11-C The Breadbasket

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Wes

“Starve out the country?” I said.  “What are you talking about?”

“The Agricultural Islands,” said Ana.  “My home.  It’s the most fertile and farm-dense land in the nation.  It produces the vast majority of the Principality’s food supply.”

“And,” said my mother.  “While it has defenses, they will be like tissue paper to the Pyre Witch and an entire Shenti fleet.”  She paced back and forth on the concrete runway.

Don’t count out paper.  It was fragile, but had a mean edge.

“And it’s summer,” said Ana.  “The dry season.”

“The winds will be high,” said my mother.  “Firefighters and planes with retardant can be taken out.  With well-placed firebombs and palefire, Commonplace and the Shenti can create a firestorm.  I made many such attacks during the Shenti War.”

Jun got a heavy look in his eyes when she mentioned that.  They’re using our tricks against us.  The enemy had a cruel sense of irony.

“The islands are dense,” said Ana, slouching over.  Her voice was flat, half-dead.  “They could burn them all down in a manner of days.”

“Hours,” said my mother.  “If they hit the right spots.  Which they will.”

“Could the Black Tortoise be involved?” muttered General Benthey.  “He did love unconventional tactics.”

“Unlikely,” my mother said.  “The man has been a mental wreck since the Spirit Block.  All our sources indicate he’s busy smoking himself to death in a ruined bunker somewhere.  If he’s not dead already, or replaced by some poser in his chassis.  More likely, it’s one of the warlords whose fleets have gone missing.  Luo Cai.  Or Gao Mei.”

“Do we know they’re targeting the islands?” said General Benthey, puffing on his cigarette.  “This is all just guesswork, right now.”

“We know,” my mother said.  “We got a sliver of the Humdrum’s thoughts.  And those warlords wouldn’t pick a fight with us for no reason.  Every time a Shenti ship has crossed a single yard over our borders, we’ve eradicated it, and their fleets are far weaker than ours.”  She folded her hands behind her back.  “They’re hiding from us on purpose.  And the firebombs are even further proof.  They’re going to burn down our nation’s breadbasket.”

Nobody spoke for a moment.  The waves washed up against the shores of Bartolet Naval Base.  I bounced my leg up and down.  With my hands cuffed behind my back, I tapped my fingers against each other, an escalating pattern of nervous fidgeting.

Burn it down?  No, that couldn’t be right.  Was this the attack, then?  Commonplace’s final assault, their ultimate gambit to take over this country and destroy Paragon.

This has been a pretty rough week.

My leg bounced faster.

“And what happens then?” I asked.  “When the Agricultural Islands burn down?”

“Over the next year, supply lines collapse,” said my mother.  “The greatest economic crash in this nation’s history will occur, but no one will care about the numbers.  Because they’ll all be starving to death.”

“The poor will die first,” said Hira.

My mother nodded.  “After the grocery stores empty, and the fish run out, and the bread lines stretch for miles, the legally available food will run out.  They will eat rats.  Then tree bark.  Then wallpaper, and household pets, and dirt.  And each other.”


I pushed down a wave of nausea.  No.  The Shenti War had been bad, but this was apocalyptic.  We had systems in place, safeguards.  The world couldn’t end that easily.

“The violence will not be too bad,” said my mother.  “Savagery is a luxury, for people with the strength to stand.  Most will die in their homes, with bulging ribs and swollen bellies, holding the hands of their loved ones.  Others will wither on the streets, begging for scraps, or stumbling to train stations in the hopes of traveling to a city with more food.”

“Um, Rowyna,” said Penny Oakes, biting her lip.  “This is the worst-case scenario, right?  I mean, there have been countless famines before, throughout history.”

“No,” said my mother.  “I’m describing one of the better outcomes.  Countless millions dead, even more malnourished, unable to move, requiring huge investments in medical care, overflowing hospitals.  The famines of the old world came from disease, odd weather, poor seeds.  Not projectors.”

No.  “But – “ I said.  “We live in a global economy.  We can just buy more food, from Ilaqua and Neke and other islands, right?”

“We’ll lose more than eighty percent of our supply,” said my mother.  “Ships cannot perform miracles.  Even if we spend every coin in our coffers, put ourselves in crippling debt, and commandeer every vessel in the nation, we won’t get enough for everyone.  Not in time.  Before the Spirit Block, the Black Tortoise held the greatest logistical mind in history, and I doubt even he could save us.”

“She’s right,” said General Benthey, tossing his cigarette on the runway and stamping it out.  “It’s an absurd problem, and our industry’s not up to the task.”

“Food will become more expensive than Voidsteel,” said my mother.  “Epistocrats will flee, and hoard supplies, because they are intelligent, and they know that such a crisis is never temporary.  And that no amount of charity will satisfy the Humdrum mob.”

“None of our Vocations are designed for a problem like this,” said Penny Oakes.  “Even the strongest ones.”

My fingers stopped tapping, slippery with sweat.  “And then?”

“Then, Commonplace gets their revolution.  Or the Shenti finish us off.  Without food, the Principality will die.  The manner of death is just a formality.  Maybe Tunnel Vision doesn’t even care about the details, past that point.”

“I don’t think so,” said Ana.  “Maxine Clive has a plan.”

“Fool,” my mother said.  “You think that Humdrum puppet has made a single decision for that group?  This is the plot of The Pyre Witch.  A Praxis specialist.”

“I’m not sure.”  Ana shook her head.  “It didn’t seem that way when I met her.  I think Maxine Clive has a plan.”

“There has to be something,” said Penny Oakes.  “Something we can do.”

“Wait,” said Ana, leaning forward.  “What about the Lavender Book?”

My mother, General Benthey, and Penny Oakes glared at her in unison, like she’d just suggested a puppy genocide.  Sebastian Oakes folded his arms, cocking his head to the side.

“You have Vocations in there, right?” she said.  “Overwhelming power.  Forbidden techniques.  If there was ever a time to crack it open, it would be now.”

Big mistake, Ana.  Guardians got real testy about their books.

It is not your place, cutthroat,” hissed Penny Oakes.  “Isaac got greedy and tried to buy you as a hired gun.  That doesn’t entitle you to a library card, or to discuss such matters.”

“You have no idea what lies inside that book,” said my mother.  “Do not make this worse for yourselves.”

“Does it matter?”  The words slipped out of my mouth.  “You’re not going to let us Oust the golden boy, are you?  Not after we helped your biggest enemies escape.”

“That remains to be seen,” she said.

I clamped my lips together.  Shut the fuck up, Wes.  If there was still a chance for us to fulfill her offer, then every word I said was another chance to screw up my odds.

“Fine,” said Ana.  “But what’s the next move, then?  The Pyre Witch and Maxine Clive and the mob and Steel Violet and the Shenti and all of Commonplace?  How are we going to stop them?”

My mother turned a withering look onto Ana.  I felt bad for her.  She’ll get used to that look, if she ever becomes the next Lady Ebbridge.

We?” said my mother.  She stepped forward and placed her index finger on Ana’s forehead.  Blue electricity snapped where their skin touched.  “I can only have one tracer active at a time,” she said.  “I need it for the conflict ahead.  You’re not worth it.”

They’re going to the Agricultural Islands.  Of course they were, they had no other option.  This would be the greatest battle in a decade.  Maybe the single greatest battle in the Principality’s history.  It was a miracle that we’d found out about it this early, but it would still be a deadly conflict.

Then I realized.  This is our best chance to show our worth.  To fight our way into a pardon.  We couldn’t miss this.

I leaned forward, raising my voice.  “Please,” I said.  “Let us join you.  We can fight, we can help.  We’ve built up a lot of combat experience in the last year.”

“I saw you on the field,” said Penny Oakes.  “Brave, but I wouldn’t call that experienced.”

“How’s that stomach feeling?” said Left-Hira.  “Still sore from the bullet?”

“Hira’s a bit coarse,” I said.  “But he makes a good point.  We do have experience.”

“In street fights,” said my mother.  “Back-alley brawls and underhanded duels in close quarters.  Not in a war.  Do you even know what a base of fire is?  Or an ash can?”

I shook my head.

“What about ASW?  Or WB?”

You’ve made your point.  Get on with it.

A soldier grabbed me and pulled me to my feet.  Others did the same for Ana, Hira, and Jun.

“As of this moment,” said my mother.  “‘Queen Sulphur’ is disbanded.”  She stared at me.  “Go home.  If you’re still alive when we get back, and the world hasn’t ended, we can discuss your position with our criminal justice system, and my family.”

My family.  Not ‘our’.

The soldiers pushed us forward, leading us towards another transport boat.  Ana looked down at herself, at her bulging grey veins.  At her cracked, unmoving fingers and shaking hands.

Then she looked at me, not with determination or focus or purpose, but fear.  Simple, pure wide-eyed terror.

And at that moment, I knew.

It didn’t matter what happened if the Guardians returned.  Even if they won, by the time they fought a massive battle, sorted out the aftermath, and decided which of us was worthy, it wouldn’t matter.

Because Ana would be dead by then.

________________________________________

Queen Sulphur sat under an umbrella, drank soda, and watched the world end.

I’d wanted a drink, a fruity cocktail or at least a glass of wine, but Right-Hira had glared at me from over the cafe menu.  “No exceptions,” he said.

“Fine,” I had muttered, and ordered a Jwala’s Orange Soda alongside Jun’s.  With Ana’s taste buds still broken, she drank a mug of pitch-black tea, with a small mountain of leaves sitting at the bottom.  She sipped faster and faster, until her hands shook and her eyes darted around like fireflies.

The wonders of caffeine.  Or maybe that was just the decay.  Ana looked even worse than a day ago.  Her entire skin had turned greyer – not just the bulging veins.  Her breaths looked slow, pained, and her eyelids drooped.

Jun folded his hands on the table, trying and failing to look calm.  Right-Hira leaned back on his chair, puffing cherry-scented smoke out of his purple hookah and chugging one lemonade after another, cans piling up on the table in front of him.  His female body was out.

Waves lapped against the side of the waterside cafe.  From the empty patio area, we had a great view of both the ocean and Mount Elwar.

To my left, the city burned.  Gunshots rang out in the far distance, from rubber bullets or real ones, with clouds of smoke from fires or riot police.

As it turned out, mass arrests of Green Hands didn’t pacify the public, but the exact opposite.  The riots had exploded across Elmidde with new ferocity, and law enforcement had responded by flooding the streets with cops.

According to the radio news, someone had tried to assassinate a pro-Paragon member of Parliament, too.  Enoch Trembath, some old ex-Guardian with a bushy mustache.  His son had sat next to me in Physics 110, and had helped explain some of the more thorny concepts when I zoned out.

A sweet boy.  He didn’t deserve this.

Loyalists on the street had replied with fervor, and in the ensuing chaos, Parliament had been taken to Paragon for security.  A few hours later, someone set fire to the House of Ministers.  The blaze had been extinguished, but it had confirmed everyone’s fears.

Was this part of Commonplace’s plan?  Had this all been some elaborate ruse to escalate the conflict?  I couldn’t keep track of this cat and mouse nonsense anymore.

But one way or another, chaos ruled the streets.

In the opposite direction, Elmidde’s fleet sailed away across the horizon.  My mother’s flagship, the Rhona, accompanied by the rest of its carrier group and a pair of submarines.  And a majority of Paragon’s Scholar-Ranked Guardians.

Sailing towards the Agricultural Islands.  To save millions.  After hearing the basics, Jun had done some math on the back of a napkin, and guessed that they’d arrive after the Shenti fleet.  It’s going to be close.

A single carrier, the Larcher, was left back with a battleship to defend the city.  But who else got left behind?

“Hira,” I said.  “Did you find out what I asked?”

“Yup,” he said.  “Just stitched some lieutenant colonel with my Left body.  As far as I can tell, both Chimera and Golem Squads have been assigned to the Rhona.  Lorne Daventry’s been studying some special eye-Joining for the operation.

My friends are going to battle.  Samuel was going to the battle.  Eliya and Leizu were going to the battle.  Even Lorne and his thugs were going to the Agricultural Islands with my mother, to make history or die trying.

Everyone but us.  We’d missed the boat.  We’d been fired.  It was like getting Ousted all over again.  Now, we had no employer, no real allies, and nowhere to sleep other than the basement of a ruined shack with Cardamom in the corner.

“And during our chat with the generals,” said Hira.  “I found out where they got the intel for our raid just now.  A mobster whose death they faked, kidnapped when Isaac Brin and your mother went on their mission after The Pyre Witch.”

When they went into the sewers and got Brin paralyzed.

“They went on that mission because of us,” said Ana, her voice soft.  Because of her tip to Brin.

“Well,” I said.  “Fuck.”

Silent nods all around.

“What do you think?” asked Ana.  “About the islands.”

“Paragon’s all sorts of fucked-up,” said Hira.  “But causing a mass famine?  That’s fucking disgusting.  Like I said, the poor people will die first.”

Jun nodded in agreement.

“Tunnel Vision needs to go down,” I said.  “Along with the rest of her cronies.  This isn’t about the heart of our society anymore.  It’s about survival.”

Ana looked away from me at those last few sentences.  Does she believe me?  Did I believe myself?

“If I may ask,” said Jun.  “How much time do you think you have, Ana?”

“I’ve seen other cases like mine,” said Ana.  Her voice was hoarse, half an octave lower than before.  Did the decay get to her throat, too?  “Other people scammed by Sapphire Industrial and Tunnel Vision’s mob.  Judging by their timelines and markers, I should have died two weeks ago.”

“I am a war criminal,” said Jun.  “You can do more to help people than I ever have.  With your permission, we could transfer your Pith into my chassis.“

“No,” said Ana.  “I won’t swap bodies with you.  I won’t have anyone sacrificed for me.”

“Then we find some Green Hands murderer or a mobster squidfucker, and take their body,” said Hira.  “Ernest Chapman is dead.  They removed the tracer on you.  And for once, the Guardians are out of Elmidde.  You’ll never have a better shot.”

Ana shrunk away at this, slouching over further and staring at her tea mug.

Of all the times to get righteous.  “Come on,” I said.  “You can’t honestly tell me that some random serial killer needs to live more than you do.  You deserve to see tomorrow.”

“None of us are going to see tomorrow,” said Ana.  “My parents.  My home.  They’re going to burn, and this country will wither.”  She gazed out over the sea, at the fleet shrinking in the distance.  “The water is rising.  The sea remains.”  She sighed.  “I’m sorry for putting you all in this situation.”

“You saved my life, you idiot,” I said.  “Don’t apologize.  To my surprise, I actually enjoy living.”

“Not then,” said Ana.  “If I was brave enough, I would have sent you away back in Helmfirth, when I had Lorne’s tracer on me.  I could have killed Clive, Kahlin, and Pictogram all at once.”  She indicated her head to Hira.  “As you said, they could have sent those Voidsteel missiles at the town, just like last time.  But Tunnel Vision was right.  I’m a beetle, not an ant.  When the flood comes, I don’t become part of the raft.”

“Fuck that,” growled Hira.

“What?”

“You’re the rock of this group,” he said.  “You’re supposed to push us forward with terrifying determination, not wallow in self-loathing.  I’m the only one here allowed to have a death wish.”  He jabbed a finger in Ana’s face.  “Stop trashing your own life, and help us find a way out, like we always, always have.  Your parents live in the Agricultural Islands.  They’re counting on you.”

And that Ousting pardon’s not impossible now.  Improbable, but still within reach, if I squinted.

I made eye contact with Ana for a second.  Neither of us had brought it up yet.

“To have any chance,” said Ana.  “Of moving forward.  We’d need to get to the Agricultural Islands, and fast.  It’d be easiest to smuggle ourselves onto the ships, but they’re gone, already.”

Hira laughed.  “That’s all we need?  A quick ticket to the islands?”  He stood up, finishing his lemonade.  “That’s easy.”  His hookah folded up inside his bag, and he grabbed Jun.  “Come on, Kuang.  We’ve got somewhere to be.”

“Wait,” said Jun, his voice getting soft.  “What if we’re going about this the wrong way?”

“What?” I said.

“How shall I put this?”  Jun ran his fingers through his grey hair and closed his eyes.  “Sometimes, terminally ill patients keep chasing after expensive treatment, even when the odds are absurd and it means putting themselves through agony.”

“Jun?” said Ana, her voice getting small.

“You’ve been through so much already, Ana,” he said.  “If you won’t take my body, then maybe it’s time to let go.  Focus on a more tranquil passing.”

Ana looked up, back at Jun.  And for a moment, I forgot all the decay and only saw her eyes.

“If I pass,” she said.  “I promise you this.  It will not be tranquil.”

She nodded at Right-Hira.  The Ilaquan left.  Jun followed close behind, giving Ana a concerned look as he walked back to the street.

For a long while, neither I nor Ana talked.  We sat at the table, listening to the waves and the faint piano music from inside the cafe, with the sounds of gunshots and explosions much further in the distance.  A waiter came over and refilled Ana’s tea.  I bought another Jwala’s orange soda.

Both of us knew the big unspoken question, but neither of us was willing to say it.

Who gets the pardon?  Who would become Lady Ebbridge, and who would get banished with the rest of Queen Sulphur?

I can’t handle this anymore.  “If we wait,” I said.  “It’ll just get worse.”

“Should we wait for Hira and Jun?” Ana stared at her tea leaves.

“Hira’s in two prison bodies,” I said.  “And doesn’t give a shit.  Jun wants to leave to find his father.  And – “  I held up a finger.  “My dearest mother didn’t talk to either of them.  She talked to us.”

“Alright,” said Ana.  “It’s your name.  Your body.  You have a right to them, you should return to your family.”

“But if you don’t get a new body,” I said.  “You’ll die.”

“You have a fitness double,” said Ana.  “You can smuggle it to me.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “You’d trust me with that?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “I would.”

“I would try,” I said.  “I would do everything in my power.  But there’s no guarantee that I’d be able to succeed in time.”  I leaned forward.  “And if you get banished, you’ll never be a Guardian.”

Both of us glanced up at Paragon, floating high above Mount Elwar, shrouded in a layer of clouds.

“You’ve wanted to be a hero, more than I ever did.”  I thought of the last year.  “And you acted like it.”

“I shot a lot of people,” said Ana.  “Hurt a lot more.”

“But you’re fighting for the people, for the nation,” I said.  “I just wanted to go home.”  Samuel’s voice flashed through my mind.  Eliya’s smile.  Leizu’s bad jokes.  “I just wanted to see my friends again.  So go.”  I stared at her.  “Be a butterfly.  Spread your wings and flutter into the sky.  Have fun with your friends.”

“Most caterpillars die in the cocoon,” said Ana.

Real upbeat, Ana.  Though, in her defense, she was dying at the moment.

“And you’re my friend,” said Ana.

Despite everything, a warm feeling spread through my veins.  I smiled.

“Jun is my friend.  Even Hira’s my friend, though she scares me sometimes.”  Ana closed her eyes.  “And Tasia’s my friend, too.  Was.”

If she wants that seat, she’ll have to Oust one of her best friends.  Or let me Oust her.  I couldn’t forgive Tasia for what she’d done, but I could understand Ana’s dilemma.

“If I drink that cider, up in Paragon,” said Ana.  “I’ll be doing it alone.”

 “It’s your life,” I said.  “You can build something new.  But only if you’re alive.  You’ve come so far, fought so hard.  You can’t throw all that away.”

“I told you about Tasia’s research,” said Ana.  “If she’s Ousted, then her sister – “

“If the bitch has done her job right,” I said.  And I’m sure she has.  “She’ll have hidden backups of the most important books she’s read, and all the critical passages.  She’ll be able to continue, just not in the same capacity.  And she won’t be hunted like a criminal if she’s Ousted.  Not like us.”  I took half a breath.  “And I don’t even – “

I stopped myself, and pictured myself back in my old body.  The name, the friends, my bed and Paragon’s food all sounded wonderful.  But the chassis?  I’d always been indifferent to that.  It served as a tool, a collection of muscles and bones and nerves that could house my Pith and interact with the world.

Back at Paragon, people had showered praise onto my body, a fashionable Phoebe Asquith with silky black hair, a heart-shaped face, and sharp green eyes.  They’d remarked on my impeccable taste and fashion sense in choosing it.

But I hadn’t selected that body.  My mother had, when I was young and she’d decided my birth body wasn’t up to scratch.  They weren’t praising me, they were praising her.  I had nothing to do with it.

For that reason, it had always felt like an ill-fitting suit, or a tight, painful dress pressing on my ribs, restricting my breath.

On the day of my Ousting, swapping with a boy had been a terrifying prospect.  Now, it just seemed ordinary.  Easy.

But still, I’d rather be home.  I’d rather make a name for my family.

“You don’t even what?” said Ana.  “What are you talking about?”

“It’s stupid,” I said.  “Never mind.”  I chuckled.  “If neither of us wants this name, then why are we fighting for it so hard?”

“I do want it,” said Ana.  “More than anything.”  She examined her greying, stiff fingers.  “When I first swapped into this body, everyone in my town saw Guardians with terror.  They thought people who used magic and jumped between bodies were freaks, at best.”  She smiled.  “But I just saw heroes who had freed themselves.  Who could assume any form they wanted, and use their power to save the world.”  Her voice turned hesitant, unsteady, and her smile faded.

“And what do you see now?” I asked.  After they hunted us down, used us, and left us to die.

Ana stared into her tea.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I don’t know what I’ve been bleeding myself for.  But I know the Pyre Witch is evil.  And if I become a Guardian, I think I can still do some good.”

Still an idealist, then.  But she sounded so tired when she said those words.  Like spitting out all that hope was an agonizing effort.

“But I also know how much you want this.”

“Well,” I said.  “What the fuck are we supposed to do, then?”

Ana looked up at me, revealing the bags under her eyes.  “I don’t know.”

“We could do what I did for assignments,” I said. “Wait ‘til the last minute and panic.”

Ana didn’t respond, not even to chastise me.  Scholars, how tired is she?

“In the meantime,” I said.  “We could still take some Green Hands’ body.  Tie them up in a basement for a few days so you have a good chassis to fight in.  Like with Pirzanu and Brahmani in Kahlin’s penthouse.

“No,” said Ana.  “Even ignoring my morals, I know this body.  I’ve trained in this body.  When I took Brahmani’s body, I was stronger and out of breath less, but couldn’t aim my gun at all or coordinate.  I’m still strong enough to fight in this chassis.”

I hope you know what you’re doing, Anabelle Gage.

An hour later, Hira and Jun didn’t return, so we went back to our makeshift basement home to wait for them.

Another two hours, and we found ourselves sitting on my used mattress, leaning against the dusty wall on a pile of blankets.  Sweat drenched our clothes from the summer heat, but upstairs, there was no shade from the glaring sun, and someone could recognize our faces from the paper.

So we stayed down here, in our ruined, filthy pressure cooker.

At first, we’d tried to study, or practice our projection, but we’d exhausted ourselves in minutes.  Neither of us had the strength to be productive.

Then we’d listened to the radio, but the popular music stations had gone offline.  The news still worked, but spouted out a constant stream of horrible, depressing facts about the street violence.

Our favorite show, Verity, had gone offline.  Though in fairness, we had broken into the host’s mansion, threatened her, and forced her to deliver a nation-splitting manifesto.  And also smashed her chocolate fountain.

We were too tired to work, with nothing good to listen to.  So we just sat next to each other, quiet, petting Cardamom between us while the sounds of the riots drifted in from the distance.  Gunshots.  Pepper gas launchers.  Shouting.

I scratched Cardamom’s ears, and he purred.

Ana and I could have continued our conversation, resolved our issues about the pardon and Ousting and Tasia, and who deserved what.

But neither of us spoke.  Maybe we both knew it would lead to more dead ends, more frustration.

We just sat there, slumped over in the sweltering heat, petting our green cat.

Jun and Hira returned after another two hours of this.  Or maybe it was five, or ten.  Or thirty minutes.  The three bodies clomped down the stairs.  The old Shenti man, smiling and waving at us.  And the two young Ilaquans, staring at their feet, neither of them smiling.

“We’ve got it,” said Jun.  “A way to get to the Agricultural Islands.”

Ana jumped to her feet, alert in an instant.  “Fantastic.  What do you have?”

Jun beckoned us, and I pushed myself upright, groaning.  The two of us followed him back up the stairs, into the glaring sunlight.

He floated pairs of homemade binoculars into all of our hands, and pointed.  I peered into the lenses, following his direction.

I looked far away, past the edge of North Island and over the sparkling blue waters of Meteor Bay.

I gazed at Bartolet Naval Base.  My mother’s second home, where we’d gathered for the assault on Commonplace.  Almost all the ships had left already, sailing at full speed towards Ana’s hometown, but something else had taken their place

Two dark blue zeppelins sat on the runway, surrounded by a handful of soldiers and trucks.

“See those blimps?” said Jun.

“Yup,” I said.

“Hira did some digging with the local military staff and some sailors at a pub,” said Jun.  “They’re retrofitting the cargo zeppelins for battle.  Loading them with bombs, guns, that sort of thing.  In two days, they’re heading off to the Agricultural Islands.  And that’s – ”

“ – how we get there.  We stow away.”  I clapped Jun on the shoulder.

“Ow,” said Jun.  “My Pith is youthful, not my bones.”

“You did it Jun,” I said.  “You brilliant bastard.  It’s perfect.”

“But we’re no longer welcome in the naval base,” said Ana, pursing her lips.  “We’ll have to break in.”

“Well,” I said.  “It’s not like we have any experience with heists, right?  Or infiltration.”  And most of the Guardians have left already.  We’d have an easier time than usual.

I put down the binoculars and glanced around us.  A metal cooler sat on the doorstep, the kind that stored ice-cold beers or sodas.

I looked up.  A makeshift pickup truck had been built out of junk, much like Jun’s last car.  Dozens more coolers filled the back of the truck, stacked two high and tied down with ropes.  Are they having a picnic?

“How are we supposed to break into Bartolet?” said Ana, tapping her foot.  “It’s the biggest military base in the capital of the Principality.  That’s a near-impossible task.”

“Come on.”  Jun smiled at Ana.  “Where’s your sense of creativity and adventure?  Difficult, indeed, as you say, but impossible?”  He shook his head.  “Of course not.  Not for Queen Sulphur.”

I folded my arms.  “You have a plan then, Grandpa.”

Jun rolled his eyes at ‘grandpa’.  “Young people these days,” he grumbled.  “Such insolence.”  He looked at Ana.  “ I have part of a plan.  Hira and I got talking on the way to the store, and started bouncing ideas off each other.”

Right-Hira nodded, silent.  Odd of him to be so quiet.

“The Guardians are gone,” said Jun.  “So that’s already solved.”  He projected into the metal cooler on the doorstep, floating it into his hands and dragging it down the steps, into the basement.

“But they’ll have sonar, right?” said Ana.

“That’s right,” said Jun, slamming down the cooler.  “The Principian navy keeps active sonar all around Elmidde, but especially around the naval base.  It can be used to detect submarines, at the larger scale, or something as small as a human diver, if you know how to read the scopes.”

“Neke War Priests can stop sonar in water, right?” I said.

“It is as you say,” said Jun.  “But the Vocation is anything but simple.”

“And,” said Ana.  “The Rose Titan is gone.  We can’t ask her for help.”

“The trick,” said Jun.  “Is not hiding from their sonar, then, but disguising it.”  He wiped sweat out of his long, wispy beard.  “Making the operator think you’re one thing, when you’re another.”

“An illusion,” said Ana.

Jun nodded.  “It is as you say.”

“So,” I said.  “How are we disguising ourselves?”  Excitement slipped into my voice.  “Are you building a submarine out of scrap?  Or some armor shield to fit around us that modifies our shape?”  I pointed to the cooler.  “Those are the materials, right?  What’d you spend the last of our money on?”  Despite myself, the Shenti bastard’s elaborate contraptions were always fun to watch.

Jun leaned down and flipped the cooler on its side.  The top swung open, releasing a thick, salty odor.

A pile of dead fish splattered onto the floor.

Jun beamed at us.  “Shall we?”

________________________________________

Almost a day later, we were close to ready.

Jun’s plan sounded ridiculous on paper, but the more I thought about it, the more practical it seemed.  Hira helped us set everything up, and trained us in the basic techniques we’d need.  Ana, in particular, needed a lot of instruction to learn how to move in the water.  Otherwise, though, Hira remained quiet and withdrawn.

“Principality Naval bases maintain perimeter fences and watchtowers with no blind spots,” said Hira.  “Ana will have a hard time getting in range.  But with this method, you’ll have a solid chance of smuggling your way onto the blimps.”

“You’ll?”  Ana stood up in the basement, washing her fish-covered hands with soap and projected water.

“Fuck.”  Right-Hira looked away from us, like we’d just busted him for murder.

“Hira,” I said.  “What precisely the fuck are you talking about?”

Hira sighed with both bodies.  Right-Hira massaged his forehead.  “I’ve been thinking about it since we heard about the Agricultural Islands.”

Oh, dear.

“I like you guys.  Fuck, you’re my friends.”  Hira clenched his fists.  “You kept me safe from my father, and you watched my back without ever complaining about my smoking habit.  I’ll always be grateful for that.”  He looked at me, then Ana, then Jun.  “We’ve been on impossible missions before, deadly missions.  And they are so much fun.  But if you go into war, into a battle like that, I can’t join you.”

My stomach wrenched.  What the fuck?  “I thought you didn’t care if you lived or died?”

“Maybe my lung will sprout a tumor tomorrow,” said Hira.  “Maybe I’ll get hit by a stray bullet or run over by some nutty Green Hands.”  He looked up the stairs.  “But if I get on that zeppelin with you, I know I won’t make it to the end of the week.  Five minutes in, and it’ll get shot out of the sky.”

“They’re being retrofitted for combat,” said Ana.  “And they have non-flammable helium.”

“And I’m telling you it doesn’t matter,” said Hira.  “I’ve been skill-stitching soldiers, remember.  War zeppelins were relevant thirty years ago.  Now, they’re just slow, fat targets in the sky filled with explosives.  Most guns on a ship can shoot one down without blinking.”

“Then why is the Principality using them?” I said.

“They’re desperate,” said Hira.  “They’re throwing everything they have into battle.  And that should scare you shitless too.  This is the perfect opportunity to escape, and I’m not going to pass it by.  I stitched that General Benthey person while we were talking strategy.  Remember Helmfirth?  That city that got blown by the Voidsteel missiles?”  He gritted his teeth.  “Turns out, they have more of those.  And they might fire them at the Agricultural Islands if they think they’re losing the battle.  Wipe out the enemy without starting any fires.  With some collateral damage here and there.”

Silence, as everyone processed this.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “Think you’re gonna survive that, dipshit?”

“Fuck,” said Ana.  Thinking of her parents.  “Fuck!  We need to make sure they don’t lose the battle, then.”

“Where will you go?” I said.

“The Floating City, in Neke,” said Hira.  “Like we discussed earlier.  There’ll be work there, and I can stay low to hide from my family.”

“The water is rising,” said Ana.  “You won’t be able to avoid it.  That city won’t float forever.”

“Not forever,” said Hira.  “Just long enough for a few drinks.  You should join me.”  His female body started stuffing clothes and ammunition into a duffel bag.

“We’ve fought your father,” said Ana, hands shaking.  “We’ve gone to battle on a foreign island against mortars and machine guns and a sniper with perfect aim.  We’ve beaten mobsters and projectors and terrorists and Guardians.  I’ve watched you go toe to toe with Lorne Daventry, and you almost beat him.  We’ve turned the tables while being hunted by Commonplace and Paragon, with an active tracer on one of us.  And now you want to quit?”  She stared at Hira, incredulous.

“Yes,” said Hira.  “This is far worse than any of those things.”

“If we don’t stop Tunnel Vision and Clive,” said Ana.  “Millions will die.  The Principality will descend into chaos, and the impact will ripple out over all Eight Oceans.  Nowhere will be spared, including Neke.”

“You’re right,” said Hira.  “But you’re mad if you think you can change that.  Clever tactics can only go so far.”

“Come on,” I said.  “Impossible battles are fun, aren’t they?  You said it yourself.”  Since when did you care about dying?

“You’ve never been in a real war,” said Hira.  “But I’ve stitched the thoughts of veterans.  And I’ve heard stories.”  He sat down, while his female body stuffed the shotgun into a bag.  “Artillery.  Flak cannons.  Bombing runs that level forests and rip holes in mountains.  Noise so loud you can’t hear your own screams.  You and Ana don’t have ABDs, so you’ll have to worry about shrapnel and bullets, too.  And that’s just the Humdrum side of things.”

“We’ve fought projectors,” said Ana.

“Not like this, we haven’t,” said Hira.  “That fight against the Pyre Witch?  When all we could do was cower?  Think of that as an appetizer.  The real meal is happening at the Agricultural Islands, and it’s far beyond any of us.  They will tear up the earth, burn the sky and the land, fill up the air with smoke and gas and attacks that break physics itself.  You wouldn’t make it ten minutes.  And neither would I.”

Ana clenched her teeth.  “Don’t count us out.”

“You’re determined,” said Hira, sliding his pitch-black sniper rifle into a golf bag.  “I admire that, even it makes no fucking sense to me.  Can any of us project away a massive fire?”

“No,” said Ana.

“How about Joining?  So our lungs can deal with the smoke?  Or so we can survive shock waves from bombs.”

“No,” said Ana through gritted teeth.

“There’s nothing fun about bleeding out in a ditch.  There’s a saying in the Harmonious Flock, death happens to other people.  Know what that means?”

“I can guess,” said Jun.

“People think about death, but most don’t really think about it.  Even when they envision horrible things like disease and war, they compartmentalize, see other people dying, but not them.  They imagine themselves as the heroic soldier storming the beach, the dogged survivor, not the poor fuck who gets shot in the first minute.  It’s a failure of empathy.  Death happens to other people.  Until it happens to you.  And it only needs to happen once.”

“But do you really care if you die?” I said.

“No,” he said.  “Death is why you shouldn’t go.  I’m worried about what’ll happen if I live.”

“Why?” said Jun.

“The Principality won’t make it in time,” said Hira, stuffing a bottle of pills into the bag with his rifle.  “If I survive, my father will drag my half-dead bodies from the wreckage and pump me full of Whisper vocations again.  Just like last time.”  He pulled the bags shut and slung them over his shoulders.  “Dying is fine.  But I’m not going to become his lab rat again.“

Fuck.  A part of me had always expected Hira to leave us, but not now, not here.  And maybe I wanted to believe he’d changed.

“If you want to say goodbye, now would be a good time.”

Jun ran forward and hugged Right-Hira.  “We will meet again.”  Hira hugged him back, closing his eyes.

I stepped forward and punched Right-Hira’s shoulder.  “You’re a selfish, drug-addled prick,” I said.

“Yup.”

“But you’re not a bad teacher, and you know how to have a good time.  I’m going to miss your stupid face.”

“Come on,” said Hira.  “Don’t get sappy on me, Ebbridge.”

Lund pe chadh,” I said.

Ana glared at both Hiras from the far end of the room.  “This is when we need you most.”  She didn’t approach either of them. “You can’t abandon us.  You can’t.”  Maybe she thought her cold stare would stop Hira, that her angry words and moral righteousness and appeals would change her friend’s mind.

But Hira just avoided her gaze.  “I’m sorry, Ana.  See you around.”

With two bodies, he walked back up the staircase, and disappeared into the light.

I sat down on the mattress, slumping onto my back.  “What the fuck?” I said.  “What the fuck?”

“It happened so fast,” said Jun.  He leaned against the wall, running his fingers through his grey beard.

I knew what Hira was.  The entire time, I’d known.  He was a selfish, battle-hardened mercenary, who’d almost killed us on the day we recruited him.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  Or hurt.

Too bad, idiot.  I’d gotten attached.  Once again, I’d let my feelings and impulses charge ahead, without thinking about how it could screw me over in the future.  Every day, I find new and exciting ways to define rock bottom.

On that night, the last night before our operation, before the zeppelins were scheduled to leave, I tossed and turned in my covers, fading in and out of sleep in fitful bursts.  I dreamt of swimming through a pitch-black ocean, up towards a beautiful multicolored light high above me, then woke up, locked out of a proper rest.  The warm summer night turned our basement into an oven.  Even Cardamom was sleeping outside, unable to bear the warmth.

Normally, I’d drink to put myself to sleep, but even after Hira left, something stopped me from staggering to the nearest liquor store.  A nagging itch.

As I drifted off to sleep again, a coughing sound echoed from upstairs.  Some random drunk.  Ignore it.

I squeezed my eyes shut, slumped back on my ratty mattress, and another sound rang out.  Someone retching upstairs.

Takonara.  If I dealt with the noise, maybe I’d catch more than half an hour of sleep.

I grabbed my briefcase full of paper and flattened weapons, in case, slid on my shoes, and tiptoed up the creaking stairs to the ground floor of the ruined building.

Then I gazed to the burnt steps where the front door of the house had been.

Ana knelt there, clutching her stomach, shivering despite the warmth, her grey hair illuminated by the pale moonlight.  She doubled over and vomited, heaving stale lentils and stomach acid onto the overgrown grass.  Then she slumped back against a broken wall, wiping her mouth.

She sniffled, and turned to me, her eyes red from crying.

I jogged over to her.  “Hey.  You alright?“

Ana retched again, forcing her eyes shut to stop the tears.  “Nerves.  I’m fine.”  Hira’s departure hit her harder than I thought.

I’d never comforted someone like this.  Back at Paragon, it had always been Samuel comforting me, making me feel better after a night of pained drinking, or when I got a bad grade on a paper.

So I copied what he did to me.  Minus the more intimate parts.  I kicked aside a pile of rubble, sat down next to Ana, and rubbed her shoulders.  “I’m here,” I said.  “I’m here.  Slow breaths.  Slow breaths.”

“I’m – “  Ana swallowed, forcing herself to breathe.  “I’m so scared,” she whispered.  “I don’t want to – ”  She stared at her withered, grey fingers.  “I don’t want to –

I don’t want to die.  She couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“Don’t worry,” I said.  “I won’t let you.”

I don’t want to die,” she said, with a great effort.  “I don’t want to die for nothing.

“And I won’t let you.  I promise.”

You’ve lied before,” she mumbled.

“You’re right,” I said.  “You don’t have to trust me.  But I’m going to do it anyway.”  And I meant it.  “Look where we were just a year ago.”  I indicated my head towards the basement, where Jun was sleeping.  “A slave in a redemption camp, on the verge of death.”  I looked down at myself.  “A drunk, selfish washout, spiraling out of control.”  Then I looked at Ana.  “A grey, withered maid, failing her dream three times in a row.”

Ana closed her eyes, nodding.

 “If we lose, we lose everything,” I said.  “But if we win, we get to write the next page.  We get to open the door and walk into the rest of our lives.”

After this,” she said.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know if I want to fight anymore.  I don’t know if I can do this.

“You don’t have to,” I said.  There are non-combat Guardians.  Though Ana didn’t seem like the scholarly type.  “Pour yourself a cup.  And drink some mulled cider.”

Ana leaned forward and hugged me.  I hugged her back.  Her body felt cold against mine.

The moon beat down on us, bright and piercing.  A warm summer breeze blew across the empty street.

From this distance, I could hear her panicked breaths, surging in and out of her lungs.

________________________________________

By mid-afternoon the next day, we finished our preparations.

“Do we have everything?” said Ana.

Jun and I nodded.

“Then it’s time.”

Queen Sulphur prepared for battle.

Ana unfolded her thin blue combat suit and slid it up her body, wearing only boxers underneath.  I caught a glance at her, and noted all the injuries she’d built up over the last months.  Bandages on patches of cracked skin.  Two stiff, grey fingers.  Three destroyed toes.  Bald patches on her scalp.  Bulging grey veins.  And untold damage on the inside, where nobody could see.

She pulled the blue material over her skin, covering up the decay.  A big mission like this might snap her like a twig.

But still, if she’d slowed down or tired since our first meeting, she wasn’t showing it.  She moved with strength, focus, throwing a dark shirt, pants, and a tight, ratty jacket over her combat suit.

She assembled her machine pistol with projection, checking the single Voidsteel bullet in the side magazine, then disassembled it in an instant, sliding the pieces into zippered pockets in her armor, by her ribs, at her waist, and by her outer thigh.  She shoved her cattle prod into a holster at her belt, and dropped the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone into another.

How could she possibly poison someone in a pitched battle like this?

Then I realized.  It’s for her.  If she got injured, and lost all chance of victory.

Finally, she added a pair of grenades, knockout gas and frag, both flattened by me and stuffed under her belt.

Then, she pulled out the painting Hira had drawn for her birthday.  The girl with red hair in the wheatfield.  A twenty-year-old Anabelle Gage, if she’d lived another life.

She gazed at it, while the rest of us got ready.

Jun stuffed metal gizmos and bits of scrap into his huge backpack, until it was bulging from every angle.  Basics like grenades, knockout injections, pepper gas, but also a few I didn’t recognize.  He didn’t bother with guns or knives.

I pulled on my favorite, most durable suit, since I lacked combat armor.  A lightweight, breathable blue linen with a flexible, two-button jacket and cuffed, slim-fit pants.

Then, I ripped open packets of letter paper and stuffed them into my brown fish leather briefcase, made watertight with Jun’s help.  In between the sheets, I added a variety of objects I’d flattened.  Syringes of Jun’s tranquilizer, grenades of all types, and a crowbar.

I placed a full bowl of food next to Cardamom in the corner of the basement, and scratched behind his ears.  “See you later.”

As a last touch, I pulled on my white crane mask, the one Samuel had gifted me for the masquerade so long ago.  I’m going to get back to you, I promised.  I’m going to earn everything we had and more.  We’ll play Jao Lu in the common room, and I’ll make you smile again, just like before.

An hour later, we stood at the eastern shore of North Island, in the scrapyard where Jun had assembled his first car.  The coolers sat next to us, pulled off the makeshift pickup trick.

Behind us, the sun sank into the mid-afternoon, casting long shadows in front of us.  Far ahead of us, across the water, I could make out Bartolet Naval Base, and the two zeppelins getting fueled up on the runways.  About to launch.

To my right, Mount Elwar extended far above us, smoke rising from almost every district in Lowtown and Midtown.  A few in Hightown, too, with clashes breaking out near mansions and the empty Parliament building.  That’s a lot of riots.

And above that, the floating islands of Paragon Academy.  The conical Great Library and the banquet hall and the classrooms and dormitories, connected with wooden bridges, tied to the mountain with only a pair of cable cars.  The end goal, for both me and Ana.

I stared at the lapping water ten feet below.  “There better not be any junk down there,” I said.  “Don’t want to jump in and get speared through the leg.”

“We’re fine,” said Jun, patting me on the shoulder.  “I checked.”

The water glimmered, crystal-clear, and I could see our reflections in the ripples.  The broken illusionist, the guilty bombmaker, and the spoiled exile.

Queen Sulphur, down two bodies and one member.  It seemed impossible that we’d managed to win a single fight, much less an entire pitched battle.

We made it this far, didn’t we?

Let’s start,” said Ana, with illusions.

One by one, we dragged the coolers to the edge and tipped them over, dumping mountains of dead trout into the water.  I wrinkled my nose, breathing through my mouth to avoid the stench.  Jun tossed a few baubles in, adding them to our underwater stash.

I strapped my briefcase to my back so I didn’t have to hold onto it.  Then, we fit on our scuba gear.  My diving mask, digging into my forehead, with a snorkel.  A pair of tight fins on my feet, squeezing my pinky toe and heels.  A pair of black gloves.  A heavy steel oxygen tank on my back, next to the briefcase, and a rubber regulator to go in my mouth, leaving a bitter taste on my tongue.  The only thing we avoided were wetsuits, since we could project the water out of our clothes with little effort.

