the flames with the flag one hand and her double-bladed glaive in the other, looking like some angel of patriotism descending from the sky.
Lorne shot a pair of metal strips towards her armband. She spun in midair and kicked them aside like they were made of cardboard.
Chimera Squad regrouped around Samuel, and together, they all sprinted away from the burning hill.
“Plan?” shouted Leizu, looking at Samuel. Eliya nodded assent.
Samuel looked at his watch. Three minutes remaining. If they held onto their flag or took all of Golem’s orange armbands, they would win the match, starting the school year off in a solid position on the leaderboard.
Lorne’s team was famously good at wide-area attacks. In the past, Chimera had used Nell’s paper projection to block their vision and separate them, relying on her improvised tactics to take their armbands one by one.
But their squad leader was gone now. Replaced by a stranger who looked and sounded exactly the same. No thanks to you. Samuel had studied with her, lent her his lecture notes, and steered her away from heavy drinking before exams, but in the end, none of it had been enough. He’d failed her.
“Samuel!” yelled Eliya, shaking him out of his fugue. “If we just stand here, they are going to slaughter us.”
“I – “ Samuel stuttered. “I think we can – “
Naruhiko finished collecting water and launched another tidal wave, twice as large as before. A dozen yards away from them, it broke, spilling around them in all directions. Before any of Chimera could react, they were surrounded by a thick dome of muddy water, sealing them off and blocking their vision.
Tiny holes opened up in the barrier, and a pair of wooden rods shot at them. Kaplen. Another second later, two planks flew from the opposite end, missing them. A clump of coal dust followed them, exploding in Leizu’s face, though she barely reacted.
“Back to back!” Samuel shouted. They gathered around the flag, blocking attacks from the north, south, east, and west from opponents they couldn’t see.
While Eliya swatted aside a clod of coal, a strip of copper dropped from above and wrapped around her armband, ripping it off. It flew straight up through a hole in the ceiling, and into the hand of a grinning Lorne.
Samuel shot a metal cable at him, and he zipped to the side, the hole closing below him. He’s whittling us down. Using Chimera’s own tactics against them.
Eliya pulled off her helmet and threw it to the ground, fuming. Waves of her platinum blonde hair spilled out from underneath, somehow still perfect and unmussed. Now it’s four on three.
Work the problem, thought Samuel. They’re spread out, hitting us from all sides, counting on us to stay defensive. What weren’t they expecting?
“Sideways!” he shouted. “Group up and hit them while they’re spread out!”
As the next piece of wood flew towards them, Nell leapt towards the source without signaling, anti-projection light materializing in a flat circle around her fists. She punched through the dome of water.
Samuel followed her, and Leizu hesitated a moment before pulling out the flag again and mirroring him, charging through the gap where Naruhiko’s Pith had been pushed out. The remains of Chimera squad surrounded Kaplen, their chosen target.
Suddenly facing three people, Kaplen’s eyes widened with panic, and he shot pieces of wood in every direction. One of them hit Deon, his own teammate, in the face, knocking him down. As he fell, Samuel snaked a steel cable underneath his orange armband and yanked it off. 3v3 now.
Leizu bounced from side to side, weaving through Kaplen’s assault, and tore off his armband with ease. 3v2. She spun around him, running back to Samuel. Naruhiko appeared at the top of the water dome, standing on the top where Lorne used to be. Lorne himself was nowhere to be seen.
Naruhiko swung his hands forward, turning the dome into another tidal wave crashing towards Chimera, three stories tall. He rode on top, staring down at them.
Leizu tossed Samuel the flagpole, then leapt straight up, towards Naruhiko. Samuel projected into his suit, flinging himself to the side.
Nell floated upwards after Leizu, balls of energy coalescing in her palms. “Wait!” he shouted. “We need to defend the flag!” We’re not coordinating.
Naruhiko bent back to dodge Nell’s flung orb. Leizu came from beneath, leaping through his blind spot. She whipped her leg around, kicking him in the stomach and knocking the air out of him. Her hand lashed out in a blur, ripping his armband off. 3v1. Just one more enemy left.
Samuel heard a loud ripping sound next to him and spun to confront its source.
Lorne stood next to him, holding the flag in his hand. He tore it off.
The student referee blew the whistle. The match was over.
Samuel slumped over, and Nell and Leizu floated to the ground next to him, scowling. Naruhiko flicked his hand, sending the wave off to the other end of the pavilion, where it spread out over the grass, harmless.
