When I was nine, we buried my body in our backyard.
With a terminal illness in its skull, no one in our town wanted to buy it, and my parents didn’t have the money for any kind of service. I was in a strange new body, a thick-nosed, gangly boy I already hated looking at in the mirror.
It was a chill, foggy morning. I had already cried for hours, until my eyes ached and I felt hollowed out inside, unable to summon any more tears. As my father lowered the corpse into the grave, I knelt beside it, and my mother covered my face. I pushed away her hand, unable to look away.
It wasn’t just any little girl he was cradling in his arms. It was me. The brown eyes I’d seen in the mirror every morning. The bright red hair my mother had combed every day before school. Its limbs were wrapped up in a thick blanket, like an insect’s cocoon. It might as well have been a carpet.
The doctor had told us we were lucky to have found an affordable replacement body in such a short timespan, that we had caught my Loic’s Syndrome before I suffered any permanent brain damage. I didn’t feel lucky. Every adult in my life was trying to make the situation look bright, optimistic, not as bad as it could be.
I wanted to scream at them. But all I did was nod along.
My father threw my old clothes into the hole and shoveled dirt over them, and my mother rubbed my shoulders, murmuring that my new body would be just as good, that nothing else would have to change.
Even then, I knew she was lying.
This was like going through that all over again.
I pressed a bloodstained hand against the dying man’s forehead, and reached away from the light. Blue lightning crackled around my arm, the color of my Pith as it streamed out of my body. For the second time that night, the strange, floating feeling came over me, like my essence was flowing through a river, fluid and ethereal.
As my Pith flowed back into my old body, I once again saw myself from two perspectives, two sets of eyes. A grey-haired boy and an auburn-haired girl locking each other’s gazes. The stabbing pain in my stomach faded as my sensations transferred out of the new form, and into the dull familiarity of the old.
I gasped for breath in two bodies. Then one body.
And then it was done.
The young woman with her hand on my forehead was empty. Dead. Blood poured from the torn hole in her stomach, into the puddle beneath me. The spectacular world of clarity and strength had vanished, replaced by the same numbness as usual, the same bland taste in my mouth.
It was repulsive. But there was still a chance to get everything back. To buy a new body and leave it all behind.
I stood up, my dark clothes soaked with water and my pants stained with blood. Major Brin reached down to me with a key, unlocking my Voidsteel cuffs.
Then he pulled a dart out from his belt and flung it into the woman’s forehead. It impacted with a dull thud, its mass increased, and blew out of her scalp with an explosion of gore, splattering the wall behind her. The beautiful face was now caved in, a gaping hole of blood and bone.
I recoiled, gagging. “What are you doing?”
Brin floated the dart back to his hand, and rinsed it with a handful of projected water, sliding it back to his belt. “The perp was killed in combat while wearing the stolen chassis, with one strike each to her stomach and head. Her original body was never found, and with her brain and Pith destroyed, her identity remains unknown.”
I nodded, understanding. He’s faking my death. It was still unsettling.
His face blank, the Scholar of Mass pulled a torn piece of paper from a bag, scribbling on it with a pen. He handed it to me. When I squinted, I could make out the words in the light from the two moons overhead.
King’s Palace Sleepbox & Depot
178 West Vanora Street, Unit 27, Pod 151
Nolwen’s Soda Fountain
13 Tunvez Street
Staircase above the bathroom, Combination 84291
Major Brin waved his hand, and the steering wheel on the boat turned, guiding it to a small dock on the side of the river. He tossed me a ring full of keys. “The first one is a capsule hotel where you’ll be staying. The second one is where you’ll meet me tomorrow at 9:30 AM. I’ll explain everything you need to know. Don’t be late.” He beckoned his hand.
Everything was happening so fast. “You’re not afraid I’ll run away?” I asked.
Brin shook his head. One conversation, and he already knows how to read me. The fact of the matter was, working with him was the best chance I had at survival. Both of us knew that.
I stepped onto the dock, the wood creaking beneath my waterlogged shoes. Brin flicked his wrist, and the boat’s engine kicked into full gear, driving off into the night.
