7-C The Blue Charlatan

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Ana

The doorbell rang.

I tightened the scarf around my neck and pulled down my hat over my black wig, checking my long sleeves.  At longer distances, Clementine’s guards and servants wouldn’t see my hair, my grey veins, or most of my face.  And at close range, I would have my illusions.

If I didn’t talk out loud much, that would keep my identity hidden from them.  In theory.

I stretched my Pith forward, feeling another soul on the far side of the door.  I layered illusions over it, modifying my face and Hira’s, flattening our weapons under our coats.

The front door opened, revealing Beatrix, in servant’s clothes.  Her eyes flitted back and forth between us.  “Good evening,” she said.  “How may I help you?”

Hira stepped forward.  “Good evening,” she said.  “We’re representatives of Mr. Burgess.”  The Broadcast King’s codename.  “We have an urgent matter to discuss with Ms. Rawlyn in private, after encryption keys are exchanged.”

Beatrix looked between the two of us, and gulped.  “Um.  Yes, right this way.”  Kahlin was a lot higher up on the chain of command than Clementine.  “Ms. Rawlyn is out at the moment, but she’ll be back momentarily.  In the interim, may I show you to her study?”

She beckoned us, and we stepped inside, dripping water onto the doormat.

In the past months, the house hadn’t changed a bit.  The same tacky architecture with faux-marble columns, the imitation gold leaf covering everything, the classical music belching out of a gramophone in the dining room.

“May I take your coats?”

Both of us shook our heads, and we continued.

I spotted dozens of familiar faces.  Guillaume, the head chef who had carried out Clementine’s cruelty, taking all the hatred for her while leaving her hands clean.  She’d pretended she didn’t know how he treated us, but when pressed about it, she’d always brushed off our concerns.

We stepped past her mailbox, where I’d gotten three separate rejection letters from Paragon.

“Sir?” Beatrix said.  “The study is this way.”

I blinked.  On instinct, I’d walked in the direction of the basement, towards the mattress that I’d called home for almost three years.

I nodded, and we followed her up the stairs, past the bathrooms and lounges I’d had to scrub for hours on end.  After working here for so long, I knew every inch of this house, every nook and cranny where dust and filth liked to gather.

Beatrix led us into the study, a broad room with two walls covered in bookshelves.  Clementine had never read any of them, but they made her look intellectual when she met people here.

Hira and I sat down on the couch, and another servant, Daniel, set a huge plate of crackers next to us with razor-thin slices of raw beef.  He’s about to say ‘Ms. Rawlyn will be with you shortly.’

“Ms. Rawlyn will be with you shortly,” he said, following the script Guillaume had drilled into us.  Though I’d never gotten that duty, on account of my appearance.

Then they shut the door, leaving the two of us alone.  Rain pattered on the floor-to-ceiling windows behind us.  A trio of pale Ilaquan masks stared at me from the wall.

I glanced past Clementine’s desk, to the framed air force medals on the wall behind.  Did she fake those too?  It seemed likely.

We waited, leaning back on the embroidered couches, staring out at the rainstorm darkening the evening sky.  My stomach ached, no longer an unfamiliar feeling on missions, and sweat collected under my armpits.

After a few minutes, Hira made a hand motion to me.  Footsteps creaked on the wooden floor on the hallway outside.  She’s here.

In unison, the two of us stood up and strode towards the door, taking up positions on both sides.  I stretched my Pith forward, feeling three souls.  Clementine and two servants.  I threw up an illusion over all three of them, altering our faces and making us look like we were still sitting on the couch.

Then I added my new technique, modifying another sense: Projection.  I couldn’t affect touch, or make our Piths seem to disappear, but if Clementine reached out, I could make it seem like our Piths were on the couch, not by the door.

I did the same with our clothes and equipment.  Clementine would still be able to project into our Piths and clothes, they’d just feel like they were somewhere else.

This was a new facet of my Vocation, that I’d just started testing with Hira and Jun.  Let’s hope it works.

The door swung open, and Clementine strode in, addressing the two empty couches.  “Good evening sir, madame.  To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Something came up,” my illusion said to her.  Stall her, keep it simple.

I had my illusions stand up, folding their hands behind their backs so Clementine wouldn’t try to shake them.  At the same time, I layered a separate illusion over the two servants by the door, making Clementine seem to turn towards them.

Close the door,” illusion-Clementine said to her servants, “stay out of earshot.  This is private.

“Yes, ma’am.”  They swung the door shut behind Clementine, none of which she saw or heard.

“Mr. Burgess never sent anyone to my house before,” said Clementine.  Her eyes flitted back and forth between our illusions on the chairs.  “Password?”

For a second, Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, using her Praxis Vocation.  Then her eyes widened.  “She knows.”

Hira sprinted forward, electricity crackling around her palms.  I reached for the knife in my coat.

Clementine sucked in a breath to scream, and Hira projected into a tiny lamp, flinging it at her solar plexus and knocking the wind out of her.

Then, Clementine lifted her palms in front of her, and my blue combat suit tightened over my body, freezing my movement.  It squeezed my injured shoulder, making it ache.  Fuck.  I should have projected into them earlier to prevent this.

Hira’s clothes tightened around her, and she jerked to a halt.  Clementine was far stronger than both of us at physical projection.  In a fair fight, she could take us both.

A wave of hunger and thirst washed over me, drowning out my other thoughts with the overwhelming desire to eat or drink something, anything.  Clementine’s Whisper Vocation.

The woman gasped for breath and snarled at us, livid.

The separated pieces of my machine pistol ripped themselves out of my coat, dropping onto the floor.  Hira’s concealed revolver yanked itself out of her holster and spun around, aiming itself at her head, too strong to be turned aside.

The hammer pulled back.

A thin metal cable shot from outside the window.  As it punched through the glass, not making a sound, I erased it from Clementine’s vision, and it wrapped around her leg.

Electricity crackled, and Clementine fell to the ground, twitching.

Right-Hira swung outside the window, holding the shocking cable in one hand.  The body hung from the roof using a second cable, protruding from below its sleeve.  Jun’s new gizmo.  A pair of wrist-mounted cable guns so Hira could shock people at range.

Left-Hira opened the window for her other body, which pulled itself inside, dripping water and treading dirt onto Clementine’s spotless carpet.

Right-Hira strode towards Clementine and stabbed a syringe into her neck, injecting Jun’s homemade knockout drug until she went limp.

Then we all ran for the plate of food and stuffed our faces.

For three embarrassing minutes, we grabbed handfuls of artisanal crackers with slices of raw beef and shoved them into our mouths, as fast as we could chew and swallow them.  Crumbs and drops of vinegar fell onto the couches.

Then, when we’d eaten it all, we raced to Clementine’s liquor cabinet and downed a bottle of Gasten Brandy, distilled in the Agricultural Islands five miles from my home.  The kind that would have cost me a month’s salary to buy as a servant.

When we’d finished that, I made a noise to draw a servant close, and used my illusions to send all of them out of the house.  “I need total privacy for the next fifteen hours,” I said with Clementine’s voice.  “Please do not return a minute earlier.

Clementine’s servants were terrified of her.  ‘Please’ meant devastating punishment if they disobeyed.  They would obey the command.

Then, it was time for step two.  

Left-Hira tossed the empty liquor bottle over her shoulder, and Right-Hira gagged and blindfolded Clementine and bound her hands and feet, then put her in a headlock.  Left Hira knelt and held smelling salts under her nose.

After a few seconds, Clementine’s eyes snapped open.

Right-Hira’s hands crackled, as she ran current through Clementine’s body, not quite enough to completely disable her.  Clementine started twitching again, hopefully in too much pain to project, at least for the next few seconds.

I felt a twinge of guilt in my stomach.  She’d do the same to you in a heartbeat.

Right-Hira spoke into Clementine’s ear, rapidfire.  “Whatareyougoingtotonightwhatsthelocationwhenisithappeningwhatsthepassword.”  Purple lightning crackled around her palms, reading Clementine’s mind for a few split seconds while copying her skills.

Then Left-Hira injected the knockout drug again, and the woman fell unconscious.

“Got it,” said Hira.  “The password isn’t a Praxis vocation or any fancy crypto nonsense, so it must be a larger event.”

“So?”

“I’m not sure what kind of event it is,” said Hira.  “But it’s in a building complex on one of the outer islands.  From her intrusive thoughts, I think that Steel Violet will be on guard duty.”  She took a breath.  “And Tunnel Vision herself will be there.”

My stomach clenched.  “All the more reason to break in,” I said.

“Steel Violet will recognize my face in an instant.  You too, Gage, since you’re famous now.”

“We’ll make it work,” I said.  “We’ll put a plan together.”

“Well,” said Hira.  “Here’s the other thing.”  She glanced at the clock.

“What?”

“It starts in thirty-four minutes.”

The clock ticked on the wall.  The world froze for a moment, as every muscle in my body seemed to tense up, and a storm of panic grew out from my belly.

Then I exploded.  “Thirty-four minutes?

“I’d say we’re about twenty-eight minutes away from the place.  If I drive fast.  And if Jun’s literal trash car doesn’t break down.”

Scholars,” I said.  “What do we do, then?”

“We could try forced transference.”  Hira indicated both her heads towards the sleeping Clementine on the rug.

I shook my head.  “That requires brute force from our Piths, and she needs to be conscious.  Judging from our fight, Clementine is stronger than the two of us combined.  If we wake her up and try it, she’s going to tear us both in half.”

And, to be honest, our last forced transference hadn’t sat well with me.  If one more thing had gone wrong, Kahlin’s decorators could have lost their bodies forever.

Unless there was no way to avoid it, I wasn’t going to steal anyone’s chassis.

“What about a mask?” I said.

“What?”

“Did you see those traditional Ilaquan masks in Clementine’s study?” I said.

“The ones you squidfuckers stole when you colonized us?” she said.  “Yeah, I saw them.”

“I mean, she could have bought them legally.”  And I didn’t colonize anyone.

Lund pe chad,” she said.  “You can’t buy that kind legally.”

“Point is,” I said.  “We can put them on and use them to get in.  Then keep a low profile, use illusions.  If it’s a big event, it would make sense for people to hide their faces, right?”  I glanced at Clementine out of the corner of my eye.  “Her name isn’t on some list, right?  It’s just a password.”

Hira shrugged.  “I think so, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.  Which you’re suggesting we do.  And they definitely won’t allow weapons in.”

“We’ll have you,” I said.  “That’s worth more than a gun.”

“The password is for a single person,” said Hira.  “Both of us can’t go.”

I pursed my lips.  “Then who goes?”

Hira folded four arms at the same time.  “We have known faces.  You have illusions.”

Fuck,” I muttered.

“Take your time,” said Hira.  “You have a whole…four minutes to wallow in your neuroses.”

“Fuck,” I said again.  I would be going in with no plan, no allies, and almost no information.  Is this worth risking everything?

“And Praxis Specialists might be able to pick out your voice or your gait in a crowd, so you’ll have to modify those too.  Or just avoid talking.”

I’m so close.  More money, more favor with Lorne, more information, and I could be on the track to becoming a Guardian.

“Start the car,” I said.  “I’ll get the mask.”

________________________________________

Jun’s car jerked to a halt in the pouring rain.

“They’ll recognize this car,” said Hira.  “I can’t go any closer.”

I adjusted my mask and my wig.  They weren’t perfect, but they’d conceal my most obvious features from a distance.

“I’ll watch Clementine in her home,” said Hira.  “Keep any servants from wandering back in her house.  Call me on her phone when you want a pickup.”

“I can do this,” I muttered to myself.  “ I can do this, right?”

“If I don’t hear anything in the next ten hours, I’ll stop by the morgue and make sure they don’t defile your corpse.”

Thanks, Hira.

I checked my internal clock.  Ninety-one seconds.  I pulled myself out of the car and slammed the door behind me.

Then I broke into a run, splashing through puddles and streams flowing into gutters.  I turned corners past dark, abandoned buildings, past empty, pitch-black alleys and flickering streetlights.  This area’s gone to shit.

I jogged on a bridge over a rushing river, and caught a glimpse of Lowtown and Elmidde to my left, across Meteor Bay.

According to a book I’d read when I was young, the outer islands used to be a part of Mount Elwar, thousands of years ago, but had been separated when a meteor hit in the time of the Great Scholars, turning the whole area into a water-filled crater.

An apt meeting place for the people tearing this country apart.

I arrived at the near-empty entry of a stadium, screeching to a halt and wheezing for breath.

A decade ago, the building had been some big famous landmark.  George Stadium, or maybe Luther Stadium, I didn’t remember, and the letters on the sign had fallen off.

But, after enough floods and enough money draining out of the neighborhood, and one nasty terrorist attack during the Shenti war, the people here with money had given up and moved to higher ground.

Now, it looked abandoned, save for the three Steel Violet members out front, standing under floating umbrellas and hefting submachine guns under their coats.

They leveled them at me as I approached, and I raised my hands.

Then I stretched my Pith forward.  I’m in range.  I threw up an illusion, reshaping the face under my mask and the sound of my voice.  “Am I late?

“Yes,” said Rozi, the Joiner with Voidsteel gauntlets, who’d almost crushed Wes’ throat.  “White Balloon.“  The password.

Prisoner Moon,” I answered.

They lowered their guns.  “It’s already started, the doors are locked.  Sorry.”

I was told it didn’t start until nine-thirty.

“The talking starts nine-thirty.  You were supposed to get here at least fifteen minutes ago.”

Scholars.  We’d wasted too much time interrogating Clementine.

I pulled up the mask over my face, revealing the illusion I’d put over my features: John Asger, one of Clementine’s favorite cronies.  I’d served him dinner dozens of times, without so much as a glance in my direction or a thank you.

I positioned the mask so that people above me and to the sides wouldn’t be able to see my face – if other Steel Violet members were watching me through sniper scopes, they wouldn’t see any inconsistencies with their comrades’ eyes.

Clementine Rawlyn sent me in her stead,” I said with his voice, matching the disdain I was used to.  “She knows Tunnel Vision personally, and is not interested in hornets making her miss my report.

The members of Steel Violet stared at me, no doubt conversing amongst themselves using thought-stitching.  Droplets fell off the edge of their umbrella, splashing onto the ground.

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure if they were going to let me in or fill me with bullets.

Rozi stepped aside, beckoning me.  “Right this way, sir.”

I jogged into the ruined stadium, through vacant corridors lit by lightbulbs strung overhead.  I passed empty ticket booths, faded storefronts, and Green Hands with rifles, directing me through side doors and down stairwells.  A chill wind blew through the empty halls, with the muffled sound of rain.

Finally, I emerged from a dark tunnel into the stadium, back into the deluge.  A dense crowd of Green Hands and mobsters had gathered in the center of the overgrown field, lit by glaring white floodlights high above.  They stood shoulder to shoulder, silent and unmoving, staring towards a raised podium in the middle.

I stepped into a puddle, then glanced down.  What?

In the rain, the field had flooded, water rising to my ankles.  The entire stadium had become a tiny, shallow lake.

I waded forward, my feet sinking into the mud, tall grass brushing past my knees.  It took effort to move around without ripping my shoes off.  I shivered, my anemia making the cold rain even worse.

Why haven’t they canceled this?  This wasn’t an ordinary rally, though the crowd was more than large enough.  This was a secretive event that required passwords to enter, with armed guards patrolling the exterior.

Plus, all the Commonplace rallies I’d seen were loud, explosive events, full of cheering and jeering and applause.

Here, no one spoke.  The only sound here was the pouring rain.

I pushed forward through the crowd, holding my mask so it didn’t come off, and positioned myself near one of the emergency exits, with a few layers of people behind me.  This way, I wouldn’t stand out, but could still make a quick getaway.

Behind me, a few hundred Green Hands had spread out through the stands, all carrying rifles.  If I run, they’ll shoot me half a dozen times before I make it to the door.

Here, I had a solid view of the empty stage set up in the middle, too.  The stage was empty. 

It hasn’t started yet.

Then I glanced away for a second.  When I turned back, a line of people was standing on the stage.  In the lineup, I recognized Tunnel Vision on the far side, water dripping from her ragged skirt and bowler hat.

One of them stepped forward, a man with green circle tattoos, and the rain itself seemed to quiet as he approached the microphone.

Is he the leader?  No, the head of Commonplace was supposed to be a woman.  Was she here tonight?

The crowd didn’t cheer or clap, or acknowledge his presence in any way.  Are they hijacked?  Nothing about this event felt natural.

The man spoke in a calm voice.  “The median projector in the Principality has a net worth of two hundred and fourteen times that of the median Humdrum.  They own an average of four bodies apiece, while we get cancer at their factories and go into debt for our replacement bodies.  If we’re lucky enough to get a loan.”

The rhetoric of victimhood and vengeance.  They listed legitimate problems, then used them to justify an incoherent wave of violence and resentment.

We’d barely won the largest war in human history.  We’d defeated the Shenti by the narrowest margin, and these people wanted to eviscerate the heroes who’d protected us.  That wasn’t the right way to do things.

“If they could,” said the man, “they’d wipe our memories all over again.  Rip away our freedom and control us from the shadows again while they try to forge the stars in their vain image.  At best, they see us as witless dolts.  At worst, they see us as beasts, fit only for the kennel.”

While the man spewed his propaganda, I watched behind him.  A hooded figure stood next to Tunnel Vision, wearing a faded green military long coat, the kind you’d see in photos of the Shenti War, or older.

She reached up a hand to scratch her head, and I squinted through the rain.  One of her thumbs had been cut off at the first knuckle.  Of all the things broken with this body, my vision still worked fine.

Other than that, she looked identical to the others standing next to Tunnel Vision.

Except people treated her differently.  Though they tried to downplay it, the ones standing next to her on the stage gave her more space than the others, made glances in her direction, whispered amongst themselves but not to her.

The hooded woman held a certain gravity, in the very center of the stadium.

That has to be her.  The leader of Commonplace.  The woman who brought Tunnel Vision, the Broadcast King, and Shenti support all together in a singular movement.

What I’d give for a sniper rifle and a vantage point.  Not that I could fire one of those things, but one well-placed bullet and the whole country could be at peace.

“We,” said the man.  “Are the Common Foundation.  The Principality and Paragon Academy, have done far worse things than you can imagine.  To us, and the roots of the world itself.”  The rain poured down around us, and the pitch-black sky seemed to close in from above.  “They have reached into the heavens and touched the void.  They have burrowed into the mountains and whispered to gods, shattered the keystones of the human soul.  They are planning things, and even we don’t know what they are.”

This is nonsense.  There were a great many mysteries in this world.  The stars and the water and the Great Scholars and the Four Daydreamers.  But to invoke such things in this context?  It couldn’t be anything but empty conspiracy-mongering.

And this felt strange.  It didn’t feel like a normal rally, and it wasn’t a strategy meeting.  It was happening in the pouring rain, during a miniature flood, and the speaker was spewing confusing, surreal rhetoric.

Why are these people gathered here?

Tunnel Vision strode to the mic.

“There are Guardians at Paragon Academy,” she said.  “Doing their best, as we speak, to infiltrate our movement and bring it down from within.”  Thunder boomed in the distance, and the rain came down harder.  “They are the loyal dogs of the status quo, of the corrupt House of Lords and the broken Conclave of the Wise who hoard wealth and power.  And they will defend it, even if it means hijacking thousands.”

More propaganda.  Did these people need more convincing?

“They see us as a weak threat, insignificant next to the Droll Corsairs, or the eastern dogs of Shenten.”

The Shenti monsters are funding you.  Not that they’d want the public to know that.  Their public support could sour pretty fast if the nation found out they were funded by foreign terrorists.

“But they underestimate us.  That is their mistake,” she said.  “So.  To all the Guardians who think they’re smarter than the citizens of the country.”  She leaned into the mic.  “Hello.  And goodbye.”

What?

She stomped her foot.  The sound echoed around the stadium, ringing in my ears.

Two jets of mud and water exploded upwards from the ground, shooting a man and a woman into the air, both Green Hands.

At the same time, something exploded in front of them, coating their faces with bright orange paint.

“The orange-faced ones are Guardians!” shouted Tunnel Vision.

As the man and woman spun in midair, and the Green Hands raised their weapons, I realized several things.

One: Brin was right – Paragon had been at this meeting.  Guardians had been at this meeting, in disguises.

Two: This meeting was a trap for them.

That explained all the strange conditions.  This event wasn’t held for propaganda or strategy, but to lure the undercover Guardians in with Tunnel Vision and the leader of Commonplace.  Even the rain worked in the enemy’s favor – in these conditions, it would be difficult to fly out of the stadium, and much harder to spot snipers with enhanced vision that could shoot them out of the sky.

As these thoughts ran through my head, the raindrops stopped midair, hovering in front of my face.

Then the water exploded into a wave of steam, flinging a pair of Green Hands straight at me.

They crashed into me, blasting me backward with the shockwave and flipping me over.  I splashed face-first into the muddy water, my ears ringing.

I pushed myself upright, spluttering and coughing.  My chest ached, a sharp, piercing pain on my right side.  Did I break a rib?

White steam filled the air, hot, stinging my face.  As it cleared, I saw one of the Guardians in the middle of the field, his fist slammed to the ground.

Rings of corpses surrounded him, faces and limbs sticking out of the water.  Further away from him, Green Hands lay on their backs, groaning and covered in burns.

I know this.  A Physical Vocation that superheated huge quantities of water, creating burning-hot steam explosions.

That’s Professor Stoughton.  He taught Chemistry and other natural sciences to fourth-years.  One of the deadlier Guardians at Paragon, though he wasn’t Scholar-ranked like Harpy or Brin.

The other Guardian flipped over in midair and clapped her palms together.  Green lightning crackled around her.  A Physical Specialist.  A wave of pale light expanded from her hands, washing over me and the entire stadium.

Hundreds of Green Hands and mobsters aimed their guns at her, and pulled the triggers.

Nothing happened.  None of the guns fired, from the shotguns up close to the sniper rifles in the stands.  Everyone kept pulling the triggers, to no effect.

Did she jam them all at once?

No, I knew this Vocation.  Professor Havstein.   A platinum-ranked projector, she’d studied under Headmaster Tau himself.  Her Vocation could alter the properties of physics in an area, making combustion itself impossible.  Flames vanished.  Fuses fizzled out.

And guns couldn’t fire.

In an instant, she’d crippled all the Humdrums here.

She’d been missing a lot this semester.  Probably because of this infiltration job.

I need to get out of here.  These two had the power to turn this whole building to rubble, and there was no more intel to be gained.  I’d gambled on the wrong meeting.

Another second passed, and the Guardians attacked.

More pockets of water exploded into steam, tossing aside mobsters like dry leaves in the wind.  Hundreds of knives drew from the sheathes of Green Hands and shot at the hooded woman in a blur.  I knew she was important.

On the podium, the hooded woman turned towards the storm of projectiles, impassive, not even trying to run or dodge.

The podium flipped beneath her, forming a shield between her and the knives.

The knives impacted at high speeds, thudding into the wood and creating showers of splinters.  After the second volley, the podium was a pile of loose wreckage sinking into the water.

When the smoke cleared, Tunnel Vision stood between them and the leader of Commonplace.  The water had cleared in a wide ring around them, and the raindrops hovered four stories above, preventing steam explosions from going off right next to them.

I forced my vision away from the battle and scanned the audience for an escape route.  I had no delusions of being able to help the Guardians here.  Even if I managed to get close to them, I’d just slow them down.

Explosions rang out behind me, with flashes of light, the clang of metal, and clouds of hissing steam washing over me.

Above me, the stands were half as sparse as they’d been seconds ago.  Many of the riflemen had either been cut down or were charging towards the battle in the middle of the stadium.  With the guns all broken, most of them had switched to knives or bayonets – those that still had theirs.

I picked a door that had only two men standing in front of it, and climbed into the stands, sprinting up the steps three at a time.

On instinct, the Green Hands aimed their guns at the masked figure running at them in the rain, even though they wouldn’t fire.


I waved my hands at them, and layered over my voice as I got within range.  “Don’t shoot!  Don’t shoot!”  My illusion pulled off his mask, revealing a generic face I’d come up with on the fly.  “No orange, see?  We’re on the same team.

They lowered their rifles.  “I don’t think we could shoot you anyways.  What the fuck are we supposed to do without our guns?  Even our Voidsteel bullets won’t work if the mechanisms don’t fire.”

I had my illusion beckon the guards closer, and they stepped forward, leaving an open path to the door.  “Do we have any other projectors?

“Mob people,” said the other guard.  “Cutthroats for hire.  They died in the first ten seconds.”

As their conversation continued, I slipped past them, pulling open the door and sliding in.

I’m going to get John,” my illusion said.

“Who?”

My illusion ran away down the stands, ducking out of sight before vanishing.

I jogged through the halls, past groups of Green Hands and pairs of mobsters.  All the exit doors had been locked shut.  When I projected towards them, the locks had been jammed.  My weak metal projection wasn’t enough to force them open.

So I kept running, passing through hallways, clambering up stairs.

The rain pounded down outside.  Sweat collected in my armpits, and my lungs burned from the exertion.  Finally, after making several wrong turns, I found a door near the top of the stands that opened to a ladder going down to the ground.  Probably something for maintenance.

The door to the top of the stands was open.  Outside, a thick cloud of steam had gathered in the center of the field.  Explosions and shouts rang from within.

As the cloud cleared, I stopped for a moment to observe the fight.  No one else was nearby.  Maybe I can get a sense of Tunnel Vision’s abilities.  Or even her Vocation.

The steam blew away in the wind.  A whole fifth of the stadium on the far side had been demolished, like cutting a slice out of a pie.  I could see the lowtown buildings outside, the path cleared for an escape.  Several of the floodlights flickered, damaged.

Tunnel Vision stood in the center, her black coat and skirt covered in blood.  Miraculously, she hadn’t lost her bowler hat or messed up her long ponytail.

She held the top half of a severed head in her fist, clenching its long blonde hair.  Professor Havstein.  I felt like throwing up.  So guns work again now.  Though everyone else in the stadium seemed to have fled or died.

The hooded leader of Commonplace still stood behind her, unharmed.

In front of the rubble, Professor Stoughton had gathered a tidal wave of water around him.  It formed the shape of a many-headed hydra, long snakelike necks ready to strike and explode at a moment’s notice.  It stood at least fifty feet tall, as wide as a third of the field.

Stoughton stood in the center, catching his breath, a storm of green lightning crackling around him.  As I recalled, he and Professor Havstein had been close friends at Paragon, partners together for over a decade.  He must be furious.

Tunnel Vision cocked her head to the side, watching the professor as if he were some sort of curiosity.  Beneath his giant water monster, she looked insignificant, wielding nothing other than the severed head.

The two stared each other down, neither making a move.  Tunnel Vision folded her hands behind her back.

He’s afraid of her.

The professor spun his arms in a circular motion, and his water monster split in two.  The front half blasted forward, charging at Tunnel Vision and Commonplace’s leader.

At the same time, the other half formed a dense sphere around Stoughton.  It shot him away, rocketing him down the street.

The front part exploded into steam with an ear-splitting crack, covering half of the stadium in an instant.  I could feel the heat on my face, and my ears rang.

A flash of white light lit up the inside of the cloud, followed by another deafening boom.

The smoke cleared.  Outside the stadium, Professor Stoughton lay on the cobblestone, steam rising off his body.  Burns.  His thick shield of water had vanished.

When I squinted through the rain, I saw him move, crawling forward at a sloth’s pace.  Scholars, he’s still alive.

Tunnel Vision swung the severed half-head like a sling, tossing it to the side.  She strode towards the professor over the piles of rubble, slow and inexorable.  Sparks flickered around her, and blood coated her face and skirt.  A spirit of fire wreathed in rain and smoke, a dark silhouette in the storm.

Two top-notch Guardians with decades of experience, and she’d crushed them in seconds.

As she approached her victim, she glanced back at the stands, in my direction.

Is she looking at – 

Nobody else was nearby.  She was looking at me.

For several seconds, we made eye contact across the expanse of the field, through the pouring rain.  The panic rose in my stomach, spreading through my chest and washing over my entire body until my hands shook.

Then I tore my gaze away, walking as calmly as I could to the door.  Don’t look panicked or running.  I pulled it open and climbed down the ladder, hyperventilating.

After what felt like a lifetime, I slid to the bottom, making my palms burn.  Is she following me?  Did she recognize me?

I kept running down the hallway, even though I was already out of breath.  Beneath my coat, I projected into the three pieces of my suppressed machine pistol, sliding them together and holding it with two hands so I could shoot.

The lower halls of the building were empty, as far as I could see.  Most of the Green Hands and mobsters must be focused on the field.  I jogged through another set of corridors and stairwells without trouble, finally reaching a set of double doors to the outside.  My projection indicated they hadn’t sealed this one yet.

I walked towards them and reached for the handle.

“Stop!”

I spun around, raising my machine pistol.

A man stood across the hall from me, leveling a shaking rifle at me.  No – a boy.  About my age.

He’s out of range of my Vocation.  And I didn’t know how to jam a gun with projection, other than holding the trigger in place with brute force.  And besides, I was already exhausted.

And that’s a heavy rifle.  The combat suit under my clothes could stop light gunfire, but a shot from that would punch straight through.

“No one’s supposed to leave until we finish a full sweep,” the boy said.  No Green Hands tattoos.  He’s with the mob.  “That’s the order.  Anyone leaving could be an undercover enemy.”

“Relax,” I said.  “I didn’t get the order yet.  But I am going to need to see some identity confirmation.”  I layered as much calm and patience as I could into my voice, pushing down the panic.  “We’re not enemies.  We don’t have to point guns in each other’s faces.”

I took a hesitant step forward.  Get him in range.

“Don’t come any closer!”  The boy’s eyes widened.  “Take off your mask!”

Nausea bubbled up inside my stomach.  I felt like I was going to be sick.  I reached up with my other hand and pulled off my mask, revealing my face.  My real face.

“Sorry.”  I kept my voice calm.  “Sorry.  I’m going to lower my gun.  You lower yours, okay?  Then – then you can call your CO on the radio so we can, um, confirm the order and our identities.  Please, don’t do something you’re going to regret.”

The boy said nothing, taking sharp, rapid breaths.

“I’m – I’m lowering my gun.”  I inched the barrel of my machine pistol down, until it was pointing at my feet.  Then I took my finger off the trigger.

The boy lowered his rifle, slowly but surely.  For a few seconds, we caught our breaths.

He reached for the radio at his shoulder and pressed the talk button, glancing at it.  “Talon Five to Central – “

I shot him.

It happened so fast that, for a moment, I thought someone else had pulled the trigger.  A series of muffled cracks rang out, drowned out by the sound of the rain outside.  The machine pistol pushed back against my hand.

And the boy fell, a series of red holes punched in his chest.  The gun slid out of his hands, and he coughed, spitting up blood.  He twitched, and a wet gurgling noise came out of his throat.

Professor Tuft’s advice ran through my head.  Always confirm the kill.  Only an idiot would stand around when her target was downed and vulnerable.  If you monologued, or ignored them, or hesitated, that could be deadly.

If I left him here, he might get a replacement body in time.  Report my face to Tunnel Vision.

I pushed open the door and ran out, fleeing into the storm.

________________________________________

The sea swirled beneath Clementine’s house, aggravated by the rain.

Behind her house, the highest waves swept over the balcony, washing it with a thin layer of saltwater.  The same one I’d jumped off months ago.


I rang the doorbell, drenched from head to toe, not bothering to dry myself.

Left-Hira opened the door, a bottle of arak in her hand.  “You’re alive.”  She looked surprised.  “How did it go?”

I caught my breath, leaning against my knees for support.  When I pushed myself upright, I avoided eye contact, gazing down the street into the rain.

“Staring into the middle distance isn’t an answer, you know.  The least you could do is tell me if you – “

I looked at her.

“Hey, um.”  For the first time since I met her, she looked uncertain about what to say.  “Are you.  Are you alright?”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“So,” said Hira.  “I read her pocketbook.  No one’s coming here to check on her for another few hours.”

“And her files?  Anything interesting?”

“Nothing on whatever ‘Buttercup Lodge’ is,” said Hira.  “But it did include a bunch of operations Clementine took part in for Tunnel Vision.  And some codes.  ‘Feather 910’, ‘Snake 171’, that sort of thing.  I woke her up and tried interrogating her with them, but only got a bunch of vague details.  Some voices, some smells, just a few associations.  And apparently, she helped develop some technique to avoid phones being traced.  That’s all I got.”

I scowled, and plugged those details into my new pattern-matching vocation.  I could read the files later and add those details too.  If anything matched in the future, I’d get notified.

“There’s got to be more,” I said.

She grinned at me.  Is she trying to cheer me up?  “Let’s strip this house for fucking parts.”

I nodded, and stepped forward.

Inside, Hira had stacked duffel bags in the middle of Clementine’s dining table, filling them with silverware, all three chandeliers from the house, and a handful of loose bills.

“Careful,” I said.  “Those are worth a lot less than they look.”

“Clementine’s still up in her study,” she said.  “I’m watching her with my other body.  It’ll be hard to find a fence for this stuff when Tunnel Vision controls most of the underworld.  This was all I could find.  No stacks of cash, jewelry, or Vocation Codices.”  She looked at me.  “But you worked here for years.  You know where the good stuff is, right?”

“This way,” I said, my voice flat.

I led Hira down to Clementine’s basement.  The wooden steps creaked as we descended.

Two-thirds of the floor was taken up by dirt-stained mattresses lined up against each other.  The servant’s quarters.

The mattress that had been my home had a different ratty blanket on top of it, messed up and unmade.  Someone had slept in it recently.  My replacement.  I felt for them, whoever they were.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “If my boss made me sleep somewhere like this, I’d blow out his kidneys with buckshot.”

We strode to the far side of the room, to a locked door.  “You got her keys, right?”

Hira knelt by the door and jammed a bobby pin into the lock.  After a few seconds of jiggling, the door swung open.  “A thief named Pamello shops at the same grocery store as me.  I copied his skills this morning.”

I flipped on a light, revealing shelves and shelves of horizontal wine bottles lining the walls.

“Ah,” said Hira.  “Now I know why she kept this locked from all of you.  I’d have been in here twenty-four seven.  Where is it?”

I pointed at a tapestry, hanging on the wall behind the shelves.  On it, a trio of fighter planes flew above the ocean, the pilots etched in exquisite detail.

“There.  Behind that.”  Clementine had thought herself subtle, hiding her safe here, but after she’d visited it a few times, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

Hira stretched her hand forward, projecting into the shelf.  Then she yanked it back, tipping it over and smashing hundreds of bottles on the ground.  A purple-red puddle spread on the wooden floor, mixed with glass shards.

Then, she strode over it and ripped off the wall tapestry, tearing it in the middle to reveal a wall safe sitting behind it.  “You know the code?”

I shook my head.

“Not a problem.”  Hira pulled a stethoscope out of her coat, cleared a spot to kneel next to the safe, and began spinning the dial.

As she worked, I turned around, looking back at the basement.  Right now, in the middle of a winter night, it was bitter cold, making me rub my arms under the sleeves of my jacket.

And yet somehow, this same basement would turn into an underground oven during spring and summer, turning the nights here into hours of tossing and turning under sweaty covers.

Whoever my replacement was, they were stuck here now, for a lot longer than they were expecting.

A terrible thought ran through my mind.  What if the boy I killed – the boy back at the stadium – had been hired through someone like Clementine?  A servant working for some mid-level mobster, desperate for anything that would let him crawl out of this basement and get some financial security.

What would have happened if I didn’t find Clementine’s blue folder?  If I hadn’t done my body heist and gotten that job offer from Isaac Brin, while I bled out on that boat.

If I’d been pushed enough, could I have been at that stadium, in his position?

Thinking about it like that made me want to reassemble my machine pistol and point it at my skull.

I shoved the feeling down.  It’s not your fault.  It was the fault of monsters like Clementine, who forced vulnerable people into service for them.  Liars who’d never put themselves at risk for a cause, who’d never had to struggle just to live.

Hira pulled open the safe.  “Done.  Guess this bitch paid her safe manufacturer as much as her maids.”

I walked back to her, and we leaned forward, seeing what was inside.

“What?” said Hira.

No cash.  No jewelry or gold or gems.  Just a stack of three small books.  This was what Clementine checked every other week?

Hira pulled open one, flipping through it.  Then the next two.  “They’re not Vocation codices.  No obvious critical information.  Are they in code?”

“But if they’re code, why store them in a safe?  Why telegraph that these are important?”  I picked up the first book and flipped to a random page.

They’re journal entries.  And though it was impossible to tell at a glance, my intuition told me they weren’t in code.

I flipped to another random spot, revealing a photograph wedged in between pages.  In it, a smiling woman in a flight suit stood next to a bomber on an aircraft carrier, flanked by half a dozen pilots on each side.  All of them had their fists raised, and two of them near the middle held the Principality’s flag in front of them.  A war photograph.

The scrawled caption on the bottom read: The nation, the people, the light.  You’re still our ace, Captain Rawlyn.

“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath.  I read through the entry beneath it.  Then the next one.  Then the next.

“Ana?  Anything valuable?”

“It’s true,” I said.

“You’ve got to be more specific than that.”

“Clementine’s medals, her military history, all of it,” I said.  “She was a pilot in the air force.  She fought in the Shenti War.  I thought she was lying about all of it, but she wasn’t just some con woman.  She was a hero.”

At the back of one, I saw a folded-up letter, and read it:

Paragon Academy

717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

Dear Ms. Rawlyn,

Thank you for your interest in Paragon Academy.

I am sorry to inform you that we cannot offer you a place in the class of 510.  Our admissions committee evaluated a record number of passionate applicants this year, from all over the Principality.  Unfortunately, they could only accept a limited number with the greatest proficiency, intellect, and projection potential.

Your scores on the entrance exam are enclosed.  Your projection ranking estimate was: Bronze.

We wish you well in your future endeavors to serve this country with pride and distinction.  May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Tau

Headmaster

I folded the letter back up.  Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I kept reading through the journal, losing track of time.  I pored over entry after entry, until I was finished with this book and moved onto the next one.

The truth was, I’d wanted to dismiss Clementine’s history.  I wanted to believe that she was propping her image up with a story of service and duty.  That would have been simpler, easier.  But I wasn’t sure what to make of this.

“There are plenty of asshole soldiers,” said Hira.  “Fuckers looking for an acceptable way to shoot people.”

“But that’s not how she comes across in these journals,” I said.  “And she can’t have been expecting anyone else to read these.”

“Why not?”

“Because these aren’t glamorous.”  I knew Clementine.  If she was making up a fake military backstory for herself, she wouldn’t have talked about getting dysentery for half a month, or failing her pilot’s certification twice, or making mistakes that got her subordinates maimed for life.  And she definitely wouldn’t have included a Paragon rejection letter.

“Some lunatic nationalist, then, drunk on the flag.”

Nationalists aren’t lunatics.  To Hira, anything she didn’t personally believe in was somehow corrupt or hollow.  “The woman I knew wasn’t a patriot.  Wouldn’t risk her life for anyone else, much less her country or her fellow soldiers.”  The Clementine in these notebooks was a stranger.

“Then why the fuck is she here?” said Hira.  “Why isn’t she in some naval base, trying to kiss up to Florence Tuft?”

“The Edwina Massacre,” I said.  The first time projection had been shown to the Principality at large.  After the Pyre Witch set Shenti civilians on fire, they’d retaliated by sending the most skilled Joiner in the world after our fleet.  All Humdrums, no Voidsteel.  The woman had ripped them apart with her bare hands.  We’d sent our own Guardians after her, including the warm-hearted Professor Keswick, but she’d burnt them too, and the Shenti didn’t care.

“What about it?”

I held up the journal.  “She fought in it, when she still thought she was a Humdrum.  Got her hands torn up from the battle, couldn’t fly anymore, or even work a desk job.  The one thing in her life that defined her, gave her meaning, and she failed at it.  All her friends were either dead or overseas.  And in her desperation and loneliness, she forgot who she was, and latched onto the first thing that made her feel powerful.”

“She became a selfish piece of shit.”

“There were justifications, ends and means and necessary sacrifices, but over time, they became sacrifices other people made.”

“Like I said, a selfish piece of shit.  And she’s still up there.”  We can still kill her, she implied.

I stuffed the books into my bag.  “Come on, let’s take her stuff and get the fuck out of here.”

Hira looked at me.  “Are you concerned that you’ll become like her?  Is that what this is all about?”  She shook her head.  “Fuck that.  Stop tying your brain into knots.  You’re nothing like that bitch.”

I strode out of the wine cellar, glass shards crunching beneath my feet, and shrugged.  “Neither was she.”

________________________________________

I lied back in my sleeping pod, flipping through Clementine’s journals for the third time.

I had a tactics exam the day after tomorrow.  I was supposed to be studying for it, but I kept getting pulled back by the books I’d taken from her safe.  One passage sat in the center of my mind, a mental knot I’d been failing to untangle for hours.  A more recent segment, taking place after I’d started working for her.

I read it again:

It’s strange.  In the rare moments when I’m not planning a job, or plying my bosses at parties, or preparing for the next step in my career, I just sit here in my room.  I don’t read books.  I don’t watch movies.  My servants do all the housework.  I just lie on my twenty-thousand-pound mattress and stare at the ceiling.  Sometimes, I put the radio on in the background.  Sometimes, I have a smoke.

I have no one to call.  No one to go out with.  The people I call my friends only want to use me, like I want to use them.