Applause rang out to the left, and Samuel turned, seeing a small crowd of students in uniforms on the bleachers, cheering and clapping. First years. The bridges and hallways of Paragon were teeming with them, loud and awkward masses all excited for Welcome Week, and the upcoming first day of classes. They have no idea what’s in store for them.
Lorne cheered with them, so loud he was almost roaring. He whooped, pumping his fists and clapping Naruhiko and Deon on the back. He looked at Samuel, his cheers turning into snorts of laughter. “Nicely done, Razor Bull!” Samuel’s nickname, after his Vocation. “Top-notch coordination!” He snickered. “You and your fiancé work great together.” He pulled off his helmet, his pitch black hair sweaty and disheveled.
Samuel didn’t dignify him with a reply. But he’s right. Without the real Nell’s barrage of instant tactics and battlefield control, Chimera Squad crumbled. This placement match alone put them in the bottom half of the standings for the semester. And given their performance, much worse was in store.
With the match over, the first-years filed out of the pavilion, clomping across the wooden bridge back to the main floating island of the academy.
Kaplen walked away, silent, probably trying to avoid attention. Lorne turned to him, and his smile curdled. “Ingolf!” he shouted. “Get back here!”
Kaplen sidled back towards Lorne and the rest of Golem Squad. He removed his helmet, showcasing his round, cherubic face and short red hair. His bright blue eyes were wide, imploring. “Lorne, I am so sorry. And Deon, any body maintenance fees are on me, of course.” Deon squeezed his nose, blood dripping out of it, glaring at Kaplen.
Lorne clapped Deon and Naruhiko on the back, muttering words of encouragement, then turned to Kaplen. “We almost lost,” he said. “Because you hit your own teammate in the face.”
Kaplen flashed him a forced smile, voice wavering. “But we didn’t! All thanks to you and your agility! Have you taken flight classes already? Really, I think we’re set as long as we have yo – ”
“You realize how much you’re embarrassing yourself, right? The more you talk, the more everyone realizes how moronic you are,” Lorne growled. “If you shut your mouth more, people might not mistake you for a Humdrum so often.”
I can’t just watch this. “It’s disgraceful,” Samuel called out. “To speak to your subordinate that way. No one wants to follow a leader who dishonors his men in such a way.“
Lorne glared at Samuel, then grabbed Kaplen by the back of the neck, steering him towards the bleachers and growling into his ear. Kaplen didn’t resist, a dejected look on his face. This isn’t the first time he’s messed up.
The two of them crossed the bridge, returning to the main island of the academy. Judging by Lorne’s expression, Samuel could almost believe he was going to throw Kaplen off the side, to send him plummeting thousands of feet into the ocean.
Leizu and Eliya strode towards him, forming a circle on the grass. Leizu’s hard shoulders were tensed. Her calloused fingers clenched into fists. Eliya scowled.
Samuel sighed. We’re better than this. “Alright, let’s analyze what we could have done better.”
“We don’t have Nell,” said Eliya, folding her manicured fingers together. “We lost our core offense, and our instant recon. And as a leader, you’re much slower and less effective.”
Way to sugarcoat it, Eliya. “Yes, and – “
Leizu held up a hand, yanking off her helmet and freeing her black bob of hair, soaked with sweat. “This is on me. I fucked up. With my joining and enhanced reactions, I should have stayed with the flag, not charged ahead. Samuel can tie bastards up and he can cut them in half, but he’s not great on defense.”
The fake Nell approached the group from behind, biting her lip. She was hunched over, black hair falling in front of her eyes. “If I’m not speaking out of turn, I think I was probably too aggress – “
“Good point, Leizu,” said Samuel, interrupting her. Don’t acknowledge her presence. “Scholars, I hate losing to Daventry.”
“Lorne, right? Yeah, that guy seemed rude,” the imposter Nell again, leaning into the circle, though nobody made an opening for her. “Is he always such a bad winner?”’
Eliya followed Samuel’s lead, talking past the girl as if she weren’t there. “And I was looking forward to so much this year.”
Nell looked back and forth, confused. “I’m sorry, am I interrupting someth – “
“Fuck Lorne.” Leizu ignored the fourth member of the squad. “The prick took advantage of our loss.” She clenched her fingers around her helmet, causing cracks to spiderweb on the surface. “I bet he laughed when he heard she got Ousted.”
The imposter Nell looked at Samuel, lips pursed. “Squad leader, if I could participate in these discussions, I think we could improve much faster.”