A breeze blew across the pier, and I shivered. It was a cool summer night, but my clothes were still soaked through from that Paragon girl’s water attack. Eliya, her name was.
I splashed some water on my forehead to wash off the blood, then climbed the stairs next to the pier and headed for southern Lowtown.
The address Brin gave me was deep in the industrial district, a neighborhood I’d barely spent any time in. By the time I got to the address, I was shaking from the cold, my arms wrapped around each other.
The building he’d sent me to was imposing, a giant block of concrete three stories tall with no windows. Its front door was made of steel, and boasted three thick deadbolts on it. There’s nothing kingly about this damn place, and it’s definitely no palace.
My shoes squelched on the pavement as I approached it. It took me eight tries on the massive keyring to find the right ones for the front door. I pulled it open with a metallic screech, the only sound on the entire street.
The interior was all concrete and metal, a narrow corridor covered with cigarette butts and lit by pale exposed light bulbs hanging from wires on the ceiling. To the left was a wooden desk, with a wooden lamp. A clerk of some sort was leaning on it, asleep. His hand clutched a bottle of Shenti rice wine, half-wrapped in a paper bag. I decided not to wake him up. If I already have the key, Brin probably handled the money already.
Unit 27 was on the first floor, an empty mid-sized storage unit with a sticky concrete floor. He couldn’t have even left me a spare set of clothes?
The capsule hotel was in the upper two levels, and was at least marginally cleaner. Mats covered the floor, and the walls of the rooms were lined with pods. Each one looked like a human-sized oven embedded in the wall, a narrow rectangular box covered by a sliding glass window and a wooden curtain you could pull down. People were sleeping in maybe a quarter of them.
The numbers were printed on the floor. In the dim lighting of the hallways, it took me several minutes to find Pod 151 in the middle of the second floor. I had to get on my hands and knees to unlock it. Inside were a single mattress, a pillow, and a thin blanket.
I shivered again. If I keep my clothes on through the night, it’s going to be freezing. But I didn’t have anything else to change into. I looked around. Everyone else in the room was fast asleep.
“Fuck me,” I muttered under my breath, and pulled off my waterlogged clothes, stripping nude. I crawled into the pod feet-first, stuffing the clothes in a damp pile next to my feet and trying not to look at myself.
Since I transferred bodies, I hated being naked. It was a disgusting, uncomfortable sight, one that grew uglier as my body decayed and the veins on my skin grew swollen and grey. And I hated feeling all the sensations on my bare skin.
I pulled the blanket over me, covering my shame, dropped the keys next to me, and pulled the window shut, flicking off the overhead light and pulling down the curtain. My stomach rumbled, aching. I hadn’t eaten anything since the bread at that diner in the afternoon.
My skin prickled. It was still cold, but was better without wet clothes.
I stared at the ceiling, barely a foot away from my face. Just this morning, I’d woken up on a dirt-stained mattress in Clementine’s basement and scrubbed dishes for hours. I’d been ignored by the other servants, shouted at by the cooks. Praying to escape. Praying to get into Paragon Academy, a world of miracles and light, where I’d get a working body and meet lifelong friends, strive to become an Exemplar who could help others.
Part of my wish had come true, in a sense. Just not in any way I was satisfied with. I’d gotten a taste of a coherent body, only to have it torn away by a projected dart as heavy as a car.
I forced my eyes shut, willing myself to go to sleep. Nothing. I tried imagining myself in a warmer place, a more comfortable place.
Home. My bedroom in my house. Painted a light pastel yellow, with bright red sheets on my bed. Right next to a window I could stare out, seeing the wind blow through the wheatfields of the farmers to the west. When I focused on that image, the world outside felt a little less real, a little less terrifying.
As I escaped into my imagination, an image of my parents flashed through my head. My mother, shouting at me, her eyes red from crying. My father clenching his teeth, his face hard.
I opened my eyes, ending the fantasy. After what I’d done, was it selfish to be saving up money for a body, to still dream of becoming a Guardian? Spend your last year sending back money to your family, a voice in my head said. Just accept your fate.