Is this going to be the rest of my life?

I have to get back to work.

I snapped the book shut and let my arms fall to my sides, staring at the ceiling of the pod.  You’re not like Clementine.  You’re not.  She hurts people, and you want to become a Guardian.  She’s helping to break this country, and you’re defending it.

What had I done during my last spurt of free time?  I kept myself so busy these days.

But if I had free time, right now, and no obligations, what would I do?  Hira, Wes, and Jun were all living together now, and I didn’t want to see any of them if it meant spending more time with Wes.  Tasia was always busy, and just the sound of Lorne’s voice made me tense up.

And if I dropped dead, right now, how many of them would really miss me?

Then, I remembered.  My birthday was a few days ago.  I’d been so busy that I’d forgotten it.  In recent years, I’d never done anything fancy for the occasion, but I’d often buy myself something nice, like a Nekean action manga or a box of macaroons, back when I still had my taste buds.

I’m twenty years old, and I spent my birthday alone.

I wasn’t a traitor to our country.  But in my loneliness, I was like Clementine.

Before I knew it, my hands were pulling me out of my pod, and my feet were carrying me out of the building, through the rainstorm in the streets, and to the liquor store on the corner of my block.  Then back to my storage unit, to the stained mattress where Wes had slept before moving in with Hira.

I poured myself a glass of Shenti Baijiu and drank it.  It tasted like stale tap water, but it burned as it went down my throat.  Then I drank another one, and another one, until the buzz in my mind was loud enough to drown out the noise in my head and the thick, heavy disgust I felt when looking at my skin, or smelling my body odor.

Then I closed my eyes, and imagined being somewhere else.  The dining hall of Paragon Academy drifted into my mind, the one all Grey Coats were banned from.  I imagined what the mulled cider there would taste like, the beef turnovers and chocolate scones that Lorne gushed about.

In the vision, I was sitting with friends.  Tasia, and Hira and Jun and Kaplen.  Wes’ face flickered into being around them, and I pushed it out.

A snowstorm blew outside the windows, but inside, it was warm and safe.  Later, we could retire back to one of the dormitories and play Jao Lu until two in the morning.

Jao Lu made me think of Wes again.  No.  I pushed it out again.

I sunk deeper into the image, sketching out every detail in my mind.

Shouts rang out in the distance, in the real world.  I diverted a sliver of my attention to staggering out the door and finding the source of the disturbance, holding my focus on the daydream.

Men and women stumbled around the halls, bumping into walls.  Some of them shouted, or made other noises of confusion as they felt their way around.

On a hunch, I pulled myself out of the daydream, bringing my full attention back to reality.

Everyone stopped, looking around them.  “The fuck?” muttered one man.  After a few seconds, all of them walked back to their storage units or sleeping pods, everything back to normal.

It dawned on me.  My Vocation.  I must have been using it on instinct, drawing other people into my escapist fantasy, making it look like they were in Paragon’s dining hall.  Something like this had never happened before, and the sounds had been coming from all over the building.  My range has improved again.

After banishing the illusions, I drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to fall asleep or wake up.  Over time, a growing stomachache built inside me, until the pain was too strong to ignore.

I curled up, twisting and turning to alleviate the pain.  Nothing.  Though it wasn’t as painful as Isaac Brin’s dart, it was close.  It felt like someone was swinging a spiked hammer into my intestines, over and over.  I didn’t swallow my Kraken’s Bone by mistake, did?

So I reached for the baijiu bottle.  It wasn’t as good as painkillers, or a cure for whatever was happening down there, but it would dull the pain.

I swallowed a mouthful, and the pain tripled.  The ache exploded into a burning heat, a pressure boiling over into my throat.

I doubled over and threw up, the familiar sting of stomach acid on my tongue, even though I couldn’t taste it.  This time, it was accompanied by a metallic stench, filling up the storage unit and making me gag.

Projecting into the wall switch, I flipped on the lights.  A splash of red stained the mattress where I had vomited.  Blood.  I threw up again, spitting more out of my mouth, the pain growing and growing.

I need help.  I pushed myself upright, and a wave of dizziness washed over me.  I grabbed the wall for support and stumbled out the door.  What do I do?  Calling an ambulance would bankrupt me, sealing my body’s fate.  Call Jun.  Phone.  Jun had training as a doctor, he could help me.  And Hira could copy the right skills.

I vomited again, splattering blood onto the concrete floor.

There was no phone in King’s Palace Sleepbox and Storage.  The closest payphone I knew was across the street, on the corner.

So I staggered out the front door, into the pouring rain, ears rushing, coughing, on the verge of throwing up or collapsing, and jogged through the puddles to the payphone.  I leaned on it, gasping for breath.

I forgot the coins.  All the willpower to drag myself out here, and I’d screwed up the most basic element.


Of all the ways to die, this had to be one of the dumbest.

Shut the fuck up and think, idiot.  I projected into the machine’s mechanism, feeling around for where it felt the coin drop in.  A few fiddles with metal projection, and I was set.  I dialed Hira’s number, my fingers slipping on the keys, and put the receiver to my ear.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.  I heaved again, spitting up a smaller amount of blood this time.

Then the sky spun around me, and the world faded out.

________________________________________

My eyes snapped open and I coughed, spraying blood onto the bedsheets.

“Damn it,” said Hira.  “I’m going to have to clean those.”

My blurry vision cleared, and I blinked.  I was lying on the guest bed in Hira’s house, flanked by her female body and Jun, sitting at my bedside next to an IV attached to my arm.  Cardamom curled up on the bed by my side, purring.  My blue combat suit had been draped over a chair, pulled off my body.

“You better not die,” said Left-Hira.  “Stealing that from the hospital was a pain in the ass.”

A quiet, lingering ache sat in my stomach and head, but only a fraction of what I’d been feeling earlier.  The agony had subsided, and I could think.

I glanced down at the rest of my body.  Bandages covered small patches of my skin on my arms, my legs, and the side of my stomach.

Jun saw me looking at them.  “Your skin was cracking there.  Keep the bandages on, and clean with alcohol at least once a week.  Don’t want you to get infected.  Your immune system might not be able to fight it off in this body.”

I shivered under the covers, and coughed.  My other decay symptoms feel worse too.  And they weren’t about to get better.

“What happened to me?” I croaked, my lips chapped.

“After the phone rang and no one picked up, we drove to your place on a hunch and found you lying by the phone booth.  Hira stole the IV and copied a few of the specialists at the hospital.  Far as we can tell, something’s messed up with your liver.  Made your body react to the alcohol all weird.”

I pushed myself to a sitting position in the bed, groaning.  “So I should stay dry for the foreseeable future?”

Jun nodded.  “It is as you say.”

“And if you have nausea, yellow skin, weight loss, or perpetual drowsiness,” said Hira.  “Your liver could be failing.  I’d recommend prayer.”

“I’m not religious.”

“I’d recommend booze or drugs, but that’d probably kill you.”

“Thanks, Hira.”

“And now that you’re awake,” said Jun.  “If you don’t mind, there’s someone here to see you.”


He knocked on the door, and it swung open, revealing a rain-soaked Weston Ebbridge on the other side.

“Hey Ana,” he said.  “Let’s talk about Tasia.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




7-B The Blue Charlatan

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

Hard work wasn’t paying off.

It was an old whaleshit cliché, thrown around by Clementine’s middle-managers and my parents, when they were convincing me to work in a factory for twelve hours a day.  A persuasion tactic.

But this time, I wasn’t working for any of them.  I was working for me.  And it still wasn’t enough.

I studied with every spare moment of free time.  Every day, I jogged around Lowtown to stay in shape and practiced at the gun range with my machine pistol.  And it wasn’t whaleshit, half-assed practice or studying either.  I put the effort in, tried new methods and avoided etching bad techniques into my muscle memory.

But my body was decaying.  Two of my fingers were gone.  My shoulder ached from the Steel Violet’s punch.  The slightest bit of smoke or even a whiff of perfume could send me into a coughing fit.  And at night, my anemia turned me into a quivering mess in my sleeping capsule at King’s Palace.  I had to bundle myself in thick layers to fall asleep, no matter how exhausted I was.

The decay grew faster than my improvements.  Despite all my technique, my aim with the machine pistol was growing worse, not better.  And even easy runs left me dry heaving and wheezing for air, until I made them into brisk walks, and then just walks.

With some adrenaline in my veins, I could sprint for a bit, but I had no endurance.  Training felt like trying to swim at the top of a waterfall.  No matter how hard I paddled, I was just delaying the inevitable.

On top of that, my physical projection remained weak, improving in tiny steps and inches despite all my study and practice with Tasia.  I could water walk for more than a few seconds now, but at this rate it’d be years before I could fly in a wingsuit.

Still, I made small improvements.  My Whisper projection was getting better.  I could now Nudge people, though I couldn’t imagine doing it to anyone.  I’d also learned a few useful Praxis vocations, like an internal clock, a basic pattern-matcher that used manual tables and a passive search function, and Stone Mask, which could flatten my body language for a short spell.  The pattern-matcher helped me track important details of our targets, and make connections in my subconscious that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.  And Stone Mask helped me with targets out of my range.

Still, most of it was basic, easy.  The average Grey Coat could do it in their sleep.  My grades, too, were improving, but were still dead-average for Paragon.

The only real achievement I’d made in the last few months was in my Vocation.  In my spare time, I could practice on Hira and Jun, or sit in a public park and use it on squirrels and birds.  My range had steadily increased, up to a consistent forty meters – almost twice that if I was projecting on a familiar target like Hira, and I could now modify up to three or four senses at once without straining myself, though touch was still out of my grasp.

And the jobs, of course.  The jobs were the only thing that made sense these days.  There were clear enemies.  Achievable goals.  A single puzzle to work out using strategy, projection, and teamwork, rather than a mountain of confusing textbooks and essay assignments.

So I accepted as many as possible, knocking them down as Brin gave them to me, along with some info bounties on the side.  We’d gotten that list of Commonplace and mobster meetings, which gave us an endless array of mid-level targets.  The thin blue armor Brin had given me also made things easier.  Bullets that would have killed me a month ago only left bruises, now.  In one battle, the rest of my clothes had burned away and it still kept me safe.

And the money added up, especially with my cheap capsule and canned-lentil diet.  I split it between the bank and a few hidden stashes in spots I was certain nobody would find.

It helped too, when I refused all of Wes’ offers to go out drinking.  I wasn’t going to let that boy manipulate me again.  The only contact I allowed was for missions and strategy meetings, where he gave me a flattened grenade and knife to fit inside my belt.

I didn’t have enough money to buy a body, but at this rate, I would by the end of the year.

But on top of that, I had to deal with Lorne Daventry.  My esteemed student boss.

The boy was starting to trust me more, but as he did, he demanded more too.  In addition to his laundry, his notes, and his takeout lunches, I now did his shopping, cleaned his room, ran his schedule, and bought him tickets.

Once, I even mixed him cocktails in the kitchen of his mansion.  I considered stealing some of his expensive silver, but decided against it.  He’d figure me out in an instant.

And through it all, I lost sleep.  The days blurred together, my eyes ached with every waking moment, and my night chills made my sleeping capsule feel like an icicle.  When I sat down at the laundromat or in the cable car up to Paragon, I drifted off before jerking back awake, terrified I’d forgotten something important.

And when my alarm clock screeched at seven every morning, it took all of my willpower to crawl out from under my blankets and face the world.  On days without classes or a mission, the pod seemed to encompass my whole universe.  The world outside faded to a faint buzz.

I skipped almost all my breakfasts.  On some days, I skipped every meal.  My showers were once a week, enough to keep me from getting filthy without taking too much of my time. As a result, I built up masculine body odor, a stench so repulsive I almost changed the habit. But I needed the time.

I cut back my neck-to-toe shaving to once a week, too. If I skipped those, or, worse, my morning shaves, the disgust would overflow in my mind and I’d have to pay attention to my chassis, with its thick, revolting body hair. Bulging grey veins were enough to handle.

My intermittent coughs grew worse, and once every few days, I saw blood in them.  Other aches and pains sprouted up throughout my body – in my shoulders, my lower back, my thighs – from bad posture, decay, or something else.

Of course, I didn’t have the time or the money to go to the doctor, so I just pretended they weren’t there.  I just imagined the pain away.

After many missions, and many coughs, Hira would glance at me with confusion.  “You shot so many,” she said.  “You should just take their bodies, if they’re going to die anyway.”

When I thought about taking another’s body, a yawning pit of disgust opened in my stomach.  But I had another reason to hold back.

Forced transference could only swap.  It couldn’t force another’s Pith into the open air to make an empty chassis, unless you’d studied more advanced techniques.

Which meant, if I took another’s body, I’d have to give up this one.  

And I wouldn’t be Ernest Chapman anymore.  I’d lose my Grey Coat position with Lorne, lose my best shot at becoming a Paragon student.  Maybe my best shot at a new chassis, too, at drinking mulled cider with a friend.

Make money with Queen Sulphur for a body.  Please Lorne for a body and admission.  I was racing down two avenues at once.  With the stakes so high, I couldn’t throw away either of them.

But on nights like this, I thought of the people I’d shot, of their faces and voices and their cries of pain. And I found myself questioning that.  Is this still the path I want?

I studied in my capsule, lying on my back and staring at page 596 of Biochemistry: An Introduction.  I’d read it three times already, but it still wasn’t making sense.  The words and sentences floated around my mind, bouncing off each other but never fusing into any meaning.

I looked past the tome, staring at the ceiling of my pod.  In two fingers of my book hand, I held my last can of lentils, spooning it in my mouth using the other hand.  A late dinner.  My only meal for the day.

I needed to get through this page for tomorrow’s quiz, but I was making zero progress.  If I fucked this up, then my grade for the Obsidian Foil’s class would be in the critical.

I couldn’t sleep until I got this.  And I couldn’t escape into my imagination without the risk of falling asleep.

Plus, I had to write a book summary and deliver it to Lorne at morning tea.  And I had to prepare for a mission tomorrow night.  I hadn’t started on either of those tasks.  And I had to buy more lentils, since I was out.  And my grey Paragon uniform was wrinkled, and I had to iron it for class.

I sighed.  I miss Cardamom.  Maybe I should have kept the cat here, even if it wasn’t the best home for him.

Then, I craned my neck to look at the alarm clock by my feet.  I’d placed it there to make it harder to shut off when I woke up.

Four in the morning.

It’s four in the morning?  I jerked back, hitting my head on the side of the pod.  The can of lentils slipped out of my grasp and dropped with a splat onto my chest.

All over my clean grey uniform.  My one school uniform.

There was no time to clean it before class.  But the assistant’s handbook specified that if I didn’t meet the dress code, there would be disciplinary action.  And if the old caretaker Berthel caught me like this, he’d follow through.

I began to shake with anger.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Unbidden, hot tears welled up at the edges of my eyes, running down my face.

“Fuck,” I whispered.  “Fuck.  Fuck.

I flopped back on the mattress, paralyzed.  What should I do?  Everything was at the boiling point.  There were so many things to do, and all were equally urgent.  And in just a few hours, the school day would begin.  It’s so much.  It’s all so much.

So I just lay there.  I wasn’t sure for how long.

Someone knocked on my capsule door, and I jumped again.

I peeked out from behind the curtain next to my head.  Jun stood outside, beaming and waving at me.

I considered throwing up illusions for him.  To make me look asleep, or gone, or more put-together.  It wasn’t good to have a squadmate see me this vulnerable, this pathetic.

Fuck it.  Jun wasn’t a threat.  Lying to my allies was something Wes did, not me.

I pulled open the curtain, opened the door, and crawled out of the cramped space, onto the hotel’s dusty concrete floor.

I rubbed the sleep out of my eye and brushed lentils off my coat.  “How’d you get in?”

Jun held up a weird-looking screwdriver with dials attached to it.  A lockpick gun.  “The buzzer was broken.  This building isn’t very well-designed.”

“Yeah.”

Jun looked me up and down, squinting.  “You want to get some coffee?”

I glanced behind me.  Wet canned lentils dribbled off my blanket and onto my sheets.  “I’m – out of spending money.”

He raised a grey eyebrow.  “You want me to buy you some coffee?”

________________________________________

I sat down next to Jun at the pier, beneath a lamppost, still lit in the dim early morning.  My assistant’s uniform sat on my lap, while I wore Isaac Brin’s thin blue combat suit, the only clean outfit I had.

I took a sip of coffee.  It tasted like the paper cup it came in, but I appreciated the warmth.

“A benefit of no taste buds,” said Jun.  “You can make that as strong as you like, and you don’t get any of the bitterness.  Lucky for you, I know all the cafés that are open this late.”

A chill breeze blew across the water, blowing Jun’s wispy grey beard.  I rubbed my arms.  “How much do I owe you for the clothes?”

“Nothing.”  He examined a chocolate-covered cream puff, then stuffed the whole thing into his mouth.

“I don’t like being in debt to people.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re not in debt to me.”  He floated my uniform into the air in front of him and pulled a cake of soap from his bag.  Water streamed out of the harbor, washing the clothes.

“You should have told me you didn’t have a washing machine, I could have rigged you up a miniature one for your storage unit.  Silent, so the building doesn’t complain.”

“What is this about?” I asked.  “You here to give me sage advice?”  I was getting that sort of tone from him.

“I don’t have any sage advice.”  The Shenti man pulled a grey hair from his scalp, holding it in front of him.  “I’m not actually seventy-one.  I’m twenty, and I have no idea what I’m doing.  I just want to eat wontons, watch television, and build spiky cars that shoot flames out the back.”

“I know.”

“And we Shenti aren’t full of wisdom anymore.  You people took that from us.”

“I was a kid when the Spirit Block happened,” I said.  Don’t blame me for breaking your bloody religion.  “But I’m sorry.”

What does he want?  The man – boy – was still an enigma to me.  Sometimes, his soft personality and cooking obsession reminded me of Kaplen, which made me feel warm and brought up bad memories at the same time.

And Kaplen hadn’t volunteered for an amateur band of government mercenaries.  On some level, this bombmaker-engineer-pacifist wanted to be here, in the Principality, with us.

And I had to know why.

“Can I be honest?” said Jun.  “That’s a rhetorical question, I hate lying.”

“Sure.”

“You’re not talking to anyone.  You’re getting big circles under your eyes and you’re jittery on missions.  You look detached, like you don’t care, even when you’re shooting people.”

“You don’t go on missions, how do you know I’m jittery?”

“Everyone’s worried about you,” he said.

“Right,” I said.  “So this is what, an intervention?”  Wes must have put him up to this.  “I can’t afford to slow down right now.”

“I know,” he said.  “I know.  But you don’t have to carry all the weight yourself.  I know you don’t want Wes’ help, but would you at least accept some from me and Hira?”

“I’m alright,” I said.

“Vocations are powered by a person’s inner state, yes?” said Jun.  “And you’re an illusionist.”

“Yeah.”

“So,” he said.  “Why are you so bad at lying?”

I slouched over.  “I spent a lot of nights in Clementine’s basement, lying on a dirty mattress, unable to fall asleep.  Before then, I worked in a factory in the Agricultural Islands, and didn’t have any friends at school.  And before then, I had to deal with Loic’s Syndrome.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What do you do?” I said.  “When your reality is unacceptable?”  I flicked my wrist, sending a ripple out across the water.  “You imagine a new one.  You escape into your mind, and weave the most elaborate fantasies.”

“It is as you say,” said Jun.

I froze a chunk of the water, making my wrist flicker with blue lightning.  “That’s what powers my Vocation.”  I chuckled.  “Sad, isn’t it?”

“You’re here, are you not?” said Jun.  “You endured.  It sounds like your strategy worked.  But it doesn’t have to be your only one.”

He finished washing and rinsing my clothes and projected into the water, pulling it out and drying them.  They folded themselves and set themselves down in my lap.

“Let me install a washer-dryer in your storage unit,” he said.  “And I can help you study.  Hira too, once I convince him not to charge you.”

I stared down at my clean, dry laundry, and sighed.  “Come in the day after tomorrow.”

________________________________________

In my mind, I was running down a steep hill.  I was going fast, faster than ever before, but if I slowed down or made one wrong step, I’d fall and hit my head.

At the front of the lecture hall, Harpy talked, a rapidfire stream of words matched by three separate pieces of chalk drawing on the board.

And for once, I was keeping up.

My note-taking hadn’t gotten any faster.  If anything, the decay on my body had made handwriting even harder.  But I’d gotten more efficient.  I could filter out the most critical words and pare down the core concepts, so even when I was sleep-deprived, I could take coherent notes.

“A Shenti Joiner with a rifle comes from twelve o’clock.  A Humdrum with a shotgun comes from five.  Both have Voidsteel bullets, you have a piece of plywood.  How do you block the attack?”

To my surprise, my hand shot up.

“Chapman,” she said.

“I – um.”  This was the first time she’d called on me since the first day of class.  The first time I’d even tried to speak up.  “It’s, um, a trick question, right?  You don’t block, you attack.  You use the plywood and heat it to mess with the Joiner’s thermal vision, hit the floor, then project into the Voidsteel shotgun to kill the Shenti.”

Professor Tuft raised an eyebrow behind her librarian’s glasses.  “Correct.”

Next to me, Lorne didn’t exactly nod, but the look he gave was a little warmer than his usual disgusted glare.  Progress.

At the end of class, we got our quarterly reports back, and in an even bigger surprise, I’d managed to pull ahead with my grades.  I was far from the top of the class, or even the top fifty percent, but I was adequate.

And in Paragon, adequate was amazing.

Lorne glanced over my shoulder.  “Not bad, Chapman.  Keep working.”

Coming from him, he might as well have kissed me.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t get too full of yourself,” he said.  “I have another job for you.”

________________________________________

Basilisk Squad was the second-best team in the academy.  Their strategies were fast and unconventional, and they had a unique, specialized set of Vocations.

And they were losing.

Golem Squad, complete with Kaplen’s sand-projecting replacement, Matilla Geffray, was running circles around them.  Geffray had been assaulted by Green Hands before the semester, the incident with baseball bats that Brin had told me about on the night we met.  Despite that, the first-year showed remarkable combat prowess with her sand.

Despite their mobility, Basilisk Squad looked wobbly, uncoordinated.  A slower reaction to a metal shard from Lorne, or a miscommunication that left them crushed by Naru’s water wave.  Added up, it had a devastating effect.

And I knew why.  Because I’d drugged them.

Twenty minutes before the fight, I’d used my illusions to sneak in dustings of a grey powder into their morning tea.  Which, according to Lorne, was a potent mix of several drugs he’d purchased from the black market.

Now, it was making them slower on the uptake, more prone to panic, less capable of strategizing on the fly.  I’d helped sabotage Basilisk Squad before, but this was a whole new level.

Lorne jabbed his hand forward, and a metal cable ripped off the last enemy armband.  In less than two minutes, the battle was over.

Adam Lynde, the leader of Basilisk Squad, pushed himself off the dirt, his clothes dripping with water.  He blinked, shaking, and charged at Lorne, roaring something unintelligible.  He projected into his clothes, shooting himself forward.

In one smooth motion, Lorne dodged him and wrapped a cable around his arm, slamming him face-first into the dirt.  A second later, he had Adam’s hands tied behind his back.

Lorne and the squad strode towards me, as Adam screamed expletives at them from behind.  I gave them their usual snacks of sesame crackers and mulled cider.  I could smell the aroma of fresh apples and spices.

“Why was he so mad?” I said, immediately regretting it.

“Lynde was struggling in Harpy’s tactics course,” said Lorne, smirking.  “And now he’s certain to fail it.  He won’t be expelled, but he’ll be held back a year.”

My stomach ached.  “And?” I said.

“He was already on the ropes with his parents.  This will be the final straw.  They’re going to try and Oust him in the summer.”

A wave of dizziness crashed over me, and I felt a spike of nausea.  Out on the pavilion, Adam walked back towards the bridge.  All the anger had deflated out of him, and now he just stared at the ground, a flat expression across his face.

You did this.  I felt like curling up and crying.  Or throwing hot cider in Lorne’s face.  Or bashing my head against the bleachers until my repulsive skull cracked like an eggshell.  You helped.

“You look outraged,” said Lorne.  “Offended.  I respect that you’re keeping it to yourself, but I can read your face.”

“Why?” I asked, my voice quiet.  “Why was that necessary?”

Lorne waved his hand at Deon, Naru, and Matilla.  “Good work today.  I’ll meet you guys in class.”

They nodded, trudging off across the bridge.

“I’ll only say this once,” said Lorne.  “So shut the fuck up and listen.  Do you know who my father is?”

“Lord Hugo Daventry,” I said.  “The Scholar of Thermodynamics.  A legendary physical specialist noted for his accomplishments in the Shenti W- “

“Everyone loved him,” said Lorne.  “A trusted mentor, a true friend, a man who always helped the weak and the vulnerable.  In the colonies, there wasn’t a criminal he couldn’t beat or an old lady he couldn’t help cross the street.  He was one of the strongest projectors in the Eight Oceans.”  He leaned closer to me.  “Want to know why he’s never in the papers anymore?”

“He’s on a mission overseas,” I said.  “Something top secret.”

“Wrong,” said Lorne.  “Don’t think like the other gullible fucks in this country.  When has the Principality ever announced a secret mission?”

“Right,” I said.  “So where is he?”

“Our mansion,” said Lorne.  “Hopped up on painkillers.  After trying to off himself three separate times.”

Scholars.”

“He saw a lot during the war,” he said.  “But in the end, it was what he did to the Eastern dogs that broke him.”

“Can I – can I ask what he did?“

“It’s hard for an enemy to churn out tanks,” said Lorne, “when your factory workers are all dead.  Not that it mattered.  We still would have lost if it weren’t for the Spirit Block.  Now, you know who my mother is?”  He indicated his hand, and we walked towards the bridge.

“Isabelle Corbin.  The Symphony Knight,” I said.  “The Scholar of Music.“

“It was a rhetorical question.  Everyone knows who my mother is.  And she’s killed far more people than my father.  But today, she’s a professor.  She provides for the family, protects her country, acts as a noble ideal for others to strive for and helps the innocent.  Because she does what’s necessary, and doesn’t look back.”

We stepped onto the bridge, above the water more than a thousand feet below.

“But why him?  Why hurt Adam Lynde?”

“Oh,” said Lorne.  “A month ago, he made fun of me in class and everyone laughed.  I couldn’t let that stand.”  He patted me on the back.  “Well done,” he said.  “Consider this an invite to my Spring Equinox party.”

My stomach twinged.  Lorne’s parties were notorious for being exclusive.  If I attended, I could talk to Guardians and billionaires and Epistocrats, maybe even the Headmaster.  And if I had the right conversation with the right person, I could get a fast-track into Paragon’s class next year.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Lorne knew it.

“And,” he said.  “If you do well with your grades next quarter, I’ll loan you a temp body so you can get to the end of the year.  If you do really well, I’ll loan you a Maxine Clive.  I look after my own.”  He turned and strode off towards Citrine Hall, towards a thick cloud of fog.

I glanced towards the ground.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t look back, Ernest,” he said.  “Don’t look back.”

________________________________________

“Adam’s going to be Ousted?” said Tasia.  “His parents would do that?”

I nodded.  The two of us leaned on the railing on the edge of the great pavilion, staring out at the bustling afternoon city below.  “He’s gold-ranked, so his odds aren’t awful.  But at this point, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help him.”  Except confess.

But then I’d be investigated, and they would discover my illegal mercenary work.  Then Parliament or Paragon or both would want heads on spikes.

“Do you hate me now?”

“No.”  Tasia looked away from me.  “But,” she glanced at me from the corner of her eye.  “Maybe, right now, before you get cornered, you should ask yourself what you wouldn’t do.  Draw a line for yourself, so you know when you cross it.”

“I won’t destroy the lives or the minds of innocents,” I said.  Not if I can help it.  Not any more.  “I won’t take another’s body.”  Beyond that, I don’t know.

I thought back to Clementine, to the expensive house on the edge of the water and the mattress in the basement.

“I’ve had a boss like Lorne before,” I said.  “She made all of us compete, and put us through these humiliating rituals.  And when we fell behind or talked back, she had her middle managers work us until we fell over.  She told us she was a war hero, with all these medals for saving people’s lives, but she treated us like livestock.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I promised myself,” I said, “‘when I get power, I won’t be like these assholes.  I’ll treat people right’.  But that’s what they all promise, isn’t it?  ‘The ends justify the means’ is easier to stomach when you’re not the one being sacrificed.”

“If you think too much about this stuff, you’ll get your mind all tied up in knots,” said Tasia.  “You did what you had to do.”

I glanced behind me, at the clock tower at the far end of the pavilion.  Four pm.  “I have to go,” I said.  “I have people expecting me.”  I started walking back down the pavilion, towards the bridge to the cable car back to Elmidde.

“I hope they’re good people,” she said.  “Every time I see you, you come back with more bruises and cuts than before.”

Fuck.  Is she onto me?  I threw up an illusion over her, softening my anxious body language, and shrugged.  “Working out is hard when your body is as defective as mine.”  It was the best excuse I’d prepped.  Anything else I could think of would dig me deeper into a hole.

Maybe I should have asked Wes for help.  He was great at lying.

And like Lorne, like Tasia, like me, he must have thought it was necessary.

“Do you ever think about the person you Ousted?” I asked Tasia, glancing over my shoulder.

“I did.”  She gripped the railing, her knuckles turning white.  “I asked other students what Nell Ebbridge was like.  Whether she was happy here, what kind of life she lived.”

“But.”

“But eventually.” She stared downward.  “I realized that if I thought too hard about her, I’d throw myself off the academy.”  A long silence extended between us.  “So no,” she said.  “Not anymore.”

________________________________________

“Ready,” I said.

Jun held a vial of smelling salts under Joseph’s nose, and I pushed a layer of illusions onto his Pith.  The Commonplace soldier jerked awake on the mattress, coughing.

His eyes flitted around the empty church.  The building itself was real, but instead of us, the man saw the allies he knew and trusted around him, other Commonplace militants with green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.

How are you feeling?” said my illusion.

Wes floated pieces of paper above Joseph, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.  He’d been the one who’d pointed us here.

Rain poured down outside the windows, drowning out the noise from the streets.  That, too, was real.

Joseph stood up, and began reaching around him, touching the faces of me, Wes, and Hira.  My Vocation couldn’t fool touch, but I’d anticipated this – I’d mapped the illusions of Green Hands on top of our bodies, and made sure we were wearing similar clothes to Commonplace members.  I wore my thin blue combat armor under my other clothes, keeping it concealed.

“Can I have a password, ma’am?  Fifty-Nine Covenant” said Joseph.  The illusion on top of me was Joseph’s direct superior, Darcy Stubbe.

Of course,” said my illusion.

Left-Hira’s hands flickered with purple lightning, as she used her Vocation.  If he was thinking of the password in his mind right now, she would have it.  “‘Twenty-Six Isotrope Binary’,” she said.  “At some point in the conversation, he’ll mention listening to music, and you’ll have to answer with ‘Glass Infinity’.  It’s an I-Pop boy band.”

“An overrated one,” said Wes, water dripping from his light brown hair.  “Their last album sounded like whales being tortured.”

Twenty-Six Isotrope Binary,” my Darcy illusion said.  “That’ll do for now.  But until we give you further security checks to confirm your identity, I can’t discuss high-level matters with you.”  According to Hira, this was how Darcy herself talked.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Joseph.  “And I’m sorry, but I’d like more checks to confirm your identity as well.  The Blue Charlatan may have stolen our passwords, and I’ve had recent contact with her and her group.”

One of my Green Hands illusions at the back of the room spoke up – a new face Joseph wouldn’t know.  “The Blue Charlatan?

“It’s a Jao Lu piece,” he said.  “And the title of a foreign pop song I heard once, I think.  Forget which band.”

Glass Infinity, I think.”  The second hidden passphrase.

“The piece in Jao Lu was one of the first ones created by the Four Daydreamers.  It’s a reference to a Great Scholar, a woman who brought an entire city of Piths into a fabricated reality.  Depending on the game state, it can either be useless, or the best piece in the game.”

I know what it is,” I said with the ignorant illusion, “Are you referring to the illusionist?

Joseph nodded.  “Her, the Paper Crane, Copycat, and our old bombmaker are all part of a group.  The illusionist has been seen in blue armor, and she’s a Whisper specialist, so her Pith is the same color.  I can’t say more right now.”

He launched into a conversation about Darcy Stubbes’ husband and home life, layering his speech with inside jokes and references.  Each time, Hira’s hands crackled with lightning and she gave me the right response.

After a few minutes, the lightning stopped.

“I’ve exhausted my Vocation on him,” said Hira.  “I won’t be able to pull his thoughts anymore.”

“And how’s that operation doing?  The one John was telling us all about, are we still on for next week?”

It could be a trap.  Maybe there was no operation, or it wasn’t for next week.  “I’m not sure.  I’ll have to check on that.

Joseph nodded at us.  “So.  Did she tell you what Buttercup Lodge is?”

Hira shook her head.  “‘Buttercup Lodge’ isn’t in his skills.”  And who’s ‘she’?  Someone high up and important, judging by his tone.

No,” my illusion said, “she didn’t.

“One last question,” Joseph folded his hands in front of him.  “What’s her name?”

Tunnel Vision?  No, she led the mob, not Commonplace.  Someone we didn’t know was in charge of the coalition of Shenti Guns, Tunnel Vision’s mobsters, and Kahlin’s propaganda.  One person, all the way at the top.

“That’s not in his skills either,” said Hira.  “Whatever the name is, he doesn’t use it very often.”  

She didn’t tell me,” my illusion said.

“Yeah,” said Joseph.  “She did.”

He pulled a grenade from his belt, ripped the pin off, and dropped it.  At the same time, he sprinted for the door.

Left-Hira reached her hand towards the grenade, clenching her fist to jam it.  I ran after Joseph, still projecting around his Pith.

In my illusion, I made the lights flicker and go out in the room, like we’d cut the power.  While Joseph’s vision was distracted like this, I moved his perception of the door one meter to the right.

Joseph kept running, and slammed into the wall, feeling for a doorknob that wasn’t there.

It took him seven seconds to find the doorknob by closing his eyes and feeling around.  In that time, Right-Hira crossed the room, put a hand to the back of his throat, and shocked him.

Joseph fell over, twitching.  Hira inserted a hypodermic needle into his arm, injecting him with Jun’s custom knockout drug.  We didn’t have enough evidence for a legal conviction, so Brin would probably just block memory wipe him and release him back into the wild.

You could just kill him.  We’d never have to fight him ever again.  I’d pulled the trigger before, more and more in the past weeks.  But Joseph wasn’t a projector, or someone at the highest levels of Commonplace.  He didn’t stand much of a threat.

Don’t look back, said Lorne.

Draw a line for yourself, said Tasia, so you know when you cross it.

I broke down my machine pistol, floating the pieces into my armor.  Hira’s other body tossed the pinless grenade at me, and I caught it.

“What the fuck,” she said, “is Buttercup Lodge?”

________________________________________

Drowsiness floated through the edges of my consciousness, and I edited it away.

Then came a flicker of Nudging, and a wave of calm, followed by the twitch of the Empathy vocation recording my emotions, and a mental scalpel slicing away at my most recent short-term memories.

One by one I fought them off, remembering the Empty Book and making adjustments until they vanished.

All in all, the process took around four seconds.

Brin leaned back against the flower box on the roof.  “Your turn.”

I extended my Pith towards his, and pushed at his executive and auditory functions.  Nudging him.  Let’s hope I never have to use this for real.  I felt his soul push back, fending off my attack with ease.

Next, I tried Basic Sleep, Basic Calming, and my Vocation.  The first two had the same result, but Isaac Brin didn’t even notice my illusions.  Like many unique Whisper Vocations, there was no defense yet for my ability.

“Better,” said Brin, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth.  Unlike previous times, he didn’t water his plants, giving me his full attention.  “And from what I hear, you’ve improved in class too, and impressed young Lord Daventry.”

At what cost?  I sighed, staring at the grey rainclouds on the horizon.  “What if I told you Lorne was a bully?” I said.  “That he sabotages other students, drugs them, makes their lives miserable.  Could you punish him?  Protect the people he hurts?”

Brin’s smile died.  “That depends.  Who did he go after?”

“No one important.”

“That’s unfortunate,” he said.  He left his answer unsaid.

Let’s make this quick, then.  “Do you have a mission for me?”

“That’s not why I’m here.”

Oh, shit.

He folded his hands in front of him.  “I’m here to warn you: Paragon has launched an investigation into you.”

“What?” I choked.  “Why?”

“Ernest Chapman hasn’t been identified as a target,” he said.  “However, the Blue Charlatan, the illusionist taking out mobsters and Green Hands throughout the underworld, is now a target of some interest.”

“I’m helping them do their jobs,” I said.  “Why are they wasting their time on me when there are real criminals out there?”

“Parliament.”  Brin rolled his eyes.  “The divine will of the people.  Five seconds after the Pyre Witch set a continent on fire, and the Immaculate Vanguard massacred the Edwina, the Conclave got disbanded.  Then, the noble citizens of the Principality decided to elect some of the dumbest populists in the Eight Oceans.”

“And they don’t like secret government mercenaries.”

“They don’t like secret government anything.  They think their dreams of transparency are good enough to protect them from the Droll Corsairs and the Shenti terrorists.  Idiots.”

Fuck me.  “What do they know?”

“They know about you on the Golden Moon, killing Honeypot.  They suspect Queen Sulphur’s connection to the raid on Kahlin’s penthouse.  And from interviewing people involved in those, they think you’re an old man.”

“So shut it down,” I said.  “You’re chief of counterintelligence.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Brin.  “Our department’s Whisper-Sec is heavier than any other in the Principality, to guard against a Whisper Specialist getting control of our system.  If I had too much power, and someone hijacked me, they could dismantle our nation’s defenses.”

Panic bubbled up in my stomach, and my chest tightened.  “But you’re still the chief,” I said.  “Suppress it.  Feed them bad information.”

“You’re not understanding,” he said.  “The system is designed to protect against anyone being compromised, including me.  If I try to shut down an investigation, that’ll send up flags.  I’ll get blocks placed on me.”

“So that’s it,” I said.  “After all the work I’ve done for you, you’re going to let them tear into me.  If they catch me, my life will be over.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brin, his voice even.  “I can’t help you.”

“Fuck can’t.  You won’t.”  I clenched my fists.  “And you won’t even help Lorne’s victims, either.”

“We train our students to be violent and competitive.  We can’t be surprised when they act violent and competitive.”

“Really.”  I stood up to look him in the eye.  “After all that talk about protecting the country, you just what, throw up your hands and pretend like you’re powerless?  You could wipe the floor with a hundred of me, you’re a professor at Paragon, Chief of Counterintelligence, the Scholar of Mass.  You’re not powerless, you’re just a coward.  You don’t deserve to be a Guardian.”

Brin said nothing.

“Either that,” I said.  “Or you were a bully just like Daventry.”

Brin stepped towards me, clenching his teeth.  “I wasn’t a bully.  I did everything I could.”  He raised his voice.  “You don’t know where I come from.  You have no right to judge me.”

“You knew Wes was an Ebbridge, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you still let him use me, put me at risk, throw me into the fire.  Why?”

“Because I thought you two would work together,” he said.

“Because you want to use us.”  After thinking about it, I was fairly certain he’d only threatened Jun to pressure him into joining us.

He shook his head.  “That’s not it.”

“You could have given me a working body any time you wanted to,” I said.  “It would have been a fraction of the money you make every year.  But you didn’t.”

“I donate the vast majority of my paycheck,” said Brin.  “You think I live in a mansion like an Epistocrat?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  But your daughter Eliya acts plenty privileged.

“What do you want, Anabelle?”

I took a step towards him.  “Here’s what I think is going to happen,” I said.  “I think you’re going to milk me for every job I can do, paying me just enough to keep me desperate.  Then you’re going to leave me to rot with some vague whaleshit about the greater good.”  I took a deep breath.  “And I want you to feel a little shitty about it, that’s all.”

“Do you know how many men I’ve had to send to their deaths?” he said.

Again with the greater good.  “I’m not going to pity you.”

“I don’t want your sympathy,” he snapped.  “What I meant to say is – I’ve buried a lot of soldiers.  But if I tried to bury you, I think you’d claw your way out of the grave, even if your coffin was buried a hundred feet deep.  Even if it took a decade.”  He looked into my eyes.  “I push you because every time you break, you end up a little stronger.”

I don’t feel very strong right now.

“And I think by the end of this, you’re going to be stronger than you could ever imagine.”

He’s lied before.  Was he just stroking my ego to keep stringing me along?

But still, a part of me wanted to believe him.  To believe in myself.

“I’ll do everything I can to slow down the investigation without causing suspicion,” he said.  “You’re a good soldier, and I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you.  The truth is, Paragon is working on something.  A big operation, and Guardians are all over it.”

“And you can’t loop me in?”

“I don’t want them to arrest you, so I’m keeping you away from it.  But it’ll be over by tomorrow night.”  He stepped towards the edge of the roof.  “In the meantime, if you come up with an information bounty, I’ll pay you double.  Do you have any other leads?  Anyone who works for Commonplace or Tunnel Vision?”

I looked away from him, towards the expensive houses at the edge of the water.  “I’ll get back to you on that one.”

________________________________________

Two Years Earlier

“You’re an idiot, Gage,” said Guillaume, the head chef.  “You know that, right?”

