Ataraxia was a wonderful drug.
It was a common sedative, distilled from the Gauri flower in the Neke Islands. When I took it, it quelled the fear in my mind, the growing sense of panic. It turned down the volume in my Pith until it was all smooth and quiet and simple, and I could forget how disgusting I felt.
I’d never needed it until I hit puberty in my new body, at which point I wanted it all the time. My parents were too poor to afford it consistently, but the rare times I got to experience it was sheer bliss. Now, I had to save every penny.
But still, I was taking it now.
I scanned down the lines of a pneumatology textbook, reading about the proofs for Rashi’s Third Law with Whisper and Praxis Vocations. Recursive upgrades to intelligence are impossible with all forms of mental projection, even through indirect improvement. In the Kellett Experiments of 482, patients whose sleep efficiency was enhanced showed no improvement to their projection, despite measurable improvements to memory and cognition.
It was a tough textbook. I closed my eyes, imagining myself back home, in the Agricultural Islands.
I shifted on the bench, to better catch the early morning sunlight streaming through a window. Three other assistants sat next to me, and one full student. Three grey coats and a blue. Nobody said anything to each other.
The student was hunched over, her eyes red from crying. Me too, sister. Kaplen might have been the worst case, but he wasn’t the only student that got hit by Honeypot. Reports were, a whole seven other Paragon students had been on that yacht, and six of them had been permanently affected by Lyna Wethers’ Vocation.
The door in front of us opened, and another assistant walked out, letting out a breath of relief. A woman in a yellow dress stepped out behind him. “Next,” she said. “Ernest Chapman.”
I stood up, and she led me into the room. After I stepped in, the door swung shut behind me.
“Morning,” she said. “I’m Stella Hargreave, a Guardian from Paragon counterintelligence. Sorry to make you get out of bed this early. I know you grey coats have a harder commute than the students.” She flashed me an apologetic smile. “You know how the admins here get about their schedules. Promise this won’t take too long.”
I imagined my face as sad, but calm and composed, then projected into her Pith, pushing the illusion onto her perceptions. Then I nodded.
The other students didn’t know it, but according to Brin, Ms. Hargreave had trained in a Praxis vocation that let her analyze body language. With it, she could suss out guilt, dishonesty, and all other kinds of emotional information. Now, all she’d see was a grieving assistant with nothing to hide.
A teapot floated in front of her, pouring her a mug of mulled cider. The scent of apples and cinnamon and cloves was intoxicating. “Can I offer you some?” The teapot flew towards me and hovered over a mug.
“No thank you, ma’am,” I said. “Not in the mood.” And I can’t taste it.
As I spoke, I layered on an auditory illusion, making my voice sound level, not giving away any details in my tone. The strain sent aches through my head, but it only lasted a few seconds at a time.
“Nobody will tell me what’s happening,” I said, feigning ignorance. “Why is everyone being interviewed? Is this about the attack last week?”
Hargreave put a hand on my shoulder. “You’re not in trouble, sweetie.” Her voice was warm, quiet. “We’re just trying to get a better picture of what happened.”
You’re trying to find out who killed Honeypot. Paragon knew a rogue Whisper specialist had taken out Lyna Wethers a week and a half ago, but they didn’t know who. Hargreave was friendly now, but if she found out I was on that yacht, I’d be thrown in prison or worse in a heartbeat.
“I understand you were friends with Kaplen,” she said. “Please forgive me for broaching the subject again.”
I didn’t need an illusion to look miserable about that.
“It’s alright,” I lied.
“Do you know anything about what happened that night?”
“Mental hijacking,” I said. “Some projector fucked up his mind to make him obsessed with her, and then – “ I closed my eyes, and let the grief flow through me, quelling some of my nerves.
Hargreave didn’t just analyze body language. According to Brin, she was trained in Empathy, a technique that let her read people’s emotions directly from their Piths. The technique to block it wasn’t hard, but I hadn’t learned it yet.
Brin couldn’t interrogate me himself without it looking strange, so he’d given me the date and time of the surprise interview, and a trio of Ataraxia pills that would keep me just lucid enough to talk without slurring my words.
To someone with the Empathy vocation, my Pith would look nervous, but not panicked – a normal reaction for an innocent person called into an interview like this. With a hefty dose of disgust and misery.
“Do you know anything else?” she asked. “About what happened to him, or who did it?”
I shook my head. “Don’t think so.”
A file floated out of a desk cabinet and opened in front of her. “Now, I understand you haven’t found your primary Vocation yet,” she said.