I fell asleep thinking of doubts, and all the things that could go wrong.
With no alarm clock, I woke up at 9 AM, nearly an hour later than I wanted to. Fortunately, the second address Brin had given me was only eight blocks away from King’s Palace, at the edge of southern Lowtown. Nolwen’s Soda Fountain. My clothes were the worst part. They hadn’t dried much overnight, and were bitter cold as I slid them on.
The ice cream parlor was small and near-empty for the morning. The only person inside was an employee swabbing a mop on the grimy tiled floor. The bell rung as I swung the door open, and he turned to look at me. “Morning. All floats and cream sodas are fifty percent off until noon.”
The menu was written on a blackboard above the counter, with colored illustrations that looked delicious. “Where’s your bathroom?” I asked. The prices were disgustingly cheap, but I was dead broke, and couldn’t taste anything anyway. It felt a little guilty to not buy anything, though.
The man pointed to the doorway behind him. “Hallway on the right.” Is he on Brin’s payroll, or just another employee?
I went through the door, shutting it behind me. The hallway to the bathroom was on the right. To the left, a cramped wooden staircase spiraled upwards. As I walked up, I grabbed the railing, and dust coated my hand.
The door on the second floor was ajar. No combination lock. Further up at the top of the staircase was another door, with a combination lock attached to a deadbolt. I consulted the paper in my pocket, and twisted the metal dials, entering 8-4-2-9-1.
The lock clicked, and I swung the door open, flooding in sunlight and revealing a rooftop garden that looked nothing like the shop below.
The pale white tiles on the ground were so clean they sparkled. A square of planter boxes surrounded the edges of the roof, filled with neat rows of blooming goldenrods and lilacs. Even the hose had a snarling lion carved on the faucet in gleaming bronze.
And in the middle, Isaac Brin floated three feet in the air, wearing a navy blue tuxedo that looked like it cost more than my last year’s salary, short brown crew cut hanging beneath. He was on his back, staring up at a book floating above his eyes. He can use his Vocation to make himself lighter.
“Don’t just stand there,” he said. “Sit down, let’s get started.”
A large pillow sat in the middle across from another one. I sat down on it, leaning back on my arms and crossing my legs. A breeze came across the roof, and I shivered.
Major Brin glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. Moisture seeped out of my damp clothes, coalescing into a floating sphere of water in front of me. He flicked his wrist, and it dispersed over the flowers, raining down on top of them. My clothes heated up, now dry, as warm as if they’d just been ironed.
He rotated himself to a standing position. “As described last night, your initial mission will pay out two thousand pounds. Further missions will be more difficult and entail higher sums.” He spoke with the measured tone of someone who had practiced this before.
How many other mercs has he hired before? I nodded.
Major Brin continued. “If you bring me relevant information on your own, I will award bounties depending on how useful I deem it. If you hire subordinates, you are responsible for vetting and paying them from your shares.”
I nodded again.
“You will not tell anyone about my involvement, including your subordinate. If you are caught, you will tell them you’re acting on your own. Make up whatever stories you need to, but do not talk about me. There will not be a second warning.” He flicked his wrist, and the hose turned on. “I am Paragon’s chief of internal affairs and counterintelligence. Leak my name, and I will know exactly where to find you.” He floated a sphere of water into a planter box. “Questions?”
“What kind of jobs will I be doing?”
Brin counted off on his fingers. “Delivery, acquisition, target removal. Along those lines. It won’t be easy. Real Guardians can handle easy tasks. It’ll be matters I can’t deal with openly.”
In the early weeks, I can supplement my income with theft. It was distasteful, but my Vocation was perfectly designed for it, and I was sure I could find a way to only hit targets with insurance. Even if the rewards grew fast, two thousand pounds was barely anything. Certified bodies cost far more than that.
“I’ll give you an initial allowance to buy necessities until your first job. I’d avoid doing petty crime to make extra money.” It was like he was reading my mind, which, as far as I knew, might actually be the case. “When enough strange crimes get reported in an area, Paragon takes notice, and will cause all sorts of trouble.”