I avoided eye contact.  He’s your boss, just agree with him. “Yes, sir.”

“Silverware goes in the left sink, dishes go in the right.”  He held up one of Clementine’s engraved plates, shaking it in my face.

Beatrix and the other servants stood at the far end of the kitchen, chatting amongst themselves, casting the occasional glance in our direction.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I stuttered.  “The right sink is full, so I thought – “

“You know this is really basic stuff, right?”

I stared at the tiles on the kitchen floor.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Almost all the maids got this sort of thing down in less than a month.  How long have you been working here?”

“Year and a half,” I mumbled.

“Scholars.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Clementine sure loves to hire the sad idiots.”

“She hired you.”  The words burst out, unbidden, before I could clamp them down.

The room went silent.  The other servants stared at us.

Regret washed over me.  Oh, fuck.

Guillaume said nothing for a good ten seconds, just looking at me.

Then he threw the plate against the wall.  It shattered, pieces raining down on the floor.

“Pick it up,” he said.  “Everyone else, take an early night.  You’re done.”

I knelt, picking up shards of porcelain and throwing them into the trash, holding back my tears.  The other boys and girls filed out of the room, one by one, until only me and Guillaume remained.

Guillaume took a puff of his cigarette, tossed it on the ground next to me, and stamped it out.  He glanced at the huge stack of dirty dishes behind him, remnants of Clementine’s banquet for Gabriel Cunningham and his subordinates.  “You’re on dawn shift,” he said.  “Be done with these and awake by then.  And throw out the leftovers.  Ms. Rawlyn has no use for them.”

Then he strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

It took me hours to clean the mountains of dishes and sort them back into the cabinets.  Forks, bowls, salad plates, bread plates, tea plates.  Why do rich people need so many plates?

After I’d finished dealing with everything else, the last leftover sat in the center of the banquet table: A massive, four-layer chocolate sponge cake, filled with whipped cream and raspberries.  Guillaume was a bastard, but he did know how to bake.

And it was untouched.  Clementine’s dinner feast had been too big, and the guests had all been stuffed by the time dessert rolled around.

I stared at it.  She wants me to throw it all out.

“Fuck it,” I muttered.  Someone ought to enjoy it.  And it had been my birthday a few weeks ago.

So, at two-forty-three in the morning, I cut myself off a fat slice, and sat on the front porch to eat it.

The street was empty.  The only sounds I could hear were the waves, crashing against the sea wall beneath Clementine’s house.  A cool spring breeze blew through my long, dyed hair.

Above the clouds, the multicolored lights of Paragon Academy glowed in the dark.  I’m going to be a Guardian, I thought.  I’m going to forge the stars in my image, and prove them wrong.  I pictured myself up there, feet kicked back in one of the common rooms with a crackling fireplace and a game of Jao Lu.

I gazed up, imagined, and ate cake.  A perfect combination of chocolate and berries and frosting, light and feathery and delicious.  It was the best thing I’d eaten in a long, long time.

A few minutes later, I went to sleep on my mattress.  I dreamed of swimming towards a warm, green light.

When I woke, two hours later, I had lost all sense of taste.

________________________________________

Rain poured down on Clementine’s house.  It trickled down drainpipes and dripped off the edges of roofs, forming rivers and puddles in front of her doorstep.

“You worked here for how long?” said Left-Hira.  Her male body was elsewhere.

“Almost three years,” I said, massaging my aching shoulder.  “And it felt like longer.  I thought I was going to die in this building.”

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “You still can.”  We’re short-handed.  This evening, despite knowing about this job, Wes had vanished from Hira’s house, and couldn’t be found in any of his usual haunts.  This mission was time-sensitive, so we’d just gone without him.

That could come back to bite us.  Silhouettes moved behind the curtains on the ground floor, lit from inside the building.  At least one of them had a gun.

“Remind me,” said Hira.  “Why didn’t you tell us about this lead earlier?”

“Clementine knows about my illusions,” I said.  “She knows my real name, and exactly what I look like.  I want to stay off her radar.  If Paragon finds out that I’m the Blue Charlatan, this will all be over.”

If she finds out about the investigation, or the investigation finds out about her, then – No, I didn’t want to think about that.

I looked down at my left hand.  The grey, cracked skin had spread from my fourth and fifth fingers to my palm and wrist, along with a numb sensation.  I’m running out of time.  The door is closing.

“We could just kill her,” said Hira, shrugging.  “After we get everything we need out of her.  I know what she did to you, I’d be happy to do it.”

How many times had I fantasized about that?  How many times had I lied back on my mattress and imagined my revenge?  Not uncommon for her employees, I imagine.  And I’d taken so many lives in the field, people I’d shot without even blinking.  I’ve killed so many already.  Did I need to kill so many?

But here, pulling the trigger in cold blood felt wrong, somehow.  Out of alignment.  “I’ll think about it,” I said.

“What does she know?”

“A great deal, I imagine,” I said.  Including what Brin was talking about.  “She’s been ladder-climbing in Tunnel Vision’s mob for as long as I can rememb – ”  I yawned.  As I did, a wave of dizziness passed over me.  My eyes ached, fluttering shut for a moment.

“You alright?” said Hira.  “You gonna fall over?”

How much would I give for a nap right now?

“I can deal with it,” I said.

“Lund pe chadh,” she said.  “Lie if you want, but if you fall asleep halfway through, I’m burning down this gaudy shithole.”

Wes was gone, and it felt like I was on the verge of cracking.  But I was on the verge of other things, too.  Acceptance from Lorne, getting enough money for my body, winning, after so many years of failure.

I couldn’t slow down.  I had to keep sprinting down the hill, or I would fall over.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We stepped toward the front door and under a veranda.

“I lived in that basement on a mattress,” I said.  “Almost never left.  It was like this place was my whole world.”

“Well then,” said Hira.  “Welcome home, Blue Charlatan.”  She stuck her hands in her pockets.  “Let’s go fuck up your boss.”

I reached my good hand forward, and rang the doorbell.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




7-A The Blue Charlatan

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

Bullets flew through the door, peppering it with holes.

Me, Ana, and Hira dove to the side, pressing ourselves to the floor on the far side of the walkway.  My ears rang, and the glass above us shattered, shards raining down on our backs.

Something ripped in my jacket.  Well, there goes my suit.  Hira had warned me it was a stupid idea to wear one to this mission, but we had been posing as businesspeople.  I had to look the part.

The glass walkway wasn’t long, but far enough to weaken my projection.  And the enemy’s hideout on the other side didn’t have any paper inside.

“Number of targets?” shouted Ana.

“Eleven Piths in the room!” yelled Left-Hira.  “SMGs and assault rifles.  One with voidsteel in their gun.”

They’re out of my range,” Ana said with illusions.  “I can’t use my Vocation on them.

“Lock is Voidsteel deadbolt!” shouted Hira.  “And they’ve got a sightline on us through windows.”

Gas grenades.  I’m about to misdirect with my voice,” said Ana with illusions.  “Breach from above while distracting them with paper,” she said out loud.  Brin had told us one of our targets was a Joiner with enhanced hearing, and they’d be able to hear any strategizing we did out loud.

I flipped open my briefcase and shot a storm of paper forward, headed for the gap at the bottom of the door.  A handful slipped just as they stuffed a person’s jacket into the opening, sealing it shut.

They weren’t enough to deal serious damage to the enemies in the room.  But, squeezed between a pair of tiny origami squares, were a pair of gas grenades, flattened with my Vocation.  In the chaos, they were indistinguishable from the other pieces of paper flying about.

In unison, the three of us pulled gas masks from our belts and slipped them on.

When they were inside the room, I separated the pieces of paper and the grenades expanded back into three dimensions, the pins already pulled.

Shouting erupted from the far side of the walkway.  Black smoke drifted out of the bullet holes in the door.

And at the same time, Right-Hira flung a thin metal cable forward, projecting it towards the door.  It shot through one of the bullet holes and Right-Hira grabbed the end.  Electricity crackled around his palm, and Left-Hira sprinted forward, pulling out lockpicks and kneeling beside the door.  He’s electrocuting the Joiner.  Ana and I followed.

Hira had the door open in three seconds.  The dark gas billowed out of the room and we strode in, leveling our weapons forward.

In a few seconds, the smoke cleared and the room became visible.  All eleven enemies lay on the floor, unconscious.  One of them, the Joiner, had Hira’s electric cable wrapped around his ankle. Guess he’s not immune to the gas either.

A raised hospital bed sat on the far end of the room, with tubes attached to it.

When its contents became visible, I choked.

A person sat on the bed, but not an ordinary person.

The body had no limbs and no face.  It didn’t even have a skull – its head was little more than loose folds of skin around a brain.  The only other features it had were two holes – one in its stomach, and one on its head with a tube attached to it.  More tubes attached to its arms and legs, feeding clear liquid into him from IV bags.

Someone’s Pith is in there.  Someone’s mind was inside that body, forced to experience all that.

“Stay focused,” said Ana, her voice muffled through her gas mask.  “We’re here for the list.”

Right-Hira knelt next to one of the sleeping mobsters, a middle-aged bald man.  Finley Webb.  He injected liquid from a syringe into the man’s arm.

Hira and I stepped back to the edges of the room, and Ana stepped back halfway.  The man’s eyes fluttered open, and blue lightning flickered around Ana.  Transparent images layered over my vision, showing me the illusions Ana was creating for him.

The mirror images of me and Hira lay on the ground, dead.  Ana was invisible.  The unconscious mobsters groaned, waking up, and were guided away by other Green Hands.

Illusions of Steel Violet members strode into the room, hefting shotguns and sniper rifles.  Rozi, the Joiner with Steel Gauntlets, approached Finley Webb.  “What happened here?”  As usual, Ana’s voice imitation was perfect.

“You’re part of Steel Violet,” Webb said.  “Kahlin’s group, yes?  We were attacked.  Mercenaries, probably.  Using gas identical to the stuff that bombmaker made.”  Jun.

The enemy discovered the location of this stronghold moments after we moved an asset here,” said illusion-Rozi.  “We have a spy in our organization.  I need you to think of all the people Tunnel Vision or the boss met with lately and give them to me.

Finley Webb was the lowest-level person we could find in the mob who would have access to that kind of information.  Everybody above him was more well-protected, well-trained, tougher to crack.

“Of course, ma’am,” said Webb.  “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m going to need to ask for your password.”

Not as dumb as he looks.

Both Hiras stuffed their hands in their pockets, purple lightning crackling around four palms.

“We were attacked by a group,” Webb said.  “With a Whisper Specialist who can create illusions.  Just following procedure, ma’am.”

Come on, come on.  Someone would have heard the gunshots.  The police would be on their way.  We didn’t have much time.

Ana’s illusion crossed its arms.  “Drat,” it said.  “Almost thought we had you.

Hira grabbed Finley Webb’s throat from behind and electrocuted him.  He fell to the ground, twitching.

When he reported this incident to his superiors, he’d tell them that we had failed to extract the list of names from him, that we’d tried using illusions on him, but that it didn’t work.

What he didn’t know was, Hira’s Vocation had been going the whole time.  He’d been thinking about the list while we talked about it, even if he hadn’t said it out loud.

So now, we had it.  A long list of names affiliated with Tunnel Vision’s mob and Commonplace.  A list of targets.

Ana walked to the disfigured body on the hospital bed, touching one of the IV tubes.  “We should get him out of here,” she said.

“You can’t,” said Hira.  “I copied a doctor this morning.  That body is barely hanging on as is.  If we disconnect him, he’ll be dead before we get halfway to a hospital.”

A forced transference would take too long, given the relatively weak strength of our Piths.  Ana shook her head.  “Given your copied skills, can you move him?”

“Not with this equipment.”  Right-Hira glanced out the glass walkway.  “Don’t worry.  Those fellows will take care of him.”

He pointed down at the street.

A pair of police cars pulled up outside the building, and officers stepped out of them, leveling submachine guns towards us.

“Come out with your hands up!” one of them screamed.  Humdrums.  As if raising your hands would do anything to a projector.

Then the cars exploded in a pair of fireballs, throwing the cops aside like ragdolls.

Who did that?

A tall Ilaquan woman landed on top of the burning wreck, wearing a pair of green Voidsteel gauntlets.

Rozi.  The real Rozi.  Steel Violet’s daredevil bass player.  And the woman who’d almost choked me to death twice.

“So,” I said.  “Are we just going to stand around, or – “

Rozi sprinted towards us.

“Run!” shouted Ana.

We ran.  Hira led us down a hallway and a staircase, then pushed open a door to a back alley.

A pair of automobiles were parked in it, covered with a thin layer of late winter snow.  Perfect.

A figure leapt off the roof above us, landing on a dumpster between us and the cars.  Rozi.  Her Joining let her move faster than the other members of Steel Violet, but they could be close behind too.

We don’t have any Voidsteel bullets.

“Listen,” I said, stalling.  “We can talk this through.  I have some suggestions for your comeback albu – “

Before I could finish speaking, she leapt forward, zipping past me in a blur towards Ana.  A wide cloth flew out of her backpack, spreading forward in front of her.

The cloth wrapped around Ana and threw her to the ground, holding her there.  Keeping track of Ana’s position, so Rozi couldn’t be fooled with illusions.  

Rozi leapt on top of Ana, her metal gauntlet moving forward.  She’s taking out Ana first.  With no Voidsteel, the girl’s Vocation was our only weapon that could take her out.

The Ilaquan’s fist smashed into her shoulder, crushing it against the pavement.  Ana cried out in pain.

The other gauntlet whipped down towards Ana’s throat.

Electricity crackled through the air.  Glass shattered in the distance.  Rozi twitched, clenching her teeth.

Right-Hira stood behind her, grabbing a metal cable wrapped around Rozi’s thigh, running current through his hands.

Ana clambered back, throwing the cloth aside.  Left Hira had smashed one of the car’s windows, and fiddled with the wires beneath the steering wheel.

Rozi turned around to face Hira, shaking from head to toe.  It’s not enough voltage.  Hira couldn’t produce enough electricity to kill a normal person.  Which meant it definitely wasn’t enough to disable a Joiner.

Rozi took a step towards Hira, then another.  The two were only a few meters apart.

“In the car!” barked Right-Hira.  Purple lightning flickered around his palms.

We clambered into the car and I flipped open my briefcase, floating out a pair of frag grenades, both flattened by my Vocation.  They hovered above Rozi, out of sight.

Left-Hira connected a pair of wires, and the car’s engine roared to life.  He floored the accelerator, spinning the car around and speeding it down the alleyway.

As it passed Rozi and Right-Hira, three things happened:

Right-Hira let go of the metal cable and leapt on top of the car, bending the metal of the roof to form handholds.

Rozi leapt forward, muscles still twitching, flying towards the back of the car.  At the apex of her jump, Hira kicked her, knocking her back.

And as Rozi fell, I dropped the grenades onto her face.  They snapped back into three dimensions and exploded, shattering the car’s windows and making my ears ring.

The car turned onto a city street, tires screeching.

I glanced out the broken rear windshield.  Rozi sprinted out of the alleyway, running after us and matching our speed.

She drew a machine pistol out of her pocket.

“Down!” I shouted.  Everyone inside ducked down.  Right-Hira clambered forward to the front of the roof, pressing himself flat.

Cracks echoed through the street, and bullets zipped over our heads.  More gunfire rang out from above the car.  Hira’s shooting back.

The gunfire paused, and I poked my head out as Rozi reloaded.  Something hit her in the forehead and she stumbled, but didn’t slow down.  Something else hit her cheek, but didn’t even leave a mark on her.

Bullets.  Even direct headshots from Hira’s sniper rifle weren’t enough to make the Joiner blink.

Both Hiras laughed, as he wove the car through traffic with one body and shot at Rozi with the other.  Is he enjoying this?

Rozi caught up to us again and leapt towards the back of the car.  Hira swerved to the left, and the Ilaquan’s finger grazed the edge of the window.  On the roof, Hira’s other body kept hitting headshots, but they didn’t seem to do much.

I reached into my briefcase, checking my supply.  No grenades left.

And how is she evading Ana’s illusions?  She had to be projecting into some part of the car, ensuring that she knew our position.  Hira must be stopping her from jamming the engine.

Rozi got closer, her arms and legs pumping.  The street narrowed around us.  If we swerved to avoid her, we’d hit a building or a car.

Blue lightning flickered around Ana’s head.  She looked away from Rozi, towards a car driving behind us.

The car’s driver widened her eyes, then jerked her wheel, swerving to the left.

The car crashed into Rozi, throwing her through a glass storefront with a crash.  With Ana’s illusions over her, the merc had no time to react.

The other car stepped on the brakes, screeched, and crashed into a light pole, slow enough to avoid the worst injuries.  I hope the driver’s alright.

A second later, Hira swerved onto a side street, out of sight, and brought the car to a halt.  Another car screeched to a stop next to us, and the driver got out, holding his hands up.  Ana’s illusions.

We clambered out and got in the man’s car, while he got in ours.  We drove away in opposite directions, keeping our heads down.

We drove for another ten minutes in silence, without any signs of people following us.

And we left another prisoner to be tortured.  Whatever poor bastard was inside that disfigured custom body.  Just like when we’d broken into Commonplace headquarters, and almost gotten killed over those mind-spheres.

But this time, Ana hadn’t hesitated.  No playing the hero.  She’d recognized that saving him was impossible.

Right-Hira turned the car off, grinning ear to ear.  “You all still alive back there?  Any life-threatening injuries to cry over?”

“My suit is ruined,” I said.  “But otherwise, I’d say I’m fine.”

Ana groaned.  I turned to her.

Her shoulder was covered in blood.  She clutched it with her other hand, clenching her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut.

“Rozi’s first punch,” she spat out, squirming in her seat.

That’s bad.  Even though it didn’t look life-threatening, Ana’s decaying body meant she might not heal it properly.  Or worse, if her immune system was compromised, it might get infected.

How much pain must she be in?

“Did you get the list?” Ana said, staring at Hira.

Hira nodded.

Ana shoved open the door, stepping out of the car.  “Let’s go,” she said.  “We’ve got a bounty to collect.”

________________________________________

I strode into the scrapyard, past piles of metal junk.

The two moons overhead had shrunk to thin crescents.  It was hard to see anything in the darkness, but I could make out the creak of rusty wheels ahead of me, along with the sound of crashing waves.

I found Jun at the edge of the ocean, pulling a cart filled with metal behind him, his wispy grey beard blowing in the wind.  He looked rather spry for someone with such an old body.

“Kuang,” I called out.  “Grandpa.”

“Weston!”  He ran to me and hugged me.  I didn’t hug him back.  When he broke off, he jabbed his finger in my face.  “And I’m basically your age.”

“Sure, Grandpa.”  I reached into my pocket and handed him an envelope filled with bills.  “Your share from the mission.”

He shook his head, making his grey hair shake.  He’d combed and straightened it since his imprisonment, and now he looked more like a regular old man, and less like a mad beggar.  “Keep that.  I wasn’t on the mission.”

“But you made our knockout gas.”

“It is as you say.”  He smiled at me.  “But I don’t need it.  Give it to Ana for her new body.  A lovely Maxine Clive.”

I snorted.  “She could work for a century, and she wouldn’t have enough for that brand.”  Plus, she’d look like my mother.  And I didn’t need that image in my head.  I stuffed the envelope back into my coat.  “I had to bribe the night guard to get in.  What are you doing here so late?”

“It’s busy during the day.  I enjoy the quiet.”  Jun grabbed a chunk of metal and dropped it in his cart.  “The waves give me great calm.”

“And why are you carrying that by hand?  You are a projector, right?”

“I need to conserve my Pith’s energy.”  One of the waves splashed water onto his shoes.  “And besides, I like doing things by hand.  Like when I cleaned your room.”

I stopped.  “You did what?”

“It was filthy,” he said.  “Empty beer cans and crumpled paper and one takeout meal under your bed that you just…forgot about, I think.  You all looked too busy to clean, so I thought I’d do you a favor.”

“Do me another favor,” I said, “and I’ll pour that rotten takeout onto your bed.”

“I don’t have a bed,” he said.  “I sleep on the couch.  Don’t worry, I didn’t mess with any of your stuff, I just got rid of the trash and dust and whatever orange stuff was growing on the bathroom sink.”

“Hira’s apartment is filled with lethal booby traps,” I said.

“It is as you say,” he said.  “I cleaned those too.  And some of them were just shoddy work, if I’m being honest.  So I fixed them.”

After a bit more walking, we reached an open space next to the crashing waves, with a loose pile of scrap strewn in the middle.  Jun overturned the cart, adding new materials to the heap.

“Ah.”  He beamed.  “Magnificent.  We’ve got everything we need.”  He crawled on top of the pile like it was a feather bed and lay down on his back, relaxing.  “You could have just left the envelope on the couch,” he said, “but you came here in person.”

“I wanted to see your Vocation in action,” I said.

“And?”

“And I wanted to ask for your advice.”

“Might I ask why?” he said.  “I’m a Shenti terrorist.  An Eastern Dog.  I hail from the nation that tried to conquer the world, that butchered its citizens in camps.  And I built bombs for them.  You Principians despise us.  Of all the countless people in the world, why ask me for advice?”

Because I’m an idiot.  “I know what I’m doing,” I said.  “I just don’t have a lot of people to talk to.”

“Because Anabelle is mad at you.”

“Yes.”

Jun put his hands behind his head, bunching up his long grey hair like a pillow.  “What did Hira say?”

“‘Screw her, punch it out, or both, but leave me the fuck out of it.’  I believe those were his words.”  I fidgeted with a piece of paper in my pocket.

“I have only spent a little time with her,” said Jun.  “But I don’t think she’s interested in either of those things.”

“I want her to trust me,” I said.  “For the good of the group, so we can watch each other’s backs.”

“And that’s the only reason.”  He looked at me.

“Don’t give me that knowing look, grandpa,” I snapped.  “She was my friend.  Now she’s not, and I don’t expect that to change.  I’m not going to waste time trying to turn a lump of charcoal back into a tree.  I need to resolve this with her so we don’t die.  So we can work together like we used to.”

The Rose Titan’s voice rang in my head.  Start with Humility.  Take a brutal look at yourself and drown your ego in the ocean.

A storm of green and purple lightning flickered around Jun’s wrinkled body.  The metal beneath him creaked and groaned, then expanded, floating in the air and lifting him.

Hundreds of small things happened in unison.  Tiny bits of scrap pressed next to each other and shot off sparks, welding themselves together.  Larger pieces of metal turned red-hot and bent themselves into different shapes.  Nuts, bolts, and screws pushed themselves in, fastening parts to each other.

The lightning grew, bright enough to obscure my vision.

When the light faded, Jun was sitting on the dashboard of a metal car, complete with rubber tires and cushions on top of metal chairs.

I gaped at him.  How the fuck did he do that?

It had to be his Vocation.  Green and purple lightning meant it covered both the Physical and Praxis schools of projection – a hybrid specialty.  It affected the concrete world and his own Pith.  He could understand a blueprint well enough to assemble machines in moments, carrying out maybe a hundred operations in parallel, all in a small space.

Jun collapsed back on the hood, wheezing.  Sweat coated his grey hair.

I still don’t trust you, Shenti.  I didn’t like his intense friendliness, or how fast he’d inserted himself into Queen Sulphur, or his history with the Shenti military.  Leizu in Chimera Squad had such a history too, but she’d proven her loyalty to the Principality.  Kuang hadn’t.

But genuine vulnerability was one of the faster ways to get in a person’s good graces.  And I did have nobody else to talk to.

“Give her space,” he said, folding his hands in front of him.  “Accept that you have made a mistake, that you have hurt someone.  Forgiveness is her choice, not yours.  All you can do is make yourself worthy of it.”

He patted the side of the car, and the engine revved to life.

“You know,” I said.  “For a terrorist in his twenties, you sure do give advice like an old goat.”

“It is as you say.”  Jun crawled to the front seat and gripped the steering wheel.  “Get in,” he said.  “Want to learn how to make dumplings?”

________________________________________

I glanced out Hira’s front window, past the scrap car sitting outside.

“Stop it,” said both Hiras in unison.  “She’s not coming.”

Just like last time.  I wrapped a flat piece of dough around the ball of meat, pinching it together at the end.

“Magnificent,” said Jun, smiling.  “You have a natural talent for this.”

“I fold a lot of origami.”

An hour later, the wontons were done boiling and we’d started a game of Jao Lu.  And Ana still hadn’t shown up.

“She’s probably studying,” I said.  “She’s got a very full plate.  And dinner parties aren’t her thing.  On account of her taste buds and all.”

“Or she hates you,” said Right-Hira, dropping his wontons into a bowl of spicy sauce.  He tipped the bowl back, drinking it like soup.

“Thanks, Hira.”  I took a gulp of sake, finishing my glass.

“Fuck,” he said.  “These are good.”  He turned to Jun.  “Were you a Cooking God in a past life?”

“Just a fan of good food.”  Jun pouted, moving his Chameleon Spy to another hex on the game board.  “This is a game my people invented, and I’m losing at it.”

“Your mind has slowed with age,” I said, moving my Blue Charlatan to intercept him.

He sighed, his wrinkles drooping.  “Again, you know I’m twenty.”

Three turns later, I defeated Hira, then cut off one of Jun’s key resources.  His forces endured a slow, painful loss.

“One more?” I said.

“Apologies,” Jun said.  “My body grows tired early in the evening.  I need to keep it rested to avoid hip injury.”  He stood up, bones cracking.

“Hira?”

Hira didn’t respond, slumped over asleep on his chair.  I’d seen him down a handful of pills earlier, and at least as much alcohol as me.

“I’ll take her upstairs,” Jun said.  “Turn her on her side in case she throws up.”

I nodded, my foot tapping against the leg of the table.  Everyone’s busy or asleep.  No one had time.  What was I supposed to do, then?

Fine, then.  I could be productive.

If I wanted to counter-Oust the pretender and get my life back, I had to do more than get rid of the Broadcast King.  I’d have to study.

Two hours later, I was not studying.

I was trying, of course.  I’d stacked up textbooks on the table in front of me, and laid out pencils, pens, and paper from my briefcase for note-taking.

But the room had poor heating, and the winter air outside was below freezing.  Even under a blanket, I was shivering, distracted.

On top of that, Hira’s second bedroom only had a single overhead light, sporting two dim bulbs that flickered every few minutes.  I had to squint to read the textbooks, and if I read for more than five minutes at a time, I got a headache.

Focus, idiot, focus.  But it was so hard.  Every time I went back to the words, they appeared more dense and insurmountable.

So I folded origami to try and get my mind back in order, paced back and forth until I was practically bouncing off the walls, tapped and fidgeted in every pattern I could think of, as the wine I’d chugged earlier began to wear off.

Why is this so difficult?  Was my mother right?  Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Lyna Wethers’ face flickered into my mind, cold and smirking and perfect.  Samuel avoided eye contact with me on the floor of the Silver Flask, bleeding out, still desperate to avoid me.

I need a drink.  If I got the amount just right, I could cool down my frantic mind without crippling it for the night.

I tiptoed down the stairs to Hira’s tiny kitchen and pulled open the cabinet where he kept his liquor.

It was empty.  What?

I pulled open another cabinet, then another.  We didn’t drink all the booze tonight.

“Looking for this?”  Right-Hira’s voice rang out from the dark living room.  I jumped, spinning around, and projected into the light switch to flip it on.

Copycat’s male body sat on a couch, lying back in a bright orange bathrobe, puffing on his purple hookah.  He wiggled a bottle of arak in his other hand.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.  “Why are you keeping it from me?  Are you my mother now?”

“I hope not,” said Hira.  “That’d make our screwing very unfortunate.”

I don’t have time for this.  “Hand it over,” I said, striding towards him.

Hira sucked in hookah smoke.

“You know those things will kill you, right?”  And he can’t swap out of these bodies.

He exhaled and blew the smoke in my face.  It smelled like sour cherries.  “Yup.”

“What do you want?” I said.

“Let me guess.”  He spoke back and forth between his two bodies.  “You tried to study, failed, then slipped into a spiral of self-loathing and apathy.  Now, you’re trying to drink away that memory.”

I scowled.  “Did you copy a shrink?”

“No.”

“Well, maybe you should have.”

“Let me be clear,” said Hira.  “This whole save-your-family thing, I think it’s fucking stupid.  Your mom is a monster, your dad is complicit, and your ex-fiance is a sniveling coward.  You shouldn’t go back to them, and – “ he lifted the arak bottle, “ – I think drinking to an early grave is a great lifestyle.”

“But.”

“But,” he said.  “You’re paying me money to teach you, and you’re going to pay me more if you win.”  He leaned back.  “Do you want to win?”

“Yes.”

Hira tossed the liquor bottle over his shoulder.  It smashed on the floor, soaking into his rug.

“Then get your books, pour yourself some tea, and let’s get the fuck to work.”  He folded his legs.  “I will make your idiotic dream come true if I have to drag you by your fingernails along the way.”

“Thanks, Hira.”

I poured myself a cup of tea, floated down my books from upstairs, and sat down across from him.

There was no burst of energy or determination in my veins.  I felt as frightened and unfocused and tired as I did an hour ago.  And I wanted more than anything to get drunk, or play Jao Lu, or listen to the radio or watch something on one of those fancy new television sets.

Anywhere else.  Please, scholars, let me be anywhere else but here.  I don’t want to forge the stars in my image.  I would rather scratch my eyes out with rusty nails than read another bloody word about covalent bonds.

I sat down at the coffee table, next to Hira.  And I flipped open the book.

________________________________________

The next days went by in a blur.  Then the next weeks.  I wasn’t good at keeping track of time.

Hira, damn him, kept me studying and sober the whole time.  We spent more hours than I could count cooped up in his living room, poring over my science books, all while the two-bodied bastard lay back on his couch, smoking his hookah and drinking all the alcohol he was keeping me from.

Studying got easier with someone there to quiz me and yell at me and explain the hard concepts.  But the work was still boring enough to make my eyelids droop.

Still, that wasn’t the worst of it.  Without anything to drink, I began to experience withdrawal symptoms.

At first, the pain was bearable.  Just a little nausea, sweat, and shivering.  If I took deep breaths and kept the trash can close, it was easy.  I just had to wash out the taste of stomach acid, and make sure I didn’t heave onto anything important.

But then I had to go to sleep.  And I couldn’t.  It wasn’t just the shivering and nausea.  I felt twitchy, even more than usual.  No matter how exhausted I felt, I couldn’t keep still for more than a few seconds.  Every position I took in my bed felt uncomfortable, making me toss and turn and tap my fingers.

I was too tired to get up, and too jittery to sleep.  Dizzy, exhausted, with a heavy stomachache.  I spent the entire night like this, crawling out of bed when light began to stream through my windows.

A drink would have put me to sleep in a moment, but here I was, being responsible.  It was infuriating.

On the second night, I got just as little sleep.  On the third, maybe half an hour.  By the fourth evening, I was wobbling back and forth on my feet, drifting in and out of consciousness, and collapsed on the bed without getting anything done.

After a few more days, the symptoms had faded and I was able to sleep a normal amount.  But the burning desire to drink stayed.

“I really was a high-functioning alcoholic, wasn’t I?” I muttered to Hira one time.

“Interesting word choice,” said Hira.

“Alcoholic?”

“High-functioning,” he said.

“Thanks, Hira.”

Four separate times, Hira caught me sneaking out of his bedroom to get alcohol.  On the fourth, I got caught in one of his booby traps while trying to climb out of the second-story window.  Opening it sent a massive electric shock through my body, knocking me out and sending me leaning off the edge.

If Hira had slower reflexes, I’d have fallen to the pavement head-first, then blasted with a pair of anti-personnel landmines under the front doormat.

After that, I didn’t try to break into Hira’s liquor stash.  I just lay in my bed and endured the overwhelming thirst.  Distractions made it easier.  Folding origami – not just cranes, but more complex shapes and animals – Oracle Snakes, houses, geometric objects.

To deal with the overwhelming boredom at night, I started experimenting with my Physical Vocation more.  I’d done it already during my spare time at Paragon, but the process had become dull.

In the field, I’d discovered I could maintain the dimensional flattening, without using my Pith at all.  How had I not thought of that earlier?  It seemed so obvious now.

There had to be deeper insights.  My Vocation was exciting again.

And now, when I used my Vocation for more than a few minutes, it drained all the energy out of my Pith, exhausting me and helping me fall asleep.

So every night, I fiddled with my Vocation until my skull felt like it was cracking.  Then I released it, and felt myself slide into the blissful abyss.

After several weeks of this, I learned a few things about my Physical Vocation:

1.  The whole flatten-between-pages trick only worked for a day or so.  After that, the squeezed object turned into a hunk of flattened metal, or glass, or whatever it was made of.

2.  The rate at which this happened was inconsistent.  Different objects decayed faster, or slower.  I only figured this out after Jun told me to record the times, an excruciating task that involved staring at the clock and scribbling numbers into my notebook.  I hadn’t the faintest idea why, though.

Throughout, Ana made herself unavailable.  The obstinate grey bitch locked herself in her capsule to study, refusing to talk to anyone.  Without a key, I couldn’t even get in the building, and she wasn’t available via the phone.

On the second day of spring, when the sun crept out from behind the clouds and warmed the chill air, that changed, after Isaac Brin gave us our next job.

________________________________________

The mobster shot his right-hand woman in the back.

It wasn’t his fault.  He thought she was me.

The high-powered rifle round blew straight through her chest, turning her ribcage into a red hole.  She dropped to the ground, splattering blood on the train station’s floor.

Half a dozen of the mobster’s friends aimed at Ana from the walkway two stories up, with shotguns, submachine guns, and a pair of projected fireballs.

But they didn’t fire.  Ana had positioned herself so that the mobster was between her and them.  To hit her, they’d have to shoot through their boss.

The mobster, affected by her illusions, aimed his battle rifle at his friends and pulled the trigger, shooting through another man’s neck.  Ana loosed a burst from her suppressed machine pistol, grazing one of them in the arm.

Her aim is improving.  A month ago, she wouldn’t have hit any of them.

Before the gunmen and the projector could garner the courage to shoot their friend, I floated a flattened concussion grenade beneath their feet.  One bang later, all of them were on their knees, covering their faces from countless paper cuts.

Jun sure knows how to put together these things.  Though the old man was still refusing to make anything lethal.

Ana’s illusioned mobster stretched his arm out.  A grenade launcher blew out of a crate.  As it flew into his hands, he pulled the trigger.  The projectile shot forward, impacting the edge of the ceiling.

The explosion knocked me back, and I slammed into a pillar, getting the air knocked out of me.

I looked up.  The entire walkway had become a gaping hole in the wall, surrounded by splintered wood and metal shards.  The six enemies lay flat on the ground, covered in dust and blood.  I floated a sheet of paper on each of their necks.

No pulse.  None of them were playing dead.

In the distance, I saw Hira approaching from another one of the train buildings, having cleared it out single-handedly.

The original mobster was the only one left alive, knocked back by his grenade.  He pushed himself back to a standing position, still under Ana’s illusions.

“Alright,” he sighed.  “We got them.  And we got the illusion girl first.  Is everyone alright?  Sound off.”

Ana shot him in the back of the head.  The suppressed pistol made a muffled crack, and blood splattered on the wall next to me.

The man dropped to the ground.  Ana exhaled, taking deep breaths, and the energy seemed to drain out of her.  She rubbed the circles under her eyes, stretched her neck, and straightened herself up, adopting a cold, flat expression.

“Brin didn’t say we had to kill the target,” I said.

“He didn’t say we had to spare him, either.”  Ana stuffed her gun into a holster on her thin blue combat suit.  “Come on.  We’ve got a bounty to collect.”

Her expression hadn’t shifted at all when killing those people, when shooting a man in the back of the head.  Is she practicing the new Vocation?  After our encounter with the Broadcast King, Hira had started teaching the two of us Stone Mask, a relatively simple Praxis vocation to flatten our microexpressions and body language, to make it harder for people like Kahlin to read us.

After some practice, we’d both gotten it down.  But the Vocation took a lot of energy.  It wouldn’t make sense to use it in battle.

Maybe Ana just didn’t care.  Or was too exhausted to feel anything about her kills.

This was the third mission this week and the fourteenth this month.  After getting that list of Tunnel Vision’s affiliates, we’d been doing them faster and faster.

I didn’t mind – the danger was thrilling, the extra spending money was great, and deadly jobs gave me a legitimate excuse to avoid studying.  But Ana’s ruthlessness had been growing with her Vocation range.

Ana walked away, stepping over one of the bodies she’d made.

As she receded in the distance, I called out to her.  “Hey!  Do you want to train together?”

She ignored me.  She’d ignored previous offers to study together, too.  The only time she talked to me was she asked me to take care of her green cat, Cardamom for a period, so it could live with me and Hira instead of a capsule hotel.  And because she was too busy to take care of it.

I’d accepted, reluctantly, and she’d barely said a word to me otherwise, other than going over strategy and shouting orders during missions.

She’s going to die in that sleeping pod, I told myself.  Studying away until one of her eyes pops like a balloon.  Or maybe that would be me.  Studying was hard.

While I studied, Cardamom the cat started snuggling up to me, walking on top of my notes, sitting on my textbooks, and nuzzling my hands

The first time, I picked him up, locked him in Hira’s bedroom, washed my hands for two minutes.  Then I used paper projection to pick off all the bits of loose fur near my workspace.  I was poor, for now, but I was not about to get diseases from a bloody cat.

But I still found him adorable.

His big, innocent eyes, his fluffy green fur, his soft, contented purring.  In my original, sanitary body, none of those things would have swayed me.  But like most poor people, this idiot had already gotten his brain infected with Maojun bacteria at some point, and now I was stuck thinking cats were cute.

I had to admit: It was too late to avoid infection now.  So after a week of his interruptions, I stopped pushing the cat aside.  “You can stay,” I muttered at him.  “Just don’t expect any cooing or bloody pampering like you got from Kaplen or Ana.”

The green cat nuzzled my hand again, but I didn’t stop him this time.

More time passed in a haze.  More jobs, more studying, more planning.  My broken fingers finally finished healing.  Fighting mobsters and Green Hands over and over again.  Turning pages over and over again and scanning tiny lines of text until my eyes ached.  Reviewing it back again with Hira.

But after all my hard work, all of Hira’s tough love, it never got easier.  Whenever Hira left the room, my motivation drained away.  Even when he was with me, concentrating was an excruciating task, and so much of the information I tried to cram into my head just trickled out the back, no matter what mnemonic tricks I used.

I could analyze, improvise, solve problems on the spot, but memory?  Memory was bloody impossible.

Maybe Hira’s teaching style just didn’t click with me.  But Paragon’s teaching style didn’t click with me either, no matter how many hard-ass teachers I cycled through.  Throughout generations of professors at the academy, Tybalt Keswick was the only one who’d had a reputation for slow, patient teaching that fine-tuned to each student’s strengths and weaknesses.  Students had loved him.

But the Pyre Witch had burned him to death during her frenzied rampage.  Almost a decade before I enrolled.  Just my luck.

To procrastinate, I played Jao Lu with Hira, who got bored like I did, just slower.  Seducing him was even easier.

You’re sleeping with some crazy foreign mercenary, Eliya said in my head, just to avoid studying.  I imagined her rolling her eyes at me.

In my free time, I did surveillance on the Broadcast King.  I read his newspapers, listened to interviews he’d done and spied on high-profile elites that knew him well.  And Hira, of course, knew a fair bit about his father, down to which brand of perfume he used.

According to him, Afzal Kahlin was a narcissist.  This was not news to me.

But more relevantly, he was a principled narcissist.  Or at least he had some principles – the man made oceans of money funneling addicts towards cigarette companies and pyramid schemes.  But he was joining Commonplace and trying to take over the country as part of a bigger scheme: using the Principality to defeat the ruler of Ilaqua, the Locus.

“The smartest woman in the world,” I said.  That’s what he meant.

“Most selfish, maybe,” snorted Hira.  “Only bitch I’ve met with a bigger ego than dad.”

According to Hira, Kahlin was, in fact, lonely and insecure.  His Praxis vocations made him look down on other people, and all the people he could connect with were gone from his life.  And despite his intelligence, there were often gaps in his knowledge.

That was all useful, but I had no way to apply it.  Kahlin had upped his security, and met with even fewer people than before.  The man traveled almost exclusively in his blimp or his penthouse, and in the rare moments he didn’t, he never stuck to the same schedule.

In short, I was fucked.  The tricks I’d pulled earlier wouldn’t work again.  And I couldn’t even get close to try out something else.

But sooner or later, Commonplace was going to make their big play, and Kahlin might expose himself.  I just had to wait.

So for the time being, I switched to a different enemy: My replacement.  To Oust her and return to my rightful place in the Ebbridge family, I’d have to get an offer from my mother, outperform her at written tests, and defeat her in single combat.

She’d crushed me last time.  And she’d have a year of Paragon training behind her.  And if she succeeded at charming Samuel and Chimera Squad, she could know my Vocation, my tactics, my weaknesses.

I’d have to be unpredictable, creative, aggressive.  To nullify her energy-draining Vocation, I’d either have to beat her fast or avoid her completely.  Swarming her with paper like usual wouldn’t work.