And, as a final touch, earplugs, with waterproof tape to hold them in.

I breathed in through the regulator, forcing myself to be slow, patient, deliberate.  It all felt so bloody uncomfortable.  Cold and tight and awkward.  We’d only had a day to train.

But I could improvise.

Ready?” said Ana.

I probably forgot something.  I patted myself down, checking for anything missing.  But I found nothing.

I gave a thumbs up.  Ana didn’t even need to look at me to see the motion – she’d discovered a new feature of her Vocation, that let her piggyback on people’s senses as long as she was familiar enough with their Piths.  In our last battle, she’d used it to listen to through my ears at a short distance.

And right now, with practice and my permission, she could see through my eyes, too.

Jun nodded, and squeezed Ana’s good shoulder.  “You can do this.”

Three, two, one, go.

I stepped off the edge, and splashed into the water, cold rushing around me, soaking into my clothes.

I blinked, adjusting my diving goggles, and opened my eyes.  Ana and Jun floated next to me in the deep blue water.  They moved their arms and legs, swimming with their fins and getting their bearings.  Warm sunlight filtered through from above, casting them in a rippling glow.

Saltwater trickled into my mouth, and I bit down on the regulator, tightening my grip over it, swallowing the saltwater and coughing.  Remember what Jun and Hira said.  Slow, calm breaths.  Don’t breathe through your nose.  Stay relaxed.

I projected into my wet suit jacket, pushing out the water and tightening it over me, preventing it from slipping off or getting wrinkled.  After the summer heat, the cool ocean water felt refreshing on my skin, but it’d give me hypothermia if I left it there.

We spent maybe a minute like this, moving around, getting our bearings, making sure our equipment worked fine in the water.  I practiced moving up, down, and sideways with my fins, making sure my weight and buoyancy were right.  I was no expert, but it would be enough.

Then, we paused for a moment, and looked around at each other.  “Everyone good?” said Ana, speaking through illusions.  “Equipment good?

Thumbs up all around.  Despite Jun’s age, he moved just as fast as the rest of us in the water, giving off no sign of weakness or exhaustion.  Benefits of working out.  Strands of his wispy grey beard poked out of the bottom of his regulator mask, looking rather comical.

Formation,” said Ana.

The three of us swam close to each other, with Jun at the front and me and Ana to his sides and behind.  Breathe in, pause, breathe out.  Not through the nose, not through the nose.

Navigation,” said Ana.

A compass and waterproof map floated up in front of Jun, the trinkets he’d dropped down earlier, plus some metal contraption that would help point him in the right direction.  Jun nodded at Ana.

Shield,” she said.

I projected into the piles of dead fish beneath us.  Into the pieces of paper we’d stuffed inside each one, sealed and made waterproof thanks to Jun.  I pushed my soul into one of them, then a dozen, then a hundred.  I floated them upwards, into a layered sphere around us.

My paper control was weak, and I couldn’t multitask all that well.  To anyone who actually saw us, it would look fake, absurd, not natural swimming.

But to the sonar, we’d look exactly like a school of matrix fish.  Our disguise was complete.

Let’s go,” said Ana.

Jun swam forward, leading the way as the navigator.  Ana and I followed, flapping our fins back and forth, and I moved the sphere of dead fish with us.

How on earth did Jun come up with this plan?  If, a year ago, someone had told me that I’d be scuba diving with a giant clump of dead fish animated by an old Shenti bombmaker, I would have laughed.  This had to be one of the strangest things I’d done for this job.

Inhale.  Pause.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Pause.  Exhale.  Watch your depth and don’t swim up or down.  Match Jun’s speed.  It took most of my concentration just to move forward and do the basics without screwing up.  Every few seconds, I changed the shape of the fake-fish sphere, making sure it wasn’t static.

We swam forward, for what felt like an eternity, the fins digging into my feet, squeezing my toes.  That’s going to leave a blister.  The mouthpiece dug into my mouth, making it ache.

After an hour, or maybe just a few minutes, I started to hear soft pings in my ear, ringing through water from a far distance.  The active sonar.  Without the earplugs, it would be deafening.

Slow,” said Ana.  “Careful.”  If we made too much noise or I screwed up the formation, the Principality’s naval defenses would detect us.

Time became a blur.  My feet ached more and more.  The sonar pings got louder and louder, until the noise stabbed into my ears, overwhelming.

Finally, after an excruciating length of time, Jun looked at us and made a slicing motion with his hands.  Another signal.

We’re here,” said Ana.  I parted my fake school of fish in front of us and relaxed my Pith, letting them sink through the water.

We angled ourselves up, until my hands touched a rocky slope in the water.  I pushed myself forward, and my head burst out of the surface.

I gagged and spat out the regulator, coughing.  The water washed over me, and I crawled forward, off the rocks and onto a grassy shore.

Then I collapsed, water dripping off my clothes, and spat, wiping water off my face, taking deep breaths through my nose.  Scholars, it feels so good to breathe through my nose.

After a few seconds, I projected the rest of the water out of my clothes and hair.  The three of us crawled away from the water, pulling off our scuba gear and drying ourselves.

Then I glanced up.  We’d emerged on the northeastern side of the island, on the opposite end as Bartolet Naval Base.  A thick forest extended before us, with no one in sight.

I lay on the grass for a moment, bathing in the warm sun as Ana assembled her machine pistol, wheezing and shivering.  She looked more winded than Jun.

Jun reached into his backpack and pulled out a set of gas masks and helmets.  He tossed one of each to me, and I strapped them on, taking the briefcase off my back.

Let’s go,” said Ana.

We moved forward through the trees, quiet.  Past a short distance, the treeline stopped short of the perimeter fence, with a flat, open region between the base and the forest.

First, we placed a pair of devices towards the north part of the forest, and set the timers on them.  Then we went to the south, at a spot between two watchtowers with machine guns.  And we waited.

Ana checked her internal clock.  “Five,” she said.  “Four.  Three.  Two.  One.

Voices and footsteps echoed from the north, playing from a hidden speaker Jun had planted in a bush.  It wouldn’t be enough for alarm, but it would distract the guards and give us a short window.

Jun jabbed his fingers forward, and a dozen wire cutters shot out of his backpack.  They dug into the chain-link fence, slicing a hole in seconds.

We charged.  Jun darted through the fence, then I sprinted through.  We raced towards a dark corner between two of the barracks, a piece of cover hidden from the watchtowers.

Something hit the ground behind me, and I turned.

Ana had tripped on the fence.  One of the bits of metal had caught on her shoe.  As she yanked it out, freeing her foot, the fence shook, making an audible sound.

Alerting the guards.  Oh, scholars.

My stomach dropped.  I snapped open my briefcase and shot paper out, ready to make visual barriers or attack.  I looked up at the guard towers for our targets, then stopped.

The watchtowers were empty.  Not a single guard in either of them.  What?

I pulled the paper back into my briefcase, and the three of us ran for cover, ducking in between the barracks.

“Where are the guards?” I whispered.  “Where is everyone?”

Ana clenched her teeth.  Jun shrugged.

On a hunch, I leaned forward, peering into one of the barracks’ windows.

Then I staggered back, hyperventilating.

What?  What is it?” said Ana.

“See for yourself.”

The three of us walked forward and looked into the window together.

Fuck,” breathed Ana.

Bodies littered the floor.  Principality soldiers, bleeding from stab wounds or covered with burns.

Everyone inside was dead.

I stared up at the sky.  A silver oracle snake slithered through the red clouds, winding out of the setting sun towards the city, and Paragon Academy.

Maxine Clive has a plan, I thought.

She has a plan.

Previous Chapter

11-B The Breadbasket

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

TV here, I said with the tracer.  Come now.

I repeated the telegraph code message again and again.  Rowyna Ebbridge had placed the tracer on me himself, and I’d already pulled this trick once.  If the other teams weren’t swamped, they could be here in minutes.

The rest of Queen Sulphur stayed behind cover with me.  Right-Hira poked out of a building’s window and aimed his sniper rifle up at the building.

The wind blew through the rain-soaked street, flapping Tunnel Vision’s suit jacket and skirt around her as she bent her knees into a fighting stance.  Penny Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, and the Symphony Knight all stared up at her from the ground floor.

In the distance, ocean waves crashed against the shores of North Island.

“And here, I thought you were too smart to show your face,” said Penny Oakes, floating a cloud of green vapor beside her.  “Lucky for us, I’m wrong sometimes.”

“You’re never wrong, honey,” said Sebastian Oakes.  “Come, traitor!” he boomed, his voice ringing around the street.  “You have betrayed your oath, your comrades, and your nation.  You have butchered the souls of innocents on your road to power.”  He raised his obsidian swords above him, bending his knees.  “You have forsaken your humanity, witch!  But you can at least have the honor of meeting us in battle, before you face justice for your crimes.”

The Symphony Knight said nothing.  She just stared at the Pyre Witch, impassive, her metal armor reflecting the flat morning light.  If anyone can beat that monster, it’s her.

They’re stalling.  The Guardians knew I had a tracer on me, and that I’d used it to signal before.  Tunnel Vision might not know about it.  With our radios destroyed, she might still think we were cut off from our allies.

If she planned to hit us one by one, that wouldn’t work now.

The Pyre Witch was strong, but against the Symphony Knight, Headmaster Tau, and numerous Scholar-Ranked Guardians, she didn’t stand a chance.

Tunnel Vision said nothing, and slashed her hands forward.  A tidal wave of palefire exploded from her fingers, a white flash of light shooting down the side of the building and onto the street, stretching end to end, impossible to dodge.

The Symphony Knight lifted her palms, and three clear notes rang out, a simple chord forming a shockwave through the air, a low boom making the ground shake.  The sheer force of the blast knocked back the wall of flame, keeping it away from the three Guardians.  It tore open burnt wooden walls on the Commonplace building, made cracks spread throughout the pavement, and flipped over a van on the side of the street.

Loose bits of flame shot off, setting other houses and storefronts on fire.  One of them landed on the floor next to me, and Wes smothered it with his coat.

Tunnel Vision launched another fireblast, followed by two more in quick succession.  The Symphony Knight knocked them all back, ripping apart columns on the Commonplace building and tossing limp corpses like ragdolls.

For a few seconds, this stalemate held, between the fire and the musical shockwaves.  The Symphony Knight still isn’t fighting at full power.  Why?  Was using her full strength too much of a strain?  Was she luring Tunnel Vision into a false sense of confidence?

Or was she just weaker than the papers said?

The palefire, too, had been stronger in the stadium, when the Pyre Witch had burnt Professor Stoughton’s water-hydra in an instant.  And that time was in a rainstorm.  Here, the flame fizzled out in places, had gaps and weak points and moved slower than before.  Is Tunnel Vision holding back too?

Penny Oakes drew her hands around her, and a great wind whipped down the street, as she moved the deadly, invisible gas she’d used on the Green Hands.

The palefire grew even weaker above the trio, sputtering out even without the Symphony Knight’s shockwaves.

It hit me.  The nerve gas isn’t flammable.  Palefire, no matter how hot and deadly it was, still needed oxygen.  Penny Oakes had bunched up her deadly gas above her group, pushing out the normal air, forming a shield strong enough to block out the flames.

Right-Hira’s building collapsed, and he ran down the street to join his female body, taking cover with the two of us.

I didn’t even bother raising my machine pistol.  Tunnel Vision stood far out of my range, and there was no way I could nail her with my Voidsteel bullet at this range.

Now that Penny Oakes was on defense, the Symphony Knight clenched her fists, charging up a double shockwave.  She released it, shooting it up at the building, making the air vibrate.

Tunnel Vision leapt off the roof, dodging the blast.  It washed over the top floor of the building, which exploded, raining rubble down on the street.

As Tunnel Vision flew forward, she clenched her fists, forming a swirling sphere of palefire around her, obscuring her from vision.

The sphere split from one into a dozen, each flying off in a different direction.  Eleven decoys and one real target.

As the Symphony Knight charged up a second blast, a horizontal curtain of palefire flooded the sky, blotting out the grey clouds with bright white.  My eyes burned, and I recoiled.

As I did, a hundred lightning bolts shot out of the curtain, blasting over the trio.

Electricity hummed through the air.  Dozens of bolts crashed into Sebastian Oakes, running up and down his body.  He shuddered, arms shaking, eyes wide.  Then he sank back into his fighting stance, his combat suit covered in scorch marks.  Joining.  Stronger than any I’d seen before.  Enough to keep his body intact through that much lightning.

The Symphony Knight held her palms to the sky, and the lightning bolts curved around her like raindrops on an umbrella, ripping out chunks of the cobblestones around her.  A few of them hit her, but they dispersed over her heavy armor, leaving only burns.

Penny Oakes, on the other hand, took all the bolts with no joining.  She twitched, collapsing on the ground.

As she fell, a green laser sliced through the smoke, cutting across the pavement towards her head.

Penny Oakes projected into her combat suit, jerking herself away.

So, instead of slicing her skull in half, the laser burned through her neck and chopped her head off.

The Obsidian Foil roared, and sprung forward.  The laser cut across his face, but only left a sizzling burn.  He grabbed onto his wife’s severed head and swung it around by the ponytail, flinging her down the street.

Gas blew around the head, slowing its fall, weaving it in a zig-zag to dodge lightning bolts as it spurted blood into the air.  It dropped on top of an unconscious Green Hands.  Green lightning flickered.  A second later, the Green Hands leapt to his feet and flew away from another blast of palefire.  Penny Oakes, transferred.

The fire clipped the Green Hands’ torso and legs, covering it in wrinkled burns, and Penny Oakes zipped into a house, swapping to a third body with a burst of green electricity.

The laser shot out of one of the fire-spheres, exposing which one was the real Pyre Witch.  Shockwaves from the Symphony Knight blasted around it, one after the other, faster and faster, sealing off avenues of escape.  The Obsidian Foil sprung up, shooting towards the sphere with his swords.

The Pyre Witch dodged to the side, twisting in the air to avoid his slashes, weaving around the shockwaves and down the wall of the building.

One of the shockwaves clipped her, knocking her inside.  She crashed through a wooden wall, landing on the first floor where I could still see her.

In unison, the Obsidian Foil and the Symphony Knight jumped forward, following her into the building.  As they did, a blast of palefire shot around them, burning out the last two wooden supports on the front end of the structure.

The building rumbled, and collapsed on the two Guardians.

The ceiling dropped on their heads, making them vanish in an instant.  The ground shook.  Columns broke, walls snapped into pieces, floors dropped onto each other.

“Back!” Left-Hira shouted.  We scrabbled back, away from the abandoned office building, as it fell apart like a giant house of cards and tipped to the side, towards a row of houses across the street.  A deafening crash rang in my ears, drowning out the sound of my frantic breathing.

A tsunami of grey dust washed down the street, blowing in the broken windows of our building, blocking our vision and making my eyes sting.

The dust cleared, and I leaned out the window, gazing forward.

The Commonplace building had become a mountain of rubble at the end of the street, concrete and wood and sawdust, with bits of metal rebar sticking out of the pile.  It had collapsed onto a trio of houses across the street, crushing them under its weight.

A long silence extended over the wreckage.  No gunshots.  No shouting.  No projector battles.

Then, a muffled roar echoed from the debris.  The Pyre Witch exploded from the top of the hill with a shower of concrete and metal, her skirt and jacket and gas mask stained grey.  She flipped backwards, landing on a broken chunk of wall.

A second later, The Obsidian Foil exploded behind her, making no noise.  He spun himself like a buzz saw, the same trick he’d used on the lightning mobster before.  A whirling slash to cut her into dozens of pieces.

Tunnel Vision bent one of her knees, sinking down and forward in a martial arts stance.  One of the sabers sliced her across the back, drawing a spurt of blood, and she leapt forward to the other side of the mountain, spinning around midair to face Sebastian Oakes as she made space between them.

Oakes moved faster, closing the distance between them with a single bound.  The two landed on another piece of rubble, and danced around each other in a blur.

Oakes lashed out with his swords, slicing up and down, left and right, staying close and preventing his enemy from escaping, relying on his overwhelming strength and speed to keep her on the defensive.

Tunnel Vision held twin fireballs in her hands, and blasted them out in shotgun bursts whenever Oakes swung, forcing him to dodge in the middle of his strikes.  It seemed even the Obsidian Foil himself wasn’t a good enough Joiner to endure sustained palefire.  The bursts of fire expanded into waves behind Oakes, crashing towards him from every angle, slowing him down even further.

Professor Oakes’ obsidian swords could cut through steel and concrete.  So, instead of blocking the swords, the Pyre Witch shot cinder blocks at Oakes’ arms and shoulders mid-swing, knocking aside his attacks.

Tunnel Vision was holding her own.  But she wasn’t a Joiner.  And in just a few seconds, Oakes’ dominance in close quarters became clear.

She knocked aside five sword strikes, and he swung at her with another dozen.  She blasted waves of fire at him, and he contorted himself through the openings, the patches filled with non-flammable nerve gases.  She dodged a fencing jab, and the other sword would come around to graze her thigh, or her ribs, or her scalp, drawing red lines across her skin.

The Obsidian Foil slashed at Tunnel Vision’s head, and she dodged a hair too slow.  The black gas mask broke in two, split down the middle.

The nerve gas is still all around her.  One inhale, and she’d be toast.

Sebastian Oakes pressed the attack, knowing she had to hold her breath.  Tunnel Vision leapt back, shooting bursts of palefire, flying off the pile of rubble and onto the street, closer to us, though still out of my range.

With the mask off, the sharp angles of her face became visible, beneath her bowler hat and her light brown hair.  The pale skin, the clenched jaw, the eyes filled with muffled rage.

You killed Kaplen.  You gave me this body.  It had been indirect, but she had set all those events in motion.  She was the real puppet master.

I glanced down, at my bulging grey veins, my decayed fingers and toes.  I thought of my hair, withered, falling out in tufts.

Kaplen’s voice echoed in my head.  Where’s Lyna?  Where’s Lyna?

The rage swelled in my stomach.  My grey hands shook, tightening on the grip of my machine pistol.  My face grew hot.

But I didn’t move from cover.  Thirty feet of sprinting, and Tunnel Vision would be in range of my illusions.  And at this distance, I had a chance of hitting her with a Voidsteel bullet.  But I stayed.  And I didn’t fire.  Neither did Hira.

Patience.  My blue combat suit wouldn’t protect me from palefire.  At this point, I still couldn’t affect the fight much.  If I wanted revenge, I had to do this right.

One of the gas masks tore off a dead Green Hands and snapped onto Tunnel Vision’s face.  She took a gasping breath.

Wait,” I said with illusions.  “She’s too strong.

Then Tunnel Vision glanced at me, making eye contact.  She raised her pinky, gathering a fireball behind her to shoot at me.

Wes charged in, papers streaming out of his briefcase, forming a layered barrier to block her vision.

Wait!” I shouted into his Pith.  “Wait!

As I stretched myself around his soul, I felt something click.  I’d used my illusions on him so many times now, and his Pith felt more familiar to me than just about any other I’d used my Vocation on.

I modified his sense of hearing to talk to him, just like usual.

But this time, I could hear an extra layer of sounds.  A boy’s breathing, muffled through a gas mask.  And the same explosions and gunshots as usual, but doubled up, on a slight delay.  Heard through a second pair of ears.

I can listen through Wes’ ears.  I’d modified the outputs of his auditory centers so many times, that now my Pith was listening to the inputs, too.

“Sorry, Ana,” he muttered to himself.  “But I’m not going to let you die today.”

Wes sprinted across the street, creating more paper barriers, drawing attention to himself.  Other storms of paper shot forward, darting at Tunnel Vision from all angles.

While the mob boss fought Sebastian Oakes, she shot bursts of palefire around her, incinerating Wes’ attacks with ease.  His storms of paper crumbled into ashes.

Wes un-flattened a frag grenade and projected it forward, dropping it on Tunnel Vision’s head.  A loose brick batted it forward, knocking it behind Sebastian Oakes, where it exploded, knocking him forward.

“Get the fuck back, Wes!” shouted Left-Hira, her voice muffled through her gas mask.  Her arm jerked out, blocking the door, stopping me from chasing after him.  “Damn fool.”

Both Hiras punched the air, and smoke bombs shot forward, going off around Wes.  Giving him cover.

Then, the street exploded, a wave of dust and rubble, mixed with a white-hot blast of palefire.  Wes heard a roar, deafening in his ears.  The shock wave knocked me and both Hiras back.  We slammed onto the floor, my ears ringing.  My injured shoulder sent stabs of pain through my body.

The room spun around me.  Behind me, Hira’s bodies sat still, their chests rising and falling.  Unconscious or stunned.  A high-pitched ringing echoed through Wes’ ears.

The moment I got my bearings, I staggered to my feet, running forward, squinting into the new dust cloud.  Wes.  Where was Wes?  He would have been near the center of the explosion.

“Ana!” his voice rang out ahead of me.

“Wes!” I shouted, casting my Pith around me to sense him.

The cloud dispersed.  Wes was positioned on the close end of the pile of rubble where the Commonplace building used to stand.  His legs and half of his torso had been buried in the concrete and metal, holding him down.

Maxine Clive knelt behind him, wearing a gas mask, her blonde hair covered in soot.  She held a Voidsteel knife to his throat.

Fuck.  My throat clenched, and my hands shook.

“Well,” said Wes.  “This is a bit of a pickle.”

That was her body, no mistaking it.  The misshapen bones and bulging scars and weary eyes.  But that could be anyone’s Pith driving it.

At the far end of the debris, the Symphony Knight floated out from the wreckage, without a scratch on her.  Her armor gleamed, still pristine, even after being buried under a building.

The Symphony Knight touched down in the center of the street, and held one palm at Maxine Clive.  She aimed the other at Tunnel Vision, watching both targets.

The Obsidian Foil stood a few dozen yards away from Tunnel Vision, his cheek and neck covered in burns.  He’d lost one of his swords, and held the other one out in a sideways fencing stance, leveling it at the Pyre Witch.  Penny Oakes was nowhere to be seen.

I aimed my machine pistol at Maxine Clive, clutching it with sweaty hands.  Don’t waste your time.  I could hit a human-sized target at this range, but here, I’d risk shooting Wes.  I didn’t have the aim to fire around a human shield.

This is bad, this is bad, this is bad.  We’d been cornered like this before, but we’d had access to my illusions, or Hira’s skills, or Jun’s contraptions.  But I was out of range.  And both Hira and Jun had been knocked out.

My stomachache grew.  An invisible weight sat on my shoulders, growing heavier by the second.

I circled the street, still aiming forward, moving closer to the Symphony Knight and Maxine Clive.  Just a few dozen more yards, and my illusions can – 

“That’s close enough, Blue Charlatan,” said Clive.

I stopped.  All our enemies were still out of my Vocataion’s range.  But at this distance, I had a much better shot at a different target.

I turned, aiming my machine pistol at Tunnel Vision.  I prepared to flip the switch in the mechanism, that would chamber the single Voidsteel bullet in the alternate clip.  One well-placed shot, and none of the Pyre Witch’s plans would matter.

“You fought well, witch,” boomed the Obsidian Foil.  “And I’m sure your companion has some interesting stories to tell.  However, you – “

“You’re stalling,” said Maxine Clive.  “Your allies heard the commotion, and they’re on their way.  Or you found some other way to signal them.”

Tunnel Vision nodded.  “We’re out of time, Max.”

“We,” said Maxine Clive.  “Are going to fly out of here.”

“You are going to prison, miscreant!” bellowed Sebastian Oakes.  “You will not escape your fate.”

Maxine Clive pressed the Voidsteel blade to Wes’ throat, drawing blood.  “Neither will he.  The Typhoon of the South’s daughter.  One slash, and there’s no vocation in the Eight Oceans that can save him.”

Thoughts rushed through my head, panicked strategies and split-second ideas of what I could do.  But all of them needed illusions to work, needed me to get close.

At this range?  On my own?  I was practically useless.

My hands shook.  Sweat collected under my armpits.  I took shallow, rapid breaths of the stale, filtered air in my gas mask.  A stench hung around me, a mixture of burnt pork and chemicals.  From burning bodies.

“Fear not, soldier,” said the Obsidian Foil to Wes.  “We will not abandon you to these demons.”  He clenched his sword, pointing it at Maxine Clive.  “Release him!”

I glanced at the corpses all over the street, both Green Hands and men from the army, burnt and shot and crushed under collapsed buildings.  How many soldiers have already been abandoned, sacrificed?  By our side and theirs.  Against those numbers, what chance did Wes have?

No chance, if you leave him to die, idiot.  I had to think of something.

The Symphony Knight cocked her head at Wes and Maxine Clive, her bright blue eyes gleaming like her armor.  She leaned forward, and an inquisitive look flashed across her face.  Then, she spoke, her voice flat and simple.

“You are not leaving.”

“You have twenty seconds!” shouted Sebastian Oakes.  “To release him.”

A particle of light floated in the Symphony Knight’s palm, a clear message: Twenty seconds, and I’ll attack with my full power.  Even if it meant cleaving through Wes.  And I’d read articles about her.  That route, at this range, Tunnel Vision and Clive had almost no chance of survival.

And Wes had none.

“W – wait!” I shouted.  “Wait.  You can’t just kill Wes.  There has to be some other way.”

Sebastian Oakes’ face screwed up in a pained expression, and he avoided eye contact with me.  But he said nothing.

“He’s your ally,” I said.  “You’re some of the best projectors in the world, help him!”

“He’s a criminal,” said the Symphony Knight.  “Not a student.”  They feel no duty to him.  Now that he was out of Paragon, they saw him as just another person.  A disposable mercenary.

They only see you as a cheap tool.  Maxine Clive’s old words whispered in my mind.  Quick to break, and quicker to throw away.

“I am a woman of my word,” called out Maxine Clive, looking at Oakes, then the Symphony Knight, then me.  “If we survive, and leave intact, Weston Ebbridge will go free, unharmed.  You can attack us.  Or you can save him.  But not both.”

“Ten seconds,” said the Obsidian Foil.

The grey clouds closed in above us, darkening the sky even further.  Ash rained down around us.

I looked at the Symphony Knight, at those large, blue eyes staring forward with cold, unblinking intent.  And I knew, right then.

She’ll kill Wes.  In a heartbeat.  And she’d sleep well tonight.  Isabelle Corbin, the Scholar of Music, the hero of a hundred battles and the composer of a hundred classic songs, had already done the moral calculation.  She’d made up her mind the moment she saw the hostage.

I’d seen that gaze before, at some of my lowest moments, sleep-deprived through endless missions.  When I’d shot men and women in cold blood, or forced them to kill their friends.

I’d look in the mirror afterwards, or a puddle, and saw blank, hollow eyes staring back at me.  And they terrified me.

Killing my best friend would be easy for her.

This is how they see all their citizens, isn’t it?

“Five seconds,” said the Obsidian Foil.  He knows they won’t surrender.  Why is he bothering?  Why wasn’t he doing something?

The tension in my chest reached a breaking point.  Tunnel Vision disgusted me, more than anything else in the world, enough to make my hands shake.  If we took her out with Maxine Clive, and I was part of the team, I could have a shot at that pardon.

Tasia’s face flickered into my mind.  You’d have to Oust her.  And I’d have to watch Wes die.  My ally, my brother, my competition, my enemy.  The boy who’d used me, saved me, fought alongside me and learned from me.

But you’d save the Principality.  I had a duty to this nation, to the people here, to keep them safe from the monsters within.  Even if I was a nobody.  Even if I was an insignificant mercenary, pointless next to the almighty Guardians around me.  Even if some parts of the Principality didn’t deserve to be saved.

I saw myself back at that picnic, the one we’d shared after my mission with Clementine.  I saw myself playing Jao Lu with Wes, lying back on the blanket and running my fingers through the grass, feeling my shoulders relax for the first time in so many months.  Watching as he offered me his share of the money, so I could have a real chance at life.

I imagined walking into Paragon Academy with Wes, side by side.  I imagined drinking the mulled cider there with him.  A fantasy.  But my mind latched onto it anyway.

I can’t let him die.  That wasn’t just an opinion, it was a fact.  An utter, inevitable truth.

In that instant, my Pith stretched out, and layered an audiovisual illusion on the Symphony Knight, the only person in range.  If she’s charging an attack, she won’t be stretching her Pith out to feel her surroundings.

I lit up my imagination, and replaced Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive with illusory versions of themselves.  Then, I made them fly off to the left, pulled by their clothes at blinding speeds.

The Symphony Knight tracked the movement with her hand.  An instant later, something rushed out of her palm, a dazzling burst of green and purple light that exploded out in a cone, moving so fast I could barely make out the details.  A progression of chords rang throughout the air, a mixture of instruments I’d never heard before all combined in perfect harmony, an original musical piece beginning and ending in five seconds.  A sharp, upbeat melody of excitement and possibility, ringing throughout the square.

I remembered the song more than the attack, more than the light or the blast directed at my illusions.  I made the illusions dodge, flying out of sight.

And as the light faded, I saw its effects.  An entire row of buildings had been demolished in a straight line out from the Symphony Knight, sliced into pieces like a diced onion.  They crumbled to the ground with a boom.

And that’s still only a fraction of her power.  As I recalled, her Vocation wasn’t best suited to cities.

And at the same time, Maxine Clive made eye contact with me.  An acknowledgment.  A deal.  Let us leave, and the boy goes free.

She let go of Wes and sheathed the Voidsteel knife.

A half-second later, Left-Hira burst from the front door, aiming her pistol at Maxine Clive, purple lightning flickering around her hands.

At the same time, Penny Oakes dropped down from above Tunnel Vision, arms flattened to her sides.  A bright red gas shot out of a tank on her back and surrounded the Pyre Witch’s head.

It sizzled, and Tunnel Vision’s gas mask dissolved, breaking into a dozen pieces, once again leaving her exposed.

Tunnel Vision ducked down, reaching her palms up behind her and blasting a cone of palefire around Penny Oakes.  A white flash exploded across my vision, and Penny Oakes collapsed onto the rubble, blackened and burnt from head to toe.

Sebastian Oakes leapt forward with a burst of green lightning, a dozen times faster than before, a blur I could barely see.

He flung his obsidian sword like a javelin, right at Tunnel Vision’s chest.  It whistled through the air, as fast as a bullet.  She projected into her clothes and jerked herself backwards, her hair grazing the rubble behind her.

The sword sliced across the front of her jacket, cutting off a piece of fabric.

And as it did, Sebastian Oakes landed in front of Tunnel Vision, low to the ground, right in her blind spot.  He placed his palms on the rubble, pivoted, and whipped his leg around, roundhouse kicking the Pyre Witch’s lower leg.

A chunk of concrete shot at him mid-swing, slowing his strike.  But his combat boot still smashed into Tunnel Vision’s shin with a snap.  It kept going, cleaving through the entire leg with a spurt of blood and muscle, as the other leg leapt out of the way.

I released my illusions from the Symphony Knight, and she blinked, getting her bearings.

The Pyre Witch screamed, as her right foot dropped off her body and rolled on the ground, spurting blood onto the concrete.  A white flash lit up the entire hill of rubble, a massive burst of palefire filling my vision, a wave of heat making my face sting.

When it cleared, The Obsidian Foil flopped onto his belly, taking slow, ragged breaths, his armor burnt to rags.  He crawled over to his wife, pulling her burnt body towards another unconscious Green Hands to transfer her.

They were allowed to take bodies from enemies in the field.  I, of course, was not.

I looked up.  Tunnel Vision flew across the Eloane Ocean, dragging Maxine Clive next to her, already tiny in the distance.  Neither of them wore a wingsuit, but they still moved faster than any flying projector I’d seen, even Harpy, who controlled air itself.

None of the projectors followed, too exhausted to pursue.  The Symphony Knight stood as the one exception, but her power was in her Vocation, not speed or flight.  Strong as she was, she had no chance of catching up with them.

Silence descended over the street.  Dust and ash from the explosions settled on the rubble in a thin film.  The cries of pain faded, the soldiers and Green Hands either unconscious or dead.  Almost a dozen buildings had been ripped apart.  Endless bodies lay on the ground, their uniforms and green tattoos stained red.

A blackened chunk of concrete rolled off the hill, revealing Wes underneath, dust staining his brown hair.  He gasped for breath and coughed, pulling himself out from under the wreckage.  Behind me, on the street, Jun’s eyes fluttered, and he groaned, rubbing his head.

The Symphony Knight turned to me, calm.  “Do that again,” she said.  “And I will kill you.”

Two minutes later, Isaac Brin and Florence Tuft arrived, touching down with a small army of Guardians close behind.  But the enemy was already gone.

________________________________________

A soldier threw me to the tarmac, and I fell onto the concrete, my back aching.

I lay on the edge of the runway, staring up at the cloudy afternoon sky.  A pair of Voidsteel handcuffs bound my wrists behind me, pressed against the ground by my body weight.  The stench of my stale body odor filled my nostrils, mixing with the scent of mildew from my rain-soaked clothes.

I tensed my core and pressed with my arms, trying to pull myself to a sitting position.  My muscles burned, and after a few seconds, I collapsed, out of breath, unable to do it.

Scholars, how weak have I grown?  I couldn’t see the decay inside my body, but it must have accelerated over the last few weeks.

My clothes tightened around me and yanked my torso upright.  A force pulled my beanie off, exposing the bald spots in my grey hair.  I coughed, gazing around me.

Wes, both Hiras, and Jun sat beside me, laid out in a line.  We’d been taken back to Bartolet Naval Base, the ground still damp from the rain earlier today.  It had emptied.  No rushing Guardians and lines of soldiers and trucks.  All of the docked ships had left, except for the Rhona, Admiral Ebbridge’s flagship carrier, which towered to the side of us.  The pair of zeppelins still sat in the distance, unused.

The sun had risen and descended, shining from behind a veil of clouds.  And across the bay, behind the Rhona, smoke rose from parts of the city.  Eastern Lowtown.  Southern Midtown.  Gestalt Island.

Our Commonplace targets.  The other groups had met resistance too.

Admiral Ebbridge stepped in front of us, wearing her sleek blue family armor, flanked by General Benthey and Penny Oakes.  Each had a metal band wrapped around their upper arms, with a series of strips poking out of the side, pressing against their bare skin.

The strips pressed up and down, in a series of rapidfire movements, almost too fast for my eye to see.  Telegraph code.  They were using projection and touch to communicate with each other.  So we couldn’t listen in, and so I couldn’t trick them with my Vocation.  Scholars, why do they have to adapt so fast?

“I told you, Rowyna,” said Penny Oakes.  “We should have executed them, or thrown them in prison.  That gimmick with Verity was their peak.  And they’re dangerous.”  She’d already received a fresh body from Paragon’s chassis vault.

They’re talking out loud now.  Which meant they wanted us to hear.  Maybe this was even rehearsed.

“Maybe they’re working for Commonplace,” said General Benthey, lighting a cigarette with the tip of his finger.  “And this was an elaborate gambit to worm into our confidence, then strike.  They’ve done plenty to deserve execution.”

We gave everything for this country.  But the moment I chose to save Wes instead of the mission, we were dangerous enemies again.  Will they revoke their pardon offer after this?  Maybe neither of us would become Nell Ebbridge.  Maybe we’d both get banished from the country.

“Cut the whaleshit,” said Left-Hira.  “We can all see your real conversation is with the metal strips.  This is some stupid fucking stunt to intimidate us.  You know we’re not Commonplace, not after we tore them apart on Verity.”

Penny Oakes glared at Hira.  Still mad about that stomach shot.  “You tore them apart illegally.  And you just sabotaged our best hope at saving this country.  You helped the enemy.”

“We did our best,” said Jun.  “I’m sorry.”

General Benthey glared at him, irritated that he’d even spoken.  Not a fan of the Shenti.

Wes stared at his feet, silent.  He doesn’t want to make this any worse for himself.

An idea jumped to the front of my mind.  Brin can advocate for us.  He could vouch for Queen Sulphur’s character.

“Where’s the Scholar of Mass?” I said.  “Where’s Major Brin?”

Mister Brin is under watch in his home,” said Ebbridge.  “For the present, he is an attack dog, to be taken off his leash in battle, and dragged back to the kennel after.  He is not running counterintelligence, or anything else for that matter.”

My stomach ached.  Shit.  I should have expected that, after his secret mercenary operation got exposed.

“On the other hand,” said Ebbridge.  “He has a long and esteemed history of serving this country, a trustworthy record with the Silver Star Medal, a Naval Commendation, and the Cross of Kalthorn.”  She turned a withering glare on us.  “You are a different matter.”

“You primped up squidfuckers,” hissed Right-Hira.  “We enabled this whole operation, we signaled you when our radio blew out, and now you want to blame us for, what, stopping some crazy Guardian from murdering our friend?”

“The Symphony Knight was performing her duty to this nation.”  Ebbridge raised her voice.  “I will not have an Ilaquan hornet question her dedication.”

We saved your son, you ungrateful bhenchot,” said Left-Hira.  “Is this your way of saying thank you?”

She’s right.

“The operation failed,” said Penny Oakes.

A yawning hole opened up in my belly, like I was falling from a great height.  “What?”

“We caught hundreds of Green Hands and mobsters,” said Ebbridge.  “And seized thousands in weapons and assets.  But not the Broadcast King.  Not anyone important.”

“We missed the vast majority of their soldiers,” said the General, puffing from his cigarette.  “The majority of arrests were civilians, not true Green Hands.”

“We did what they wanted,” said Penny Oakes through clenched teeth.

“Or our intel was faulty,” said General Benthey.  “We suspected it might be a trap, but we assumed our raw strength was enough to push through.  Or we hit a stroke of bad luck and – “

We did what they wanted,” said Penny Oakes.  “They couldn’t have moved headquarters that fast, which means that most of Commonplace’s soldiers have cleared out of Elmidde.  And while we were focused on the operation, Christea Ronaveda disappeared, with her whole security detail.”  Was that Commonplace’s real goal?  If they were the ones who kidnapped her.

“We could have made up for it all,” said Ebbridge.  “If we caught their leaders.  We could have ended the war.”

“But you aided the enemy,” said Oakes.

Wes closed his eyes, slouching over, drawing his knees to his chest.

“So what?” said Hira.  “We should have just let your son die?

“He’s not my son,” said Admiral Ebbridge.  “Not at the moment.”

Sebastian Oakes stepped next to the trio, still wearing his burnt combat armor.  He brushed soot out of his hair, otherwise unscathed, and smiled at us.  “But the mission wasn’t a complete failure.”

Ebbridge furrowed her brow and glanced at us.  “In private, Major.  These ones don’t have security clearance.”

“Copycat knows,” Professor Oakes said, glancing at both Hiras.

“What?” said Penny.

“The Ilaquan was using his Praxis Vocation near the end of the fight.  He scraped my mind for a few seconds and guessed my strategy.  Am I right?”

Right-Hira nodded, reluctant.

Penny Oakes scowled.  “Then we should gag him and memory wipe him.  We can’t cut corners with Whisper-Sec, not now.”

“They enabled this attack, dear,” said Oakes.  “And they fought bravely to help defend our troops.  The enemy’s trap, most likely, was to blow our radio and pick us off before reinforcements could arrive.  Ms. Gage’s signal prevented that.”

Grumbles all around, but nobody denied this.

“They will not sell us out,” he said.  “And I want them to trust us, for reasons which will become clear in a minute.”

Penny crossed her arms, irritated.  General Benthey gave a slow nod.  “I’ll trust you, Major Oakes.”

Rowyna Ebbridge folded her hands behind her back.  “If this gets out, we’ll all burn.”  But she made no move to stop him.

Oakes leaned forward, his eyes sparkling, and pulled off his left combat boot.  What?

He pulled a loose thread from his shirt and projected into it.  It drifted through the air and wriggled into the side of his fish leather boot.

There’s a hole.  A tiny hole, so small I couldn’t see it.

Then Oakes did the same with his sock.  He pulled it off, demonstrating the minuscule hole in the side.  A sickening odor drifted into the air from his sweaty foot.

“Disgusting,” said Penny Oakes.  “Why did I marry you, again, Sebastian?”

Lyna Wethers.

“My winning personality,” said The Obsidian Foil.  “And my biceps.  Focus on my biceps.”  He held up his bare foot, showing off a patch of skin that had been altered with body paint, stained the same pitch black as his combat boot and sock.

Then I understood.  “When you kicked in Tunnel Vision’s shin,” I breathed.  “You – “

“Touched her skin with my skin,” he said.  “Don’t worry, honey, it didn’t mean anything.  And The Pyre Witch didn’t notice.  She couldn’t, not without enhanced eyesight.”  He grinned.  “Which allowed me to put a primitive tracer on her Pith.”

A warm feeling rushed through my veins, and I leaned forward.  Yes.  “But the range – “ I said.  “The tracer – “

“Will stop working after a hundred kilometers or so, yes,” said Oakes.  “And she was flying too fast for me to follow.  By the time reinforcements arrived, she stopped using projection, and stopped pinging the tracer.  But,” he smiled.  “I saw where she and Clive were headed for the first part of their journey.  Northeast.”

“Towards Shenten,” said Jun.

“Or a million other locations,” said Penny.  “Assuming that’s not another diversion.  It would take weeks and weeks to comb the areas with your tracer.  Longer, if the Pyre Witch moves from place to place.  And that’s assuming she never finds out about the tracer.”

“If I’m right,” said Oakes.  “We don’t need to comb anywhere.  Judging from his eyes, Copycat was using his Vocation on lots of people at the end of that fight.  Me, Penny, the Symphony Knight.  And Maxine Clive herself, while she was on the verge of escape.  A variable they didn’t think of, just like Ms. Gage’s tracer.”

“Alright,” said Hira.  “You’re perceptive, I’ll admit it.”

“So tell me, Copycat,” he said.  “Where do you think our enemies are going?”

“Good question,” said Right-Hira.  “Are you going to execute us?”

“Tell us what you know,” he said.  “And I’ll make sure they spare all of you.  So.  Where do you think the Pyre Witch is going?”

“I don’t know,” said Hira.  “My Vocation’s imperfect at best, and I only saw a few seconds.  I just got images.”

“And what did you see?  What was Maxine Clive thinking of?”

Hira took a slow, deep breath with both bodies.  “A fleet,” she said.  “A massive fleet.  Aircraft carriers and battleships and destroyers.  Sailing across the ocean.”

My skin prickled, a wave of cold spreading over it.

“Flags?” said Ebbridge.  “Were they flying any?  What about the crew?  Could you see them?”

“Memory isn’t a photograph,” said Hira.  “It’s a blurry painting from a drunkard.  No flags.  No crew that I could see.”

“What about the formation?” said Rowyna.  “What positions did the ships take?”

“One large carrier, at the center,” said Hira, furrowing her brow to remember.  “Four battleships, one for each side.  And maybe half a dozen destroyers in a ring around it all, with a single submarine far ahead.”

Oakes clenched his teeth.  The blood drained out of Admiral Ebbridge’s face, a new look for her.  “Shenti,” she said.  “That’s a Shenti fleet.  No one else uses that formation.”  Commonplace still getting help from their masters.

General Benthey closed his eyes.  “The warlord Luo Cai.  His fleet left Ri Chu City a few days ago.  Intelligence said he was shoring up defenses against Warlord Gao Mei’s advance on the northern coast of Shenten, using a large squadron of firebombers.  But his ships haven’t shown up there yet.  We assumed there was some sort of delay, but could they be – “

“What else did you see?” said Ebbridge, raising her voice with a hint of fear.