Samuel kept ignoring her. She’ll get the hint sooner or later. Chimera Squad had been shrugging Nell’s Ousted replacement off in this way for the entire past week, ignoring all attempts at conversation, responding only for the most basic necessities.
You think we’d forget what you did to our leader? Our best friend? Samuel had told the squad the results of his secret meetings in the Ebbridge gardens. The real Nell couldn’t even hear her own name anymore. She was scared and isolated and deep in her bottles, throwing herself into danger at the slightest possibility of returning to her family.
And you abandoned her, said a voice in Samuel’s head, making his stomach tighten. When she needed you most, you threw her away to rot and drink herself to oblivion. After Admiral Ebbridge had threatened to expose his illegal meetings, Samuel stayed up the entire night agonizing over the decision to separate. He sprinted laps around Paragon’s grounds until his shins ached and he was dry heaving off the edge of the bridges, staring down into the black ocean below.
In the end, resisting the Admiral seemed like a pointless act of defiance, something that would just get him Ousted along with Nell, and hurt his squadmates even more. Cutting off contact was the sensible choice, the rational choice. He’d already broken enough rules.
That didn’t mean he had to like it, though. That won’t be the last night you’ll lose sleep over it.
The fake Nell walked away, slumped over, dejected. A part of Samuel twinged with sympathy, and he suppressed the instinct to run after her and hug her. That’s not Nell.
She had the same bright green eyes, the same dark hair and glowing smile. But it was all wrong. The sharp gaze and heart-shaped face he’d grown to love were now owned by a stranger.
A stranger who he was now expected to marry and live with for the rest of his life. The entire tradition of Ousting is lunacy.
“Brooding won’t help, Samuel.” Leizu put a firm hand on his shoulder, interrupting his train of thought. “Let’s get you some food. Dinner at The Silver Flask?”
Samuel nodded slowly. One foot, then the next. He followed her and the others headed for the bridge. The school year was starting in a few days. He could think about other things besides his fiancé. Besides the marriage pact his family was still pressuring him into, even after the real Nell got Ousted. One step, then another.
The Silver Flask was every Academy student’s favorite hangout spot. It had everything: twenty-four-hour breakfast food, caffeine, a soda fountain, and the perfect combination of prestige and coziness to appeal to all levels of wealth. It was only two blocks from the cable car station in Hightown, which meant easy access, and even on the days before exams, it always had enough tables and couches to seat everyone.
Samuel prodded a steak and kidney pie with his spoon, feeling the crust give underneath. It was otherwise untouched.
“Eat, dumbass,” said Eliya, glaring at him. She sliced a tiny sliver off her fish and chips, inserting it into her mouth. “Being hungry won’t help you either.”
Samuel stabbed the pie, digging out a spoonful of steaming meat and pastry.
The front door burst open, and Leizu strode through, clutching a piece of paper in her fist. She approached Samuel and slammed it in front of him, hard enough to shake the table.
Samuel raised an eyebrow, spoon hovering in front of his mouth. “What?”
Leizu scowled. “Patrol schedule for the week.“ Once every seven days, every student in Paragon had to go on call somewhere in the city, to respond alongside police if any serious crimes developed. The last time he’d responded to an emergency, a body thief had tricked Samuel into chopping off Eliya’s hands, and blown off his leg with a shotgun. Professor Brin had finished off the perp, but Samuel and Eliya had barely made it out alive.
Samuel scanned the paper, reading through the list of shifts and partners. He stopped at the top, on tomorrow.
SOUTHERN MIDTOWN | 2100 – 0300 | SAMUEL PAKHEM [Chimera] and NELL EBBRIDGE [Chimera]
Samuel dropped his spoon, spilling crumbs across the table. He pushed the pie away from him. “Anyone else hungry?”
It was raining outside. A warm, humid summer rain, accompanied by sweat and the rotten odor of mildew on everyone’s clothes. Droplets pinged on the roof of the police van, and a small puddle of water had formed beneath Samuel’s dripping combat boots.
He turned the page of his Pneumatology textbook and closed his eyes, summarizing its contents in his mind. A mind-sphere or biological brain imposes a structural lattice on the framework of the Pith, and when the lattice is incompatible or too small, sections deemed less important will be deleted.
Nine times out of ten, nothing happened during these shifts, and you would sit in a van for six hours. Most people, especially the real Nell, found being on call mind-numbingly boring, but Samuel had always found the stillness refreshing. Guardian work wasn’t all glamorous and thrilling. A lot of it was sitting and waiting for the right time to move.