I nodded. “My Pith is blue, so I know I’m a Whisper specialist, but that’s all I know.” Most Piths were white or grey until someone discovered their Vocation, but there were a few exceptions, so it was a plausible lie. I maintained my visual and auditory illusions, masking any involuntary signs of lying I might be giving off.
There was a long pause in the conversation, as Hargreave flipped through her file, sipping her cider. Then, in a flash, her eyes flicked towards me, making contact. “Were you on that boat, Ernest?” she asked.
I held my breath. “What boat?” I exhaled slowly. Close save. She was trying to catch me with information I wasn’t supposed to have.
“Nothing you need to worry about.” She smiled at me. “You’re safe here. The perpetrator is no longer a threat.” She stood up. “That’s all.” A pen lifted itself up and scrawled on a piece of paper. “And for your trouble, I’ll give you a permission slip to eat breakfast at the banquet hall for a day with the students.”
The paper floated into my hand. “Thank you.” I stood up and turned to leave, then hesitated.
“Something wrong, dear?”
“What will happen to the other ones?” I asked, dropping my auditory illusion. “There were other students beside him, weren’t there? Who got – affected.”
“The ones who can continue their schoolwork will keep going. The ones who can’t will find other paths.”
“That’s it?” I said. “You won’t try to find a cure, or pay for them through therapy, or – “ I forced myself to stop before I showed my anger.
Hargreave’s smile faded, and her voice hardened. “Most Guardians don’t experience what you did until a few years after graduating. It’s harder when you’re younger. But I’ll give you the same advice I gave them.” She stepped in front of me and grabbed the door handle. “Treasure what you had. Then let it go. You’ve got a job to do.”
She pulled open the door, and I stepped out, feeling sick to my stomach. I walked down the hallway, towards the rising sun shining through a window.
Hargreave’s voice echoed behind me. “Next.”
Lorne Daventry whipped his palm forward, and a thick plate of sheet metal flew in front of him. The lightning bolt crashed into it, dissipating on its surface.
Naruhiko leapt forward, wielding a long whip of water, and used it to connect a corner of the metal to the leg of Jen Banebrige. She twitched, electricity running through her body, and another whip of water ripped the armband off of her.
Cyclops Squad was the number one ranked squad in Paragon, and Golem Squad was slaughtering them. Only two Cyclops remained, but Lorne hadn’t lost a single fighter.
Matilla Geffray, the newest member of Golem, floated a cloud of swirling sand behind the two remaining enemies, grinning. Lorne barked a command that I couldn’t hear, and the cloud shot forward and expanded, engulfing the Cyclops in a sandstorm from behind.
Matilla was Kaplen’s replacement, a rising talent in the first-year class who’d been pulled from another squad. It had taken the professors less than two weeks to fill his spot, to go back to routine like the Golden Moon had never happened.
At Paragon Academy, it was business as usual in just ten days. A few people could still be seen crying for their friends, and a few people got moved to fill empty slots in squads. That was it. And it made me fucking furious.
Deon touched the grass, turned it to coal dust, and ignited it. Flashes of red and orange fire lit up the inside of the sandstorm, as shouts came from within. The noise made my ears ring and ache, still sensitive from Wes stabbing them with toothpicks.
Lorne flew above them, shot down a cable inside the chaos, and pulled out an armband. One left. He shouted at Matilla, and she dispersed the sandstorm. Deon clapped his hands, and the fire on the grass was snuffed out.
Ralph Corbiere lay on a pile of sand, the leader and last standing member of Cyclops Squad. Half of the silver hair on his head was burnt black, and soot marks covered his pale cheeks. He took heavy breaths, exhausted.
Deon, Naruhiko, and Matilla moved forward. Lorne held up a fist, and they all stopped. The subtext was clear. This one’s mine.
Harpy – Professor Tuft – would have yelled at him for that. Always confirm the kill. That was true even in a nonlethal squad battle. Don’t play with your food and let them find a way out.
But Lorne had a different objective in mind. Until now, Cyclops Squad had been the undisputed number one team in the standings.
Lorne wanted to humiliate them.
And I was waiting on him, carrying a jug of hot cider and a giant bag of sesame crackers for when he was done.
Serving him like this made me feel sick, but I had to pursue every option. Major Brin hadn’t offered any new jobs in the last ten days, and Wes still hadn’t found out how to break into the Broadcast King’s bases of operation. With Lorne’s recommendation, I’d have a route into Paragon, even if I was too poor to buy a body.