I looked at the ground, avoiding his gaze. His logic made sense, but it would make saving up much harder.
Major Brin lifted a finger, and a cloth bag flew out from behind a planter box, setting down in front of me.
I opened it. Inside were a stapled set of papers, a folded grey uniform, and a rigid white library card. I read it.
Level 0 Access
“You are now Ernest Chapman, Paragon grey coat assistant. All the relevant identification documents are in the bag, in addition to your ID number and class schedule. The card will also give you access to the cable car.”
“Why am I using a fake name? Isn’t that more dangerous if my documents look suspicious?”
Brin shook his head. “Not when I’m faking your documents. People know the name Anabelle Gage. Your old employer, among others. If they discover you are attending Paragon, that will raise questions.”
I frowned. “And if people at Paragon ask me about my history?”
“Minimize social contact. Talk as little as possible about your past, but when you have to talk, tell the truth. Making up elaborate lies will trap you with inconsistencies. Just say nothing of your Vocation, or your body’s expiration date.”
“I’m not supposed to talk to other students?”
“You’re not a student,” said Major Brin. “You’ll hear all the details on the first day, but you’re not a student. You can talk, but avoid making too many friends or acquaintances.” He folded his hands in front of him. “But before any of that, I need to protect my investment.”
What? I stared at him blankly.
“I’m going to train you. I’d rather you didn’t die on your first day.”
In spite of everything, in spite of knowing how dangerous he was, I felt a thrill run through me. I got to take private lessons from the Scholar of Mass, one of the best Guardians in the Eight Oceans. I’d seen his face in the papers, and now he was teaching me how to fight.
Brin stood above me, staring down. “The first thing you need, before everything, is a mental defense. Almost every projector in the world knows how to Nudge. If you can’t protect your mind, you’ll be enslaved by anyone with half a Pith.” He floated a manila folder in front of me, bound shut by a paperclip.
My first mission. I reached for it, and it darted out of my reach.
“For obvious reasons, I can’t give you this until you master the technique.”
I felt my stomach sink. “How long does that usually take?”
“That depends on your talent and intellect. Most projectors master it in under an hour. Others take more time, or never do.”
I don’t have the time to learn. Brin might be right about the risks, but especially if the payments started small, I needed every week I could get. A year wasn’t very much time. “I beat two second-year Academy students with the element of surprise.” I looked at my feet. “Would it be possible to learn as I go?”
A warm, thick presence wrapped around my consciousness, choking my mind.
“Lie on your back!” barked Major Brin.
I lied down on my back, staring up at the sky. The tile beneath me was cold and hard.
“Hold your arms straight up. Don’t move or project, except to talk.” His voice was cold and forceful.
I lifted my arms above my head, straightening my elbows. No matter what I thought in my rational mind, it just felt important to do, an overwhelming mental itch that I couldn’t scratch until I obeyed his every command.
A wave of panic surged over me, and I felt myself short of breath, hyperventilating. The last time I’d been Nudged, I’d lost everything.
Technically, controlling me like this was considered Mental Hijacking, a federal crime on par with sexual assault or manslaughter. And Brin, a Guardian, did it as casually as turning the page of a book.
The pressure abated, but the compulsion stayed. He was no longer giving me orders, but his previous commands were still binding me.
“Do you think you can fight back like this?” he said.
I tried shaking my head, but couldn’t bring myself to move any of my muscles without that itch stopping me.
Major Brin knelt next to me. “The people you fight won’t be as clumsy as my students. In every battle, they will nudge you right away, on the off chance it could work. If you can’t block the vocation, you’ll be as helpless as a Humdrum. They can make you torture your friends, kill your family.”
No worries on the first of those two.
“Every politician, every guard for every important location, is required to learn this protection technique. With enough time and training, even a Humdrum can figure it out.” He stood up. “The Eight Oceans are full of Whisper Vocations that can crack your mind open like an egg. A great many can’t be defended against at all, but the ones that can be blocked are common. Many, many people have studied them. This training is not optional.”