“Wheatfields,” said Hira.  “Endless wheatfields.  And a mountain shaped like a molar tooth.”

The world blurred around me, and my hands shook behind my back.  I felt dizzy.  No.  Please.

Paragon Academy was full of cold, heartless bastards like Rowyna Ebbridge, willing to sacrifice their children in a heartbeat.  And Maxine Clive had a point.  No matter how much we loved them, they would never love us back.

But Commonplace could not be forgiven.  Not for Kaplen, not for selling this defective body.

And not for their masterstroke, their real attack.  Not for this.

I knew that mountain.  I’d looked at it thousands and thousands of times.  A hidden Shenti fleet with firebombs.  Wheatfields. A mountain shaped like a molar tooth.  Enemies traveling northeast of Elmidde.

“Commonplace is going to burn down the Agricultural Islands,” I said.  The breadbasket of the Principality, that produced more than eighty percent of the nation’s food supply.  And where my parents lived.  Where I’d grown up.

Home.

“They’re going to starve out the country.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




11-A The Breadbasket

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“It’s a trap,” said Wes, muttering while his mother explained the Principality’s assault plan.

I thought for a moment.  “Yeah, it’s probably a trap.”

The Pyre Witch had been two steps ahead of us this whole time.  She might not have seen my Verity stunt coming, but an attack this large?  She had to know.

“My mother is a swollen, vicious pimple,” said Wes.  “But she’s not dumb.  The last time she tried to surprise Tunnel Vision, Isaac Brin got paralyzed from the waist down.”  I had no idea where Paragon’s intel had come from.

“Maybe she knows,” I said.  “And she doesn’t care.”  Even if it was a trap, Tunnel Vision wasn’t invincible.  If she went up against the Symphony Knight, or the Obsidian Foil, or Headmaster Tau, she’d lose, even with a proper ambush.  Paragon’s deceleration field would make it hard to attack.  And if they tried, our Scholar-ranked Guardians could fly up and crush them in minutes.

The fight was an afterthought.  What mattered was public opinion.  That Parliament, and the citizens of the Principality, had risen up against Commonplace and made an all-out assault politically feasible.

Because of me.  Because I’d thrown a spark on the dry tinder of this country, and ignited a mob.

What’s my mother thinking?  As a half-Shenti, she’d experienced her home country’s atrocities, but also the cruelty she’d been given in the Principality.

I clenched my teeth, staring at my feet, where a handful of my grey hairs had fallen from beneath my beanie.  More baldness.  Were there mobs on the Agricultural Islands, too?  If I came home to my parents, would they even want to talk to me?

My chest tightened, and my breaths quickened.

“Ana.”  Wes put a hand on my shoulder.  “Don’t wallow in self-loathing.  Take responsibility for your choices.  Then write the next page.“

I raised an eyebrow.  “Are you throwing my own words back at me?”

He shrugged.  “You’re my friend, I guess,” he said.  “I want all my friends to succeed.”

Hira slapped my shoulder.  “Deep breaths, bitch.  We need you.”  Jun looked away from me.

I forced myself to take slow, calming breaths.  I can’t take back that radio speech.  Obsessing over it wouldn’t fix any of the collateral damage I’d done, or make me a better person.

Only action could do that.

Admiral Ebbridge finished the briefing.  She called Wes over, and the boy pushed through the crowd, towards the raised platform at the center of the domed room.  I glanced around, at the bustling Guardians, the soldiers.  The aircraft carrier and the blimps outside the windows in Bartolet Naval Base.

“Anabelle Gage,” said Rowyna Ebbridge.  “Over here.”

She stood at the edge of the circular platform, next to other generals and important Guardians.  And above Wes.

Wes nodded as she said something, then turned and walked back to the rest of Queen Sulphur.  As he passed me, he flashed me an odd look, both nervous and excited.

What did his mother say to him?  And what did she want with me?  Wes was certain that she’d planned the attacks on Hira’s house.  And she hated Wes, according to his many drunk and sober rants.  So why talk to us?

I walked to the edge of the platform, where Wes had been standing, and looked up at the admiral.  Even after the revelations about Commonplace’s leader, Rowyna Ebbridge still wore the blonde Maxine Clive body from before.  It looked surreal now, a profane animated doll with cold blue eyes and high cheekbones.

“Time is short,” said Rowyna.  “I will be brief.”  She stared down at me.  “You have committed grave offenses against the Principality, Paragon Academy, and its rule of law.  You have attacked Guardians.  You did so for profit, and so you could cheat our academic system to your benefit.  Your transgression will not be overlooked.”

I said nothing.  Don’t make her angrier.

“However, you have also helped our nation.  You have fought against our enemies on Attlelan Island, the Kesteven Building, and the streets.  Our assault today is thanks to your efforts to sway public opinion.”  A thin smile spread across her face.  “And though the outcome remains uncertain, various agencies have reopened almost a dozen investigations into Afzal Kahlin’s illegal activities.”

Wes must be pleased.  It was still a long shot, of course, but his family’s debt might actually get eliminated.  But now there are mobs in the streets.  Going after innocent Shenti people.  My mobs.

“So,” said Admiral Ebbridge.  “I, the admissions board of Paragon, and the judiciary committee of Parliament are extending an offer to you.  For now, you will continue to join Guardians in military operations against Commonplace.  You may retain your weapons and a temporary authorization for combat projection, and you will not be detained, though I will personally maintain a tracer Vocation on you.  You will also receive no pay.”  She leaned forward, placing her hand on my forehead to install the tracer.  “If you perform well, you will receive a significant opportunity.”

Oh, fuck.

“At the end of the summer, you may attempt to Oust the current Lady Ebbridge.  And take her place as the heiress to this family’s estate.”

An icy sensation rushed over my skin, and I stopped moving.  Tasia.  She wanted me to Oust Tasia.  “W – What?”  That’s Wes’ dream, not mine.  Why would I want to Oust Tasia?

“In the last month, the current Nell Ebbridge has shown herself to be less stable than previously thought.  You will need to best her in tests of academic skill, and defeat her in nonlethal single combat.”  Admiral Ebbridge knelt, lowering her voice.  “But if you succeed.  If you prove yourself worthy.  You will receive a new body, and a full pardon for all your crimes.”

I swallowed.  “And what happens to the rest of Queen Sulphur?”  The ones who didn’t get the sparkling new name.

“They will leave the country, never to return.  And you will not contact them.  They shall be remnants of your old life, that must be forgotten to forge the new.  Only one may hold this name.”

I’ll lose everything.  Not only would I have to Oust Tasia, I’d have to abandon my friends too.

“Whether you succeed or not is up to you.”  She stood up.  “Now go.”

I turned and walked through the crowd, my head spinning.  If I win, I could smuggle an extra body to Tasia, or maybe even Jun.  Ebbridge would be watching me the whole time, but I had my illusions.  It was possible.

And I would be a real Paragon student.  A hero of the people, loved, accepted.

“One more point,” said the Admiral.

I stopped, turning back to her.

“I’ve extended this offer to 516125871-R, as well,” she said.  Wes.  “May you strive to become an Exemplar.”

She strode away, back amongst the generals.

________________________________________

“Five minutes,” said Sebastian Oakes.

I peered over the edge of the damp concrete roof, shivering despite the summer heat.  Far below, an empty office building sat at the far end of the street.  It appeared empty, abandoned, identical to dozens of others on North Island, stretching seven stories tall with a small lake of water flooding the ground floor.  This part of the city sat near the ocean, and tended to flood after storms, much like the other squat islands around the edge of Elmidde.

Then I looked through my binoculars.  A man stood behind one of the windows, faint, barely visible.  It’s not empty.

The tip was good.  This was one of Commonplace’s bases.

Sebastian Oakes – the Obsidian Foil – lay on the edge of the roof next to me, with his wife, Penny Oakes.  The Symphony Knight herself knelt in the center of the roof, decked out in full plate armor, resting on the surface of a puddle with her eyes closed.  Even though she was Lorne’s mother, having her here made me feel a great deal safer.

Wes lay next to me, running a comb through his light brown hair, tapping his foot against the roof.  Both Hiras and Jun lay next to him.

Far below, a group of elite Humdrum soldiers knelt in an alleyway, out of sight.  The moment we moved in, they would surround the perimeter and block off escape routes.

And, behind me, most critically, the radio team, a man and a woman operating the dials and buttons on a long-range radio set, keeping us in touch with the other teams.

Oakes spoke up, lowering his deep voice.  “You know North Island, yes, Miss Kahlin?”

“Actually, it’s ‘Mister’,” said Right-Hira.  “Yes.”

“And when my wife assaulted your home, you were tipped off when we cleared out the Nekean night market close by, yes?”

Penny Oakes shot us a glare, in a fresh body after we shot her, with no visible injuries.

“Yeah,” said Hira, “that was pretty dumb on your part.”

Don’t make them angry,” I hissed with illusions.

Hira shrugged.  The Obsidian Foil clapped her on the shoulder.  “Have no fear.  Everyone survived, and you were just trying to defend yourselves.  My wife and I will put our feelings behind us.”  He smiled.  “You’re our comrades right now.”  Oddly warm, considering we just shot his wife in the stomach.

Penny Oakes nodded, reluctant.  “If we wanted you dead, then, well…”

She wouldn’t have bothered with knockout gas.

“We haven’t cleared anyone out this time,” said Professor Oakes.  “But as soon as the attack begins, our Humdrum soldiers will secure the civilians.”

“It won’t be enough,” said Wes, tossing the comb into his briefcase.  “The walls here aren’t thick enough to stop a bullet.  And they can’t exactly run out into the street.”  These were poor people, who couldn’t afford a replacement chassis.

“Surprise is our best weapon,” Penny Oakes said.  “If we lose it, our enemies could escape.”

My stomach clenched.  Haven’t we sacrificed enough people?  But I said nothing.

Jun piped up, sitting next to the Symphony Knight.  “If Pictogram’s there, he can see us anyway.”

“If Tunnel Vision shows up,” said Oakes.  “Keep the fight short.  Our intel source told us about her Praxis Vocation.  It modifies her mind over time, perfecting her for a single goal at the expense of everything else.  The longer the battle goes, the more time she’ll have to outsmart us.”

Oakes walked over to the radio team, whispering back and forth.  He nodded, and turned back to us.  “All other teams are ready.  Original go time confirmed.  Three more minutes.”

I made lingering eye contact with Wes, and thought of his mother’s offer.

If I don’t get a body, I could die.  But there were ways Wes could smuggle a spare body to me if he reclaimed his seat.

But I want to be a Guardian more than he ever did.  And as far as I knew, he’d never been happy with his family.

But it’s his body.  His name.  He had a fundamental right to those, more than anyone else, no matter what Epistocrat tradition said.  And he wasn’t some immoral stranger.  He was my friend.

But if you don’t get it, you’ll be banished from the Principality.  For the rest of my life.  Barring any illegal tricks, I would never become an accepted Guardian, never live in this city or fulfill any of my dreams.

And I’d never go home to my parents.  The Agricultural Islands would be out of reach forever.

Fuck.  I clenched the binoculars, squeezing my eyes shut.  This was exactly what Admiral Ebbridge wanted.  She wanted us to fight.  She and her posse of elites had decided that Queen Sulphur was useful, but dangerous.  So they’d developed this scheme to break us up, to turn me and Wes against each other with vicious competition.

Wes and I stared at each other, neither of us saying anything.  We had to be thinking the same thing.

Wes smiled at me, that dumb freckled grin I’d grown so used to over the last year.  It could be a tactic, of course.  A spark of warmth to disarm me in our contest.

But I doubted it.

Wes opened his mouth, his smile fading.  “Ana,” he said.

“It’s time,” said the Obsidian Foil.  “Take your positions.  Mister Kahlin, would you prefer to use your rifle up here, or join us on the ground?”

“Actually, it’s ‘Miss’,” said Left-Hira.  “I’ll keep one of my bodies up here.”  She hefted her trench shotgun, and her male body hefted a sniper rifle.

Gas masks floated out of a box, into each of our hands.  I pulled mine on and tightened the straps.  The stench of new rubber filled my nostrils.

“Make it tight enough to be painful.  No hair messing up the seal.  Don’t take it off,” said Penny Oakes, slipping on her mask.  “And don’t fall on your face or move it.  You’ll be dead before you can even think of a replacement body.”

Not that they’d give us one.

“With me, soldiers,” said Sebastian Oakes.  “First stage in ten, nine, eight – ”

The Symphony Knight stood up on the puddle, but didn’t step forward.  She folded her armored hands behind her, eyes closed.  In that posture, she looked like a cross, between a medieval knight and an ascetic monk.  How could a woman like that raise a boy like Lorne?

“ – Seven, six, five, four – ”

Penny Oakes clenched her fists and whipped them forward.  A dozen metal gas tanks lifted off the roof behind her, each as long as a train car.

“ – three, two, one, go.”

Penny Oakes vaulted off the edge of the roof, floating the sealed tanks behind her.  She landed in the middle of the street, and the tanks slammed in front of her, one by one.  Penny whipped her hand forward, and the metal tops on the tanks burst open, hissing.

The gas wasn’t visible, but through the binoculars, I could see the impact of its wind.  Loose newspapers blew on the street.  Ripples moved across puddles of water.

Penny Oakes sank into a fighting stance, made claws with her hands, and jabbed them upwards.

Hundreds of windows in the building shattered.  Men and women shouted inside, noises of surprise and confusion.

Then the shouts turned into screams.  One by one, they faded away.

“I forgot to ask,” said Wes.  “Will the Green Hands be unconscious inside?  Do we need to secure them?”

“They will not be unconscious,” said the Obsidian Foil, regret slipping into his voice.

Then the Scholar of Strength leapt off the rooftop.  Unlike his wife, he didn’t slow his fall, relying on his Joining to keep him intact.  Midair, he drew the pitch-black rapiers on his back, and slammed into the pavement with a thud.

As he sprinted forward to join his wife, men and women staggered out of the front door and crawled out of the windows.  They collapsed into piles of twitches, dropping their weapons, their skin turning a dark red shade as their movements grew stiff.

Then the highest window of the Commonplace building shattered, making no noise.  A mobster with a gas mask shot out.  Balls of lightning grew in his palms.

I blinked, and Sebastian Oakes leapt a dozen stories in an instant, appearing behind the mobster.  The Scholar of Strength spun in midair, slicing with his razor-thin swords.

Oakes dropped to the street, and the mobster split into three pieces, falling in a spray of blood.  The lighting shot off from his dead palms, crashing into the road with a low boom.  The ground shook.  When the smoke cleared, two blackened craters sat on the street where the bolts had hit.

Gunshots rang out, and bullets whizzed out of the lower windows.  Green Hands and mobsters aimed rifles and shotguns at Penny Oakes, all wearing gas masks.  They prepared for this.  At least some of them.

Penny Oakes clapped her hands together, and pulled the empty gas tanks in front of her, forming a wall.  Bullets bounced off the metal, unable to penetrate.

Sebastian Oakes landed, bent his knees, and shot himself into a window on the ground floor.  The swords moved in a blur, and two of the Green Hands collapsed, blood spurting from their arms.  He darted back and forth, dodging bullets by watching the thugs aim, weaving through enemies and swinging his weapons so fast I couldn’t see them.

Even with Voidsteel bullets and gas masks, the Green Hands didn’t stand a chance.

The Symphony Knight strode forward to the edge of the roof.  It’s time.  I stood up with Wes, Left-Hira, and Jun.

The Knight stepped off the roof, and we stepped with her.  My stomach dropped, and my combat suit tightened around me, slowing my fall.  The radio team fell with us, projected down by the Symphony Knight.

In unison, we touched the pavement and sprinted forward, splashing through puddles under the grey sky.  My decayed feet and chest ached, and I coughed as I ran.  The hard cobblestones made every step pound into my shins.

Ahead of us, a mobster aimed at Oakes from behind, catching him off-guard.  Penny Oakes jabbed her palm forward and blew gas at the gunman, slamming him into the wall.  Then she strode forward to join her husband, crumpling up the empty tanks into smaller, more mobile shields.

The two professors fought on the first floor, dancing around each other, slashing and blowing and ripping off gas masks, deflecting bullets and slicing through cover.  Bodies piled up around them, thugs and Green Hands, projectors and Humdrums.

The building had more enemies than I could have imagined, with rocket launchers, grenades, machine guns, and Voidsteel.  But the two of them weren’t even breaking a sweat.

On the far side of the street, a trio of cars flipped over.  They ripped apart, becoming thousands of metal shards, each as long as my arm.

Then they shot at us, an overwhelming rain of spears whistling through the air, wide enough to cover half the street.  Too fast to dodge.  Too much momentum to block with projection.  I flinched, falling back into a puddle, and an aborted scream wheezed out of my throat.

The Symphony Knight lifted an armored hand.  A shock wave pulsed out from her palm, a clear, loud musical note that made the ground shake.  It knocked away the volley, flinging bits of scrap metal into windows, embedding them in walls and doors.

A particle of light floated in front of her palm, glowing a bright green.

I glanced down.  The pavement had cracked beneath her feet, but she wasn’t even in a fighting stance.  Her other arm hung at her side, unused.

She’s barely even trying.  This was only a fraction of a fraction of The Symphony Knight’s real power.  No one here came even close.  With Headmaster Tau’s decline, she might be the strongest projector in the nation.

She cast her gaze around, scanning the area for the hidden projector who’d attacked us.  Maxine Clive and Tunnel Vision could be anywhere, and in anyone’s body.

Another wave of shards exploded out of the buildings, ten times more than the last one.  Not just from cars this time.  Pieces of stoves, radiators, pipes all flew out of the windows, ripped up and sharpened at the ends.

They fanned out, surrounding us in a dome, thousands and thousands of makeshift daggers.

Then, in unison, they stabbed at us.  A shockwave blew them back with a ringing note, and they changed positions in an instant, shooting at us again in a blistering storm.

More waves blew the shards back, and they sped up, moving in a blur, so fast I could barely see them, enough to cut apart hundreds of people in seconds, all stabbing and slashing at us.  The enemy’s fighting at their full strength.  Straining their Pith, wherever they were hiding.

The Symphony Knight blocked it all, holding up two palms with one particle of light apiece.  Each particle played a different note as it sent out precise shockwaves, dozens every second, blasting back the enemy’s assault from countless different angles.

And she wasn’t even straining.  Her flat, expressionless face betrayed nothing, not even the passion of battle.

The rest of us?  We just crouched next to her, staring in awe at her display of power, at the might of the Scholar of Music.  At this speed, that was all we could do.  The radio team cowered with us, clutching the radio set.

Then, the Symphony Knight pointed her palm down.  Another shock wave blasted out from it, and a hole exploded in the street, exposing the sewer tunnel beneath.

Four men and a woman flew back, batted by the shock wave like dry leaves in the wind.  They slammed against the wall of the tunnel, and drew their arms in.  The storm of metal pulled away from us, flying in front of them in a defensive barrier.

The Symphony Knight stepped forward, and jumped into the sewer.  More shock waves rippled out from her hands, crashing into the metal barrier.

She strode forward, fighting five projectors at once.

As she did so, a Green Hands leaned out of a window to our side, and shot a grenade launcher at us.

Left-Hira stepped forward and swung her arms in a backhanded slap.  The grenade flew back into the house, exploding with a dull boom and a cloud of dust.

At the same time, while she was distracted, another squad of Humdrums popped out of the opposite side of the street, and fired submachine guns at us.  The street rang out with cracks, the enemy getting off a burst before Wes jabbed his hands forward, jamming the mechanisms in their guns.

Wes’ briefcase flipped open, and reams of paper flew out, slicing the enemies all over their faces and tattooed hands.

I glanced to the side.  The radio team lay on the ground, bleeding from dozens of bullet holes.  My breath caught in my throat, and my stomach clenched.  No.  No ABD or armor meant that normal bullets would be lethal.  Jun stood next to them, unscathed.  Does he have a bullet defense?

A grenade rolled by the radio set.

I stretched my Pith forward to disarm the grenade, or at least knock it aside.  My soul bounced off.  Voidsteel.  I scrabbled back.  Not fast enough.

Jun swung his hands together.  The radio set and one of the bodies dropped on top of the grenade.

It blew up, splattering gore everywhere.  Jun flew back, his white hair covered with blood and flesh.  He slammed against the pavement, unconscious.

“Jun!” I shouted.  Muscles or no, an old man’s body is going to be fragile.

And now, the radio set was destroyed beyond recognition.

Dozens of new Commonplace thugs streamed out of buildings, or clambered out of the sewers, carrying pistols and rifles and baseball bats.  They shot at the Humdrum soldiers we’d brought with us, scattering our troops.  Two bullets hit me in the chest, bouncing off my blue combat suit with stinging impacts.

So many.  And so spread out.  Had they prepared for us?  We were right.  This was a trap.  A careful, deliberate one.

The army soldiers shot back, taking cover behind buildings and cars and dumpsters.  Hira grabbed my arm, dragging me into a building as bullets zipped around us.

I gripped my machine pistol, aiming it out the door.  Left-Hira leaned out, firing her shotgun.  Wes sat behind them, shooting paper down the street, cutting the enemy’s hands, blocking their vision.

A Green Hands burst through the door, holding a submachine gun.  I threw an illusion on him, shifting our positions and making us appear to run away.

As he aimed his weapon, I raised my machine pistol and fired a burst.  The weapon kicked back in my grip, and I clenched it, hands shaking.

The man’s eyes widened.  He collapsed, dropping the gun, blood soaking into his shirt.

Another kill.  I’d lost track of how many I’d already done.

But I needed to do more.  If this was a trap, the basics wouldn’t be enough.  We had to get aggressive, unexpected.  And we needed more space.

I sprinted through the building, using the walls as cover to move down the street and closer to the Green Hands.  It looked like it had been some sort of community center, before being abandoned, so the main room of the building stretched down almost the entire block.

A pair of mobsters ran down the street, bullets curving around their ABDs.  They whipped their hands forward, and dozens of fiery whips lashed out from their fingertips, setting our soldiers on fire.  They sent a storm of fireballs at the building where Right-Hira was sniping from, driving him off the roof.

But they didn’t see me.  They thought I was further down, next to Left-Hira.

I ran to the edge of the building, leaned out, and projected around their Piths, throwing up visual and auditory illusions.  I made it look like I was far out of range, making them feel secure in their senses.

A few seconds later, both of them were shooting fire at the Green Hands, instead of our allies.

As they did so, I glanced down, at the dead radio operators and the unconscious Jun.  We’d lost the people who ran our communications.  And the one person who could repair the broken set.

We were cut off from the other assault groups.

Is that a coincidence?

Or were they doing that on purpose?

My stomach wrenched, and the world seemed to move in slow motion.  I projected to Wes and Left-Hira.  “They took out our radio.  I think they’re trying to isolate us.  I think they’re planning somet –

A wave of white flames washed over the entire Commonplace building.  Even from this distance, I could feel the stinging heat on my face.  Palefire.

The entire front of the building was blackened.  Puddles had evaporated into steam, and a van on the side of the road burned, flames rising on the front of its hood.

Penny and Sebastian Oakes shot back towards us, out of the front door and back onto the street.  Bits of their hair and combat suits had been singed, and Penny Oakes had a wrinkled, red burn running down her neck.

A woman stepped out on the roof of the building, staring down at us from high above.  Her light brown hair was tied back in a thin, long ponytail beneath a bowler hat, and she wore a pitch-black skirt and a wrinkled suit jacket.  She held a carved Voidsteel dagger in her fist, and glared down at us as if we were the cruelest, most despicable beings on the planet.

Tunnel Vision.  The Pyre Witch.

The woman who’d destroyed Kaplen’s life.  Who’d sold me this disgusting, withering body that I was probably going to die in.

My stomachache doubled, and my hands shook.

The Symphony Knight floated up from the sewer, having won her battle.  She stared up at Tunnel Vision, cold, ready to fight.

Hira stuck her hands in her pockets.  I projected around my friends’ Piths, activating the tracer again.

TV here, I said in telegraph code.  Come now.

Tunnel Vision moved.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




10-C – Samuel

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



The world’s gone mad, thought Samuel.

So why was everyone still pretending?

Kaplen had killed himself.  The Silver Flask was a pile of rubble.  Eliya had lost her eye, and her father, Professor Brin, had lost his legs.  Elmidde was tearing itself apart.

And despite all that, Paragon students still plodded along, eyes to the dirt like nothing had changed.  To them, they just had to ace tests, suck up to professors, and get into exclusive clubs.  Then, the world would realign itself.

How can they do it?  How could people just get out of their beds and care about schoolwork, while their classmates died around them, while the ground crumbled under their feet?

And Lorne Daventry was the worst of them, smug and cold through it all, as if death and cruelty were normal.

Sand blasted over Samuel, scraping his exposed skin under his combat armor, scratching his eyes.

Blinded, Samuel projected into the puddles around him.  He sucked in a breath and drew the water around him, a sheath protecting him on all sides.  It doused the sand, protecting him.

Then a piece of rebar slammed into his solar plexus.  It knocked the wind out of him, flinging him to the bottom of the hill.  Samuel rolled on the wet grass, water splashing around him, and pushed himself up, stomach aching.

Through the rain, Lorne Daventry and Matilla Geffray stood at the top of the hill, guarding their flag.  Lorne stared down at him, eyes flat.  Matilla smirked.

Two on one was hard enough.  With these two, it was near-impossible.  Eliya and Leizu had fought well, despite Eliya’s injuries, managing to take out the other two members of Golem Squad.  But they’d lost their armbands in the attempt.

And Tasia hadn’t even shown up to the squad battle.  She’d vanished this morning, and they hadn’t been able to find her in her dorm, or the library, or the rain-soaked pavilion.  Over the last few months, she’d missed strategy meetings and exams too, refusing to explain why.

How bad are her grades now?  By sheer virtue of failing attendance.  Almost as bad as mine.

Samuel squinted through the rain.  Lorne and Matilla didn’t move.  They just stood at the top of the hill, water running down their combat armor.

Waiting for him.

“I feel bad for you!” shouted Lorne.  He projected into the hill, making it vibrate with his voice.  “I mean, being saddled with an alcoholic moron of a fiance is hard enough.  But finding out she’s a traitor.”  He chuckled.  “Well, I can imagine.”

She’s not a traitor.  Nell, with her radio broadcast, had struck a massive blow to Commonplace – and to the Broadcast King.  Though, to be honest, Samuel had no idea why she was working with an Ilaquan heiress, a Shenti terrorist, and a violent body thief.

“It’s a miracle,” shouted Lorne.  “That you haven’t tried to join Kaplen already!”

He’s stalling.  Samuel needed to get the flag or take both of them out in the next ninety seconds, or Chimera Squad would lose.  Strategies ran through Samuel’s head, methods of snatching the flag.

“It doesn’t matter!” shouted Lorne.  “What kind of stunt she pulled on Verity.”  With your old assistant.  Ernest Chapman.  The awkward grey-haired boy who’d tailed Lorne wherever he went.  Now that was something Samuel hadn’t expected.  “It’s only a matter of time until we find her and the other freaks.”

A frontal assault wouldn’t work.  Even with his Vocation banned in squad battles, Lorne had far more raw power than Samuel, and that was without Matilla’s blinding sandstorms.

“Don’t feel bad, though,” said Lorne.  “If your grades keep slipping, your parents will catch on and find someone to Oust you.”  He grinned.  “Then you can rejoin your lady love.  Well, half a lady.”

Samuel clenched his teeth until they ached.  A wave of heat rushed over his body, even as the cold rain soaked his clothes.

He howled at the pair, a scream cutting through the storm.

And as he screamed, he attacked.  A chain burst out of the hill behind the two members of Golem Squad, reaching towards the flag to snatch it.

Lorne and Matilla turned in unison, moving to counter.  Matilla jerked her hand up, and the heavy flagpole shot into the sky, out of reach.  Lorne slashed his arm forward, and a sheet of metal slammed into Samuel’s chain, batting it aside like it was light as a string.  He pushed Samuel’s Pith out, green lightning crackling around his hands.

At the same time, Samuel tore up the ground in front of him.  He pulled out the water, drying the dirt, and exploded it in front of him, making a thick cloud of silt.  A classic smokescreen.

Footsteps rang out from Golem’s left.  At the same time, his outline charged them from the right.  A simple audio distraction, combined with a desperate attack.

Of course, Lorne and Matilla knew about those tactics.  And Lorne had studied some light eye-Joining, so he could see through some of the silt.

So in an instant, Lorne spotted his silhouette.  Matilla harassed with a storm of sand, and Lorne shot a volley of rebar straight into it.

The silhouette tore apart, falling to bits.

Samuel had taken off his combat armor, animating it with metal strings on the inside, imitating his gait.  Through the rain and dirt and sand, it looked exactly like him.

At the same time, the real Samuel dropped from the sky.  He swung a pair of metal chains, slamming Lorne and Matilla on their unprotected necks.

Both of them doubled over, gasping for air, and the chains looped back around, ripping off their armbands.  Chimera Squad had won the match.

Samuel didn’t stop.  He landed on the grass, knocking Matilla aside with a chain.  The girl rolled down the hill, and Samuel stepped forward.

The chain wrapped around Lorne’s ankle and yanked him off his feet.  Lorne slammed onto his back, still coughing and wheezing, rain pouring down on him.

Samuel clenched his fist, and a chain thudded into Lorne’s chest, knocking the air out of him.  Paragon’s combat armor worked great against bullets and shrapnel, but could only do so much against blunt force.

The end of the chain punched Lorne’s stomach.  Another pair of chains swung at his arms and legs, targeting his joints, hitting him again and again.

Lorne gagged, too disoriented to fight back.  What was it he did to Cyclops Squad?  Samuel kept up the assault, wrapped a chain around Lorne’s ankles, and pulled up.  The boy hung upside down in the air, swinging from side to side as the chains thudded into his armor.

One of the chains pulled off Daventry’s helmet.  Samuel swung his fist into Lorne’s nose.

Something crunched beneath his knuckles, and pain flared up in his fingers.  It hurt, like he’d just punched a concrete wall.

Samuel pulled his fist back again, and someone put a hand on his shoulder.

“Samuel,” said Eliya, her voice steady.

Samuel blinked.  The outside world popped back into existence.  The rain, the grey clouds, the rest of Chimera and Golem Squads watching.

He exhaled, and dropped Lorne on the ground.  The chains went limp.

Naruhiko and Deon, the other Golems, picked up Lorne, carrying him away.  They both glared at Samuel, ready to start a fight, but Matilla shook her head.  Not worth it.

We won.  Against the best squad in the academy, with one member down.  A remarkable feat, even though Chimera’s rankings were still in the middle.

“He deserves it,” said Leizu, walking up beside him.  “But you need to conserve your strength.”

Samuel leaned over, taking deep, ragged breaths.  “Conserve my strength?” he said.  “We don’t have classes today.  We were going to study in the common room.”

“Yeah,” said Leizu.  “Some grey coat gave this to me while I was on bleachers.”  She held up a new list of patrol shifts.

NORTH ISLAND | 1000-1600 | SAMUEL PAKHEM [Chimera], ELIYA BRIN [Chimera], LEIZU YAO [Chimera] and NELL EBBRIDGE [Chimera]

10 AM.  That was less than an hour from now, on the far side of the city.

“And,” said Eliya.  “Tasia’s still missing.”  He called her ‘Tasia’.  Not ‘bookworm’ or ‘the imposter’.

“Split up,” said Samuel.  “We’ll re-check the dorms and the library and the banquet hall.  All the usual spots.  Meet at the top of the cable car in twenty.”  If Chimera Squad was going up against Commonplace, they needed everyone.

The other two nodded.  “I’ll take the dorms and library,” said Leizu.  She took off at a blazing sprint, crossing the wooden bridge to the main island and vanishing into the rain.  Not a Joiner, Eliya jogged after her at a normal pace.

Tasia might be doing research in the upper levels of the library.  She might be in bed, or eating a late breakfast in the banquet hall.

But Samuel had an idea.  He knew where to look first.

________________________________________

Samuel projected into his combat suit, floating through the rain.

He pulled himself over a wooden bridge, around the edge of Alabaster Hall, past the lit common room to the far end of the floating island.

A grassy ledge jutted out at the back, about the size of a large bed.  Its position hid it from sight, unable to be seen from Alabaster’s windows, and the dormitory’s wall angled out, shielding it from most of the rain.

Tasia sat at the end, eating from a package of garlic bread.  She stared out into the grey sky, her legs hanging over the edge.  Rain soaked into her blue school uniform, and her black hair stuck to her neck, a wet, tangled mess.

Samuel touched down on the grass.  She didn’t even look at him.

“How did you find me?” she said.

“I asked around.”  Samuel sat down beside her.  “For places that you and Kaplen and Ern – and Anabelle Gage used to spend time in.  One boy in Alabaster said that the three of you used to walk around the edge of the building.  I just checked it out on a guess.”

Tasia didn’t reply.  Thunder boomed in the distance.

“We missed you at the squad battle,” said Samuel.

“Sorry,” she said.  “Did you lose?”

“We won, actually, but it was…”  Samuel flexed the fingers on his right hand, the knuckles peeling, still aching after he’d punched Lorne.  “It was difficult.”

“Admiral Ebbridge talked to me this morning,” said Tasia.  “Threw my breakfast in the trash.  Reminded me how fragile my position is.  I don’t need another lecture about how entitled I am.”

“That’s not why I’m here,” said Samuel.  “Chimera Squad has been called into action.”  He pointed at Mount Elwar below, obscured by the rain and clouds.   “The city’s tearing itself apart.  The people need us.”  He looked at her.  “And we need you.”

“Do you remember our first night?” she said.  “When we patrolled together.”

Samuel nodded.

“You would have given anything to get rid of me, to fight alongside a different student.”

Samuel nodded again, reluctant.  And now I’m begging her to join.  It had been a strange year.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t know you.  I didn’t trust you.”

“That’s not it,” said Tasia.  “What is it they say about college?  First year hope –

– last year rope,” finished Samuel.  But that wasn’t always true.  “What were you hoping for?”  He’d asked her before, but she’d never given him a straight answer.

Tasia stuffed a piece of garlic bread in her mouth and chewed.  She stretched her hand out, and raindrops splattered on her palm.  “My big sister is dying.  She came down with pneumatoma a few years back.”

Pith cancer.  You could call yourself lucky if it crippled you.  For many, it was a slow, excruciating death sentence.  And in the past few decades, it had gone from a rare phenomenon to something with tens of thousands of cases.

“I used my Vocation,” she said, “to cut the tumor out.  And it worked.  But in the process, I aged her over a century.”

Null particles.  So that’s why she wanted to research them.

Tasia held up her shining blue-gold library card, flipping it between her fingers.

Lady Nell Ebbridge
Level 4 Access

“I thought that with a high-level card, I could study the secrets of the Great Scholars, fix what I’d done.”

The Elixir of Life.  The font of eternal youth.  Surely, Tasia knew how difficult that problem was, the absurd complexity of the knot she was trying to untie.  For all her twitchy awkwardness, the girl had a lot of confidence in her abilities.

“But,” she said.  “A dead end.  So many dead ends.  And the things that weren’t dead ends…”  She trailed off, wrapping her arms around her chest.  “Nobody wanted to help me.  No one took me seriously.”  She chuckled.  “But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.  If this nation cared about medicine, they’d be mass-producing chassis and giving them out to the poor.”

She sounds like a Commonplace agitator.

She smiled.  “But Kaplen cared.  And so did Ernest.  He believed in me.  In my work, even if he didn’t always understand it.”  She closed her eyes.  “Was she lying about that too?”

Ernest wasn’t Ernest.  The grey coat boy was Anabelle Gage, a body thief, a girl, a mercenary, living right under their noses.

“What did she want?” said Tasia.  “Was she trying to use Lorne?  Was she going to break into Paragon’s chassis vault?”  She shrugged.  “I guess it doesn’t matter.  I don’t expect I’ll ever see her again.”  She turned her head, looking at Samuel for the first time.  “So please.  Let me be.”

“I understand,” said Samuel.  “I can’t imagine how much pain you’re in right now.  But we still have a job to do.”

“You think that’s going to change anything?” said Tasia.  “The tide is coming in, and you’re digging a trench with a spoon.  In the end, the Shenti have it right.  The sea remains.  Eventually, it’ll rise up and drown this barbaric age.  And in a few centuries, maybe the survivors can have their own delusions of grandeur, just like us.”

Both of them stared over the edge, gazing down at the stormy ocean far beneath, a swirling pot of chaos, extending to infinity over the horizon.

Samuel leaned to the side and hugged Tasia.  She hugged him back.  He couldn’t help but smell her lavender perfume, feel the heat of her body against his.

“Nell is a mercenary too,” said Samuel.  “To be honest, I thought she’d collapse after her Ousting, that she’d have a dozen breakdowns and drink herself into the ground.”  His old fiance had plenty of cleverness and warmth, but stable wasn’t a word that applied to her.  “I never expected this, that she’d become some hired killer.”  Should I be impressed, or horrified?

“I’m sorry,” said Tasia.

“Look at me,” Samuel said, chuckling.  He pointed to his tangled hair, the dark circles under his eyes.  “My grades have tanked too.  I’m not happy either.  At this rate, maybe I never will be.  I’m nowhere near being an Exemplar.”  He stood up.  “But I still have a duty to this nation, a responsibility to our people.  Even if I fall, even if I can’t forge the stars, I can still help the people around me.  If I keep fighting for one more day, then I can preserve a tiny sliver of this world.  And then, maybe that can help me get better, too.”

Write the next page,” said Tasia.

What?  Samuel decided not to pry – time was already short enough.

He extended his hand to Tasia.  “Would your sister want to give up?”

“In a few years,” she said, “Sarah’s not going to want anything.”

“That wasn’t the question.  Would your sister want you to give up?”

Tasia squeezed her eyes shut.  She swallowed her last piece of garlic bread and squeezed the paper box into a ball.

Then she stood up.

Her weary expression stayed.  Her face sagged, and she took slow, heavy breaths, water dripping off her clothes.  Tasia still looked exhausted, down to the last soul particle.

“Alright,” she said.  “Where are we fighting?”

________________________________________

The van turned a corner, screeching, and drove straight past the riots.

Burning cars zipped by the vehicle, mobs of Humdrums beating each other, screaming crowds filling the streets.  The van splashed through a puddle, and the vehicle jerked beneath Samuel.

Samuel looked at Professor Oakes, at the driver’s seat of the van.  “Why are we driving past?” he said.  “This is North Island.  Is there a bigger riot somewhere else?”

Oakes leaned forward, too tall and broad for the van’s seat.  “We are not, dear boy,” he boomed, his voice low.  “That’s the only riot in the area.”

What.  “We’re on patrol duty.  What are we doing here, if not dealing with the riots?”

“All in good time,” said Oakes, driving past another street fight.  “All in good time.”

The van sped past a police barricade.  Through the rain, a Guardian stood on top of a police car, surveying the road, and Samuel squinted to make out his features.

Tall.  Broad shoulders with huge muscles and a thick brown beard.  With two thin black rapiers slung across his back.  Sebastian Oakes?  Samuel glanced at the front seat.  But Sebastian Oakes was sitting in the car with them.

There’s an imposter on the streets.  But then why had the real Oakes ignored him?

No, not an imposter.  A double.  Another Guardian, or a student, wearing one of his chassis.  Paragon was pretending that their top-level Guardians were out on the streets.  When really, they were driving to some other, more important mission.

Something’s happening.  Something big.

Tasia leaned back against the wall of the van, closing her eyes.  Samuel squeezed her shoulder under her light combat armor.  “You can do this,” he said.

“Whoever we’re fighting,” said Leizu.  “You’re strong.  You’ll break their bones and grind them into the dirt.”  She punched Tasia’s arm.

Tasia’s eyes fluttered open, and she smiled at both of them.

Under Samuel’s combat suit, his shirt sleeve tightened, pressing on his arm out of sight.  It pressed in rapid patterns of long and short.  Telegraph code.  Someone was sending him a signal.

Eliya glared at him with her one eye, and scratched her arm in an identical place to the sleeve-squeeze.  The message repeated, faster this time, and Samuel translated it in his head.

She’s our teammate,” said Eliya.  “She’s desperate.  And she’s not the monster we thought she was.”  She paused.  “But if you so much as caress her face, I will rip your spleen out, blend it, and drink it like a smoothie.

Samuel projected into Eliya’s sleeve, sending a message back.  “I haven’t,” he said.  “And we haven’t, you know, done anything else.

It’s called sex, you repressed beefcake.”  Eliya scowled at him.  “And no, you’ve done something far worse.  You’ve opened up to her.  You talk about your feelings.”  Eliya’s face screwed up with disgust, as if that was the most profane, horrifying thing imaginable.

Now who’s repressed? thought Samuel.  “Tasia’s been through a lot,” he said, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye.  “It’s not her fault that Nell got Ousted.

Remind me,” said Eliya.  “Who hit Nell in the throat, blasted sand in her eyes, and knocked her out of the ring?  Who destroyed our friend?  Your fiance.

Ousting is Paragon’s fault,” said Samuel.  “And Admiral Ebbridge’s, too.

Samuel reminded himself not to blame Eliya.  She’d been on edge since her father got implicated with the mercenaries.  Professor Brin hadn’t been sentenced yet, or even thrown in prison, but the man would face demotions, at the very least.

I know what you’re going through,” signalled Samuel.  “But –

Samuel’s stomach clenched.  A wave of fear washed over him, and he shivered with the intensity.  The walls of the van closed in on him, and Tasia’s tired stare became cold, calculating.

A wave of loneliness exploded on top of the fear, a longing that he had forgotten for months.  Nell.  The original Nell.  Playing Jao Lu with her and hugging her and – 

Tears trickled out of Samuel’s eyes and he wiped them away.  Leizu and Tasia gave him odd looks, and he blinked, regaining his senses.

Scholars,” said Samuel.  “Ask me before you use your Vocation on me.

Eliya’s Whisper Vocation involved forced, one-sided thought-stitching, forcing others to relive her past experiences for short bursts.  Normally, she used it to induce panic attacks, a mental stun grenade, of sorts.  She had already mastered it enough to start writing her codex for it.

You look surprised,” messaged Eliya in telegraph code.  “Imagine feeling that every day.

Samuel clenched his fists.  “Nell’s not coming back.

Eliya’s eyes widened, and she recoiled.  “Fuck you.

I hate to think about it.  It makes me feel awful.  But it doesn’t matter what trick she pulled with Verity, or whether she can pull off the impossible feat of out-testing Tasia.”  The van bumped again, and Samuel stared at the damp floor.  “To get a shot at her name again, she’ll have to win her mother’s approval.  And she’ll never, ever do that.

Why the fuck not?

You don’t know Admiral Ebbridge.  I do,” said Samuel.  “You haven’t had to eat breakfast with her every week.  The woman is a hero, but she hates her children even more than she hates herself.”  It felt like a corkscrew twisting through his gut, but that didn’t make it any less true.  “The sooner we all cope with that, and find a bright spot in this nightmare, the better our odds of survival.

The van screeched to a halt.  Tasia had fallen asleep, her head lolling to the side.

As Eliya glared at him, Samuel shook Tasia’s shoulder, a gentle wake-up.  “We’re here,” he murmured.

Professor Oakes listened to a radio with a pair of headphones.  “Understood!” he said.  He turned the steering wheel, and the car drove in a different direction, bumping down the cobble street.

“What’s happening?” Samuel asked.