So I sat here, twiddling my thumbs and poring over my notes. Tasia was supposed to meet me here to prep for the Tactics exam tomorrow, but she hadn’t shown up to any study sessions this week.
Maybe she was still grieving, but I had my doubts. She’d been friends with Kaplen, not me. Odds were, she was taking this opportunity to back away from the weird kid with the grey veins.
Ralph Corbiere groaned, pushing himself into a sitting position. As he stood up, Lorne wrapped a cable around his ankle and yanked him off his feet. The cable lifted upwards, hanging Corbiere upside down.
Corbiere projected into his clothes, jerking himself downward, but couldn’t budge himself. Lorne flicked a hand, and streams of mud blasted the boy from one side, then the next, filling his eyes with filth.
Another cable wrapped around Corbiere’s other ankle and spun him around, making him dizzy. The mud washed over him, again and again, until every inch of him was coated.
Lorne pushed out Corbiere’s cloth projection, and ripped off his shirt and pants. The leader of Cyclops Squad was in his underwear, upside down, and covered in mud.
Lorne snickered. Then laughed. Deon, Naruhiko and Matilla joined in, and he looked at me, observing my reactions. Watching what I’d do.
I took in a deep breath, then laughed with them.
What else could I do, if I hoped to win Daventry’s favor? Disgusting, a part of me hissed. You’re just as bad as they are.
Other spectators watched with me. No professors were watching. And when this was over, no one would report this.
Lorne let go of Corbiere’s ankles, and as the boy fell, ripped off the armband with his bare hands.
Victory. An overwhelming one for Golem Squad. And if this battle had been easy for them, they’d climb to the top of the rankings within the month.
Lorne hugged and clapped his squadmates on the back, grinning ear to ear. They strode over to me, and I cracked open my snacks.
“Excellent job, Matilla,” said Lorne. “In the last week, Golem Squad has performed better than we ever have in our history.”
Matilla beamed. “I think I overextended at the start, and should have flanked halfway through with their Whisper specialist, but I’m glad I didn’t let you down.”
“Scholars,” said Lorne. “It is incredible to have three teammates who can analyze their performance. We’re sure to finish number one this year, now that we’ve lost the dead weight.”
My stomach jerked. I felt a hot pressure building inside me, making my arms shake. I clenched my fists.
Don’t say anything. It would be stupid to talk back to them. He might even be baiting me to test my loyalty.
But Kaplen deserved better than that.
“You shouldn’t talk about your squadmate that way,” I said, forcing myself to speak at normal volume. “He did his best.”
“He did,” said Lorne. “But he was stupid. If he was smart, he wouldn’t have ended up where he did.” He gulped down the mulled cider. “He was out of his league. The Eight Oceans are full of people who can break minds, and Paragon’s students are targets. If you can’t defend yourself, you’re a danger to yourself and others.” He stared at me. “Ingolf should have been expelled for his own sake. If he had been, he might still be alive.”
My face grew hot. Don’t do anything. I closed my eyes. Pretend you’re somewhere else.
Was there some way I could hurt him without him noticing? If I used my Vocation to make one of his squadmates attack him, then he wouldn’t notice. Or if I tricked him into attacking other students, then he’d get in trouble with the professors. But he’d suspect foul play, and might trace it back to me.
“Well, Chapman?” asked Lorne. “What do you thi – “
A blue and purple ball of electricity flew through his chest, dissipating as it passed through him. His eyes widened, and he dropped onto the grass, unconscious.
Tasia stepped up behind him. Orbs of lightning flickered around her fists. She stared down at Lorne, eyes wide and frightened.
Deon, Naru, and Matilla stepped between her and their leader, floating metal, water, and sand beside them. “One more step,” said Deon.
“Three on one,” Tasia said, her voice shaking. “You could probably beat me. But I would make it very, very painful for you.” The orbs of light grew around her, expanding to wide, flat disks.
Golem Squad stared her down for what felt like minutes. Every member of the audience was watching them, and some of them had backed up. The orbs crackled, Deon’s fingers twitched, and Matilla’s sand circled overhead.
Deon stepped around Tasia and strode across the wooden bridge to the main building, floating the unconscious Lorne above him. Naru and Matilla followed him.
The lightning faded around Tasia, and she broke into a wan smile, looking in my direction. “Lunch?” she said. “On me.”
I dug into my salad, shoveling bread and meat into my mouth. I couldn’t taste any of it, but it was free food and I needed every damn penny.
And I needed something to fill space in the conversation. Tasia was silent, and I wasn’t sure what to say either. A long, painful silence extended between the two of us, as we ate our food and listened to the ambient noise of the Silver Flask. Plates and silverware clattering, waiters shouting orders from the kitchen, and the hum of Paragon students talking to their friends.