I was finding new uses for my Vocation.  That’d be useful.  But the best weapon I could have was information.  I barely knew anything about the bitch.  The best source I had in Paragon was Ana, but she wouldn’t want to help me.  The academy had tight security these days, so I couldn’t just break in to steal her records.  The deceleration field on the outside prevented most attacks from the air – the only real way in was through the cable car, and that had some of the tightest security in the Eight Oceans.

No, the best option I had was to conduct surveillance on her.

“You’re going to stalk her?” said Hira.

“I’m going to conduct surveillance on her,” I said, then sighed.  “Yes, I’m going to stalk her.  She destroyed my life.”

“Don’t get caught.”  He took a puff of his hookah.  “The last time one of my exes tried to follow me, I threw a glass of wine on his suit.  Then I shot him in the head.”

Finding my replacement wasn’t easy.  She lived in the dorms, so she spent almost all her time at Paragon.  And Jun’s Commonplace bomb had blown up the Silver Flask, so there was no reason for her to leave the exquisite food at the dining hall.

So I sat in a cafe overlooking Darius Street, the road to the cable car station.  I did this at the start and end of the school day, along with the most common times classes got out.  I dragged Hira with me, and we did more studying there, in between pots of pitch-black tea and games of Jao Lu, always keeping an eye on the road.

After a week and a day of this, I spotted her.  The body I’d been wearing for almost two decades.  The name I couldn’t remember or hear anymore.

Walking down the street from the cable car alone, carrying a bag full of books with a smug, self-satisfied expression on her face, pitch-black hair tied back in a ponytail.  Bitch.  Or bastard.  I wasn’t sure which one was more applicable, or insulting.

I slid my chair back, so I was out of her sight.  Once she’d passed us, I stood up, picking up my things.

“Have fun,” Hira said.

I tailed my replacement through the streets of Hightown.  When she got on a trolley to Lowtown, I paid a taxi to follow it, keeping my hat on and my suit jacket tight.  Can’t get too close.  This had been her body for almost two decades, and she’d recognize it in a heartbeat.

As she wound through side streets, the crowds grew sparse, and tailing her grew harder.  But despite a few close calls, I managed to follow her to a hole-in-the-wall Shenti bakery.

From a concealed angle on the street, I watched the girl sit down at a table across from another person I couldn’t quite make out.  She ate a sponge cake, one of the ones rolled with cream, and engaged in an animated discussion.

I froze.

The person she was talking to wasn’t eating anything.  There wasn’t even a drink in front of them.

“Takonara,” I muttered.  “Takonara.

No, that can’t – That couldn’t – 

I walked forward, as close as I dared, and glanced at the bitch’s conversation partner out of the corner of my eye.  And there was no mistaking it.  I could have recognized that hair, those veins, that face from a hundred yards away.

Anabelle Gage.  Anabelle Gage was friends with the enemy.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




6-G – Clementine

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The battle was starting, and Clementine wanted to go back to bed.

Her shift had ended at 0330, leaving her less than two hours of sleep before loud banging on her cabin door shook her awake.  It was an urgent recon report from Lieutenant Brice. One that didn’t make a lot of sense.

She’d leapt out of her cramped bunk bed, thrown on a jacket for the chill and tied her hair back in a tight bun.  In sixty seconds, she was jogging through the lower decks of the aircraft carrier, boots clanging against the metal floor.

She’d been dreaming of a sunny diner from her hometown, full of heat and steaming breakfast foods.  Reality was two degrees below freezing, and there were no chocolate waffles.

The sharp burst of adrenaline was enough to keep her awake.  But for the first time after four years of combat, she wanted to sink into her sheets and pretend there wasn’t a war going on.

For the first time since basic training, she was scared.  No matter how many slow, deep breaths she took, her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

When she’d arrived at the bridge of the CNS Edwina, out of breath, she’d explained the details to Vice Admiral Kerst.  Now, after sending a telegram to High Command, he was asking for clarification, certain he had misheard her.

“A woman?” he said, incredulous.  “Just one woman?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.  “During his recon flight, Lieutenant Brice spotted a woman, bearing approximately thirty knots towards us from the east.  Wearing red and gold.” Shenti colors.  Clementine paused, taking a deep breath.  “She’s running across the surface of the water.  It’s why she didn’t show up on radar.”

Kerst’s brow furrowed.  “Ocean must have iced over.”

Clementine shook her head.  “The water’s cold, sir, but not that cold.  She’s running on top of the liquid.” She let the words sink in.

“And you trust your man’s eyes,” said the Vice Admiral, running his fingers through his grey crew cut.

Clementine nodded.  Lieutenant Brice was a top-shelf pilot, with spotless judgement.  No matter how impossible his report sounded, it had to be true.

The Edwina’s strike group included three heavy cruisers, five destroyers, thirty fighters, and twenty-eight bombers.  In the past few months, it had cut a path through the Shi Xue ocean. Its squadrons had torn through swarms of planes, firebombed cities to ashes, and taken on the strongest ships in the Shenti Navy.

But this was something new.  A human shouldn’t be able to walk on water as if it were solid ground, or sprint at those speeds.  It defied the laws of nature, of common sense. According to Brice, the Shenti woman wasn’t even carrying weapons.  Just her bare hands.

The best word, the only word she could think for it was magic.  Something supernatural and inhuman and far beyond anything they’d trained for.

But the idea sounded ridiculous.  She wasn’t about to say that out loud.

“Time to intercept?” he asked.

“Brice is still tailing her.  Roughly thirteen minutes at current pace.”

“Set readiness to Alarm One.  We’ll await further orders,” he said.

Three seconds later, red lights flashed all over the bridge.  Bleary-eyed sailors rushed to and fro in the hallway outside, carrying ammunition and shouting orders.  Clementine’s pilots would be rushing too, strapping on flight suits and running to the flight deck.

Alarm One was full action stations.  The admiral wasn’t taking any chances.

The ship’s officers huddled together with Kerst, wiping sweaty hands on coats.  Every now and then, one of them glanced at the telegram, where the reply from High Command would arrive.  Until orders arrived on that machine, it was up to them to develop the fleet’s plan. “Your assessments?” he asked.

“No signs of nearby vessels,” said Captain Ennis, staring at the bridge’s monitoring equipment.

Captain Renea tapped her fingers on a dashboard, her voice rapidfire.  “Could the Shenti have developed new stealth technology for their submarines?  The woman could be a distraction, some illusion they whipped up to keep us in chaos before their surprise attack.”

“A surprise attack seems most likely,” Captain Dana nodded.  “The Black Tortoise favors unconventional tactics.”

“I can’t think of any technology that could make an illusion like that,” said Commander Ales, hunching over on his chair.  “On a stage, maybe, from a single angle. Not in these conditions,”

“Some other device, then,” said Captain Renea.  “One that could make the bitch float.”

“I studied fluid dynamics in college,” said Clementine, speaking up.  Before the Principality drafted me.  The officers turned to look at her.   “Surface tension is not that strong.  She’d have to run many times as fast, or weigh much less.  No nation I know of is even close to something like this.”

“Regardless,” said Captain Dana.  “It’s no coincidence they’re attacking when our takeoff system is damaged.”

There were grim nods all around.  In their last battle, enemy bombers had damaged the hydraulic accelerators on the Edwina’s runway.  Right now, the carrier could only launch planes at a fraction of its normal rate.  It was vulnerable.

“Orders! Here!” A shout from the other side of the room.  The signals officer had finished decrypting their new instructions from Command.  Their response had been almost instant. The machine chugged, spitting out a piece of paper with the message typed on it.  The officer sprinted to the middle of the bridge, handing it to the Vice Admiral.

“Maybe the top brass know what the fuck is going on,” muttered Kerst.  He scanned the telegram, his chest rising and falling.

The Vice Admiral had served in the Navy longer than she’d been alive, enough for his bright blonde hair to turn half grey.  He’d seen more than his share of the impossible, fought many battles against absurd odds. Through it all, he had always been calm, always measured.

Clementine had never seen him look this scared.

When he held it up to the light, she could read the telegram through the page.  The order from High Command, the strategy they were to use against the enemy, was a single word.

RUN

Clementine’s stomach clenched.  The chill air got a little colder.  The whole bridge went silent, as they stared towards their commander.

“Oh,” said Kerst.

Twenty seconds later, the bridge’s printer spat out more orders from Command.  The Vice Admiral shouted them through his radio to the other warships. “All ships are to change course to different directions, full speed! Get as much distance between yourself and the nearest ship as possible! And prepare for boarding! Navigation orders will follow!”

In the modern era, naval boarding was almost unheard of.  Any ship would be sunk long before it got close enough to offload people.  The thought was almost absurd. Clementine wasn’t even sure if they had more than a dozen small arms on the carrier.

Claxons blared throughout the ship.  Through the bridge’s windows, Clementine could see mechanics running around on the flight deck.  Thick grey clouds covered the morning sun, shining flat light over everything.

The Vice Admiral turned to her, jaw set.  “Get to the flight deck.”

________________________________________

Clementine stood in front of her dive bomber, zipping up her light blue flight suit and throwing on a thin life vest.  A chill breeze blew across the carrier, and she shivered. Damn northern seas.  Winters on the Shenti continent were ice-cold.  

On the grey horizon, the eight other ships in the strike group sailed in opposite directions, fanning out away from each other.  Their propellers churned up the dark water behind them.

Giant steel vessels with guns as thick as trees, all fleeing a tiny woman with no weapons.

Sailors ran onto the deck, hefting heavy machine guns and bolt-action sniper rifles.  The elevator lifted another plane out of storage from beneath, and marshallers with flags directed it forward.  A group of pilots jogged towards her, forming two lines in front of her.

“Listen up, boys!” she shouted, her breath fogging the air in front of her.  “The Edwina is bearing top speed away from the target! However, the target has increased her pace to fifty knots! She’ll be on us in four minutes!”

The pilots were too disciplined to shout or cry or murmur amongst themselves, but she noticed the unease on their faces, the clenched teeth and tensed shoulders.

She continued.  “Mechanics will have the catapult ready for first launch in three! Priority will be dive bombers equipped with heavy guns! Fly in formation K-3, attack one at a time and blow that cunt out of the water.  Questions?”

“Do we know anything else about the target, ma’am?” Second Lieutenant Silas asked, his mouth set.  Her most improved pilot. He’d started at the bottom of the training program, but through sheer effort, he’d become one of the Edwina’s best, now launching second after Clementine.

Clementine shook her head.  “That’s for us to find out. Keep comms open, report anything new you see.”

Far off the stern, Clementine could see the tiny figure of Lieutenant Brice’s plane in the distance.  The roar of his engines got louder as he circled the target, approaching the carrier.

One of the mechanics motioned to her, and she clambered up the ladder beside her plane.

Clementine turned back to her men, addressing them from above.  “We’ve never fought anything like her before. But she’s never fought anyone as good as you.  Fly fast, fly smart, and let’s protect our friends down here.” She raised her fist. “The nation, the people, the light!”

The men chanted with her.  “The nation, the people, the light!” They broke up, running to their planes.

Clementine sat down in the pilot’s chair, buckling herself in and pulling on her aviator hat.  Loud booms echoed in the distance. The retreating destroyers had opened fire with their sixteen inch guns.  The naval artillery impacted the water around the woman, sending up huge splashes.

She reached for her radio to switch it on, then froze.

An animal was flying above the deck.  It was a giant serpent more than sixty feet long, that had flattened its body to be as wide as her chest.  Its silver scales were covered with triangular markings.

An Oracle Snake.  It swam through the air by undulating its coils back and forth, its insides filled up with self-generated hydrogen gas.

The animals were incredibly rare.  Clementine had only seen them in photographs before.  But, according to superstition, they were said to show up before pivotal events in history.

She flipped on her radio, opening a channel with Lieutenant Brice, one that Vice Admiral Kerst would be able to hear.  “Talk to me,” she said. “Are they hitting her?”

“She’s dodging them,” said Brice, his voice crackling over the speakers.  “Every time, she changes direction and sprints to the side before they hit.  It’s like she knows where they’re going to land.”

At least they’re slowing her down.  Clementine pulled her oxygen mask onto her face, tightening the straps.

“Runway open. Clear to start engines, over,” said the controller over the radio.

“Roger,” said Clementine, flipping switches and turning dials.  The radial engine sputtered, and the propeller began to turn. It went faster and faster until it became a blur, its afterimages appearing to move backwards.

The marshaller in front of the plane stepped to the side, waving his bright yellow flags forward.  The go signal.

Clementine set the engine to full power.  The hydraulic piston attached to her plane slid forward on the runway’s track, shooting her forward.  The acceleration pressed her back against her seat, blood rushing in her ears.

The piston detached, and she cleared the edge of the ship.  Her hand pulled the joystick towards her, and she soared into the air, climbing higher and higher.  Her lungs sucked in deep breaths from the oxygen mask.

Even when the circumstances were so dire, nothing felt as good as this.  Not food, not sex, not any of the booze or drugs she’d tried. It was sheer acceleration, freedom in three dimensions.  When the Principality had drafted her years ago, she’d volunteered for the Air Force because it promised to pay the highest.  She never imagined how well she’d take to the skies, how flying could feel as smooth as breathing.

Through the clear plastic of her cockpit, Brice’s fighter was much larger now.  Clementine could make out the figure of the woman in red beneath him taking long, bounding strides across the water.

With the woman closer to the carrier, the destroyers stopped firing.  She’s too close to dive bomb, Clementine realized.  At this range, she risked hitting the Edwina itself.  She circled back around, watching the next plane load up onto the catapult.  Second Lieutenant Silas.

“Hurry!” she shouted into her radio, “Target has almost reached the stern!”

The marshaller shook his flags, and Silas accelerated down the runway.  The woman reached the bottom of the carrier, twenty stories below the deck.

Without hesitating, she leapt onto the hull and clambered upwards.  Her arms and legs moved in a blur, as fast as a spider skittering up a wall.  How is that possible?

Clementine dipped her plane for a closer look, and saw a trail of marks on the metal below the target.  She’s making handholds.

The woman was tearing into solid steel with her fingers and bare feet.  And she was doing it quickly, climbing dozens of feet every second.

Silas shot down the runway towards the stern on the hydraulic track, propeller spinning.  “She’s climbing the side!” shouted Clementine. “Watch out!”

The Shenti woman reached the top, pulling herself onto the end of the runway.  Silas’ plane rushed towards her at over a hundred miles an hour. At this speed, he would either run her over or turn her to a pulp with his propeller.  “Got you!” he crowed over the radio.

The woman stood up, nonchalant, and punched the plane in the middle of its nose.

The bomber crumpled with a metallic screech, its body flattening before her.  The engine exploded in a ball of orange flame, sending scraps of metal in every direction.

Momentum carried the smoking wreck forward, and it spun around the woman, tipping off the side of the carrier.  It crashed into the water, hissing as the fires went out, and sunk beneath the surface in seconds.

“Silas!” shouted Clementine.  “Silas, do you read!”

Silence.

The woman hadn’t moved an inch.  Aside from some singes on her tunic, she was untouched.

She straightened her sleeves, looking up at the bridge.  A wide semicircle of sailors stood on the other end, leveling rifles, machine guns, and pistols at her.  Captain Renea stood in the center of them and barked out an order.

Dozens of weapons opened fire, a thundering storm of gunshots.  The woman sprinted down the deck towards them, a blur, running barefoot in a straight line.

Some of the rounds were tracers, thin bolts of orange light shooting across the deck.  They ricocheted off her, flying off in all directions.

The men adjusted their aim from her center mass, firing towards her neck and face, where she would be more vulnerable.  Still nothing.

Two more seconds of firing.  And then she was on them, in the middle of the semicircle.  Her hand was on Captain Renea’s throat before anyone could react, and she squeezed, crumpling the captain’s throat like it was a piece of paper.

Renea dropped to the ground, her head lolling to the side.  Blood poured out of her torn neck.

The men nearby scattered, running away in opposite directions.  It didn’t matter. The woman weaved among them, always faster, always hitting several of them at once.  Sometimes she squeezed their throats. Other times she punched their faces, flattening their skulls with sprays of blood.

And all the while, she moved with inhuman grace and smoothness.  It was if she were performing an elaborate dance, and every step, every strike had been practiced for weeks.  Her motions were fluid, effortless.

Sometimes the men landed shots at the woman, but most of the bullets didn’t even penetrate her clothes.  The only marks the battle left on her was the red fluid coating her palms, dripping onto the ground. It wasn’t her blood.

“She’s butchering them!” shouted Lieutenant Brice over the radio.  “We have to do something!”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Clementine kept circling low over the deck, looking for an opening.  Lieutenant Brice circled higher above her, doing the same. What are we supposed to do?  She was fucking bulletproof.  They had to think outside the box, get creative.

As if they were reading her thoughts, two men emerged from a watertight door.  They hefted missile launchers over their shoulders, aiming them at the woman and crouching.  The weapons were designed to take out tanks, to blow through thick metal armor like it was made of cardboard.

They fired, aiming at the ground next to her so she couldn’t dodge.  The rockets hissed, hurling forward.

The woman glanced at them out of the corner of her eye, and raised her palm towards them.

The rockets froze in midair, only a yard in front of the shooter’s faces.  The exhaust still burned bright behind them, futilely trying to push them forward.  But the projectiles themselves were unmoving, as if time itself had frozen. The soldiers stared at them, dumbfounded.

The woman snapped her fingers, and the missiles exploded with a low boom and a cloud of dust.  The blast wave flung back the men like they were dolls, ripping off limbs. Their corpses flopped against the deck.

The woman leapt, climbing up the flight control tower towards the bridge.  “Target is headed for the bridge!” shouted Clementine. “Four seconds!”

“Lock down controls!” shouted Vice Admiral Kerst from the radio.  “Everybody out!”

The woman crashed through the bulletproof glass windows.  Clementine’s plane circled around, blocking her view of the action, but the radio line was still open.  Shouting, gunshots, and crashing rang out from her speakers.

Then, silence.

Her bomber circled back around, and she went low to see inside the bridge.

The room was full of bodies.  Blood stained the walls, and all the metal doors had been slammed shut.  The only two people in the room were the Shenti woman and Kerst himself. He ran for the hole in the window.

Clementine could hear a female voice over the radio, authoritative, with a light Shenti accent.  “Stop moving,”

Kerst froze, two steps from escape, aiming a gun at the woman without firing it.  I don’t have a clear shot with him on the bridge.

“Speak honestly.  Do not omit anything or mislead.  Are you Vice Admiral Kerst?”

“Yes,” he growled, without hesitation.  “What the fuck?”

“What did your superiors tell you about me?”

“Nothing.  They just told us to flee,” said Kerst, still frozen mid-step.  Why is he telling her the truth?  Kerst couldn’t be a spy.  That made no sense. Had the woman drugged him, somehow?

“What other plans and traps do you have set to deal with me?” The woman sounded impatient.

“Room 162 on the way to the engine room has been set with anti-tank mines,” Clementine could hear the anger in his voice.  He’s trying to resist.

“And?” The woman didn’t seem concerned.

“Room 993 and the two hallways nearby have been rigged to seal you in with five steel doors and flood with carbon monoxide.  Sixteen sailors will ambush you with shotguns in Room 251. While you’re distracted killing them, the seventeenth will hit you from behind with a flamethrower.  All codebooks and encryption machines have been destroyed.”

“One more question,” the woman said, her voice tightening.  “How many of my kinsmen have you killed?”

“Under my orders?  Tens of thousands.”

“And do you feel remorse for the lives you’ve taken?”

“No.”

There was a long silence, where nothing came from the radio, and all Clementine could hear was her engine and the shaking of her plane.

Then, the woman’s voice, laced with rage and loathing.  “Kill yourself.”

A single shot rang out from Clementine’s radio.  Then the silence again.

Clementine howled.  “Fucker!” she screamed.  She flipped the switch to prime her ordinance, but by the time she circled back towards the Edwina’s bridge, the woman had already left.  “Vice Admiral Kerst is down,” she said. “Be advised, target has some sort of mind control ability.  She knows what our traps are and where they’re placed.”

“Target is going through the ship,” rasped a sailor from the radio.  “Heading for artillery ammunition.” There was a wet, gurgling cough. Then silence.  She’s going to blow up the ship.  Below, on the deck, sailors streamed out of the doors en masse, leaping off the sides into the water.

“Clem! Clem!” said Brice, his voice wavering.  “We need to get out, now. We’re not equipped to deal with a threat like this.”

“She killed our comrades,” growled Clementine.  “She killed our CO. We are going to bleed her dry.” She grit her teeth until they ached.  “And if we don’t stop her, she’ll rip through the rest of the carrier group.  The Shenti will roll through this region, and our people will burn.”

“I want to flay the bitch too, but be rational.  She’s fucking invincible.  All our bullets bounced off.”

“Yes,” said Clementine, thinking.  “But she didn’t tank our heavy artillery, or the missiles.  She dodged them, or froze them.  She didn’t want them to hit her.” A feral grin spread across her face.  “She’s vulnerable. We just need to catch her off guard.” She turned her radio to the Edwina’s general channel.  “This is Lotus One, does anyone read?”

The radio crackled with a sailor’s voice, punctuated by heavy breaths.  “This is Warrant Officer Daniels. Target is constructing some sort of bomb near the fuel tanks and is heading back to the upper decks.  All unarmed personnel are evacuating. The rest are trying to slow her down.”

May the Scholars watch over them.  “Daniels,” said Clementine.  “I’m going to ask you and your men to volunteer for something.  Can you track the target’s movement? As accurate as you can. When she gets close to one of the flight decks, tell me, then get out as fast as you can.”

A pause.  “It’s probably a death sentence.  She’s about to blow the whole carrier.”

“I might be able to kill her.”

A much longer pause.  “We’ll get it done.”

Clementine angled her plane up, climbing high into the sky.  To dive bomb the woman, she’d need to pick up enough speed.

Lieutenant Brice’s fighter flew up beside her.  His voice crackled over the radio. “I’ll dive with you.  When she opens the door, I’ll use my guns. They might distract her so your ordinance can hit.”

“Good idea,” she said.

This’ll destroy the ship.  But the Edwina was already lost, already doomed.

She turned her plane to circle at the higher altitude, followed by Lieutenant Brice’s fighter.  The radio crackled with Daniels’ voice again. “Target headed for southwest door! Thirty seconds!”

“Roger.” Clementine kept climbing.  “Brice, on my mark.”

“Twenty seconds!”

“Mark!” Clementine dove.

Her bomber plunged downwards, straight towards the southwest door of the Edwina.  Her stomach wrenched from the sheer drop.  “Get off the ship! Go, go, go!” she shouted.  Brice mirrored her movements on her left, in tight formation.

On the deck, dozens of sailors sprinted out of the carrier’s doors, slamming them shut.  Daniels’ lookouts.  They ran to the sides, leaping into the water, as the ship got larger and larger in Clementine’s eyes.

Her altimeter read five hundred meters.  The normal drop height for her payload. Her finger hovered over the trigger, her stomach churning as the plane shook.

I need to get closer.  She would only have one attack.  Five hundred meters was only accurate enough to hit a massive ship.  Not a bullseye. “Keep going!” she shouted at Brice.

They shot towards the deck.  Four hundred meters. Three hundred.  Two. A hundred.

The southwest door blew off its hinges, a rectangle of steel hurling past her left in a blur.  It crashed into Lieutenant Brice’s propeller with a screech, smashing his fighter’s nose.

The plane careened to the side and crashed on the deck in a fireball.  Brice was dead before he could even scream.

Clementine pulled the trigger, and the bomb detached from the bottom of the plane.  She yanked up the joystick. The g-forces pressed her down against the seat as her plane turned upwards.

Craning her neck, she caught a blur of movement around the door below, before the detonation covered it in fire and smoke.  The explosion roared in her ears, shaking her bomber as it flew away.

Did I hit her?  Another explosion went off soon after.  The target’s improvised bomb.

She turned her head forward again.

The Shenti woman was crouching on the nose of her plane, hands digging into the metal hull.

Clementine stared at her, paralyzed.  How?

The woman was beautiful.  Flawless. Her face was the kind foreign models had, after hours of makeup and the perfect lighting scheme.  A small, flat mouth with bright red lips. Smooth, porcelain skin. She was tall, slender, unscathed from the explosion.  Her long black hair wasn’t even tousled or sweaty, looking like it had just been combed.

The only sign of the explosion was her clothes.  Her red and gold tunic was covered in dark scorch marks.  Her flowing pants were in tatters, but underneath, her skin was unblemished.

Her clothes.  So many had died, and they’d only damaged her clothes.  Clementine almost wanted to laugh at the hideous absurdity of it all.

Narrow green eyes gazed down on Clementine with cold fury, unblinking.  Her face radiated contempt, loathing. The expression one might have at a wriggling centipede.

The woman stuffed her arm into the plane’s engine, shoulder-deep.  There was a loud cracking noise, and the propeller slowed to a stop.  She flicked her wrist, and one of the wings bent upwards. The metal creaked, and the wind tore it off.

The woman leapt off, and the plane nose-dived, spinning around.  The sky and sea spiraled around Clementine, making her head ache.

She hit the surface diagonally at over a hundred miles per hour, eyes squeezed shut, thinking of Brice and Kerst, and everything she could have done.

At her speed, the icy water hit like concrete.  The impact threw her forward in her harness, knocking the wind out of her.  The straps hit her chest harder than a punch, sending blinding pain from her stomach to her collar.  Her legs slammed against the dashboard.

Clementine gasped for breath, every wheeze sending stabs of agony up and down her ribs.  Everything hurt, her legs most of all, shooting aches in what felt like a dozen places in her bones.  The waves of pain crashed over her, overwhelming every thought, every instinct, every careful procedure she’d been taught for crashes.

Twitching, she looked forward, at what remained of her plane.  The bomber’s crumbled nose was sinking into the water first, propeller bent, pulling the rest of the craft down with it.  Smoke rose from the engine, torn apart and exposed to the elements. A low boom sounded from within, and on instinct, Clementine raised her aching hands in front of her face.

The engine exploded with a deafening bang and a balloon of smoke.  There was the sound of cracking glass, and a tearing pain in her hands, like a dozen knives had slashed them all at once.

She looked at her hands.  Their skin was ripped apart like paper, blood trickling down her palms and forearms.  Several digits on both hands hung limp, sliced deep by pieces of shrapnel and broken glass.

As she stared at her mangled fingers, a single thought cut through the agony.  I’ll never fly again.  Pilots needed working hands, dexterity she’d never have again.

It was the one skill she’d been respected for, celebrated for.  The one thing that made her stand out. Without it, she would be another hollow veteran, begging for money on street corners.

That knowledge made the pain a thousand times worse, a crushing weight pulling her down with the plane.  It can stop soon.  All she would have to do was sit there, and the water would pour into the cockpit, filling her lungs and quieting the noise.  It was already trickling in, forming a puddle around her feet.

What did we do to deserve this?  They had done everything right, taken their enemy seriously and reacted with every weapon at their disposal, every strategy they could invent.  And everyone still died.

The water was now up to her shins, pouring in faster and faster, ice-cold.  She didn’t move.

Captain Renea.  Kerst. Brice.  The soldiers she’d looked up to.  Her friends. All dead. All shred to pieces by that woman with barely an afterthought.

The woman.

Clementine craned her neck, looking back at the carrier.  The Edwina was burning, thick clouds of smoke rising from the deck.  The woman ran away, skimming across the surface of the water, ignoring Clementine and the sailors around her.

She was going after the next ship.  The Shenti woman would hunt down the carrier group one by one, and nobody would be able to touch her.

Then she’d move onto the rest of the fleet.

No.

Clementine couldn’t let her win.  Couldn’t shrivel up and die like the bitch wanted.  I’m going to live.  And when we find out how to make you feel pain, I’ll be there.

The ice water was up to her chest now, making her shiver from the chill.  Get up.  She fumbled at her harness with her torn fingers, undoing it.  Reaching up with her arms, she hooked her palms on the side of the cockpit, pulling herself up and pushing with her broken legs.

Her fingers burned.  As she put weight on her legs, it felt like shards of glass were moving around inside, slicing her flesh and snapping apart her bones.  She screamed, breathing in and out, but kept pulling until her limbs were free of the plane. Her life jacket would do the rest.

She let go, and sunk down, head dipping below the surface.  What the fuck.  She looked down.

Her life vest was covered in holes, streams of bubbles pouring out into the water.

Clementine flailed in the water, reaching for every swim lesson the military had beaten into her.  Every kick sent stabs of pain through her legs all over again. Tiny clouds of blood streamed from her mangled fingers, a red fog dispersing through the blue water.  Water filled her mouth, saturating it with the harsh taste of salt.

The pain drowned out her coordination, making her movements a clumsy set of jerks and twitches.  Her clothes and boots clung to her skin, pulling her down. She was heavy. Why did she feel so heavy?

Under the surface, everything was quiet.  The crackling of the flames on the ship, the shouting and screaming of the men in the water were all silenced.  The icy water bit into her, numbing the pain and slowing her motions.

Beneath her, the Shi Xue ocean extended far down, a deep expanse of dark water.  It seemed to go on for an eternity, a cold, merciless void that was swallowing her whole.

If she could swim up a yard, she could take a breath.  Another yard and the burning pressure building in her lungs would end.

But she wasn’t swimming up.  She was sinking, gradually and inevitably.  And the crushing sensation in her chest only got worse, as the frozen sensation infused her entire body.

What a pathetic way to die.  If the Shenti woman had killed her personally, she might have gotten on the front page of a newspaper somewhere.  But drowning? So many sailors drowned. Nobody would remember that. Nobody would care. Her legacy would be in a dusty military file cabinet, on a list of all the soldiers killed during the battle.

The bitch hadn’t even given her a hero’s death.  She’d just scampered away on the surface of the water, leaving her to thrash and choke.

The surface.  The very thing that was eluding Clementine, the breath of life just beyond her grasp.  The Shenti woman could flit across it like it was solid ground. Like the surface tension was a thousand times stronger than it was, and the water itself was holding her up.

That’s not possible.  But oddly, something made sense about that, something vital and important that blew through the pain and panic for some unknown reason.  Clementine thought back to her physics class from college, to the balding professor with dark spots on his forehead who lectured about fluid dynamics.  All the equations, all the problem sets about polarity, hydrogen bonds, cohesion and adhesion, how water stuck to itself.

As Clementine thought, she reached upwards, with her hands, her fingers, everything.  Every part of her mind directed its attention upward. She reached.

Something kindled inside of her.  A part of her stretched towards the surface, that wasn’t a muscle or bone or any part of her body.  A fragment of her being that felt new, yet familiar. Something that clicked.

Clementine could feel the movement of the water.  Not just on her skin. She felt the splashes, the ripples, the fluid motion of the liquid as it shifted around in response to her movements.

It was if the water were an extension of her nerves, something she could discern better than her own body, had known her entire life.

She willed the water to move, as easy as twitching a muscle.  It pushed upwards, slowing her descent. She focused her mind on fluid dynamics, and it pushed harder.

Clementine’s right hand breached the surface, and she thought back to the Shenti woman, running across the surface of the ocean like a water strider.  She thought to her studies of surface tension, of the mechanics of liquids and solids and elasticity.

Straining with her mind, stretching through her connection to the water, she willed the water to harden, for the bonds between molecules to strengthen.

She extended her arm up and grabbed the water.  The surface acted like a cloth, bunching up in her hands.  Like a solid. Blue lightning crackled around her arm.

Clementine stopped sinking, hanging from her hand, grasping the compact surface of the water.  Focus.  She reached her other hand up, hooking her palm to the hardened liquid and pulling herself up.

Her fingers screamed agony, and she felt something snap in her right thumb.  But she kept pulling, kept straining with her biceps. The blue lightning spread to her chest, swirling around her body.

Her head breached the surface with a splash, and she coughed up water, gasping for breath.  Oxygen had never tasted sweeter. She flopped down on the surface of the ocean like it were a mattress, wheezing, chest rising and falling.  Dark red blood trickled from her legs and fingers.

Clementine focused on the freezing water, holding it up to support her weight.  Focus.  But her control was slipping.  Her power felt like it was a sore muscle now, shaking from the exertion and getting more tired by the second.  I can’t keep this up much longer.

She turned her head to see a group of soldiers a few dozen yards away, floating with bright blue life vests.  Her lungs sucked in a breath.

“Hey!” she screamed.  “Help!”

One of the soldiers pointed at her, and they all started to paddle towards her.

They got to her moments before she gave out.  Her control snapped like a twig, and the water turned liquid again, pulling her under with a splash. The blue lightning vanished.

Two of the sailors grabbed her, holding her head above the water while a third one blew into a spare life vest, inflating it.  When it was over her head and strapped on, Clementine relaxed, bobbing up and down, safe. Her shattered legs and maimed fingers flopped down beneath her, limp.

As the adrenaline subsided and she caught her breath, the reality of what had happened sunk in.  They’re all dead.  And I’ll never fly a plane again.  The tears came, welling up in her eyes and pouring down her face, warm against her cold cheeks.

One of the men who’d rescued her swam over, looking at her with a mixture of exhaustion and fear.  “How did you do that?” he said. His eyes were dead. “Are you like her?”

“I don’t know,” said Clementine, her voice hoarse, shivering.  She had no idea how she’d tapped into the same magic as the woman, how her scientific knowledge let her command the water.  “I don’t know.”

Her eyes looked past the sailor, towards the horizon.  The grey clouds had parted, exposing the rising sun. The light shone gold and violet over the frigid water, reflecting off the clouds and glaring in their faces.  A new morning.

Clementine had no idea where her ability came from.  She didn’t know how they could beat the Shenti woman, whether they’d win the war, or if she’d even get rescued before freezing to death.  But she knew one thing. Everyone knew, now, in radio messages winging their way through thousands of people across the Principality.

Magic was real.

And Clementine was a magician.

She stared at the Shenti woman, a shrinking dot on the horizon.  Well, she thought.  It’s a start.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




6-F – Tasia

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When Henry grew up, he wanted to be a witch.

He wouldn’t admit it out loud.  The boys at school would laugh at him, his teachers would be confused, and his father would want to prescribe something for it.  The people of Stonebrook thought witches were monsters.  The parents at Henry’s school had even gossiped about Henry’s big sister Sarah, whispering that she’d become one after going to university in the Floating City.

But that was exactly the appeal.

Witches were dangerous.  Witches were feared.  People wouldn’t mess with them.  They’d just leave them alone.

The problem was, witches weren’t real, either.

They were stories, made up to frighten children like Henry or superstitious adults like his homeroom teacher.  It was a silly fantasy.

Carter shoved Henry back, onto the grass.  The impact knocked the wind out of him, and he gasped for breath.

Next to him, the Stonebrook River trickled past, ten feet below at the bottom of a short drop.  Its water was a dark, murky brown, filled with sewage runoff from the town.

“Empty the freak’s bag,” said Carter.

Sebastian turned over Henry’s backpack, shaking out its contents onto the grass.  A stack of science textbooks from the library.  Henry’s three-year-old math sketchbook.

And a plush of a yellow platypus hippo, as long as Henry’s forearm.  Mango.

Henry’s stomach clenched.  No, no, no.  He shouldn’t have brought him to school.  The stuffed animal just made him feel safer.  A small piece of home to carry into the frightening world of class.  On lunch breaks, he could hug the platypus hippo and calm himself down.

Carter snickered, picking up Mango by a leg like he was a piece of trash.  “Scholars, you’re such a baby.  Are you pissing your diapers now?”  He turned to the boy and the girl next to him, his henchmen.  “He’s pissing his diapers.”

Henry started to push himself upright, and Carter held out a hand, preventing him from standing.  

“It’s not – “ Henry bit his lip.  “It’s not mine.”  Henry knew his words were stupid the moment he finished saying them.  Why else would Mango be in his backpack?

“It’s not yours?”  Carter raised an eyebrow.  “Then you won’t mind if I – “

He threw Mango into the river.

Henry reached out his hand, stretching as far as he could to grab him, but it was too late.  The platypus hippo sank into the brown water, vanishing beneath the surface.

“I – “ Henry choked on his words.  He felt short of breath, dizzy.  Blood rushed in his ears.

Carter kicked the rest of Henry’s books over the edge, along with his backpack.  They splashed into the water one after another.

Tears welled up at the edge of Henry’s vision, and he forced his eyes shut.  Don’t cry, it’ll make things even worse.

Why is he doing this to me? Henry hadn’t done anything wrong.  Why had Carter picked him?  So many of their parents were off fighting the Shenti.  The radio ads had implored those at home to ‘join hands for their nation’.

“Now,” said Carter.  “Apologize, Henry.”

“W – what?” said Henry.

“Apologize.”

“For what?”

“For dragging us out here and attacking us.”  An indignant expression spread over Carter’s face.  His voice took on a horrified tone.  “I mean, you tried to push me into the river.  I could have drowned.  Sebastian and Jenny had to pull you off me.  It’s no wonder your backpack got lost in the scuffle.”

Henry felt his face grow hot.  Leave me alone.  Leave me alone.  Please, scholars, leave me alone.

“Apologize.”

Henry couldn’t fight back.  Carter was almost a foot taller than him and had a knife at his belt, along with two henchmen who wouldn’t care about a fair fight.

And even if he won, Carter’s mother ran the school board.  She was friends with the mayor, the police chief, half the city council.  She’d raised more money for the war effort than anyone else in the town.

If he laid a finger on Carter, Henry’s life in Stonebrook would be over.

The kids closed in around Henry, fencing him in at the edge of the drop.  The hot tears trickled down his cheeks, and he stared at the ground.

“I’m sorry,” said Henry.

Carter placed a finger under Henry’s chin and turned it upwards, meeting his gaze.  “Thank you,” he said.  He extended his hand, his expression softening.

Henry took it, and Carter pulled him to his feet.

Halfway up, Carter let go and shoved him.

Henry fell backwards off the edge of the cliff, his arms flailing.  His gut wrenched, and the wind whipped in his ears.

When he landed on his back, it felt like he’d hit a trampoline.  The surface beneath him bent and curved, then bounced him back up a short distance.

Henry looked down.  The surface of the river was repelling him, somehow, supporting his weight.  A film of clear water had been stretched over the filth, keeping him clean.

He touched the water, and it felt like some sort of translucent skin.

Henry looked up, blinking through the tears to clear his vision.

An older girl stood on the far side of the river, directly across from Carter.  Her dark turquoise hair blew in the wind, a ragged orange dress flapping around her ankles.

She gave the bullies a dismissive glance, then snapped her fingers.

All three of them shot forward, dragged by their clothes, and dropped into the river.  The hardened water split beneath them, and they splashed in head-first.

Carter emerged downriver, his face covered in brown filth.  He screamed something incoherent at Henry, spitting water out of his mouth and paddling to stay afloat.  The current carried him and the other two away, towards the ocean.  The sounds of their yelling faded into the distance.

“Hi, Henry!”

Henry looked up.  Sarah beamed at him from above, waving.

“Want to go home?”

________________________________________

The shapes of men and women emerged from the beach, leaping and twirling around each other, all made of sand.  Moonlight reflected off their bodies and clothes, casting them in a pale glow.  Some of the dancers exploded into clouds, swirling and reforming into other bodies, all flowing in perfect harmony.

They were utterly captivating.

“You’re a witch,” breathed Henry.  “A real witch.”

Sarah laughed, smiling at him next to the fire.  “Are you frightened?”  She lowered her finger, and the figures dissolved into piles of sand.

Henry shook his head, his eyes wide.  It wasn’t scary, it was incredible.  His big sister could do magic.  All the things he’d read about in the old books, all the things he’d heard from Sarah’s bedtime stories were true.

“I learned magic in Neke.  But it’s based on the principles of science, off the knowledge of the Great Scholars.  When I control the sand, I focus on its chemical properties, its composition and its interactions, and how it behaves as a granular material.  After that, all I have to do is extend my mind into it.”

Henry scooped up a handful of sand, watching it run through his fingers.  “Is it hard?”

“Very,” she said.  “But once you know it, you can do a lot more than move sand.  You can uncover the secrets of the universe.  You can strive to become an Exemplar.”  The fire lit one half of her face orange, the other half white from the moonlight.  “A witch can do anything she sets her mind to.”

“Like throw bullies into a river?”

“Yes.”  She lounged back on the sand.  “And a delayed memory wipe, so Carter doesn’t go crying to his mommy.  He and the other losers in this town are what we call Humdrums.  Not a scrap of magic in their souls or their character.”  She pointed towards the ocean.  “Out there, there are whole societies of witches that make them look like nothing.  They’re small, so they hurt people to feel big.”

That made Henry remember Mango.  He closed his eyes and imagined the stuffed platypus hippo washing out to the ocean, soaked in sewage, ripping at the seams, bits of trash stuck in his mouth and behind his ears.  He imagined the matrix fish nibbling at his fur, whisper algae growing inside the tears as he sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Henry started crying again.

No, no, no.  Crying was weak, pathetic, especially if you did it in front of someone else.

Stand up straight, boy.  His father’s voice echoed in his ears.  It’s just a stupid trinket.  His back stung, an old memory.

“What’s wrong?” said Sarah.

Henry pulled his knees to his chest.  “Mango,” he half-muttered.  Sarah knew who that was – he’d had the stuffed animal since he was five.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.  “I searched all afternoon, but I couldn’t find him anywhere.”  Sarah wrapped her arms around Henry.  “We’ll get you a new Mango, how about that?”

Henry shook his head.  It wouldn’t be the same.  And that wasn’t the worst of it.  Henry knew what was going to happen.

