I stared at the huge clock on the wall behind the podium.
3:29. One more minute. I sucked in a deep breath, wiping my sweaty hands on my grey pant legs. You can do this.
The lecture hall was shaped like an amphitheatre, a single podium surrounded by a giant semicircle of desks. It was like the place they’d put the assistants before the feast, but bigger.
And it was packed with students, a sea of blue uniforms filling every chair, talking and laughing and poring through notes. It seemed like half the second-year class was packed in. Lorne, Golem Squad, and I were right in the middle, two rows from the front. I could spot several of the other squads mixed in with the crowd, including Chimera, seated at the back.
I folded open my notebook and uncapped my pen. There was no sign of the professor yet. She hadn’t been at the feast. Maybe she’s running late.
The minute hand inched forward.
Eleven seconds into 3:30, the doors burst open, and a figure shot through them, landing at the podium.
The room went silent.
The Scholar of Air was dressed like a pilot, complete with a light blue flight suit, a bomber jacket, and an aviator’s hat with goggles. She floated to the ground, appearing to be weightless.
The jacket and hat flew off her, as a pair of glasses floated out of her pocket, unfolding and landing on her nose. Beneath the jacket, I caught a glimpse of a thick purple book, sealed with a green Voidsteel lock. What’s that about?
At the same time, the piece of chalk behind her lifted itself up and began scrawling on the blackboard, and a sheaf of papers exploded from beneath the podium, shooting in every direction. They separated, one for each student.
Through the chaos, I squinted to see her face. In contrast to nearly everyone in the room, Florence Tuft was petite, mousy, and plain-faced. Compared to the average Academy student, she looked downright ugly. With her short brown hair and huge, round glasses, she reminded me of a stereotypical librarian.
Both her hands were missing, her forearms ending in flat stumps. And I thought I had it rough. Most Guardians could transfer into a new body for injuries this serious.
But Tuft was different. Tuft was stuck.
Of course, that hadn’t stopped her from becoming the best pilot in the Eight Oceans. Or my idol.
“I won’t waste time with introductions,” she said, her voice booming around the auditorium. It was loud, especially for her short frame. “You all know who I am. ‘Professor’ or ‘Major’ will do.” She paced in front of the podium. “Of course, if you feel like failing this course, feel free to call me by my nickname.”
Harpy. Named such for her short temper and barbed tongue. Clearly, she hadn’t come up with that title.
“Let me address some points up front. Yes, I look like your aunt Becky. Yes, I do have stumps for hands and asymmetrical eyes and a face that resembles a hairless gopher. No, I will not answer questions about how I got this prison body.”
There were a few laughs, but most of the students stayed silent.
“In this classroom, you will study practical warfare. You will learn how to fight dirty, how to come up with strategies in bouts that last seconds, and how to remain clever when you’ve been awake for seventy-two straight hours.” She looked at a student to her left. “Brookridge. What’s the biggest tactical difference between Humdrum and projected combat?”
The girl’s voice was hesitant. “Range?”
She’s already memorized all our names. A boy in the row in front of me coughed. “Prevalence of cover. When you have an Autonomous Bullet Defense, you – “
“No. The answer, Mr. Daniels, is creativity. Most of the tactics of the common soldier have been perfected, as a result of tools that have largely stayed the same for the past several decades. Bounding. Covering fire. Center peel. Simple, drilled over and over again so it can be repeated under stress, because everyone wields small variations on the same weapons. But every Vocation is unique. Every projector’s abilities can vary wildly.” She stopped pacing. “Every time you battle a new projector, you’ll need a new plan.”
I thought back to my battle with Eliya and Samuel, both sitting in this very room, and how Isaac Brin had demolished me. She’s got a point.
“You Paragon students like to jerk it about how hard your coursework is, but the truth is, you’ve had it easy up until now. So, I’ll break it down for you.”
I looked down at the papers she’d distributed. Syllabi.
“Every class, there will be a ten-minute quiz at a random time, on a new combat scenario with a set of Vocations and techniques you have to use. You’ll have about twenty seconds for each question, which is approximately nineteen more seconds than you’ll get in the real world. Twice a week, you’ll turn in a two-page strategic response to a prompt I hand out.”
Most of what she was saying was mirrored on the syllabus, but I scribbled it all down anyway. As Lorne’s assistant, it was my official duty. My fingers were slow, unresponsive, as if I’d dunked them in freezing water. The problem got worse the faster I wrote, and my handwriting got more clumsy.