Plus, it was extra time to study. Now was not the time to let his grades slip.
Like the rest of the week, however, tonight was different. The imposter Nell sat across from him in the van. Not studying, not reading, just staring at her feet, her hands folded across her lap. She hadn’t changed positions or so much as fidgeted in the last two hours. In that way, she was the opposite of her predecessor.
The girl had tried to start up a conversation with him three times this evening, always friendly, always hesitant.
Is she really, though? Samuel thought back to the real Nell’s warnings, from one of their secret meetings. She could be manipulating all of us, playing on our sympathies. The replacement was either awkwardly earnest, or a patient social operator. In theory, Isaac Brin’s Social Engineering course was supposed to help him spot con artists, but in practice, guessing people’s intentions was still bloody difficult.
Either way, their partnership tonight had to be Admiral Ebbridge’s work. All it would take was a phone call to Sebastian Oakes, Paragon’s Chief of Operations, and she could modify the pairings for second-year patrols. The Admiral wanted to force the two of them together, get them to bond to prop up her marriage alliance.
The fake Nell turned her gaze towards him, green eyes pleading. “Please, Samuel. Can I at least explain my Vocation to you?”
Samuel kept reading, clenching his teeth. During the Synapse, when all projection is heightened, the Pith can compress more efficiently into such a framework, or exist without any framework at all, which is otherwise impossible.
“You’re the squad leader, shouldn’t you know what all of your members can do? I’m just trying to help all of us succeed.”
Samuel’s frustration built up like water in a boiling kettle. He slammed his book shut, turning his eyes on the imposter. “Let me make our situation clear, since you seem incapable of picking up subtext. I’m not your lover, not your boyfriend, not even your friend. I’ll put on a face when our parents are watching, and I’ll fight beside you when Paragon requires it, but that’s it.”
“Can I – “
“Unless it’s mandated, I don’t ever want to see you. You’ll eat at the opposite end of the banquet hall, or at different times. You’ll sit away from me in any classes we have together. If we pass each other in the corridors, we won’t acknowledge each other. And I am never calling you by the name you stole, the name the real Nell can’t even think of ever again.”
“Tasia,” blurted out the imposter.
“I agree with you,” she said. “It doesn’t feel right to be taking someone else’s name. You don’t have a choice in front of the Ebbridges and teachers, but otherwise, just call me Tasia. Soon as I can afford it with my own funds, I’m getting a different body too, one I didn’t steal, and finding a way to give this back to the real Nell. Anything less feels disrespectful to my predecessor.”
Samuel snorted. “Disrespectful.” It was almost absurd. “If you cared about respect, why would you destroy her life?” The anger slipped into his voice. “It would have been a pittance for you to get into Paragon with the normal entrance exam. How hard would it be to take on some debt for your tuition?” He felt his face grow hot. “Why?”
The imposter – Tasia – reached into the cloth bag by her side, pulling out a shining, lacquered card, dark turquoise on one side, and golden on the other. The golden side was embossed with Paragon’s seal, a blue fist clutching a scroll, and two rows of cursive letters.
Lady Nell Ebbridge
Level 4 Access
It was a library card, made of the same flexible, strong material as business cards around the world. Samuel had only seen the golden sheen of a Level Four card a handful of times. Even his parents’ cards only went up to Level Three. Higher, more exclusive levels involved going through layers of armed soldiers, locked vault doors, and Guardians.
“With the Ebbridge’s Level Four card,” said Tasia, “I have access to almost all of the Vocation Codices in the Great Library. With time, I can learn almost any projection technique I want, research any topic that isn’t on Level Five.”
Samuel ground his teeth together. “And why is research worth ruining another person’s life?”
“I need it to save someone,” she said, simply, not elaborating.
She could be lying, said the suspicious part of Samuel. She could be telling the truth, said the morally upstanding part, and you’re just afraid to admit that possibility. He grunted, considering whether he wanted to ask for more information.
The door of the van burst open. Samuel stood up in less than a second, extending a thin metal cable in front of him. Tasia reacted just as fast, materializing two balls of blue and purple lightning around her fists.
The figure at the edge of the van staggered back in shock, landing in a puddle and splashing. “Aa! Peace, peace!” He was a pale-faced boy, with a round face and frizzy red hair, all combined with the angelic good looks of an expensive body.
It’s Kaplen Ingolf. The screw-up from Lorne Daventry’s squad.