Sarah was going to leave again.  Just like before.  And Henry would be left with his father and Carter.  The magic would vanish from his life, and it would all be grey and empty again.

“Am I a Humdrum?” he asked, staring at the flame.  “Am I boring and unremarkable?”

He would have given anything to be a part of the magical world, go on adventures and discover the secrets of the universe.  The normal world was full of war, and bullies, and frightening news about the Shenti.

But a part of him knew, deep down, that he wasn’t special enough.  That he would work on his father’s vegetable farm for the rest of his life, forever the town fool of Stonebrook.

“I don’t know for sure.”  Sarah looked Henry in the eye.  “But you are anything but boring and unremarkable.”

“Promise me,” Henry said.  “You won’t wipe my memory.  Even if I’m a Humdrum, you’ll let me remember this.”

The waves washed up against the beach.  The fire crackled next to them, sparks fizzling on the sand.

“I promise,” Sarah said.

Henry wiped his tears away.  “Can you tell me a story?” he asked.  Now that he knew they were true, they were all a thousand times more exciting.

Sarah smiled.  “Your favorite?”

Henry nodded.

Sarah spoke in a hushed tone.  “Our story begins four centuries ago, over vast oceans and through terrible storms, so far south it had never been measured on any map.”

Henry had heard the tale a thousand times, but good stories were like old friends.  The more you knew them, the more beautiful they became.

As Sarah spoke, Henry stared at the sand, and thought back to what he’d read in his books.  It was finely granulated silicon dioxide in the form of quartz or calcium carbonate, most likely.  A crystalline material in a framework of tetrahedra, with shared oxygen atoms and chirality.  Weighing roughly sixty unified atomic mass units.

Chemical information trickled through his mind on one track.  The other track listened to Sarah, intent.

“One woman, one of the greatest witches in history, discovered a mysterious land in a windswept desert, filled with exotic treasures and tyrannical kings.”

Henry reached for the sand, and thought back to the dancing sculptures that her sister had made.  They were beautiful, those sculptures.

“She fought a war against impossible odds.  To protect the innocent, to bring the fire of civilization into the darkness.  This is the story of -”

Henry pointed a shaking finger forward.  Sarah paused, looking at him.

A single grain of sand floated in the air before Henry, hovering right in front of his nose.

Sarah grinned.  “This is the story,” she continued, “of Tasia the Explorer.”

________________________________________

“Take me with you.”  Henry gazed up at his sister on the edge of the boat, his eyes imploring.  “If you won’t stay, take me with you.”

The sun set over the edge of the ocean, casting the water in an orange glow.  The boat sat at the edge of the beach, waves washing around its splintering hull.

Sarah’s hands gripped the railing, and she closed her eyes.  “I can’t,” she said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Why not?”

“We’ve gone over this, Henry,” Sarah’s voice was pained.  “Because – “

“Because you’d die, little boy.”  A hoarse voice rang out from the other side of the ship, and a clean-shaven man stepped behind her.  He was dressed like the explorers Henry had seen in newspaper photos, sporting beige khakis and a safari hat.

“I’ve trained,” said Henry.  “Sarah’s taught me for years.”  And they’d discovered his Vocation, both Whisper and Praxis, an ability that let him push aside other Piths and drain their energy at the same time.  Their father had quieted down in pure fear of their abilities.

The man rolled his eyes, puffing on a cigarette.  “What are you, twelve?”

“Fifteen.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “That’s how many minutes you’d last.”

“Go easy on him, Gamel,” said Sarah.  “He’s just scared.”

“This is a dangerous expedition,” Gamel croaked.  “You shouldn’t even be here.  Your sister shouldn’t have told you anything about us.”

A dozen other men and women milled about on the ship.  Sarah’s friends from overseas.  A few of them glared at Henry.

“I know you’re going far away, outside the Principality,” said Henry.  Like Tasia the Explorer.  “To learn why the stars disappeared with the Great Scholars.”  He took a deep breath. “But I still don’t understand why you have to go.”

“Remember what I told you,” said Sarah, “about uncovering the secrets of the world?  This is that opportunity, and if I don’t go with them, I may never get another chance.  Paragon doesn’t see me as a real projector.  They’ll never let me in their library.  I can’t be afraid of the horizon.”

The waves washed over Henry’s shoes, soaking his socks.  This is the same place where she showed me projection.  Where she’d taught him everything he knew.

“This is more important than anything else I’ve done in my life.”  Sarah pointed to the sky.  “Look.”

Henry gazed upwards.  A long, flat serpent swam through the air, far above the boat, covered with silver scales and triangular markings.  It had to be fifty feet long, at least, though the distance made it hard to tell.

An Oracle Snake.  They were said to be omens, a sign that something historic was going to happen soon.

That scared Henry even more.

“How long will you be gone?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

She was leaving him all alone again.  And this time, she might not come back.  Sarah and her lessons were the only things keeping him afloat the past few years.  His progress would stagnate, and he’d be trapped on this miserable farm for the rest of his life, in this miserable corner of nowhere in the Principality.

Sarah reached down, clasping Henry’s hand.  “I promise,” she said.  “I will – “

“Don’t,” Henry said.  “Don’t promise.  Don’t make plans for when you get back.”  In the comic books he read, that always guaranteed a terrible fate.  “Just come back,” he said.

Sarah smiled at him.  “Love you.”

When the boat receded in the distance, Henry was already crying again.  Nobody could see, thank the Scholars.

The sun set over the rippling water, and Sarah’s ship sailed towards it, through the orange glow, towards a dense cluster of clouds hanging over the ocean.

Henry whispered a silent prayer to Sarah.  I hope you find nothing.  I hope you come home empty-handed and safe, and that nothing comes of this.  Then he wouldn’t have to cry again.

It was a selfish prayer, one he’d never admit to Sarah out loud.  But he made it anyway.  Even though it was probably futile.

The Oracle Snake flew above them, following the ship’s path, coiling back and forth and reflecting the evening sun off its glistening scales.  A sign that the world was about to change in some great and terrible way.

As it shrunk into the distance, and evening turned into night, Henry knew there would be many more tears to come.

________________________________________

Two years later, Henry finally saw something.

The morning sun hid behind clouds, shining flat grey light over the vegetable farm.  Henry slouched over behind the stall, rubbing his tired eyes.  Not one of the beat-up cars speeding down the road had bought any of his father’s crops today.

The ugly truth was, produce from other islands cost half as much and didn’t taste like sawdust.  The Agricultural Islands were producing more and more of the country’s food supply every day.   The only people who shopped here did so out of pity.  The farm had no future.

Henry glanced to the side.  Something was coming towards them, on the uneven dirt road.  Not a car, a wheelchair.

It moved slow, its old metal wheels creaking.  Its rider was only pushing with one hand, the rest of their limbs hanging limp beneath them.  Their clothes were baggy, rough, and covered in dirt.

When it pulled up to the stall, Henry recognized the woman, beneath her matted turquoise hair.

Sarah.

Ice water ran through Henry’s veins.  It had only been two years, but she looked a decade older, and giant purple bags hung under her eyes, like she hadn’t slept during any of it.

Forget that.  She was back.  Sarah was back.  Henry sprinted over, throwing his arms around her.  She hugged him back with one of her hands.

“Thank you,” said Henry.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  He broke off the hug, excitement slipping into his voice.  “How was it?  Did you find what you were looking for?”

Sarah stared at him, her eyes tired.

“Do you want me to get you anything?” said Henry.  “Tea?  Crackers?  If it’s too cold we can put a fire on inside.”

Sarah held up a piece of paper with a note scribbled on it.

I’m sorry

She pointed to her ears, then her legs and her other arm, all hanging limp.

A wave of nausea washed over Henry.  “What happened?” he whispered.

Sarah pointed to her ears again.

Henry grabbed her notebook and scribbled on a blank page, holding it in his sister’s face.

What happened

Sarah wheeled past him, heading for the farmhouse.

In the next several months, Henry came to realize many things.  His sister was deaf, and paralyzed on three of her limbs.  Her projection was a fraction of what it used to be – barely strong enough to push her wheelchair around and carry out basic tasks with one hand.

Even worse, there were vast gaps in her memory.  She didn’t remember anything about her trip, or her companions, or even how she’d gotten back to Stonebrook.  Other bits had gone missing too.

After consulting dozens of pneumatology books and doing scans on Sarah’s mind, Henry discovered the cause.

The books called it pneumatoma.  A malignant growth of the Pith, like cancer without any cells.  A condition where faulty replication caused soul particles to multiply without stopping, crowding out and taking over the rest of a person’s mind.

The disease had been rare, until around half a century.  Today, tens of thousands got diagnosed a year.  It had cropped up at random all over the Eight Oceans striking men and women, young and old, rich and poor alike.  No one knew the origin.

And there was no cure.  Type I, the most common, just destroyed specific parts of the soul, like motor functions, memory, and the systems used for projection.

Type II, Sarah’s type, didn’t stop.  It would keep growing until she died.

Sarah had eight years at most.  And six months at least.

So Henry kept reading.  He divided his time between working on the farm, caring for Sarah, and obsessively reading every pneumatology book he could get his hands on.  The Great Libraries were off-limits, but there were other means of getting knowledge.

Sleep was rare, but that was to be expected.  He had a job to do.

A thousand dead ends.  A thousand frustrations.  And while Henry studied, Sarah grew worse.

He didn’t reach a breakthrough until late winter, during a cool snowy night.

Sarah sat with him on the beach, under a layer of blankets next to a crackling fire.  Above them, the snowflakes flew aside mid-air, keeping their patch of sand dry.


Henry flipped through the book, memory-stitching its contents into Sarah’s Pith.  She couldn’t hear him, so this was the next best thing to reading it out loud.

Every soul particle contains bits of information,” Henry recited directly into Sarah’s mind.  “These are created by the patterns of smaller fundamental particles, which bond with each other and store tremendous potential energy.

Henry was reminded of his childhood, when Sarah had read stories to him in this exact spot.

But Sarah was struggling with the concepts, basic concepts she’d once taught to him.  She tried some nights, knowing that she had to exercise her Pith.  But most of the time she just nodded along, pretending to understand, confused out of her mind.

Sarah scribbled something in her notebook.

Can we go home

Henry sighed, and nodded.  He flicked his wrist, and the harness around Sarah pulled upwards, lifting her into her wheelchair.  Another snap of his fingers, and a wave of sand dropped over the fire, snuffing it out.

He pushed Sarah back up the beach, projecting into the sand so the wheelchair didn’t sink in.

The road back to their house was dark, lit only by faint moonlight.  The tires on the wheelchair made crunching noises on the fresh snow.  Aside from that, the night was dead silent.

Sarah wrote something in her notebook and held it up to Henry, brushing snowflakes off the paper.

What will you do when I’m gone?

People live a long time with this disease,” Henry memory-stitched, touching her forehead to maintain the connection.  “That won’t happen any time soon.

More scribbling.

Not me

Henry knew what she meant.  As the tumor grew, it would eat her personality, her memories, everything that made her Sarah.

In two years, her consciousness might be alive, but would it be hers anymore?

Another note from Sarah:

Cut me out

What?

Leave Stonebrook.  World outside.  Life to live.

You need me.  Dad needs me.

I don’t want to die.  But it’s too late.

The snow kept falling on them, melting on Henry’s coat and building up on his hair.

Cut me out.  Pain will grow.  Only get worse.

They’d reached the house.  Henry floated her up the steps, taking her inside.

Let’s talk in the morning.

After he’d helped Sarah to bed, Henry pretended to go to sleep, turning off the lights and putting out the fire in the living room.

Then he threw his coat on, striding back out into the cold.   Cut me out.  It was a rubbish suggestion, but it gave him an idea.

The storm had grown more intense, now half a blizzard.  The winds whipped the snow into his face, and he couldn’t see more than a dozen feet ahead.

Still, his projection worked fine.  He cast his Pith around him, straining, scanning for other souls nearby.

After a minute of walking around the farmhouse, he found them: An ice hare, burrowing into the snow and munching on the potato plants below.

Henry projected into the show, picking up the pest and holding it in place in front of him.

A witch can do anything she sets her mind to.

Henry knelt and activated his Vocation.  An orb of blue lightning crackled at the tip of his finger, shining like a lamp in the darkness.  He reshaped it, making it into a thin scalpel.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.  The wind swallowed his words.

Then he shoved it into the hare’s skull.

Henry’s blade phased through the bone, and he felt the soul particles slice beneath the edge, pushed aside in opposite directions.  The animal’s mental energy was being drained too, but that was secondary.  Henry focused on his studies, carving and cutting in specific locations.

After what felt like an eternity, Henry stood up, his work complete, and let go of the hare, dropping the snow.

The hare sat in front of him.  Not running, not biting.  Just breathing.

Henry snapped his fingers in its face.  It flinched.  Then, nothing.

He projected forward, feeling a second flickering cloud, separate from the rabbit’s core Pith.  It puttered out, fading into null particles and dying.

Henry’s breath caught in his throat.  It worked.

Using his Vocation, Henry had cut out the rabbit’s executive function center, like a surgeon amputating a limb.

What else could he cut?

Now, thought Henry.  That might be something.

________________________________________

Eleven months and thirteen days later, Henry was ready.

Pith surgery was still new.  He’d only practiced his Vocation on animals.  And none of them had come down with Pneumatoma.  And he would have liked to use the Synapse to enhance his projection, but the timing wasn’t right, and he didn’t want to wait.

Still, he’d sharpened his technique.  The experiments had worked marvelously.

And he couldn’t afford to wait any longer.

A pneumatoma victim like Sarah could survive up to seven more years, but if the tumor grew further, the permanent wounds would get worse.  The scars to Sarah’s memory, her cognition, her personality would be devastating.

If Henry wanted his sister back, he had to act now.

He’d explained the surgery countless times to his sister, trying to gauge her interest.  Every time, it seemed to slip out of her thoughts, or make her confused.  She never understood the procedure well enough to give informed consent.

Except once.  Three days ago.  She’d had a lucid moment, and launched into a spontaneous lecture about malignant Pneumatoma and its properties.

Then she’d grabbed his arm.  “Save me,” she’d written.  “I’m not afraid of the horizon.

That was enough for Henry.

So he prepared, and seventy-six hours later, poured a powerful anaesthetic into his sister’s evening tea.

Their father was away selling vegetables.  There’d be no interruptions.

Henry lay Sarah down on her bed backwards, so her head was at the foot, and set up the braces he’d prepared around her neck.

Henry ran over the additional Praxis Vocations he’d installed.  Dual Attention.  Hyper-Precision.  Temporal Dilation.  He was as ready as he’d ever be.

The wind blew outside, a high-pitched whistling noise.  Sarah’s alarm clock ticked away.

He inhaled, exhaled, and began.

Two needles of blue lightning flickered on the tips of his fingers, and passed through Sarah’s skull.

Every movement was rehearsed, carried out in fractions of a second.  He had to move fast – the more his Vocation touched Sarah’s Pith, the more energy it’d drain.  If he took too long, he’d kill his sister in the process of saving her.

He began at the edges, in the furthest branches of the tumor.  The needles turned into long strings, slicing around one branch, then another.  With Dual Attention, he could do two at once.

It took him twelve point three eight seconds to finish this part  So far, so good.

Now it was time to cut out the core tumor.  His slicing threads became curved scalpels, able to slice faster.

The moment Henry began, he knew something was wrong.  A wave of energy surged through his veins, many times stronger than before.

No, no, no.  That was too fast.  Far too fast.  At this rate, he’d drain Sarah’s entire Pith within the next ten and a half seconds.  My experiments weren’t like this.

But if he stopped without finishing, that could cause even more damage to her Pith.  It could kill her.  If the tumor was only partially severed, it could spread and become incurable.

Henry activated the Praxis vocation he’d studied, Temporal Dilation.  The world froze around him.  Snowflakes hovered in midair outside the window, appearing to fall a hundred and thirty-one times slower.  His eyes were caught half-open, in the middle of a blink, and his lungs were exhaling so slow they might as well have been still.

Then he tripled his speed, and Sarah’s mind reacted.

The energy drain was accelerating, and in response, Sarah’s Pith was ripping itself to pieces.  It burned away active Soul Particles, turning them into Null Particles, and was using the energy released to keep Sarah alive.

None of the animals did this.  In one way, it was good, because Sarah wasn’t dying as fast.

The problem was, she was losing particles by the billions.

His sister’s Pith, effectively, was aging about five years every second.

Henry heard his heartbeat, turned into a slow, echoing drum by the time dilation.  He felt the sweat under his armpits, the clothes sticking to his skin.

Faster, faster.  Blue, purple, and green electricity crackled around him and Sarah, both their Piths straining at their maximum.  Two small storms lighting up the dim bedroom.  At this speed, Henry could see the individual bolts of lightning stream out from his skin.

A young woman’s voice screamed in Henry’s ear.  Sarah.  It shrieked incoherent jumbles of syllables.

Sarah’s mouth was closed.  It’s coming from her mind.  It grew louder, drilling into his head, drowning out all other noise.

Other voices joined it.  Men and women.  Screaming in Common and Ilaquan and Shenti and languages Henry couldn’t recognize, an overwhelming din of noise filling his mind.

Cut, cut, cut.

Henry made the final slice, cutting off the tumor.  He soaked his Pith into the separated growth, forcing it out of her brain.

The lightning vanished.  The room fell silent, the voices vanishing.  His time dilation flicked off, and the snow started falling again.

A shockwave rippled out from Sarah’s head.  It crashed into Henry, knocking him on his back.  The alarm clock crashed into the wall, ringing on and off.

An orb of green lightning floated above the bed.  It swirled and shrunk, turning a dark shade of grey.

And then, it was gone.

Henry coughed, wiping his mouth as his head throbbed.

The shockwave had shattered the windows in the bedroom, knocked over a bookshelf, and wrecked everything smaller than a person.  It looked like someone had broken into the house.

A chill wind blew through the room, making Henry’s damp clothes feel like ice.

Sarah hadn’t gotten up from the bed.

Henry scrabbled forward and held a finger to the side of her neck.  He felt a faint thumping in the vein.  A pulse.  She was alive, with no physical injuries, as far as he could tell.

Before he let himself exhale, he reached out with his Pith, feeling around her mind.

Sarah’s mind was almost all grey now.  The tumor was gone, but Null Particles were everywhere, choking every part of her soul.

The unaffected parts were faint, sparse.  The parts of her Pith inside her hypothalamus and brainstem, mainly.  Enough to keep her breathing, but not much else.

Sarah was in a vegetative state.  With an effective mind of a hundred-and-fifty-year-old.  It would be a miracle if she lived another seven years.  Two or one was more likely.

And it was all Henry’s fault.

________________________________________

The Stonebrook river crashed beneath Henry, swelling up from the storm.

Raindrops soaked into Henry’s clothes, dripping off his hair and making him shiver.  He sat down on the ledge, gazing into the swirling rapids beneath him.  In the dark, they looked like an abstract painting, a captivating maelstrom of water and rock.

One quick push, and he would be in the water.

His body would wash into the sea and be devoured by all the animals there.  He’d decay and peel apart, just like Mango, his dumb stuffed platypus hippo.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”

A chill wind blew across the grass, and he drew his knees to his chest, shaking.  The icy feeling seeped into his bones.

Not good enough, not good enough, not good enough.  He’d made the situation worse than ever.  The tumor was out, but her life expectancy was cut in half, and her mind was far worse than it would have been.

Sarah had trusted him, and he’d failed.

Henry slung the backpack off his shoulders, unzipped it, and overturned it above the river.  Books dropped out of it, splashing into the rapids one by one.  Pneumatology textbooks, neurology journals, accounts by surgeons and Guardians and Neke War Priests.

The last book slid out of his bag, falling towards the rushing water.

Henry projected into it, stopping it inches above the surface.  Water dripped off its soaked pages.

It was called The Doorway.  The one illegal book he’d procured to study for the operation.  It had been stolen from Level 2 of the Principality’s Great Library and sold through black market vendors in the Shenti city of Dangong, which he’d had to travel to on his own.

It wasn’t a traditional science textbook.  It mixed Pneumatology with excerpts of history from the Great Scholars, what little could be pieced together from the drowned ruins.

It was the most helpful text he’d read by far.  But there were gaps in it.  Pages that had been torn from it and restricted to the higher levels.  High-level Vocations it referred to, but didn’t contain.

It still hadn’t been enough.  He’d still failed.

So why was he giving up?

There were more books in the Great Library.  Vocation codices and ancient tomes he could read if he joined Paragon Academy, got himself to the highest level.

Null Particles were an even more impossible problem than Pneumatoma.  Would-be immortals had been trying to destroy them for centuries, in the hopes of stopping their Piths’ inevitable decay.

But research had stalled in the past few decades.  It had fallen out of popularity, dismissed as an impractical pipe dream.  And it had been on the verge of several breakthroughs.

If he could just stall Sarah’s aging, he could buy himself time to crack the bigger problems, remove the Null Particles and restore her mind.

Epistocrats had a practice called Ousting, where they exiled and replaced children and young adults that didn’t live up to their family’s standards of intelligence.  If Henry did that, he could get access to higher levels in time.

It would be difficult, complicated.  And he’d have to take another person’s body, name, life, for as long as it took.  The mere thought of that felt wrong.

Disgust bubbled up inside Henry’s stomach.  What if you fail again?  He would have hurt more people, destroyed more lives in his hubris.  All for nothing.

Would Henry be a monster for continuing his project?  Or a fool?

But there was no other way to undo his mistake.  Nothing he could think of.

A witch can do anything she sets her mind to.  That wasn’t always true, but it could be.

The boy stood up in the rain and darkness.  Thunder roared in the distance.

Henry didn’t cry.

________________________________________

Someone had written in Tasia’s notebook.

The words matched her handwriting and the color of her pen.  It looked like she’d scribbled inane baking recipes in the margins of her tactics notes.

But Tasia hadn’t written any of them.

When she’d first noticed them, they’d reminded her of Kaplen, which sent her into a spiral of despair and self-loathing for the rest of the afternoon.  The stupidest things set her off these days.

Of course, she still did all her work.  If she let the festering memories paralyze her, she’d fall behind in her Null Particle research.  Or worse, her grades would drop, and Admiral Ebbridge would find someone else to replace her.

But the mysterious recipes had stuck in her head, stupid though they were.

So when Tasia was done with the day’s work, she curled up in her dorm room and ran the recipes through the only decryption vocation she’d installed in her mind – Pirate-AB.  The algorithms were near-impossible to learn.

The Praxis vocation spat out a mangled hash of characters, plus a request for a key:

The name of your favorite drowned animal

Tasia felt a pit in her stomach.  She put down her lunch of boiled tofu skins.  How do they know?

Tasia inputted the word “Mango” and crawled into bed for a nap.  When she woke up, the system spat out a message into her consciousness:

2 26
2AM
WULSI PIER
I CAN HELP YOU
COME ALONE OR WE’LL ALL DIE

The pit in Tasia’s stomach grew, like a sinkhole opening up in her abdomen.

In addition to the time three days from now, the language was very specific.  Not “you’ll die” or “I’ll die” or even “we’ll both die”.

We’ll all die.

It could be a trap.  Paragon students were targets, particularly from Commonplace and the Mob.

But how did they know about her stuffed animal?  Any person could run a background check, but only Sarah knew the name of her platypus hippo.

Whoever sent Tasia this message either knew Sarah well, or had a mountain of resources available to them.

Should I send this to Admiral Ebbridge?

The rules were clear.  Anything remotely suspicious like this needed to be reported.  And if she went in alone, she could get killed or worse.

But if she told Professor Brin in counterintelligence or her adopted mother, this opportunity could vanish forever.

And it was an opportunity, no mistake.  If the messenger knew this much about Tasia, then they had to know what she wanted.  That she’d been getting four hours of sleep a night for months, reading Pneumatology texts at three in the morning.

They might even know how stumped Tasia was.

She’d known it’d be difficult going in, but the problem of Null Particles was bigger than Tasia could have imagined.  In fact, as some of the high-level history texts suggested, Null Particles might have even been involved with the drowning of the Great Scholars, and the vanishing of the stars.

And every moment Tasia wasn’t moving forward, she felt worse.

The name, the body, the life she was inhabiting didn’t belong to her.  ‘Tasia’ felt right.  And inhabiting a woman’s body was less uncomfortable than she expected.

But still, every time someone called her “Nell” or she looked in the mirror, she was reminded that she was a thief.

Tasia didn’t belong in Paragon Academy, no matter how pretty it was or how many books there were to read.  She belonged out in the world, in a body that was truly hers, searching for the truth with Sarah.

Not cooped up inside this pressure cooker of a school, listening to students giggle at her behind her back.  Kaplen had been one of the few bright spots, a person who made Tasia feel welcome.

But she couldn’t save him.

Images flashed through her mind.  Kaplen lying on his bed, fixing Tasia with a dead stare, asking her to leave.  Where’s Lyna?  Then seeing him again hours later, covered in vomit and blood, his mouth hanging open.  And the thick stench that filled his room, like rotten eggs and maggoty beef.

No, no, don’t think of that.  She’d get stuck on a loop, reliving the worst parts over and over.  She had to think of something else.

Come alone, or we’ll all die.

She couldn’t risk losing everything.  There was too much riding on this position, on her high-level library card.  If the messenger had information, Tasia could find out after they were arrested.

A chill wind blew across the bridge to the Great Library, shaking Tasia out of her thoughts.  She speed-walked forward, avoiding eye contact with students she passed.  In the distance, a war zeppelin patrolled the air around Elmidde.

Layers of snow buried the grass on the Grand Pavilion.  Tasia trudged through, projecting the water out of her socks so her feet wouldn’t get cold.

Halfway across, she found Ernest Chapman.  He was sitting on a bench at the corner of the lawn, wedged between the banquet hall and one of the class buildings.

Tasia walked up and hugged him.  When she broke off, her chest tightened.

Ernest was injured.  Two of his fingers were turned a sickening grey, bent back and stiff.  And there were tiny cuts on the backs of his wrist, along with bruises on his collarbone and scratches on his scalp beneath his ragged grey hair.  He’d moved his clothes to cover most of them, but Tasia could still see.

“You’re hurt,” Tasia said, examining his hand.

Ernest avoided eye contact with her.  “My body’s still throwing up curveballs.  I had a seizure the other day while I was walking.”

“It’s decaying more, isn’t it?”

The Ebbridge family is still in debt.  And Tasia’s body double was owned by Admiral Ebbridge, who wouldn’t approve of her new daughter gifting it to a lowly Grey Coat.

“Lorne ordered me to cut off contact with you,” said Ernest, staring at the ground.  “We can’t be seen together.”

“Chimera Squad doesn’t like me fraternizing with the enemy either,” said Tasia.  Especially not Eliya.  “But I don’t care.”  She clasped Ernest’s good hand.  “We need to protect each other.”  

“You can afford to anger your squad,” muttered Ernest.  “I can’t.  One word from Lorne and I’m gone.”  He clenched his fists.  “I just dumped rotten sandwich meat onto a person’s bed.  And last week, I set fire to a whole squad’s homework assignment.”  He closed his eyes.  “They failed it.  I saw one of them cry after class.”

If he doesn’t comply, Lorne will fire him.

“You always have a choice,” said Tasia.  Please don’t leave me.

“You don’t understand,” said Ernest.  “You’re the prodigy.  You get better grades than everyone I know, even Lorne, and you’re not even spending most of your time on classwork.”

“I had a good teacher.”

“Your position at Paragon is secure.  You’re not at risk of getting expelled.”

“I Ousted someone,” said Tasia.  “Just last summer.  I haven’t even been here a year.  My position is anything but secure.  If I screw up, the admiral will find someone else.”

“Then why did you put yourself at her mercy?  You could have applied through the entrance exam.  You could have become a normal student.”  Ernest closed his eyes.  How long has he wanted to ask me this?  “Why did you need to Oust someone, Tasia?  Why did you have to take someone’s body?”

“Let’s talk somewhere private,” she said.

________________________________________

Tasia sipped tea from her mug.

“This is a Shenti bakery,” she said.  “It lost a lot of business after the war, so it’s not very popular these days.  We won’t run into any Paragon students here.”

Ernest hunched over at the other end, staring at the bakery’s shelves of sweet buns, pastries, and sponge cakes with longing in his eyes.

“Leizu’s Shenti,” said Ernest.

“And she gets her comfort food from the other side of Gestalt Island,” said Tasia.  “You asked me why I Ousted my predecessor, yes?”

Ernest nodded.

“Are you sure you want to know?  Even if it’s uncomfortable?”  Even if it makes you hate me?

Ernest nodded again.

Tasia explained everything.  From Carter and the bullies, to her sister’s voyage, to Pneumatoma and her ‘cure’.  Every detail except the message she’d just received.  It was exhausting, but liberating to share it all, like the relief you felt after a long run.

“That’s why I Ousted her,” Tasia said.  “Nell.”  She smoothed her skirt with her palms.  No, not my skirt.  “And I’ll only keep this body for as long as I have to.”  She sighed.  “It’s hard.  Night after night, I get these dreams, of falling through a black void, reaching for a light that…”  She trailed off.

Ernest got a heavy look on his face.  “The person you Ousted.  The former Nell Ebbridge, do you think that – “

The front door swung open.

“Ah,” a girl’s voice said.  “The thickheaded bully and the imposter.”

Eliya Brin strode into the bar, her platinum blonde hair flowing around her.  Light streamed in through the windows behind her, silhouetting her in her ice blue dress.  A white eyepatch covered her right eye, still elegant after her injury.

“I figured you were going to meet him.”  She stood over the two of them.  “But not in this dump.“

“You followed me?” Tasia said.

“But I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, coming from you, Henry.”

Tasia choked, staring at the floor and shrinking away from Eliya.  She knows my birth name?  Had Eliya ran a background check on her?

Breathe.  Don’t show weakness.  Tasia froze her expression, speaking in a patient, calm voice.  “How can I help you?”

“You can’t talk with the Grey Freak,” said Eliya.  “He threw rotten meat onto Helena Knight’s bed.  He almost made Centaur Squad fail Tactics.”

“That’s Lorne’s fault, not his,” said Tasia.

 “And Lorne’s probably using him to mine information out of you.”  Eliya stared at Tasia.  “He bullied me.  And you’re friends with him.  It’s insulting.”  She didn’t even look at Ernest.

“Ernest is my friend,” said Tasia.

“He’s a henchman.  And, despite his giant head, he’s barely smart enough to be a grey coat.  The more time you spend with him, the more everyone else will reject you.”

Tasia slouched over, sinking further into her seat.

“You care about Chimera Squad?  Prove it.  If you don’t cut each other off, I’ll tell Lorne you two are meeting.”

Ernest could lose his position.  Get kicked out of Paragon for good.

Ernest shrunk back further.  “N – no,” he stuttered.

“Excuse me?”  She turned her one-eyed glare towards him.

“No, I won’t stop seeing her.”

Eliya will do it.  The girl didn’t make empty threats.

In the long term, Ernest could make other friends, find other people who accepted him.  But if he got expelled, he’d be on a blacklist forever.

“He doesn’t mean it,” blurted out Tasia.  “We can stop seeing each other.  Please, Eliya.  We’ll stop.“  She implored Eliya with her eyes.

“Apologize, then,” said Eliya.

“For what?”

“You knew how the squad felt about this, and you did it anyway.”

Carter’s face flashed through Tasia’s mind, and she heard the Stonebrook river rushing beneath her.

Leave us alone, thought Tasia.  Please, just leave us alone.

Only, there was no Sarah to save her this time.  The bully was an experienced projector, not a petty Humdrum.

“Apologize,” said Eliya.

She wanted obedience from Tasia, just like Carter.  Just like her father and Admiral Ebbridge.

At the end of the day, this world wasn’t that different from the world of the Humdrums.

Tasia stood up, and looked Eliya in the eye.

“If you tell anyone about this,” she said.  “I’ll throw every single squad battle with your team.  I’ll rip off my armband, sabotage our efforts, and we’ll lose all of them.”

“You’re bluffing,” hissed Eliya.  “We’ll drop in the standings.  Your tactics grade will tank.”

“Um,” said Tasia.  “I’m getting near-perfect scores in all my classes.   I can afford to do bad in one of them.”  She took a deep breath.  “Can you?”

“Fuck you.”

“We’re not conspiring together,” Tasia said.  “We’re just friends.”

Eliya’s eyes darted back and forth between Tasia and Ernest.  Finally, she turned around and strode out the door.

On impulse, Tasia hugged Ernest, pulling him close.  Ernest hugged her back.

“You should have bent to her,” she said.  “You should have just agreed with her and cut me off.”

“Yes,” said Ernest.  “But I didn’t.”

“Let’s set a regular meeting time,” she murmured.  “Somewhere they won’t look for us.”  She leaned in.  “I’m going to teach you everything there is to know about being a witch.”

Three days later, when she returned to her dorm, a bright green plush was sitting on her bed.  A platypus hippo, with a note next to it.

Write the next page
Let’s make her proud
– E

Tasia hugged the hippo close to her.  Thank you, Ernest.

He’d taken a risk for her.  He’d put his future at Paragon on the line for the sake of their friendship.

Tasia could take a risk too.

She checked her internal clock.  9:51.  Good, it wasn’t too late.

She had a meeting to get to.

________________________________________

Tasia strode down the dark ramp.  At high tide, Wulsi Pier sat several feet underwater, thanks to the recent sea level rise.

Empty buildings and faded signs dotted the boardwalk.  Fifty years ago, it had been a popular tourist spot.  Restaurants, food stalls, and novelty shops had been packed onto its wooden slats.

All empty now.  All silent, save for the sound of waves lapping against the shore.  Tasia couldn’t see anyone nearby, and had done a quick sweep of the area for witnesses.

As expected, she couldn’t find a soul.  Nobody visited this part of town anymore.  Downtown had become Lowtown.

Tasia squinted in the faint moonlight.  A man sat at the far end of the pier, his feet hanging off the edge.  In his position, the water went up to his collarbone.  He faced away from Tasia, gazing at the ocean.

Tasia strode onto the pier.  Her internal clock struck two AM.  Just in time.

She walked on top of the dark water, her footsteps rippling out.

The man stood up and turned to face her, his legs sloshing through the water.  One of his arms was missing, just an empty sleeve hanging below his shoulder.  His face was covered in scars, bruises, and yellow stubble, but Tasia still recognized him.

Gamel.  The man who’d led the expedition, who’d taken her sister into the darkness.

“Long time no see, kid.”  His voice was still hoarse.  “You look a bit different.  You’ve grown out your hair, haven’t you?”

Despite the freezing air, Tasia’s neck felt hot.  “What happened to Sarah?” she muttered.  “How are you still here?”

The man didn’t answer right away.  Tasia felt around with her Pith.

Objects floated around the man, filled with his Pith.  Invisible objects.  They felt like long ropes.

Some of them floated above Tasia too, waiting to strike.

An ambush?

Tasia made a split-second decision.

In a quarter second, she summoned an orb around her fist and flung it at Gamel’s chest.

The man rolled forward, splashing through the water and dodging the projectile.  As he did, she made a second orb and threw it at his back.

Gamel pushed off with his hands, rolling sideways, avoiding the second orb without even watching.

Something cold wrapped around Tasia’s ankles and yanked her up, smacking her face into the water.  An invisible chain.  It wrapped around her arms, pinning them to her sides.

And then she was in the air, upside down, and Gamel was holding an invisible knife to her throat.  The edge touched her skin, drawing blood.

Tasia summoned her Vocation to push the man’s Pith out, but it wasn’t there.  He was projecting into the ends of the chains, pulling them taut to hold her in place.  The same trick the former Nell Ebbridge had almost beat her with.

“I survived,” he hissed.  “Because I saw the writing on the wall.  I ran, while your noble, perfect sister convinced the others to stay.”  He spat.  “If Sarah wasn’t so inspiring, maybe she’d be here with you.”

Tasia squeezed her eyes shut.  It should have been you.  “Coward,” she muttered.

The icy chains tightened, digging into the skin on her ankles.  “Maybe,” he said.  “But I’m alive.  And that’s not why I’m here.“

“I – I won’t give you anything,” said Tasia.  “I won’t let you use me against Paragon.”

“I don’t give a shit about Paragon,” said Gamel.  “If you want to hug the bomb as the fuse burns down, that’s your business.  But there are more important problems.”

“What do you know?”

He continued, ignoring her.  “You’re too clever for your own good, bookworm.  I know you’re researching how to remove Null Particles.”

“What are you talking about?”  Don’t give him any information.

“I don’t care about your deflections,” he hissed.  “The Great Scholars researched them too.  At the height of their civilization.  That’s what we found out.”

“And they failed,” said Tasia.  “That’s why they all died.”

“No,” said Gamel.  “Billions of people drowned, yes.  But not because they failed.  Because they succeeded.  They discovered something that tore the world open, that let in eight oceans and wiped out the heavens.”

The water lapped around Gamel’s knees.  Above Tasia, the two moons shone overhead, glaring into her eyes.

“You,” said Gamel, “need to stop.  For all our sakes.”

Tasia shook her head.  “No,” she said.  Knowledge wasn’t the problem, it was the application.  The abuse.  She just had to get smarter.  Work harder.  “You’re lying.”

Gamel reached into his coat pocket and extended a beat-up book towards her, flipping it open.

The handwriting and more importantly, the phrasing, were unmistakable.  Sarah wrote that.

Gamel glanced out at the dark, endless ocean.  “Whatever killed the Great Scholars is alive,” he said.  “And it’s watching us.  The water is rising, and you’re endangering us all.  If your sister was still herself, she’d say the same thing.”

“She is still herself,” Tasia forced out.  “She’s just – forgotten.”  And she can remember again.   “She believed in exploring the unknown, not cowering away in fear of the horizon.”

“She believed in helping people,” Gamel said.  “How many more lives do you have to destroy before you see that?”

Tasia’s stomach wrenched.  He’s manipulating me.  But a person could be manipulative and right at the same time.

“Anyone could be wearing that body,” she choked out, the blood building in her forehead.  “How do I know you’re the real Gamel?  How can I trust anything you say?”

“You’ll figure something out,” he said.  “A witch can do anything she sets her mind to.”

A flat, silver Oracle Snake flew overhead, winding back and forth in the black sky.

Three years ago, another Oracle Snake flew above Sarah’s ship as it sailed away from Stonebrook.

Mango, the stuffed platypus hippo fell into the river, sinking, sinking, disappearing.

A grain of sand hovered before Henry, as Sarah recited a familiar tale.  This is the story of Tasia the Explorer.

Henry stabbed a needle of lightning into Sarah’s skull, beginning the operation.

He threw a Pith-orb at the staggering Nell Ebbridge, a crackling piece of his soul, knocking her out and taking her place in the family.  Henry’s world closed.  Tasia’s world opened.

Kaplen Ingolf extended his hand towards her, beaming.  Write the next page.  Ernest Chapman did the same.

What had it all been for?  What was the purpose of all those years, all the weight she’d carried?

It had to be for something.

The problem of Null Particles wasn’t impossible, or immoral.  It had just gotten more complicated.

Gamel’s voice snapped her back to the present.  “You’ve survived a great deal,” he said.  “But the world’s a lot bigger than you are, bookworm.”

He doesn’t know everything.  If he’d met Sarah, he could guess at her research subject.  He’d probably written in her notebook while she was in some public place, tailing her and sending a secret message.

But Gamel couldn’t get into Paragon.  He couldn’t get through security, or the deceleration field, even with light projection and invisibility.

With the right precautions, he’d have no way of spying on her.  No way of knowing whether she’d stopped.

“Alright,” lied Tasia.  “I’ll stop my research.  If you give me Sarah’s notebook.  I need to know what happened to my sister.”

He nodded.

She had so much work to do.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



6-E The Bombmaker

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

I had to save Ana.

Scholars, it was a stupid idea.  One of the many I’d had since joining Queen Sulphur.  My squadmates, tactics professors, and mother would all have yelled at me to get my head out of my ass and realize the basic facts.

I could hear Eliya’s voice in my head, blonde and perfect and chastising.  The grey bitch hates you, she said.  Maybe it’s justified, maybe not.  But riding out of the sunset and saving her life isn’t going to magically make her trust you again.  And if you try and rescue her neurotic ass, you’re probably going to get shot in the spine and drown in medical debt for the rest of your life from a wheelchair while you fold your stupid origami and drink away your untreated chronic pain.

Also, the Eliya-voice added, she chopped off my hands, so fuck her.

Shut up Eliya, I said.  Why did she always have to be right?  Scholars, I missed her.

But if we didn’t deal with this Shenti sniper bastard, I’d be dead or worse anyways.  The only way out was through.  So in a way, saving Ana was the best way to help myself.

A pair of mortar explosions shocked me out of my stupor, and I jerked my head down.  I blinked, crouching behind a metal shipping container with the Rose Titan and the white phosphorus projector in the asbestos suit.  The ground shook, and dust rained down on us from above.

“I have a plan!” I shouted over my ringing ears.  “I have a hint of an idea of a plan!”

“Great!” said the Rose Titan.  She lifted her hands, deflecting another pair of mortar rounds.  They exploded off to the side, reducing a stack of wooden crates to splinters.  “Let’s hear it!”

Another pair of mortars hit the crate just next to us, blowing it up.  The asbestos-armored man lifted his palms, and chunks of shrapnel froze in the air before they hit us.

The sniper’s starting to target the cover around us.  The Shenti bastard was trying to isolate us.  Without the crates nearby, we’d be trapped.  Pinned down.