Damn this body. This hadn’t happened before. Why now?
Harpy – Tuft – continued. “From now on, all your one-on-one fights, squad battles, and rankings will count towards your grade. You got a bad leader? Bad squadmates? Suck it up and make them improve. It doesn’t get easier after this.”
Lorne grit his teeth next to me. Still not happy about Kaplen.
“There are readings. All Level Zero access in the library. Skip them if you want. You’re free to skip lectures too. I won’t take attendance. But if you do, you will fall behind. And this class has a higher fail rate than the rest of the second-year courses combined. You’ve all studied number theory; I trust you can put two and two together.”
I reached into my pocket, feeling the folded sheet of paper with Major Brin’s reading list. I still need to find a way to get these. All one level too high in the Great Library. But necessary, if I wanted to figure out nudging defense.
“There’s a good chance you’ll hate me by the end of the year.” She shrugged. “That’s fine, I don’t give a shit. But the next time you whine about your mean, unfair hag of a professor over your gourmet dinners, or on your plush sofas, remember this: There are Shenti Commandos out there. There are Kuttas and War Priests and Droll Corsairs, and they’re going to be a lot meaner than me. A lot smarter, too. The more you bleed here, the less you bleed out there.” She glanced at the clock. “That’s all I need to say out loud. Everything else is on the syllabus. Let’s begin.”
From that point on, her lecture was a storm of terms. Harpy would describe a hypothetical fight to us, then challenge us to describe what they’d done wrong. To my surprise, Tasia was often one of the first to stick her hand up, followed closely by Lorne and a handful of others. Every time the professor opened her mouth, it was a race between the top students.
My fingers ached, my handwriting getting less and less legible. To keep up with Professor Tuft’s rapidfire lecture, I often had to skip sections. There was so much to take in.
Always confirm the kill. Attack from behind, above, and below. Sharp over blunt force. Eyes-head-neck-crotch. Conceal your Vocation and decipher your enemy’s. Simple plans usually beat complex ones. Flexible plans beat static ones. Control the tempo. Define the battlefield. Test your power’s limitations. Use calculated aggression. How to work with and against all four schools of Projection. And how to work within the constraints of Rashi’s Three Laws.
“Whisper and Praxis specialists are by far the most dangerous, whether they’re fucking with your mind or enhancing their own, respectively.” Harpy’s chalk scribbled a list of common mental vocations on the blackboard while she munched on a fish sandwich. “But don’t discount Physical or Joining, either. With the right application of resources, just about anyone can fuck your day up.”
I glanced at the clock. Only a few minutes left.
This wasn’t the right class to ask, and assistants were officially forbidden from asking questions, but I needed an answer. Brin wouldn’t give me a mission until I cracked this problem, and I was already short on money. Maybe the teacher would yell at me, maybe I’d get detention, but maybe I’d get a workable answer, too.
A boy behind me raised his hand, tentative. I did the same, lifting my arm straight into the air.
Tuft paused in her lecture. “Yes?” She pointed in my direction.
She was no doubt looking at him, not me. Before the boy could speak, I blurted out my question. “On that subject, what would you say is the best defense against Nudging, and how that relates to the concept of the Empty Book?”
The room burst into laughter. Tuft chuckled with them. “Perhaps you’d also like to ask how to breathe? Or how to put on your pants in the morning? Here’s a hint: Don’t do both legs at once.”
I looked down at my paper, avoiding eye contact.
Harpy’s eyes narrowed, and the laughter faded. “Whoever coined the phrase ‘there are no stupid questions’ would absolutely fail this class. If any one of you opens your mouth, you had better not waste my time and your classmates’.” She turned her gaze towards me. “For those of you who need a reminder: this is why assistants are to listen, and be silent.”
I nodded, not saying anything, my face burning up. Lorne, too, was looking at me with a murderous glare.
Harpy spent the rest of the lecture reviewing the terms she’d raised throughout the class. I spent the rest of it wishing I could hide under my desk.
When the class ended, I followed Lorne out the door. “Bathroom. Now,” he said, leading me into a restroom. Once inside, he flicked his wrist, and all the faucets turned on, filling the room with white noise. I felt a soft, choking force press down on all sides of my mind, all too familiar now. Nudging.