Tasia avoided looking at me, keeping her gaze on her pomegranate soup. She rubbed the dark circles under her eyes, and ran her fingers through her tangled black hair.
Not half an hour ago, she had looked ready to cut Golem Squad to pieces. Here, she just looked exhausted.
Fuck it. I couldn’t stand it anymore. “You weren’t at the study sessions this week,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said Tasia, still looking away. “Was busy.”
“I have a favor to ask.”
“Of course,” she said.
I exhaled, then pulled a stack of books out of my bag. “He took them out from Level One of the Great Library for me. I can’t return them because they’re above my access.” I’d get thrown in jail for even having these. “I know it’s a huge favor, but – “
“I’ll do it,” she said.
My shoulders sagged with relief. “Thank you,” I breathed. “Thank you.”
“I have something, too.” She unzipped her backpack, and hefted it onto the table. A green ball of fur curled up at the bottom.
Cardamom. Before, he would have bounded out to greet me. Now, he was refusing to come out. His yellow eyes glinted in the dark of the bag.
“His parents are allergic, and Admiral Ebbridge refused to have a cat in her estate. Didn’t want to get her chassis wardrobe all diseased.” A note of sarcasm slipped into her soft voice. “And besides, what would people think?”
I reached into the bag and stroked his head. “How has he been doing?”
“I tried keeping him in Alabaster Hall this week, but everyone’s afraid of getting infected. They got my dorm chief to officially ban him. I’ve got twenty-four hours to get him out of the building for good.”
The puzzle pieces fell into place for me. “You want me to take him.”
Tasia nodded. “You don’t need to. I know you’re busy too. But it’s this or a shelter.” She folded her hands across her lap, staring at her feet. “I just thought I’d ask.”
I reached into the bag and pulled out Cardamom, setting him down on my legs and petting him. “It’s okay,” I murmured. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
It would take time and money to manage him, and I was short on both. I wasn’t sure I could find a proper space for him between my storage unit and pod, and I had no idea how to take care of a pet.
But still, I couldn’t abandon him.
“I’ll take him,” I said.
“One more thing,” said Tasia. “What happened that night? After he told me to get out of his room.”
I helped him kill himself. “I don’t know if he’d want me to say it.”
Tasia bit her lip. “You leave the hospital. Six hours later, he’s been poisoned and his corpse is covered in bloody vomit. Please. Tell me more. If he held you to confidence, leave those parts out, but can you at least give me something?” Her eyes implored me.
I closed my eyes. Would Tasia report me for giving poison to Kaplen? She’d wanted to cure him, but she’d also talked to him. She knew how much pain he was in.
Tasia would understand. And she’d been his friend too. She deserved the truth.
“Kaplen begged me to help him take his own life,” I said, still closing my eyes. “I offered him a lethal dose of a drug I possessed, and he took it.” I left out the part about how he’d blackmailed me.
Tasia slumped back in her chair, her chest rising and falling. After a long silence, she spoke. “The doctors said it was poison,” she whispered. “How could you have had poison on you?”
“I went through a difficult time,” I said. “I hated my body, and wanted to take my own life, so I bought them off the black market. I resisted the impulse when I became a Grey Coat, but I never threw them away.” It was only half a lie.
“You…” Tasia trailed off. Her eyes looked sunken. All the fight had drained out of her.
“Are you mad at me?”
“No.” She shook her head. “You did – you did what you thought was right. But there had…there had to be another way. I could have researched his condition, or therapy, or something.”
“I told him the same thing,” I said. “He didn’t think a Projection-based cure was possible. And he said he’d already tried everything else.”
“It’s just – “ Tasia took a deep breath. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a case like this. I knew I’d see more. I just didn’t think it would be so soon. And with more people that I – “ She stopped herself, and wiped tears from her eyes.
I put a tentative hand on her shoulder. Is this how people comfort their friends? “Sorry,” I said. “I know Kaplen was the one holding us together,” I spoke his name for the first time in our conversation. “And I’ve seen your exam scores. You don’t need any help with schoolwork.”
“What are you saying?”
“I understand if you don’t want to spend time with me anymore.” I stared at my salad. “I don’t want to waste your time, and I won’t hold anything against you if you want to go your own way.”