I thought of Clementine nudging me, enslaving my mind, even briefly. After almost two years of withholding paychecks, ignoring my concerns, and upping my hours, it was the ultimate form of her control over me. If I hadn’t convinced her, she would have made me slice my own throat without hesitation.
I had the chance to be safe from all that. To be free.
“Alright,” I said. “Teach me.”
Brin nodded. “You want me to release you, say the word. But this is the fastest way to learn.”
My arm muscles were starting to get sore, and I felt ridiculous sticking them in the air light that.
I said nothing.
“Let’s begin with the basics,” he said, pacing back and forth. “Like all widely used projection techniques, Nudging is descended from someone’s unique personal Vocation that they mastered, wrote in a codex, and taught to others as a general technique. From a capital V Vocation to a lowercase vocation, that can be studied and practiced by any projector. Are you aware of its origins?”
“No,” I said, unable to shake my head. Paragon’s entrance exam didn’t include any history, so I hadn’t studied it at all.
“It was developed by the Great Scholar Tolwar. Not one of the Four Eternals, but special in his own right. He discovered it when he was twenty, and spent the next forty years of his life designing and sharing the blocking technique before he revealed Nudging to the world. He knew that if his codex ever went public without a countermeasure, the vocation was powerful enough to bring down his entire society.”
I said nothing, listening.
“The lesson is: Until the defensive technique against a Whisper Vocation is discovered, attacking is always easier than defense.” He folded his hands in front of him, continuing. “Nudging targets the auditory, decision-making, and motor control centers of the Pith. Since I don’t have a textbook, I will explain the specifics to you verbally.”
It took him what felt like fifteen minutes to explain the finer mechanics of Nudging, and the scientific details of the defensive technique as I stared up at the sky, paralyzed. My arms were aching now, and the pain kept growing.
All the while, I summoned all my willpower, letting the rage and humiliation at my powerlessness flow through me, fueling my determination, willing my arms to go down. If you don’t learn this, you won’t get a mission, I told myself. You won’t make it in time. You’ll wither and die. I concentrated my entire mind, focusing it into a single point of intent.
My arms didn’t budge.
“This is not about willpower!” said Major Brin. “You won’t solve this with brute force and determination! Nudging targets the part of your Pith that uses those feelings, those motivations, and twists them to its own ends. You need to shift your mind, modify it in response to the Nudge. Rewrite the areas that I’m affecting.”
I focused on his recent lecture, delving into the precise sections of my Pith that were being altered. Auditory, executive, motor control, in that order. And then the subsections within those areas, the mental systems Brin was disrupting. And I reached my soul into itself, attempting to twist those areas back to normal function, to shove my mind into order.
“Your projection is too strong,” I said, breathing heavily. “I can’t kick you out.”
Brin shook his head. “This is not a contest of strength either. Whisper vocations are about subtle alterations, and they always operate with a light touch. I can’t force my way into your mind, I can just make little edits around the edges that ripple out and cause deeper effects on your Pith. If you knew the defensive technique, Headmaster Tau himself could try to Nudge you and he wouldn’t gain an inch. You need to change your mind.”
I visualized all the elements as clearly as I could, taking deep, slow breaths and ignoring the pain in my arms. I willed my Pith to be flexible, malleable, something I could easily alter. Then I hammered at the rogue elements, willing them to realign.
Still nothing. The pain in my arms got stronger and stronger, making it hard to concentrate. Is this really the best way to teach this?
Brin scowled. “Keep trying.”
I tried the technique over and over again, as precise as I could manage, as fluid as I could think of. Every time, my Pith refused to shift, and my bone-thin arms shook from the strain.
And every minute of my failure that passed, Brin’s frown get deeper. Does he regret hiring me?
What was it he had said last night? His five-year-old son knew how to defend against Nudging. And most projectors figured it out almost instantly. What’s wrong with me?
I had no idea what I was doing. How could I have ever imagined I was good enough for Paragon?