“Slap yourself as hard as you can.”
My left hand whipped around, slamming into my cheek. I could feel the impact reverberate through my skull, as the pain exploded on my raw skin.
“Other side, too.”
My right hand mirrored the left, knocking my head the other way, swinging as hard as if I were punching someone. My cheeks burned, and I doubled over, wincing.
“Tell anyone about that, and I’ll make sure you never step foot in Paragon again, Greyface.” Lorne rolled back his sleeves.
In theory, what he’d just done was mental hijacking, a crime that could carry up to a life sentence in the Principality, depending on how serious. In practice, his family’s paralegals would probably grind me into the dirt if I tried anything like that.
“I could make you piss your pants. Or jump off the academy. Or try to murder Deon over there.” Deon stood by the door, keeping watch. “Anyone in that class could.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Was there some mix-up with the test scores? How in fuck’s name did you get in here?”
Illegally, I thought. By becoming a disposable gun-for-hire who can’t even shoot a gun. “I’m sorry, sir.” My stomach clenched. If he orders me to speak honestly, I’ll be exposed. And Isaac Brin would probably murder me in prison.
“Everyone who’s ever taken a class with Brin or Hou knows the Empty Book. And everyone else here knows how to defend against Nudging. Do you realize the blow to my social leverage you’ve just dealt? Why am I surrounded by id – ” He rested his hands on the sink counter and leaned on them, sighing. “I suppose I shouldn’t blame you. In truth, you’re not much better or worse than the average Humdrum.”
All I did was ask a question. I wasn’t sure what to say to him.
“Most people going through life without ever thinking or questioning anything, blindly living out whatever label they’ve assigned themselves without any real ambition. Right now, for example, you’re labeling me as the sadistic, spoiled bully, and yourself as the noble victim, so you can dismiss me without having to learn anything beyond your narrow worldview. My family isn’t even in the top ten richest in this school,” he hissed, “and if I wasn’t smart enough, I would have been Ousted. I’m a platinum-ranked projector. I earned my place. Maybe you should earn yours.”
I massaged my aching cheeks. Let him talk it out. A lecture was better than more Nudging.
“I can’t hold you responsible for this, because you’re not intelligent enough to make real decisions. The fault is with whoever admitted you.” He frowned. “The world is made up of smart people and the ones who hold them back. Not everyone is worthy of the tools to forge the stars in their image.”
I closed my eyes. In truth, his words stung more than either of the slaps, or anything else he could Nudge me to do.
Because he was right. My scores hadn’t been even close to good enough for Paragon’s admissions standards. I wanted this more than anything, needed this as an out from my crumbling body, but that didn’t change the facts.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, barely more than a whisper. “I’ll do my best to not disappoint you again.” I opened my eyes and stared at his feet, hunched over in a half-bow. “Can you please teach me to defend myself so I don’t embarrass you again?”
“None of us have the time for that.”
“Then could you rent out books in the library for me, so that I could study them in my own time and learn the proper technique?”
His brow furrowed. “Go rent them yourself. Why would you ask me to, unless you – “ He clenched his teeth. “You want me to give you books above your library access? Break federal law? Maybe the most important law in the entire Principality?” He clenched his fist, and for a moment I thought he was going to make me slap myself again, or worse. “And here I thought you were learning.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, again, though it didn’t seem to be cooling his temper. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I should have expected a response like this.
“Projection was kept secret from the Humdrums for a reason. High-level Vocation Codices are hidden away for a reason. When the professors screw up and let the wrong people read them, you get cases like the Pyre Witch.” He flicked his wrist, and all the water faucets turned off. “Consider yourself lucky I don’t report you for this, and never mention it again.” He nodded to Deon, and the boy opened the door.
The members of Golem squad spent the walk back to the dorms talking to each other. I tuned them out, focusing instead on the scenery around us. The spires and buttresses and walkways of Paragon Academy.
After crossing several bridges, we reached a large marble building with the inscription Citrine Hall carved in large letters above the front door.
“If you’re studying now,” I said to Lorne, “could I join you?”
He rolled his eyes, stepping inside. “Assistants aren’t allowed in dorms, idiot.” Deon and Naru followed him. Inside, I caught a glimpse of the hall’s common room, a hexagonal chamber filled with plush couches and snack foods. A group of students gathered around a crackling fireplace, chatting amongst themselves.