Tasia shook her head. “No, no.” She leaned forward and hugged me, then let go, uncomfortable. “I mean, if you want to do other things or hang out with other people or if you think I’m weird that’s fine, but I’d still like to study together. Or at least do things together, if you don’t want to study. As friends. More than we were before. Like see a movie at the multiplex or play Jao Lu or talk about our favorite comic books. If you read comic books. I would like that.”
I cracked a hint of a smile. “I’d like that too.”
Tasia smiled back at me. “Chem studying? East Pavilion? Same time day after tomorrow?”
I nodded. “This polymers unit is going to kill me. Please help.“
Her eyes lit up. “It’s not as confusing as it seems. Some beautiful, elegant patterns emerge, once you start delving under the surface. Then it all falls into order.“
A part of me believed that she actually liked me as a person. That she saw a kindred spirit, or respected some qualities of my personality, or trusted me on some level. But there was another explanation for why she wanted to be my friend. A much simpler one, that made more sense given the context.
She didn’t have anyone else.
I pulled the trigger, opening fire on the target downrange. The machine pistol jerked back in my hands, and I clenched my teeth. I shot at it five more times, emptying the clip. Even with earmuffs, it made my ears hurt.
“Fuck me,” I muttered. Despite being less than ten feet in front of me, the paper cutout of the man had exactly zero holes in it. “How am I so shit at this?”
“Your stance is wrong,” said the instructor. “Unlock your arms and relax your shoulders. Stay balanced. And your grip is way too loose. That’s a common mistake with beginners.”
I reloaded the gun, fumbling with the bullets, then relaxed my upper body, squeezing the grip as tight as I could. “Better?”
The instructor pulled my earmuffs back up, and nodded.
I imagined the paper target was the Broadcast King, and pulled the trigger two more times. Two more misses. “Squidfucker.” I set the gun down on the table beside me.
“You’re flinching before you shoot. It’s throwing off your aim.”
“Are all your students this bad at first, or is it just me?”
The instructor shrugged. “It’s not like the movies. Shooting takes practice, and even then it’s hard to be accurate at range.”
“Without you, I’d be hopeless.” Fortunately, it turned out a premium membership and Isaac Brin’s silver business card was enough to get you luxury treatment at a firing range like this, including free instruction and comped ammo. Alignment Shooting Sports was too large and bureaucratic to notice my illusions on their desk clerk, and didn’t have any system that required registration numbers.
Plus, they were large and had five other locations around town, so I didn’t feel too guilty about tricking them.
I squeezed the trigger four more times, doing my best to follow his instructions. Relax. If I was going to take on the monster who’d freed Honeypot, I needed to be better in combat.
When I lowered my gun, the target had a single hole in its right arm.
“It’s a start,” said the instructor. He looked me over. “Say, you don’t have any health issues with your upper body, do you?”
Are my body’s defects throwing off my aim? If so, my aim was likely to get worse, not better, as time went on. The tips of my fingers were more numb than they’d been weeks ago, and they seemed less dextrous and more grey than they’d been the night I’d stolen the body.
“I’ll keep coming here to practice,” I said. “But if a home invader came into my house tonight, and I needed to use it, is there any advice you could give? Basic beginner tools to offset my bad technique.”
The instructor frowned. “Get close enough to never miss. Or invest in a knife.”
A voice echoed from behind me. “Why is there a giant cat in my bedroom?”
I glanced behind me. Wes strode down the range towards me, scowling, fidgeting with a pencil. I nodded to the instructor. “I’m done for the day, I think. Appreciate the help.” The instructor stepped away, and I folded my arms, turning to Wes. “I adopted him. He had nowhere else to go.”
“You know cats are a sign of poverty, yes?” Wes stomped up next to me. “If we have one, everyone’s going to think we’re filthy and poor.”
“We are filthy and poor. You live in a storage unit.”
“Yes, and that’s bad enough,” he said. “No reason to make it worse for us.”
I pursed my lips. “You and Cardamom are sharing the space. As long as he’s not peeing on your mattress, he stays. If you don’t like that, you can find free lodging somewhere else.”
“Well,” said Wes. “I hope you’re better at pet care than shooting, because…”
“Yeah,” I said. “I suck.”
“You’ll improve. And with your Vocation, you can put the barrel to their forehead if you need to. That’s what makes you deadly, not your shitty impression of a Shenti Commando.”
He’s being supportive? That might have been the first positive comment he’d given me. And after our drunken heart-to-heart ten days ago, he didn’t seem fazed at all.
“Hey,” I said. “How are you holding up? I know it hasn’t been easy for you.”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine, mom. Back’s a little cut up from the glass, but that’s it. And the broken rib. And my fingers still hurt. And the bruises on my neck. But that’s it.”