“A short detour!” shouted Oakes.  “On the way to our destination!  Some brave souls need our help, and we are the closest.”

Brave souls?  “Who?”

The window rolled down, and a newspaper shot in the van, drying itself.  Samuel picked it off the floor and read the front page.

Paragon Mercenary Group Attacks Radio Host

Four photographs sat beneath the headline.  Anabelle Gage#516125871-R (née Nell Ebbridge), Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang.

“What is it?” said Tasia.

Samuel swallowed.  “We’re going to rescue Nell.  And Anabelle Gage.”

“This bitch,” muttered Eliya, massaging her eyepatch.  “She chops off my hands, and now I’m supposed to save her ass.”

“Technically,” said Leizu.  “Samuel chopped off your hands.”

“Wow,” said Eliya.  “I feel so much better, thanks.”

“Look at it this way,” said Leizu.  “If you save her, she owes you double.”

“Commonplace and the mob assail them in a building ahead,” said Oakes.  “Many Humdrums, and at least one mob projector.  Our primary target is a Shenti man known as Pictogram.  Though he has no bulletproof skin or improved defenses, his aim is perfect.  If possible, avoid him.”  The van screeched, turning another corner.  “Ready?” he said.

“Can I say no?” said Eliya.

“Hold on,” he said.

The top of the van ripped open, and Samuel’s combat suit jerked him up, pulling him into the air.  Wind whipped past his face, and rain splattered his helmet.  Gunshots rang out around them, as the others flew up with him.  His stomach dropped, and his legs wobbled beneath, searching for purchase.

Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, soared above them, drawing his two titular swords and flipping onto the roof.  Projecting into everyone’s armor.  Chimera Squad shot forward, smashing through a window halfway up the building.  

Samuel landed on a bed, breaking it beneath him and kicking up a cloud of dust.  His eyes flickered around, taking in his surroundings.  An abandoned apartment building.  No civilians.  No collateral damage.

Eliya landed next to the door, and it swung open in front of them.

Commonplace soldiers filled the hallway.  Green Hands, jogging into the stairwell with rifles and shotguns.  They froze, staring at the squad.

“Shield!” barked Samuel.  One of Nell’s old tactics.

Eliya stretched her hand forward, and the Green Hands closest to them froze, stunned with her Vocation.  Leizu shot a metal cable from her waist and yanked him back, into the doorway, putting him in a headlock.  A human shield.

The gunmen hesitated for a second, not wanting to shoot their comrade.  That was all it took.

Two of Samuel’s wires shot out, forming countless tiny loops, guided with precision and speed using his Physical Vocation.  A harsh whistling sound rang through the air as the wires flew through the air.

He clenched his fist, pulling the loops shut.

Thirty-two right thumbs sliced off tattooed hands, spurting blood.  The Commonplace thugs cried out in pain, doubling over, losing their grip on weapons, distracted.

Tasia charged forward.  Orbs of blue and purple lightning flickered around her fists – her Vocation.  She blazed through the line of Green Hands, swinging the orbs through their chests and heads, draining their Piths’ energy.

Within a few seconds, all of them lay on the ground, unconscious.  A man in the stairwell fired a shotgun at Tasia, and she fell back, groaning.

Eliya stunned him.  Leizu leapt forward and squeezed his hands, breaking the bones in his hands.  Tasia stood up, massaging her chest.  Her light combat armor had stopped the bullets, but it would leave a bruise.

They ran to the stairwell, and Leizu held up a hand, gesturing above them.  With her enhanced senses, she could find threats before the rest of them.  “More right above us,” she whispered, pointing at the ceiling.  “Voidsteel bullets.  Waiting to ambush us.”

“Trapdoor,” whispered Samuel.  Another trick the original Nell had devised.

Chimera Squad ran down the hallway, end to end.  They projected above them, targeting the ceiling, ripping through planks of wood, tearing through concrete and metal, breaking key structural pieces.  They kept it from vibrating, making the whole process silent, invisible.

Tasia put her two orbs together, forming a single, larger one.  They stood at the stairwell.

Then, Leizu leapt up and slammed the ceiling with her palm.

The entire floor above them split, tearing from end to end.  Dust and splintered wood filled the air, and forty Green Hands fell in unison.

As they fell, Tasia threw her orb forward.  It shot through them midair, wide enough to pass through every one of them.

They dropped to the floor, unconscious.

So many Green Hands.  Commonplace wanted these mercenaries bad.

They ran up the stairwell, and the next floor was empty.  Not a single soul in the hallway.

Leizu stepped forward and sniffed the air.  “Close your eyes!” she shouted.

Samuel snapped his eyes shut, a moment too late.  An intense burning sensation exploded in his pupils, then his nose and throat.  It felt like liquid magma being poured over his face.

He gasped, his throat closing up, making it difficult to breathe.  The sharp scent of chilis filled his nostrils.  Pepper gas.  The invisible kind.

We’re dealing with a projector.  He knelt, his face on fire.

Samuel stretched his Pith up, straining to scan the area.  He felt two Piths on the floor above, and an overwhelming itching sensation spread over his body, like every inch of his skin had broken out in hives.  Two projectors.

He scratched his exposed wrist.  If he could have, he would have ripped his skin off with his fingernails.

Samuel’s suit tightened around him, lifting him.  In his distraction, he’d stopped projecting into his own outfit.  Eliya and Tasia did the same, their armor immobilizing them.

His helmet ripped off, and his suit flung him down the stairwell.  He dropped two flights and slammed into the stairs, rolling to disperse the momentum.

Samuel groaned.  His body ached in a dozen places.  Water washed the pepper spray out of his eyes, bringing the burning down, and making his blurry vision clear.  The itchiness vanished.  Must be from a Whisper Vocation.

Beside him, Eliya and Tasia staggered up.  Eliya limped, coughing up blood, and Tasia wobbled back and forth, dizzy.

Leizu stood next to them, unblemished.  Not even a single bruise.  She glanced down at the rest of Chimera Squad.  “You alright?  Nothing serious?”

Samuel nodded, pushing himself to a standing position.

Leizu gazed up the stairwell.  Red lightning crackled around her left arm.  Her Joining Vocation.

Samuel’s eyes widened, and he grabbed Eliya and Tasia, pulling them down the stairs to the lower levels.  Leizu crouched, red lightning building, and snapped up, leaping out of sight.

The rest of Chimera squad crouched under a door frame, gripping it to brace themselves.

A low boom rang out high above them, and the building shook.  The glass windows at the end of the hall shattered, and dust rained down on their heads.

The aches faded, and Samuel ran back up the stairs.  Tasia followed after him, with a limping Eliya.

They passed Green Hands, lying on the stairs or the hallway, covered in bullet holes and bruises.  

Near the top floor, a massive hole had been blown in the side of the building, taking out a chunk of the wall spanning several floors.  The two enemy projectors – the pepper gas one and the itchiness one – had vanished.  Leizu stood in their place, near the top of the steps.  She leaned on a railing, out of breath.

“Scholars,” said Eliya.  “Thank fuck you’re on our squad.”

They emerged onto the roof, back into the rainstorm.  Lightning flashed in the grey sky, followed by the roar of thunder.

The roof was empty, save for a group of five individuals, crouching behind a large pipe and keeping their heads down.

A boy with a grey beanie, clutching a machine pistol in a shaking hand, rain soaking into her ratty coat and blue combat suit.  No, not a boy – someone wearing a boy’s chassis, covering up her withered hair. Anabelle Gage.  With her knelt a girl and a boy, Ilaquan, holding a shotgun and a sniper rifle, respectively, eyes flitting over Chimera.  Hira Kahlin, with some other southerner.  An old Shenti man with a long, wispy beard.  Jun Kuang.

And Nell, wearing a boy’s body, brown-haired and freckled and lanky.

She looked at Samuel, and the two made eye contact.  Her eyes widened, and her grip tightened on the brown briefcase by her side.

Neither of them spoke, or gave away much with their expressions.  But Samuel felt a warm swelling in his chest.  I’m glad you’re alive.  But he didn’t say that out loud.

Gunshots rang out in the distance.  Samuel glanced up at the neighboring buildings, where the noise came from.

Next to the apartment, a ruined tower stretched above them, an abandoned construction project filled with half-finished rooms.

A dark figure flew through the rain, leaping from floor to floor.  A dozen rifles floated around him, shooting one after the other.  Pictogram.

Another figure chased after him, taller and larger, swinging two razor-thin swords, slicing through concrete and wood like they were made of air.  The Obsidian Foil.  Professor Oakes, darting behind cover, floating chunks of concrete around him to block gunshots.

For a few seconds, they danced back and forth.  Oakes, trying to get close.  Pictogram, swirling his rifles around him, shooting in patterns and keeping his distance.

Pictogram leapt down a floor, using the ceiling as cover, and Oakes sliced through it, dropping down on the Shenti sniper with a wave of rubble.

The swords moved in a blur, and the rifles sliced in half.

At the same time, something cut into Samuel’s leg.  He winced, stinging pain arcing over his skin.  A line of warm blood trickled down his pants.

As he glanced down, a piece of paper slid into his pocket, unseen by everyone except him.

Samuel looked back up.  Nell was watching him, out of the corner of her eye.  Sending me a message.  A secret one.  Why?

It would have to wait.  He couldn’t read it in front of everyone else.

In the building above them, Pictogram ran back, with his rifles destroyed, shooting a handful of pistols to cover his retreat.  A dozen Green Hands burst out of a door behind him, covering his retreat with shotguns.  Four mobsters stepped up next to them, their hands swirling with fire and lightning and icicles.

Oakes flashed forward, his swords whipping through the air.  A few gunshots went off, but none of them hit him.  Before Samuel could blink, Oakes had passed through them all, dancing on the tips of his toes.

Blood spurted out of the enemies, and sixteen heads fell off their bodies.  They hadn’t even touched him.

But in that handful of seconds, Pictogram had vanished into the stairwell.

“Come out and fight!”  Oakes bellowed into the rain.  “Coward!”  He charged into the building, going out of sight.

More gunshots rang out, more shouts and the crackle of electricity.  Samuel and the others watched for several minutes, no one speaking.  The rain poured down around them, making it even harder to see the neighboring building.  Samuel’s eyes flickered around, scanning for movement.  Chimera Squad stood at the ready, prepared to fight, or flee sniper fire at a moment’s notice.

Oakes leapt back onto the roof, jumping from the ground to the top.  He landed in a crouch and slung his swords on his back, projecting the blood out of them.  “A man should face his enemy when he fights,” he grumbled.  “Only a spineless worm uses such tactics.”  He glanced at us.  “Chimeras.  Queen Sulphur.  Are you alright?”

“I broke a few teeth,” said Eliya.  She pointed to the still-dizzy Tasia.  “And bookworm here’s still wobbling a bit, but she’ll be alright.  Leizu, of course, hasn’t broken a single bone.”

“I drink a lot of milk,” said Leizu.

Anabelle Gage nodded.  “We’re, um, we’re okay too.”

Professor Oakes walked towards Queen Sulphur, towering over them.  “If it were up to me, brave soldiers, you’d all be given medals, and pardons, and a big, proper feast with crispy pork and mango!”  His face fell.  “But I am under the command of Paragon Academy, which finds you guilty of the following crimes, which I am required to list: Operating as illegal projectors, assaulting officers of the law, assaulting Guardians, resisting arrest, assault with a deadly weapon, murder, breaking and entering, and catfish poaching.”

“Catfish poaching?” said Gage.

“One time,” said Hira.  “It was a bull market.”

“I’m here to take you all to a location.  I can’t tell you where, but I’ll say this: it’s not a prison.  Ousting law will be ignored, temporarily, for this transport.”  He glanced at Chimera Squad, then Queen Sulphur.  “Will you come peacefully?”

Say yes.  Please say yes.  If Queen Sulphur resisted arrest, it didn’t matter how skilled they’d become.  The Obsidian Foil was Scholar-ranked.  He would cut them apart in seconds, without even needing to draw his rapiers.

The mercenaries muttered amongst themselves for a few seconds.  Then Gage nodded.

They floated themselves from the building to another building, then a different street.  Oakes loaded them into a different van, larger, with no windows and a single light in the back.  The door slammed shut, and they drove off, rain pattering on the metal roof.

Samuel looked at the members of Queen Sulphur, their weapons taken away, hands cuffed in front of them.  Voidsteel locks, but not Voidsteel cuffs – a cheaper design, that would only take seconds to break.  A mere formality from Oakes.

Hira Kahlin, the Ilaquan, stuffed her hands into the pockets of her orange blouse, and waggled her eyebrows at him.  Jun Kuang, the Shenti bombmaker, flashed him a shy smile.

Anabelle Gage gave Samuel a nervous look out of the corner of her eye, shivering and hunched over, grey veins bulging in her wrists.  She had been his first real enemy in the field.  A frightening one, though he’d kept his cool throughout, even as she’d tricked him into chopping off Eliya’s hands, as she blew out his knee with a shotgun.

Feels like a century ago.  Though it had happened less than a year before.

And Nell.  The girl in the boy’s body, clutching his briefcase, avoiding his gaze, water dripping from her brown hair and her suit.  I’ve failed you in so many ways.  But he’d tried to cope, to deal with the loss and move on with the rest of his life.

Seeing her again just twisted the knife.  And she slipped a message into my pocket.

Nell glared at Tasia, dissecting her old body’s inhabitant with her eyes.  Tasia stared at her feet.

The van bumped, going over an uneven road.  The old bombmaker spoke up.  “I’m Jun Kuang,” he said.  “You probably know that already, if you read the news.”  He smiled at them.  “I know the circumstances are weird, but, uh, thanks for saving us!  Let’s do our best to keep the people here safe.  It’s nice to meet you all!”  He extended his hand out to Eliya, to shake.

Eliya didn’t shake his hand.  No one replied, and an uncomfortable silence descended over the van, as the raindrops stopped overhead.

The van drove over a bump, then up some sort of ramp at an angle.  Where are we going?  The vehicle stopped, and the entire thing bobbed up and down.  We’re on a boat, Samuel realized.

“So,” said Jun.  “Does anyone know any good jokes?”

Leizu coughed.  “What do you call someone who never wins at Shenti board games?”  She waved her hands.  “A Jao-Loser!”

Silence.

Then Jun guffawed, doubling over with laughter.  When nobody joined him, he trailed off into a nervous chuckle.

“I have one,” said Eliya.  “What’s shriveled, ugly, and blew out my eye, chopped off my hands, and shot my favorite teacher in the pancreas?”  She looked at Kuang, Gage, and Kahlin in order with her single eye.

Jun stroked his beard.  “I don’t get it.”

“Easy, Eliya,” said Leizu.

“That was a pretty shallow dig,” said Hira.  “But I’m not surprised.”  She leaned back, closing her eyes.  “Since you have no depth perception.”

Eliya stood up, lunging at her, and Leizu held her back with a hand.  “I’d make you piss yourself,” she said.  “But it could be a long ride, and I don’t want the van to smell.”

“Sorry for my temper, your ladyship,” said Hira.  “I’m half on my period, and the other half hasn’t smoked for five hours.  Makes it hard to cope with your loyalist death mobs.  Or tolerate whaleshit attacking my friends.”

Two bodies? thought Samuel.  That can’t be possible.

“Adam Lynde was my friend,” said Eliya.  “And you blew off his leg with a shotgun.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “Really missing my hookah.”

“Fuck you,” hissed Eliya.  “And fuck your hookah.  I hope you get lung cancer and die.”

“Me too!” snapped Hira.

“What?”

One more hour in here, and we’ll all murder each other.  Or worse, Leizu might make a second joke.

“Don’t worry,” said Leizu, to the bombmaker.  One Shenti speaking to another.  “Paragon isn’t going to abandon its citizens.”  Its Shenti citizens.  She smiled, though her eyes looked less certain.

Nell – the real Nell – opened her mouth to say something, holding up a hand.

Before she could speak, the boat jerked, coming to a stop.  The back doors flew open, letting in flat grey light.  Oakes stood on the deck of the ship, and motioned to them.  “This way, chaps.”

He led Queen Sulphur and Chimera Squad out of the van, onto the back of a coast guard ship.  They walked down a ramp, and Samuel recognized his surroundings in an instant.

Bartolet Naval Base.  Concrete landing strips crisscrossed the ground ahead of them.  Battleships, destroyers, and fueling ships stretched down the shore of the island, into the distance.  A pair of zeppelins sat at the far end of the runway.

A massive grey aircraft carrier towered over the rest.  The CNS Rhona.  Admiral Ebbridge’s flagship.  Sailors and mechanics ran in and out.  Trucks drove around the airfield, carrying crates of equipment, and soldiers jogged in regimented lines over the damp asphalt.  The moisture from the rain hung in the air, like another storm was about to start.

Samuel glanced behind him.  The ships blocked his view of Elmidde and the mainland, but the capitol, and Mount Elwar stood only a few kilometers to the west.

Ahead, a dense forest covered the far half of the island, past the end of the naval base.  It reminded Samuel of the forest near the top of Mount Elwar, surrounding Elmidde’s cable car station.  A piece of untouched nature, surrounded by grey industry.

Oakes indicated his head, and the Chimeras all jogged forward, making a line behind the professor.  Queen Sulphur followed their lead, despite their lack of military training.

Every few seconds, Samuel glanced back, making sure the mercs weren’t running away somewhere.  It made for an odd sight, the five of them running with their hands cuffed.

As they ran through the base, others ran alongside them  Men and women decked out in the latest combat armor, wearing the blue cloaks of Guardians.  

Professor Tuft – Harpy – leading Ralph Corbiere and Cyclops Squad.  Lady Olwen, accompanied by Sphinx Squad and a pair of Guardians Samuel didn’t recognize.

And across the grass, to Samuel’s left, on a different runway, a boy with pitch-black hair led a squad of other students to the same location.  Lorne Daventry.  With Deon, Naruhiko, and Matilla Geffray.  Wearing an identical body, but without the broken nose Samuel had given him.

To Samuel’s right, the Symphony Knight, Lorne’s mother, sat on top of a crate and strapped on a suit of heavy plate mail.  She tightened her arm guard, clenching her teeth.

Professor Oakes guided the Chimeras and Sulphurs into a domed building, through a wide set of double doors.  As they passed the entrance, a woman checked their subconscious passwords and security questions, her voice whispering the questions.  Then she posed a series of riddles to Queen Sulphur, one by one, and shined a flashlight into their pupils as they answered.  Some bizarre identity check.

Samuel pushed in through a thick crowd of Guardians, all gathered around the outside of the room.  In the process, Leizu and the bombmaker, Kuang, got a few hostile glares.  A circular platform had been raised in the center of the room, a stage for important generals and officers to stand and give orders from.

Higher-level Guardians stood there, including General Benthey, Admiral Ebbridge, and the old man himself.  Headmaster Tau, leaning against Lord Fabyan’s shoulder with a bemused expression frozen on his face.  Professor Oakes leapt out of the crowd and landed on the platform, joining them.  The Symphony Knight climbed up next to him, slow under the weight of her armor.

A narrow tower stretched out of the center of the platform, with a perch up top like a crow’s nest on a ship.

Samuel glanced back, as the doors swung shut behind them.  We were the last to arrive.

Admiral Ebbridge floated to the top of the crow’s nest and snapped her fingers.  The bustling noise in the room fell silent, and the domed ceiling lit up.  Guardians at the edges of the room pressed their palms together, and different colors of paint shifted, sealed in by a narrow glass wall.

The paint morphed, forming a giant map of Elmidde and the area surrounding Mount Elwar.  Midtown, Lowtown, and Hightown were marked with labels.  Meteor Bay and the outer islands too, surrounded by deep blue water.  Paragon Academy stood separate from the rest, a collection of multicolored shapes floating above Mount Elwar.

Nell moved around, shifting her head from side to side, trying to get a view of her mother.  She stared up at her with eager eyes.  She’s never going to welcome you back, thought Samuel.  Best to realize that now and get it over with.

“Thanks to the recent broadcast on Verity,” shouted the admiral.  “Public opinion has shifted!  Only a hair, but it’s growing.  Commonplace’s false image has shattered, and our most loyal supporters have rallied as one!”

Dozens of students and Guardians turned their heads, staring at the members of Queen Sulphur.  The foreigners didn’t seem to mind, but Gage shrunk from the attention.  Nell stood at attention, taking a dignified posture in her pimply male body, as if she’d never been Ousted.

“Early this morning,” said the Admiral.  “Parliament traveled to Paragon for security, and conducted a vote in secret.  With a narrow majority, they’ve authorized us to take broad military action against Commonplace and the mob.”

How about that?  Some of the Humdrums had finally come around.  They’d been tying up Guardians with red tape and bloated regulations for a decade.  But when it counted, they knew, deep down, what every student at Paragon knew.  We are the only thing that stands between them and chaos.

“Commonplace and the mob are diffuse groups,” said Ebbridge.  “They hide in the shadows, operate through proxies and cells, move their bases of operations around and keep low-level soldiers in the dark.  We have had difficulty pinpointing their leaders and critical points of failure.”  A smile spread across her face.  “Thanks to the work of Guardians around the country, we can now.”

Guardians around the country?  That had to be a fake cover for the real source of the intel.  How had Paragon found out so much about the enemy?

She clapped her hands, and red circles appeared on the map overhead, around at least a dozen places in Elmidde.  The crowd murmured, staring up at the dome.

“We’re going to wipe out Commonplace,” she said.  “We’re going to snuff out the Pyre Witch.  And we’re going to do it today.”

Today?  That was insane.  Go on the attack while popular opinion was just starting to shift, while half the city was on fire?  This had to be the worst possible time.

No, dummy, Nell’s voice said in the back of his head.  It’s the perfect time.  The enemy thinks we’re swamped, and they don’t know about the vote yet.  Or that so many of their critical locations had been exposed.

The entire room broke out into applause.  Samuel joined them, with the rest of Chimera Squad.  Among Queen Sulphur, only Nell clapped.

“In one hour,” said Ebbridge.  “We will hit these locations in unison.  There will undoubtedly be heavy resistance.  And if any of us finds one of the key figures in Commonplace, you are to radio the other teams, and keep them from escaping.“  Pictures appeared on the map, some precise, some little more than a sketch.  “Their leader, a Humdrum wearing an aged Maxine Clive chassis.  Or Grace Acworth, or Afzal Kahlin, or the enemy’s Shenti liaison, who goes by the moniker ‘Pictogram’.”

Jun Kuang, the bombmaker, raised a wrinkled hand, sticking out of the throng.  “Excuse me.  What about the street violence?  And the mobs on Gestalt Island?”  The Shenti slums.

Murmurs of discomfort drifted through the air.  People stared at him, in confusion or irritation.  Anabelle Gage stared at the ground, frozen in place like a statue.

“Gestalt Island is not our priority,” said Admiral Ebbridge.  “Let’s move on.”

Admiral Ebbridge described the teams, and the locations they’d been assigned, along with details of how to reach their targets without being seen, and how to counter the most likely resistance.

Then, she finished.  “The nation, the people, the light.

The crowd applauded again, and split into groups.  Chimera Squad walked to the far end of the room, where the Symphony Knight was gathering her team.  Samuel hung at the back, away from their gazes.


He glanced over at Nell.  She stood next to the platform, looking up.

She was talking with Admiral Ebbridge.  How is that legal?  Her left hand folded a piece of origami – a fidget, getting faster and faster.  But the look in her eyes wasn’t fear, or discomfort, but excitement.  Samuel caught the words “Kahlin” and “debt”.  They’re talking about the money the Ebbridges owe to the Broadcast King.

While Chimera Squad looked away from him, Samuel pulled the bloody piece of paper from his pocket, and read Nell’s message out of the corner of his eye.  It’s conjecture.  A false hope.  But was it possible now?  Was it possible?

He read the paper again.

It was all my fault
But I’m fixing it, too

And I’m coming home

Samuel thought about it.

He didn’t smile.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




10-B The Wrong Side of History

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

The guards dropped onto the lawn, twitching, as Hira’s electricity ran through their nerves.

Wes and I broke from the line of manicured bushes, sprinting up the hill through the darkness.  We knelt next to the guards and injected syringes of tranquilizer into their necks.  They went limp.

“This,” said Wes under his breath.  “Is either the best idea you’ve ever had, or the dumbest mistake in our lifetimes.”  His black ski mask muffled his voice.

“That’s every mission we’ve done,” said the masked Left-Hira, dragging a guard behind a dark bush, away from the lights on the mansion’s front gate.  “I joined Queen Sulphur because you guys were fun, not because of your good judgment.”

Jun walked up and fiddled with the gate lock, jamming a pair of lockpicks in.  “I thought you joined to protect yourself from the Broadcast King.”  After a few seconds, the gate swung open.

“True,” said Right-Hira.  “But I never would have considered it if you people were the boring careful type.”

We all jogged forward through the mansion’s sparse grounds, staying in the shadows, avoiding pools of light.  No fountains or canals, no giant sculptures or topiaries.  Restrained, for a woman worth over a hundred million pounds.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine.”  Jun sat down and leaned against the front door.  “We made it this far, didn’t we?”  He crossed his legs and closed his eyes, taking deep, slow breaths.  Green and purple lightning flickered around him.

While he worked, the rest of us sat on the grass, projecting out the dew to make a dry circle.  I stared up at the night sky, and the twin crescent moons overhead.

“Are you sure about this?” whispered Hira.  “Are you sure it was the Pyre Witch who sold you your body?”

“Of course,” I hissed, rubbing my arms as I shivered.  “My pattern-matching vocation confirmed that she used the same type of shell company and anonymous trust layering as Sapphire Industrial.  The vocation doesn’t make mistakes.”

But others did use shell companies, not just the mob.  What if they were using the same techniques, too?

No.  The timing was too perfect.  It had to be Tunnel Vision.  Who else would be running a scam like that in the Principality?  Only organized crime.

“Hanging out with you is fucking weird,” said Hira.  “I never know whether you’re a genius or the biggest idiot in the world.”

“I believe her,” said Wes.

“Let’s just focus on the mission,” I said.  I can stress about this later.

“Even if this works,” whispered Wes.  “It won’t be admissible in a court of law.”

“No,” I muttered.  “It’ll be better.”

“And the idiot Humdrums might not believe you.”

“I’m sure many of them won’t,” I said.  And they’re not all idiots.

“And after we do this, everyone is going to try and kill us,” said Wes.

“Weren’t they already doing that?” said Hira.

“Everyone is going to try and kill us more,” said Wes.

“Maybe,” I said.  There were a lot of unknowns.  But a day ago, I’d come this close to committing suicide with a plan, so this was a step up.

“To be honest,” said Hira.  “I’m surprised that no one has tried this idea before.”

“That’s good for us, right?” said Wes.  “It means we’re intrepid trailblazers.”

“Or,” said Left-Hira.  “We’re dumb fucks who can’t see the obvious pitfalls.”  She finished assembling my machine pistol, and loaded our one Voidsteel bullet into the side chamber.  Miraculously, it fit.  With projection, I could load the Voidsteel into the main chamber at any time and fire it.

Hira dropped the gun into my shaking hand, and nodded at me.

Is it shaking because of decay?  Or was it my fear again?  My stomach was aching too.  Is this a good plan?  My shoulders tightened, and I forced myself to take slow, patient breaths.

Jun stood up.  “The alarm system is down.  That was fun!”  His eyes lit up.  “The power operated on a redundant system that kicked in when one source was cut, which meant I needed to use a pattern of alterations to avoid the loop creating a – “

“Jun,” said Wes.  “We don’t have engineering degrees.”

“Right,” he said.  “Sorry.  I cut the phone lines, too, and locked the front gate.”  He pushed open the door, beckoning us in.

I held up my machine pistol and cattle prod, and moved in.

We walked through the dark house, our footsteps quiet on the smooth wooden floors.  Moonlight streamed in through floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating vast, open rooms filled with plush couches, television sets, and piles of uneaten snack food, with a dead fireplace in the corner of the room.

A chocolate fountain burbled on a marble countertop.  Some people have too much money.  

Left-Hira scooped up a handful of chocolate and poured it in her mouth.  Her right body did the same.  She wiped her hands on her pant legs and checked the cable launchers attached to her arms.  Wes unlatched his briefcase.

Then Hira held up her fist and knelt.  Stop.

We stopped, taking cover in the shadows.

Footsteps clunked on the wood floor, and a pair of guards walked past us, carrying pistols and muttering about something.

Hira made a motion, ran up with her two bodies, and grabbed the guards’ necks, shocking them.  She lowered them to the ground, and we injected them with tranquilizer.

At the far end of the living room, down a staircase, another pair of guards stood on a balcony, overlooking a swimming pool lower on the hillside.

And beyond them, we saw a spectacular view.  On the other side of Meteor Bay, the lights of Elmidde spread out before us, a carpet of lights wrapping around Mount Elwar, dwarfed only by the glow of Paragon high above.  A group of clouds surrounded the floating islands, lit up blue and red and green by the lights of the academy, glowing in the sky.

Hira signaled to us.  Jun projected forward and slid open the door, making a soft scraping noise.

The guards at the balcony turned around, and Left-Hira shot the cables forward from the tops of her wrists, grabbing onto one end and touching the other end to the guards’ necks.  Electricity ran through them, and the guards dropped to the ground with two loud thuds, twitching.

Wes and I ran forward.  Two more injections.

Footsteps rang out from the staircase below.  “Someone heard the commotion,” I hissed.  “We – “

Another guard clambered up the stairs, aiming his shotgun at us.

Wes jabbed his hand forward, and a blanket shot off the couch, wrapping around the guard’s head, muffling his shouts as it shook him back and forth.  The Humdrum pulled the trigger of his weapon, but it didn’t fire.  Hira’s jamming it.

Right-Hira, closest to the stairway, sprinted forward and grabbed the guard’s wrist, shocking him, then injecting him with the knockout drugs.

The guard slumped to the ground, and I exhaled.

“How many guards did you say she had?” said Wes.

“Eight,” said Hira.  From our last stakeout.  “And her red-hot boyfriend’s out of town.”

I did a quick count in my head.  “We’ve taken out seven.”  I glanced around.  “Where’s the last one?”

A soft splash rang out in the distance.

Then the house shook.  The floor to ceiling windows shattered, and a flower vase fell off a shelf, breaking into pieces.

A thick tentacle of water reached up from below the balcony.  The tip of it narrowed into an icy blade, and it stabbed forward at me.  I leapt to the side, and the tentacle punched into the floor, sinking a foot deep.

As I clambered away, I caught a whiff of chlorine.  Water from the swimming pool.

Our target had hired a projector.

The tentacle bulged, pulling up something from below.  A huge mass heaved itself over the balcony, and thudded onto the floor of the living room.

It resembled a giant octopus, made of dozens of ice-tipped water tentacles, all converging at a sphere in the middle.  A short-haired woman floated in the middle of the sphere, breathing from an oxygen tank.

I aimed my pistol and squeezed the trigger.  The gun kicked back, firing a suppressed burst at the projector.  Hira fired at it with her black trench shotgun and sniper rifle.

The bullets made white streams of bubbles in the water, curving around the projector.  An ABD.

I had to stop myself from throwing an illusion on her.  Lorne’s still got the tracer on you.  I could shoot her with my one Voidsteel bullet, but it’d be hard to recover and I wanted to save it.  Besides, we were trying to avoid killing anyone.

The tentacles lashed out, cleaving the coffee table in two.  We dashed out of the way, and Wes shot paper out of his briefcase, forming walls in front of the woman’s vision.  Jun floated the unconscious guards’ guns over to him, breaking them down into parts.

The tentacles swung blindly, tearing through the paper, smashing couches, and ripping through columns.  We ran back to the far end of the room, keeping our distance.

One of the tentacles stabbed a marble wall and got stuck, trying to pull itself out.  Hira jumped over a broken chair and touched the tentacle with one of her cables, electricity running through her palms.

Nothing.  The woman didn’t react.  The water yanked the cable out of Hira’s grasp, and Hira leapt back, sprinting with us to another room.  The water must be insulating her somehow.  And Hira couldn’t penetrate it with her weak cable launchers.

We ran.  The water-octopus dragged itself towards us, smashing through walls and doorways.  I gasped, out of breath almost instantly.

“Your cables!” shouted Jun.  The gun parts floated in front of him, crackling with green lightning, and a piece of the kitchen faucet broke off, adding itself to his contraption.

Hira tossed him her remaining cable with her wrist launcher, and he grabbed it, working it into the storm of lightning and metal before him.

“Why are we always running?” shouted Wes.  “Are all mercenaries just cowards?”

“We’re not mercenaries,” said Jun, panting as he assembled his machine.  “We’re unemployed.  We should file for assistance.”

“Shut the fuck up and run,” said both Hiras, throwing debris at the water-monster behind us to slow it down.

One of the tentacles whipped forward and slammed into my back, flinging me forward.  I crashed next to the stone fireplace, and something snapped in my shoulder, sending stabbing pain throughout my torso.  Dislocated?

I tried to stand up, and the pain tripled, forcing me back to a sitting position as I wheezed for breath.

“Help her!” shouted Wes.

Hira’s bodies grabbed me, and ran towards one of the living room’s exits.  A tentacle smashed the doorway, blocking it with a pile of rubble.  The projector did the same to the other exit, covering our last escape with her water monster.

Cornering us.

“Cover!” shouted Hira.  Wes exploded his paper barriers, shooting them all at the sphere of water, distracting the projector.

Jun grabbed a poker from the fireplace, broke off the handle, and dropped it in the gun he’d assembled, as he tossed it to Hira.

As the woman tore through the last barrier, Right-Hira grabbed the makeshift gun, spun around, and fired.

The poker punched through the water sphere, stabbing the woman’s calf.  Hira’s cable connected it to Jun’s weapon.  A harpoon.

Hira grabbed the cable, and electricity crackled through it.  The water-monster dissolved, splashing onto the floor.  The woman collapsed, twitching.  Wes staggered forward, pulled out a syringe, and injected her in the neck.  She fell unconscious.

An instant later, all three gathered around me, inspecting my shoulder.

“Are you alright?” said Wes.  “I mean, apart from your impending death and all the people trying to murder us.”

“Your shoulder is dislocated,” said Jun.

“You can pop it back in, right?” I said.  “You just have to – “

Something wrenched my arm around, and another wave of pain exploded in my shoulder.

“Ow!”  I grimaced.

“Done,” said Hira.  “Put a splint on it later, let’s get going.”

I stood up, able to move again, but the pain didn’t fade, a throbbing ache that refused to go away.  Is that going to heal right?

“That’s eight,” said Hira.

________________________________________

We found the target at the front gate, trying and failing to climb out.  A tall blonde woman in a frilly nightgown, dark circles under her eyes, armpits soaked with sweat.  The famous star of a radio show, Verity.

“Christea Ronaveda,” Wes called out.

She turned to face us.  “Scholars,” she said.  “Not more fans.  Do you want an autograph, nude photographs, or my severed head on a platter?”  Her nose wrinkled.  “All three?”

“The first one,” said Wes.

“No,” I said, stepping in.  “No, none of those.  Let’s go back inside.”

“You know,” said Christea Ronaveda.  “Rich people store most of their assets in abstract stocks and real estate.  If you want to make money, you should rob casinos or armored trucks.”  We pushed her back towards the house.  “Or chain restaurants,” she said.  “They have loads of cash on hand and none of the employees care enough to stop you.”

“Quiet,” I said, shoving her, trying to sound scary.  She talks even more than Wes.

We went back inside, stepping over piles of rubble, glass shards, and shredded pieces of furniture, and passing unconscious guards in the corridors.  The chocolate fountain in the kitchen had been knocked over, and a pool of fondue spread across the floor, seeping into a carpet.  

In other places, water from the swimming pool soaked into the floor, dripping down staircases, filling the whole house with the stench of chlorine.

Ronaveda sighed at the damage, and stared at the spilled chocolate.  “Ants,” she muttered.  “Not more ants.”

Hira pushed Ronaveda out a doorway and down a path, to the edge of her empty swimming pool, overlooking the glimmering lights of the city.  She forced the celebrity to a sitting position.

“A few questions,” I said.  “About your Vocation.”

“Sure,” Ronaveda said.  “If you kill me, please make it fast and let me take some painkillers first.”

“First,” I said.  “Why did Paragon ban you from using your truth aura in court?”

“Due to a combination of incompetence and laziness,” said Ronaveda.  “I’ve been unable to write a Vocation Codex.  As a result, I can’t share my Vocation with anyone.  Paragon said they didn’t want this country’s legal system to become dependent on a single mortal woman.”  She shrugged.  “That’s what they said, at least.”

“And what do you think?”

“They’re afraid,” she said.  “Guardians and Epistocrats stay off my show because they’ve got dirty laundry.  Why go on a show when they’re forced to tell the truth?”

“Second,” I said.  “How does your Vocation interact with other Praxis and Whisper Vocations?”

“If your mind’s been altered a fuckload,” said Ronaveda, “the truth aura won’t work normally.  You’ll freeze up, stutter.  It’ll be difficult for you to communicate anything at all.  Skill-stitching’s the only real exception.”

I glanced at Hira out of the corner of my eye.

“In the early days of Verity,” Ronaveda said, “people tried to Nudge guests beforehand, or encrypt their memories before going onto my show.  It never worked.  To my knowledge, it’s impossible to use mental projection to lie under my aura.  You have to believe you’re telling the truth.  Only genuine delusion would work.”

I nodded.  “Third.  If someone makes a promise under your Vocation, are they bound to keep it?”

Ronaveda shook her head.  “You can’t lie about your intentions, but your intentions can change.  For example, if you swear to quit drinking, then find out that your high school bully has become a CEO with ten times your salary, that might make you down a few shots.”

“Sorry,” said Jun.  “If that really happened to you.”

“That being said,” she added.  “If you make a promise under my Vocation, someone can ask you what might change your mind, and how likely you are to keep your word.”

Excellent.  Then we could move forward.

I pointed to Left-Hira.  “Use your Vocation on her.”

Christea Ronaveda nodded, and blue and purple lightning crackled around her face.  “Done.”  Hira was now unable to tell lies.

Left-Hira knelt next to her, clenching her fist.  “I’m lowering my voice and getting in your personal space so I sound more intimidating,” she said.  “But I’m regretting that now, because your shampoo smells like the fucking tears of the Oversoul and I’m jealous.  Is that sage?”

“Rosemary,” said Ronaveda.

“Where did you buy it?”

“Hey,” said Wes.  “Stop flirting with her and get to the point.”

“Lund pe chadh,” said Hira.

“Takmeel Beauty Lounge,” Ronaveda whispered.

“Thanks,” said Hira.  “Here’s the deal: You have a tape recorder here somewhere, right?”

Ronaveda nodded.

“We’re gonna use it to record something,” said Hira.  “Then, you’re going to promise to play that recording on tomorrow’s Verity show.  And you’ll do everything in your power to play the whole thing.  No stops, no breaks, no cop calls.”

“And if I don’t?” said Ronaveda.

“I’ll k – “  Hira clenched her teeth, struggling to speak under the truth aura.  “No, fuck, I won’t kill you, I like you too much.  And we won’t kill your guards, either.  But I will…shoot both your kneecaps, break your fingers, and then burn down your house.”  She glanced back at the mansion.  “What’s left of it.  Which, all in all, would probably ruin your week.”  Hira projected into a guard’s shotgun, pulling it into her hand.  “So?  How about it?”

“That depends,” said Ronaveda.  “If you’re calling for mass murder, I’ll probably just get the police.  And I can’t stop my producers if they want to cut off my broadcast halfway through.  I’d need to hear your message first.”

“Fair enough,” I said, massaging my shoulder.  “Let’s get the tape recorder.”

________________________________________

First, we moved to a different house.

When Verity aired, we didn’t want to be anywhere near our Commonplace-sympathizing housemates, or anyone else.  Hira had already found an empty basement in a ruined building on the far side of North Island, in a neighborhood even more run-down and empty than the old one.

It took a while to move our few possessions across town, along with a frustrated Cardamom.  We couldn’t use projection in public, and my shoulder was still aching from the mission.

It even took longer to make sure we weren’t being followed.  Wes grumbled about how dirty and cramped it was, but after a few eye-rolls from Hira, he quieted down.

After forcing Ronaveda to record our statement, he’d gotten her to sign her name on a scrap of paper he ripped from one of her books, which technically counted as an autograph. That probably improved his mood too.

By the time we’d settled into the dusty basement and cleared out all the spiders, the sun had sunk past the late afternoon, setting over the horizon.  The clock struck 7:58 – almost time for Verity to air.

The building’s first and second floors had been demolished, so we sat on the rubble above the basement, exposed to the air.

I leaned back on a blanket, staring up at the night sky.  The clouds had vanished, and the twin moons shone down on us, two perfect orbs in the darkness.

Cardamom sat on my lap, purring.  The rest of Queen Sulphur leaned back with me, and Jun tuned the makeshift radio he’d built.  “ – presents, Verity, with Christea Ronaveda!

Jun twisted the dials, editing out the static.  “Good evening,” said Christea Ronaveda.  “I mean that as a generic sort of greeting.  It’s not actually a good evening.  My chocolate fountain got trashed, ants are swarming over my house, and also the world is ending.  Though for once, it wasn’t my fault.

Now, the critical moment.  Whether our efforts would pay off or not.

We’re changing things up this evening.  I’ve asked my producers to let me play this audio clip on air, and they’ve agreed not to cut me off or take it away from me or tackle me to the floor.”  She cleared her throat.  “When it’s over, I’ll let you know what I think.  But for now, I’ll stop being cryptic and let the recording speak for itself.

A click rang out from the radio, the tape recorder starting.  “My name is Anabelle Gage.

I winced as I heard my voice.  Even after the work I’d done on it, it still sounded weird played back to me.  And I could hear the hesitation in my voice, the fear.

I failed three times to get into Paragon Academy.  I became a mercenary for them, then a fugitive, when I was discovered.”  The recording took a deep breath.  “My body is decaying.  I’m probably going to die in the next few months.  But before I do, I’d like to do my part.  I’ve done so many things I regret.  I’d like to leave behind something good.

They hadn’t taken the show off the air yet, or stopped the recording.  So far, so good.

I’m saying this under the truth aura of Christea Ronaveda.  She can testify to this.”  The recording paused, and silence hung in the air.  “Commonplace is lying to the Principality.  It’s conspiring with the mob, the Pyre Witch, and Afzal Kahlin to overthrow our government.  It scammed innocents with defective bodies, preying on their hopes and letting them rot away.”  Pain slipped into my voice.  “It freed Lyna Wethers from prison, unleashing her on hundreds of innocents so she could make Paragon look bad.  And it accepts billions in military equipment from its real backer: Shenti Warlords.  The foreign monsters who almost destroyed this world are now conspiring to break our nation from within.

That was the strongest bit.  The mob, Wethers, scams – those were all bad, but after the war, Principians hated the Shenti more than the rest of them combined.

I don’t believe this,” the recording said.  “I know this.  I’ve been on Attlelan Island, where they ship their weapons.  I’ve watched Lyna Wethers’ victims crawl over each other’s corpses, blind and mute..”  My voice slowed.  “For the last decade of my life, I’ve been scared almost every day.  Scared of dying, of failing, of losing my identity and being trapped in this withering corpse.  I carry that fear in my Pith.  When I drag myself out of bed in the morning.  When I drift through the ruins of my life.  When I force myself to fall asleep.

A cool breeze blew over my face, and I closed my eyes.  Millions of people are listening to this.  It made me want to run back to the basement, hide under a table, and throw up.