“What are you doing here?” said Samuel, confused.
“Hi, Kaplen!” said Nell, her voice brightening.
Kaplen beamed, climbing upright and projecting water out of his clothes. “Hi, Tasia! Sorry for startling you two. Luckily, I kept my cargo safe.” He moved his hand, and a paper package floated forward, raindrops bouncing off an invisible barrier on top of it. Water projection, no doubt. “Still hot and fresh!”
“You two know each other?” said Samuel, pursing his lips.
“Oh yes, we’re good friends, the two of us.”
“How long have you known her?”
“Oh, since this morning. She looked lost in the entrance hall, so I gave her a tour of the grounds. She’s great.” The boy clambered into the van, pulling open the package to reveal a steaming pie, sprinkled with powdered sugar. “Strawberry-rhubarb pie! Hot from the oven.”
Samuel grit his teeth. “Why are you here? You’re not assigned this sector.”
“To see Tash! ” Said Kaplen, his smile not faltering. His words came one after the other, rapidfire and full of enthusiasm. “After you guys crushed me in the squad battle yesterday, Lorne Daventry uninvited me from his cocktail party tonight. I was planning to make friends with his uncle, get a scholarship for next semester’s tuition, not collapse beneath the overwhelming debt of my education, you know the deal, so I was a bit miffed. I’m swamped looking for replacements.”
“Uh huh,” said Samuel. He felt bad for anyone unlucky enough to be on Lorne’s team.
“I love, love parties. Tea, cocktail, late-night dancing, you name it, but Lorne never invites me to any.” Kaplen’s face fell. “Tonight was supposed to be the exception. But he still doesn’t want to be my friend.” He wrapped his arms around Tasia in a tight bear hug. After a moment’s hesitation, she hugged him back. “Besides, Tash told me her shift tonight might get lonely. So I thought I’d bring a slice of the party.”
As always, Kaplen’s oblivious cheer made no sense to Samuel. Is he wooing her? No, even Kaplen wasn’t stupid enough to pursue a betrothed Epistocrat. And Samuel hadn’t ever seen the boy express attraction to anyone, much less flirt with them. Among all the hormones swirling around Paragon, Ingolf seemed like the only second-year not interested in screwing anyone’s brains out.
A stray cat ran out of the rain and bounded into the van. Its thick, light green fur was tangled and soaked with water, dripping all over the metal floor. Samuel stepped back, holding out a hand between him and it. Cats carried diseases.
Kaplen picked it up, and it went limp as a ragdoll. “No need to worry. That’s just Cardamom.” He plopped the cat on his shoulder, and it rubbed its waterlogged head against his neck, affectionate, clinging to Kaplen’s dress shirt with its claws.
Only poor people owned cats nowadays. Cat owner, terrible fighter, prolific baker. Kaplen was definitely the strangest person Samuel knew at Paragon. Word was, the boy hadn’t even found his Vocation yet. That was rare even in first-years, and unheard of in classes above that.
Samuel put on his best disapproving glare. “You shouldn’t be here, Kaplen. If we get a call, we need to drive off. Right away.” Please don’t make me talk to her.
“I’ll just hop out if you do.” Kaplen reached past the green cat, into another bag over his shoulder, and pulled out a bright yellow box. “In the meantime, I brought Jao Lu! Should help us pass the time.” Kaplen unpacked the hexagonal game tiles. Picking up a pre-cut slice of pie, he handed it to Samuel.
Samuel bit into it. Surprisingly good. “Kaplen, if you’re swamped looking for tuition money, why in the scholars’ name did you make dessert?”
“I stress-bake. You should try it someday. Does wonders before exams.” Kaplen talked like he was on stimulants, with barely any space between the words, as he set up the game board, balancing it between the knees of him and Nell – him and Tasia. “Wanna join? It’s more fun with three players. Diplomacy and betrayals and everything.”
Nell loved Jao Lu. Samuel stared at him blankly for a good seven seconds before speaking. “No.” He went back to his book.
When the alert rang one and a half hours later, he was almost grateful.
The light on top of the police van flashed red, the klaxon blaring in Samuel’s ears. Nell leapt up, scattering the Jao Lu pieces on the floor. Kaplen reached for them.
“Pick them up later! Go!” shouted Samuel, clicking on the helmet of his combat suit.
Kaplen grabbed Cardamom and jumped out of the back of the vehicle as it accelerated, splashing him with water. He lost his grip on the pie, and it flopped onto the wet ground, splattering to pieces.