I coughed from the smoke, doubling over.  “I’ll need to explain it fast,” I said.  “I’m guessing the enemy can read my lips, and the moment I’m done, he’ll start countering us.”

“He moves slow,” said the white phosphorus man, the Shenti man.  “We should stay here and trust in our comrades on the inside.  I know the older one in that group, and he’s formidable in close combat.  They call him ‘The Boiler’.“

“Well, I know the illusionist and the cocky Ilaquans,” I said.  “And there’s no time.  Close range won’t matter against a sniper.”

“He’s right,” said the Rose Titan.

“Trust me,” I said, deadpan.  “I play a lot of board games.”

It took me about thirty seconds to explain my plan.

Then we moved.

The two ends of the metal container ripped off.  The four remaining sides tore and bent in on themselves, forming a rectangular metal shield twenty feet wide and eight feet tall.

First, we moved back to deposit the white phosphorus man behind a separate piece of cover.  For the rest of the fight, he would peek his head out at random intervals, from random locations, for a second at a time.

This way, he’d see the battlefield while minimizing his risk.  His metal projection was strong enough to fend off mortar fire for a few minutes.

Then, the Rose Titan and I charged up the hill, using the flattened shipping container to protect us from the gunfire.  Direct projection couldn’t stop a Voidsteel bullet, but a thick enough shield could, if you held it in front of you.  We bent half of it at an angle, protecting us from above as well.

It wouldn’t stop mortar fire, or an anti-tank round, but anything less than that, and it’d bounce right off.

Of course, such a tactic was obvious.  It was one of the textbook strategies Paragon taught us to deal with Voidsteel snipers.

The key problem was visibility.  The shield blocked your vision.

If the sniper was a Humdrum, unable to move much, you could advance without a problem.  But if the sniper could project, move around, they could flank around you and shoot you full of holes.

A glowing yellow projectile sailed over our heads, landing towards our one-o’-clock.  The Rose Titan rotated our barrier to the right, and we kept sprinting forward, leaping over bodies and weaving around patches of burning grass.

We didn’t know where the sniper was, but the Shenti man could.  Every time he poked his head out, he shot a white phosphorus projectile at the sniper.  It acted as a flare, giving us the enemy’s exact location.

I swirled a thick storm of paper in front of our shield.  A pair of mortar rounds flew at us from above, and the Rose Titan flicked her wrist, knocking them aside.

I felt another pair of mortars fly through the edge of my paper storm, this time aiming for our barrier at a flat angle.  He’s trying to blow up our cover.

I willed the paper in front of us to harden, to stay in its place and not be pushed aside.

The mortars collided with sheets of paper and blew up.

The boom made me double over, clutching my ears.  My paper scattered in all directions, and our metal shield clanged, rattling from the impact.

But it held.  It didn’t break.

I gathered the burnt scraps of paper, making a storm again.  And we continued.

Gunshots rang out at the top of the hill.  The sniper’s shooting at white phosphorus guy.

My feet stumbled, and I fell forward against our metal shield.  If I step in a gopher hole, I’m going to break my leg.  I panted, my lungs on fire.

Halfway up the hill, the gunshots stopped.  The only sounds I could hear were my loud, wheezing breaths and the soft thumps of my shoes on the grassy hill.

A pair of white phosphorus projectiles soared straight into the air behind us, not aimed at any target.  The signal.  The sniper retreated.  As expected – with our position, he didn’t have much of a choice.

Gunshots rang out in the distance, deep into the complex.  What’s going on up there?  We had to move fast.

We reached the top of the hill, and I felt around with my paper, feeling nothing except corpses and buildings.  “I think we’re clear,” I muttered.

The Rose Titan nodded, and made a gesture with her hand.

The Shenti man emerged from his hiding place.  He flew forward up the hill, projecting into his asbestos suit, zig-zagging in a random pattern to avoid the target’s gunshots.

Twenty feet from us, a bullet punched through his hip, spraying blood onto the blackened grass.

The man roared in pain and crashed into our makeshift barrier.  He collapsed, clutching the wound.

Bloody scholars.  That shot had come from above, hitting him almost vertically.  The Shenti sniper would have had to aim the bullet almost straight up to hit at an angle like that.  And he’d predicted the man’s movements too.  How good is this bastard’s aim?

The white phosphorus man groaned, the grass stained red beneath him.  The Rose Titan turned to him, her voice soft.  “How does it look?”

“Manageable,” he said through clenched teeth.  “I’ll bleed out in half an hour, maybe.  Just need to find a replacement.”  

“We’re screwed if we go through the buildings,” I said.  “We can’t see him, and he can ambush us.”

“They’re made of wood,” said the Rose Titan, “aren’t they?”

We set up the fire in a semicircle around the outside of the complex.  Green lightning flickered around the Shenti man as bursts of white phosphorus shot out of his hands.

While he set fire to the buildings, I wrapped his leg in strips of ripped-off clothing, applying pressure to the gunshot wound on his hip.  He coughed, lying on his side.

Within a few minutes, the wind had whipped up his flames into a thick wall of fire, spreading towards the center of the complex.  The scent of smoke filled the air, and I could feel the heat on my face.

We took a path around the outside of the complex, staying away from the fire.  We held the piece of metal cover in front of us, feeling our way forward using my paper projection.  I didn’t feel anyone, or see any people when I poked my head out.

It was like the whole facility had emptied.

By the time we made it to the far side of the island, most of the complex was burning.  Orange flames licked the sides of the wooden buildings, and blackened roofs collapsed.  Thick clouds of smoke hung in the air above the island, and sweat soaked the armpits of my shirt.

Gunshots and low booms rang out in the distance.  They’re still fighting.  Our allies weren’t dead yet.

As we approached the last buildings in the area, a man and a woman stumbled out of a burning house, green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.

As they raised pistols towards us, the Rose Titan’s spear lashed out.  The rosevine uncurled from the shaft, whipping forward.

The two Green Hands fell to the ground, unconscious.  The Rose Titan stepped over to them, knelt beside them, and touched her palms to their foreheads.  She closed her eyes, her chest rising and falling.

She opened her eyes and pointed at the man.  “That one.”

The bleeding Shenti man dragged himself over next to the sleeping man and grabbed his wrist.  Green and white lightning crackled around the space where their skin touched, and the Shenti man went limp.

The male Green Hands stood up, examining his body.  “No time to switch my suit, but it’ll do.”  Forced transference.  Now the Green Hands’ Pith was stuck in the body that was bleeding out.

“Wish we didn’t have to do this,” muttered the Rose Titan.  She touched her palm to the woman’s forehead.

She’s using her Vocation to enter the Green Hands’ dreams.  The same thing she’d done to me the night we met.

The Rose Titan stood back up.  “She talked,” she said.  “We’re fighting a Praxis specialist who goes by the name ‘Pictogram’.”

Odd name for a sniper.

“He is using an M511,” she continued, “and he only has three or four voidsteel bullets left.  But his Vocation is – “  She pursed her lips.  “Well, it’s complicated, but we can assume he can always see us and hit us with perfect aim and timing.”

“Anything new?” asked the white phosphorus man.

“Here’s the big thing.”  The Rose Titan beamed.  “He’s not a Shenti Commando.  His joining is terrible.  The only things that he’s really enhanced are his eyes.  He’s not faster, stronger, or more durable than an ordinary human.  He’s – “

“Vulnerable,” I finished.  To normal bullets, fire, and paper cuts.  If we cornered him, he’d be toast.

The buildings around us grew more sparse, and we went up another hill.  Behind us, almost the entire complex was burning.  The flames stretched as far as I could see, a carpet of glowing orange and yellow, spewing smog into the air and dimming the light from the morning sun.  The smoke stung my eyes, making me cough.

I glanced out of our cover.  We were approaching a narrow chasm cutting off the end of the island.  On the other side, a hill extended further up with a single building on top.

Pictogram stood between us and the ravine, holding a pistol in his hand.  A pair of sniper rifles floated next to his head, and at least a dozen mortars were set up in a line in front of him.  A rushing river stood between him and us, cutting the hill in half and sinking into the ravine.

“Same setup as last time,” said the Rose Titan.  The white phosphorus guy, now in a new body, took cover behind one of the few buildings that hadn’t burned down yet.

At the same time, The Rose Titan and I ran towards Pictogram with our metal cover, down the shore of the river, getting closer and closer.

A dull boom echoed ahead of us.

Black smoke ballooned out from the chasm where the splintered remains of a wooden bridge sat.  It billowed out in a thick cloud, growing bigger and bigger, surrounding the building at the top of the hill.  Its movements looked strange, unnatural, like a tidal wave in slow motion.

Around the edges of the gas, Green Hand staggered out, slumping over.  Unconscious or dead?  The black smoke swallowed them all.

I glanced out again.  The smoke had formed a wall behind Pictogram, spreading towards us.  The sniper stepped forward, floating the mortars next to him, staying out of its range.

I spread out the paper in front of us, straining my Pith.  The storm surrounded Pictogram in a semicircle, making a barrier between him and us, a second wall pushing him back towards the smoke.  Both of us knew he couldn’t harden his skin against paper cuts.

Pictogram stood just a little out of my range – I could stretch my Pith out further to cut him, but I’d tire myself out fast.

Explosions rang out ahead of us, the sound of mortars firing.  I felt several of them hit my paper shields, and they blew up, scattering my barriers and shaking our metal barrier.  The Rose Titan whipped her hands around, and more flew to the side, exploding far away from us.

The metal clanged, and a deafening explosion blew me back.  I staggered back, my ears ringing.  A hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me down, slamming me to the ground.

As I fell, a burning sensation streaked across my cheek, like someone had laid a hot poker across my face.  Warm blood trickled down the side of my face, and I yelled out in pain.

Above us, a jagged hole had been blown in our metal cover.  One of the mortars got through.

I kept my paper moving, gathering it again to block Pictogram from moving forward.

I touched the burning line drawn across my cheek, and recoiled from the stinging pain.  A bullet wound.  It had only grazed me, thanks to the Rose Titan and her reflexes.  Pictogram had timed his shot perfectly, so the bullet flew through the hole an instant after it was made.

I turned to look at the Rose Titan.

Blood poured down the side of her neck, drenching her clothes.  She lay down on her side, taking deep breaths, and grabbed my wrist with a bloody hand.

“Voidsteel,” she wheezed.  “No nerves hit.  My Pith’s intact.  Need a new body.”  She collapsed, putting pressure on the side of her neck.  The blood tightened and sealed over her wound, stopping the bleeding with water projection.  She gasped for breath, coughing.  Blood in her throat?

A mortar exploded next to the white phosphorus man, tossing him to the side.  He lay on the grass, not getting up.

That’s two more bullets down.  Just one or two left.

But the Rose Titan was injured.  The white phosphorus man was unconscious at best.

Around the side of our cover, the black smoke grew further, getting closer to us.

A red-haired woman staggered out of the far end, and unlike the others, she didn’t collapse.  Instead, she stumbled towards the boats, wobbling back and forth like a drunkard.

Her black hair looked familiar.  Is that Clementine Rawlyn?

Pictogram was stuck between my paper and the expanding cloud of gas.  If he ran forward, I’d cut him.  If he ran backward or stayed where he was, he’d get taken out by the black smoke.  At last glance, he was out of mortar ammunition too.

I peeked out of the metal cover for a moment.

Pictogram aimed straight up and fired.  He ran to the side, dropping his weapons and covering his face with his coat.

As he passed through my paper storm, I hardened the sheets and sliced his skin, cutting his hands, his ankles, and his wrists before he ran out of range, headed for the boats.

That shot was meant for someone inside the gas.  Someone he couldn’t get a normal angle on.  Which meant the smoke was nonlethal.  It would take the bullet anywhere from twenty to sixty seconds to fall back down.

But he might have one shot left.  His retreat could be a trap.  If I left the cover, Pictogram could headshot me before I could blink.  Or he could have guessed I had no ABD, and could get me with a normal bullet.

Five seconds passed.  Ten.  Fifteen.  The fires crackled behind us, filling the air with smoke.  Blood dripped off the edge of my chin.

I stood up and sprinted forward, towards the river.  Stretching out my Pith, I projected into the water beneath me, hardening it under my feet.

A water walk.  I’m doing it.  My feet bounded across the surface, sending out ripples.  Green lightning crackled around my ankles, and a stabbing headache exploded in my skull.

A second before I entered the smoke, I sucked in a deep breath and pressed my lips shut.

I stretched my Pith forward, feeling around me.  The headache tripled, and the green lightning expanded into a miniature storm.  A lot of people had been knocked into the chasm, and I felt the wood and metal in their weapons and equipment.

Are Ana and Hira among them?  The only sense I could use was my projection.  Both of Hira’s bodies had flat hip flasks at their waists.  Ana would have her suppressed machine pistol and her cattle prod.

For the second time today, I felt the burning pressure in my lungs building, and felt the exponential desire to exhale.  I was already out of breath before I started running, and this was a hundred times worse.

I swept my Pith left and right, feeling guns and stocks and flashlights.  How many Green Hands got knocked down here?  It felt like a tornado of pressure was building inside my chest.  Still no sign of Ana or Hira.

I ran down the edge of the ravine, feeling more and more bodies at the bottom.  The movement tripled the agony inside my lungs, and I exhaled.  I clamped a hand over my mouth before I could inhale the gas, my chest screaming.  Are they still alive?  Was I looking in the wrong place?

I felt a hip flask.  Then Ana’s machine pistol.

I projected next to them, feeling the stocks of a rifle and shotgun.  I pressed the guns up against them, parallel to their bodies, and pushed.

The headache went beyond anything I’d experienced.  It felt as if my skull were cracking at the edges, that a thousand bone saws were cutting into it from a thousand angles.

Their bodies shifted to the side, rolling over.  They’re out of the bullet’s path now.

Then my lungs sucked in a breath.  The black smoke smelled sweet, like a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The world spun around me, going blurry, and I fell onto the grass at the edge of the ravine.

My arms and shoulders relaxed, the tension dissolving away.  I drifted away from reality, carrying a single thought into the ether.

I hope I did enough, Ana.

________________________________________

Waves crashed against the beach, a soft, comforting sound.

A chill wind blew across my skin, and my eyes fluttered open.

The sun shone overhead, well into the late morning.  I pushed myself to a sitting position, hands sinking into the sand around me.

A tall woman, the white phosphorus man, the two Hiras, and Ana sat next to me on the crimson beach.  Another man leaned against the cliff, with his hands bound and a bag thrown over his head.

It was high tide now, and the waves were washing almost to the cliffs.  The air still smelled like burning wood.

Right-Hira yawned, stretching his arms, waking up next to me.  “Did it work?” he said.

“What?” I mumbled, massaging my forehead.

“Jun’s black knockout gas, did it work?  He fixed the bomb and we blew it up in the chasm to knock everyone out.”

“Wait,” I said, “Jun Kuang?  The bombmaker?”  I glanced at the bound man off to the side.  They didn’t kill him.

“Yup,” said the tall woman.  “Then I switched to a new body and pulled you all out before the fire spread.”  The Rose Titan, in a stolen body.  “But Pictogram and that woman Clementine got away.  And we lost three.”

The Humdrum, the mortar woman, the bald man who boiled people.  And how many Green Hands had we killed?  Burnt or shot or blown up or thrown to the bottom of a ravine.

“Still,” said the white phosphorus man.  “We won.  The Titan and I have to get new bodies, and I don’t even know who this fucker is, but we won.”

Right-Hira leaned back against the cliff face, letting out a contented sigh.  “Well, that was fun.”  He lit a cigarette.  “Let’s do that again sometime.”

“We lost three people,” said the man.  “I knew two of them.  Don’t be a prick.”

Hira shrugged.  “Hard to get weepy over a bunch of strangers who wouldn’t even tell me their name, Mr. White Phosphorus.”

“That was a Shenti boat,” I said.  “And probably Shenti weapons.  A Shenti bombmaker.  And we just fought a Shenti joiner.  Does that all mean what I think it does?”

“The Shenti are funding Commonplace,” said the Rose Titan.

Nobody spoke for a moment.  The waves washed against my feet, making my heels damp.

The Shenti War had only ended around a decade ago, but they still felt like a mythical enemy, an ancient nightmare brought to life by the Black Tortoise that brought the world to its knees.  A foreign government on the other side of the ocean, responsible for the largest war in history, was trying to take over the country.

“She’s right,” said the white phosphorus man.  A Shenti man, though not in his current body.  “I recognized those weapons.”

I sat forward.  “Propaganda from the Broadcast King.  Money and guns from the Shenti.  This ‘revolution’ is a bloody foreign coup.  If the public knew about this, they’d have to turn on Commonplace.”

The Rose Titan pursed her lips.  “But we have no proof.  This operation was illegal.  All the evidence is burnt to a crisp or sailed away on a ship.  And even if we had evidence, do you really think most people would believe it?”

I sighed.  The Elmidde Chronicle, my family’s newspaper, cared about integrity.  Stewardship.  Morality.  If people read it more instead of Afzal Kahlin’s manipulative whaleshit, none of this would be happening.

“You did good, Queen Sulphur,” said the Rose Titan, patting me and Hira on the backs.  “All of you, well done.  I’ll talk to the major, see if I can get you raises.”

That made me smile.  We’d succeeded at this and survived, which meant Brin would give us bigger jobs.  Getting me closer to Afzal Kahlin.

I glanced down the beach.  Ana wasn’t smiling.  Her knees were pressed up to her chest and she slouched forward, staring out at the ocean.

“Ana,” I said.  “Everything alright?  You’re looking about thirty-four percent more melancholy than usual.”

She ignored me.  It’s been an intense day, I suppose.

The Rose Titan put her hand on Ana’s shoulder.  “Anabelle, sweetie,” she said.  “What’s wrong?”

Ana held up her left hand.  Her index and middle fingers were bent back at a sickening angle.  Broken.  The grey on her veins there had spread, turning them completely grey, and the skin cracked in places, like a stone statue in a ruin.

Hira’s smile faltered.

“Do they hurt?” The Rose Titan asked.  “Do you feel a hot, burning pain in your fingers?”

Ana’s finger was still.  It didn’t twitch or bend or move in any way.

The waves washed further up the beach, getting my shoes wet.  An icy wind blew across the water, making me shiver.

“I don’t feel anything at all,” she said.

________________________________________

Isaac Brin pulled off Jun’s blindfold and he squinted, taking in the bright afternoon sun.

The old Shenti man knelt on the roof of Nolwen’s Soda Fountain, looking even more exhausted than before.  Bruises streaked up his neck and cheeks, underneath his long, uncut hair and tangled beard.  Bits of dried blood stained his button-up shirt.

Professor Brin stood over him, his hands folded behind his back.  “Is this Jun Kuang?”

“They put him in an old man’s body,” I said.  “Copycat confirmed his Pith’s identity.”

Left-Hira nodded, sipping from a chocolate ice cream float.  His other body was eating lunch in a diner somewhere down the road, while we kept pretending he only had one chassis.  He still doesn’t trust Brin.

Kuang took deep, nervous breaths, blinking rapidly.  With a gag tied over his mouth, he didn’t say anything.

“So you left him alive,” said Brin.

“He helped us,” said Ana.

“Yeah, Professor,” I said.  “Lovely to see you again, by the way.  Are classes still going well?  How’s Eliya doing?”

Professor Brin ignored me.

“If you need help getting the stick out of your ass,” I said, “I recommend insoluble fiber and prunes.  Thanks for the C in social engineering, by the way.  Really instilled confidence in my parents.”

“And,” said Ana.  “Jun was being held against his will.  The Shenti and Commonplace were forcing him to build weapons.”

Brin pulled off Jun’s gag.

“You’re the Scholar of Mass,” Kuang said.  He swallowed, and flashed us a nervous smile.  “Hi.”

“Copycat says you have information about Commonplace,” Brin said.  The wind blew at his coat, flapping it around him and revealing rows of darts attached to his belt.

“The Shenti are funding Commonplace,” said Kuang.  “I don’t have evidence, but it’s true.  They’re sending a vast influx of funds, weapons, and hidden specialists that dwarf all other backers.”

“I thought the Shenti were fighting each other now,” said Ana.  After the Spirit Block sent them into chaos.

“They are,” said Kuang.  “There’s a dozen vicious warlords and a dozen more ready to take their places.  But the only thing they hate more than each other is the Principality.”

“It could be stolen or second-hand weapons,” I said.  “Defectors.  Random terrorists.  Shenten is in chaos.”  And full of merciless brutes who kill on a whim.

“You may choose whether or not to believe me,” said Jun.  “But I cannot deny what I’ve seen, or where I’ve been.”

Brin got a tired look on his face and sat down on a pillow, crossing his legs.  “I was afraid of that,” he muttered.  “But unless we find hard proof, we can’t do much with the information.”

He hovered four miniature globes of water in front of him.

“The Broadcast King,” he said, floating one sphere.  “Tunnel Vision and the mob,” he floated another one.  “Shenti funding and weapons, with this ‘Pictogram’ person.”  He added the third globe.  “And the leader of Commonplace, whoever they are.”  He lifted the fourth, largest one above the other three.

“I know a few things about that,” said Kuang.  “I put together an audio bug in my lab and planted it in the command center on the island.”

“Elaborate,” said Professor Brin.  It was not a request.  As far as I knew, none of us knew squat about the real force behind the terrorist group.

“The leader of Commonplace is a woman,” Kuang said.  “And a genuine Humdrum, with military training.”

A Humdrum?  “Whaleshit,” I said.

“She’s not a projector,” he said.  “People ran tests.  But everyone listens to her anyway.”

Why would all these projectors, including a Praxis Specialist, choose to bow down to someone so plain and ordinary?  Maybe her Praxis Vocation was refined enough to hide itself.  Or she was just another figurehead like John Calpeur.

“Now, here’s the most significant thing,” said Kuang.  “They avoided mentioning her name.”

“Obviously.”  Irritation slipped into Brin’s voice.

“But it’s not just normal security.  I overheard one of them explain.” Kuang lowered his voice.  “She has a name that people would recognize.  A well-known name.”

We fell silent for a moment as his words sunk in.

She could be someone from Parliament, or a celebrity, or the prime minister.  Or a prominent Humdrum involved with Paragon.

“Interesting,” said Brin.  “Very interesting.”  He unfolded his hands behind his back.  “And now – “

“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” said Kuang.  He stared at the ground, his voice flat.

“That remains to be seen.”

Brin understands.  Kuang had made the bomb that blew up the Silver Flask.  That had taken his daughter’s eye.

“What are you talking about?”  Ana clenched her teeth, striding up to Brin.  “Look at his bruises.  Look what they did to him.  He’s innocent.”


Brin raised an eyebrow.  “Innocent?” he said.  “Jun Kuang volunteered for the Shenti Army on his seventeenth birthday, in the Azure Dragon’s forces.  For two years, he worked in their applied sciences division, designing weapons that were used on civilians.  I’m not sure why the Shenti threw him in chains, put him in an old man’s body, and sold him to Commonplace, but it certainly doesn’t make him innocent.”

Kuang avoided eye contact with us.

“He’s a skilled bombmaker and mechanic,” said Brin.  “If we let him go or throw him in a low-security prison, Commonplace will take him back in a week.”

“So put him in high-security,” Ana said.  “That’s where you were going to put me, if I didn’t take your offer.”

“Lyna Wethers was in a high-security prison,” said Brin.  “They’re expensive and dangerous and don’t always work.  The alternative is much less risk.”

Ana raised a finger, closing her eyes.  “What if he helped you?  What if you hired him?”

“That would be illegal,” said Brin.

“What if you hired him,” said Ana, “with us?”

Oh, fuck me.

“I have medical training too,” said Kuang, beaming.  “I can help patch you up when you’re injured.”

“He’s a Commonplace asset,” said Brin.  “Having him paints an even bigger target on your back.”

“So we’ll be careful,” said Ana.

“How can we trust him?” I said.

“We have had a problem with that in the past,” said Ana, looking at me.

Fair enough.

“He’s Shenti,” I said.  “He could blow us up in our sleep, or give a call to his old bosses and have Pictogram pick us all off, or sneak back to Shenten to make more bombs for our enemies.”  I turned to Ana.  “You can’t recruit every quirky, damaged fucker we come across.”

“If it weren’t for him, we would all be dead,” said Ana.  “He helped us.”

“He helped himself.”  I tapped my fingers on my legs.  “And he blew out my best friend’s eye.  Blew up an entire restaurant full of innocent people.”

“He was being tortured,” said Ana through clenched teeth.  “He made those against his will.”

“So he says.  There’s no way to tell what he wants now.”

“He’s against Commonplace,” said Ana, her voice terse.  “That’s good enough for me.”

Hira stuck his hands in his pockets.  He’s using his Vocation.  “If he joined us, he might still betray us or defect to our enemies.”

A few seconds passed.  Kuang stared at the floor, and everyone stared at Kuang.

Hira pulled his hands out of his pockets.  “Nothing,” he said.  “He didn’t think of hurting us or running away.”

“You can read my mind?” Kuang said.

“Did he think of a memory?” I asked.

“Him,” Hira said, “steaming wontons for his family.”  He grinned.  “I say we take him.  If he tries to kill us, that’ll spice things up.”

Hira’s useless.  The Ilaquan had zero sense of self-preservation, and even less impulse control than I did.

And for whatever reason, he was wilfully forgetting the horrors the Shenti had visited upon the rest of the world.  Maybe Kahlin’s science experiment had isolated him, but my mother had been an admiral on the front lines.  She’d seen everything.

“Kuang here worked for the people who built the redemption camps,” I said, clenching my teeth.  “Who invaded every nation on the Eight Oceans and butchered innocents for sport.  Are we going to ignore that because he’s convenient?  Because we want a mechanic?”  I folded my arms.  “I’m a drunk bloody idiot, and even I’m smart enough to know that’s a shit plan.  A few extra bombs are not worth that.”

“If you think I deserve death, that’s your choice.”  Kuang gave me another weak smile beneath his beard.  “But if I work for you, I’m afraid I can’t build you any lethal weapons.  Not anymore.”

Great, a guilty pacifist.  Even better.  If we hired him, we’d have to listen to him shove his smug moral compass in our faces twenty-four hours a day.

“Though I can make you those wontons I was thinking about.  It took my family generations to perfect the recipe.”

“One job,” said Ana.  “See if he works out, like you and Hira.  I trust him more than the last person I gave that deal to.”

I scowled.  If I dig my heels in, she’s just going to hate me more.  And then she might kick me out.

“One job,” I said.  And when he turns our limbs to ground meat, I’ll whisper ‘I told you so’ as I choke on my spleen.

“Do you find that acceptable, Major?” Ana said.

“Acceptable,” said Professor Brin.  “But you’re responsible for him.  If something goes wrong, it’s on you.”  His voice tightened.  “And if he goes rogue, I will put him down.”

“Fair enough.”

“One more thing,” said Brin.  “There have been slip-ups, but overall, Queen Sulphur has performed well.”

Is that how he says ‘I love you’?  I felt bad for Eliya.  And he doesn’t care about Ana enough to give her a new body.  Even though he could easily afford one.

“At this rate,” he said.  “You’ll have more than enough money by the end of the year, even if you split your shares four ways.”  He slipped off his black shoulder pack and pulled it open.  “In the meantime, I have something that can help you.”

A blue full-body suit floated out of the bag, unfolding itself in midair.  I recognized it as combat armor, from Paragon, but not any of the standard ones.

Most of Paragon’s models were thick, bulky things made of layered ballistic nylon hardened into rigid shapes.  Thanks to the Obsidian Foil’s Vocation, they could stop most normal bullets, but they were unwieldy, heavy, and hotter than an Ilaquan oven on the inside.  And they creaked when you moved in them, like cheap leather.

This was different.  It was sheer, smooth, elegant.  The deep blue fabric looked like the sort you’d find in a ribbon or a shirt, not military-grade armor.  Is that even thick enough to stop a bullet?

It hovered in front of Ana, matching her shape.  She pulled at the thin material between her fingers, marvelling at it.

“It’s not up to the newer standards for our combat suits,” said Brin.  “I was going to dispose of it, but it happened to be in your size.”

The suit dropped into Ana’s hands and she caught it.  “It’s so light,” she said, her eyes wide.

“It’s a stealth model.  You can fit it under your clothes and wear it without people noticing, and it’ll block most bullets, though you’ll still feel like someone hit you with a hammer.”

Ana gazed up at Brin.  “Thank you,” she said.  “I’ve – “  Always wanted to be a Guardian.  No matter how many times she grit her teeth, she couldn’t hide that dream.  “- Thank you,” she finished.  “Thank you.”

“Don’t screw up with the Shenti,” said Brin.  He leapt off the edge of the roof and flew into the sky, his wingsuit unfurling.

Hira dropped down on his back, staring at the sky.  “Wow,” he said.  “He didn’t kill the old man.  Color me surprised.”

“I’m twenty-one,” Kuang snapped.  He stood up and his back cracked.  “I’m in the prime of my life,” he groaned.  He spread his arms for Ana.  “Thanks.  I don’t think I would have made it without you.”

After a few seconds of hesitation, Ana hugged him.  “Welcome to Queen Sulphur, Jun.”

Kuang turned to me, holding his palms up in a neutral gesture.  “I understand your misgivings, sir.  I’ll do my best to prove them wrong.”

Ana sat down at the edge of the roof, holding Brin’s combat suit in front of her.  The two fingers on her left hand were still bent back, still grey and cracking and dead.

“What happened?” said Hira.

“Clementine.”  Ana prodded the withered digit, pinching the skin.  “And it’s going to get worse.”  She laughed, the sound echoing around the rooftop.  “You know, it was strange, watching the Rose Titan and the white phosphorus man after the battle.  They acted so casual about stealing bodies.  Like it was just another day at the office.”

“Why didn’t you join them?” I said.  “It would have been easy to find some Commonplace bastard and steal their body.  You’re killing people anyways.”

Ana stared at me with disgust.  “If I can take their body, it means I don’t have to kill them.  And I’m not going to trap anyone else in this carcass.”

“Forgive me,” said Kuang.  “But can I ask a question?”

“Wes might try to strangle you,” said Left-Hira.  “But sure.”

“They could have given you a body, Ana,” said Jun.  “The ‘Rose Titan’, or the Scholar of Mass.  They could have given you a loan to buy or rent one.  Or taken one out of Paragon’s chassis vault.  Why didn’t they?  They’re your allies, right?”

“Because they’re mercenaries,” said Hira, stretching on his back.  “Because words are easy, but most people will act in their self-interest.  You’re not worth enough to them.”

Don’t say anything.  Let her wallow, you dumb fuck.  You’ll just make it worse.

“The Rose Titan likes you,” I said.  “If you spent more time with her and leaned on her guilt, she’d probably cave in a month or two.”

“I don’t want their handouts,” said Ana in a flat voice.  “Or their pity.”  She stared at me, clenching her teeth.  “I’m not going to manipulate good people to squeeze what I want out of them.”

“Is there something between you two?” said Kuang, pointing to me and Ana.  “Why are you looking at each other like that?”

Hira glanced at Ana, then glanced at me.  He pushed himself upright, wrapping his arm around Jun’s shoulder.  “Come on,” he said.  “I’ll show you to the house, get some booze in you.  Been a long day.”  He slipped a knife out of his sleeve and cut Kuang’s bindings.

“Oh, I don’t drink,” said Kuang, beaming.  “And if you consume alcohol after breathing my knockout gas, you might get brain hemorrhaging.”

The door swung shut behind them, and their footsteps faded away.

Ana and I were alone.

The wind blew across the rooftop.  Below, I could hear men and women talking to one another on the sidewalk.  The sputtering engines of automobiles echoed from the streets.

Ana held my gaze, the noon sun illuminating her ragged grey hair.  Is that an illusion?  “I overheard you,” she said.  “On the way to the island.”  She stood up.  “You said it’s impossible to hate yourself and still be prideful.  Do you still believe that’s true?”

I folded my hands behind my back, clenching my fists.  My toes fidgeted, tapping a rhythm getting faster and faster.  “No.”

It was the answer Ana wanted to hear, but maybe it was starting to make sense.  Being in the center of all that chaos, seeing the fields filled with bodies, had a way of making you feel small.  Not just loathsome, or worthless, but tiny.

“You hate yourself, you call yourself stupid at every opportunity, but you are the first and last thing that comes into your mind.  Saving your family is a stepping stone to what you really want, which is the comfort of your friends and position.”

Is there anything wrong with wanting that?  Comfort and friendship were things worth aspiring to.  They weren’t sins.  Ana had a whole spiel about drinking Paragon’s cider with friends.

“Let me ask you a question,” said Ana.  “If you get back to your people in Paragon.  Eliya, Samuel, Chimera Squad.  If you need something out of them, are you going to lie to them?  Is that how you treat your friends?”

My mother’s face flashed into my mind.  The smirk playing at the edge of her lips as she watched me get Ousted, smug, watching her plan coming together.  She would have manipulated Ana.

The rooftop was bitter cold.

I exhaled.  “You were my friend,” I said.  “The only real friend I made in this bloody purgatory.”  I still wasn’t sure if Hira was anything more than a casual fling.  “And I fucked it all up.”

“You did.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

The words hung in the chill winter air for a few seconds.

“I don’t accept your apology,” Ana said.  Her expression didn’t change.

I squeezed my eyes shut.  “Please.”

“You might still be fooling yourself, but I know exactly who you are, Weston Ebbridge.”

When I opened my eyes, the roof was empty.

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6-D The Bombmaker

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

Her name is Nell Ebbridge.

My lungs felt ready to burst.  The dark ocean water chilled me to the bone, rushing around me and sapping my body heat, and it felt like I could collapse at any moment, or take in a breath of water and choke to death.

But still, my mind latched onto that thought.  It repeated on loop, again and again.

Maybe she preferred ‘Weston’.  Maybe he preferred ‘he’.  But that was beside the point.  Ebbridge had lied to me, manipulated me.

He was just like Lorne Daventry – an Epistocrat using other people for his own ends, then tossing them aside.

If our mission with the Broadcast King had succeeded, what would he have done?  At best, he would have claimed the bounty for himself and abandoned me.  At worst, he would have killed me to cover his tracks.

I’d overheard him talking to the Rose Titan on the fishing boat.  He’d said that he hated himself, that he didn’t need to learn humility.

But he hadn’t apologized either.  I’d seen that mindset before in my co-workers and the middle managers at Clementine’s estate.

The truth was, you could hate yourself and be a self-centered prick at the same time.  The two often went hand in hand.

I needed Ebbridge to survive missions, and he knew it.  But the sooner I could get away from him, the better.

My head burst through the surface of the water, and I gasped for air, coughing.  How long was I underwater?  I’d lost track of time.

I dry heaved and bent over, reaching my hand forward.  It touched a jagged rocky surface, and I grabbed on, keeping myself from falling back into the water.

I gagged and coughed for what felt like another minute, shivering in the icy water and clamping my hand over my mouth to stifle the noise.  Fuck my lungs.

This body’s anemia wasn’t helping either.  It made the chill seep into my bones, a bitter freezing sensation that made me shiver.

I wiped the water out of my eyes, blinking.

I was floating at the base of a rocky cliff face, maybe a hundred feet tall.  At the top, I could make out buildings through the fog, and yellow light streaming out of windows.

Hira’s two heads burst out of the water, and her two bodies grabbed onto the cliff face.  Neither of them looked fazed.  They barely even looked out of breath.

“Try to stay warm,” a man whispered.  “This could take a while.”

I spun around.  The bald mercenary was already floating behind us, staring up at the complex.

We have to wait for the signal.  For the frontal assault team to draw out the enemy, leaving the rear of the base undefended.  If we moved too early, we’d get discovered and swarmed.

But still, the water was bitter cold.  I wished I could raise my body temperature with Joining, or that I knew how to heat the water with projection.  Too long here, and I’ll get hypothermia.

I looked at the bald man.  “You know Wes was joking back there, right?” I whispered.  “When he said we were incom – “

“Obviously,” he rolled his eyes.  “Or we would have left you on the boat.  Of course, if someone dies first, it’ll still probably be one of you.”

That’s not very comforting.  While Wes had trained with Hira, I’d worked on my Vocation over the last few weeks, and had managed to develop a new aspect.  An extra trick up my sleeve.

But I wasn’t sure how it’d work under pressure.  Our odds could stand to be a lot better.

I leaned towards Left-Hira, whispering.  “It was your Vocation that figured Ebbridge out, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve got a funny sense of timing,” she muttered under her breath.  “You want to talk about this now?”

“I don’t spend a lot of time alone with you.”  The rocky cliff dug into my palm, and I switched hands.

Hira sighed.  “I also ran a background check on your bodies.  Yours was black market, though I couldn’t trace the origin.  The cheap fuckers who sold your chassis did a solid job covering their tracks.”

As expected.  I hadn’t been able to find much either.  There wasn’t anything special about Sapphire Industrial, I’d just gotten unlucky.  And the records were terrible.

“But I traced back Wes’ chassis to an eighteen-year-old boy from one of the Principality’s Northern islands.  He was a prime candidate for Ousting, with some fascinating redacted holes in his file.”

Tasia.  The current Nell Ebbridge.  What could her history be?  Did it connect to the library research the girl had been doing?

Do I want to know?  Tasia was my one remaining friend, and I didn’t want to lose her too.  And if Wes found out I’d befriended his replacement, there could be problems.

“Did you find anything else?” I whispered.  “During your search on Wes.  That you didn’t mention the other night.”

“Bad grades,” said Hira.  “And bad habits in class – tardiness, late assignments, falling asleep in lectures – all of the natural human responses to the shithole of elitism and dry crumpets that is Paragon Academy.”

Is she trying to provoke me?  “I like it,” I said.  I couldn’t think of a witty retort.

“But,” said Hira.  “No bullying, altercations with other students, anything of that sort.  He was an irresponsible, disorganized fuckup on a clinical level – “

Now that, I can believe.

“ – but he wasn’t a monster.”

His school reports aren’t going to tell me who he is.  And I certainly couldn’t trust my ‘gut feeling’ around Wes.  He’d been able to manipulate that with ease.

“And you let him sleep in your apartment,” I said.

“I did.  And that body has a weak stomach for booze, so believe me, it wasn’t easy.”

“And you spend time with him, don’t you?”

“You want to know how dangerous he is.”

I nodded.  And how dangerous you are.

“Good question,” she said.

“You told me about Wes’ betrayal.  How he used me.”  The icy water lapped around me.  “But it would have been easier to say nothing.  There would be no friction in Queen Sulphur, and you could have used us exactly the way you wanted to.”  I shivered, the lower two-thirds of my body going numb.  “But you told me anyway.”

“And you want to know why.”

“Yes.”

It could have been to earn my trust.  It could have been to drive a wedge between me and Wes.  But I still didn’t trust Hira much, and I didn’t see how a fight between me and Wes could benefit Hira.

“It’s simple,” said Left-Hira.  “I’ve known a lot of people like my father.”  She shrugged.  “I didn’t want Wes to become one of them.”

Before I could respond, a low boom echoed in the distance.

“A mortar,” said Hira.

It’s time.

The bald man swam forwards to the cliff.  “Follow my route,” he muttered in a monotone.  “If you fall, don’t make any noise and I’ll catch you with your clothes.”

He clambered up the wall like a spider.  Water squeezed out of his clothes and trickled into the water, drying his outfit.

Both Hiras followed, pulling both bodies up the cliff with the same hand and footholds.  This time, the water sprayed out of her clothes, splattering my face and making me flinch.

I reached up, took a deep breath, and pulled myself out of the water.  The rock was cold underneath my fingers, and wet from the damp shoes of Hira and the bald man.

When my feet were out of the water, I projected into the water in my clothes, squeezing most of it out.

I followed the two of them up the wall.  The icy wind blew across my bare skin, making me shiver.  I should have brought warmer clothes.  My arms burned every time I reached for a new hold.  More booms echoed in the distance, with the cracks of gunshots.

My body was already weaker than most sedentary people my age.  Next to a trio of combat chassis, I felt like a dead fish.  When Hira and the bald man were climbing onto the ledge at the top, I was barely a third of the way up.

My arms shook, and I found myself short of breath.  Damn this body.  Many of the handholds required unusual stretches, making the strain even worse.  At this rate, I wasn’t even sure if I’d get to the top.  And if I did, I might be too exhausted to fight.

My shirt and my pant legs tightened around me.  Projection.  They pulled me back from the rock wall and lifted me upwards, dragging me up the cliff.

When I reached the top, the bald man flicked his wrist, and I floated onto a narrow grassy ledge, landing on my feet next to a lit window.

It was humiliating.  But I needed to conserve what little strength I had.

The bald man held a finger to his lips.  Both he and the Hiras were positioned on the far side of the window.  Left-Hira had drawn her pitch-black trench shotgun.  Right-Hira loaded a clip into his Blackburn sniper rifle.

I leaned forward, glancing inside.  Four Green Hands knelt on the floor of a room, smoking cigarettes, surrounded by open crates filled with bullets.  They loaded them into magazines in front of them, lining up the clips in front of them.

The Hiras looked at me.  “Your turn,” she mouthed.

I reached my Pith into the room, layering an auditory illusion over the four inside to block out our voices.

“They can’t hear our voices,” I said.  “If you’re going to make some other noise, tell me first so I can edit it out.