But these monsters scare me more than anything else.”  The recording raised its voice.  “So, to the citizens of the Principality.  If you believe in order.  If you still love this nation, despite its flaws.  If you still believe in magic.  I ask you to fight.  Beat back the Shenti, and their puppets.  Take back the Principality.

A pause, then –

The choice is yours.  It always was.

The radio clicked.  The recording ended.

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, and sat up on the blanket, gazing at the dark street around me.

Wes stepped forward and hugged me.  I hugged him back.  Behind him, both Hiras nodded at me.  Jun stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact.

Ronaveda continued.  “So, this ‘Anabelle Gage’ and her friends broke into my house last night and forced me to record this while I used my truth Vocation on her.  They knocked out my guards, threatened me, and wrecked half my house, but, to my surprise, I think I believe what they –

Jun clicked off the radio.  “We won’t see the results until later, so until then, may I suggest we get some sleep?”  He stepped down the staircase, back into the basement.

Hira shrugged with both bodies.  “Not like there’s anything else to do in this dump.”  She walked down after Jun.  Cardamom stood up and padded after them.  I scratched between his ears as he left.

And then it was just me and Wes.

Wes leaned back against a broken wall, gazing up at the sky.  “You know, all those months ago, just before we first met – “

“Half a lifetime ago,” I said.

Wes nodded.  “I never told anyone this, but I made a choice.  I was standing on North Bridge, looking up at Florence Tuft flying with her students in that fighter plane.”

Crooked Talon,” I said.

“I could have moved in with Leo.  Accepted a quiet Humdrum’s life.  But I saw her, and I wanted to fly.  I wanted to fly.”  He chuckled.  “The more time passed, the more ridiculous that seemed.  A dumb, impossible fantasy.”  He turned to me, his eyes filled with excitement.  “Not anymore.”

I nodded.  In my speech, I’d mentioned Afzal Kahlin – connected him to the mob, Commonplace, and most importantly, the Shenti.  It wouldn’t be legal evidence, but if it turned public opinion enough, it might help bring action against the Broadcast King, wipe out the Ebbridge’s debt, earn favor from his mother.

It was a long shot, but Wes might get to go home.  And if everything went well, I might get a pardon.

At Tasia’s expense, a voice whispered at the back of my head.

“I’ve hurt you in the past.”  Wes made eye contact with me.  “I’ve used you, betrayed your trust.  I can’t blame my parents for that, or make excuses for it, or pretend that hating myself is enough.  I chose this.”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t have to forgive me.  But we have a chance now, thanks to you.  A real chance, to get back our futures, to write the next page and drink that mulled cider together and forge the stars in our images.”  He extended his arm to me again.  “Sacrifice isn’t radical.  Not for people like us.  Let’s live, Anabelle Gage.”

I clasped his arm.  The moons shone down on us, lighting up our faces.

For a moment, I let myself believe in his giddy optimism.  For a moment, everything felt real.

“Let’s live,” I said.

________________________________________

Wes offered to play a game of Jao Lu to ease the tension, but I was too exhausted.  So he and I crawled back into the basement, and for once, I got a good night’s sleep.  Even amidst the dust and filth, I closed my eyes, and drifted off with a lingering sense of peace.

When I woke, the city was in chaos.

Wes shook me awake, and my eyes fluttered open.  Water dripped through holes in the wood ceiling, and rain poured down outside.

Dim, grey light streamed in through the staircase, with a steady trickle of water.  My head throbbed, and my eyes stung, matched by a stomachache swelling in my belly and nausea building in my throat.

“Come on,” he said, pulling me out of bed.

Jun and Hira huddled at the far corner of the basement, leaning close to a radio with the volume turned down, water dripping over their heads.  Hira puffed on her purple hookah, filling the damp air with cherry-scented smoke.  Cardamom sat on the other side of the room, avoiding the smell.

I trudged over to them, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.  Hira twisted the knob, turning up the volume.

– have started using pepper gas at the protestors gathered around Paragon Academy’s cable car station.  The Guardians Charles Hou and Isaac Brin have been spotted patrolling the streets of Hightown, and the prime minister has called for peace and open dialogue.

“What the fuck,” I said.  “Happened while I was out?”

Hira beckoned to the radio.

I listened for a few minutes, as Jun flipped between frequencies, and the rest of Queen Sulphur filled in the blanks.

The morning after Verity aired, Commonplace had gathered outside the radio station where the show got recorded.  They’d screamed slogans and brandished signs, calling for Christea Ronaveda to be taken off the air, and for me to be hunted down and arrested.

Anabelle Gage.  People kept saying my name, speculating about my identity, my crimes, my connections to Paragon.  Anabelle Gage, Anabelle Gage.  I don’t think I’d ever heard my name that many times.

Thanks to my speech, thousands of loyalist counter-protestors had shown up against Commonplace, defending Verity with makeshift weapons and battle lines, speaking on the side of the Epistocracy and tradition.

The Midtown Post said it was the loyalists who got violent first, the people on our side.  But Oracle Media Group, and Afzal Kahlin owned the Post.  Other radio shows disagreed, stating that Commonplace had thrown the first punches, dragged a patriot out of the crowd and beat him up.

Now, the police had stepped in to restore order against Commonplace, and the rioting had spread to dozens of locations around Elmidde, including Gestalt Island, a slum filled with Shenti immigrants.  The poorest places are going to get the hardest.

Christea Ronaveda had vanished, unable to be found in her house or studio or any of her usual spots.  Most people speculated that she’d fled the country, like she’d promised earlier.  I couldn’t blame her.

Or she’s dead, a voice whispered at the back of my mind.  And your words killed her.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “You’ve outdone yourself, Ana.  For a neurotic bunny rabbit, you sure have an eye for chaos.  I think half the city might be on fire this time.”

I’m not a rabbit, I thought.  I’m a caterpillar.  And right now, all the wasps and spiders were descending, ready to pluck me off my leaf.

Jun stared at the radio, his eyes wide.  “Please, don’t joke about this.  Protestors have died already.”

I looked at Wes.  “Have they talked about the Broadcast King at all?”

Wes nodded, his eyes lighting up.  “Constantly.  The Oracle-owned radio shows are practically at war with all the rest.  Another pair of riots have broken out around Oracle’s headquarters and the Kesteven Building, where Kahlin’s penthouse is.”

Hira grinned.  “Dad’s probably cowering in his zeppelin, screaming into his pillow and trying to figure out how to control this narrative.”

The radio show continued, and started accepting callers.

We have an Aelric from East Lowtown.  You’re live, Aelric.

Hi,” said Aelric.  “I just want to ask.  Who is this Anabelle Gage, this girl who broke into a house, shot a poker through the leg of a guard, attacked and threatened an innocent woman?  It doesn’t matter if she was under a truth aura.  That kind of person – that kind of person lives with a lot of delusions.  Why should we pay attention to her violent crackpot manifesto?

Thank you, Aelric,” said the host.  “Next, we have Joy Gonfrey, from Shelworth.  Good afternoon, Joy.

I don’t believe her,” she said.  “I don’t believe that violent creature, and I don’t believe the stuck-up celebrity she held hostage either.  Commonplace protects Humdrums, ordinary people.  The common foundation.  They would never free a woman like Lyna Wethers.  This Gage person wants to be a Guardian.  Two decades ago, she would have been hijacking people just like the rest of them.  I don’t know how, but Paragon must have orchestrated this with her.”

“Thank you, Joy,” the host said.  “We have Sylvia Redmond, from West Midtown.  Welcome, Sylvia.

Silence.  No one spoke.

Sylvia?  Can you hear us?

The nation, the people, the light,” said Sylvia.  “I don’t care who she is.  I don’t care what she’s done.”  Her voice grew cold.  “There are Eastern dogs, choking our nation from within.  And they need to be put down.

The radio clicked, the sound of the woman hanging up.  Jun flicked his wrist, and the radio turned off.

Everyone looked at Jun.  He sagged against the corner of the wall, the energy draining out of him.  His white hair fell over his face.

Sylvia isn’t alone.

“I think,” he said.  “That I should be careful showing my face in public.  Or talking with this Shenti accent.”

I’ve started something.  The most aggressive loyalists wouldn’t know about Jun’s past, or his kind heart.  They’d just see the vicious foreigner, a ghost from an old war, tearing their nation apart.

An image I’d painted for them.

Scholars.  My stomach clenched.  I hunched over.  “I’m sorry,” I said to Jun.  “I’m so sorry.”

Jun turned away from me, closing his eyes.  I deserve worse.

“What do we do now?” said Wes.

I stepped back, dizzy.  No, no, no.  The original plan was to wait for an olive branch from Paragon, some sort of reward for the huge blow we’d dealt to Commonplace – maybe even a Pardon.  But now, the city was burning.  The country, too, in cities around the Principality.

What was going to happen to the Shenti people in this city now?

What the fuck did I do?

You know what you’ve done, whispered a voice in my mind.  Maxine Clive’s voice.  Judging.  Repulsed.  You’re still their loyal butcher, Anabelle Gage.  And you always will be.

And now, I’d put Jun at risk, too.  My friend, my ally.

Hira turned on the radio again.  “Two more riots have broken out, in Southern Lowtown and North Island.”  That was where we were.  “Law enforcement is stretched thin across the city, and have only been able to send a few riot police to the area.  If you’re in Southern Lowtown or North Island, please stay indoors.

Don’t whine.  Don’t feel sorry for yourself.  I had to do something.

“Jun knows medicine,” I said.  “Hira can too.”  I looked at the members of Queen Sulphur one by one.  “Wes has his paper.”  I walked across the room and pulled my stun baton out of my bag.  “Let’s get to work.”

________________________________________

We ran into a storm.

I’d heard about riots like this before, and witnessed the outskirts of a few.  Commonplace had been stirring up trouble for years, and since I formed Queen Sulphur, it had only escalated.

But I’d never seen one up close.

Rain poured down around us, streaming into gutters and drenching our clothes.  We jogged the street, splashing through ankle-deep puddles, past smashed storefronts and wrecked cars.  Newspaper boxes had been torn, leaving the papers to spill out over the street.  The sound of the mob rang out ahead of us, screaming and shouting in a wave of deafening noise.

Men and women sprinted past us, charging into the fray with masks and weapons, or fleeing in the opposite direction, bruised and bleeding.  Others coughed, or threw up, or sported burns beneath their blackened clothes.

A few gave us odd glances as we passed them by, or glares.  What’s that about?

I could smell rain, and blood, and smoke from fires that hadn’t been doused.  But one scent was missing, a distinct smell I remembered from every riot I’d gotten close to.  Pepper gas.  There was no pepper gas.

The cops weren’t here.

And that meant the Guardians probably weren’t here either.  So we had to act in their place.

Thunder boomed in the sky, and we turned a corner, into the thick of it.

Two huge crowds had gathered in front of a local Commonplace building, screaming, packed shoulder to shoulder.  Commonplace and loyalists.  The people who’d hated my speech, and the ones who loved it.

A car burned on the sidewalk, still going despite the rain.  Dozens of smaller brawls went on away from the main group, throughout the neighboring streets and on the sidewalk.

A Green Hands wrestled a middle-aged man in an alleyway, then got hit by a man from behind.  A pair of loyalists dragged a man out of his front door, threw him on the ground, and started kicking him.  Two small groups on a side street threw punches at each other.

The loyalists are more violent than the Green Hands.  My speech had stirred them up, more than I could have possibly imagined.

You did this.  You did this.

I pulled my mask over my face, patting down my blue combat suit under my ratty clothes.  Jun nodded at me, also wearing a mask.  I’d lost my wigs, and my grey hair gave me a distinct look, so hiding myself was a good option here.  And Jun, of course, was Shenti.

Wes wore his white crane party mask, hiding at least part of his identity.  His light brown hair wasn’t as distinctive as ours.

The four of us jogged around the edge of the crowd, staying out of the dense center.  Ahead of us, a loyalist punched a Green Hands at the front of the crowd, knocking him back.  The man behind him drew a knife.

In response, the Green Hands pulled a pistol out of a holster and cocked it back.

Left-Hira stepped behind him, and the Green Hands twitched, electricity running through his body.  A thin cord of water ran between her hand and his ankle, running along the ground, almost impossible to notice in all the rain.

The pistol clattered on the ground and the trigger snapped off, making it unusable.

Another Commonplace thug with green circle tattoos lit a fire cocktail in a wine bottle.  Wes unclasped his briefcase and shot pieces of paper out of it.  They grabbed the lit scrap of cloth, the fuse, and yanked it out, tossing it into a puddle where it fizzed out.

Another shock from Hira, and the firebomb lady fell to the ground too.

A gunshot rang out from the side, and I spun around.  One of the loyalists held a pistol on a Green Hands in an alleyway.  She fired again at his chest and ran away, vanishing into the rain.

I stared at her go, frozen.  None of us moved to chase after her.

Jun pointed at a pair of men on the far side of the street.  They lay against a wall, blood staining their clothes.  Their chests rose and fell.  They’re still alive.

Left-Hira and Jun and I ran over to them, pushing through the crowd.  Right-Hira and Wes stayed, taking down the most violent Commonplace members without calling attention to themselves.

As we weaved through the mob, more of them gave us odd looks, staring at us as we passed them.  Am I imagining that?

Jun knelt by the first man and pulled bandages and alcohol out of his bag.  The man groaned, and Jun squinted at him.  “Gunshot wound,” he said, his voice calm.  “Lower abdomen.  Hira, help me.”

The bleeding man’s eyes widened.  Hira jogged next to Jun, sticking her hands in her pockets and copying his skills.  Then she knelt next to him, grabbing the bandages.

“How can I help?” I said.

Jun pointed to the other man on the ground.  “Put pressure on his leg.”

I knelt next to the man.  Blood trickled out of a hole in his calf, seeping into a puddle.  He groaned, eyes half-closed, arms hanging limp at his sides.

I pressed on the wound with both my palms, pushing his leg into the ground.  Blood soaked onto my hands, and my muscles burned from the exertion.  My wet clothes stuck to my skin, and a wind blew down the street, making me shiver even more than usual.  Bloody anemia.

My injured shoulder ached from the effort, but I kept pushing.  My chest rose and fell, winded, and I pulled up my mask to breathe easier.

“Thank you,” he mumbled.  He exhaled, and reached up to massage his throat.

A green circle had been tattooed on the back of his hand.  He’s Commonplace.

I hesitated.  Is this a waste of my time?  But without treatment, he might die.

Fuck it.  I kept the pressure up.

Down the street, a dozen Green Hands stared at us through the rain.  I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye.

One of them pointed.  “That’s them!” she shouted.

They charged us, hefting baseball bats and hunting rifles.

Both Hiras darted forward.  The Green Hands aimed the hunting rifles at her and squeezed the triggers.  The guns jammed, not firing.

Wes tossed out a pair of flattened grenades, and a cloud of smoke swallowed the thugs.  He stepped into the cloud, flipping his briefcase open, sheets of paper flying out.  The two Hiras leapt in after him.

Shouts rang out from the smoke.  The sound of fists thudding into flesh, cries of pain, the quiet buzz of Hira’s electricity hands.

A Green Hands fell out of the cloud, collapsing into a puddle.

The smoke cleared, revealing Wes and Hira, standing over a dozen unconscious Green Hands on the ground.

Dozens more people looked at us, both from Commonplace and the loyalists.  Why?  We’d hidden our projection.  We weren’t the only ones fighting on the street.

Jun glanced at a newspaper on the ground, squinting.  He picked it up, shaking the water off.  “Um,” he said.  “Guys?”

He stepped next to me, and I glanced at the front page.  It was the Elmidde Journal, the most popular newspaper in the city.  And owned by Oracle Media Group.  Owned by the Broadcast King.

Paragon Mercenary Group Attacks Radio Host

Our faces had been splayed across the front.  Me, Wes, Jun, Left-Hira.  Four black and white photos, filling the page.  They looked recent, too, including all the precise deformities and repulsive bald spots on my head.  I don’t remember anyone taking my photo.

Anabelle Gage, the caption said.  #516125871-R (née Nell Ebbridge), Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang.

Wes read over my shoulder.  “Oh.”

He published our faces.  The entire country knew what we looked like.  Every Green Hands, every mobster, every angry Humdrum could pick us out of a crowd.

Both Hiras looked away from us, ignoring the newspaper.  “Whatever the fuck that is,” she said.  “It can wait.  We’ve got bigger problems.”

I followed her gaze, squinting through the rain.

A man stood at the far end of the street.  The mob swirled around us, and he flickered in and out of view.  The storm blurred him even further, but I could still make out his basic features:

Tall, broad shoulders, pitch-black hair.  Shenti, and willing to show his face in public.  I know him.

“Pictogram,” breathed Jun.  They found us.

“Move,” said Left-Hira.  She grabbed my hands, yanking them off the Green Hands’ leg.  “Move!”

I projected around Queen Sulphur’s Piths, making an illusion.  Projecting for the first time in months, giving my exact location to Lorne Daventry.  I turned it off and on, sending a message in telegraph code.

Pictogram angled a pistol at the cloudy sky, and fired five shots into the rain.

We ran.

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10-A The Wrong Side of History

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Ana

“Good afternoon,” the woman said.  “I’m Maxine Clive.”  Her misshapen face sagged.  “Please, come inside.”

A million questions swirled inside my head.  But could I trust her answers?  I flipped on my Stone Mask vocation, flattening my body language and microexpressions so she couldn’t read me.  I flipped on my pattern-matcher in my Pith that I’d installed a while back, too, in case she dropped any significant details.  They would exhaust me, but I needed them for this conversation.

“No,” said Wes, staring at her.  “That’s whaleshit.  Maxine Clive is a brand name for tacky Epistocrats like my mother.  Marketing executives made it up to sell bodies.  Why would they ever use a real person’s name?”

“Epistocrats,” said ‘Maxine’, “have a strange sense of humor.”

“Maxine Clive isn’t a person,” Wes raised his voice.  “You’re just wearing some chassis you fiddled with.  This is just some propaganda stunt Afzal Kahlin came up with, to trick Humdrums into following the Pyre Witch.”

“Believe it or not,” said Afzal Kahlin.  “She’s telling the truth.”  The Broadcast King stepped into the entry hall behind Maxine Clive, wearing a set of flowing purple robes.  He waved at Wes, his hand twitching.

Wes clenched his teeth, and didn’t wave back.

“I would have loved to dream up something like this,” said Kahlin.  “But this is far too strange, even for me.  The public doesn’t know about her because they wouldn’t believe it.  They believe that magic cockatoos cause the rain.  They think the Droll Corsairs invented heart disease.”  He pointed at Clive.  “But if we put her on the radio tomorrow, they’d laugh at her.”

Maxine looked away from Kahlin, uncomfortable.

“Please, come in,” said the Broadcast King.  “Max’s brewed a marvelous cup of tea.”

Maxine Clive raised a wrinkled eyebrow.  “You called it ‘shark piss’ five minutes ago.”

“Yes,” he said.  “But that’s how people in this country like it, so I’m sure Mr. Ebbridge won’t mind.”

We stepped in, and walked through what looked like an ordinary house.  We passed walls painted a plain white, flowers in vases, still life paintings of fruit.  Maxine Clive led us into a cozy living room, filled with couches, pillows, and picture frames.  All the frames were empty, the photos removed from them.

In the living room, a limp body sat on a coffee table.  An empty chassis, lifeless and flat.

It was a Maxine Clive.  An original.  Nineteen years old, with the long blonde hair and deep blue eyes I remembered from the first chassis magazine I’d seen, given out for free in my hometown by the representatives of Sapphire Industrial.

The inquisitive joy had lasted until I found out what body my parents had bought.  And I found out what Sapphire had really sold to them.

The Maxine Clive’s eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling like an embalmed corpse.

We sat down at the table, and I squinted behind a pair of fluttering curtains.  Two guards stood at attention just outside the open window, both carrying shotguns.  She acts casual, but her henchmen are still close.  If we made any kind of move, they’d jump on us.

I glanced around the rest of the room, noting the simple furniture, the paintings on the walls.  All ordinary, as far as I could see.  And no Tunnel Vision.  The other three tentpoles of the movement were here – Clive, the Broadcast King, and Pictogram, representing the Shenti backers.  Where is she?

My stomach clenched.  Tunnel Vision is still the most important target.  She’d freed Lyna Wethers, gotten Kaplen killed.  As far as we knew, she was running the whole operation.

Don’t send the signal out yet.  I would wait for the Pyre Witch before sending out my suicide note to Lorne, the message that would almost certainly get me killed.

Maxine Clive poured cups of tea for us.  Neither of us moved to drink.  I adjusted the grey beanie over my head, making sure that all my bald spots were covered.

Afzal Kahlin rolled his eyes and took a sip from all four cups at the table.  “Poison is expensive.  If we wanted you dead, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”  He leaned back, staring at the ceiling, bored.

Clive nodded.  “I asked Grace and my allies to stay their hand.  I just want to talk.”

This was the part in stories where the villain tried to tempt the hero to their side.  Offering riches and glory and power.

Play along.  Whether Tunnel Vision showed or not, we needed time to get the signal out and have Guardians fly here.  Resist, Wes had advised me on the train.  Push back.  Make our ‘conversion’ believable.

And I had to admit, I was curious.

“I am a Humdrum,” said Maxine Clive.  “But I’m the ancestor of every fabricated body in existence.”  She pointed to me.  “That rotting shell you’re cursed with.”  She pointed to Wes.  “That pale doll your parents stole from you.  And the gaudy trinket Afzal is showing off.  All shaped from my flesh, my soul, my pain, at the behest of Paragon Academy.”

“What?” said Wes, irritation slipping into his voice.  “You’re suggesting Guardians did human experiments at Paragon?  In the labs that students have twenty-four-hour access to?  Or in the Great Library with no operating tables and no medical equipment, where every fleck of dust is recorded by security?  Which is it?”

“Neither,” she said.  “The experiments were performed on me and many others at a research facility called Buttercup Lodge.”

Buttercup Lodge.  The phrase hung in the air.  That’s what Joseph was talking about.  When we’d interrogated the Green Hands so long ago.  He must have met Clive.

“But Paragon was where fabricated chassis were actually discovered,” said Wes.  “Semer Bekyn, a biologist and pneumatologist, studied the bodies of mice and chimpanzees and studied how their Piths connected to their bodies.”

“It only takes common sense,” said Maxine, “to see the lie.  As of today, no one has succeeded at fabricating a body for a mouse or a chimpanzee, or any animal.  The artificial chassis was discovered in humans.  By studying the Nekean ritual of The Liminal, and by breaking down thousands of human bodies.”  She sipped her tea.  “Humdrum bodies, sacrificed so that the wealthy could feel pretty.”

Afzal tapped his foot, uncomfortable.

“So?” said Wes.  “Those are just words.”  He’s pushing back hard.  His frustration and disbelief sounded genuine, despite his use of the Stone Mask Vocation.  “Ana and I came here to learn the truth about the Principality.  We want proof.”

“An Ebbridge wanting proof,” said Kahlin.  “That’s a first.  I thought you just made up facts and then reported them.”

“I’ve got plenty of facts,” said Wes.  “For example: Your offspring, Hira, has a mole on the inside of his upper left thigh.”

Kahlin stared at Wes, his eyes bulging out.  Please don’t get us killed, Wes.

“Proof,” said Maxine Clive.  She gestured around her.  “This town.  Helmfirth.  Let’s start with that.”

Great.  More conspiracy theories.

“If you’ve read a history book,” she said.  “You’ll have learned that the Droll Corsairs broke into a silo and fired the missile here.  But the Droll Corsairs had no reason to do so.  No one would have hired them to demolish a small town in the middle of nowhere.”  She leaned forward.  “And if their Executive Board tried to fire missiles at Elmidde,” she said.  “They would not miss.”

“So?” said Wes.  “It could have been an experiment.”

“Those weren’t experimental missiles, though,” said Clive.  “Those were the most expensive weapons in history.  The result of many years of prototyping and testing.  Here’s something they don’t put in the history books: Those warheads were coated with Voidsteel.”

My throat clenched.  Ridiculous.  A Voidsteel bullet cost enough already.  But a suite of missiles would be staggering.

“They were god-slayers.  Designed to slaughter powerful projectors.  Why waste them on an experiment?”  She set her tea down, her scars shifting as she moved.  “I’ve seen Paragon’s intelligence file on Helmfirth.  It’s almost empty.”

I checked my pattern-matching Vocation, to see if anything Clive was saying matched with anything in my memories.  Nothing.

“The Droll Corsairs were competent, then,” said Wes.

Maxine Clive shook her head.  “No.  Someone tore out the pages.  Someone inside Paragon, who ordered an attack on the Principality’s own citizens.  On bakers and butchers and factory workers and store clerks.  On families.  Can you imagine?”  She slouched over, resting her hands on her knees.  “All fast asleep, imagining they’d wake up and start a fresh new day.”  Her voice cracked.  “How many of them died in their sleep?  How many were woken by the first blast, watching the first fireball?  Contemplating the horror for an instant, trying to flee with their neighbors before they, too, were turned to ashes.”

It was probably an act, of course.  Wes and I weren’t the first people she’d recruited.  But what if it’s real?

Maxine Clive closed her eyes, taking slow, deep breaths.  Almost as if she were sobbing.

I stifled a wave of disgust.  How many people have you killed?  The innocent people she’d brainwashed to shoot up buildings.  The bombs.  That horrifying limbless body we’d found.  The mind-spheres smashed with rock hammers.  Kaplen, whispering Lyna Wethers’ name over and over again as I fed him Kraken’s Bone.

“More words,” said Wes.  “Why would Guardians shoot missiles at their own city?  There’s no motive.  It makes no sense.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” said Clive.  “For the past decade, I’ve been trying to sift clues out of this rubble.  But all I find is dust, and corpses.  The answer isn’t here.”  She looked us both in the eye.  “But I know where we can find it.”

Play along.  Wait for Tunnel Vision.  “Where?” I said.

A warm gust of air blew through the curtains, and Clive pointed out of them, into the sunny plains.  “Up top,” she said.  “In the Lavender Book.”

My stomach clenched.  That’s their real goal.  They’d made up this entire mythology in an attempt to steal the Principality’s deadliest treasure.

With the Vocations in there, and enough time to study them, they might actually be able to take over the country.  Ten years ago, Headmaster Tau might have crushed them, but today?  I wasn’t sure.

But why were they revealing their plans to us?   Something’s not right here.

It won’t matter.  All of Commonplace’s scheming could end here, today.  I just had to stretch my Pith out of my body, cast the tiniest illusion, and Lorne Daventry would know my exact location.

But Tunnel Vision might still be nearby.  I wasn’t ready to die yet.

“The Lavender Book,” I said.  “That was her idea, wasn’t it?  The Pyre Witch.”  Divert the conversation.  Get them talking about Tunnel Vision.

“It was mine,” said Maxine Clive.  “But you think everything was Grace’s idea, don’t you?”  She glanced to her side.  “Grace and Afzal and Pictogram over there with his eggs.  You think they’re controlling me, and the whole movement.”

Yes.

“The thought did cross my mind,” said Wes.  “They’re Praxis Specialists.  You’re a Humdrum, or so you say.  Why are you the one in charge?”

Clive stared at Wes.  “You think of all Humdrums in this way, don’t you?”

Please, don‘t piss her off too much.

“Their lives are hard,” Wes said.  “But they lack education and training.  They’re not used to thinking creatively.  And they are naive about many of this world’s dangers.”  Dangers that Paragon keeps us safe from.

Maxine Clive laughed.  Her scarred face contorted, and she leaned back, closing her eyes.

For a second, I thought she was going to draw her pistol and shoot us both.

But she just laughed, a tired, bitter sound.  “You think the commoners are naive?” she said.  “All this time shooting at them, fighting them, trying to Nudge them, and you think they’re oblivious?”  She snorted.  “They know more about this world than you ever have.”

They’re panicked.

“Unlike you, they know there’s no such thing as ‘safe’.  Anyone, anywhere, could be pulling their strings, whispering in the edges of their subconscious.  They can’t trust their senses, their intuition, their memory.  Joy, hate, grief, love – those are just fertile ground for things to be planted, to grow and consume and control.  Identity is a joke.”

No.  Mental hijacking didn’t happen that much.  But I caught myself glancing at Afzal Kahlin out of the corner of my eye.

“Humdrums know they’re puppets waiting to be used.  They know their souls are little more than toys for people like you to play with.”  She leaned forward.  “But here’s why I’m recruiting you: You’re not much safer than they are.”

“Whaleshit,” said Wes.  “No one’s controlling me.”

“When you close your eyes,” said Clive.  “Do you see her face?  Does it make a part of you feel comfortable, happy?  Despite everything you know.”

Lyna Wethers.  Wes clenched his teeth, staring at the floor.  She’d made her point.

Maxine Clive lowered her voice.  “There are projectors in this world,” she said.  “So powerful.  So astute, that they need not care for the wills of anyone but each other.  In the silent edges of the world, I have witnessed minds as boundless and inexorable as the ocean itself.  Such beings could only be called gods.”

A scalding wind blew through the curtains, a wave of heat on my face.  But as she said those words, the room seemed to get colder.

“Do not put your faith in gods,” she said.  “Or the temples they build.  No matter what ideals they profess, they only see you as a cheap tool.  Quick to break, and quicker to throw away.”

“I can’t possibly imagine there’s proof to any of that,” Wes said.

“Look at the night sky,” she said.  “Or ask the Great Scholars, at the bottom of the ocean.”

Humor her.  “These things,” I said.  “What do you know about them?”

“Not much,” she said.  “But you wouldn’t believe most of it.”

“Did Tunnel Vision discover them?”  Turn it back to the Pyre Witch.  Find out where she is.

Maxine Clive gave me a strange look.  “No,” she said.  “I did.”

“I wanted to talk to her,” I said.  “Is she here?”

“That remains to be seen.”

I swallowed.  “And – and the Principality.  Are we being controlled by one of these – “

“An interesting question,” said Clive.  “I would like to know that as well.  So, five years ago, Grace and I recruited a candidate for parliament, and put several discreet surveillance Vocations on the internal structures of his Pith.  A man named Jeremy Salle.”

That, at least, is plausible.  I’d heard of those Vocations in class.  Markers that would note big changes and major alterations – the kind that could only be made with massive Whisper Vocations.  The techniques were advanced, and rare, so it was used for rare surveillance, rather than security.  Though, ‘Jeremy Salle’ didn’t ping my pattern-matching vocation at all.

“On his fifth day in office, someone hijacked Salle.  His Pith was altered so much it destroyed our sensors.  Someone ripped apart the basic tentpoles of his personality.”

“That’s absurd,” said Wes.  “We have internal security for that.  Counterintelligence.”

“Do you know why cancer is so deadly?” said Clive.  “For foreign viruses, bacteria, parasites, the body is equipped with incredible defenses.  It loses, sometimes, but it can fight.”  She leaned forward.  “But cancer is grown from your blood, your flesh.  So when it comes to butcher your organs, your body greets it as a friend.  An ally.  And so it grows.”

That means – 

“Your democracy,” she said.  “Is an illusion.  The Conclave of the Wise never left.  And we’re not going to beat them by asking politely.”

Nobody spoke.  Dead silence hung over the room, as her words sunk in.

“No,” said Wes.  “No.  That’s your excuse for your violence?  For the bombs and the innocents you nudged and – ”

“And Lyna Wethers,” I said, quiet.

“You don’t have to forgive me for any of that.”  Clive’s face fell.  “I don’t.”

You can hate yourself and be a self-centered prick at the same time.

“You just have to fight with me.”  Clive slid a folder across the coffee table.  “That folder includes the details of our operation to spy on parliament.”

I glanced at the file.  “You just met us.  We’ve been fighting you for the past six months.”  I looked up at her.  “Why are you trusting us with this?”

“Paragon knows all that already,” said Clive.  “It can’t be used to hurt us.”  She shrugged.  “And you deserve to know the truth.”

I didn’t pick up the file, or look at the contents inside.  At some point, I would scan over it to humor Clive, but if I waited to do that, I could drag the conversation out longer.  It’s probably all fake anyway.

In the meantime, I had a question that would get her talking.  And maybe draw Tunnel Vision out, if the mobster was close.

“You said they cut you up,” I said.  “What exactly did they do to you at this ‘buttercup lodge’?”

Maxine Clive traced the line of a scar on her cheek.  “They sliced into my skin and peeled it off.  They took a saw to my skull, my femur, my pelvis.”  Her voice hardened.  “They cut open my muscles, plucked my raw nerves like harp strings to observe my nervous system.  And at the same time, they pumped my Pith in and out of my body, over and over again, to observe.  They took my flesh and tears and face, and forged the stars in their image.”

Scholars. Though probably fake, the details made my stomach turn.

“When it was done, the scientists had invented the greatest medical tool in the history of humanity.”  She gave us a sad smile.  “Cancer, Loic’s Syndrome, fatal wounds – anything that doesn’t damage the Pith, and you can fix it in seconds with a swap.”  She gazed outside, at the piles of rubble that used to be a town.  “But what kind of world have our leaders built with it?  A pyramid, that depends on an endless stream of hopeful fools like you, but will throw you aside without a second thought.  Your minds are the most beautiful gifts in existence.  And you are wasting them, on a thousand elaborate reasons for the boot to stomp on a face.”

Images rushed through my mind, unbidden.

Isaac Brin’s dart punching a hole in my chest.  Wes, drinking himself to death at a bar, forced away from his family and friends.  Lorne Daventry, bragging about his many chassis, bullying other students for sport while the school protected him.  Matilla Geffray, taking Kaplen’s place as everyone forgot him in days.

A pack of Guardians, gathering outside Hira’s house, arresting us for doing their dirty work.  Lorne Daventry, who I’d worked so many hours for, smirking as he flung molten steel at me.

In a different world, could I have lived?

Could I be drinking mulled cider with a friend, playing Jao Lu with Wes in my proper body?  Instead of dying in this sun-drenched ruin, balding and grey, cursing my mediocrity.  Unable to taste even a mug of tea in front of me.

What was a Guardian, anyways?  What did it mean to defend the Principality?

She’s manipulating you.  But was she wrong?

I picked up the file and flipped it open.

There were many pages.  More than I expected.  All filled with pictures, diagrams, statistics, numbers and times on the operation.  Outlining exactly how Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive had infiltrated Parliament under Paragon’s nose, and discovered that they were being hijacked.

It could still be fake.  They had more than enough resources.

But as I scanned through the contents, my pattern-matching vocation pinged me a few times, noting where the information in the file matched with the information already plugged into my mental spreadsheet.

Match, Pictogram’s visual recognition

Match, Tunnel Vision’s lieutenants, times of active operating

The Praxis vocation backs them up.  They could have faked those details too, of course, but that would be hard.  And they had no idea I’d learnt this vocation.

Looking through the files, it was staggering to witness the size of Commonplace’s operation.  The number of agents Tunnel Vision had planted, the soldiers they’d recruited, the mountains of weapons given to them by the Shenti.  And this is just what they’re showing me.  Only a fraction of their true powers.

Halfway through the file, my pattern-matching pinged me again.

Match, Shell company and anonymous trust layering

What?  I didn’t remember learning anything about Tunnel Vision’s shell companies.  Why would my vocation be flaring up there?  Most of it operated on a subconscious level, but it did spit out a few extra details when I focused on it.

Maxine Clive and Tunnel Vision had bought and sold and hired a vast number of resources for the operation, and kept it all anonymous through a variety of semi-legal international shell companies and anonymous trusts.  They’d moved funds throughout this invisible spider’s web, using a method that matched something already in my database.

Only the slightest detail matched, the thinnest connection that I would never have noticed on my own.  A mistake made by whoever assembled this document, probably not someone at the top.

Where else do I remember shell companies from?

Then it washed over me.  Sapphire Industrial.  The fraudulent corporation I’d stopped investigating a few years ago.

The scammers who had sold me this body.

My breath froze in my lungs, and for a moment, I forgot how to breathe.  A wave of dizziness crashed over me and I closed my eyes, steadying myself.  The Stone Mask vocation kept my body language from showing anything serious.

It could be a coincidence.  Lots of shifty people used front companies.  But the timing made sense.  The Pyre Witch had earned her name, and begun her takeover of the mob a year or two before I’d been struck with Loic’s Syndrome.  In the chaos after the Treaty of Silence was broken, no one was paying attention to the black market.  It was the perfect time to make a quick buck off gullible Humdrums.

The insight was so obvious, so clear.  How had I never seen it before?

Tunnel Vision sold me this body.

She’d sold faulty bodies to countless people.  Preyed on people’s desperation and hope.  All to pay for her coup with Commonplace.

The rage bubbled up inside my Pith, turning my blood into a frothing storm while my face remained flat.

I put down the folder.  Something sparked in my mind.  A new door opening, a possibility for revenge and renewal when before, it had only been death.

And I didn’t project.  I didn’t turn on the tracer.

I put aside her words, her rhetoric.  None of that matters.  This country’s endless problems didn’t matter.  Lorne and the Epistocrats and Isaac Brin didn’t matter.  My poverty and prosecution and the impending civil war didn’t matter.

Even Maxine Clive didn’t matter, in her own way.

“Afzal believes in spin,” she said.  “And Grace believes in force.”

And Pictogram believes in murdering everyone who doesn’t worship the Shenti.  But selling your country out to eastern dogs wasn’t something to brag about.

“I will listen to those two when necessary,” she said.  “But I believe truth, more than anything, is the most powerful weapon.”   She stood up.  “I have done my best to tell the truth.  The rest is up to you.”

“And if I can’t choose right now?”

Maxine Clive slid another pair of train tickets across the table.  Tickets nack to Elmidde.  A message had been scrawled on the back.

17 – 0302 – 5157
Say “Hug, Waterfall, Earthquake, Dreamer”

The phone number I called earlier.  And another code.

“When you’re ready to stand up for yourself, you let us know,” said Clive.

“One more thing,” I said, standing up.  “The boy I shot.  Back at the stadium, when the Pyre Witch fought Professors Stoughton and Havstein.  Is he – ”

“Fine,” she said.  A confused look spread across her face.  “Of course he’s fine.  It only took us minutes to give him a fresh body.”

She walked to the front door.  Wes and I followed her.

Clive looked me up and down.  “If I had to guess now, I’d give you a month at best.”  She shrugged.  “But that’s what they said about me, so…”  She extended her hand to me.

I shook it.  Hide your anger.  Hide your thoughts.  I sealed the spitting rage inside, turning my insides to a frothing storm.  I hadn’t felt like this since the Golden Moon.  Since Lyna Wethers.

Wes set down his cup on a table in the entryway.  “Your tea,” he said, “is terrible.”

Maxine Clive smiled, and opened the front door.  “Well, what would you expect?” she said.  “My taste buds are broken.”

________________________________________

I waited to speak my mind to Wes.

As we walked through the rubble and back up the hill, away from Helmfirth and back towards the train station, I knew Pictogram was still watching us.  Even with our backs turned to him, he could still read our lips.  So while we walked out of the ruins, past the dust and broken buildings and streets filled with Green Hands, I said nothing.

We strode back down the overgrown road, over rolling hills and yellow plains extending in every direction.  The glaring sun sank in front of us, descending into the late afternoon.  When the town of Rachdale came into view, Wes turned to me.

“So, what do you think?”

They could still be watching.  “I’m not sure.”  I stepped off the road and onto the grass, sweat soaking into my armpits.  “I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

A lie, of course.  I hadn’t been this certain of something since I first applied to Paragon.

I said almost nothing for hours.  Until we were back on the train and approaching the bridge back into Elmidde.  The sun set in the distance, painting the sky red and orange.  The train’s wheels rumbled beneath us on the track.

Both me and Wes slumped on a bench, exhausted from the heat, the walking, the conversation we’d had.  I stared out the window, at the outskirts of the city.  Rows and rows of houses going by, streets and automobiles and stores.  Full of ordinary people, living their lives, unaware of the carnage on the horizon.

I don’t care what happened to Maxine Clive.  I didn’t care about Buttercup Lodge or the origins of chassis or all the endless injustice at the heart of this world.  I didn’t care about her Helmfirth conspiracy, or her hijacked Parliament, or her ‘gods’, if they even existed.

“So,” said Wes under his breath.  “Why didn’t you use the tracer?  What happened to your plan?”

This should be far enough.  And nobody seemed to be following us.  “Tunnel Vision wasn’t there,” I said.  “She would have survived.  And that was unacceptable.”

Then I told Wes what I’d found in Maxine Clive’s file.  The connection to Sapphire Industrial.

Wes leaned against the seat in front of him, closing his eyes, taking slow, heavy breaths.  “Monsters,” he whispered.  “Monsters.”  He looked up at me.  “What’s next, then?  You have an idea, I can see it in your eyes.”

I closed my eyes, and Kaplen’s freckled face stared back at me.  When I opened my eyes, I stared down at my broken body.  At the bulging grey veins running over my arms, my shivering torso, my withered toes.  The strands of grey hair broken off my scalp.

“Well?” said Wes.  “What’s the plan?”

Destroy the Pyre Witch.  Destroy her whole revolution.  From the ground up.  For Kaplen.  For me.  For all of the nobodies who get walked over on the way to paradise.  For an instant, I’d let myself forget that.  No more.

I smiled.  “We’re going to tell the truth.”















Important Author’s Note:

Hi all. Normally, I just prefer to talk about the story. I don’t usually do this sort of thing. Please bear with me.

I want to let y’all know that for the month of October and the first half of November, Pith will be publishing once every other week – half as fast. After this, 10-B will publish on October 12th. Then 10-C on the 26th. And so on. Normally, I would desperately try to avoid doing this, but these are desperate times. And I’m planning to spend a lot of my time volunteering.

If there’s one thing you take away here, let it be this: If you live in the United States and are old enough, please vote for Democrats. Register to vote today and make a plan. Vote early if you can, or in person on November 3rd. Then be prepared to protest. I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times already, but still. America is sliding into autocracy, climate hell, and civil rights nightmares. Don’t sit this one out. See y’all in two weeks.

– MWS

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9-E – Matilla Geffray

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Elmidde.  ‘The Middle’ in old common.

A sprawling coastal metropolis of over ten million people.  Massive grey towers, dense apartment buildings with tiny studios, automobiles roaring through labyrinthine streets, so loud you couldn’t sleep at night.  All along the slopes of a towering mountain.

The Principality’s capital intimidated a great many people.  Country folk used to a quiet, simple world.  Foreigners from ruined, backward nations like Shenten.  Citizens from smaller, slower cities around the Principality called it cramped, dirty, rushed.

One look, and Matilla knew she was home.

On the last night of her boat trip, she’d tossed and turned in her bunk, unable to fall asleep.  She’d read her acceptance letter again and again, watching moonlight from a window reflecting off the silver envelope.

Dear Ms. Geffray,

I am delighted to inform you that our admissions committee has offered you a place in the class of 519.  Please accept my congratulations for this momentous achievement.  Our admissions committee evaluated tens of thousands of applicants this year, and only accepted those with the highest scores on cognitive reasoning, tactical proficiency, and projection potential.

Your scores on the entrance exam were as follows:

Critical Reasoning and Rhetoric – 96/100
Strategy and Tactics – 93/100
Natural Science – 98/100
Psychology and Social Engineering – 91/100
Projection Potential – 94/100
TOTAL: 472/500, out of a minimum of 470 required for consideration

Projection Ranking Estimate: Silver

Enclosed is a list of publicly available items and books required for your first year.  If you wish to attend, please report to the cable car station at 717 Darius Street on 8/21 at noon for your screening and pre-orientation.