Samuel grabbed a harness to keep the acceleration from knocking him over, and pulled himself to the front of the vehicle, poking his head next to the police officer driving it. “Situation report, officer.” Technically, he outranked all the cops in this detail.
The cop turned the car through streets and alleyways, splashing through puddles. His partner in the passenger seat turned to Samuel. “Red Five-Two on thirty-second street!” The man had to shout to be heard over the siren.
Samuel had Memory Burst all the police codes, using mental projection to memorize them in seconds. Red Five-Two meant multiple shooters targeting civilians. He turned back to Tasia. “Hey! Know how to make an autonomous bullet defense?!”
The girl shook her head, loose black hair flying in her face.
Scholars. This could be difficult.
They raced through the rain, past white street lamps and dark storefronts, scattering the few cars that were still on the street ahead of them. After several frantic minutes of screeching tires and sharp turns, they arrived in front of a grey, nondescript building.
Samuel ran in first, pushing the magnetic field on his ABD up to full power and floating four near-invisible metal threads in front of him. Nell followed close after, orbs coalescing around her hands.
They entered a packed lecture hall, and in an instant, Samuel knew where they were. Entrance exam studying. Late-night lessons for middle-class teenagers desperate to get into Paragon Academy.
Samuel heard a sharp intake of breath from Tasia. “Scholars,” she whispered.
At least half the students were keeled over at their desks, bleeding from bullet wounds. The other half were hiding under their desks, or pressing bloodsoaked articles of clothing on exit holes.
The room was filled with the sounds of sobbing, wailing. A fourteen-year-old boy grabbed at Samuel’s leg as he passed with a damp hand, staining his pant leg with red. The kid was quivering in the corner, hyperventilating. Shock.
Samuel squeezed his hand. “Help is on the way. You’ll be alright.” What else could he say? “Listen, listen. Help is on the way, but I need you to help me. Can you do that? Nod to say yes.”
The shivering boy hesitated, then nodded.
“I need you to tell me. Are the shooters still here?”
The boy raised his finger slowly, pointing to the back door. The sound of screeching tires could be heard outside.
“Back to the van!” barked Samuel. “They’re running!”
“But the students – “
“Reinforcements will cover them! Now!” Samuel sprinted back to the van and leapt in with Tasia, shouting to the driver. “Back side of the building! Perps are fleeing in a vehicle!”
The van kicked into gear and turned the corner, racing to the rear of the building. Samuel spotted the rear lights of a car turning on thirty-second street, then flicking off. “Thirty-second! Eastbound!”
The driver obeyed him, and the van made a series of turns, following the same path. Through the torrents of rain, Samuel could make out the black outline of the car ahead of them, swerving and honking its horn. A dark figure leaned out of one of the back windows, pointing an object at them.
“Gun!” shouted the cop in the passenger seat. “Target now headed southbound on Eighth Aven – “ A series of cracks echoed through the storm, and the figure lit up with muzzle flashes. A pair of holes appeared in the windshield, cracks spiderwebbing out from the impact.
The cop in the passenger seat made a coughing noise, and went silent. “Bastard!” the driver shouted. “Black Eight-One! Black Eight-One!” The code for an officer down. Samuel felt his stomach turn, as more cracks rang out, putting more holes in the windshield. My ABD can only protect me.
“Tasia!” shouted Samuel, his chest tight. “Your orbs knock people out, right?”
He pointed upwards. “Get on the roof! Aim for the driver!” He didn’t trust either of them to fly directly at the targets.
Tasia leapt out of the back, projecting into her suit and flying to the top of the van. Four indents appeared in the metal of the van’s ceiling in the shape of Tasia’s hands and knees. The girl has good balance.
Through the broken windshield, Samuel saw a pair of orbs fly at the car. The gunman slapped the window behind him, and the car swerved around a lamppost, making a sharp right turn to dodge.
Samuel climbed between the two front seats, shooting a thin metal wire and a thick cable through the holes in the windshield. Extending his Pith as far as it would go, he lashed out with the cable, shattering the rear window of the car. He pushed it further, straining his mind and feeling his head hurt, and slapped away the shooter’s submachine gun, sending it clattering to the pavement.
They’re at the edge of my effective range. Nell threw another orb at the driver, and they swerved to the side, dodging it again.
The shooter leaned out of the opposite window, hefting another submachine gun. This time, he aimed down. Another barrage of gunshots rang out, bright orange tracer rounds impacting below the hood.