If you say so. “How’s the prep been going? You said you had a lead on the Broadcast King.”
Wes scowled. “His Zeppelin is almost always in the air. When it’s not, it’s heavily guarded at an airfield with lots of open spaces around it – not many places to hide. Most of its staff live on it, and those who don’t are accompanied on and off by further security forces, and are often wealthy enough to have their own guard presence.”
“The zeppelin is off-limits. Short of a miracle, we’re not getting on there.”
“And the penthouse?”
“Also a damn fortress. None of my leads have panned out.”
I clenched my teeth. “What if we ignore his papers? Ignore the information bounty. Next time he leaves his house, we take out his guards and jump him. We know he was behind Wethers’ release.” That was enough for him to be guilty.
Wes held up his hands. “Brin hasn’t sent us anything lately. If we don’t give him an information bounty, we won’t get paid. You still like money, right?” He leaned forward. “But I did think of something that could get us in the penthouse. Something you could do, inside Paragon.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Blueprints,” he said. “They should be in a higher level of the Great Library, which you have access to now. It could give us security flaws, room layouts, everything we’d need to break in without getting caught.”
“I don’t have access. I’m a Grey Coat, I have a level zero library card. And Paragon guards its books more than its students. I would not be able to pull that off in a lifetime.”
“It doesn’t have to be you,“ he said. “You know anyone who could rent the blueprints out for you?”
Tasia’s face popped into my head. “Maybe.”
Tasia sat at a table alone, poring over a tome and scribbling down notes.
The glowing pillar in the center of the Great Library flooded the room with sunlight, so you could almost forget it was eleven at night. But her face gave off clues. Bloodshot eyes with dark circles under them. Messy black hair. The girl was even more sleep-deprived than before.
Tasia gulped down the rest of her tea, and clenched her fist. An orb of crackling blue and purple lightning appeared around it, then dissipated. Experimenting with her Vocation.
She glanced in my direction. “Scholars, I’m late for our study session, aren’t I? I’m so sorry, I got distracted.”
I approached her. “You’re acing every class, and you never have to ask a single question in our meetings. What’re you studying?”
She paused for a moment, thinking it over. Whatever it was, she’d been researching it since she came to Paragon, and using her highest-level library card to get access to information.
As far as I could tell, she’d spent more time on this project than anything else, but she hadn’t said a word about it to me.
“I can tell you the basics,” she said. “But the details involve books from Levels Two and Three, so I can’t go over those. And you have to promise not to tell anyone.”
She flipped the book to a diagram: a three-dimensional web of dots, most of them connected by dozens of lines. “Know what that is?”
“It’s a Pith, right?” I said. “Or, part of one. It’s a network of maybe a dozen Soul Particles, but even the Pith in an ant’s brain has hundreds of thousands of them.”
“Almost.” Tasia lifted a finger. “This is from a dead person. The Great Scholar Belatsunat kept switching to younger bodies as her Pith aged, to ensure she wouldn’t die of physical ailments. Before her mind withered, she insisted that her apprentices study her Pith as she died, to learn more about the secrets of Null Particles. She even ordered some of them to use Whisper vocations as she passed, to test what kind of reactions a sapient mind would have as it lost consciousness.”
“What did they find?”
“Null Particles are dead Soul Particles, yes? Over time, they build up in your Pith as it ages and replaces particles, and cause dementia, general loss of functionality, and eventually death.”
“But some people get more or less of them.”
Tasia smiled. “Yes. When the Neke go through the Liminal, the reincarnation slows down the buildup of Null Particles. It’s how they can live so long. However, the general principle is, the more a mind is altered, the faster Null Particles build up. If you install lots of Praxis vocations and have other people modifying your Pith all the time, you’ll build them up faster and die much younger. So – ” She stopped herself.
“So, what? What does some Great Scholar’s pneumatology book have to do with that?“
Tasia stared at her feet. “The science is interesting and all, but now that I’m saying it out loud, it sounds stupid. You’ll think I’m stupid.”
I laughed at that, and Tasia shrunk back further. “No, no. I mean, your grades are better than anyone I know. Even Lorne. Whatever you’ve been working on, I’m sure it’s incredible.”
Tasia smiled at me. “Despite how many advancements we’ve made in the past few centuries, we still know so little about Null Particles and how they work. But there are myths of Great Scholars learning how to manipulate them, control them.”
She took a deep breath. “I’m searching for the key to immortality.”
I sat down on a chair and rubbed my eyes. “I’m sorry, what? But didn’t you tell me earlier that everyone’s tried it? And that nobody was close?”