May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Tau

Headmaster

Matilla gazed out the round window, at the two full moons overhead.  Everything else – the studies, the sleepless nights, the test and the endless interviews – those were just a lead-up.  This was where her real life began.

At the crack of dawn, she leapt off her bunk and clambered up to the front of the ship’s deck, clutching the silver envelope in her fist.  Matilla leaned over the balcony and squinted, hoping to catch a glimpse of the city approaching.

Through the dark fog, she could make out the coast of the Principality’s mainland, a long, rocky cliff face passing alongside the boat.

Too early.  The rest of the ship hadn’t woken up yet.  But she couldn’t go back to sleep, not when they were so close.

It took two more hours before Matilla saw anything.  In that time, the sun rose over the ocean, warming the late summer air, and groggy passengers trickled onto the deck, more and more until they were a crowd behind her, pushing past each other for a spot at the railing to gaze out at the horizon.

The ocean liner passed through a thick fog bank, a grey cloud enveloping them on all sides.

The front of the ship emerged into the light, and Matilla gaped.

Four massive statues rose out of the shore, each dozens of stories tall.  The grass on the hillside grew taller and longer in patches, becoming long vines that wove together into the legs and arms and torsos of the figures.  Bright flowers grew out at every point, forming their skin and clothes and faces.

The statue of Rana the Monk sat cross-legged at the edge of the water, his feet and ankles underwater at high tide.  Green roses made up his skin, outlining his tranquil expression in exquisite detail.  He held a stone bowl in his hands, twice as wide as Matilla’s cabin.  The Neke’s inspiration.

Akhara the Polymath leaned against the side of the hill, made of purple wisterias, beaming.  She held a spherical metal astrolabe in her hand, extending it towards the heavens.  For when the stars still existed.  Ilaqua and the Harmonious Flock’s inspiration.

Tegudar the General stood near the top of the hill, made from bright red azaleas.  He held a crescent knife in his fist, brandishing it below towards the boat.  The Shenti’s inspiration.

And Darius the Philosopher, the root of the Principality’s ethos.  He knelt at the bottom of the hill, made of blue cornflowers.  His hand held an open book, and he gazed out at the horizon, warm and inquisitive.  The Principality’s inspiration.

The Gakusha.  Living statues of the Four Eternals.  One of the Principality’s great wonders, gifted to them by the Neke.  At night, they were said to glow, like a firework frozen in time.

They guarded the northern entrance to Elmidde, the official start of the city limits.

Matilla’s breath caught in her throat.  She leaned out further, eyes wide with wonder.

A man spoke next to her, his voice tinged with an Ilaquan accent.  “Akhara, Rashi, Tegudar.  Who’s the blue one again?”

Matilla spun around, her eyes lighting up.  “Darius the Philosopher!” she said.  “He lifted the foundations of Paragon Academy out of the ocean, developed the Basic Sleep and Precision Wipe Vocations, and ruled the Great Scholars alongside his colleagues with ambition and brilliance.”

The Ilaquan man looked confused, glancing at the Principian woman beside him.  He wasn’t asking me.

Matilla kept going anyway.  “He also loved practical jokes.”  She gestured with her hands.  “And did elaborate pranks on the other Great Scholars!”

As she gestured, her hand clipped the metal railing, and she dropped her silver letter over the edge of the ship.

It fell towards the rushing water, and Matilla reached.  Her Pith stretched out, and she grabbed the letter with it.  The envelope hovered above the splashing waves for a moment, before she yanked it back into her hand.

Nearby passengers stared at her, jaws hanging open.  The Ilaquan man’s eyes widened.  “You’re a – you’re a magician.“

“Yes,” she said, giving a modest smile.  “A projector, we call them.  I’m heading to Paragon for my first year.”

“My nephew is a bit of a projector,” said the man.  “He took the entrance exam, but he didn’t even get close.  How on earth did you do it?”

Sleepless nights.  Hyper-caffeinated tea.  Good genetics.  Carpal tunnel syndrome.

“Hard work, I guess,” said Matilla.

The Ilaquan man gazed at her with admiration, like she was one of the Great Scholars themselves.  Other bystanders looked at her the same way, transfixed.  Humdrums.  Most of them had probably never seen a projector in their lives.

Matilla got an idea.  “Do you want to see a trick?”

They nodded, excited.

“Stand back.”  Matilla stuffed the envelope in her back pocket, pulled open the pouch at her waist, and projected out a ball of sand.  This sort of projection was probably illegal in public, but Paragon wouldn’t pressure her for something this insignificant.

The others backed away from her, and she clapped her hands.  The sand exploded into a cloud, each particle suspended in a perfect geometric matrix.

Matilla put her thumb and index fingers together.  Each grain of sand heated up, becoming a field of bright orange dots.  She drew her hands together, and the dots came together in a single glowing sphere of liquid glass.

Then she flicked her palms up, and the sphere transformed into a glass sparrow.  It flew over the heads of the onlookers, shining down on them.

A simple parlor trick, a pittance next to what real Guardians could do.  But everyone still clapped, or gasped, or stared at it with awe.

Matilla walked around the deck, making the bird fly over the water, and someone grabbed the letter from her back pocket.

She spun around.  The crowd went silent.

A middle-aged Principian man wobbled behind her, unsteady on his feet.  His breath stank of cheap gin, and his right hand clutched the silver envelope.  A green circle had been tattooed on the back.

“You’re all…cheering,” he slurred.  “Do you remember what the Guardians did to us?  Or did they wipe that too?”  He crumpled the envelope in his fist, staggering back from Matilla.  “They put us in factories to work until our lungs were black, then hijacked anyone who caught on.  They’re monsters.”

“I’m sorry.”  Matilla held up her hands in a non-threatening gesture.  “I didn’t do any of that.  I’m just a first-year student.”

The man spit at her.

Matilla weighed her options.  My paper projection isn’t strong enough to rip it out of his hands.  He hadn’t assaulted her, but he’d stolen her property.  By Principality law, she would be justified in Nudging him to take it back.

The man had a switchblade in a pocket, but no gun.  No Voidsteel.  Paragon’s restrictions on public projection meant Matilla only knew the simplest basics, but even with those, it would be trivial to defeat this drunkard.

But Matilla hadn’t become a Guardian to beat citizens up.  The guy was just being rude.

She floated the glass bird back into her pouch, turning it back into sand.  “I’m barely eighteen,” she said.  “You’re what, three times that?  I don’t want to fight you, please just give me my letter back.”

“So what,” he said.  “So you can go back to ignoring us?  Live the Epistocrat’s dream in your sky castle while the rest of us toil beneath you?”

“I’m not an Epistocrat,” said Matilla.  “I’m from Asnep.  It’s a town off west, near Brenby.  My parents are both Humdrum teachers at the community college.”

“Then you’re abandoning them,” he said.  “So you can cavort around in expensive dresses and chassis.”

Matilla shrugged.  “I’m borrowing tens of thousands of pounds to afford tuition.  It’s used skirts and cheap pasta for the next decade or so.  I hear the mulled cider is free, though, so I am looking forward to that.”

The drunk Green Hands paused.  I don’t fit his stereotype.  The rest of the crowd backed away from him.

“Listen,” she said.  “I don’t want to get into a fight.  I’m just here to go to school, make some friends, maybe try a little cider.  I want my family to have a bright future, that’s all.”

“Give it back!” a woman shouted in the distance.  Others murmured agreement.  The crowd’s on my side.

“I’m sure you’re a great guy,” she said.  “You know what it’s like to support your loved ones.  Can we just move past this and go our separate ways?”

Nobody spoke.  The waves washed against the ship, and the rising sun bathed the deck in warm yellow light.

The man handed her the letter.  The silver envelope uncrumpled in her fist, becoming smooth and flat again without the slightest crease.

“Thanks,” she said.

He stalked off belowdecks.  The crowd turned away from him and started talking amongst themselves again.

Matilla let out a sigh of relief, sagging over on the railing.  Next time, they might not be so friendly.  Her neighbors in Asnep all missed the Conclave of the Wise, and looked on projection with wonder.  But the city was different.  Elmidde had more Commonplace, more danger.

The boat turned a corner, and across the glimmering water, Mount Elwar rose out of the ocean.  Towers and streets and buildings covered it from top to bottom.  A ferry sailed across Meteor Bay, towards one of the outer islands.

And Paragon Academy, floating chunks of rock suspended in the sky, connected with wooden bridges.  Spires and dorms and lecture halls.

This city, her new life, would be dangerous.  It would be more strange and complicated and difficult than anything she’d done, a maze full of thorns she’d have to navigate at a sprint.

Matilla couldn’t wait to get started.

________________________________________

Matilla stared at the golden fried wedge in her hand.  “What’s this, again?”

Aunt Sibil leaned against the statue.  “A samosa,” she said.  “Ilaquan street food.  They eat them in Neke, too.”  She grabbed one out of the paper bag, slathered it in mint sauce, and stuffed it into her mouth.  Crumbs spilled into her black hair, and she brushed them out.

Matilla squinted at hers, taking a sniff.

“Don’t worry, you won’t get food poisoning,” Aunt Sibil said.  “This restaurant takes its hygiene seriously.”

“Sorry,” said Matilla.  “Sorry.  This isn’t what I’m used to.”  There was no ethnic food in Asnep.  The average chef there had skin whiter than a glass of milk.

She glanced around Darius Park.  The sun set over the horizon, bathing picnicking couples and drunk college students in warm light.  A pair of men walked their dogs across the grass, laughing.  A brown-haired woman leaned against the far side of the Darius statue, face buried in a book.

“When you wrote my mother,” said Matilla.  “Saying you’d take me out to dinner, I expected – “

“Marbled steak?” said Aunt Sibil.  “Tsukian Omakase?  One of the Cooking Gods?  Your rich auntie shelling out some cash to give you a taste of the high life?”

Matilla’s stomach clenched.  “I – I’m so sorry, Aunt Sibil, that was out of line, I – “

Sibil laughed, patting Matilla on the shoulder.  “It’s alright.  This is my favorite spot in the city.  It’s not as squeaky clean or sparkly as Hightown and the Kesteven Building and Paragon, but it’s full of people, you know.  It’s full of people.”

Matilla nodded, and bit into the samosa.  A dozen flavors exploded into her mouth.  Chicken and onions and curry and peas, all at once.  Salt and oil and spices.

Her eyes widened, and she shoved the rest of it into her mouth, devouring it.  She ate another samosa, then another one.  Dipping them in the mint sauce made them even better.

Aunt Sibil smiled at her.  “Not too fast, or you’ll get a stomachache.”

Matilla stuffed them down anyways, mint sauce dripping down her chin.  She breathed in the cool evening air, and watched a man set up a guitar in the middle of a path.  A small crowd gathered around him as he played, dropping bills in a bucket beside him.  At the other end, a pair of women walked around their hands, performing feats of acrobatics.

Aunt Sibil was right.  This was much better than a fancy steakhouse.

“So,” said Aunt Sibil.  “Can I see it?”  She indicated her head to Matilla’s pocket.

Matilla’s mother had set up this meeting for her.  After marrying some fast food heir, Aunt Sibil had become richer than the rest of her family put together.  If Matilla earned her favor, Sibil would pay off her academic debt with a snap of her fingers, maybe even cover the rest of her tuition at Paragon with room and board.

But Aunt Sibil had moved to the other side of the Principality.  Her mother hadn’t talked to her in almost two decades.

Aside from her Paragon interview, this was the most important conversation of Matilla’s life.  In this next hour, eating street food in the park, the course of her life could be decided.

Matilla pulled the silver envelope out of her pocket and handed it over.  Aunt Sibil flipped it open and examined the letter inside.  “Different,” she muttered, holding it up to the light.  “Looks different.”

“Have you seen one of them before?”

“One of my husband’s friends,” she said.  “They let you keep this after orientation?  They didn’t use it to confirm your identity or anything?”

“No,” said Matilla.  “That was just pre-orientation.  They do other stuff for your identity.”

At the cable car station, Paragon’s security team had checked her Physical Vocation, an ability that gave her precise control over individual grains of sand.  A Guardian had taken an hour to give her a basic Pith scan, an advanced technique that let them see the general shape of her soul.  They cross-referenced it with another one they’d done during interviews.  If her Pith had changed a lot or if she’d been replaced with an imposter, they’d notice.  Then, they’d given her security questions and a subconscious key.

It seemed a bit paranoid, in Matilla’s opinion.  And they hadn’t even let her into the academy yet.

Aunt Sibil squinted at the letter.  “So.  Why?”

“What?”

“With your grades, you could have become anything.  So why become a Guardian?”

Matilla had to stop herself from laughing.  Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t become a wizard who shot lightning and flew in wingsuits?

Ten years ago, an entire world had opened up before their eyes.  Frightening and dangerous, yes, as shown by the Pyre Witch and the Edwina Massacre.  But also full of wonders.  Everything they’d known about physics, chemistry, history, consciousness, was only a faint shadow on a cave wall.  A mere illusion next to the beautiful universe outside, in the light.

How could anyone become an accountant, or a lawyer, or a middle manager when all that magic was real, waiting to be discovered?

“Matilla?”

Matilla blinked, jerking back to reality.

Her aunt still gazed at her, expectant.  “Why did you want to become a Guardian?”

Matilla took a deep breath.  This is it.  Her best chance at securing that tuition money – her future.

“My mother didn’t tell you this,” she said.  “But five years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer of the blood.  The doctors tried a regime of antifolates and nitrogen mustards to make it go away.  It worked, for a few months, while I threw up in the hospital and lost all my hair.”

“But it came back,” said Aunt Sibil.

Matilla nodded.  “When it became clear that no treatment was going to save me, my parents put together their money, did their research, and bought me a new body.  It took three years’ salary and some help from my grandparents, and it forced them into debt for a while.  But it saved my life.”

“A miracle,” murmured Aunt Sibil.  “A medical miracle.  And that is a nice chassis you picked out.  Elizabeth Cranbrook?”

Matilla shook her head.  “Maxine Clive.”  It would age slower, get fewer diseases, stay fit with only a sliver of exercise.

“A designer body.”  Sibil raised an eyebrow.  “That was very generous of Beatrix.”

“She wanted me to have a study model.”  Matilla nodded, emphatic.  “If I’d been born a century ago, I’d have been left to die.  If our worlds stayed separate, I would have had nothing.”  She shrugged.  “I’m not an Epistocrat.  I could probably make more money as a doctor, or a stockbroker.”  She raised her voice.  “But I want to fly in that beautiful world.  I want to better my nation for other people like me, so their hopes aren’t in vain.”

“I know what you mean,” said Aunt Sibil.  “I’m an official member of Commonplace.”

Matilla choked on a piece of samosa, coughing up bits of ground pork.  “What?”

“Commonplace,” said Aunt Sibil.  “The political organization.  I’ve joined them.”

Matilla froze.  Blood rushed in her ears, and her breaths became short and rapid.  Oh, no.  A Commonplace member would never pay Paragon tuition.

The future Matilla had imagined shattered before her, breaking up like cheap porcelain.  I thought Commonplace didn’t want rich people like Aunt Sibil.

“I’m – I’m sorry,” she said, her neck tensing.  “I don’t mean to offend.  I didn’t know that about you.”

Aunt Sibil put a comforting hand on Matilla’s shoulder.  “I don’t hate you,” she said.  “But I do find myself curious.  After all their atrocities, why do you want to join them?”

Be honest, but diplomatic.  Though the venture seemed a bit pointless now.  “Paragon’s far from perfect,” said Matilla.  “But atrocities?  That seems a little extreme.”

“The Spirit Block,” said Aunt Sibil.  “Psychic genocide on a mass scale.  Tearing open a hole in reality.  Wiping an entire culture out of existence.”

“That was messed-up,” said Matilla.  “But the Shenti were winning their war of conquest.  Nothing else was stopping them.  If it weren’t for Headmaster Tau, we’d all be in redemption camps right now.  Those monsters had to be stopped.”

Aunt Sibil pursed her lips.  “And the Treaty of Silence.  Projectors keeping their existence hidden for thousands of years, wiping the memories of anyone who found out.”

“What’s wrong with that?” said Matilla.  “No one got hurt.  Most people just lost a day, or a week at most.  What’s wrong with them taking a memory or two?”

“Those memories were not theirs to take.  Your Pith is a beautiful, miraculous organism that belongs to you.  None other.  Just like your body.  The first mental hijacking laws only applied to projector victims, but they still existed.  Even the old Principality understood the value of a free mind.”

“They were scared,” said Matilla.  “They just wanted to stay safe.  I’m glad our worlds are joined now, but looking at all the violence now, I see why they were kept separate.”

“Let’s talk about right now, then,” said Aunt Sibil.  “There are many in this country like you, saddled with terminal illness.  But most cannot afford a replacement body, or are forced to spend the rest of their lives paying off the debt.”

“I agree,” said Matilla.  “We need a better system to distribute chassis.  Anyone who needs a replacement body should be able to get one.  But that’s for the future.  Right now, we just don’t have the resources to do that.”

“Epistocrats own dozens of bodies that they keep for fashion, or to show off their wealth.”  Aunt Sibil brushed crumbs off her hands, chewing the last samosa.  “Does that seem just to you?”

“I don’t think wealthy people are evil,” said Matilla.  “You have more money than the vast majority of this country, and you’re a wonderful person.”

“You’ve known me for less than two hours.  You have no idea who I am.”

Ow.  “I think most of them earned their place.  And Guardians put their lives on the line to protect this country.  I think they should get all the resources they need to do their jobs.  Combat requires a lot of bodies.  If someone is vital to the nation’s well-being, then they should get whatever special medical resources they need.”

“Someone like you?”

“I didn’t say that.  I’m just saying that sometimes, special treatment is earned.”  She folded her hands on her lap, crossing her legs.  “I think Commonplace comes from good intentions, but if you want to change the system, you should do it with civil discussion, not anger and destruction.  Peaceful protest.”

Aunt Sibil raised an eyebrow.  “Ah.  Have you joined a protest, then?”

“I just got here,” said Matilla.  “But that’s not the point.  If we want to make the world a better place, then we should start with ourselves.”

Aunt Sibil sighed.  “I understand.  You’ve worked hard to get where you are.  You don’t want to tear apart the ladder you just climbed.  This is your path to becoming an Exemplar.”

Of course I don’t.  The people who wrote angry rants in the papers, the Commonplace members who called people like Matilla entitled or lazy or spoiled, they knew nothing.  They didn’t know about the times she’d fainted from sheer exhaustion, or the friendships that had withered while she studied, or the agonizing pain in her hand that flared up during practice essays.

She hadn’t bought her way into Paragon.  She’d fought to get into this miraculous place.  The people that criticized that couldn’t see that through their jealousy and resentment.

But her aunt might be different.  If Matilla could make her understand, then maybe, maybe there was a chance.

“I’ve been in the military before,” said Aunt Sibil.  “It’s the same there.”

What?  Matilla didn’t remember anything about military service from her Aunt.  Her mother had never mentioned anything along those lines.

This conversation wasn’t remotely what she’d expected.

“The top brass send thousands of grunts to die in the trenches, for the sake of glory.  And when anyone has the gall to question this system, they take it as a personal affront.”  Aunt Sibil sat up, staring out at the park.  “See, they used to be grunts too.  They braved the bombs and bullets and fire, crawling through the mud with Jannat flu and rotting feet.  All so they could earn the great honor of standing above us and ordering us to our deaths.”  She gave Matilla a wan smile.  “If they could do it, why not us?  That’s fairness, to them.“

Isn’t it?  Merit had to be the deciding factor, not pity.

“That’s the brilliance of Paragon Academy,” said Aunt Sibil, looking up at the statue of Darius in the park.  “Anyone could be a Guardian, one day.  But most people never will.”

Matilla closed her eyes.  “I understand if you don’t want to help with my tuition,” she said.  “If your political beliefs are opposed to that.”  She took a slow, deep breath.  “But I want you to ask yourself: Don’t you still have dreams?  And if not, don’t you remember what that was like?”

Aunt Sibil laughed.  Matilla’s eyes snapped open.  Her aunt was doubled over, shaking, tears running down her face as she guffawed.  A few passers-by glanced at her, confused.  On the other side of the statue, the brown-haired woman looked up from her book.

“Yeah,” said Aunt Sibil.  “I might know something about that.”

Birds chirped in the trees.  In the distance, the guitar player strummed, and the crowd clapped along.  Outside the park, automobiles roared past.  A cool breeze blew over Matilla’s face.

“I’m sorry,” said Aunt Sibil.

Scholars.  Well, Matilla had tried.  She’d find some other way to pay off her debt.

“My colleagues,” said Aunt Sibil.  “Wanted me to go through with this plan, but I thought it was an unnecessary cruelty.  I started this conversation to find out who you were, beyond your public record.  So I could have an excuse to call off the operation.”

Matilla’s throat clenched.  The cool summer air dropped a few degrees.  Operation?

“Call what off?” she said.  “Aunt Sibil, what are you talking about?”

“I didn’t go to college in Asnep.”  The woman stuffed the dirty napkins and sauce container into the empty paper bag.  “I’m not fifty-one years old, and I’ve never met your mother in my life.”  She folded the bag up and tossed it in a trash can.  “I’m not your Aunt Sibil.  With great regret, I’m stealing her body for a day.”

Matilla stood up, staggering back.  Her heart thumped in her ears.  Her chest rose and fell in rapid, panicked breaths.  What do I do, what do I do?  Paragon was supposed to train her for this type of scenario, but she hadn’t started classes yet.  Do I run?  Do I call for help?  Do I fight?  With her limited projection, could she even win a fight?

Keep her talking.  That could buy Matilla time, at least, to think of a way out.

“Who – who are you?” said Matilla.

Aunt Sibil’s body leaned back against the statue.  “I founded Commonplace,” she said.  “My blood runs through your veins.  This entire country sits on a mountain forged of my flesh and bone.”  She gave Matilla a pained smile.  “My name is Maxine Clive.  And I’m trying to do the right thing.”

Maxine Clive?  Like the designer body line?  Like Matilla’s body?  How is that possible?

“But it’s hard,” said Clive.  “To hold the moral high ground, while the earth collapses under you.”

Matilla’s breath quickened.  Her hands shook by her sides, betraying her terror.  Scholars, please.  Don’t let me die.  Not here.  Not today.

But the Great Scholars were all dead.  Praying to them was just a figure of speech.  If Matilla wanted to survive, she’d have to figure it out herself.

“So I’m sorry,” said Maxine Clive.  “You’re too important.  Your Vocation is generic enough to be mimicked by a talented projector.  You have no friends or family in Elmidde who know you well.  And you are a student, not a full-fledged Guardian, so you’ll get far lighter Whisper-sec than most people at Paragon.”

She’s explaining everything to me.  Why?  If she was stalling, why confess the truth?  Why not just keep the facade and wait?

Then it hit Matilla.  It doesn’t matter.  This ‘Maxine Clive’ person didn’t care what she knew, didn’t care what Matilla did.

“You are blameless.  A good person in a twisted system.  I wanted to spare you,” said Maxine Clive, sadness slipping into her voice.  “I want to spare every life on our path towards freedom.  But we can’t.  The pain is unbearable, but that doesn’t change the facts.”  She squeezed her eyes shut.  “You’re a brick in their pyramid now.  And you are not the Common Foundation.”

The panic burst forth out of Matilla.  Tears collected at the edges of her eyes, and she clenched her fists, projecting into the sand in her pouch.  So little.  But heated to a boil, it could do plenty of damage.

Maxine Clive glanced up at the clock tower in the distance, squinting at the second hand.  “And now,” she said.  “Grace has heard enough of our conversation.  She knows how to mimic your personality with her Vocation.”

Who’s Grace?  The brown-haired woman by the statue stood up, dropping her book.  She nodded.  Matilla took another step back, heating her sand into a molten sphere at her waist.

“Thank you,” said Maxine.  “For sharing the samosas with me.  I hope you liked them.”

The pressure built inside Matilla, a swelling tension that grew and grew until it was unbearable.

She whipped her hand forward, and shot the liquid glass out of her pouch, at Maxine Clive’s face.

Three bricks tore off the ground and flew in front of Clive’s face.  The molten sand splattered over them, blocked.

Maxine Clive didn’t lift a finger.  She didn’t even flinch.

Matilla projected into her clothes and leapt back, jerking herself twenty feet away and spinning herself around, as she pulled the sand back into her pouch.  Her feet touched the pavement, and she sprinted forward, away from the statue.

She pushed forward with her clothes, accelerating faster and faster, until her legs could barely keep up, bounding her out of Darius Park and onto the street.

An automobile screeched past her, honking its horn, one of countless on the street.

It gave Matilla an idea.

As the next car rushed past, she leapt forward, projecting into her clothes.  She grabbed onto the back of the car, then projected into the steering wheel and the pedals, taking it over, making it rocket down the street faster and faster.

She peered over the top of the car.  The brown-haired woman from the statue stood at the far end of the one-way street, cars weaving around her.  Blocking the exit.

Matilla leapt off the car and projected herself onto the sidewalk.  She sprinted in the opposite direction, panting.

A dozen men and women stood on the opposite end of the street, wearing long coats, and hats to cast shadows on their faces.  Mobsters.  Blocking the other side of the street.  Were they working with Commonplace too?

All of them stared at her.  One of them grinned.

Matilla glanced back at the park, to see Maxine Clive herself walking out from the dirt path, wearing Aunt Sibil’s body.  No, no, no.  They were blocking her off on all sides.

I need another way out.  Matilla glanced behind her, at an alleyway blocked by a tall steel fence, too high for her to fly over.  That’ll do.

Matilla sprinted for it and shot the molten glass forward, superheating it.  She slashed it in a circle, slicing through the metal links on the fence and cutting a hole.  Then she leapt through, darting through the narrow alley.

Something zipped through the air and punched her in the back of her neck, knocking Matilla to her knees.  She coughed, and her vision blurred.

As she blinked, clearing her vision, blood dripped onto the dirty pavement.  I’m injured.

Matilla gasped, and gagged on a thick, wet liquid in her throat.  It was like she’d contracted a cold in an instant, and her windpipe was full of mucus.

She doubled over, retching and coughing, and spit up a globule of saliva, tinged with red.

Then she felt her throat.  Warm liquid poured out of a hole in the front, coating her hand.

Blood.

Her blood.

Then the pain hit.  A stabbing agony exploding in her neck, like a scalpel twisting in her throat, cutting through every nerve.  And a burning sensation in her lungs, as they heaved and wheezed for breath, starved of oxygen.  Oh, scholars.

Someone had shot her in the throat.

She projected into the blood around the wound, plugging up the hole on both sides to slow the bleeding.  But that couldn’t stop the internal bleeding, the liquid filling up her windpipe, starving her of air.

Move.  Matilla staggered to her feet, her neck on fire, gagging and spitting up blood.

She took a step forward, and a baseball bat swung at her chest.  It slammed into the side of her ribcage, knocking her onto her side.  Matilla’s head slammed into the pavement and the world muffled around her.

Her vision blurred, and she blinked, clearing it as the throbbing headache grew and she gasped for air.

Four Green Hands stood above her, holding baseball bats.  Two men, two women.  Adults.  All beating on a defenseless girl, because she was, what, a Paragon student?  Because she wanted a future for her family, and believed in magic?  Who could be so cruel?

Burning rage rose inside Matilla, building in her chest and spreading to her arms and legs, until all her limbs were shaking, with either pain or anger.  Every muscle in her body seemed to tense, and everything that wasn’t the Green Hands faded into the distance.  Green lightning crackled around her, and her vision swirled around in circular patterns, like the universe was a bucket of paint being stirred before her.

The bats swung down, thudding into her arms and legs and stomach, knocking the wind out of her.  But the pain was far away, unimportant.  The adrenaline, the fury spreading through her veins was stronger, drowning out the agony.

Matilla gasped for breath, and as the Green Hands swung down, she tackled one of them in the stomach, shoving him to the ground.  As the thug fell, Matilla grabbed the baseball bat, wrestling for control.  The world wobbled back and forth in dizzying motion, spinning in circles, as the lightning grew around her.

She ripped the bat out of the man’s hands and shoved him to the ground.  Matilla swung it around her, knocking down another Green Hands.

Matilla narrowed in on one, lifted the bat, and swung it down on the man.  She swung it again and again, her hands aching as it impacted the Green Hands’ chest, neck, and face.  Bones and cartilage crunched beneath the weapon, and blood stained the end.  Or was that just red in her vision?

And as she swung the bat, something felt off about her anger.  Unnatural.  I’ve never been this angry before.  Normally, she barely even raised her voice.

A Whisper vocation.  Someone was messing with her head.  Why?

Matilla stopped swinging the bat, and narrowed in on the source of the rage.  She took a slow, deep inhale, and shifted her Pith, realigning her mind and calming her emotions.  She exhaled, and her vision cleared.  She looked down at her bloody target, the young man she’d been beating.

No, not a man.  Blonde hair.  Large green eyes.  Pale skin.  An arched nose, bent to the side from a blow.  Blood, trickling out of a bullet hole in the neck.  A Maxine Clive chassis.

Me.

Matilla was staring at herself.  It was like looking in a mirror.

She stared at her own hands holding the bat.  Green Circles had been tattooed on the backs, and her skin had turned a light brown color.  Nekean.

Forced transference.  Someone had forced a body swap between her and one of the Green Hands, while she was distracted with her wounds and the fight and the rage vocation.

She’d been beating her own chassis to a pulp.

And she was holding a baseball bat covered in her own blood.

Something thudded in the distance.  Matilla spun to her left, her arms shaking, still clutching the weapon.

Professor Isaac Brin stood at the far end of the alleyway, decked in full combat armor, his Guardian’s cloak flapping behind him.  His dark green eyes stared at her, unblinking.

Matilla opened her mouth to shout, and something moved in a blur.  An invisible fist punched her stomach, and she staggered back, crashing against a dumpster in a sitting position, dropping the baseball bat.

She glanced down.  A wide gash had been torn through her stomach, from the front to the back, exposing the purple and grey flesh inside.  Blood poured out, and a stabbing sensation exploded in her gut.

The other Green Hands fell, hit through the chest, the stomach, and the neck.  They dropped to the pavement, motionless.

The pain exploded again, this time in her stomach, a twisting, overwhelming ache that tore her insides up and screamed in her mind until she couldn’t think of anything else.

Matilla stretched her Pith out of her body, to project into the blood and slow the bleeding again.

Her soul bounced off her skin, locked inside her body.  She pushed again, but the resistance grew stronger, impossible to break out of.

Null Venom.  This body had been pre-injected with Null Venom, blocking her from external projection.

They planned for this.  They’d planned for all of this.

Blood poured out of the hole in her chest, forming a puddle on the pavement.  Matilla wheezed, every rattling inhale an agony.  “No – “ she croaked.  “No – “  The dart had hit near her diaphragm, making it hard to breathe or talk.  “Wait.”

Isaac Brin walked past her and projected into her original body’s clothes.  He lifted her body – the imposter’s body, now.  The Maxine Clive her parents had spent so much money on, so much effort.  Broken and bloodied in less than a minute.

One flick of his wrist, and the blood stopped pouring out of the imposter’s neck.

“No – “ wheezed Matilla.  “No.”

Isaac Brin didn’t even look at her.

They forced me into this body.  You’re saving a Green Hands.  Her lips moved, and she tried to articulate the words.  But nothing came out.  Only the faintest whisper, a soft hiss from her lips.

The ache doubled, and Matilla clutched her stomach, shaking.  Warm blood soaked into her hands.

I need to get his attention.  The Green Hands had shot her earlier.  Maybe they’d have a gun on them.

Matilla leaned forward, landing on her hands.  She pulled herself forward, dragging her torn belly along the pavement.  The pain spiked, a wave of pure agony exploding in her stomach.

She felt herself fade out of consciousness, and coughed, yanking herself back to reality.  Her hand reached forward and scrabbled at the closest Green Hands, feeling around his waist.

No gun.  No holster.  Not even a knife.

Her hand grasped onto something, pulling it close.  She squinted, focusing on it through the pain.

It was the silver envelope.  Her acceptance letter to Paragon.  The slip of paper she’d fought for with such passion.  Now stained red with a stranger’s blood, an imposter whose body she was now stuck in.

Isaac Brin turned away from Matilla, and walked down the alleyway, towards the hole she’d cut in the fence.

Wait,” she half-whispered, tears running down her face.  “I’m the real Matilla.”  I’m the real Matilla.

Brin didn’t hear her.  He leaned down, peering at the cracked bones and bloody wounds on the Maxine Clive body’s skull.  How many times did I hit it with the bat?  Her face was almost impossible to recognize.

Monsters.  How cruel were Commonplace, to trick her into destroying her own body?  Why force her into such brutality, such violence and horror?  Why make her turn her own face into a bloody mash?

Then it all came together.  Maxine Clive’s plan, why they’d put Matilla in this trap and forced the rage vocation on her.

Pith scans.  Paragon had given her two already, and they’d give her more at the start of the school year.  A general scan missed fine nuances, but could pick up big changes to a Pith, that could catch a serious hijacker or an imposter.

But brain damage could also alter your Pith, even after a transfer into a fresh body.  Make the general shape look different.  So if Commonplace wanted to sneak an imposter past a Pith scan, they just had to hit her on the head a few times, in a way that didn’t look staged.  Paragon would think the baseball bats caused the changes, but it would, in truth, be a whole different soul.

If they got her passwords and her subconscious key, the disguise would be perfect.

The stomach pain spiked again, and Matilla curled up, shaking.  Just how big is their operation?  “Grace” as a name had to be significant.  And Maxine Clive.  The original Maxine Clive was running all of Commonplace, plotting to destroy Paragon from within.

I have to warn them.

Matilla stretched her hands forward, pushed with her legs, and started crawling to the edge of the alleyway.  To Isaac Brin.

The pain grew a thousand times worse.  She felt something fall out of her stomach, dragging along the bloody pavement, and her insides burned.

But she kept crawling.  Inch by inch.  Brick by brick, she moved closer to the Scholar of Mass.

Another Guardian flew down from the sky, folding up her wingsuit and touching down next to Brin.  A stretcher and a bag of medical supplies flew down next to her, lifted with projection.

The Guardian turned, looking at Matilla and the dead Green Hands.

Matilla pushed, through the agony, through the exhaustion, with her blood and guts all strewn behind her.  With every bit of will in her body, she raised her left hand, stained with a Green Circle tattoo, and waved it back and forth.

A signal.  I’m still alive.  Help me.  With her injuries, speaking was impossible now.

Once they were all treated, she could explain the situation to Paragon’s counterintelligence team.  There would be a thousand ways to verify her identity over the imposter.  She could warn Paragon, help save countless lives, help save the whole country.

The Guardian looked at her for a moment.

Then she turned away, and put the stolen body on top of the stretcher.  Special treatment.  A fresh body had already been placed there, and the two chassis sat parallel to one another.

No.  No.  Matilla kept waving.  But no one was watching.

Blue and green lightning crackled around the Guardian and the imposter.  A forced transference.

Her old body, the Maxine Clive, flopped to the ground, limp, empty.  Blood pooled beneath its broken skull.

The imposter had been transferred to an emergency chassis on the stretcher, a young silver-haired woman.  Another Maxine Clive, that looked remarkably similar to the old chassis.

Fake-Matilla groaned, eyes fluttering.  She stirred to life on the stretcher, murmuring.  The girl looked weak, but otherwise unscathed.

Matilla kept waving.  A soft hissing noise came out of her throat, but nothing else.  They don’t think random Green Hands are worth interrogating.  Protecting their student and watching for other enemies took priority.

Isaac Brin unfurled his wingsuit and flew forward down the street, probably to survey the area and catch any other perpetrators.

The paramedic Guardian wheeled the stretcher down the sidewalk, away from the alleyway.

While the Guardian looked away, while no one but Matilla was watching, the imposter turned her head in the stretcher.  Looking back at the real Matilla.

For a split second, the two made eye contact.

And fake-Matilla winked.  A faint smirk played at the edge of her lips.

Then she passed out of sight.  The stretcher wheeled away from the dark alleyway.  The cars kept driving.  The remaining bystanders backed away from the crime scene, afraid of messing with Humdrum law enforcement that was certainly on the way.

And Matilla was left to die alone.

She flopped onto her back, in a lake of her own blood, guts spilling out of her belly.  The pain had muffled, grown distant.

Above her, beyond the dark rooftops of Elmidde, an oracle snake flew across the evening sky.  A silver omen, weaving back and forth through the clouds.

Matilla wanted to scream, to call for help, to wake herself from this nightmare and reclaim her destiny.

But all she could do was clutch her letter, shivering, as the universe faded away.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




9-D Silver Letters

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“I want to speak to the woman with half a thumb,” I said.  “I want to talk to your leader.”

The line went silent, but didn’t click.  They’re still listening.

I said nothing.  They’d heard me say I was the Blue Charlatan.  And if they weren’t asking questions, they knew who ‘the Blue Charlatan’ meant.

The phone stayed silent for a good thirty seconds.  The rain poured down around me, and I shivered in my wet clothes.

Then, someone picked up on the other end.

Hi, Ana,” said Tunnel Vision.

A wave of blinding rage washed over me.  My stomach clenched, and my hands shook as I gripped the receiver.  You broke out Lyna Wethers.  You let all those people get hijacked.  You’re the reason Kaplen killed himself.

I wrenched my thoughts into order.  Think, fool, think.  The Pyre Witch would be weighing her options.  Trace the call and send hitmen, or listen to what I had to say?

Maybe a part of her still saw me as a victim.  And I didn’t mind if she sent a sniper after me.  A bullet’s better than waiting another five months.

“Are you the leader of Commonplace?” I said, forcing my voice to stay calm.

Would you believe me if I said no?

“I’m sure you have some puppet,” I said.  “Some poor hijacked fool who the Humdrums see as one of their own.”  And now I’m sure you won’t let me talk to her.

Ah,” said the Pyre Witch.  “Now you’re thinking like a Guardian.”  It was clear she meant that as an insult.  “Perhaps you do belong in Paragon after all.”  Thunder boomed in the distance.  “Do you think I’m being hijacked too?  By the Droll Corsairs, or the Shenti, or some other bogeyman?

“No,” I said.  My instincts could be fooled of course, but something told me the Pyre Witch was a true believer.  Which, if anything, was more terrifying.

You were trying to make money,” said Tunnel Vision.  “To buy a new body.  Or get into Paragon and do the same.  You fought for survival.  A beetle, not an ant.

She said ‘fought’.  Past tense.  Did she know how much despair I felt now?

So,” she said.  “Why are you calling us?

“You tipped Paragon off, didn’t you?  You made them attack us.”  Who else would have done that?

I loaded the gun.  I gave it to them.  But Paragon Academy fired it. You were fighting their battles for pennies, and they still abandoned you.

“Shut up,” I said.  “Shut up.”  She hurts people.  She hurts people.  She burned civilians.  She freed Honeypot.

But doesn’t she have a point?  Did Lorne really need all those chassis in his mansion?  That vintage Maxine Clive body?

And you survived.  Perhaps I should have blown you up after all.”  Her voice grew irritated.  “You have wasted enough of my time already.  Why are you calling?

Lightning flickered in the night sky.  I stared up through the rain, catching a glimpse of the glowing lights of Paragon, before a cloud passed over them.

“I’ve read your pamphlets,” I said.  “I’ve heard the speeches at your rallies.  I know what you pretend to believe.  Disbanding the house of lords, projector regulation, redistributing chassis.  I also know you’re planning to burn down the country.”  I shivered, wrapping my free arm around my chest.  I couldn’t even project the water out of my clothes.  “What I want to know is why?  Humdrums in other nations have made changes, but they haven’t tried to destroy it all.

Tunnel Vision said nothing.  I stared down at my body, at my two destroyed fingers and my bulging grey veins and my twisted organs.  I gazed at the chassis that I’d failed to replace, that the world had sentenced me to.

“I want to know,” I said.  “Why you think this country can’t be saved.”

Tunnel Vision chuckled.  “If you want something that valuable,” she said.  “You’ll need to make a change first.

“A change?”

Tattoos.  On the backs of your hands.

A Green Circle.  She wanted me to become a Green Hands.  She’s trying to recruit me.

“I thought Commonplace didn’t want projectors.”

I’m an ex-Guardian,” she said.  “Kahlin’s a billionaire.  I think we can fit one illusionist.

I don’t know what to say.  I leaned on the payphone, dripping water onto the metal.  My lungs took slow, tired breaths.

I’d had no real plan for this call.  I’d hoped to get information, maybe, get an opportunity to cause real damage to Commonplace as one of my last acts.  Get revenge for Kaplen, for my destroyed future at Paragon.  Mentioning my name could get me killed, but it could also stir the pot more.

I hadn’t expected a job offer.

I’ll leave you to it,” said Tunnel Vision.  “If you change your mind in the coming months, go to 92 Tefrar Street, third floor, and read the paper behind the trash can.  If you accept the invitation, you’ll learn all about Paragon Academy.

The line clicked.  She hung up.  The Pyre Witch wasn’t going to shoot me after all.  Though it would be best to take a careful, roundabout path back to the house, just in case someone was tailing me.

I dropped the phone, and stumbled back into the dark rain.

________________________________________

When I woke up the next morning, I started to form the beginnings of a plan.  I called it Plan A92 Tefrar Street, third floor, trash can.  I would have to remember that.

And I said nothing to the others.  Not a word about the business card, or the phone call, or my half-baked ideas for my next move.

If the rest of Queen Sulphur knew what I was thinking, they’d try to stop me.  They wouldn’t want me to carry out Plan A.

I kept lying in bed, but instead of sleeping for fifteen hours a day, I started thinking of alternatives, different strategies I could use.

Because, to be honest, I didn’t want to carry out Plan A either.  The only move I could picture was unthinkable.

So in between brainstorming sessions, I lay back in my covers, held my Pith inside my body, and pretended I was somewhere else.  My Vocation was powered by my imagination, my ability to escape into a world outside reality.  So in a way, this counted as practice.

At least, that’s what I told myself.

As the days passed by, I pictured myself back in my house, in the agricultural islands.  I sat down in the dining room on my favorite chair, the one with blue cushions, that creaked when you moved but was more comfortable than all the rest.

Warm morning sunlight streamed into the window, the start of an exciting new day, and my mother deposited a plate of steaming pancakes in front of me.  I slathered maple syrup on them, and gazed out the window to the wheatfields in the distance.

A strand of red hair drifted into my face, and I brushed it aside, smiling.  I was inhabiting the body that Hira painted.  What would have happened, if I’d spent the last decade at home, without Loic’s Syndrome.  What was meant to be.

I sliced into the pancakes, and picked up a forkful.

Outside the window, a dark gravestone sat in my backyard.

Anabelle Gage
The road is broken, but the journey lives

Nausea crashed over me, and I dropped the fork.  No, don’t think about that.  Imagine something else.

I pictured myself on the ledge behind Alabaster Hall, at Paragon.  Kaplen and Tasia sat next to me on the outcropping, and we all laid back on the cool grass, gazing up at the moons overhead.  Cardamom nuzzled Kaplen’s shoulder, and he scratched behind the cat’s ears.

When I glanced down, my hair was red again, and my uniform was blue, instead of grey.

Kaplen poured me a cup of mulled cider, and I raised it to my lips.

When I sipped it, it tasted like sawdust.  Paragon abandoned you, whispered Tunnel Vision.  They all abandoned you.

I blinked, and saw myself in Clementine’s basement, splayed out on a filthy mattress.  The twin moons vanished, replaced by a dark wood ceiling.  Laughter echoed from the floors above.  The other servants having fun without me.  Or Clementine entertaining guests.