Lorne flicked his wrist, and the wooden door swung shut. The sounds of laughter were muffled. Grey Coats are forbidden from dormitories. Another reminder that I wasn’t a real student.
The door swung open, and Kaplen strode out, beaming, Tasia tailing behind. “Afternoon, Ern.” A pair of bright green cat ears poked out of the top of his backpack. Cardamom.
I forced a smile onto my face. “What are you doing here?”
“Same class. We were a few rows back from you, so you didn’t notice.” He pointed back across the bridge, to the main island. “And I live here.” He unslung his bag, reaching into it. Cardamom crawled partway out, nuzzling his ear. How does he get into those places? Kaplen pulled out a tray of brownies, extending it towards me. “Want one? Fresh.”
Class only ended fifteen minutes ago. “How?”
He winked. “Slow baking is for Humdrums.” He pulled out a corner piece, offering it. “No Vocation, and my squad hates me, but, silver lining, I can make gourmet cakes really fast.”
I ate the piece to be polite. It tasted like dust smelled, just like everything else I put in my mouth. Tasia nibbled on another one, holding it in both hands.
“Plus, Tasia helped me finish my Physics of Matter review yesterday, so I had a spot of free time.” He patted me on the shoulder. “We ever get access to a kitchen outside a dorm, we’ll let you know.” He and Tasia strode towards the bridge. “Tasia and I need to go to the library. Wanna join us?”
Bt the time we reached the Great Library, the metal tray was empty. Kaplen had eaten most of the brownies, a substantial feat, but Tasia had nibbled down a good dozen on her own. The boy had offered seconds to me at least three separate times, until finally getting the hint.
Kaplen beckoned to the huge metal door in front of him, engraved with green Voidsteel. “Shall we?”
The Great Library was the largest building in Paragon Academy, on the largest island. In contrast to the more classical architecture of the rest of campus, it resembled an enormous cone made of marble and silver. The base was a vast circle, and narrowed as it got higher. A single glittering spire stuck out from the top.
The front entrance had even more security than the rest of the academy. The atrium floor was filled with guards. Several more wielding sniper rifles were perched on balconies above. The only way forward was through a single hallway, where a checkpoint had been set up. All the doors and walls were lined with reinforced voidsteel.
“I hear that at least ten high-level Guardians guard this area at all times,” whispered Kaplen. “But that they swap with the guards at random points during their shifts so nobody knows who they are.”
We approached the checkpoint. I flashed my library card, my ID number, and gave them the answer to my subconscious key. The moment I finished speaking, the guard passed his hand over my face, and I felt the memory of it fading again.
We passed through a long, dark marble hallway, lit only by dim lights on the ceiling. Indoor waterfalls trickled on both our left and right, covering both walls. Tasia pushed open the door, and light flooded into my face.
The Principality’s Great Library was larger than the banquet hall. Taller than the highest buildings I’d seen. The interior of the cone was a vast, open chamber, with circular levels extending upwards on the walls, and balconies all overlooking the central area.
Though I couldn’t see any windows, the space was filled with warm, natural sunlight, emanating from a crystal pillar extending from the floor to the ceiling, at least three hundred feet tall. Many libraries had felt cramped, claustrophobic to me, but this felt even more open than the outside.
A mural was painted on the ceiling of the chamber, depicting great moments in the Principality’s history. The Founding of Paragon. The Treaty of Silence. The Colonization of Ilaqua and the Neke Islands. All beneath the noble visage of Darius the Philosopher, all-knowing and kind, watching it all, and an unfurled scroll:
Forge the Stars in Your Image
Then, below it:
May You Strive to Become an Exemplar
I’d seen photos before, but none of them did this place the slightest bit of justice.
A hundred generations of Guardians had come before me, and before them, a thousand generations of Great Scholars in pursuit of enlightenment and peace. And I was standing where they stood. A swell of pride rushed over me. For a moment, it overwhelmed the bitter fear.
Kaplen put a hand on my shoulder. “Something, isn’t it?” He looked unfazed, but Tasia was wide-eyed with me, staring at the ceiling with fascination. He strode towards a filigree metal staircase, and I followed him.
“That sun crystal over there,” said Tasia, her voice excited, “It’s the only one of its kind in the Eight Oceans. A lot of historians speculate Paragon’s founders scavenged it from a Great Scholar city in the Far East.”