I assembled my machine pistol and projected the water out of it, remembering what my coach at the firing range had taught me.  Trigger discipline first.  I kept my index finger outside the trigger guard, pointing the barrel at the ground.

“On my count, secure the door,” said the bald man.  “Three, two, one, go.”

He tapped his finger against the corner of the window, and the glass shattered silently, breaking inward without making a sound.

The largest shards of glass shot to the other end of the room, making a series of wet, meaty thuds.

Hira and I vaulted over the windowsill, into the room.  The Green Hands were strewn on the floor, shards of glass embedded in their necks and faces.  I winced.  Don’t feel bad.  They made their choice.

Footsteps echoed outside the room, coming closer.  What?  We didn’t make any noise.  Someone coming to deliver the ammo to the front lines, maybe.

I threw up visual and auditory illusions, editing us out and making the dead men seem alive.  “Move the bodies away,” I muttered.  The bald man waved his hands, and the four corpses slid to the corners of the room.

A woman burst into the room, dressed in military slacks with green circle tattoos on her hands and a small cart dragging behind her.  She reached down to the blood-stained ammunition to pick it up.

Wait,” I made one of my illusions say.  “New orders for you from command.  Wait here for further instructions.

She looked confused.  “Um, alright.”  She stood off to the side.  Hira projected into the door, swinging it shut.

Faint blue lightning crackled around my hands.  Faking two senses at once was easier than before – this time, I barely even felt a headache.

“Next step,” said the bald man.  He clenched his fingers into claws.  The coats on three of the dead men slid off, floating in the air.  The blood squeezed itself out of the fabric, removing even the stains.

Then they separated and flew towards us.  I caught one of the jackets, shook off the glass, and slipped my arms into the sleeves.

“Hands,” the bald man said.

We held out our hands.  Droplets of green paint shot from a vial at his waist and splattered on the backs of our hands, forming green circles.  It seeped into our skin, drying and becoming temporary tattoos.

Green Hands didn’t have formal uniforms, but often wore forest green coats.  Now, we’d blend right in.  My hair and grey veins might stand out, but poorly-made, decaying bodies weren’t that rare in the Principality.

Next step.  I had one of the dead men illusions stand up.  “Here are the new orders:” it said, The two of us need to go to the labs and move the Bombmaker.

The woman’s eyes widened with fear.  “Him?” she stuttered.  “But – that’s, that’s not my responsibility.  I’m assigned to the top levels and perimeter.”

What’s the matter?” my illusion asked.  “Why does the bombmaker scare you?”  According to his file, Jun Kuang was barely a man, less than a year older than me.

The Green Hands stared at the floor.  “The boy, he’s built things, they – “  She shook her head.  “They tested a few drops on a prisoner and his skin boiled.  All the Shenti scare me.  The further away I am from them, the better.”

Fuck.  So the Shenti were working with Commonplace.  A foreign government, sponsoring terrorists.  And supplying them with monstrous inventors.

And even Green Hands were scared of them.

I had my illusion-man shrug.  “Orders are orders.  I just do what I’m told.

The woman bit her lip.  “Fine.  But let’s move fast.  I’d rather be on the front lines than down in the laboratory.”  She strode out the door and the rest of us followed.

You know what’s been going on out there?

“Word is, “ she said.  “Pictogram just landed on the island.  The invaders are fucked, now.  We’ve just got to stay out of his way.”

Pictogram?  Who the fuck was that?  We have to figure out and warn the assault team.  This was why Hira should have split her bodies between the teams.  I’d argued for that on the boat, but she’d refused, not wanting to expose even a little of her connection.

If we made it to the comms room, we could contact them.

We ran through dimly lit corridors and foggy courtyards.  Green Hands jogged around us towards the front of the facility, carrying machine guns and rifles.  Men and woman barked orders, and the sounds of gunshots and mortars got even louder.

I don’t know much about Pictogram,” I had my illusion say.  “How can one man turn the tide if the rest of us are losing so badly?

“I told you,” she said.  “All the Shenti scare me.  But our enemies should be terrified of them.  Pictogram’s a Praxis specialist.  Scholar-ranked.  He’s in charge of them.”

Is he a commando?”  If the enemy had a Shenti commando, fleeing was our best option.

“Don’t think so,” she said.  “But he’s the next best thing.”  She smiled at me.  “Don’t be afraid.  We are the Common Foundation.”

“Do you know a Pictogram?” I muttered to Hira and the bald man, keeping our voices hidden from the woman.

“Nobody,” whispered Left-Hira.  “Nobody well-known in the underworld.”

The bald man shook his head.  Nothing.

The woman led us into another building and down a long set of stairs.  We had to jog to keep up with her, and my head ached from maintaining the illusion.

At the bottom of the stairwell, the lights got dimmer, and the hallway turned from wood to concrete.

At the end of the hallway, a pair of Green Hands stood in front of a set of double doors, carrying submachine guns.

“Thirteen-yellow-grey,” said the woman.  The password.

“Who the fuck are they?” said one of the guards, pointing to us.

“They?” said the woman I’d illusioned, looking confused.  “I only came with one person.”

Before I could throw up new illusions on the guards, the bald man jabbed two of his fingers forward.  One of the pipes on the wall burst, and water exploded out of it, encasing the men and the woman’s heads in three separate spheres of liquid.

He pulled his fingers back into a fist, and the spheres twisted, snapping their necks.  They spun a full hundred and eighty degrees, and the skin on their necks ripped, blood pouring down over their uniforms.

I grimaced, suppressing a wave of nausea.  It was a brutal way to kill people.  And this entire time, the bald man’s expression hadn’t changed, staying cold and flat and stoic.  He reminded me of Isaac Brin.

“You didn’t need to,” I said.  “I could have used my illusions on them.”

“Give it time, kid,” said the bald man.  “You’ll see things my way.”

Muffled music streamed out of the doors ahead of us.  Ilaquan nightclub music, the kind that made you go deaf if you listened to it for more than a few minutes at a time.

This is the laboratory.  The bombmaker’s lair.

“No traps that I can detect,” said the bald man.  “You ready?”

Both Hiras nodded.  I nodded.

He shoved open the double doors.

The room was filled with wooden tables, stacked high with glass jars, bottles of liquid, scraps of metal, and loose wires, all strewn about.  A bookshelf sat on the far end, stacked with boxes.  Inside, the Ilaquan dance music was deafening, drums thumping in my ears.

At the far end of the room, a man with his back to us measured grey powder into a bowl, humming along to the tune.  He’s outside my range.

In the corner of the room, an old man sat on the ground, his hands chained to a pipe on the wall.  His long grey hair and beard obscured most of his face, but what I could see was covered in bruises and dried blood.

A prisoner.  He rocked back and forth, delirious.  “The pork buns,” he mumbled in a Shenti accent.  “At the top of the bookshelf.”

Bì zuǐ,” said the young man at the table, speaking in Shenti.  “Wǒ zài gōngzuò.”  He turned to us, grumbling.  “What is it?  You wanted a bomb in ten minutes, yes?  I’m working on it.”

A greasy strand of pitch-black hair fell in his face.  I noted his wide chin, narrow eyes, and high cheekbones.  That’s Jun Kuang.  That’s the bombmaker.  His face matched the photograph perfectly.

My stomach clenched.  Don’t underestimate him.  He’d killed countless innocents already.

“We need to move you,” said Hira.  “Now.”

Jun Kuang flicked his wrist, and the dance music stopped.  He raised an eyebrow.  “Password, please.”

“Thirteen-Yellow-Grey,” said Left-Hira.  “We are the Common Foundation.  Now can we get a move on?”

“That’s the password for the top level,” he said.  “There’s a different one here.  You got it for me?”

There was a moment of silence.  Hira can use her Vocation to copy the password from him.  All we needed was another few seconds.

“The pork buns,” groaned the old prisoner.  “At the top of the bookshelf.”

Jun Kuang reached into a drawer and pulled out a pistol.

As he aimed it towards us, the bald man flicked his wrist, and a globe of water shot towards Kuang’s head, enveloping it.

The liquid evaporated into a cloud of white steam, obscuring the far half of the room.

When the steam cleared, Kuang slumped over.  The pistol clattered to the ground next to him.  The steam cleared, and I gagged.

Jun Kuang’s face, neck, and scalp were burnt to a black crisp.  That has to be the bald man’s Vocation.  I hadn’t seen anyone heat up water that fast.

His arms and legs twitched, and a faint wheezing sound emanated from his throat.  I recoiled.  He’s still alive.

Hira whipped her fist forward.  A combat knife shot out of her sheath and stabbed Kuang in the side of the head.  The man went limp.

It’s done.  It wouldn’t bring back the lives the bombmaker had taken, but at least he couldn’t hurt people anymore.  And I hadn’t been forced to pull the trigger this time.

“Target eliminated,” said the bald man.  “Next, we get to command and control.”  He motioned to us, and we walked back to the door.

“The pork buns,” murmured the old prisoner.  “At the top of the bookshelf.”

“Wait,” I said.  “The prisoner.  He’s muttering weird phrases and he’s covered in bruises.  I think they’ve been torturing him.  If we leave him and they come back, the Shenti or the Green Hands might kill him.”

“So?” said Hira.  “He’s a Shenti bastard.  One of theirs.  Not our problem.”

Left-Hira stepped out of the room and tripped over the front door, landing on her face.

She didn’t get up.  Her Right body did the same, falling to its knees, then slumping to the floor.

“What’s happening?” yelled the bald man, floating orbs of water around him.  “Whas – wha – “  He dropped down, twitching, and the orbs splashed next to him.

A wave of dizziness crashed over me, and I leaned against the wall.  Tears welled up in my eyes, and my chest tightened, making it hard to breathe.  I knelt, my muscles twitching, wheezing for breath.  My Pith twitched too, crackling and shifting, making it difficult to project.  What the fuck?  What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck.  I thought the bald man had screened for traps.

“The pork buns,” said the old prisoner.  “At the top of the bookshelf.  That’s where I keep the antidote for my nerve gas.”

Nerve gas?  Tears streamed down my cheeks, and my stabbing pain exploded in my stomach.

Then: ‘My’ nerve gas?

As my muscles tensed and relaxed, I forced myself to stare up, at the bookshelf on the far side of the lab.  I blinked, clearing the tears, and squinted.  The wooden boxes on the top shelf were labeled with pictures instead of words.  I saw a tiger, a bird, a cup of tea, and – 

A pork bun.

I crawled forward, gasping for breath.  The bald man and both Hiras didn’t move.  The gas already got them.

Sweat soaked my armpits, dripping off my shivering back.  My fingers dug into gaps in the splintering wood, dragging myself forward.  My arms and legs burned from the exertion.  Or maybe that was the gas?

An eternity seemed to pass, and the room spun around me.  My breaths grew short and rapid, taking in less and less oxygen with each inhale.

“Almost there!” shouted the old man.  “You can do it!”

My left hand touched something cold and wooden.  The bottom of a bookshelf.

I tried pushing myself upright, but my muscles twitched, collapsing out from under me.  Fuck.

Flipping onto my back, I stared up at the bookshelf through my watery eyes, making out the pork bun box at the top.

With all my effort, I stretched my Pith upwards.  Blue lightning crackled around me, and I projected into the wooden box, pulling it off the shelf.

My Pith snapped back in my body, and the box clattered to the ground next to me, spilling metal syringes on the ground.

“The neck!” yelled the old man.  “Inject it in your neck!”

My fingers scrabbled on the floor, grabbing a syringe and holding it above my neck.  I paused for a moment.  Can I trust the old man?

I couldn’t.  But what choice did I have?

I held the tip of the needle over my neck.  Scholars, this is going to hurt.  I closed my eyes, clenched my teeth, and stabbed it into the side of my neck, my hand shaking.  Before I could think, I pushed the plunger down with my finger and ripped out the needle.

Liquid ice washed through my neck, a chilling pain that made me writhe.  The freezing sensation ran through my veins, spreading throughout my body.

My lungs gasped for air, taking in a full, huge breath.  My muscles stopped twitching.  The agony in my stomach vanished, and my eyes stopped watering.

Scholars.  The old man was telling the truth.

I clambered to my feet, fighting off the dizziness, and grabbed three more syringes off the floor.  One by one, I sprinted to Hira’s bodies and the bald man, injecting their necks one after the other.

After a few seconds, they stirred, gasping for breath and wiping away their teary eyes.  The symptoms faded in the span of a few seconds.

“Are you alright?” said the old man.  “Sorry about that.”

“Why – “ I coughed.  “ – did you help us?”

The sea remains,” said the old man.  The Shenti’s words, after the Spirit Block.  “Every person you’ve ever met.  Every word you’ve ever spoken.  Every tower you’ve built.  It will all sink beneath the waves.  And you will vanish, forgotten.”  He stood up, beaming, and his chain went taut.  “But until that day, we must eat, learn, and spread kindness.”

Left-Hira pushed herself upright.  She floated her shotgun into her hands, and aimed it at the old Shenti man.  “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m Jun Kuang,” he said.  “I’m the real bombmaker.”  He waved at us.  “Hi.”

Silence hung in the air.

“No you’re not,” I said, glancing at the charred corpse.  “Jun Kuang is twenty years old.  And we just killed him.  He matched the photograph, and he was making a bomb.”

“They made a copy,” said the old Shenti man.  “From photographs.  My real body has larger knees, less hair on its chest, and a mole on my calf.”

“Kuang is a projector,” I said.  “How could they hold you with handcuffs like that?”

“Null Venom.”  The old man coughed.  “They gave me my last dose two hours ago.  Along with the antidote to the gas trap.  Sorry again.”

“And why put you in an old man’s body and put up a decoy?”

“Because of that.”  ‘Jun Kuang’ looked at the burnt body.  “My captors see me as valuable.  They don’t want me to get sniped.”

Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, staring at the old man.  Copying his skills.

After a few seconds, she turned, walked to the table, and began pouring the same powder the dead man had been measuring.  Screws, bits of metal, and wires floated around her.

Hira nodded.  “The old man is Shenti-born.  And knows a ton about making bombs.  And mechanical engineering.  And a detailed recipe for wonton soup.”  She turned to the dead man for a few seconds.  “The other guy’s Pith is dying, but he barely knows anything about explosives.”

Then he’s telling the truth.  This strange old man was the real bombmaker.  The real murderer.

“Sure,” said the bald man, wiping spittle from his chin.  “Let’s kill him.”  He floated a water orb forward.

The old man – Jun Kuang – held up his hands  “If you wish to take my life, I understand.  But hear me out first.  They made me work for them.  They beat me.”  He pointed to the bruises on his face, and the chain.  “Why else would they lock me up like this?”

The bald man’s expression didn’t change.  “Even if he’s telling the truth, he’s still an enemy asset.  If we leave him, they could evacuate him.  If we take him with us, he’ll slow us down.”

At the table, Hira was still constructing her bomb.  She raised her hand, and a syringe extracted a vial of blood from the old man’s arm.  It poured into a beaker, mixing with other chemicals.

“I can help you.”  Jun brushed hair out of his face, revealing more bruises on his cheeks and neck.  “I can build things.  And I know things.  About Pictogram, about Commonplace.”  He lowered his voice.  “Even a few things about their leader.”

How would he know that much?  John Calpeur, the ostensible chief of Commonplace, was a figurehead.  Was that who Kuang was talking about?  Or was he referring to someone else?

The bald man looked to Left-Hira.  She shrugged.  “My Vocation only copies procedural memory – they need to practice it for me to steal it.  I can’t even get a password if someone’s only been using it for a few days.  I have no idea if he’s telling the truth.”

“And the Null Venom?”

Left-Hira shook the beaker with Jun’s blood sample.  It had turned dark orange.  “He’s telling the truth about that.”

The bald man grunted.  “He’s still a risk.  Null Venom only blocks external projection.  He can still enhance his mind, use Joining on his body.”

“I’m not a Joiner,” said Jun.

“He’s Shenti,” the bald man said.  “Even after the Spirit Block, their domain contains more joining specialists than the other three combined.”

“He’s a twenty-year-old in an old man’s body,” I said.  “Joining is almost impossible for him.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said the bald man.  “When you’re dealing with high-ranked projectors, it’s too dangerous to take prisoners.  If they break free, they can cause untold damage.  And even if they forced him to, this man has built weapons to kill mountains of innocents.”

I looked at Jun Kuang again.  Despite all his bruises, despite the cuts and bloodstains on his neck and arms, and all injuries that we couldn’t see.  Despite the fear in his voice, and the way his hands were shaking, the old man was smiling.

He’s trying to stay positive.  To calm himself in the face of death.

What would a Guardian do?  A true noble Guardian like the Symphony Knight or Sebastian Oakes or Headmaster Tau, not a ruthless pragmatist like Isaac Brin.  A warrior who combined intelligence with a kind heart and a vibrant spirit for justice.

I felt that pain in my stomach again.  My arms and shoulders tensed.  You’re not a Guardian.  You’re not a savior.

But I wanted to be.  I wanted to protect people.  Desperation was no excuse to let my morals slide.

My mind flashed back to the Golden Moon yacht, to the safe room at the lowest level with men and women crawling over each other, blind and dumb and broken.

I’d gotten there too late.  But that wasn’t the case this time.

“We should keep him alive,” I said.  “We can bind his wrists and gag him for the rest of the mission, and decide what to do with him after.”

Hira glanced at me, still making a bomb on the table.  “Are you sure?”

“No,” I said.  But I couldn’t live with myself if he died.

The bald man clenched his fist, and two strips of cloth ripped off Jun’s shirt, wrapping around his eyes to fold a blindfold and gag.

“Thank you,” said Jun, closing his eyes.  “Thank you.”  The gag wrapped over his mouth.

Kuang’s cuffs snapped open, and he fell back onto the floor, taking deep, gasping breaths.  A steel cable lifted off a junk pile and wrapped around Jun’s wrists, tying them behind his back.

“You’re responsible for him,” said the bald man.  “And if he becomes a liability, I’m going to snap his neck.”

This had better not come back to bite me.

“Fair enough,” I said.

Our group raced up the stairs.  I led Jun in front of me, guiding him forward with my hand.  Considering his body and the treatment he’d been through, the bombmaker was remarkably spry.  Even blindfolded, with his hands tied behind him, he took the steps two at a time.  He might be in better shape than I am.

We emerged from the top of the stairwell, back into the foggy complex.  Only this time, it was different.

Hundreds of Green Hands jogged past us, hefting rifles and submachine guns.  They ran through hallways and into buildings, ignoring us.  All coming from the front of the facility, retreating into the base.  Gunshots and mortars rang out in the distance.

But they were all Principians.  No Shenti.  No Pictogram.  Something bad’s happening out there.  Wes and the Rose Titan’s team were losing.

I grabbed one of the guards by the shoulder, throwing up illusions to make myself look and sound more normal.  “Thirteen-Yellow-Grey.  Where’s the radio room?  I just got transferred and need to deliver something.

He pointed to the side.  “Top of the hill, over the bridge, highest floor.”  He ran off with the rest of the Green Hands.

The bald man indicated his head, and we followed the flow of the crowd, jogging up the slope through the complex, alongside a long, slow-moving river.

After a few minutes, the buildings ended, and the river jerked down, becoming a deep chasm in front of us.  On the far end stood a steep rocky hill.  Staircases spiraled around it, towards a round, squat tower at the very top with lights shining out of its windows.

A wooden bridge arched over the ravine.  Green Hands jogged over it in both directions.

We walked across.  A few guards gave the blindfolded, gagged Jun odd looks, but nobody stopped us.

When we stood in the middle of the bridge, I turned back, looking down at the rest of the island.

Thick grey smoke covered the whole area, even as the morning’s fog began to fade.  Gunshots and mortars rang out from inside the cloud, but it was impossible to see anything.

If there are gunshots, they’re still alive.  Even though I hated Wes, I found that thought comforting.  That sympathy is irrational, I reminded myself, and not shared by him.

Left-Hira tugged at my sleeve, and I followed her off the bridge, to the stone steps leading up to the radio room.  Once we were there, I could use my illusions to give us the upper hand.

A woman’s voice rang out behind me.  “Anabelle Gage.”

I spun around.  A pale, slender woman stood in the middle of the bridge, towering above us in a green striped dress.  She brushed wavy red hair out of her face with one hand, and held a pistol in the other.

Clementine.

My chest tightened.  I took a short, sharp breath, half a gasp.

She smiled.  “I almost didn’t recognize you with that hair.  I can see why you used so much dye.”

Both Hiras and the bald man froze, turning back to look at Clementine.  Left-Hira tightened her grip on her shotgun.  Right-Hira did the same with a rifle, and the bald man grabbed Jun’s wrist, holding him in place.  Green Hands streamed around us, ignoring us.

Clementine stood far outside of my range.  To illusion her, I’d have to charge forward.

She lowered her pistol and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it with projection.

“To be frank,” said Clementine, in a warm tone.  “I’m surprised to still see you in that rickety old thing, after you’d stolen that sparkly new one.”

She knows.  She knew about my body heist.  Or she’s bluffing.  Why hadn’t she alerted the guards yet?

“What are you talking about?” I said.  Keep up the disguise.  “I joined Commonplace.  Of course I don’t have a new body.”

“My mission folder went missing on the same day I fired you.”  She took a puff of her cigarette.  “Then the police showed up at my safehouse.  It wasn’t an ambush, which means they weren’t tipped off.  They’d been directed there, which means someone was using me as a distraction.”

Blood rushed in my ears, and I felt short of breath.  Folded behind my back, my hands were damp with sweat.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Escaping,” she said.  “Wasn’t easy.  We lost a few people.  And I got demoted for screwing up the mission.”  Her voice softened.  “My bosses laughed at me.”

A warm, heavy force pressed at the edge of my consciousness.  She’s trying to Nudge me.  Your mind is an Empty Book.  I shifted my Pith in response, easily forcing the invader out.

“You’ve learned a bit.”  Clementine gave a mirthless chuckle.  “Did my little Nudge upset you that much?”

A chill wind blew across the chasm, whipping my thin coat around me.  I shivered.  Damn this anemia.

“What,” said Clementine, “were you doing that night?”  Her voice grew soft, hard to hear.  “The night after I fired you.”

Did she install body language vocations?  Without illusions, I couldn’t hide my reactions.

“I slept in a homeless shelter,” I lied.  “It was freezing.”

“You know,” said Clementine, “if I shout right now, the Green Hands will kill you.”  Soldiers rushed past her.  “You’ll take down a lot, you might even beat me.  But you won’t make it out alive.”  She flicked her cigarette into the chasm.  “But I’m not shouting.  You know why?”

Think, idiot, think.  I swallowed, wiping my sweaty hands on my pant legs.  She has an ABD and I don’t have Voidsteel bullets.

“Why?” I said.

She pointed at Left-Hira and the bald man.  “I know them.  Copycat, The Boiler.  If you’re working with them, you’re a mercenary too.  Working for the Principality or the Droll Corsairs, most likely.”

“What’s your point?” I said.

“Mercs work for the highest bidder.  And I am always merciful.”  She extended her hand to me.  “Tell us who your employer is, and you won’t just survive.  You’ll make double your old salary.”

“Or you’ll just kill us,” I said.

She’s lying.  I knew Clementine.  The moment she had what she wanted, she’d give us to the mob’s torture artists.

Is she stalling?  The longer we waited, the more time this “Pictogram” person had to cut down our allies.

“You embarrassed me last time,” said Clementine.  “In front of my party guests.  You spat in the face of my kindness.  But did I kill you?”  She shook her head.  “No.  Because I cared about you.”  She leaned forward.  “So tell me, Anabelle Gage.  Do you still deserve my pity?”

I projected into the Piths of the Green Hands within my range.  Thirty-seven men and women in total.  I threw up a visual and auditory illusion over their perceptions, imagining a Guardian in a combat suit descending from the sky.

My illusory Guardian landed on the wooden bridge with a loud thud and snapped Clementine’s neck, taking her place.  He threw out blades into the Green Hands around him, cutting them.

Thirty-seven Green Hands turned, seeing Clementine as an enemy Guardian.  “Target on the bridge!” one of the women shouted.

As one, they raised their weapons towards Clementine and pulled the triggers.

In a manner of seconds, several things happened:

Bullets hit Green Hands on the bridge and bounced off Clementine’s autonomous bullet defense, flying in all directions.  None of them were being shot close enough to penetrate her shield.

Left-Hira made a slashing motion with her hands, and the supports on the bridge snapped.  The wooden floor collapsed, dropping Clementine and dozens of Green Hands into the ravine.

At the same time, the bald man pushed his palms upward.  The river in the chasm shot upwards.  With a hiss, it exploded, becoming a wave of steam.  It rushed over us, and I felt a burning heat on my face.  I covered it, kneeling.

When I opened my eyes, the steam had surrounded us, a thick white cloud covering everything in sight.  Gunshots rang out around us, and men and women shouted orders.  The noise was deafening, overwhelming.

Calm down.  Refocus.  Get your bearings.

Through the steam, I made out a female figure hovering where the bridge used to be.  Clementine.  She flew up, not bothering to check on her injured comrades forty feet below.

She’s trying to get a better vantage point.  And stay out of range of my illusions.

I sprinted forward, using an illusion to talk to the bald man and Hira.  My range for Hira had improved since I first met her.  “Lift me up,”  I added a visual illusion, highlighting my position in the smoke.  “From behind, don’t let the projector see me.

I leapt off the edge of the ravine, and my clothes tightened around me, yanking me upwards, pulling me to Clementine’s level from behind her back.

I projected around Clementine’s Pith, making myself invisible to her.

Then, I reshaped the carnage below, creating visual illusions of myself, the Hiras, and the bald man below, barely visible in the thick clouds of steam.  I layered them over enemy Green Hands, matching the enemies’ movements and gestures.

I made sure that fake-me was visible to Clementine, and that it stood far away from her.  This way, Clementine would think she was safe from my illusions.

Clementine flicked her wrists, and a trio of knives shot out of sheathes at her waist.  They flew down, slicing into her own troops.

Green Hands fell over, blood gushing out of their necks.  I had my illusions dodge, so the knives appeared to cut them in non-lethal places.  Then I had them run until they were lined up with another group of Green Hands.  More enemies for Clementine to attack.

Down below, I saw blasts of water explode from inside the cloud – the bald man at work.  Waves of water knocked Humdrums off the cliff by the dozen.  They plummeted into the ravine, landing with wet thuds.  Jun had vanished, out of sight.

A cloud of yellow smoke ballooned out in the middle of the steam, obscuring the battlefield further, adding to the chaos.  Hira’s Seroflourin gas.  Inside, men and women doubled over, coughing and rubbing their eyes, while we were immune.

Left-Hira, the female body, ran to the top of the hill, and the base of the command building.

A cluster of Green Hands stood at the top, but none of them shot at her – Hira was still dressed like one of them, with the hand tattoos to boot.

Bullets flew out of the gas, striking them.  Every shot hit them in the head or chest, fired with perfect accuracy.  None of them could shoot back at the cloud without hitting their own.  Left-Hira pretended to cower with them.

Hira’s using her female body to sight targets.  She could sense the positions of her bodies relative to each other, and use them to snipe when one of them was blinded.

Clementine stopped attacking her allies.  Has she caught on?

An ache built in my stomach and throat, an overwhelming urge that grew exponentially.  Hunger and thirst.  How long had it been since I last ate, or drank anything?  I couldn’t remember.  And it had been so, so long since I had tasted any food or drink.

In spite of myself, I imagined my father’s beef stew.  I imagined the ramen shop down the street from King’s Palace and my sleeping pod, with its hot bowls of pork and noodles.

I imagined Paragon’s mulled cider, the dream I was reaching for.

Clementine looked down at me.  Her Vocation.  She’d made my concentration slip, breaking my illusions.

Before I could hide again, she dropped into the ravine, flying out of my range.

The bald man noticed, and I shot down with her.

Her Pith came back into my range, and a pair of knives flew towards me.  I threw another illusion on her, ducking while making it look like I was shifting to the side.

The knives flew past me, and I was safe for a moment.

Images spilled over in my mind.  An ice-cold glass of Jwala’s Orange Soda.  The crispy snacks the Rose Titan had given us on the ride over – Papadum.  Bunches of fresh green grapes, stuffing them into my mouth.

Concentrate.  I held onto my illusion this time, keeping myself hidden.

And I flipped on the new trick to my Vocation, the one I’d been working on.

I didn’t hide my Pith from Clementine.  That was impossible, right now.  But I changed the position of my Pith, making it appear to be in a different place.

Clementine could still project into my Pith, but she’d sense it to her left, not her right.  A clumsy technique, but it’d do the job, keep me from getting impaled.

Fuck, I was hungry.  I needed to eat something, anything.

Clementine’s knives swirled around her in a random pattern, looking to hit something.  Air projection was far too advanced for her to use it on me.

Clods of dirt flew above my head and exploded into soil, showering down over me.  Fuck.  I could mask the position of my Pith, but if that dirt hit me, she’d feel my outline.  She’d know my exact location.

Move me below Clementine,” I said to the bald man.

My clothes pulled me down, below Clementine.  Her body shielded me from her rain of dirt, keeping me hidden.

The steam and gas above my head began to clear.  Almost all the Green Hands around us were dead or incapacitated, knocked into the ravine, shot by Hira, or affected by the seroflourin.

One of Clementine’s knives grazed my calf, and a burning pain shot up my leg.  I clenched my teeth, and a trickle of warm blood poured down into my sock.

Clementine spun around in the air and grabbed me by the shoulders, pushing me forward.  I slammed into the rock wall sideways, and two of my fingers snapped, pain exploding throughout my hand.

Help!” I screamed with my illusion.  “She’s got me pinned!

The bald man turned to look at me, and a bullet blew through his head.

His eyes widened, blood trickling down his cheek.

Then he collapsed, falling into the chasm.

A Voidsteel bullet.  But the Green Hands around us were dead.  And we were surrounded by steam and smoke.  How could they see us?

And then it was obvious.

The shot had come from down the hill.  From where Wes and the Rose Titan were fighting.

It was the Shenti man, the Praxis specialist.  Commonplace’s trump card on the island.

Pictogram.

Clementine’s face broke into a slow, inevitable grin.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




6-C The Bombmaker

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

“Wow,” said Hira, munching on the Rose Titan’s crisps.  “These are fucking delicious.  What did you say they were called?”

“Papadum,” said the Rose Titan, turning the car down a side street.  “Snack food.  You toast ‘em  over an open flame.”  She floated one next to her and shot fire from the tip of her finger, cooking it.  “Nekeans buy this stuff by the pound.”

“Impressive,” said Hira.  “You island hoppers know how to get some things right.”

The Rose Titan braked at an intersection, jerking us forward in our seats.  “Because you’re Weston’s friend, I’m going to overlook your rudeness, Ilaquan.”

“Oh, this is my polite voice, Neke.  You’ll know when I’m rude.”

Ilaquan-Neke rivalry.  None of the other mercenaries crammed into the back of the Rose Titan’s car were saying anything.  I’d better speak up before they start screaming at each other.

“What do we know about this bombmaker?” I asked.  “And what about the terrain?  Do we have a plan?”

“We’ll brief you on the boat ride over,” said the Rose Titan.  “It’s complicated, and I only want to explain it once.”

The car turned a corner and stopped next to a narrow pier, lit by a series of orange lanterns.  A dirty fishing boat sat on the end, covered in peeling paint and rotting wood.

Anabelle Gage sat at the stern, reading a textbook, her feet hanging off the edge of the ship.  She stared up at us and flipped the book shut.

The Rose Titan turned off the car, and we stepped out.

An icy morning wind blew across the docks, making me shiver and stuff my hands into my pockets.  All of my coats were suit jackets, and the Rose Titan had said we were going to get dirty.   I wasn’t about to ruin any of my tuxedos, so I’d worn one of my two plain outfits, complete with thick, baggy pants and a shirt two sizes too small.  I look like a plumber.

“Say, Weston,” said the Rose Titan.  “How long can you hold your breath?”

________________________________________

Ana looked miserable.  And seasick.

Maybe it was the space we were in.  Professor Brin’s fishing boat was barely large enough to fit me, Ana, Hira, the Rose Titan, and the four other mercs he’d hired.  The wood was splintering, the one working light bulb flickered, and the entire thing smelled of rotting sea bass, which wasn’t even one of the good fishes.

Plus, the tiny seats in the vessel didn’t have cushions, and after what felt like hours of silent, miserable sailing, everything below my waist ached.  The Rose Titan and another merc were using some water projection technique to make the boat go faster, and it made the ride even bumpier.

The Rose Titan was talking, but I was occupied with reading into Ana’s body language.  Other than that first stare, she’d been avoiding eye contact with everyone for the entire trip and her legs were pulled into her chest.

Moreover, bags had formed under her eyes, and she wasn’t eating any of the food offered to her.  Is she even well enough to do a mission like this?

Now that I’d gotten to know her, Anabelle Gage was a far cry from the psychotic body thief I’d expected after Samuel’s encounter.  The girl had proven herself determined, focused, and if I was being honest, more level-headed than me.

But at the same time, she was also neurotic, self-loathing, and desperate.  And she didn’t understand my situation.

You selfish pimply tumor.  I stuffed down a surge of guilt rising from my stomach.  In my position, what else should I have done?  Ana wouldn’t have targeted the Broadcast King on her own – even after the promise we’d made to each other, even after we’d saved each other’s lives – she wouldn’t have stuck her neck out for a person she barely knew.

She needed a push.  And I needed something to incriminate the Broadcast King and save my family.  And if I’d been smarter in the penthouse, we would have gotten out with the files, unscathed, and everyone would have been happy.

I couldn’t let my family down.  And I couldn’t let myself fade away into mediocrity, either.

If Ana hated me for that, that was her fault, not mine.  No matter how much it hurt.

“So,” said the Rose Titan.  “Did everyone get all that?”

“No,” said Hira.  “Wes wasn’t listening for the last two minutes.  Ana’s brooding, but in an attentive introvert kind of way, so I think she’s still picking everything up.”

Thanks, Hira.

“No problem,” said the Rose Titan.  She leaned down and patted me on the shoulder.  “Perfectly normal reaction.  These things can be a tad stressful.”  A map floated up next to her, unfolding.  “Attlelan Island is a disputed territory between the Shenti warlord Luo Cai and the Principality.  After the war ended, the Black Tortoise’s government fell to infighting, and negotiations got a little tricky.”

“Your government,” said the Shenti man in a hoarse voice, “did not feel like conceding even a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean.”

A true Shenti.  The kind Principians would throw stones at, if he ever spoke his mind in public.  Why was he working for Professor Brin?  Can we trust him?

“It’s close to Elmidde, so the Luo Cai would never dare move in with a military force.  But the Principality isn’t interested in escalating either, so they’re staying away.  Which is – ”

“ – why the Guardians aren’t getting involved,” I finished.

“If things get really bad and we get captured by the Shenti,” said the Rose Titan.  “I’m going to use the Memory Encryption vocation to encode our recollections of the last twenty-four hours, with a key that only Isaac has.  To avoid starting a war and all.”

“And the bombmaker?” I said.  Shenti were dangerous enough when they punched things.  Bombs just made it worse.

The Rose Titan passed a photograph around.  A young, muscular Shenti man in a military outfit, smiling into the camera.

“This is Jun Kuang.  Twenty years old.  A weapons engineer for Luo Cai.  Either a Physical or Praxis specialist, or a combination of the two.  The man’s not a fighter, but his signature’s all over piles of rubble in Shenten.  Dude’s known for getting the biggest bang for the lowest cost.”

He looks so happy.  The ones who smiled over their kills were the scariest.

“Why is he with Commonplace?” I said.  Were the Shenti working with the Green Hands?  If that were true, everyone in this nation would hate them.  No one liked the Shenti.  Even the Shenti.

“We’re not sure,” said the Rose Titan.  “Our intel is limited.  But expect traps.  Unconventional attacks.”

“Traps.  Lovely.”  This is going to be irritating.

As the Rose Titan finished going over the plan, I nodded.  It was a good strategy, though these sorts of things tended to fall apart after five minutes in the real world.  If and when things went to shit, I’d improvise.

“What’s your experience with open combat, Queen Sulphur?” asked the Rose Titan.  “What have your previous missions looked like?”

“Well,” said Ana.  “Our Vocations are effective, as long as we have the advantage of close range and limited visibil – “

“We suck at it,” I said.  “Mostly, we try to infiltrate somewhere, get found out, and then run away screaming before we get pummelled.  It’s kind of a miracle we’ve lasted this long.”

Children,” muttered the Rose Titan.  “Isaac has no right to be sending you into this.”  She opened the door and ducked out into the grey morning, letting in a frigid gust of air.  “Stay in the back.  If there are projectors, let the rest of us handle them.”

Yeah, that’ll definitely keep us out of trouble.

Striding to the front of the boat, she leaned forward, squinting over the horizon.  “Thirteen minutes.  Double-check your gear and weapons.  Use the bathroom if you need to.  Trust me, you do not want a full bladder when the bullets start flying.”

I opened my new briefcase on my lap, lightweight and pitch black.  Then I checked the contents:

Five stacks of printer paper.  Wide and thin and sharp, with a few of them ripped up in case I needed smaller projectiles.  Squeezed beneath them were another pair of seroflourin bombs I’d flattened using my Vocation, from Hira, which we’d all been immunized to for the mission.  At his request, I’d also shrunk down an ordinary frag grenade.

Samuel’s white masquerade mask sat on top, so I could hide my identity at least partway, even if it looked atrocious with my outfit.

Was I supposed to pack anything else?  I always forgot something important in situations like these, like the keys to my dorm room or pencils on exam days.

The other mercs around me examined sniper rifles and submachine guns, loading bullets into clips and strapping on helmets with goggles.

A helmet.  I should have brought a helmet.  Hira stuffed grenades and razor blades into hidden pockets on his clothing, then took a puff on his hookah, leaning back against the ship’s railing.

None of them spoke a word.  The only noises were the low growl of the boat’s engine and the rushing of the water as the ship shot forward through it.

These people know what they’re doing.  And it looked like they were prepping for a war.

I reached for a piece of paper in my briefcase and folded it into a fish, tapping my foot.

You look like an idiot, a part of me said.  You are an idiot, another part said.

I found myself moving across the boat, towards the bench where Ana was sitting.  No, don’t do this, dumbass.

I kept walking.  Ana was still nose-deep in her textbook, some thick, numbing tome on the fundamentals of chemistry.

“Are you alright?” I said.

Ana turned a page on the book, not looking up.  The boat hit a swell, and the floor jerked beneath me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “You’d probably rather stuff hot coals down your throat than talk to me.  Or climb the Infinite Peak with only your pinkies, or hug a fire porcupine in the summer, or – “  I stopped myself.  “The point is, you look exhausted.  And sleep-deprived.  And sad.  We need everyone to be aware and at their best if we don’t want to get eviscerated by these Commonplace fucks.“

“Oh,” said Ana.  “Are you concerned about my safety now?  That would have been helpful when you were sending us into a death trap with ex-Kuttas.”

“Of course I’m concerned about your safety,” I said.  “You’re a nineteen-year-old with grey hair, your veins look like you have the plague, and you have the self-preservation instinct of a Shenti monk after the Spirit Block.  I’d be insane not to worry.”

“Do your job,” said Ana.  “And I’ll do mine.  And if you get cornered by a Whisper specialist again, don’t expect me to swoop in and rescue you.”

I blinked.  When I opened my eyes, Ana had disappeared.

“Real mature, Ana,”  I said.  “I know you’re still sitting there.”  I waved my hand towards the empty seat, and felt nothing.

Damn her.  Had she been gone for the entire conversation?  I could stretch my Pith out and scan the area for her, but I’d have to distinguish her soul from the others.  And that sort of move drained your energy a lot.  I wasn’t about to exhaust myself for some petty revenge.

I walked over to the Rose Titan, who was lying on the deck of the ship.  Her orange rosevine spear sat beside her.  She took a deep breath in, and exhaled with a low “hmm”, holding her palms flat on her stomach.

If I was being honest, it looked rather silly.

“Hey,” I said.  “Have you seen Ana?”

“Oh,” said the Rose Titan, pointing.  “She’s right over there.”

I looked where she was pointing, and saw only empty space.  “I can’t see her,” I said.

“Then maybe,” the Rose Titan said, opening her eyes.  “You shouldn’t be looking for her.”

“I was trying to check her combat readiness.  And she spat at me.  Maybe literally, I wouldn’t know.”

The Rose Titan exhaled with another low hum.  Then she repeated herself, not opening her mouth.

“Are you going to say something?” I asked.

“If you want keen insightful unpaid motherly advice from me,” she said.  “You’re going to need to tell me why she hates you.”  She checked her watch.  “And fast, because in nine minutes you’re going to be either kicking ass, having a mental breakdown, or both at the same time.”

“Why would you assume I want advice?”

“Just a guess.”

I knew it was a bad idea to overshare to all these people.  The Rose Titan’s bemused warmth might be a front to disarm people.  There were all sorts of ways a person could use my emotional hangups against me, and we were minutes away from jumping into live fire.

So, of course, I told her everything.

My initial plan with Ana.  Saving each other’s lives on the Golden Moon.  Tricking her into going after the Broadcast King.  Hira, spilling the truth to her moments after being accepted into Queen Sulphur.  And my training with Hira since.  Venting like this was irresponsible, but I didn’t have anyone else.  The only thing I left out were Hira’s real name, abilities, and his two bodies.