“The soul is mortal, but it doesn’t have to be.” Taisa’s eyes lit up. Eagerness slipped into her voice. “Projectors are creating new paradigms all the time – thirty years ago, we didn’t have fabricated bodies, and now they’re everywhere.”
“Sure, just, I mean – “ Don’t belittle her. “Wait a minute. Didn’t you tell me that Epistocrats have been trying that for millennia? The Great Scholars too? And that nobody was close?”
“They haven’t been working the problem with modern knowledge. And they didn’t have my Vocation – I’ve already been able to use it to modify Piths and Null Particles.” She exhaled. “And I have to.”
“Why, though?” I said. “Aren’t there a million and one philosophers and religions explaining why you shouldn’t live forever?”
“Do you know what the Eternalists were?”
I shook my head.
“A long story,” she said. “I’ll tell you some other time. But here’s the bottom line:” she said. “There’s no afterlife. When you die, your consciousness is extinguished forever. Not an endless black void, not judgement by gods. You simply cease to exist. Pith aging is the one disease that we haven’t found a cure for – everything else can be fixed with modern medicine, or a new body.
But there are so many people without modern medicine or new bodies. I didn’t say that out loud.
“If we solve that,” said Tasia. “Then we could live for as long as we liked. We could modify and improve our Piths without shortening our lifespans, and ascend to new levels of cognition and emotion. We can become Exemplars and forge the stars in our image.”
“But why you? Why do you have to?”
She looked away from me. “It’s just something I care about.”
There’s a reason she’s not saying. But it would be rude to press her, so I switched topics. “I came here because I wanted to ask something of you.”
“Sure, what do you need?”
“I have a friend who’s in trouble,” I half-lied. “And I need to help him.”
An orb coalesced around her fist. “You need backup?”
I shook my head. “It’s a sensitive topic, and I can’t discuss the details.” This is going to be a tough sell. “We need information.”
Realization dawned in Tasia’s eyes. “Ernest, I can give you my time and effort – as much as you need, but please don’t ask me for that.”
“The relevant books are in Level Two of the library. No Vocation Codices. No projection, nothing dangerous. Just some stuff that’s a little beyond my clearance.”
I would ask Tasia for a large collection of books, with the actual blueprints I needed buried in the request. That way, she wouldn’t know I was going after the Broadcast King.
Tasia bit her lip, looking even more exhausted than before. “I can’t. I returned his books for you, but I can’t do more than that. My position is too fragile.”
“Are you talking about your family?” Lorne had told me Tasia had obtained her position by ousting another Epistocrat, but I didn’t want to pry. “It doesn’t have to be risky – you can memory burst pages, then reconstruct them outside without having to steal physical copies.”
Tasia’s face reddened. “It’s not just about the risk to me. It’s about principle. I trust that you won’t abuse whatever I’d take out for you, but what if someone steals them from you? What if Commonplace terrorists tail you when you get off the cable car? What if someone reads and copies them without your knowledge?” She crossed her arms. “You’re wonderful, Ernest, but you can’t guarantee the safety of whatever I give you.”
I held up a hand. “I understand. But I’ll only be using them for a moment. And if someone else gets access to these, is it really the end of the world?”
Tasia’s face darkened. “How much do you know about the Pyre Witch?”
I shrugged. “The basics. I never read any books on her, but I know the general outline.”
Tasia pulled up a chair and sat down across from me. “Admiral Ebbridge explained the whole story to me. Including the stuff kept from the general public.” Her voice went quiet. “She was a Guardian, once. She had red flags in her psych evals, but her raw talent and intellect convinced them to let her in.”
“What kind of red flags?”
“During the entrance exam, she aced the official psych eval. But on the unofficial one, the one they don’t tell applicants about? Sadism, anger management, violence. Lack of empathy. In reality, she was probably even worse than her scores suggested, because she may have been gaming the test. But the Paragon professors thought they could temper her.”
“But they didn’t.”
“It looked like it was working. Over time, she pretended to improve, followed rules and said the right things to gain further access, all while getting perfect grades in her classes. Until they gave her a level five library card, and she gained access to powerful vocations. Ancient vocations, the stuff they’ve kept under lock and key since the fall of the Great Scholars.”
“Then she went crazy.”