When Samuel yanked the gun out of his hands, he heard a loud hissing from the police van’s wheels. They blew out our tires.
Nell climbed down from the roof, swinging back into the rear of the van. “I can’t get a clear shot!”
The black car made another right turn. When the van followed, it wobbled, skidding and wildly overshooting the target, riding up on the sidewalk. Before it slammed into a wall, Samuel projected his Pith into the metal of the car, yanking it to the right and keeping it straight.
The van swayed right and left, both front tires blown out, crashing through garbage cans and bouncing from potholes. We can’t keep this up. Reinforcements wouldn’t get here fast enough, and the murderers would get away. Samuel had never failed a mission before. Think, damn you, think. Nothing.
“Anchor them!” Tasia’s voice. “Like you did to yourself yesterday!”
Samuel understood her meaning in an instant. As the car approached a right turn, he shot one end of his cable through the cops’ shattered windshield, wrapping it around the side of the enemy’s car to form a loop at the very edge of his range.
When the car started to turn, he twisted the other end around a lamp post. The cable went taut, and the vehicle screeched around, slamming into a storefront with a metallic crash. The front of the automobile crumpled, and the windows shattered, showering the inhabitants with shards of broken glass.
The driver floored the brakes, struggling to control the van. Samuel leapt out of the back, projecting into metal buckles on his combat suit to ease his fall. He hit the ground sprinting, his bullet defense thrumming around him.
“Stay back!” he shouted at Tasia. Without an ABD, they’d make quick work of her.
When he reached the car, its two inhabitants were pointing pistols to their foreheads. As they squeezed the trigger, Samuel projected into the inner workings of the gun, holding back the firing pin from hitting the primer on the cartridge. The gunman squeezed the trigger again and again, to no avail.
The female driver pulled a switchblade from her pocket, driving it towards her neck. Samuel projected into it, freezing it mid-stab. He pressed the auditory and executive functions of their Piths, Nudging both of them. “Stop!” he shouted. “Don’t move!”
Both of them froze. A raindrop fell onto the woman’s open eye, and she didn’t blink.
Samuel shouted at them. “Answer all my questions truthfully, to the best of your ability, and without misdirection. Are there any others working with you?”
“No,” both of them said, voices shaking.
“Do you have any other traps or plans set up?”
“Did you do this voluntarily?”
“No,” The woman spoke up, her voice hoarse. “Someone nudged us, I think.”
Samuel sighed, slumping over. “I release you from all nudges given by anyone,” he said, and pulled back his Pith.
The man and woman dropped the weapons and collapsed to the wet ground, shaking. The woman forced her eyes shut, sobbing.
Samuel kneeled next to them and pulled off his helmet, raindrops running down his cheeks. “Do you remember who forced you to do this?”
The man shook his head, wrapping his arms around his chest.
A chill came over Samuel. “Do you remember anything from the last two days?”
The man shook his head again.
Not again. The perpetrators had been nudged and block memory-wiped to erase the memory of the nudging itself. Attacks like these were easy to set up and almost impossible to trace. The victims-turned-terrorists almost never survived, and when they did, they had no evidence pointing to the real masterminds.
At least a dozen similar attacks had happened over the last year, all attacking Epistocrats or Guardian-related locations. None of the cases were ever solved, but Samuel would bet his life that Commonplace was behind it.
Almost everyone in Paragon agreed with him, but every time the idea was brought up in public, Commonplace representatives called it a false flag operation, an attempt to discredit their movement. The front-facing political organization couldn’t support terrorists, at least not in the open.
Hypocrites. They claimed to stand against mental hijacking and projection abuse, then brainwashed Humdrums to carry out their mass murder.
The van driver stepped past Samuel, uniform soaked with water, and kicked the nudged gunman in the face. The man fell back, blood pouring from his nose.
“What are you doing?” shouted Samuel. “Stop! He was nudged!”
The cop kicked the shooter again, this time in the chest, with an audible crunch as his boot dug into the man’s rib cage. As he lifted his heel above the man’s neck, a blue and purple orb of lightning passed through his chest, and he fell to the ground, limp.
Nell stood next to the van, holding another orb in her shaking palm. “Stay – stay down please, officer,” she stuttered.
“Hubert’s dead,” the cop said, his voice weak. “They shot Hubert, and he’s fucking dead.”
Samuel looked back to the van. The cop in the passenger seat was splayed against the headrest, clothes covered in blood, a bullet hole through his neck. Even a replacement body couldn’t save him now.