This was where I’d done most of my daydreaming, where my Vocation had gained its true power.  With the pain and mediocrity of my daily life, it was the only way to stay sane.

I hadn’t tried to escape like this for more than half a year – since I’d started working for Isaac Brin.  In those months, I’d learned how to shoot, how to project, how to use my Vocation in combat.  I’d made allies, friends.

But in a way, I was back to where I’d started, now.

I opened my eyes, and let the images fade away, finding myself back in the abandoned building, in reality, lying under a pile of scratchy blankets.

My right foot felt numb.

Scholars, not again.  Pulling my feet close, I slipped off my sock.

The fourth toe on my right foot had turned grey, frozen in place.  Dead and broken, like the two fingers on my right hand.  And that’s just what’s visible.  Who knew what was going on inside?

I’m running out of time.

But still, I couldn’t think of any alternatives to Plan A.

And for now, life went on.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d taken projection for granted.  After the fingers on my right hand had decayed, I’d used my abilities to compensate.  Now, even eating food, putting on clothes, or going to the bathroom became a complicated struggle.  I had to use three fingers, or my clumsy left hand, and all of it needed to be slow, meticulous, so I didn’t use projection by accident and activate Lorne’s tracer.

While I struggled with basic tasks, the rest of Queen Sulphur supplemented our funds with petty crimes, hitting smaller targets all around the city, adding memory wipes to hide them from Paragon.  With my distinct grey hair and veins, I couldn’t join in.  The veins alone had spread to my face, meaning I couldn’t hide myself even with a wig and makeup.

Besides, without projection, what help would I be?

Wes kept pushing for the group to steal a body from a vault or store.  Eminent Forms in Hightown, or the vintage Maxine Clive in Lorne’s mansion, or even Paragon’s vault, which he dreamt up during an especially wild train of thought.  After we had the body, we could go on a faraway vacation and get out of range of Lorne’s tracer, before transferring my Pith.

“The cable car station has subconscious keys and security questions,” said Hira.

“We have you,” said Wes.  “Your Vocation can steal all that.”

“And they do basic Pith scans,” said Hira.  “If one of us tries to be an imposter in a student’s body, they’ll see the differences in Piths right away.  It’s not possible.”

But despite all of Wes’ complaints, no one came up with a realistic plan.  My illusions were our best method of infiltration, and after the Commonplace riots, all the body stores had ramped up their security.  My first body theft had been a stroke of luck, a piece of critical intel I’d snatched from Clementine at the perfect moment.  We had nothing like that now.

And outside Elmidde, none of us knew where to find spare chassis.  The culture of projection in the Principality was concentrated around the capital.

One night, when I was in another room, Wes suggested breaking into a prison on the opposite end of the country, hunting down some mass murderer who we could do a forced transference on.  I overheard his voice through a wall, pretending to be asleep.

Hira laughed at that.  “Think you’re the first shithead to think of that?  All our faces and Vocations are going to be on a list for them.  And that’s assuming Lorne’s tracer won’t reach that far.  A full transference is going to send a big signal.  Even I don’t know the true limits of that technique.”

“Then we go overseas,” said Wes, pacing back and forth, folding origami in his hands.  “Neke, like Jun suggested.  Just for a few weeks.  We steal some mass-murderers body there, then come back.”

“Out of the four of us,” said Left-Hira.  “How many speak either of Neke’s languages?”  Just her.

“We can’t just abandon her,” Wes snapped.  “You might be some cutthroat mercenary, but she’s the only reason I got this far.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “The bitch is loyal.  And she knows how to fight.  But I don’t have a workable plan.  You don’t either.  And neither does she, which is why she’s rotting away on that mattress for days on end.”

“Fuck me,” muttered Wes.

“I’ll pass,” said Hira.  “The walls are thin here.”

With all the alone time, I listened to radio shows on a set that Jun had fused out of spare parts.  The Broadcast King’s propaganda dominated the airwaves, seeping into almost every news show.  But if I focused, I could pick out the truth from the mountain of whaleshit.

The Humdrums protested more, and the Green Hands incited them into riots.  The prime minister made feeble pleas to the public, urging everyone to remain civil.  Members of parliament shouted at each other, too hesitant to stamp out the chaos.

As spring turned into summer, new MPs got elected, and Commonplace won six hundred and nineteen seats, almost enough for a majority.  As a news reporter blurted the numbers from the radio, I found myself wondering.  If we’d killed Afzal Kahlin in his penthouse, could we have avoided all this?

And while this all happened, the students and teachers of Paragon spent more and more time away, sealing themselves in the academy and their mansions, tripling the guards at the cable car station.  The body stores tripled their guards too, making a break-in even more impossible.

Paragon is preparing for war.  But they weren’t stepping in to fix things, either.

Through all this, Verity became my favorite show.  Christea Ronaveda couldn’t escape Kahlin’s influence, but the woman was literally incapable of lying.

I’m going to leave the Principality this year,” she said one evening, as I huddled under my blankets.  “Fuck patriotism, fuck ‘doing my part’, fuck courage.  Ilaqua has karaoke bars.  I want to eat cake, belt some catchy shit, and forget about my problems.  How am I supposed to do that when half the bloody city’s on fire?  And to those of you who tell me that fleeing is a ‘luxury’, and that I’m a ‘rich bitch celebrity who’s out of touch with the common folk’, that’s absolutely true.  Living in a bubble of wealth and ignorance is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  Don’t like that?  Listen to a different show.  Or buy a gun and rob me.

Um, Christea,” said her producer.  “This is a segment about gardening.

Oh, right,” she said.  “Gardening is boring, and involves massaging cow dung into the dirt for hours.  But on the plus side, it gives you a fuckload of potatoes for when our supply lines collapse and society descends into chaos.  So it’s best to convince your red-hot, mentally stable boyfriend to do it for you.

Yeah,” her guest said, also forced to tell the truth by her Vocation.  “I’m moving to Ilaqua next week.  I already have a summer house there.

Bloody rich people.  But Verity was still a good chart of the country’s decline.

When nothing interesting was on the radio, I just listened to swing music and watched Wes and Hira study.  Wes insisted on singing along whenever a Steel Violet song came on, which made for an amusing distraction.

Sometimes, the pair left to practice projection in some secluded space, but they spent most of their time here, poring over books, filling out practice tests that Hira had stolen from college professors.

“I’m moving too slow.”  Wes fidgeted with a piece of paper.  “Samuel spends way more time studying, and I’m sure ‘Tasia’ does even more.”

“Sure,” said Hira.  “All my favorite fighting pits are hunting me now, so it’s not like I’ve got better shit to do.”

But the longer they studied, the more frustrated Wes became.  When Hira left to buy groceries or drugs, Wes slumped over on his books and folded origami, absentminded and exhausted.

After watching him do this a dozen times, I spoke up from my bed.  “Do you care about my opinion?”

“To my surprise, I do.”

I pushed myself upright, wrapping my blankets around my shoulders, and trudged over to Wes.  “I think you’re doing it wrong.”

“Great,” said Wes.  “You, my mother, and half of Paragon.”

“No,” I said.  “I mean – you’re trying to study like your fiance.  But you’re not Samuel, you’re Wes.”

“So this is the sort of stunning insight you got out of bed for.”  He folded an origami crane.

I shivered, wrapping my arms around each other.  “It seems like you’re just doing what you did in Paragon, except with Hira yelling at you.”

“To be fair, he’s really good at yelling.”

“Don’t be Samuel,” I said.  “Be Wes.  Have pride in your own mind.”

Wes chuckled.  “You,” he said, “are lecturing me about pride.”

“I failed.”  I stared at the floor.  “I’d give anything for a different life.  And I know I’m not special.”  I thought of Headmaster Tau’s words, and Lorne’s.  Everyone hopes they have a grand destiny.  “But I’m me.  I wouldn’t be anyone else.  I’m not going to beat myself up trying to mold myself into the right shape.”

“What about that thing you told me about?” said Wes.  “‘Write the next page’ or whatever.”

“‘Write the next page’ doesn’t mean ripping out the rest of the book,” I said.  “At Paragon, they say ‘forge the stars in your image’, not ‘throw your image in the trash’.”

“What if your image belongs in the trash?”

“I’m not clever, Wes,” I sighed.  “I’m just saying that you should be flexible instead of trying to headbutt your way through everything.”  I glanced down at the chemistry textbook.  “Your biggest problem is when you get distracted and tired, right?”

Wes shrugged.  “I guess.”

“So, what’s making you distracted and tired?  Self-awareness isn’t just about self-deprecating humor – ”

“But that’s the only thing I’m good at.”

“ – It’s about improving yourself.”  I stared at Wes.  “What was that thing Jun said?  Self-loathing is your security blanket.  Don’t hang yourself with it.”  I stared at the floor.  “You’ve still got a future.  What it looks like is up to you.”

“Why are you helping me?” said Wes.  “If things go right for me, I’ll be using these studies against your friend Tasia.”

“You’re my friend, I guess,” I said.  “I want all my friends to succeed.”  And a part of me doubted that we would ever get to that point.

Then I flopped back onto the bed.  Solving other people’s whaleshit was so much easier than confronting my own.

When Hira came back, Wes stood up.  “Let’s try something different,” he said.

Over the next few weeks, their routine shifted.  Wes and Hira took shorter, more frequent study sessions with rotating topics, to accommodate Wes’ short attention span, and scheduled them all so Wes had structure.  Rather than sitting down and burying his face in a book, Wes paced back and forth while floating his reading in front of him, folding a piece of origami with his hands.

Then the two of them moved to a different room, and asked me to turn down the radio, removing Wes from distractions that broke his focus.

And then, something remarkable happened.  Hira stopped yelling at Wes.  The boy had said something to her, and their shouting voices stopped ringing out from the door.

As a result, I saw less and less of them, as studying became easier for them.

And I kept sitting on my hands.  The only thing I studied was telegraph code, the old communications system used by the military to turn dots and dashes into letters.  Spring turned into early summer, and I still didn’t enact Plan A.  I still couldn’t think of a better option.

Time passed in a haze, and the days grew hot and humid.  The overwhelming heat made the anemia chills more bearable, but also drenched my clothes with sweat.

One morning, I found myself shaving with my left hand.  My remaining right fingers had turned stiff, incapable of anything more precise than holding my machine pistol, so I had to use my off hand.

Everything else in my life had fallen apart, but no matter what, I wasn’t going to let myself grow stubble.

My hand slipped, and the razor nicked my face, sending a thin trickle of blood down my chin.  It dripped onto the floor, and I looked down.

Small tufts of grey hair sat on the white tile.  Last night, I’d run my hands through my scalp, and chunks had fallen off without me noticing.

I’m going bald.  More than anything, that fact made me sick to my stomach.  And the decay had spread to three more of my toes, turning them withered and grey.  The infrequent showers and heat made my body odor worse, too, a thick stench that I couldn’t get used to, no matter how hard I tried.

Another red droplet splattered onto the bits of fallen hair.  I stared at it, transfixed.  Most caterpillars die in the cocoon.

A cat meowed nearby, and I spun, turning towards the source.  It meowed again, and I strode forward out of the bathroom.  Where is that coming from?

The meow rang out a third time, and I ran to the front door, throwing it open.  A cat with long green fur sat on our doorstep, staring up at us.  Cardamom.

Somehow, the wily feline had found his way back to us.  He’d tracked our scent, or saw Wes and Hira around the city.

Scholars, I’ve missed you,” I said.  I picked him up and hugged him, petting the warm fluff on the back of his head.  Then I carried him back into the house, towards the rest of Queen Sulphur.  “Look who I found.”

Jun’s eyes widened, and he jumped up, running over and petting Cardamom.  Left-Hira pulled the cat out my arms and scratched behind his ears.  “You made it.  Clever green bastard.”

Right-Hira stood up.  “There’s nothing big and obvious on his Pith.  I don’t think this is a trap.”

Left-Hira stretched Cardamom out to Wes, who sat at the table, looking away.

“Fine,” the boy grumbled, and started to pet Cardamom.  He’s still ashamed that his body has the Maojun bacteria.  Wes liked Cardamom a great deal, but wasn’t about to admit it to anyone.

We reveled in our cat’s return for a good half an hour, before the others left to go on a ‘mission’, or whatever we called petty crime nowadays.  I lay down in bed and Cardamom curled up next to me, purring.

It was a moment of pure bliss.  The happiest I’d been in months.

This is as good as it gets.  I was never going to be as happy as I was right now.

As I thought that, my hand reached into my bag, pulling out the metal pillbox at the bottom.  I flipped it open, staring at the dozens of white pills inside.

Kraken’s Bone.  Ventrinol.  The pills meant for Lyna Wethers.  That had taken Kaplen’s life.

If I downed these, I’d be vomiting blood in minutes – faster, if I took them all on an empty stomach.  In a short timespan, my Pith would be sealed inside my body, and soon after, it would all be over.

I closed my eyes.  Kaplen’s face stared back at me, desperate, imploring, as I poured seven pills into the gift basket at his bedside table.

Months ago, I’d told Wes to feed these to me, if my brain decayed and I forgot who I was.  That might be sooner than you think.  I didn’t want him to make that choice.  I didn’t want to put him in that position.

There was a single, core reason why I didn’t like Plan A: If I carried it out, I would almost certainly die.

I’d faced difficult opponents before, come out of odds that seemed impossible at first, but if I went forward with this, it would be a suicide mission in the most literal sense.

Going through with it would be admitting defeat.  Accepting that my life had come to an end, that it was time to embrace death, no matter how much I’d fought it until now.

With this happy moment, I could go out on a good note.  Say goodbye before things got much worse and I dragged my friends into a darker place.  I’d had my shot at a new body, at becoming a Guardian.  Now it was time to face the inevitable.

This would free my friends from a lot of burdens, but it would also devastate them.  Maybe it was a selfish act, like so many people said.

But it had been a rough month, a rough year.  A rough two decades.  I’d earned a selfish act or two.

Before the rest of Queen Sulphur came back, I went to 92 Tefrar Street, an apartment building on the border of Midtown and Lowtown.  The door to the stairwell was unlocked.  I went to the third floor and spotted a trash can at the end of the hallway.

Leaning down, I reached behind it and pulled out a silver envelope.  Then I peeled it open and shook it, to drop a piece of paper onto my hand.

ADULT Class STANDARD
FROM: ELMIDDE E PLAT 7
TO: RACHDALE
DATE: 6/21/520 – 0455
ROUTE: 1449
ONE-WAY

A train ticket.  For tomorrow morning.

And Rachdale was a tiny mining town towards the core of the Principality, northwest at the end of the line, with a station in the middle of being dismantled.  I flipped it over, reading the words scrawled on the back.

Walk east

I walked back to the house, and thought over my plan.

That night, the other members of Queen Sulphur stayed up late again, playing Jao Lu and some other card game.  I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep.

The next morning, while they all snored away, I pushed myself out of bed, eyes aching, and threw on my clothes over my blue combat suit, with a grey beanie to cover my hair and bald spots.  I left my machine pistol and cattle prod on my bed, and made sure to avoid the creaky parts of the floor.

I shut the door behind me and strode into the morning twilight, heading for the train station.  Dim streetlamps shone down on the cobblestone, and the wind blew a paper bag across my path.

The platform was empty as the train arrived, a lone light in the darkness, barreling down the tracks.  It rushed past me, blowing air into my face, and slowed to a stop.

The train had emptied too.  I got a whole car to myself, a grey metal box with creaky wooden seats.  I sat down on one, slouching over.  It would take hours to get to my destination, so I had lots of time to think.

A warm summer breeze blew around me, thick and heavy.  Outside the station, the streetlamps flickered off, signaling the dawn to come, and a thick layer of fog had descended over the city.  After a few minutes, the train engine huffed and puffed, preparing to leave.

The carriage jerked, and the train started moving.  As it accelerated, a figure sprinted down the dark platform, pumping its arms.  It leapt onto the car behind me as the train sped up, chugging down the slope towards the edge of the city.

We passed westwards over a bridge, leaving Elmidde Island and Mount Elwar behind, as the lights of the city flickered off, one by one.  Hightown, Midtown, Lowtown.  The outer islands.  Paragon Academy.  All fading in the distance.

Through the foggy glass, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the figure move in the other car, staggering towards me.

I clenched my fists, hunching over further.  My weapons were at home, my body was weak, and any projection would alert Lorne to my location.  I’m defenseless.

The figure opened the door between cars and stepped through, revealing its narrow face and light brown hair.  Wes.

I exhaled, but only a little.

Wes stumbled over to me and leaned against a seat, wheezing.  “Lost you for a few dozen blocks,” he gasped.  “Wasn’t sure which place you were going to.  And the Humdrum at the ticket desk.  Scholars, he moved like a sloth on ataraxia.”  He slumped down on the seat next to me, catching his breath.  “So what are you doing?  Trying to leave us?”

“No.”  I avoided eye contact.  Elmidde had shrunk in the distance, until the entire mountain looked like a foggy blot on the ocean.  “Leave.”

Wes bit his lip, thinking for a moment.  “No thanks.”

Why?” I said through gritted teeth.

“I’ve seen that look,” he said.  “You’re about to pull an Ana.”

“An Ana.”

“Charging off.  Doing something harebrained and dangerous just because you think it’s right.”

I stared out the window.  The landscape around us turned flat and grassy, as we left the outskirts of the city and entered the countryside.

“We’re running in place,” I said.  “And I don’t have much time left.”

“Whatever you’re planning, there’s got to be a better option.”

I held up the grey fingers on my right hand, then pointed to the swollen veins inching up my cheeks, the fresh bald spots on my head, under my beanie.  “I’m all ears,” I said.  “But give it a week and those might be gone too.”

Wes gazed out the window with me, as the hills and meadows of the central Principality rolled by.  He didn’t say anything.

“You have nothing,” I said.  “No escape plan.  I’ve been trying to think of a clever way out for months, and I have nothing.”

“That’s not true,” said Wes.  “You have, whatever – “  My ticket shifted in my hands, as Wes felt its contents.  “Whatever ‘walk East’ is.  What is that?  What were you avoiding for weeks and weeks?”

“If I tell you, you have to promise not to try and stop me.”

Wes laughed, the sound echoing around the empty train car.  “Ana, when have I ever been able to stop you from doing something?”

Fair enough.

“I came here to back you up.”

I explained what had happened – the Commonplace business card, the phone call with Tunnel Vision, the offer.  We left the bank of clouds over Elmidde, and the morning sun washed over us, bathing us in warm yellow light, lighting up the towns and villages we sped by.

“And your plan?” said Wes.

“Tunnel Vision and her friends know almost everything I can do,” I said.  “My illusions, my projection, my weapons, my allies.  Maybe even that one Voidsteel bullet in my gun.”  I leaned forward, lowering my voice.  “But unless she’s truly penetrated the highest levels of Paragon, she won’t know about the tracer Lorne’s put on me.”

“So?” said Wes.

“I’m going to meet the leaders of Commonplace,” I said.

Wes’ eyes widened.  “Don’t tell me you’re going to join them.”

“I’m going to meet them, and start projecting.  In patterns of long and short.  Not just sending my location to Lorne, but giving him a message in – “

“ – Telegraph code,” breathed Wes.  “That’s why you requested that book.”

“Paragon won’t just know where I am,” I said.  “They’ll know who I’m meeting, what bodies they’re in, how many guards they’re with, and the exact locations where they’re standing.”  The Pyre Witch is responsible for Kaplen’s death.  That couldn’t be forgiven, no matter what flaws Paragon had.

“And they’ll attack while you’re still there,” said Wes.  “They might just level the whole area.  That’d be the safer option.”

“Yes.”  And Commonplace might take me out of range, or not show me their leaders at all.

“And even if the Guardians don’t blow it all up, the enemies will know exactly what you did as soon as Paragon shows up.  They’ll put a bullet in your skull before you can say ‘Voidsteel’.”

“Yes,” I said.  “But if I make it out, I’ll have helped destroy one of the greatest threats in this nation’s history.  If anything can earn me a pardon, it’ll be that.  I just have to survive.”

“But you probably won’t,” said Wes.  “There’ll be an ocean of enemies, and as you said, they all know what you can do.”

“Yes,” I said.  “There are another fifteen stops between here and Rachdale.  You can get off at any one of them.”  The train shook as it went over a bridge.  “I made this choice alone.  And I have nothing else to lose.”

Wes leaned back in his seat, folding his hands behind his head.  “My studies have been going well,” he said.  “If I go up against that b – Tasia  – again, I’ll do much better than last time.”  He clenched his fists.  “But I have nothing on the Broadcast King.  No leads, no strategies, no brilliant ideas.  Samuel and my friends are looking very far away.”

But you still have a working body.  And he seemed not to mind it all that much.  Wes would still be breathing in six months.

Takonara,” said Wes.  “I could use an image boost too.”  He grinned.  “Besides.  You need someone to do all the talking so you don’t panic and trip over your words.”  Wes’ eyes lit up.  “The witch likes pyres?  Let’s give her one.”

He’s trying to protect me.  “You don’t have to do this,” I said.  “There are probably better ways to go after Kahlin.  To save your family.”

Wes extended his hand to me.  “Let’s write the next page together, Anabelle Gage,” he said.  “Let’s win together.  And if we don’t, let’s give those bastards a show they’ll remember.”

At his friend’s bar, Wes had joked about starting a suicide pact.  This isn’t far away from that.

But I extended my hand to him, and we clasped each other’s forearms.  Even though I could only move three of my fingers.

The landscape changed from green to grey, as we passed through other cities, and made stops.  People got on the train, and filtered out, one by one.  The temperature rose with the sun, turning my shivers into sweat.

At the second-to-last stop, everyone but us got off.  When the train kicked into motion again, we found ourselves surrounded by endless, flat plains.  Tall yellow grass as far as the eye could see, without a hint of civilization in sight.

Finally, at the end of the line, the train jerked to a stop, the engine hissing.  I shook the sleeping Wes, waking him up.  He groaned, rubbing the crust out of his eyes.  “I was having the most horrible nightmare.  Can I go back to that, please?”

We stepped out onto an empty platform.  Half the station had been torn down, surrounded by scaffolding, metal beams exposed to the air.  It looked like a construction project in reverse.

I glanced outside the station, to Rachdale, the town around us.  It was barely a village, consisting of a row of houses and a dirt road extending to the north, with a handful of boarded-up shops scattered throughout the empty street.

“What happened here?” said Wes.

“Used to be a mining town, I think,” I said.  “The mine got used up.”

We descended a flight of stairs, and stepped away from the shade of the platform, into the glaring sunlight.  A trio of people exited the platform on the far side, walking into Rachdale with their backs turned to us.  Other than that, we were alone.

Squinting, Wes traced the path of the sun with his finger and turned around, pointing towards the endless plains leading away from the town.  “That’s East,” he said.

Further in that direction, I spotted the faint outline of a road, winding and eventually turning East on a direct line from the train station.  That’s where we need to go.

Without a word, we both walked forward into the tall grass.  The noon sun glared down on us, and we crushed weeds with every step.  Before long, we’d drenched both of our shirts with sweat, and I found myself craving ice water.

We reached the road.  How old is this?  Weeds and yellow grass sprouted between the cobblestones, obscuring it, and a dusting of soil sat on top.  People haven’t come this way in a long time.

Wes and I stepped onto the pavement, and kept walking east.  After a time, the area grew less flat, and we went over a series of hills, one after the other.  When we glanced back, the town and train tracks had gone out of sight.

The road dipped, then climbed up again, over the tallest hill yet.  My legs burned as we climbed to the top, and I leaned on my knees to catch my breath.

“We’re here,” said Wes.

At the bottom of the hill, a town stretched out before us.

And not just any town.  The houses, the storefronts, every building I could see had been reduced to rubble.  Walls had been torn to pieces.  Bricks, splintered wood, and stone sat in huge piles.  Lamp posts and power lines had been knocked over, ripped in half.  Trees at the edges had been reduced to a blackened crisp.

And in the streets below, people milled about, marching in lines around the perimeter or assembling in neat rectangles.  Trucks drove in and out of the city, bumping up and down on the tall grass.  A Commonplace base.  One of many, no doubt.

“I know what this is,” said Wes.  “This is Helmfirth.  Just after the war ended, something like a decade ago, a team from the Droll Corsairs broke into an experimental missile silo in the South Principality.  Instead of launching them at Elmidde, or some other critical target, they sent them all here.”

“Why?” I said.  The Droll Corsairs were a private military company, not random terrorists.

“Most people think they fucked up the coordinates, or were using it as some sort of test.  Nobody knows who hired them.”  He squinted down at the activity below.  “I thought it had been closed off to the public.  Of all the places they could infest, why is Commonplace here?”

Let’s find out.  At this range, Lorne’s tracer would still work.

I strode down the hill, and Wes followed after me.

A muscular Shenti man sat cross-legged on a pile of rubble at the edge of the town, right in our path.  Pictogram.  The sniper from Attlelan Island who’d killed our allies, nearly killed us.

He cracked an egg against a brick, and poured the raw yolk into his mouth.  A massive rifle leaned against the wall next to him, but he made no move towards it.

Pictogram tossed the eggshells aside and glanced at us.  He’s checking us for weapons.  With his enhanced vision, he only needed one look.  Strange to see him out in the open.  I thought that Commonplace wanted to hide their Shenti ties.

He nodded, relaxed, and jabbed his thumb behind him, pointing down the street.

Wes opened his mouth, raising his finger like he was about to say something, then stopped himself.  Good move.  If these people got pissed at us, they might put bullets in our skulls and save themselves the trouble.

The two of us walked down the street.  The rubble had been swept to the side, leaving a clear path for us.  Lines of Green Hands jogged past us, giving us the occasional confused glance.  But no one talked to us.

A truck screeched in front of us, shattering the silence, and we stopped, watching it pass.  I glanced at the back as it drove away.  It’s full of weapons.

At the end of the street, we reached a single building left standing amongst all the rubble, the one structure that hadn’t been demolished by the missiles.  A two-story house with a manicured lawn and a white picket fence out front.  The windows had been polished to perfection, and a series of blooming flower pots sat in the windows, growing buttercups.

In this ruin, it looked surreal.  Unnatural.  This has to be the place.

I opened the picket fence and walked down the tile path.  Wes followed me, and we hovered in front of the doorway, unsure of what to do next.

After some hesitation, I stretched my hand forward and pressed the doorbell.  A chime rang out inside, and behind a window, a figure moved towards us.  Is this her?  Could this be the leader of Commonplace?

The door swung open, revealing a middle-aged woman with wavy blonde hair.  A breeze blew her dark green longcoat around her, revealing a holstered pistol at her waist.

And her face.  What happened to her face?  Scars ran up and down her cheeks and neck, crisscrossing over each other.  Where they met, bits of her face had been rearranged.  Her jawline zigzagged.  Her forehead sloped at an alarming angle, and her nose bulged and bent in all the wrong places.  

Piercing blue eyes stared at us, weary.

Despite all that, she looked familiar.  Where have I seen that face before?  The woman reminded me of the photographs I’d seen of Wes’ mother, Rowyna Ebbridge.  In fact, she was near-identical to many fabricated bodies I’d seen.

Then, it hit me.  The woman looked like a popular chassis model.  The first ever model of chassis, invented decades ago by Semer Bekyn.

Then: I know her name.

“Good afternoon,” the woman said.  “I’m Maxine Clive.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




9-C Silver Letters

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

I floated in an ocean of whispers.

The world blurred around me, every object fuzzing at the edges like a messy watercolor, buildings and people and objects fading into one another.

I had been teleported to the bottom of the sea, and the air itself had turned to a swirling liquid around me.

No, a voice whispered at the edge of my consciousness.  You’ve been drugged.  Penny Oakes hit you with knockout gas.  Snap out of it.

But there were so many voices, so many whispers.  How was I supposed to tell which ones were real?  Maybe they all were.  Maybe none of them were.

I do pity you, poor thing.”  Clementine’s voice.

No matter how bad it gets. Do you think your soul is worth fighting for?” Isaac Brin said in the distance.

I waved my arms around me, touching the fluid objects next to me.  The ground wobbled beneath me like gelatin, making my legs shake just to keep me from falling over.

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.

Write the next page,” a boy’s voice drifted to me through the water.  “Fight for it.

I know that voice.  “Kaplen!” I shouted, looking all around me.  “Kaplen!”

Where was he?  I couldn’t see him anywhere, but he had to be here somewhere.  Kaplen would know what to make of this situation.

He’s dead, another voice whispered.  And if you don’t wake up, you’ll join him.

Something gnawed at my stomach, a pit opening wider and wider.  I glanced down.  A wide gash had been torn in my stomach, all the way from the front to the back.  Inside, greyish-purple flesh shifted around, as blood poured out of the hole.

Then, someone grabbed my hand, and the ground became solid again.

I was standing on a fire escape, and someone was pulling me up, dragging me from one landing to the next as my leg muscles burned.

Is this the real world?  Have I woken up?

When I glanced up, the fire escape extended into the sky, stretching upwards to infinity.  As I climbed, the light bled out of the sun, turning the world from day to night.

The twin moons shone down on me, but as I clambered up the metal steps, they faded too, and the night turned a pitch black.  All dark.  An empty, infinite, void, with no stars.

Then, something flickered, high above in the distance.  A green light, growing brighter and brighter until it stretched across the entire night sky in a pattern of glowing ribbons. It flickered, its edges tinged with blue and purple and red.

An aurora.  Like the northern lights.  It fought back the darkness, shining a beacon of hope, of magnificence and awe.

I climbed faster up the fire escape, no longer being pulled.  The staircase tilted back, getting steeper and steeper until I was climbing it like a ladder.

Faster, faster.  I accelerated upwards, and gravity lightened around me.  Each time I grabbed the steps, my pace quickened, until I was soaring into the sky, towards the aurora and its beckoning warmth.

I stretched my hand out to the light, getting closer and closer, reaching.

A face stretched over the heavens, blotting out the light.  A boy with pitch-black hair and icy blue eyes.  Lorne Daventry.

“Morning, Ernest.”  He waved at me.  “You’ve been up to some mischief, haven’t you?”

Above me, the fire escape became a molten soup, melting like a snowball in boiling water.  It flattened into a horizontal wall, hiding Lorne’s movements.  Where is he?

Something moved out of the corner of my eye, and I spun to look.  Lorne soared down past us, connected to the fire escape with a thread of molten metal.

When we got within range of his Vocation, he yanked the thread.  The metal connecting the fire escape to the building turned to liquid, severing it from the wall.

Wait, it’s attached to a wall?  I blinked, and the infinite stairway became an ordinary fire escape.  It screeched, dropping away from the brick apartment building.

I dropped with it, flailing my arms.  My stomach wrenched, and the darkness enveloped me.

Wes’ voice whispered in my ear.  “I’ll fight for you, Anabelle Gage.

A hand stretched out and grabbed my wrist, stopping my fall.  Its fingers dug into my skin, and it yanked me, into a window of the apartment building.

My shoulder slammed on the wooden floor, and the darkness vanished, replaced by dim grey sunlight.  Objects stopped bleeding into one another, and the ocean vanished, turning everything solid and ordinary again.

Left-Hira and a grey-haired boy stood next to me, wearing gas masks and holding a shotgun and briefcase, respectively.  Someone had put a gas mask over my head, too.  This is real.  It had to be.

“Ana,” said the grey-haired boy, in my voice.  “You still dreaming?”  That’s me.  It was like staring at a mirror.

No.  You swapped bodies with him, remember?

I grabbed a wall to steady myself, shaking off the dizzy sensation.  “Just a little,” I said.

“Great,” said Wes, patting me on the shoulder.  “Because your old boss is setting us on fire, and we’d love it if you could join us.”

“Move your ass!” shouted Hira.

They ran through the hallways, and I followed them.  In the stairwell, a cloud of smoke rose from below, and fires flickered in the lower levels.  None of the sprinklers were working.  Lorne’s blocking off our escape.

“Up!” shouted Hira.

We sprinted up the stairs, towards the roof.  One level below the top, an orange beam of light exploded through the ceiling, slicing through the concrete like it was made of cardboard.

We leapt to the side, heat washing over my face.

When the roof crumbled away, the sky had turned black again.  It’s not real.  Lorne floated over us, and for a second, the green aurora flickered behind him, burning my eyes.

He floated high above us, far out of my range.  A sphere of water surrounded him, peppered with sheets of paper from Wes’ attacks.

Hira blasted him with her shotgun.  The bullets zipped through the water, making ripples, but none of them touched Lorne.  Not Voidsteel.  Against his ABD, they’d be useless.

Spheres of molten metal floated around him, and he squeezed two of his fingers together, flicking them in our direction.

The closest sphere shot towards us, becoming another beam.  Wes yanked me by my collar, pulling me down the stairs and out of the way.  We landed with a thud on the floor of the apartment building, and Hira clenched her teeth, nursing a burn on her right arm.

This was Lorne’s Vocation.  The technique that made him the only platinum-ranked projector in his class.  So lethal, so full of raw power that it got banned from squad battles at Paragon.  With a touch, he could melt any metal, and shoot it with enough force to knock over cars.

We scrambled down the stairs, as beams of metal sheared through another level.  “How the fuck do we beat him?” shouted Wes.  “Takonara.

None of our attacks were working.  He knew everything we could do, and he was keeping us at a distance, staying out in the open.  My trick to beat ABDs from earlier wouldn’t work without anyone next to him.

We’d gotten lucky, but Lorne had outplayed us now.

“How do we take him out?” said Wes, repeating himself.

Hira held up a green bullet, spinning it between her fingers.  Voidsteel.  Where did she get that?

We all knew what that meant.  We’d shot other projectors, but with normal bullets.  Their bodies could be replaced.

But if we hit Lorne with Voidsteel, it would damage his Pith.  At best, the injury would be permanent, disabling.  At worst, it would kill him, and no chassis could save him.

Hira and Wes looked at me.  They still think I’m a leader.  After everything I’d put them through.  After I’d gotten us trapped in a burning building, surrounded by enemies, wanted by every Guardian in the city, they were still looking at me, trusting me.

I don’t deserve it.  But that didn’t matter.  They trusted me all the same.

“Shoot him,” I said.  “Not a headshot, if you can, but somewhere that’ll stop him from chasing us.  But don’t telegraph it.  Find an opening first.”

Wes scowled, with my face.  Hira nodded.  “And until then?”

I glanced down the hallway, out the window.  “We run.”

Hira sprinted down the hallway, loading the green bullet into a pistol at her waist.  We ran after her, and she blasted the window with her shotgun, shattering the glass.  She leapt across another alleyway, projecting into her clothes to lift her, and smashed through another window.

Wes leapt after her, soaring into the next building.  They make it look easy.

I jumped out of the window, arms flailing, my foot clipping the edge of the sill.  Then I projected into my clothes, dragging myself up, up, up.

A headache exploded inside my skull, and blue lightning flickered around me.  My shirt ripped, and I jerked downwards.

Wes grabbed my hand from the window, yanking me up before I slammed into the wall.  I landed on the floor with a thud.  Normally, an impact like this would be pure agony, but in Wes’ body, I could shake it off in seconds.

Wes helped me up, and we burst out of the empty apartment and into another one, racing to the far side of the building.

We ran through a bedroom, and Wes slammed into the side of a desk, knocking over a plate of bacon and eggs.  “Hey!” A man shouted at us as we passed his spilled meal.

“Sorry!” I shouted, as Hira burst through another window.  The second jump was easier than the first, with a shorter distance, towards a house several stories down that required less lifting on my part.  Wes formed a wall of paper above us, hiding some of our movements from above.

As I soared through the second window, a blast of molten metal tore through Wes’ barrier, raining hot bricks and liquid steel all around us.  A pair of droplets landed on my forearm, burning it, and I hissed with the pain.

Lorne’s not too accurate with his blasts.  That was good.  But the boy was still following us.

Hira held up a hand before we broke through the next window.  “Jun has an escape plan he’s explaining to my other body,” she muttered under her breath.  “This way.”

She made us turn left, through a different hallway, smashing through a different window and leaping into a different apartment building.

As we ran, Lorne’s voice rang out from the walls around us.  “This entire year, I’ve been asking myself: How did someone this clueless get into Paragon?  Even as a Grey Coat.”  The wood and brick vibrated, making noise.  “Now I know.

We leapt through another two buildings, directed by Hira, still pursued by Lorne, until my clothes had torn all over and my head felt like it was imploding.

“I can’t keep this up,” I wheezed in Wes’ voice, too exhausted to speak with illusions.

“One more,” said Hira.  We ran through the hallway.

What did Headmaster Tau tell you last night?” said Lorne.

More than you might think.  Even though I’d only understood half of the old man’s words, I knew this much: he’d told me about my talent, my potential, my future.

Did he flatter you?  Did he say, ‘your destiny will reveal itself in time’?”  Lorne’s bitter laughter rang around us.  “He says that to everyone.

My stomach wrenched.  No.  This was just another mind game.  Lorne must have listened in to our conversation.

Headmaster Tau loves rambling about destiny.  It’s his favorite trick to make students apply themselves.  Of course, it doesn’t work when you say it to everyone, but he’s too senile to know that now.

Hira broke through a window, and we leapt over a warehouse, crashing through a glass skylight in the ceiling.

Molten metal blasted towards us from above, a bright orange beam slicing towards us.  I projected into my sleeves, spinning myself around to face it.

The tail end of it crossed us for a fraction of a second, and Hira and Wes projected into a pile of crates, pushing them above us, making them into a shield.

Only a sliver of the liquid steel touched the makeshift shield, but the crates exploded, showering us with burnt apples and a cloud of sawdust.  A piece of broken wood struck me in the side, and I slammed into something metal, coughing up blood.  A forklift.

Lorne shot at me through the smoke.  He grabbed my throat with his ungloved hand, shoving me up against the vehicle.

Illusions.  Now.

The boy closed his eyes behind his helmet visor, and the sawdust hovered around him, landing on me, floating in the air.  He’s using it to feel.  Beating my Vocation with his projection sixth sense, though I could still mess with some of the positioning.

Lorne’s hand tightened, and I gasped for air.  I raised my machine pistol and put a burst in his stomach.  He grunted, and the bullets dropped to the floor.  Body armor.  His ABD wouldn’t protect him at this range, but his projection-enhanced suit would.

He touched the forklift, and it melted beneath me.  A wave of fire washed over my back, and I writhed, crying out in pain.

Hira dropped her go bag and aimed her pistol at Lorne’s head.  The one loaded with Voidsteel.

Before she could pull the trigger, Lorne let go of me and tackled Hira, soaring to the far side of the warehouse and grabbing her gun hand.  Out of my range.

Hira tore herself from Lorne’s grasp, flipping backwards, but the gun flew out of her grip.  It hovered in the air away from them, wobbling back and forth.  They’re both projecting into a part of it.

Purple and green lightning flickered around them, as they fought for control.  Then Hira shot forward, her gloved hand darting towards Lorne’s face, crackling with electricity.   Harder to see, a thread of water stretched from her pinky towards his ankle.

Lorne sliced the thread with a whip of molten metal, keeping it separate from his body.  Protecting him from her electricity.  Flicking his other hand, he stabbed at Hira with a molten spear, forcing her to dart to the side.  She’s too close for him to shoot a beam.

For several seconds, they clashed in a blur, Hira with her martial arts, Lorne with his metal projection.  They swung fists and metal, weaving around each other’s strikes, each failing to land a critical blow.  Both of them used the same style, western-style boxing with fast jabs, haymakers, and dodges.

Purple lightning flickered around Hira’s palms as she ducked and lashed out.  She’s using her Vocation.  Stitching Lorne’s thoughts in short bursts to keep herself alive.

Then Wes threw a concussion grenade at them, and blew it up behind Lorne’s head.  He doubled over, then shot into the air.  He blasted through the warehouse ceiling, keeping himself safe while he regained his senses.  Hira shot her wrist-grapple at him, but he darted to the side, dodging it.

So, we ran again, even as my back sent searing pain throughout my body.  Hira grabbed her bag and pointed towards one of the doors, and we ran there, supporting her as she wobbled back and forth, dizzy, fighting off the effects of the concussion grenade.

We burst out, and Hira ran to a car with the doors open, its engine already running.  Jun and Right-Hira hotwired it for us.  The three of us leapt in, and Hira floored the gas pedal.  The tires screeched, and we shot down the empty streets.

On North Island, this early in the morning, the streets were empty.  Hira accelerated, zipping around flooded streets and through alleyways.  Wes shot more paper out of his briefcase, forming an angled wall behind us.  He nodded at me, and we clasped hands.  Lightning crackled around us, and our Piths swapped back, flowing into our normal bodies.  I stared at the grey-haired boy with the bulging forehead, until I became him,

I regained my senses in my usual body, feeling all the usual aches and weights again.  Wes ran his fingers through his brown hair, taking stock of his familiar body once again.

And one of the trucks behind us melted into a molten sphere.  It turned into a beam, shooting in our general direction.  The beam sheared through the paper barrier, blasting into the side of the car and tearing off one of the rear wheels.

The vehicle swerved, metal screeching on the concrete.  It started to tip over, and Hira clapped her hands, projecting all the doors open.

We leapt out as another beam tore into the car, ripping a hole in the center as it flipped over.  I projected into my clothes one last time, lifting myself up and away from the crashing vehicle.  My headache tripled, making my vision blur, and I slowed to a running stop as I touched the ground.

Smoke bombs exploded all around us, and Hira grabbed my hand, dragging me forward.  We burst through a pair of double doors, and found ourselves in a crowded shopping center, filled with shops, restaurants, and bustling people.

This is Hira’s target.  Where she and Jun had been leading us to.

With the smoke still around us, Hira floated three outfits out of a box on the floor, complete with pants, coats, and hats.  She slid them onto our bodies and pulled off our old clothes.

In less than three seconds, we were striding into the crowd, disguised, moving away from the smoke with the confused shoppers.  She and Jun set this up too.

I used illusions to make us blend in further, whipping up some fake security guards for the Humdrums around us to pull them closer, blocking our movements with their bodies.

Behind us, the doors burst open, and I turned my head to watch it out of the corner of my eye.

Lorne shot out of the smoke, flying above the crowd.  “Remain calm!” he shouted.  While he talked, I projected into everyone in range, blocking out his orders.  “Do not leave, this is a police operation!”

Then, Lorne looked straight at us, and shot towards our group.  How can he still see us?  He hadn’t been projecting around us during our quick change, and Hira’s disguises were thorough.

I made my fake security guards bark out orders, drawing the crowd closer to us, swelling its size.  Lorne was a brutal bastard, but even he wouldn’t burn dozens of Humdrums just to take out a target.  His attacks were broad, imprecise.  And if he got too close, Hira could still shoot him with the Voidsteel bullet, which would shear through the enhancements on his armor.

So he hovered at the edge of the crowd, staring at us from less than thirty feet away.

We’d bought time.  But more cops would come, more Guardians.  They might already be here.

Hira whispered the rest of the plan to me, and I shifted my illusions on the crowd around me, creating fake gunmen shouting orders at them.  Several of them broke off from the group, jogging through corridors and down stairwells.  Lorne glanced at them, but kept following us as we strode through the shopping center.

“I have a hunch,” whispered Hira.  “Once you send the signal, stop using all projection.  Don’t let a single bit of your Pith leave your body.”

Huh?  I nodded, confused.

Then, Hira nodded to me.  It’s time.  I shifted my illusions on the crowd of Humdrums around us.  In unison, all of them screamed, a deafening sound that filled the entire room and made my ears ache.  That’s the signal.