“You’re into history?”
She pointed to the artificial sun in the middle of the room. “Nobody knows how that works. Nobody’s projecting into it. It doesn’t resemble any technology we’re familiar with.” She pointed to the floor. “Nobody knows how Paragon floats, or why the grounds are always at room temperature with calm winds, even during winter, despite how high up we are. It’s permanent, which breaks all the rules of projection we’re familiar with.”
“What are you saying?”
She smiled, an expression I hadn’t seen from her all day. “The fundamentals aren’t as fundamental as we think. There are vast puzzles before us, everywhere we go, everywhere we see. In the starless sky we look up at every night. Beneath the Eight Oceans that buried an entire civilization.” She leaned against a railing, staring at the vast expanse of books before her. “And here, we can explore them all.”
I smiled back at her. “Is that why you’re at the library today?”
Her smile curdled, and she went back to the stairwell. “No.” Her voice was meek again.
We ascended floor by floor, passing more layers of guards, and students studying at tables, until we reached the highest one, and another security checkpoint. The sign above the door read Level 1.
This is only Level Zero. What kind of wonders existed on the next five? None of the newspaper men were allowed up there, and nobody who’d been there was permitted to speak of it. Back when they still ruled the Principality, the Conclave of the Wise had met many times on Level Five, where they decided the fate of nations.
Time to make another jump. The thought made my stomach churn all over again. If you play too careful, you’ll have no hopes of making it through the year.
“Kaplen.” I indicated my head, and he stepped to the side with me. “I want to ask you something.”
He bobbed his head up and down. “Anything, of course!”
“You’ve been – “ I lowered my voice. “You’ve been – you don’t have to put yourself at any risk for me. You can say no to this, and I’ll be fine with it.”
“I need some books on Level 1. No Vocation Codices, just theory books. Defense. Stuff that should be public but hasn’t gone through all the approval red tape yet.”
He pulled away from me a hair. “Any particular reason?”
“Lorne nudged me in the bathroom. And he threatened me. I need – “ I closed my eyes. “I need a way to defend myself.”
His suspicious expression softened. “Ern, I’m so sorry.” Behind him, Tasia cleared the checkpoint, striding up the stairs.
“Where’s she going?”
He frowned. “Studying on her own for the rest of the afternoon and evening.”
I rubbed my forehead. “This school really is tough.”
Kaplen shook his head. “Scholars know how, but she’s already finished her problem sets. Girl’s trying to crack open an extracurricular. Research.”
“What, like a club or something?”
He shook his head again. “She hasn’t told me. But something important, given the Level she’s going to. Not my business to pry.”
Everyone’s got bloody secrets here. I nodded.
Kaplen put a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll help you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”
“But in the meantime.” He pointed to the checkpoint. “Got my own studying to do for class. Meet at the Silver Flask? Eight?”
I nodded. He smiled, and strode off to the checkpoint. The door shut behind him.
I strode back down the staircase, taking one more glance at Darius and his mural above me. Forge the Stars in Your Image. The towering ceiling of Level Zero. The floor of Level One.
I’ll see the other side of that painting, I promised myself. With Kaplen, and Tasia, and a plate of brownies I could taste. One day, I’ll see it.
At the laundromat, I had to fold my uniform three times to get it right, after ironing it twice to force out all the wrinkles. Access to the iron cost an extra five pounds. According to the Assistant’s Handbook, I was supposed to do this every week.
I could almost feel the difference in weight as I shelled out the bills. I need a job. Brin’s four hundred pounds wouldn’t last long, and I doubted he’d give me another penny until I learned how to defend my mind.
At The Silver Flask, Kaplen had passed me a bag full of books under the table, inviting me to a reasonably-priced dinner that I absolutely could not afford. I’d refused in the politest way I knew how to, and returned to my pod for more canned lentils.
To his credit, Kaplen had procured every book I’d asked for, including Practical Pneumatology and Neurology and the Soul. Level One security was much more lax than the upper tiers, and they even let him take the books off-campus.
It only took a few days to fall into a routine. At Paragon, I was only taking a handful more classes with Lorne. Biology 112, with a bored-looking Guardian named Gemma, and a chemistry class with the Obsidian Foil, who began every class by showing us pictures of his wife, bragging about what a beautiful genius she was.