It was quieter now. Nobody spoke. The only sounds were the rain pinging off the sidewalk and the sirens in the distance, growing louder by the second.
Samuel sat down on the sidewalk, slouching over. Droplets of water trickled down the sides of his head, exposed without his helmet.
Samuel was supposed to be cool and rational in the face of terror, to not be affected by the horrors he saw. When he failed, he was supposed to get up and try again, without letting it scar him. Everyone expected him to succeed – his parents, his teachers, his peers. In the real Nell’s absence, even Chimera Squad, his friends, had appointed him leader without a second thought.
He was supposed to be the Razor Bull, the brilliant crusader who they all trusted to get the job done. But tonight, surrounded by rain and darkness and blood, he just felt cold. Exhausted. Is being a Guardian always so lonely?
He looked at Tasia, a beauty with black hair, a stranger in his fiance’s body, an outcast in her own right. She sat at the rear of the police van, legs hanging off the back, staring into space.
Do I really want to know?
Samuel and Tasia rode the trolley back up the mountain to Hightown together, and then the cable car up to Paragon. The rain had softened to a light drizzle, and out of the windows, they could see the lights of Elmidde shrink below them.
It was past 3 AM, so the two of them were the only ones in the car, save for a pair of half-asleep guards at the other end. Two’s not enough, thought Samuel. It’s not even close.
It was dead silent. The motor and the cable made no noise. There were no lights inside the cabin, the only illumination coming from the city below and the academy above, with some extra from the two moons in the sky. Samuel’s pant leg was still damp with blood, and the rest of his clothes still soaked from the rain.
“We’re not friends,” said Samuel. “And we’re definitely not anything more. I’m not going to desecrate Nell’s memory.” He looked at the fake Nell – no, Tasia, who was staring out the window. “But you’re a member of this squad, too. I’ll talk to the team about bringing you to strategy meetings.”
Tasia met his gaze, nodding. It looked like she was holding back tears.
“Get some sleep tonight. You’ll need more than you think.”
“I don’t – “ Tasia chuckled under her breath. “I don’t expect I’ll be falling asleep any time soon.”
She has a point. Even by Paragon’s standards, it had been an intense night, an intense weekend. If Samuel went to bed now, he’d probably just spend the next eight hours thinking about Tasia, or Commonplace, or that wounded boy he’d tried to comfort at the lecture hall. They’re probably safe, he told himself. The EMTs had fresh bodies.
And if the Epistocrats or Parliament felt generous, they could award the victims money so they wouldn’t be crippled with debt from the transfer.
It was unhealthy to dwell. Nell had used alcohol to cope, but Samuel hated everything that dulled his mind. I need something to loosen me up. Something to unwind.
In the station at the top, he disembarked to find Kaplen waiting on a bench, a warm smile on his face. The boy ran forward, wrapping both Samuel and Tasia in a hug, squishing them together.
When they broke the hug, Kaplen lifted his hand. An apron floated out of his bag, unfolding in midair. “Either of you two busy?”
How did I get roped into this? thought Samuel, stirring cake batter with a projected metal whisk. It’s two hours before dawn, how did this happen?
Nell stood on the other side of Citrine Hall’s dimly lit kitchen, intently measuring milk into a mixing bowl.
Kaplen stood next to her, reading the recipe book and absentmindedly eating whipped cream. Every few seconds, he grabbed a clean spoon from a drawer and dipped it into the bowl, scooping out a massive heap and stuffing it into his mouth. He already had a white mustache of the stuff, but didn’t seem to notice or care.
He pointed at Samuel, shaking his head, mouth full of cream. “No, wait, you have to hold it in your hands. No projection. You can feel it better that way.”
Samuel obeyed him, wrapping his fingers around the whisk and continuing to stir. The thick muscles of his combat chassis were more than strong enough.
Kaplen smiled, turning a page of the book. “Next step,” he said reverently, “we simmer the pistachio syrup.” He put a saucepan on the stove and turned it on, every movement gentle and patient. Cardamom sat on his shoulder, and the green cat nuzzled his neck. Soft, but cheery swing music played from a gramophone on the counter, some I-Pop song about dancing and sisterhood.
Baking was oddly relaxing, Scholars only knew why. Not that he’d ever admit it to Kaplen.
Tasia approached him with her bowl. “Gotta add this.” She tilted it, pouring the liquid into his mixture.
“Thanks,” said Samuel.
Tasia nodded, smiling at him.
On accident, Samuel smiled back.