“During the Shenti War, the treaty of silence was still in effect. The world of projection was still hidden from the Humdrums, and Guardians fought Shenti projectors in secrecy. But that wasn’t enough for her. Once she awakened her bloodlust, and once she had the vocations she wanted – “
“She killed the enemy’s Humdrum soldiers. Set whole mountains ablaze to butcher their troops. Then, when that wasn’t enough, she turned to their civilians. She broke the treaty of silence, exposed our world to the Humdrums. To retaliate, the Shenti sent joiner commandos against our fleet, and butchered a whole carrier group.”
“The Edwina Massacre.” The event Clementine claimed she’d fought in. “What’s your point here, exactly?”
“Paragon sent a squad under Professor Keswick to take her in. Keswick was one of the strongest and kindest Guardians in the school. Scholar-ranked. And she burnt him alive. Only Headmaster Tau was strong enough to strike her down. Since then, Paragon doesn’t let in anyone with problems from their psych eval, and only a tiny handful of people have access to levels four through six of the library. Information has to be protected, at all costs.”
“But I don’t need vocation codices.”
“I know,” she said. “But still. We have to trust in the rules to keep us safe.”
And how did that work out for Kaplen? At this rate, I was never going to avenge him. I sighed. “Thanks anyway.” I stood up and stepped back from the table. “Happy studying.”
How the fuck do I explain this to Wes?
I strode down the concrete hallway of King’s Palace Sleepbox and Depot.
Wes wasn’t in his storage unit, so the boy was probably getting drunk at a bar somewhere. I could postpone telling him about my failure until tomorrow morning. Then we could formulate some other plan, or choose to target Afzal Kahlin while he was outside.
Either way, we weren’t going to let that bastard get away. In the meantime, I had to deposit the money I’d earned from the Honeypot job at the bank account Brin had set up for me. And find out what cats ate.
I stepped into my room, sliding off my jacket and rubbing my eyes.
Wes sat at the foot of my sleeping pod, a briefcase in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. His light brown hair had become a tangled mess, and his suit was wrinkled.
“Ana,” he slurred. “I found a way into his penthouse.”
“What? Are you alright?”
“It’s going to be dangerous.” He stood up, leaning against the wall. “And there’s a tiny chance we might fall thousands of feet to our deaths, but – “ He walked to the door. “You know, it’s best if I show you.”
Thirty minutes later, we stepped off a tram headed up the western slope of midtown. Wes led me through empty streets, past rows of petite houses. This was one of the few places in Elmidde that resembled a suburb.
Just the walk was enough to get me exhausted, short of breath. Were my lungs still damaged from almost drowning? Or was I just tired after everything else? I wanted to crawl back into my capsule and sleep for a year, not follow Wes on a drunk adventure. This had better be good.
Wes turned past a streetlamp and into a side alley between two squat apartment buildings. He clambered over a wooden gate and opened it from the inside for me, then led me across a lawn.
“Are we breaking into someone’s house?” I whispered. Fuck me, I should have brought my gun.
“Calm down, Miss Neurotic,” he said at full volume. He opened a door, leading me up a small staircase, then down a hallway.
At the second door on the left, Wes pulled out a key and unlocked it, opening it to reveal a one-bedroom flat. It was filled with clutter: beer cans on the floor, piles of dirty dishes in the sink, and clothes for both men and women strewn across the coffee table.
A steaming cup of tea sat on the kitchen counter. In the corner of the room, a record spun on a phonograph, playing a catchy swing tune from an I-Pop band. Steel Violet, probably.
“Someone was just here,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Wes. “About that.” He pulled back the covers on the twin bed.
Two men lay on the bed with their arms and legs tied, gags in their mouths, and blindfolds over their eyes. As soon as the cover moved, they began to twist back and forth, trying to wriggle out of their bonds.
“You can talk,” he said. “They have earplugs in.”
I stepped back. “Um, Wes,” I said. “Why the fuck did you kidnap these people? Who are they?”
“Us,” he said. “In forty-eight hours.”
I blinked for a moment, as I took this in. “Let’s pretend I go along with that.” And that it isn’t horrifying.
“You want to go after Kahlin, right? The guy who broke out Wethers? This is how you do that.”
“But, um, who the fuck are they? And how’d you kidnap them? And whose apartment is this?”
The door swung open behind us, and I spun around, reaching my Pith forward. Wes held up a hand. “It’s alright, she’s with us.”
An Ilaquan girl stood in the doorway, decked out in a bright orange blouse and skirt, a belt of ammo slung around her neck.
Her bright red lips broke into a grin, and she hefted a trench shotgun off her shoulder. She took a puff from a small purple hookah in her backpack, blowing out thick smoke that smelled like sour cherries.
“Anabelle Gage,” she said. “I’m Copycat. Let’s get started.”