Even so, the homework and readings were enough to take up the remainder of my free time. Kaplen invited me to his and Tasia’s study sessions in the library stacks, but he always seemed to go through the material faster. Tasia always had to slow down and explain, and I got the impression she didn’t need a study group in the slightest.
And more often than not, both of them were busy, Tasia with her mysterious research, and Kaplen at his various parties.
Lorne let me copy the notes I’d taken, but refused to study with me. Several times over the week, he’d order me to fetch him takeout meals from The Silver Flask, or iron his uniform. It was nothing next to what Clementine had demanded, but it involved long trips on the tram, sucking up more of my time.
As a result, the vast majority of my studying was done alone. I’d lie in my sleeping capsule at King’s Palace, flipping through the books until my eyes hurt, jotting down observations in my notebook while the hotel’s radio played in the background.
Most of it was soft swing music. The only show I’d stop and listen to was Verity, with Christea Ronaveda.
On occasion, when I’d go to grab a meal from the storage area, I’d spot Wes Brown snoring on his mattress on the floor, underneath an indigo blanket. On occasion, he’d manage a grunt that vaguely resembled “Hello”.
Judging by my counts, the boy was definitely stealing lentils from me, but given how desperate he was, I decided not to bring it up.
Now, in addition to a shortage of money, I was low on time, too. Most nights, I chose to go over Brin’s anti-nudging books rather than make sense of my science courses. I turned over the concept of the Empty Book in my head, practicing the defense technique until my head hurt.
On the last night of the week, I found myself on the roof of Nolwen’s Soda Fountain again, leaning against a flower box. Ten minutes after our designated meeting time, Isaac Brin descended from the pitch-black sky, wearing a dark blue combat uniform.
I stood up. “Major Brin, I just wanted to say – “
The pressure squeezed the edges of my mind again. “Lie on your back. Don’t project or move.”
I obeyed him, the Nudging itch pressing me forward to heed his every command. Don’t resist directly, I reminded myself, it’s not about willpower.
The tiles of the roof were cold and hard. Now we find out whether I’m fucked or not. I called upon the defensive technique I’d been taught, the history of Nudging I’d read about, and the concept of the Empty Book. The tools I’d sacrificed my homework and sleep to gain.
I grouped everything into a mental spear inside my mind, and pushed, willing my mind back to its normal state. Auditory, executive, motor control, in that order. I focused everything into those areas, on revising my mind away from Brin’s influence.
Nothing. I didn’t get up. It still didn’t feel right.
This isn’t a test of strength, I reminded myself, it’s about precision. Rashi’s First Law of Projection stated that to control something, you had to understand it first. I pictured the precise ways in which the complex web of my Pith was being edited, every bundle of connections that Brin was shifting. And I projected into them, willing them to shift back.
The urge to stay still remained. My arms didn’t budge.
“Did you study?” Brin said, in a dismissive tone.
“Yes!” I shouted. “I studied the Empty Book, and the Pith, and everything. Why isn’t this working?” My voice raised back to my normal feminine pitch and resonance. Anabelle, not Ernest. “How is this so easy for everyone else?”
“Projection is half intuition, half knowledge,” said Brin, watering the plants with a sphere of water. “The first half also means talent. A full Humdrum can study theory his entire life and get nothing.”
“But I’m not a Humdrum.” The anger slipped into my voice.
“Yes, but these things come in degrees. You might be mostly a Humdrum. Most students at Paragon can block Nudging with barely any training, because they have natural ability, a mind that easily grasps the intuition.” He turned off the hose, and I felt him choke my mind again. “I release you from all Nudges.”
My arms dropped by my sides, and I crawled up to a sitting position. “Isn’t there anything else you can try?”
“If you can’t summon up the basics, there’s not much I can do.” He looked up to the lights of Paragon. “We’ll meet again next week.” He strode to the edge of the roof. “Sorry, kid.”
I stood up. “Wait, please! I – “
He leapt off the edge and soared into the air, a spectre in the dark sky.
As his figure shrunk in the distance, Lorne’s words echoed in my head: The world is made up of smart people and the ones who hold them back.
I strode back down the stairs, making my way back to the motel.
I should be studying, I thought, staring at the ceiling of my tiny pod. Or at least sleeping. It felt decadent to wallow in my self-loathing like this, like a waste of a valuable resource.