Brin sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I expected this to go more quickly. Very well.” I felt the presence of his Pith pressing up against mine, Nudging me again. “I release you from all commands.”
My arms flopped to my sides, sore from wrist to shoulder. I winced, letting out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “I’m sorry for wasting your time,” I said.
Brin paced back and forth. “You’ve studied a few physical vocations, correct?”
“The basics of wood projection, about five pounds of force maximum,” I said. “Water, too, enough to do a water walk on top of the surface for a few seconds.”
“We need to go back to the fundamentals,” said Brin. “You can project outside of yourself, but you have no command over your own Pith. Explain, what’s your process for using your Whisper Vocation?”
I thought about it. “I guess I just think of something and focus on it really hard. Some alteration to reality. Adding an object or removing one or picturing a whole new setting. And then I just grab onto it, and push it into other people’s minds.” In the last ten years, it had gotten easier and easier to escape into my imagination.
“Your Vocation works off of pure intuition,” said Brin, frowning. “So you haven’t studied pneumatology at all.”
“There isn’t much of it on the entrance exam,” I said. And most of the books on it are locked in the higher levels of the Great Library.
Brin sat down across from me, folding his legs. He lifted his hand, and the faucet handle twisted, turning the hose on. A stream of water floated out of the nozzle, streaming through the air to form a smooth, translucent sphere hovering above our heads, twice as wide as my chest. The faucet turned off.
I sat upright, facing him.
Brin set the thick red book he was reading on the ground between us. He opened the cover to a blank title page. “The brain is like an empty book,” he said. “On its own, it is a hollow shell, neurons and synapses that don’t fire. The Pith is like the words filling the book, writing over the white spaces, giving it meaning.”
I nodded. Should I be taking notes?
“Every Soul Particle is like a letter, connected to form words and paragraphs and ideas in innumerably complex ways, organized into hierarchies and layers with language. A web with trillions of connections.”
He pulled out a loose page from my bag, with instructions typed all over it. The letters peeled off the white paper, soaring through the air and landing on the blank title page. “The Pith can be transferred from one brain to another, one vessel to the next.”
“Major,” I said. “Erm, sir. This is wonderful and all, but can I ask how this is relevant to Nudging defense?”
“Rashi’s First Law of Projection,” he said. “To control something, you must understand it. Why do you think projectors study so much natural science? So they can control the physical world around them. The same goes for the mental. To best protect your mind, you must know its design.”
I nodded again, rubbing my aching biceps.
“On its own, an empty book means nothing. Anything can be written into it, assuming there’s enough space. But without the book, without the vessel, the words fall apart.” Sentences and paragraphs of ink floated off the pages of the book.
They slid into the sphere of water above us, billowing and dissolving in clouds of black liquid.
As the morning sun rose, its light reflected off the liquid’s surface, and the object shone with golden radiance.
“Without a brain or mind-sphere to hold its contents, the connections in the Pith break down. Your mind disintegrates.” The ink emerged from the sphere, now a shapeless mass of dark liquid. “And you can never put it back together.”
Whether it was intended or not, the implication was clear. That’s what’s going to happen in a year. My stomach clenched up. The ink splashed back onto the book, a black stain on the white page.
“Understand the empty book, and you will have the stepping stone to all mental projection, Praxis, Whisper, and the defensive techniques against the latter. You may even improve your illusions.” Brin stood up. The sphere of water streamed into a drainage grate in the corner.
I looked down. The blotch of ink was warping and shifting on the title page of the book, forming neat rows of printed letters. Brin flicked his wrist, and it tore out, drifting into my hand. It was a list. Practical Pneumatology, 8th Ed: Level 1. An Introduction to Mental Projection, 9th Ed: Level 1. Neurology and the Soul, 3rd Ed: Level 1. The list went on. “What is this?”
“A library list,” said Brin. “Pick them up on your first day at Paragon. While you read them, think about what I taught you today.”
“But these are marked Level 1. I only have Public Access. Level 0,” And the levels of the Great Library were patrolled by armed guards.