At the same time, dozens more smoke bombs exploded around us, and a pair of concussion grenades.  The crowd scattered, and the three of us scattered with them, stumbling from the effects of the grenades.  As we ran, Hira yanked off the coats and hats of people around us, switching our clothes again.

I ascended one level, darted down a hallway, and hid behind a counter in a coffee shop, massaging my aching temples.  Don’t project.

If Lorne had lost us, he’d be watching the exits, and waiting for backup to surround the place properly.

Tires screeched on the concrete outside, and I glanced out a window.  A dozen automobiles sped away from the shopping center at the same time, driving from the sidewalk, across the street, and the small garage underneath.  Each one held three or more people, so if you projected inside, you’d feel at least three Piths.

In unison, at least a hundred people fled from the building, pouring onto the sidewalks.

Lorne would have to stop every car, and check if we were inside, or if we were among the fleeing pedestrians.

“Stop!” he bellowed, his voice ringing out from the concrete.  “By order of Paragon Academy, stop!”

Some of them stopped.  Others didn’t.  Police cars with sirens pulled up around the streets, stopping more of them.

While Lorne and the cops focused on the people outside, I sprinted to the ground floor, meeting Hira and Wes in a clothing store.  Hira opened a door to a backroom, revealing her Right body and Jun standing over a hole cut in the floor.

“I’ll lift your clothes,” said Hira.  “Don’t project, Ana, or we’re fucked.”

We’re fleeing.  That had to be the right choice.  We’d never beat Lorne in open combat.

One by one, we dropped into the hole, landing on a dry patch of a sewer tunnel.  Jun projected above us, locking the door and sealing the hole behind us with a shower of sparks.  They’ll find it eventually.  But it would take time.

We jogged through the sewers, and I gagged at the stench.  Why couldn’t my sense of smell be broken too?  As the adrenaline wore off, the headache returned. And the exhaustion.  My lungs burned, taking huge, gasping breaths.  It took all my effort to put one foot in front of the other and keep myself from collapsing.

“Lorne touched your skin, right?” said Hira.  “With his skin.  When he choked you.”

I nodded, too winded to speak much.  It was odd, how he wasn’t wearing gloves, given Wes’ paper projection.  Paper cuts to your fingers could hurt like hell.

“I think he put a tracer on you.”

“What?” I panted.

“A tracer.  It’s a Whisper vocation, advanced.  Requires physical contact to get activated.  As long as you’re within roughly a hundred kilometers or so of Lorne, give or take, it’ll send your vague whereabouts to him.  Right now, he knows you’re still in Elmidde, but that’s it.”

“How is that a problem?” said Wes, jogging ahead of us.  “I know my ex is still in the city, but that doesn’t mean I can hunt down his exact location and slap his face off.”

“When you project, Ana,” said Hira.  “When your Pith leaves your body.  The tracer pings him.  And he’ll know exactly where you are, down to the inch.  That’s how he tracked us in the shopping center.”

Any projection?” I said.

“Anything that makes your Pith leave the confines of your body.  Lift a pebble, and they’ll hunt us down in minutes.”

My shoulders felt heavier, and my pace slowed.  Scholars, why?  I was basically a Humdrum now.  And I can’t swap bodies anymore.  Not without giving him my precise location.

“I’m so sorry,” said Jun, squeezing my shoulder.  “I’m so sorry.”

We emerged from under a manhole cover in an empty street, flooded at the far end.  Before anything else, we fetched my emergency cash out of my hidden stashes.

It would pay for food, but our posters would be all over the city, our records stamped red.  We’d never be able to buy a chassis legally.  And now, who would rent to us?  Who would hire us?

We found ourselves on a half-flooded street again, empty and silent, as the sun rose, dim behind grey clouds.  “What the fuck,” said Wes.  “Do we do next?”

Everyone looked at me again.  Why are they still looking at me?

I leaned against a wall, closing my eyes.  Every muscle ached, weighing me down.  “I have no idea.”

“Well,” said Wes.  “While we think it over, I know a place.”

________________________________________

Wes handed a stack of bills to a brown-haired man with a thick neck.  “Thanks, Leo.”

“I’m sorry.  You and your friends can’t stay here,” Leo said.  “If the cops find out, I’ll lose everything.”  He slid the bills into a cabinet behind the bar, chuckling.  “I want to nobly refuse this money, too, but rent is expensive.  I hope that’s not a problem.”

Wes smiled at him.  “When you agreed to talk to me, that was already beyond my wildest hopes.”  They have history.  How did Wes know some random Humdrum?

Leo poured him a cup of tea.  “Welcome back, kid.  Wish you’d stayed here from the start.”

“Yeah,” Wes sighed.  “Me too.”

Queen Sulphur gathered around a table, pulling up stools.  Leo poured tea for the rest of us, and dropped a bowl of walnuts in the middle.

“So,” said Wes.  “If I may sum things up: We have no house, no sleeping pod, and no money.  Our leader can’t project, or swap bodies.  Our main source of funds, Professor Brin, is either in prison or an enemy, and we’re all wanted projectors being hunted by the most powerful military in the Eight Oceans.”

“Yes,” I said, picking apart a walnut and dropping the tasteless crumbs into my mouth.  “That sounds right.”

“So what are we thinking, suicide pact?  Get shitfaced and cry ourselves to sleep?”

“We could leave the country,” said Jun.  “Get out of range of Lorne’s tracer Vocation.  We can find mercenary work overseas without compromising our morals.”

“Not in Shenten,” said Wes.  “People there would throw their sister under a tank if it meant gaining another yard of frozen rubble.”  He glanced at Jun, the lone Shenti in the room.  “No offense.”

“I’m not offended,” said Jun.  “Just disappointed.”

“And, while I’d love to visit the glimmering home of I-Pop, Hira said he didn’t want to go back to Ilaqua.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “If I go home, I’ll probably get tortured to insanity, which would put a real damper on the year for me.”

“Fair points,” said Jun.  “That’s why we should go to the Neke Islands.  They’ve got issues, but there’s no war, no one trying to torture Hira, and they have ramen, for when Ana gets her taste buds back.”

He said ‘when’.  Funny.

“We head for a port,” Jun said.  “On the far side of the Principality.  When we’re out of Lorne’s range, we use Ana’s illusions to get on a boat and past border patrol to the Floating City.  Plus, Ana’s part Nekean, right?”

“Quarter,” I said.  “On my mother’s side.  I’ve never been there.”  And I don’t speak either of the languages.

“If we’re guns for hire, anywhere but here,” said Hira.  “We’re competitors to the Droll Corsairs.  They’re not just the biggest private military company, they’re one of the biggest companies, period.  They’ll buy us up or try to kill us.”

“And Afzal Kahlin is here,” said Wes.  “He’s not going anywhere.  I can’t save my family from debt and go back to my friends if I’m chugging sake halfway across the world.”

“And Commonplace is still trying to destroy this nation,” I said.  “Tunnel Vision – the Pyre Witch – is still trying to burn down everything I care about.”  Even if I was powerless, a fugitive, unable to project, I couldn’t just sit by while that happened.

“I understand all that,” said Jun.  “And I’m sorry.  I can’t imagine the roots you have here, and venturing out carries its own risks.  Do any of you have better plans?”

Wes spoke up.  “When Lorne gets Ana’s location, it’ll take him a while to wrangle all the necessary forces.  We could break into a body vault somewhere – not Paragon’s, but somewhere less secure.  Lorne’s maybe, with that vintage Maxine Clive chassis Ana told us about.  Ana could swap, and we could run before they catch us.”

“Won’t work,” said Left-Hira.  “The tracer probably wasn’t fully activated yet, when the two of you swapped back.  But the more you project, the longer the ping lasts.  If Ana swaps bodies now, Lorne might have her location for hours.”

Silence.

“We have plenty of money to last out the year,” said Jun.  “Buy toothpaste, food, supplies.  We can lie low and think it over.  Until then, we need a place to live.”

“Somewhere quiet, shady, underground,” said Wes.  “Where the law won’t find us.”

Everyone looked at Hira.  Our go-to criminal expert.

She rolled all four eyes at once.  “Fine.  I’ll work on it.”

But there was another possibility for us, that Jun hadn’t raised.

We could split up.  Nobody said it, but everyone had to be thinking of that as a possibility.  If the rest of Queen Sulphur abandoned me, they could move about freely, without fear of Lorne’s tracer.  And without Hira, Ilaqua wouldn’t be as dangerous.  And even if Wes and I wanted to stay in the Principality, Jun and Hira didn’t have to.

They’re my friends.  Losing them would tear a hole in my heart.

But in a few months, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

________________________________________

Hira found us an abandoned duplex in a slum on East Island.

The windows were broken, and the roof had been torn off in places.  Dust covered the entire thing from top to bottom, and plants grew out of cracks in the wood.

And the neighborhood, if anything, was worse than Lowtown.  According to Hira, it didn’t flood quite as often as North Island, but it had been abandoned all the same.  Men and women sat on the steps of tiny houses and apartment buildings, spilling over into the streets as homeless people.  Trash covered the streets, and rust covered the streetlamps.

But it was out of the way.  And it had running water in one tap in the backyard, plus a toilet in the basement.

When I went to the second floor, I found a group of squatters.

Three men and two women sat on the floor upstairs, huddling close to each other and counting out money.  A cart with a bucket and mop sat off to the side, overflowing with cleaning supplies.  They’re janitors.  Or maids for hire.  Half of them looked foreign.  Nekean or Shenti, maybe.

They stared at me, shocked.

Then Hira came up the stairs, spotted them, and cocked her shotgun.  “Fuck off.  This is our place now.”

The squatters clambered back to the far end of the room, holding their hands up and shaking.  One of the men nodded, his eyes wide, and the rest of them nodded with him.

Scholars, she’s being vicious.  I knew she was just trying to scare them off, but still.  “It’s alright,” I said.  “We can find another place.”

“It wasn’t easy,” said Hira.  “Finding a spot in this part of town that wasn’t owned by a vigilant land-grubber or some pissed-off public housing official.  Most homeless people sleep on the street.  These ones weren’t here when I found this spot.  For all we know, they got here five minutes before we did.”

“All the more reason to let these people stay,” I said.  “They’ve done nothing wrong, other than having jobs that don’t pay them enough by the hour.”

“We’re – we’re part-time,” said one of the women.  “We don’t get paid by the hour.”

Jun strode up the stairs, joining us.  “Hi!” he said, beaming.  “How’s this.  We need a place to stay, you need a place to stay, it’s a solid house.  How about we become roommates?  How would you feel about that?”

They muttered amongst themselves.  Then one of the men gave a short, hesitant nod.

“In exchange, I could help fix the water and lights and clean the place up a bit.”

“They’re not evil.  But they are a risk.”  Left-Hira turned to us.  “The more they know about us,” she said under her breath, “the higher risk they are.  Sooner or later, our faces are going to be on some newspaper next to a big fucking sum of money.  They could report us to Paragon.”

“These people barely have anything.”  I spoke at a normal volume.  “I’m not going to kick them out just because you’re scared of strangers.  Let’s stay with them.”

Hira grit her teeth.  “Wes?”

“Your old place had a bubble bath,” sighed Wes.  “I’m going to miss bubble baths.  But if we’re staying in a fetid garbage heap, I don’t care if we have to share it.  Being homeless is a fucking nightmare.”

“Fine,” muttered Hira.  “But if this fucks us, I’m going to say ‘I told you so’ while they line up the firing squad.”

We moved our possessions in, what little we had, and found some blankets and pillows on the streets.  Jun boiled the fleas out of them with projection, and we set them on the ground floor, sweeping aside the broken glass to make room.

Jun promised that he would make upgrades, as long as he could hide his projection from our housemates.  But for now, next to Hira’s house, the ruin was cold, dusty, and broken.

“We’ll get through this,” said Jun, putting a hand on my shoulder.  “It’s going to be alright.”

We played a game of Jao Lu from a set Wes had scavenged, and then settled in for the first night.  I lay on my pile of blankets, staring at the ceiling long after the others fell asleep.  Maybe it was the new aches and pains, in my stomach, my lungs, my ears.  Maybe it was the anemia-induced chills.  Maybe it was the fact that Cardamom was gone.  Maybe for good.

Or maybe it was the realization, gradually settling in, bleeding into all my thoughts.  You are going to die.  Working as a mercenary, as a Grey Coat, was already the backup plan.  The doors had shut.

Jun sprucing up the house, my friends’ words of kindness, those were just hospice.  Making me comfortable in my final days.

At least I wouldn’t pass alone.  Six months ago, I would have passed away in Clementine’s basement, and all the other servants would have forgotten about me by the end of the month.

I have friends now.  That was a mercy.  I wanted to drink mulled cider with them, not die with them, but that had always been a long shot.

Eventually, the exhaustion overpowered the dread, and I fell asleep.

A hand shook me awake.  My eyes snapped open.

One of the squatters stood over me, her face masked in shadows.

My stomach wrenched.  I leapt out of my makeshift bed, staggering back, and reached for my machine pistol, before stopping myself.  It takes projection to assemble.  I couldn’t do it by hand.

I’d come this close to using projection, to slipping up and revealing our location to Lorne.

Before I could shout for help or grab my cattle prod, the woman held up her hands, stepping back from me in a non-threatening gesture.

If she wanted to hurt me, she would have just stabbed me in my sleep.

I exhaled, letting my shoulders relax, my heart thumping in my chest.  “What?” I said.

“Thank you,” the woman said.  “For your kindness.”

I shrugged.  “It’s basic decency.  It doesn’t deserve praise.”

“We’re all fighting together,” said the woman, her lips chapped.  “For a better life.  I can tell you’ve been fighting for a long time.  For survival.  To get through the day.”

Is this a trap?  She wasn’t wrong, though.  I nodded.

“But,” the woman said.  “If you want to fight for something more, call this number.”  She pulled a business card out of her pocket and extended it to me.

I took it.  Dim moonlight streamed through a half-broken window, illuminating its contents.

Foppington’s Bakery
Pastries, Bread, and Flour
515 Bay Avenue
59 – 1987 – 2170

I bent the card back and forth.  Mundane paper.  Not like the fancy, impervious cards that projectors carried.

Then I flipped it over.  A different phone number had been scrawled on the back, next to a green circle.

17 – 0302 – 5157
Say “Bicycle, Envelope, Flower, Circle”

My breath quickened.  “Is this for – “

“The forgotten, the tread upon, the ignored.  The souls who get hijacked, sacrificed, broken for the powerful, who get our memories wiped.  Who will never become Exemplars, or forge the stars in our image.  This isn’t just for our political group – the front.  This is for the real warriors.  The people who go to war.”  The woman clasped my hand, smiling.  “We are the common foundation.”

A chill spread across my skin.  Commonplace.  She’d given me a number to become a Green Hands.  A terrorist.

I held onto the card for almost a week, without telling anyone.  It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them, but I wasn’t sure if they’d want the same things with it.

I spent most of the week lying in bed, too tired to get up.  I couldn’t project, anyways, and with the state of my body, physical labor would just hasten the decay.

A month ago, I’d sprinted from project to project, studying or practicing or coming up with plans during every waking minute.  I could see my future as a Guardian, far above me, and I’d climbed towards it, even when my arms shook and my skin tore and I wanted to give up.

Ambition was its own sort of drug.  It drove you forward, sucking up more and more of your mind.  And when it vanished, the withdrawal could break you.

Before, I’d been losing sleep, going from classrooms to missions with aching, heavy eyes.  Now, I slept fifteen hours a day, which was somehow even more exhausting.  I got up to eat, shave, and use the bathroom, but that was it.  Lying down that long made my skin and muscles ache, and without showers, the stench of my body odor built up into a potent cloud around me.

But still, I lay there, trying to escape into my imagination, to escape the waves of disgust and loathing at my crumbling body.  The other members of Queen Sulphur talked sometimes, or went out, or brought back scrap metal to make repairs on the plumbing and lights and stove.  Wes and Hira practiced projection and natural science at the other end of the room.  But I didn’t join in.

It made me think of my study sessions with Tasia.  Hanging out on the grassy pavilion at Paragon Academy, or that Shenti bakery in Lowtown she’d taken me to.  Listening to her excitement, her passion for learning and her relentless, hard-working optimism after everything she’d been through.

Does she hate me, now?  Did she resent me for lying, for pretending to be Ernest Chapman?

I might die without ever knowing.

The rest of Queen Sulphur staked out Lorne’s mansion for a few days, at Wes’ insistence, to see if we could take him out to disable the tracer.  But the bastard was sleeping up in Paragon for the rest of the year.  He anticipated that, too.

I even tried feeding the obscure pattern-matching Praxis vocation I’d studied, running everything I’d learned about the Pyre Witch, Lorne, Isaac Brin through my mental spreadsheet along with the rest of my data, over and over again.  Maybe there could be some connection, some insight that could get me out.

But the technique was clumsy, basic.  It only could give me matches on the most obvious, clear connections.

It did nothing for me here.

On the seventh night after I got the card, a rainstorm passed over the city.  While it poured down around us, the rest of Queen Sulphur went upstairs and played Jao Lu with a pack of beers, joining up with the squatters.  Jun cobbled together a gramophone, and Wes played some of his favorite Steel Violet tunes on it.

Wes had invited me to join, of course, and Hira had told me to not be a ‘sad, grey puddle of angst’.  Jun had hugged me.

I’d still refused.  They don’t understand.  They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but at least they had a tomorrow.

While their shouting and laughter and swing music echoed through the ceiling, I sunk back into my pillow and thought about my parents.

It’s spring now.  Asparagus and peas and strawberries would be in season.  The Agricultural Islands supplied the majority of the Principality’s crops, so my hometown would be bustling.

I hope they’re alright.  They didn’t work on a farm, but a good season was good for everyone.  I’d dreamed of sending money back to them.  Maybe I could still take the money I had left and ship it to their address.  It wasn’t even a fraction of what I’d hoped for, but it was something.  It was leaving something positive behind.

I thought of Clementine, too.  In years past, when I was toiling away in her kitchen, lying on that mattress in her basement, I’d wondered.  I was a projector.  I had some measure of skill.  Why had Clementine never tried to hire me?

I’d have turned her down, of course.  I could be a maid for some petty criminal, but not a thug.  But why had she never asked?

But I understood, now.

On some deep, subconscious level, Clementine had always looked down on me.  She didn’t consider me worthy of such a position.

And she was right.

As the night went on, the others finished their fun and went to sleep around the ground floor.  But I stayed awake – I’d slept through most of the day, and found it difficult to fall asleep

So I shivered under my covers, listening to the rain outside, staring out the dark windows and taking slow, aching breaths.  I held up my left hand, examining my two grey, decayed fingers.

Then I came to a decision.

I threw off my blankets and stood up, pulling on a coat Jun had scavenged from the street.  Then I strode out the front door, into the storm.

Rain poured down around me, seeping into my shirt and dripping from my hair.  I stumbled down the sidewalk, and the rusty streetlamps flickered around me, casting a wavering orange light on the pavement.

My foot splashed into a puddle, soaking into my socks.  Lightning flickered in the sky, and thunder roared in the distance.  My wet clothes stuck to my skin, making me shiver even more.  Thanks to the tracer, I couldn’t even warm myself up with projection.

I half-jogged to the far end of East Island, and over a short bridge to Lowtown.  At this hour, in this storm, the streets of Elmidde had emptied.

This is far enough.  I scanned the street, walked towards a payphone, and pulled the business card out of my pocket.  My shaking fingers picked up the receiver, slid in a coin, and punched in the number.

It rang for a few seconds, and I huddled closer to the payphone under an overhang, shielding myself from the rain.

Then the line clicked.  Someone picked up.

“Bicycle, Envelope, Flower, Circle,” I said, my chest aching, my voice deep and hoarse and exhausted.

Welcome, brother,” a voice said on the other end.  “What can we do for you?

Brother.  Even with everything else, that still stung.

“I’m the Blue Charlatan,” I said.  “I want to speak to the woman with half a thumb.”  My hand shook.  “I want to talk to your leader.”

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9-B Silver Letters

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Wes

We’re fucked, I thought.

But that was a fine starting point.  We’d been fucked before, and none of us were dead yet.

Of course, we’d never gone up against a full team of Guardians.  And the enemy knew our Vocations.  And we had no Voidsteel.  And I had a hangover.

But we were fine.  “I know what I’m doing,” I muttered under my breath.  “I know what I’m doing.”

I floated my new briefcase towards me, flipping it open and shooting paper out in every direction.  Then I checked the objects I’d flattened.  All secure.

While I was at it, I took the white crane mask out of the briefcase, the one Samuel had given me, and I put it on.  The enemies already knew my identity, but it seemed like a nice touch.

Mark!” shouted Ana with illusions.

The first step was simple: Buy time, learn the enemy.  Figure out who we had to target, and if the rest of her plan would even work.  Jun, on his way back, had jerry-rigged a telescope out of spare parts, so he and Right-Hira could spy on the alleyway from a distance, without exposing themselves to the police.  And Hira could wield his Vocation here too, using his Left body.

Cardamom coughed from the pale gas, his green fur standing on end.  I crawled towards him, but before I could reach him, the cat clambered onto a chair and leapt out one of the broken windows, yowling.

My stomach jerked.  No.  He was going to get hurt.

I closed my eyes.  Shouts rang out from the outside, but so far, not a single gunshot.  He must have gotten out.  Lucky green furball.

His human owners would have a harder time escaping.

I reached upstairs, feeling around Hira’s bedroom.  Where did I leave my gas masks?

“Here’s the situation,” said Hira, his voice soft.  “They’ve got cops holding a perimeter on all sides.  Pistols and rifles.  Voidsteel bullets, maybe.  Keeping their distance.”

Makes sense.  At close range, Ana’s Vocation could turn enemies in seconds, making them useless, or hazards.  She was forcing them to make this a long-range battle.

More gas grenades shot through the window, spewing white smoke.

“Six projectors,” said Hira.  “Oakes, Olwen, a squad of students led by some ginger with a blue scarf.  Basic body armor.  Students don’t have ABDs.  They – “  Hira stopped for a second.  “ہمیں کرنا ہو گا.”  His eyes widened in confusion.  “آخر کیا بات ہے؟?”

He’s speaking Ilaquan.  Hira relied on his Praxis Vocation to speak Common and other languages.  Was something wrong there?

“مجھے دس ہزار بھڑکتے نیزوں سے بھاڑ میں جاؤ,” Hira said.  Purple lightning crackled around his palms, then fizzled out, suppressed.

This is Adam Lynde’s Phoenix Squad,” said Ana, as Hira clamped down with more bowls on the new gas grenades.  “One of them has a long-range Whisper Vocation that can suppress the effects of skill-stitching while he concentrates.

They brought him in to counter us.  Without his stitching, Hira couldn’t talk to us at all, much less use his skills.  And Adam Lynde had been sabotaged by Ana before, at Lorne’s request during a squad battle.  Thanks to her, he was at risk of getting Ousted this summer, just like me.

Penny Oakes’ Vocation makes gaseous chemicals, and she can control their movement.  Lady Olwen’s Vocation is Whisper, not relevant for this fight – she’s just extra muscle.  Lynde himself can harden concrete in seconds.  Number two in his squad can stretch his Pith into a large area without losing energy – it’s good for scanning, it’ll let them track our movements.

That one would make it harder for Ana to fool people.  Another direct counter to us.  My stomach sank.

The last one creates a large number of frozen projectiles and –

Hundreds of icicles blasted through the windows, shattering what was left of the glass and slamming into the wall, shattering or sinking into the wood.  They formed a storm of ice, like a dozen machine guns were shooting at us from the outside, all loaded with tiny shards.

Hira flipped the coffee table over, using it as a shield.  The frozen bullets weren’t going fast enough to penetrate walls, but they were ripping through the cabinets in the kitchen, shattering Ana’s mug, tearing splinters off the table.  They whistled as they shot through the air, a sharp, piercing noise that made my ears ache.

A few more minutes of this, and we’ll have no cover left.  And if we stood up, the icicles would puncture our flesh like a hundred nail guns.

While we cowered from the barrage, a single thought rang through my head.  How the fuck did Paragon find out?  Had someone talked?  Was this because Ana told Professor Brin about the Pyre Witch?

More gas grenades flew in, and Hira was out of stuff to cover them with.  The white gas ballooned out from a dozen clouds, washing over the room and making me feel dizzy.

I finished fishing out the flattened gas masks I’d hidden in Hira’s bedroom, pulling them out beneath his bed legs, then floating them down the stairs.

Then I shot them into each of our hands, and slid mine on.  The dizzy sensation faded, and the gas coalesced around us, forming a dense cloud in the living room without spreading to the kitchen or upstairs.

Oakes’ Vocation.  Keeping the knockout gas where it would hurt us the most.  If we moved, it would follow us.

The icicles kept coming, thudding into Hira’s wallpaper, poking holes in the coffee table.  One sliced my arm, leaving a burning streak of pain.

None of Hira’s booby traps went off.  At Ana’s request, he’d turned them all off, so they wouldn’t get triggered by accident during the barrage.

And in the meantime, Hira floated a golf bag down from upstairs and pulled an anti-tank rifle from it, taking the place of his usual weapon.  His fingers fumbled with the clip, and he grabbed the barrel, clumsy and confused.  He relies on his stitched skills to shoot.  With the enemy suppressing him, he wouldn’t be able to hit a drunk elephant.

A pair of grenades dropped onto the floor, and turquoise gas hissed out of them, a new color.  It shot towards me, Ana, and Left-Hira, collecting around our heads.

Something sizzled, and a piece of Ana’s mask fell off.  I touched the filter of my mask, and bits of metal crumbled away.

Takonara,” I muttered.  This gas eats metals.  Penny Oakes was using it to break our defenses.

In less than a minute, our masks would be gone.  And we’d have to breathe it all in.

It’s time,” said Ana.  She made a flashing red light in front of Hira, a nonverbal signal.  “Wes?

I whipped the papers around me in the air, causing disturbances in the gas, making it difficult for Penny Oakes to sense our movements, since air projection was already so difficult.  Then I nodded, crawled over, and grabbed her hand.  The headache throbbed in my skull, made worse by the gas and the chaos.  This will be unpleasant.

Do you trust me?” she said.

Scholars help me, I do.

I reached.  She reached.  Green and blue lightning crackled around us, hidden from outside view with layers of paper walls.

My Pith melted down and flowed through my arm, like a river of lava from a volcano.  With one pair of eyes, I gazed at a desperate grey-haired boy, veins bulging on his neck.  With another, I stared at an exhausted young man with freckles.  I felt the warm stasis of one body, and lingering aches of another.

I blinked, gasped for breath, and clenched my fists.  Ana’s fists.  A successful body swap.  Now I was in her chassis.

A chill sensation bit into my skin, and my stomach ached.  The fingers on my right hand went numb, and my chest felt tight, short of breath.  In an instant, I felt tired.  Thick, heavy exhaustion stronger than any I’d felt in weeks, and a bitter chill on my skin from her anemia.

I’d been in Ana’s body before.  The decay is getting worse.  She was running out of time.

Next, I scanned the storm of icicles, feeling where they struck, the patterns and gaps in the assault.

There were a few spaces.  Parts where the wall or the door blocked the barrage of ice.  We lifted the table with projection and moved through those, walking towards the front exit.  Out of the cloud of gas and towards the enemy.

Then Ana, wearing my body, staggered out of the door, raising her hands above her head.  I floated pieces of paper around her, then let go of them, letting them drop to the ground.

That’s a solid body, I thought.  Please don’t break it.

The Guardians and students turned their attention to her.  A ball of white gas coalesced around her brown hair as she stumbled into the alleyway, ensuring she’d breathe in a knockout dose the moment her mask broke.

A tiny icicle hit her thigh – my thigh, and she staggered.  Another pair hit her arm and her shoulder, drawing lines of blood.  But nothing on her head and neck.  Nothing that would put her in the hospital.

We guessed right.  My mother had helped plan this attack.  She despised me, but a part of her still clung to me.  She wouldn’t want to kill the child she’d raised for nineteen years unless there was no way to avoid it.

And right now, it looked like Weston Ebbridge was surrendering.

Outside, the Guardians had split into two groups, blocking the street from both sides.  Ana couldn’t get both in range of her Vocation at the same time.

The left group contained the two real Guardians, Lady Olwen and Penny Oakes, along with the Hira-suppressor and icicle-shooter members of Phoenix Squad.  The right group included Adam Lynde himself, the concrete projector, and the one with the stretched Pith, who could sense everything in the vicinity to see through Ana’s illusions.

Ana moved towards the left group of enemies, but before she got within range, she collapsed, falling onto her belly.  Her mask broke beneath her, exposing her nose and mouth to the melon-sized ball of knockout gas floating around her head.

Her chest rose and fell, and her arms and legs went limp, as if she had breathed in the gas and had fallen unconscious.

With luck, Penny Oakes wouldn’t notice that Ana was wide awake, holding her breath, making tiny exhales to send disturbances through the gas.

And the Guardians thought Ana was me.  They’d still keep their distance, but they wouldn’t focus on that.  They were expecting illusions from the grey-haired skeleton, not the brown-haired alcoholic.

Adam Lynde floated a sphere of liquid concrete across the alleyway, and dumped it on Ana.  It splashed around her arms and legs and back, soaking everything except her chest and head.  My chest, my head.

She would be able to breathe, but not much else.

Through a hole in the coffee table, I spotted green lightning flickering on the right side of the alley, around Lynde’s fingers.

The thick sludge of the concrete began to harden, starting from the outside around her hands and feet and working in towards the center of her body.

Thanks to Ana’s illusions, we could see the process happening in real-time, seeing through the thick white gas to the action outside.  Ana’s Vocation had better range on me and Hira, so she could share her perceptions with us.

I felt my gas mask break down further, and sucked in one last breath as the metal pieces of the filter crumbled.

The concrete kept hardening, spreading around Ana’s body.

Now it gets complicated.

Then, Jun’s car slammed into the police barricade, sending up a deafening clang.  It exploded, and in a fraction of a second, the entire alleyway filled up with hot steam.

A steam explosion.  A worthy distraction, for a split second, just weak enough to avoid maiming anyone.  Every head turned in that direction, and the projectors shielded themselves from the blast.

At the same time, I made paper explode from the second floor, shot it towards the cops and Guardians, and cut every piece of exposed skin I could find.  A second layer of distractions.

And, at the same time as that, Ana dragged herself forward, projecting into her clothes – my clothes – and the concrete to pull herself a few yards towards her enemy.

The concrete scraped on the cobblestone, but made no vibrations.  No sound.  Most of it hadn’t hardened yet, and poured down her back in a thick grey sludge.

She got within range of a few soldiers, and two students: The Whisper specialist boy – the one suppressing Hira, and the icicle-shooter-girl.  Both had body armor, but neither of them had ABDs.

Ana made an illusion of two Hira bodies leaping out of the house, two blurs that would be just slow enough to get seen by the students.  That’s the real attack, our enemies would think.  The steam and paper were distractions for this.

The illusory Hiras launched illusory projectiles from beneath their clothes, dark brown spheres the size of grapes, with a tiny bit of red material at the end.  Micro-bombs.  Like the ones used by Shenti commandos, or my mother with her birds.  One would be enough to blow off an arm, or destroy a person’s brain.

The fake micro-bombs shot forward at rapid speeds, appearing to blow up the soldiers around Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl.  The trick wouldn’t fool the stretched-Pith student, who could see through Ana’s illusions, but for a few seconds, it would work just fine on these two.

The barrage of fake explosives turned to the Guardians.  There was no point trying to push them away, since Hira’s Pith would be inside them already, and the icicles were for attack, not defense.

But, as Guardians-in-training, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl had absurd reflexes.

So they dodged them all, bobbing and weaving and ducking like Nekean moon dancers, projecting into their combat suits to enhance their movement.

And in half a second, their dodging brought them next to Lady Olwyn, Penny Oakes, and a Humdrum soldier, all of whom were invisible to Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl.

The soldier, controlled by illusions, swung the butt of his rifle into Whisper Boy’s face, bashing in his nose.  The act broke his concentration, freeing Hira’s skill-stitching for an instant.

A moment later, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl collided with the two adult Guardians, bumping into Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes.  Their body armors scraped up against each other, and the steam was pushed away, clearing the alleyway.

In that instant, Hira fired.

He squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession.  The anti-tank rifle thudded into his shoulder with a pair of dull booms, loud enough to make my ears ache.  He aimed into the wall of pale gas from the very back of the room, holding his breath and lying on his stomach.

He was out of Ana’s range, unable to see through the gas.  But on the outside, his other body had a sightline to the alleyway through Jun’s telescope.  He always knew the position of his bodies, relative to one another, which meant he could aim with one body and fire with another.

The student’s body armor could stop a pistol, or even an ordinary rifle bullet, but not an anti-tank weapon.  However, Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes, the proper, full-time Guardians, had autonomous bullet defenses – that could stop any bullet, as long as it wasn’t Voidsteel.

But, an ABD had limits.  It hovered a foot or so around a person, slowing and deflecting bullets that came within its field.

So if you put a gun to someone’s forehead and fired, the bullet would go through the ABD.  There wouldn’t be enough space to slow it down or deflect it.

Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl?  Their bodies were full of Pith, and they had no bullet defenses.  Rashi’s Second Law meant an ABD couldn’t deflect a bullet inside a person’s body.  If you acted as a human shield for someone, at close enough range, you could disable their ABD.

So when the fifty-caliber steel rounds blew through the students’ chests, they punched through the Guardians too.

Two bullets.  Four targets.  All executed with perfect timing thanks to Ana’s illusions.

Penny Oakes, Lady Olwen, Whisper Boy, and Icicle Girl all collapsed, bleeding from their chests, coughing.

They would all get fresh bodies in time, and suffer no permanent damage to their Piths, but they were disabled for the fight.  The enemies would have to spend resources to evacuate them and save their lives.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle, aiming at Adam Lynde and the stretch-projector.  Before he could fire, Lynde lifted a wall of concrete between him and the window, and hardened it, barely visible through the gas.  Green lightning crackled around him.

The stretch-projector knows exactly what happened.  We no longer had the element of surprise.

And then, Ana’s illusions vanished.

The alleyway became invisible again, cloaked by Oakes’ wall of white gas.  She’s asleep.  For real this time.  During the commotion, she must have inhaled the knockout gas.

She’s going to get caught.  

My lungs burned, a building pressure in my chest from holding my breath in Ana’s body.  This wasn’t part of the plan.  Outside, the girl was exposed.  And now, the Guardians would know she wasn’t me – they might shoot to kill.

Hira stared at me, and his eyes flitted to the staircase.  I knew what he was thinking.  On the second floor, we could get gas masks and equipment, escape before the enemy reinforcements sealed the trap.

Maybe the Ebbridge family was sealed off forever, now.  But maybe not.

And to rescue Ana, we’d have to venture out into the open, through the gunshots.

Strive to become an Exemplar.  If it weren’t for Ana, I’d be a hollowed-out, depressed thrall of Lyna Wethers.  Or dead, a dozen times over.  I owed her, for more things than one.

I didn’t have to be here.  I had a choice.

But the answer was pretty obvious.

I spent my last breath on a shout.  “Help Ana!”

In the chaos and smoke, Left-Hira and I scrabbled forward towards Ana, reaching our Piths forward into her clothes and the concrete blocks around her limbs.

Together, we pulled, yanking Ana back towards the front door, towards safety.  Green and purple lightning crackled around us, and a headache exploded in my skull.  My pieces of paper drifted to the ground, as I put all my concentration and effort into this one task.

In response, figures moved through the smoke, charging towards the unconscious Ana as she scraped across the ground.  Humdrum cops, or the two remaining projectors.  The footsteps grew louder and louder.

Too fast.  They’d reach us before we could escape, and they had functioning gas masks.  In our state, they’d crush us.

We pulled Ana over the doorstep, my lungs screaming, and Hira clapped his hands together, slamming the door shut.  Something clicked in the wall.

A cop burst through the door, bashing it down with his shoulder.

Then, electricity ran through his body, reducing him to a pile of twitches.

A second and third cop ran over the doorstep, onto Hira’s rug.  A pair of pressure plates sank, and two concussion grenades dropped on their heads.  They exploded with an ear-splitting crack, and the two cops fell over, clutching their heads.

Hira’s booby traps.  The stretch-projector could sense them, but the cops couldn’t.

And the cops were wearing gas masks.  We weren’t.  And with Oakes out of the picture, the turquoise metal-destroying gas had dispersed, leaving the filters intact.

So we took the cops’ masks.  Or at least, we tried.

We stretched our Piths towards the chin straps.  Someone else’s Pith was already inside, blocking us from projecting into them.  The stretch-projector.  The one who could project into a huge volume, even if weakly.

So we pushed, brute-forcing the stretch-projector’s Pith out.  Green and purple lightning flickered around us, the headache grew, pressing the edges of my skull with a burning sensation.

But the stretch-projector pushed back, keeping us out, holding his position.  Green lightning flickered from through the smoke.

No masks for us.  Which meant no breath.  My lungs screamed for air, a void opening in my chest.

While we reeled, our chests burning, the students attacked.

Only two enemy projectors remained – Adam Lynde, the concrete projector, and the stretch-projector.  They burst through the wall, wood splinters raining down around them.  None of the booby traps activated for them.  The stretch-projector could sense them all, and dodge or disable every single one.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle towards the pair.  As he aimed down the scope, Adam Lynde shot concrete at the gun.  The grey sludge blocked the sights, sliding down the barrel, sinking into the mechanisms.  Lynde clenched his fist, and it hardened.

Hira tossed the rifle aside, and it thudded onto the floor.  At the same time, he rolled to his left, and his pitch-black trench shotgun floated into his hands.

In response, Adam Lynde shot a dozen concrete blocks forward, each the size of a melon.  They floated in front of the shotgun barrel, moving as it moved.

Hira fired, and the concrete exploded.  Another block took its place, as the Ilaquan dove behind the kitchen counter, bobbing and weaving.  How is he doing all that in one breath?

The stretch-projector came a second later, floating orbs of water around him.  I shot a storm of paper at him from all sides, and the orbs stretched, forming thin walls of water to cover his skin.

Another counter to our projection.  Between the armor and the water barriers, my paper was all but useless.  I assembled it into barriers in front of the enemy’s eyes, blocking their vision.

And while Lynde was focused on blocking the shotgun, turning his back to me for an instant, I separated two pieces of paper, unflattening a grenade behind the small of his back.  It exploded, throwing Lynde forward with a splash of red.

Adam Lynde dropped, bleeding from his back and arms.  The concrete blocks dropped with him.

As the stretch-projector turned to look at the noise, Hira threw his shotgun forward.  It spun through the air, stopped next to the student, and pumped four rounds into the boy’s kneecap.

The body armor stopped the first shot.  The second one blew holes in it.  The third and fourth ones reduced the knee to a red mush.

I projected forward, ripped off the boy’s mask, held it to my face, and gasped, sucking in a desperate breath.  My chest rose and fell, as I wheezed and coughed, securing the straps around my head and chin.  My throat burned, and my shoulders shook.  Ana’s shoulders.  Her lungs are decaying too.

Hira did the same, and both of us fell to our knees in the white gas, hyperventilating, my head spinning, and my chest aching.

Then, gunshots rang from the outside, and bullets shot through the smoke.

We flattened ourselves to the ground, taking cover as my ears rang.  Humdrum police.  They couldn’t see us, but I had no ABD, and Ana wasn’t wearing her blue combat suit.  Now that the Guardians were out of the line of fire, the cops could shoot up the house as much as they wanted.

I crawled over to Ana and fit a gas mask over her face, bullets whizzing over my head.

Hira crawled next to me and projected into the concrete, making cracks spiderweb out all over.  Purple lightning flickered around him, and the concrete broke into pieces, freeing Ana’s limbs.

At the same time, I pulled a trio of flattened concussion grenades from my briefcase, floated them out the windows, and let them pop back to three dimensions.

They exploded among the cops, making my ears ache even more.

The gunfire paused.  Now.  We grabbed Ana under her arms.  I projected into Ana’s torso, helping to lift her, and Hira did the same for her legs.

Together, we sprinted up the stairs to the second level, gasping for breath.  We projected into the wooden floor beneath us, muffling our footsteps, and set Ana down.

The gunshots started up again, a deafening hail, but none of the bullets went to the second floor.  They still think we’re downstairs.

I ripped open Hira’s cabinets, tossing aside shirts, beer cans, and bags of tobacco.  “Where are the smelling salts?” I hissed, speaking with Ana’s voice.

Hira stuffed his hands into a hole in the mattress, pulled out a glass bottle with tufts of cotton, and tossed it to me.  I unscrewed it, lifted Ana’s mask, and held it under her nose.  The knockout gas was thin up here, so she could go without her mask a little.

Ana’s eyes shot open, and her lungs sucked in a deep breath.  She coughed, spluttering, and I put the mask back over her.  Her eyes darted around the room, taking in the new information.  The gunshots downstairs.  Hira grabbing a go bag from under the floorboards, stuffing Ana’s combat suit into it with his black sniper rifle and every other weapon in the room.  Along with his purple hookah.

“We took out the projectors,” I said, leaning into her ear so my voice wasn’t drowned out by the gunshots.  “But the cops are still shooting at us.”

She nodded, still confused, and pushed herself to a standing position.   The girl wobbled back and forth, dizzy from the gas, and she grabbed my hand to keep herself from falling.  “I’m okay,” she slurred in my voice, a surreal sound.  “I’m okay,” she repeated with illusions.

You don’t look okay.

Thanks,” she said, her eyes unfocused.  “For not leaving me out there.

I slapped her arm.  My shoulder – her shoulder ached.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  Of course we got you.”

While Ana regained her senses, Hira walked over to a wall, clenched his fists, and slammed them together.

The plaster wall crumbled before him, spilling onto his bedroom floor, silent.  Grey morning sunlight washed in, revealing a fire escape on the building next to us.  Hira’s secret backdoor.

Hira leapt out, grabbing onto the fire escape on the building next to us.  The metal didn’t clang, silenced by his projection.

A police officer stood on the level above him, wielding a shotgun.  She aimed it at Hira, sticking the barrel through a hole in the metal grates, and pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked.  Nothing.  Jammed.

Hira jumped up and grabbed the metal grate above him with his bare hand.  The cop fell over, twitching, as electricity ran through his body.

Hira clambered up the stairs and grabbed the rifle, pulling out the clip along with a single green bullet, wiggling it between his fingers.  A Voidsteel round.  That could come in handy.

Ana groaned, still half-asleep, and limped forward to the hole in the wall.  Hira and I projected into her clothes, lifting her across the gap and onto the fire escape.  She sagged over and grabbed the railing, pulling herself up the steps.

I followed her, and the three of us climbed up the fire escape, one flight at a time, towards the cloudy grey sky.  Hira’s neighboring building stretched seven stories tall, filled with dingy apartments.  Once we got to the top, we could leap from rooftop to rooftop and make our escape in a side alley.

In the street below, one of the cops pointed at us, shouting.  Bullets whizzed around us, taking chunks out of the brick wall.

Then, as we climbed the fire escape, a wave of heat washed over us, and the top half melted.

In an instant, the cold metal turned into an orange magma, dripping down the walls and pouring over the stairs beneath, collecting in pools around us.  I could feel the heat on my face, radiating from all around us.

There’s only one projector I know with a Vocation like that.

Lorne Daventry leaned over the edge of the rooftop, smiling down at us.  The edge of his pinky finger touched the molten metal.

“Morning, Ernest.”  He waved at us with his other hand.  “You’ve been up to some mischief, haven’t you?”

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