But if I was being honest with myself, there wasn’t much point to it. I could redouble my efforts, review everything I’d already gone over a hundred times, but chances were, I’d get the same result. And my odds of winning Lorne’s approval got slimmer by the day.
The look on Brin’s face was familiar. I’d seen it before from my parents, after telling them about my dream to go to Paragon, or when I took fewer shifts at the auto factory to study for the exam.
To them, it was always a false hope. Even when they found out my body was decaying, they thought my dreams would only cause me more pain in my final years. And put further strain on their thin finances.
In the end, I’d stolen money from them, to buy my tickets to Elmidde and my first week of rent. I’d pulled out cash from their savings while they slept, money they needed. All to pursue this dream, in the hopes I’d send back boatloads when I became a Guardian.
I need something to distract me. Then I could at least go to sleep and forget about all this until morning.
I pulled myself out of bed and walked over to the radio, flipping it on to the lowest volume so it wouldn’t wake anyone else up. I leaned against it for what felt like an hour, listening to old reruns of the same tunes from this morning.
Then Verity came on. The host’s perky voice filtered through the radio. “Welcome to Verity, the only radio talk show that tells you nothing but the truth, Scholars help my producers. I’m Christea Ronaveda, and my Vocation mandates that I speak only with the purest candor.”
I sat up, listening in. I hadn’t caught it earlier today, needing to pick up lunch for Lorne.
“I can extend my Vocation to others at the drop of a hat, but the courts banned me from using it on witnesses, so here I am! Making dough for my rat bastard execs, especially you, Charlie, you greedy nymphomaniac. Don’t think we don’t notice the ‘dates’ you bring on set. We all notice. Please don’t fire me.”
Another voice from the radio. One of her co-hosts, whose name I forgot. “How are you doing this morning, Christea?”
Christea maintained her cheery host’s voice. “Very bad, Billy. I drank too much last night, and ate this awful fermented cod, so I was woken up by gruesome diarrhea. In fact, as soon as we’re done taping this, I’m going to run to the bathroom and squeeze out what remains of my colon.” She burped. “That, and my shrink diagnosed me as manic-depressive yesterday. It sure makes sense, but fuck if I don’t resent him for it. I really hope you’re not listening to this, Jimmy.”
The show continued. Their main guest was John Calpeur, the President of Commonplace, who explained the policies of his organization while voluntarily under the effect of Christea’s ability. “We don’t hate Epistocrats,” he said. “To clarify, I hate Epistocrats, but Commonplace – our political organization – doesn’t officially hate them. I was trying to mislead you with that earlier statement that was technically true.”
Christea laughed. “Sorry, Mr. Calpeur, but you can’t deliberately misdirect anyone or leave out key details while under my Vocation. I tried that when I first got this condition, and my husband still found out I was cheating on him.”
“The most important thing I want to say,” Mr. Calpeur said, “Is that we don’t support terrorism. Full stop. We’re just looking for more accountability from Paragon, better democratic protections in Parliament, and justice for the victims of mental hijacking. I have no ties to any of the disgusting acts of violence committed against innocents in the Principality, and those monsters do not have our support.”
Really? I figured he would have at least some secret connections to Commonplace’s violent underbelly.
“We’re holding a nonviolent rally this weekend. We’re marching down First Avenue all the way up to Paragon’s cable car station. If you believe in the future of this nation, then join us. All are welcome.”
They’d been holding events like these regularly. More often than not, they ended with riot police and tear gas. This seemed like the biggest one yet.
Then it clicked for me.
I flicked off the radio, sprinting out of the room.
I pulled open the door of my cramped storage unit, flipping on the lights. “Hey. Wes. Wake up.” I poked him on the cheek. “You ever run a heist before?”
Wes leapt upright from beneath his indigo blanket. He banged the back of his head against the wall, adding to his numerous injuries. “Blarghaghu shfmafwe,” he muttered, cradling the point of impact. “Shleep Shleep want. What this?” He rubbed his hair, a tousled mess of light brown strands.
“That rally this weekend is going to occupy both Commonplace and the Police, especially if it gets violent. While they’re distracted, we’re taking up the Scholar of Mass on his offer for an info bounty, and selling him some intelligence.”
Wes straightened himself, looking more lucid by the second. “How?”
I’ll prove to Brin I can do this without Nudging defense. That I don’t need his Empty Book. “We’re breaking into Commonplace’s offices.”