Brin picked up the bag beside him, putting on a wide-brimmed pork pie hat that cast his face in shadows. “Figure it out. Finish them by the same time next week, practice the technique, and meet me back here in a week. If you master the technique, you’ll get your first assignment.”
He didn’t need to say the consequences if I failed.
Without another word, Brin strode to the stairway and descended it, shutting the door behind him.
I scanned a shelf of fresh strawberries. Too expensive.
Brin had only given me four hundred pounds to hold over until my first job. With that, I needed to feed myself, clothe myself, and keep myself presentable for Paragon for at least a week, maybe more.
I needed to stretch it as far as possible. And a grocery store in Lowtown was good practice. I needed to save every penny I could for my replacement body, which meant only going with the barest of necessities.
The cheapest item I could find here was Maldano’s Canned Lentils. Bulk raw lentils were cheaper, but I didn’t have the means to cook them in my pod. The normal price was two for a pound, and when you bought them by the dozen, you could save up to forty percent per unit. Plus, a sign said there were sales on the last day of every month. If I bought my whole supply on that day, I could get by.
I was familiar with the brand – they were grown only a few miles from my family’s house on the Agricultural Islands. They looked bland at best, and repulsive at worst.
I bought a cardboard tray full of them and a can opener. It wasn’t like I could taste them anyways. As I paid for them at the counter, I stared at a chilled rack of Jwala’s Orange Sodas, mouth watering. They looked so sweet and fresh.
It had been six years since I’d drank one. I wasn’t even sure if I remembered what it tasted like.
At another grocery store nearby, I picked up a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and a tiny cake of soap. At a used goods shop, I bought myself a set of cheap black pants, a black shirt, and a dark brown coat with holes in it. Brin’s bag was sufficient to carry it all back to my storage unit. Without a car, I had to make multiple trips.
Then I took the tram up the mountain to the Hightown markets on Third Street.
In comparison to the dusty shelves and cramped interiors of Lowtown stores, Eminent Forms looked like a painting come to life. The entire storefront was a huge glass window, two stories tall, and wide enough to take up half the block. Half-naked models stood on pedestals, showing off the latest designs.
When I opened the door and stepped in, the people inside were no different. The men were tall, square-jawed, lean but muscular. The women were slender, wide-hipped, with bright red lips and almond-shaped eyes. All the skin was clear, all the faces boasting perfect symmetry. Apart from a handful of ordinary-looking people scattered around, everyone was a rare beauty, looking barely over the age of twenty.
They already had fabricated bodies, and were simply shopping for more. For them, it was an aesthetic choice, rather than a matter of life or death.
People gave me odd glances as I walked through, looking over my body with disapproval. One girl backed away as I passed, as if I had some sort of contagious disease.
In the middle of the store, several dozen women were gathered around a pedestal, with a Maxine Clive perched on the top, sporting a black cocktail dress and bright red hair instead of the usual blonde. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how expensive her jade earrings or shoes were. The men in the store were stealing glances at her too.
The model smiled, and the whole crowd seemed to melt in awe. It was as if that single expression on her face contained the entirety of human kindness, grace, and dignity.
My hair had looked like that. I was never that beautiful, of course, but people had always said nice things about my scarlet hair.
Stop wallowing in nostalgia, I told myself. My birth body was long gone. It was nothing more than a skeleton in my parents’ backyard.
But I wasn’t here to envy the rich. I sidled over to the cheap section of the superstore, glancing at price tags. This was the only real option I had. Black market prices were lower, but came without any sort of regulation or certification. Some of them even were prison bodies, impossible to transfer out of.
My parents had made that mistake once. I wasn’t going down that road again.
A girl a few years older than me approached, beaming. “Can I help you, sir? Are you interested in making a purchase today? If you let me know what you’re looking for, I can help make a recommendation.”
“What’s the cheapest female body you have in stock? Between eighteen to thirty on age, preferably. Used is fine.”
Her tone became more curt. “Aisle seventeen, left side.” She walked away, smiling and greeting another customer.
The design on display in aisle seventeen was short, with dark brown hair and thin lips. It had already been inhabited once, transformed from cloth and wood into flesh and bone. The body hung off a hook attached to its clothing, with no model inhabiting it or showing it off. The faint whiff of bug repellant came off its skin, designed to keep mosquitoes from sucking on its blood.
It was pretty, but generic, looking like an amalgam of the popular bodies from five years ago. Still, it’d do.
I looked at the price tag. Forty-three thousand pounds.
It was so much, more than ten thousand above what I’d expected. A glance at the other ones in the aisle confirmed that this was the cheapest one available. I flipped through the stapled papers in my bag, wondering if Brin might have told me how fast my salary could increase.
At the top, I saw a pair of papers with the payment information for Silver Palace’s Pod 151 and Storage Unit 27. Twenty pounds and ninety-nine cents a night.
A bill. I was responsible for paying my rent.
I found myself walking, then half-running out of the store, away from third street with all its gourmet restaurants and beautiful people, until I was on a cable car back down the mountain, out of breath, armpits soaked with sweat.
The numbers ran through my head, over and over. Minus twenty-one pounds a night, that’s minus a hundred fifty per week. Minus maybe ten a week for food, being generous. Another twenty to thirty for transportation fees. Another twenty for laundry and ironing on my academy clothes.
And I had to save my way to forty-three thousand pounds. In one year.
I wouldn’t be able to afford any medical bills, which meant I couldn’t address any serious issues when my body got worse, and I couldn’t get injured in the field. If I stole to survive, I’d attract attention with my Vocation. If I didn’t excel at Paragon, I wouldn’t learn enough to win my missions, or I’d lose my only other shot at getting a new body. If I didn’t succeed at Brin’s missions, I wouldn’t even make enough to pay my necessities.
In short, I couldn’t screw up. One mistake was more than enough to tank me. And here I was, failing to learn a technique Brin’s five-year-old had already mastered.
At a store on the way back to King’s Palace, I bought a pencil for fifty cents. The capsule hotel had no common room to speak of, so I lied down in my pod, on my stomach.
After all was said and done from the day’s expenses, I was at three hundred and sixty-three pounds. I wrote that number on the back of one of Brin’s papers, at the very top. At the bottom, I wrote forty-three thousand, with a vast blank space in between.
If I didn’t fuck this up, the entire page would be full by the end of the year, and I would reach the end. When my expenses solidified, I could add more details.
With my budget written down like this, the problem seemed less vague, less impossible. Just a little. My stomach still clenched at the thought of what the next year would look like, but at least I knew what I was up against.
I spent the next week going over Brin’s sheets, memorizing my new identification documents as Ernest Chapman, and reviewing my class schedule. I wasn’t a full student, but as an assistant, I was still expected to complete coursework for certain classes and take exams.
I’d probably want to use a lower pitch and darker resonance in my voice at Paragon, too. Since my voice started dropping in puberty, I’d been training it to get it to a vaguely female pitch and resonance. When I strained, I could get something resembling that, but most of the time, it was in an ambiguous range.
My disguise for Paragon was male. If I did jobs sounding like a woman, that might help hide my identity.
I spent most of my time in my pod, thinking of what skills I’d need for my job. More projection was a given, of course. It wasn’t a beginner technique, but an autonomous bullet defense would do wonders for me, if I couldn’t get bulletproof armor.
Firearm training could be useful too, but I’d need to find a gun somewhere. Until then, I settled for the sharpest kitchen knife I could buy cheap at a grocery store. With my illusions, I could make good use of it.
Two days before the school year started, I started brainstorming how I might get access to Brin’s Level 1 library books. In the evening, as I twisted the can opener on the top, the buzzer rang.
I opened the front door. The first thing I noticed was the boy’s injuries. A bandage wrapped around two fingers on his hand, with fresh scabs on his palms. Bruises on his neck, along with a pimple or two. And a slight limp as he walked.
In spite of that, he was grinning ear to ear. He handed me a silver business card. “Weston Brown,” he said. “Wes for short. I understand you’re in need of assistance.”