The Rose Titan glanced at Hira, raising an eyebrow.  “The Ilaquan mercenary exposed you.  And then you engaged in horizontal foxtrot with him.”

Is that what the Neke call screwing?  I scowled.  “My fiancé had just told me he didn’t need me, and my best friend lost her eye.  I was in a vulnerable place.”

“And you’re not angry with him.  For telling Ana the truth.”

I sighed, leaning over the railing, and a wave of exhaustion passed over me.  “Maybe I deserved it.  I couldn’t lie to Ana forever.  I just wish she wasn’t so…intense about it.”

“Do you know the ideals the Four Domains are based on?” asked the Rose Titan, looking at me.  The boat jerked as it hit another swell.

“Think so,” I said.

The Rose Titan held up a single finger.  “The Principality’s beliefs spring from the ideal of Ambition.  The individual’s desire to achieve wonders, ”  Forge the Stars in Your Image.  She held up another finger.  “The Neke’s beliefs come from the ideal of Humility.  The Harmonious Flock, and by extension, Ilaqua’s beliefs come from the ideal of Empathy.  The Shenti’s beliefs were lost after the Spirit Block, but as far as we can tell, they were centered around the ideal of Discipline.”

Is this entry-level philosophy?  Is she about to offer me a free personality quiz?  “How is this relevant?”

“There are philosophers who say that to become a true Exemplar, you must master all four.”

“Well,” I said.  “Most philosophers couldn’t wipe their ass without writing a twenty-page treatise on the morality of paper first.”  I could see where this advice was going.  “Which one do I need to work on here?”

“All of them,” she said.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“But if you’re looking to repair your relationship with your friend – “

“Co-worker,” I said.  “Accomplice.  Ally born of necessity.”

“ – Then as a loyal expat of the Neke islands, I’d recommend you start with Humility.  Take a brutal look at yourself and drown your ego in the ocean.”

“Seriously?” I said.  “I hate myself.  I know I’m a pile of trash, and I keep myself up at night just thinking about just how much.  You think I need to learn humility?”

She shrugged.

“And I hate cryptic advice,” I said.

“That’s the thing about wisdom,” said the Rose Titan.  “It all sounds stupid and cryptic until you practice it.”

“And then?”

She shrugged.  “It works or it doesn’t.  On your right.”

Something flew at me from the side, and I spun, catching it in midair.  It was a helmet, shaped crudely out of an off-white metal.  I put it on my head, and it fit perfectly.

“I noticed you didn’t have one, so I ripped a piece out of the ship’s hull, lined it with some fabric on the inside, and rigged a chin strap with one of my shoelaces.”  She beamed.  “It won’t stop a bullet, but it’ll keep the shrapnel and debris out.”  She stood up, towering over me, and patted me on the shoulder.  “Stay safe, kid.”  She checked her watch and glanced at the horizon.  “Line up, everyone!”

The mercenaries lined up on the front of the boat, backs against the railing.  Ana, who was now visible, both Hiras, and a muscular old man split off, forming a separate group.

The Rose Titan stepped up to face us.  Behind her, the controls of the ship moved of their own volition, controlled by projection.

“With a few exceptions,” she said, “none of you know each other.”  Her voice was measured, but focused.

My eyes flitted left and right.  All eyes were on her.  Hira and Ana.  The Shenti man, and the three other mercs.  Flat grey sunlight streamed through the clouds, illuminating her light brown skin, and reflecting off her dark green pupils.

“You’re from all corners of the Eight Oceans.  You’ve studied different forms of combat.”  She looked over all of us.  “And you haven’t fought alongside each other.  You’re mercenaries, who don’t even know one another’s names.”

And let’s keep it that way.  After today, anyone who survived would be our competition, the men and women fighting us for Professor Brin’s gigs.

“If things get bad out there, your first instinct is going to be to run, because no paycheck is worth your life.”  She glared at each of us in turn.  “I’m going to tell you now.  Leave that all on the boat.  Because if you don’t watch each other’s backs – “

I glanced at Ana.  Her gaze flitted towards me for a moment, then back to the Rose Titan.

“If your soul thinks only of retreat, instead of strategy, aggression, teamwork, we will lose.”   The Rose Titan slammed the butt of her spear on the deck, making me flinch.  “And you won’t make it fifty meters into the ocean before you get filled with bullet holes.  So:”  She leaned forward, and lifted her spear above her in a tight fist.  “Remember your passwords.  Remember the plan.  Fight together.  And dream of victory on crimson beaches.”

I tightened my grip on my briefcase, wiping a sweaty palm on my shirt.  You can do this.

The Rose Titan glanced at the horizon.  “Distance out one-twenty-six.”  She squinted.  “No, one twenty-seven.  Speed, thirty-one knots.  Equipment check!”

“Clear!” yelled the Shenti man, who had donned a full-body suit of armor made of asbestos, like the ones firefighters used for intense temperatures.

“Clear!” shouted the purple-haired woman next to him, hefting a huge bag over her shoulders.  Everyone sounded off one by one after him, confirming their readiness.

When it was my turn, I yelled “clear!”, even though my helmet was sliding down over my eyes and I had no idea if I’d missed something important.

“Step over!” yelled the Rose Titan.

Everyone climbed over the ship’s railing and stood on the other side, hanging off the edge.  I followed them, holding onto the railing with one hand and my briefcase with the other.  My broken fingers had healed, but I still used my stronger hand for the briefcase.

The water looked awful cold.  The Principality’s winters were anything but kind.

“You better hold that thing tight,” the old man glanced down at my briefcase.

I inhaled, and exhaled, forcing my lungs to expand.

“On my count,” said the Rose Titan.

I sucked in a deep breath.

“Three.  Two.  One.  Dive.”

I jumped into the ocean.

The icy water engulfed me, a freezing shock that made me want to scream.  It was colder than I could have imagined, a biting chill that seemed to sink into every fiber of my body, slowing my movements.  I can’t stay in this for long.

I focused on the water around my briefcase and stopped it from seeping in, protecting the dry stacks of paper inside.  This is going to be a nightmare with Ana’s shivers.

Below me, the light dimmed in the dark, endless ocean, an expanse stretching down into infinity.

Then the water tightened around my body, yanking me into a flat position with my arms and legs squeezed together.  It yanked me forward, shooting me through the ocean.

I felt myself accelerate, then accelerate more, until my briefcase seemed to weigh a hundred pounds.  How fast am I going?

In the dark water, I could make out several human-shaped blurs to my left and right, flying in a v formation like a squadron of fighter planes.  The one at the front looked like the Rose Titan, projecting into the water and steering us all.  We’d gone deeper as well, making us invisible from the surface.

My lungs burned, a warm pressure that built inside my chest, a pain growing exponentially by the second until it was all I could think about.

I would have killed for a breath of fresh air.  Just one moment to swim upwards, breach the surface, and suck in a lungful of oxygen.  Fuck stealth, let’s go in guns blazing.  Who cared if a few guards saw us approaching from the shore?

The cold water sapped the heat from my skin and flesh, chilling me to the bone.  Just one breath, please.  Scholars, please.

It felt like I had only a few seconds left, that if I went beyond that, I’d suck in the water and choke to death.

Then I found a new well of determination, forced myself to hold on for another few seconds, and the cycle repeated.  Scholars damn my replacement.  If the thieving bitch had built up a bigger lung capacity on this body, or better cold resistance, I wouldn’t be in this situation.

Another five minutes passed.  Or maybe it was five seconds, I couldn’t tell.

My head breached the surface back-first, and I slid onto a grainy, flat surface.

I sucked in a breath before my mouth was completely above the surface, breathing in water.  I coughed, spitting, and crawled forward, away from the crashing waves.

As I hacked and wheezed, I collapsed on a dry patch of ground, and began to get a sense of my bearings.

I was lying on a beach of dark red sand, enclosed in a narrow cove with rock walls extending upwards on all sides.  Crimson beaches.  The Rose Titan’s speech made a lot more sense now.

A breeze blew over me, and I shivered.  Projecting into the water in my clothes, I squeezed it out, letting it drain into the sand around me.  It didn’t make my clothes warm, but it did make me dry, which would help me avoid hypothermia.

I hope Ana’s alright.  With the icy water and her already-damaged lungs, this trip wouldn’t be easy for her.  Her, both Hiras, and a third mercenary had split off from our group, heading to a different landing zone.

The other team members were already out of the water and dry.  The old Humdrum man, scanning the cliffs around us with his sniper rifle.  The Shenti man wearing asbestos armor.  The purple-haired woman floating nine large bags behind her, with a tenth hefted over her shoulder.

Where’s the Rose Titan?  I glanced up, to see her standing at the top of the cliffs.

She held a finger to her lips and mimicked a person sleeping.  Two bodies lay on a stone staircase beneath her.  She knocked them out.  Her Vocation had something to do with dreams and sleep.

If I squinted, I could make out some of their features.  Men, clutching bolt-action rifles in their hands, with green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.

Commonplace.  Hira’s tip was right.

The Rose Titan brought her palms together and made a chopping motion with them.  One of her hand signals that she’d made us memorize.

The four of us lined up on the beach, with me in the very back.  Another hand signal, and we jogged up the zigzagging stairs up the cliff.

When we got to the top, I saw the extent of Kahlin’s operation.

The island was filled with crates.  Small wooden crates and giant metal ones, stacked on top of each other in rows towering above us.  It was like a miniature city, complete with roads and alleys weaving in between the mountains of smuggled goods.  The pathway here cut off a hundred feet ahead of us, so it was impossible to tell how large it was.

They’re all filled with weapons.  Guns, ammunition, explosives.  And who knew what else.

What happens when they bring these to Elmidde?  When they armed thousands of terrorists in a nation on the verge of civil war?

The Rose Titan made a third hand signal, and split off from the group, leaping thirty feet up in a single bound.  She sprinted barefoot across the crates high above us, leaping across gaps and alleyways without making a sound.

The rest of us moved from cover to cover, watching the pathways ahead of us.  Dew from the grass soaked into my socks, getting them damp, and I projected into the water to pull it out.

The old Humdrum glanced around a corner and held up a hand, then pointed.  I reached my Pith forward and felt three glimmering lights ahead of us.  Three guards.

I heard three soft thumps, and the old Humdrum motioned for us to move forward.  Another trio of Green Hands lay asleep in front of us, carrying submachine guns.

We moved on through the labyrinth of shipping crates, passing larger and larger groups of unconscious people.  Guards, workers in hardhats, women slumped over at the controls of forklifts.

The Rose Titan is sort of terrifying.  Whoever she was.  But I was glad she wasn’t killing the people, even if they were monsters bent on destroying the country from within.

So far, so good.  But it was only a matter of time until someone checked in with the sleeping guards, heard silence, and turned on the alarm.

We turned a corner, to see the Rose Titan kneeling in a dark alleyway.  The rows of crates ended, opening up into a grassy hill.  Roads crisscrossed it up and down, with not a bit of cover in sight.

A cargo truck drove down from the top of the hill, and we ducked back into cover behind the crates.  The truck turned to the side, driving towards a dock with a ship in it.  It passed a pair of airplanes sitting on the lawn.  Bombers.

A dense collection of grey buildings sat at the top of the hill.  In the pathways between them, I could make out tiny guards carrying rifles.

“Obviously,” said the Rose Titan under her breath.  “Stealth is out of the question now.”  She motioned to the other mercs.  “So now, it’s time to get loud.  Step two.”  Be the distraction.

The purple-haired woman with the bags floating behind her stepped forward.  The bags fell to the ground, revealing nine separate mortars and a small mountain of ammunition.  They flew out, setting themselves up in a row in front of one of the metal crates.

The old Humdrum peered into his rifle scope, and the Rose Titan squinted, leaning forward.

“The left road,” said the Humdrum.

“The two armored cars parked up top,” said the Rose Titan.

“The sandbags at two o’clock,” said the Humdrum.

The mortars adjusted themselves, pointing towards the targets.

Then the two fell silent, and there was a moment of silence, when all I could hear was the ocean breeze, and the distant waves splashing up against the cliffs of the island.

“In three,” said the Rose Titan.

I flipped open the clasp on my briefcase.

“Two.”

The Humdrum pulled back the bolt on his sniper rifle.

“One.”

Ammunition floated towards the mortar tubes, hovering at the top.

“Go.”

The shells dropped into the tubes, and the mortars fired.

I held my breath.

The top of the hill exploded with a series of deafening bangs, showering dust and debris out in clouds.  An alarm rang out with a loud screech, and men shouted orders in the distance.

The armored cars were flaming wrecks.  The machine gun nest was a wreckage of sandbags and dirt.

In seconds, men and women swarmed out of the buildings like a disturbed anthill.  Dozens and dozens, armed with all sorts of weapons.

“Aim at chokes!” shouted the Rose Titan.  “Fire!”  The mortars blasted again.  They impacted along the roads and doorways, where the Green Hands were funneling into.  This time, corpses and limbs exploded with the debris.  I flinched, feeling a wave of nausea.

In response, the enemy spread out, setting themselves up behind rubbled buildings, inside windows, and behind the smoking wrecks we’d blown up.  I spotted machine guns, and worse, sniper rifles being aimed at us.  Two of them even had mortars of their own.

Gunshots rang out, making my ears ache, and bullets whizzed through the alleyway where we were taking cover.

I peeked my head out, and the enemy mortar positions exploded with dust and debris.  More bullets whizzed past my head, and I pulled back into cover.

The Rose Titan nodded her head to the Shenti man wearing the asbestos suit.  “Step three.  You’re up.”

The man leaned out of cover.  In the thick suit of armor, his movements were clumsy and slow.

Green lightning crackled around his outstretched hand.  So he’s a Physical Specialist.

Dozens of tiny fireballs shot out of the storm of electricity, trailing smoke behind them.  They glowed orange as they flew through the air, shining bright against the dim grey sky like miniature fireworks.

It took me a moment to recognize what the substance was.  White phosphorus.  A chemical used by the military in incendiary weapons.  It would stick to your skin, burn until it melted your flesh, and then poison your blood and lungs.

The Shenti man had asked to use it directly on the enemies.  Typical Shenti.  But the Rose Titan had refused.

The white phosphorus spread out, landing in a semicircle near the top of the hill.  None of it landed a direct hit on a Green Hands.

The grass caught fire, turning into a ring of flames around the front of the compound.  In another few seconds, the smoke had formed a thick wall between us and the enemy, blocking our line of sight.

That’s why they’re using it.  White phosphorus also produced massive quantities of obscuring smoke.  I couldn’t see the Green Hands, and they couldn’t see me.  The asbestos-suit man launched more white phosphorus, spreading the fire and smoke even further.

But the mortar lady and the Rose Titan were Joiners.  Their projection-enhanced eyes could see just fine.

“Step four!” she shouted over the gunfire.  “Go!”

We sprinted to the side, from this alley to another one fifty yards north.  Because of the smokescreen, the enemy couldn’t see us move.  As far as they knew, we hadn’t moved from our initial cover spot.

The mortar woman set up in our new location.  Seconds later, she was shooting her nine mortars into the cloud of smoke.

This time, I could only hear the effects.  Dull booms in the distance.  Shouts and screams and more ear-shattering gunfire, only none of it was coming close to us anymore.

Even if they guessed we’d swapped cover, they still couldn’t see us.  The white phosphorus smoke was too thick, and now they had a fire in their complex they’d have to put out, which would divert more of their soldiers.

Beneath the gunfire and the mortars and the ringing in my ears, I could make out the screaming from inside, the cries for help mixing with the enemy’s shouted orders.

They’re not civilians, I reminded myself.  It’s not our fault they attacked the country.

“Any second now,” said the Rose Titan, leaning on her spear.  “With the situation we’ve set up, there’s only one proper strategy they can take.”

Men and women charged out of the smoke, spreading out to avoid the mortar fire.  They sprinted down the hill towards us, pointing and shouting.  Oh, fuck.  They must have doused a part of the fire to cut a path for themselves.

It was slow work.  The Green Hands had to navigate around the patches of fire and white phosphorus and smoke, all while mortar fire rained down around them.

As they ran, they took the occasional shot in our direction, but with all the chaos, none of them hit near us.

“Step five,” said the Rose Titan.  “Mr. Brown.”  My fake name.

I shot my paper out of my briefcase, fanning it out in a wide arc.  With all of the smoke, it was difficult to make out the enemies running towards us, but I could feel the positions of every sheet I was projecting into.

When I felt resistance, I knew one of them had hit a target.

I blew a storm of paper towards the guard and covered them in cuts.  I focused on the webbing of the hands and the face.  None of the strikes would be lethal or disfiguring, but would cause enough pain to incapacitate them.

I felt my first target drop to the ground, and heard a man’s scream of pain from the same direction.  Once again, I pushed down my discomfort.  It’s them or you.

I cut a second enemy.  Then a third.  Then five more, again and again until I lost count, until it felt like there were more angry Green Hands than I had sheets of paper.

Green lightning crackled around my arms and torso, and a headache built up beneath my forehead as I strained to whirl and slash and cut with every piece of paper I had.

As the smoke drew closer, I coughed, and the Rose Titan tossed me a gas mask, and I strapped it on under my helmet, blocking my vision for a moment.

When I glanced back forward, a man was sprinting out of the smoke, leveling a shotgun at me.

A gunshot rang out, and blood exploded out of the back of his head.  Both of them dropped to the ground.

Across the alley, the old Humdrum sniper adjusted his aim and fired again.

The Rose Titan extended her spear forward, and the rosevine wrapped around the shaft extended forward, lashing into the smoke like a sentient whip.  Within, I felt dozens of guards drop to the ground, unconscious.

We’d set the perfect trap, a neat funnel to lure their troops in and cut them to pieces.  They had to attack us, and we’d blocked their other assault routes.

A man crawled out of the smoke, with bleeding stumps in place of his lower legs.  Blown off by a mortar.  His blood stained the grass red behind him.  He slumped over, limp.  A woman writhed on the ground, covered in flames.

I’d heard so much about the heroic exploits of Paragon’s Guardians, about their feats of bravery and cunning throughout the battles of the Shenti War.  They can’t have been like this.

But regardless of the carnage, we were winning.

I felt the soldiers in the smoke pull away.  They’re running back up the hill.  A retreat?

My shirt and pants jerked to the left, yanking me onto the ground.  I slammed into the grass face-first.

A pair of gunshots rang out.  Something wet splattered onto my arm.

My clothes dragged me behind a metal crate, forcing me into cover.

The mortar woman and the old Humdrum fell.  Blood poured out of bullet holes between their eyes.

Everything moved in slow motion.  How?  The smokescreen was still up.  A sniper couldn’t even see us, much less score two perfect headshots.

“Stay in cover!” shouted the Rose Titan.  “Don’t move!”  She leaned her head out of cover for a fraction of a second, then snapped it back behind the metal crate.  “Scholars.

“What’s happening?!” I shouted.  I pointed at the mortar woman and the old sniper.  “Are they – “

“You can’t do anything for them,” said the Rose Titan.

“What the fuck happened?!”  My hands were shaking, and I felt lightheaded.  Just like that.  One split second, and they were gone.  It could have just as easily been me.

“There’s a Shenti man at the top of the hill,” said the Rose Titan.  “In the middle of the smoke cloud.”

Shenti.  Shit.  He had to be a Joiner with enhanced vision, who could see infrared, or something would let him spot us through the smoke.

“The bullets punched right through Angela’s ABD, which means he’s got Voidsteel rounds in his pistol.”

“His pistol?”  The Shenti man was hundreds and hundreds of yards away from us, looking through thick layers of smoke, and firing two shots so close to each other they looked simultaneous.

And he was doing it with a pistolWho is this guy?

“We have to assume he can see us through the crates, too,” said the asbestos-covered Shenti man.  The friendly one.  “Either he’s going to try and get close, or he’s going to – “

Two low thuds echoed from the top of the hill.  A familiar sound.  “Titan,” I called out, staring up at the grey sky.  “Titan!”

The Rose Titan dropped her spear and lifted her palms above her head.

Two mortar rounds froze in the air, hovering, barely a yard above our heads.

The Rose Titan whipped her hands to the side, and the miniature bombs flew away, exploding on top of a distant crate.  The wooden boxes blew into splinters, spilling machine guns and grenades onto the grass.

As she did that, the mortars fired again.  That eastern dog knows exactly where we are.

The Rose Titan deflected them again, tossing the mortar rounds back up the hill to explode in the wall of smoke.  Then deflected another two.  And another.

“My metal projection isn’t good enough!” she shouted.  “I can’t throw these back at him!  Not without exposing my head for a while!”  Which would be fatal.  She looked at the white phosphorus projector.  “Can you get him?”

“My attacks aren’t fast.  He’ll have time to dodge.  And I’ll need to look for a fraction of a second every time he changes position.”

“Do it anyway.  Wide spread.”

The white phosphorus man poked his head out of cover for a moment, then popped back.  Green lightning crackled around his hands, and bursts of smoking white phosphorus shot out, soaring over the crate.

The Rose Titan popped another glance out of the other side of the crate.  “Target is running down the hill.  But he’s going at a normal speed.  His leg muscles aren’t strengthened.”

The white phosphorus man poked his head out and fired again, white phosphorus shooting out like shotgun blasts.  “It’s not enough!” he shouted.  “I can’t hit him!”

“He’s stopped,” said the Rose Titan.  “He’s not getting any closer.”

That doesn’t make sense.  “He’s a Joiner with Voidsteel bullets, mortars, and perfect aim,” I said.  “Why isn’t he finishing us off?”

“He doesn’t know our Vocations,” said the phosphorus man.  “He might be cautious, keeping his distance without committing.”

“No,” the Rose Titan said, tossing aside another pair of mortars.  “He sent off the other Green Hands – all the Humdrums.  He’s confident he can take on all of us on his own.”

Then it came to me.

“He’s stalling,” I said.  “They’re onto our plan, and all the Green Hands are headed back for our real infiltration team.”  Ana and Hira.  “They’re going to get slaughtered while we’re pinned down.”  They weren’t equipped to fight through an entire army.

“Oh dear,” said the Rose Titan.

“And since the Shenti fucker’s vision is so good,” I said. “ I bet he can read our lips through the crates.”  I gathered my paper around me, swirling it over my head.  “We’re both aware of each other’s strategies.  But if we want to help our comrades, we need to defeat him here before it’s too late.”

“There’s something else,” said the Rose Titan.  “When I glanced back last time, other people were going back inside with the Green Hands.  They didn’t have tattoos or firearms, and they were dressed in more expensive clothes.  I think they were mobsters.”

No guns means they’re either non-combatants or projectors.  I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, the same wrenching sensation I got when falling.

“Did you recognize any of them?” I asked.

“Jasper Fryth.  A joiner who runs smuggling out of Gestalt Island.  Torkel Donnet, who operates over a dozen money laundering operations for the mob.”  She clapped her hands above her head, detonating two mortars before they got close to us.  “And Clementine Rawlyn, one of Tunnel Vision’s low-level lieutenants.”

Ana is fucked.  And so was Hira, the poor bastard.  And so are we.  Normally, this would be the place when Ana and I would cut our losses and run away.  Takonara.

But I was pinned down by a freakish sharpshooter, and Ana was deep in the enemy stronghold.  There was no escape to be had here.

We had to go through them.

“Alright,” I said.  “I have an idea.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




6-B The Bombmaker

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Wes

The table slammed into me, knocking me onto the floor.  When I opened my eyes, a thick cloud of dust filled the room.

The only sound I could hear was a high pitched ringing.  My ears and lungs burned, and something sharp poked into my leg.

I crawled backwards, my head spinning, blinking to clear the stinging dust from my eyes.

A pile of bloody glass shards sat where my leg had been lying.  From a damn milkshake cup.  Beyond that, the dust made it difficult to see anything.  I coughed, doubling over.

My mind snapped to my basic tactics training.  Don’t panic.  Get your bearings.  What just happened?  My eyes darted around the room, peering through the smoke and debris.  A bomb.

Right-Hira crouched behind the table, a thin stream of blood running down the side of his head.  He yelled something at me, but I couldn’t hear anything.  The wooden chairs and tables around me had been reduced to rubble, and every window in the building had been shattered.

Bodies surrounded me and Hira.  Waiters, teenagers, Paragon students.  Large blotches of red stained their clothes up and down their bodies, and a thin layer of dust covered every single one of them.

Some of them moved, twitching their fingers or sucking in wheezing breaths.  Most of them didn’t.

Where are Samuel and Eliya?  My breath quickened, making my throat burn.  Both of them had been closest to the blast – the old woman had set it off when they walked past her. Their autonomous bullet defenses should have blocked the shrapnel, but the blast wave would still harm them.

I crawled back towards the metal table Hira had used as cover, taking care to not tread over more broken glass.  That’s the only reason I’m alive.  I poked my head above the top and squinted across the room, towards the pile of rubble and limbs where the old woman had been sitting.

Eliya lay next to the door, unmoving.  A thin red hole had been blown into the side of her forehead, blood pouring out of it.  Both her legs were a mangled mess of blood and bone beneath the knee, and one of her eyeballs looked like a popped balloon.

A wave of nausea came over me, and I leaned against the table for support.  No.  She couldn’t be dead.  Eliya was the toughest person I knew.

I looked back at her.  Despite everything else, her dust-covered chest was rising and falling.  She’s still breathing.  But with the wound to her head, her brain could be in danger, which could mean permanent damage to the delicate structures of her Pith itself.

The wound looked like shrapnel had caused it, which should have been blocked by her ABD.  Was there Voidsteel in the bomb?

Samuel lay next to Eliya, on his back.

Blood covered his perfect forehead and chin, staining his dirty blonde hair.  One of his arms had been ripped off from the elbow down.

The other arm was draped over his torn stomach, where his intestines spilled out, exposed.  A puddle of blood grew beneath him, pouring out from the tear in his abdomen and dripping down his torso and legs.

Oh, scholars.  I gagged.  Tears collected at the edges of my eyes.

His eyelids fluttered, and his chest rose and fell.  He’s alive.  But for how long?

I’m going to find whoever’s responsible for this.

A girl crawled up towards Samuel, coughing up blood.  Marion Hewes.  A Paragon student from Sphinx Squad.

Marion ripped off a piece of a dead man’s shirt and pressed it to Samuel’s stomach.  He groaned with pain.

“Pressure,” she choked out.  “You have to slow the bleeding.  Until help arrives.”  The ringing in my ears had subsided just enough to make out her speech.

Loud cracks rang out from the street, and bullets blew through Marion’s head, filling her with bloody holes.

She dropped to the ground, unmoving.

Outside the front door, a man and a woman sat on a motorcycle, with a machine gun mounted on the sidecar.  Green hands.  Or mobsters from Tunnel Vision.  Possibly armed with Voidsteel bullets.

“Two o’clock, two o’clock!” the man shouted.

The woman turned the machine gun toward me.

I dropped to the floor, and more cracks rang out, bullets clanging into the metal of the table.  They kept going, drowning out all other noise.

Hira grabbed me by the arm, yanking me to one side of the table.  He pulled off my shoe and slid it to the opposite end, so that just the toes were sticking out.

The gunfire focused on the far end of the table.  Bullet holes opened up above where the shoe stuck out, just above the ground so it would hit a person lying on their belly.  The table wasn’t thick enough everywhere.

I closed my eyes and stretched out my Pith, reaching for pieces of paper in the room.  Mostly napkins.  Not enough of an edge to cut properly, but I could feel a few receipts and orders around the kitchen area, and some sheets from a cabinet in the office.

Before I could shoot them at the motorcycle, Hira grabbed my arm.  “Police and Guardians will be here soon!”  Even though he was shouting, I could barely hear him over the gunfire.   “Brin won’t be able to cover it up if you’re arrested!  You’ll fuck over us all!”

“Doesn’t matter,” I hissed.  “Have to fight.”

“No, we don’t!”  Hira pointed to the back door behind him.  “Your ex is going to get a new body when the paramedics show!  We need to get out of here.”

Blood dripped down my cut leg.  Every breath made my lungs burn, and the loud cracks of the machine gun sent stabs of pain through my ears.  I clenched my fists.  “The enemies know Eliya and Samuel are still breathing.  If we leave, they’ll confirm their kills.  But we need to – “

I turned to my right.  Hira was already speed-crawling out of the back door, slipping through the narrow gap and into the alleyway out back.  Bullets blasted into the door where he’d been, opening up dozens of holes.

While they focused on Hira, I slid the paper I’d gathered out one of the broken side windows, out of sight of the two gunmen.

Remembering the gunmen’s locations, I shot the paper at the motorcycle from behind, aiming where the shooter’s necks and faces would be.

They only hit air.  The targets moved.  I swirled the paper up and down, back and forth, combing around the motorcycle to find their new position.

Where did they go?  Their vehicle hadn’t moved, and someone was still shooting the mounted machine gun.  Could they be – 

I spun around.  The man and the woman leapt around the table, swiveling a pair of shotguns in my direction.  They kept the gun firing as a diversion.  And they’d used the distraction to flank me.

The two thugs aimed their guns at me.

Then they screamed, falling to the ground.  Their hands fell off beneath them, blood gushing out of the two stumps where their wrists had been.  The shotguns clattered to the ground, unfired.  

Someone cut their hands off.

The woman writhed on the ground, screaming.  The man was unconscious, passed out from the shock.  In the late morning sunlight, I caught a glint of a thin wire, floating in the air above them.

I stood up to see Samuel standing in the center of the room.  He staggered towards me, clutching his stomach and holding his intestines in his body.  Tears poured down his face, and his shoulders shook from the exertion and pain.

The boy had been torn open, could only see out of one eye, and was covered in blood.  And he was still fighting.

A man with a rifle popped up from behind the motorcycle, out of Samuel’s vision.

Without looking, before I could move, Samuel lifted his arm in the man’s direction, and the man’s arm split off at the elbow.  He fell to the ground, clutching the stump.

I stretched my Pith out, straining to feel the presence of other souls in the room.  That’s all of them.

Samuel stared the floor, blood pouring out of his torn eye.  I stared at him, unable to move a muscle.

Then he collapsed, his guts spilling out beneath him.

I sprinted over to him and grabbed the shirt Marion was using to slow the bleeding.  Sirens rang in the distance as I flipped him over, pushed his guts back in, and pressed down on the opening as hard as I could.

He didn’t need a functioning digestive system for the paramedics.  He just needed a working Pith, and that meant minimizing his blood loss and shock reaction.

“Eyes open!” I shouted.  “Don’t fucking fall asleep.”

Sirens rang in the distance.  Blood soaked into the shirt I was using, making it damp beneath my palms.  As I pressed down, I could feel his guts moving around beneath me, like I was kneading a pile of raw meat.

I retched, holding back the vomit.  “Stay the fuck awake.”

Samuel avoided eye contact with me, turning his head so he was looking away from me.  He coughed, and whispered something under his breath.

“What?”  I leaned closer to hear him better, and pressed harder on his stomach, making him groan.

Go,” he whispered.  “Go.  Go.

I shook my head.  “You’ll bleed out.”

If they catch you – “  Samuel gagged, spitting blood.  “ – both get hurt.  Don’t need you.

The sirens got louder.  Closer.  The police aren’t going to be friendly.

Don’t need you,” repeated Samuel.

Idiot.  I should have done something better, something smarter.  If my reflexes were faster, if I’d picked up on the signs like Hira did, I could have stopped the attack – jammed the bomb, or stopped the old woman.  I need to get stronger.

Tires screeched outside.  A pair of police cars and an ambulance pulled up on the street.

I glanced at Eliya, her chest rising and falling with a bleeding hole in the side of her forehead.  There wasn’t anything I could do for her in this position.  Any damage to her Pith would have already been done.  Hang in there.

Men and women streamed out of the cop cars, hefting pistols and bolt-action rifles, aiming towards the restaurant.

Run,” whispered Samuel.

I ran.

________________________________________

I threw up on Hira’s carpet.

Disgusting.  You stupid alcoholic.  I leaned back on his couch, wiping my lips and taking a sip of ice water to wash out the taste of stomach acid.

“You’d better clean that up,” said Hira.  “Lund pe chadh.  Damn drunk.”

Technically, I wasn’t drunk anymore.  I was covered in dust and soot, bleeding from cuts on my leg, and suffering from the worst hangover of my life, but now I was sober enough to lie on the couch and hate myself.

I’d been vomiting in the bathroom for the past hour, and would have stayed, if it was possible to listen to the radio there.  I needed breaking news, as much of it as I could take, and Hira refused to move any of his devices.

Samuel’s got to be alright.  The ambulance was right in front of me.  Elmidde’s emergency responders had been fast, so fast I’d barely managed to escape while they secured the area.

But Eliya had looked worse.  She could be in a coma.  There could be all kinds of permanent and fucked-up damage to her Pith.

I knew where she’d be taken too: Iphiclus Hospital, the high-end medical center where all injured Paragon students were taken.  But if I was spotted too close to Samuel, the Ousting laws would get both of us in trouble, and the building would be swarming with witnesses.

Ana could have gone in.  Her grey coat status would have gotten her past the front door, and her illusions would be more than sufficient to check in on two patients.

If we were still speaking to each other, it would have been easy.  But we weren’t.

So here I was, lying back on Hira’s couch, half-dead and filthy, listening to some idiot news anchor go on about the day’s horrors, praying they’d release information about the victims amidst all the Broadcast King’s propaganda.

But I had to keep listening.  If I stopped, if I let myself relax and play with my thoughts too much, my mind would slip back into the interior of The Silver Flask with all the dust and blood and corpses, and that awful ringing noise in my ears that I could still hear now if I strained.

I’m not suggesting it was deliberately orchestrated,” said the idiot on the radio.  “But you’ve got to admit, it’s rather convenient for powers that support Paragon Academy and its Guardians, for the people who would want to smear a political organization like Commonplace.  I’m saying that we shouldn’t draw any rash conclusions, and make sure we can trace the attack back to its true sour –

I projected into the radio’s buttons and flipped it off.

“Hira,” I said.  “Can Paragon Academy trace payphones?”

“After a few minutes,” he said, leaning back on a rickety wooden chair.  How is he so casual after surviving a bomb attack?  “But only if they suspect something.”

I sat up, staring at the pool of stomach acid, ice cream, and rum I’d made on the floor.

“I need to ask a favor from you,” I said.

________________________________________

From the other end of the lobby, I watched Hira approach the front desk of Iphiclus Hospital, holding Isaac Brin’s silver business card in front of him.

“I’m one of Major Brin’s assistants,” Hira called out.  My idea.  “I’m here to check on the state of his daughter, Eliya, since his last visit.”

My paper projection on the hospital’s visitor records confirmed that Professor Brin had signed out six hours ago and wasn’t currently in the building.  And the business card of a Scholar-ranked Guardian carried more than enough clout to get something as basic as this.

Hira and the woman at the front desk talked, quiet enough for me to not hear what they were saying.  After a few minutes, Hira turned and walked back towards me.

He punched me on the shoulder as he passed.  It reminded me of Leizu.  “Next drink’s on me,” he said.

I followed him out.  “What happened?”

“Your boyfriend’s fine,” he said.  “The girl’s blind in one eye.”

________________________________________

I’m supposed to feel sad and broken and angry,” said Christea Ronaveda on Hira’s radio.  “That’s what everyone expects after a tragedy like this.

Hira and I had barely exchanged a single word since arriving back at his tiny house.  His refrigerator was out of booze, and it was all I could do to summon up the strength to lie on the couch and listen to the radio.

I’ve felt all of those things before,” said the host of Verity.  “Rage and pain and despair, over and over again, every time I see senseless cruelty.  Every time I hear about a bomb attack, or a shooting, or mental hijacking.  But if I’m being honest, and I literally have to be – “  She paused.  “When I heard about the attack on the café today, I felt nothing.  Bored, maybe.  Exhausted.  But nothing else.  When you’re going through nightmares every day, at what point does it become normal?  Millions of Principality denizens listen to this show and expect me to be intelligent and insightful and some kind of magnificent personality through all this whaleshit.  I’m just some dumbass who has to tell the truth.  And honestly?  Fuck you.  Fuck me.  I’m going back to bed.

I pulled off the bloody bandages on my leg, tossing them aside, then wrapped new ones around my calf.  I’d removed the glass shards and doused the cuts in rubbing alcohol, but now that I was sober, all the burning pain was coming back.

“Samuel looked away from me,” I said.

“What?”  Right-Hira glanced up at me from the floor, lying on his back and taking puffs from his hookah.  His female body fried something in the kitchen.

My mind flashed back to the image of Samuel, lying on the floor with his guts spilling out over him.  Eliya with a bleeding hole in her forehead, blood staining her blonde hair, looking like she’d been shot to death.  And now she’s half-blind.

“Samuel was in agony.  His intestines were spilling out in his hands and he had just saved my life.”  I leaned over, slouching.  “But he still couldn’t look me in the eye.”

“For what it’s worth,” said Hira.  “I knew a lot of people back in Ilaqua.  Family, friends, fucks.”  He took a long puff from his hookah.  Its orange flame glowed in the room’s dim light.  “And none of them would have risked their lives for me.  Not like him.”  He shrugged.  “Or maybe he was just using you as a distraction for those Green Hands.”

“For the longest time,” I said.  “I’ve been surrounded by smart, successful, beautiful people.  I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants and passed out drunk, and every time I did, I heard a sneaking suspicion at the back of my head.  Whispering ‘your friends could do better than you’.”  I stared at the ceiling.  “Now I know.”

“Not that you give a shit about my advice,” said Hira.  “But you’re wasting your time.  Don’t beat yourself with problems you can’t solve.  Don’t obsess about becoming an Exemplar, or ‘forging the stars’, or whatever.”

“Really,” I said.

“Fill your life with the most intense distractions you can find, don’t stop to think, and you’ll never have to wallow in your self-loathing.”  Hira blew a smoke ring towards the ceiling.  “Trust me, I’ve skill-stitched multiple therapists.  All pricks, of course.”

“Distractions.”  I can be good at those.  “Got any good ones?”

Lund pe chadh,” he said, sitting up.

“What does that mean?”

Hira spread his legs and took off his jacket.  He tossed it aside, raising a single eyebrow at me.

I looked him up and down.  He’s pretty enough.  Muscular, too, with a jaw that could cut Voidsteel.  Both his bodies were red-hot.

Then a twinge of regret.  An image of Samuel’s smile, flashing through my head.  You’re not together anymore.  But if I abandoned him, what was I fighting for?  What was the purpose of any of this?

He’s moved on.  The image of Samuel in my mind scowled, turning his head away from me, avoiding eye contact.  A pang of pain shot through my stomach.  He chose a stable life over you.

It’s this or get vomit-drunk again.

“Why the fuck not?” I said.

I reached for the top button on my shirt.

________________________________________

A series of loud bangs shocked me out of my sleep.

Gunshots?  Explosions?  A burst of panic exploded through my mind, and my chest tightened.

No, that’s not it.  My sleep-deprived mind analyzed the noise.  Wooden.  Hollow.  Patterns of two or three.  Downstairs.  Someone was knocking on Hira’s front door.

My eyes snapped open.  Female-Hira’s toes poked into the side of my face, and Male-Hira’s naked torso was draped over my legs.

I extricated myself, sliding backwards off Hira’s bed and crawling onto the floor.  Both Hiras stirred, groaning, and I glanced out the window through the curtains, keeping my face hidden.

It was early morning.  Thick grey clouds obscured the rising sun, casting the dark street outside in dim, flat light.  The pale street lamps were still turned on, casting shadows onto the pavement.

A car was parked on the curb outside.  Its headlights were on, glaring at my face and making it difficult to make out if anyone was in there.

There was nothing else I could see.  No suspicious figures, no bystanders, other than an old man in the distance dragging a food cart down the street.  And no enemies.

Or maybe they’re good at hiding.  But if someone wanted to kill or capture us, why knock on the front door like this?

I glanced back at the bed.  Both of Hira’s bodies were already up and carrying guns, though they were still in their underwear.

Left-Hira loaded a bullet into a heavy sniper rifle and pointed it to the floor.  Right-Hira signaled to me, tiptoeing towards the stairs to the first floor.  He can aim using the downstairs body.

Left-Hira fumbled with the bolt action on the rifle, dropping a bullet in the process.  His stitched skills wore off over the night.  Unless he could copy from someone new, he’d be useless.

As the two of us stepped down the stairs, I projected into the wood, stopping it from vibrating so it wouldn’t creak or make noise.  In the dark living room downstairs, we moved towards the front door.

Through the blurry glass, I could make out four figures standing on Hira’s front porch, carrying weapons and muttering amongst themselves.

Before I could move, a hole exploded above the door.  The crack of a gunshot echoed throughout the living room, and the lead figure leaned to the side, dodging Hira’s bullet.  Hira can aim and fire with different bodies.

The door flew open, and the figure snapped back upright, holding up her hands.  The booby traps didn’t go off.  “Wait, wait!  Don’t shoot, we’re friendly.”  A Neke woman, at least six feet tall.

I know her.  Another one of Isaac Brin’s mercenaries.  The one who had rescued me from Steel Violet and Kahlin, the first time I met them.

“Rose Titan?” I said.  “Don’t shoot, Copycat.”

The Rose Titan waved at me, beaming.  “Hi, Wes.”  She glared at a Shenti man behind her.  “I told you we should have called ahead.”

“It’s – “ I glanced at the clock.  “Five-twenty-one in the morning.  What are you doing here with – ” I glanced outside.  “Three heavily armed soldiers?”

“Isaac sent us to fetch you,” she said.  “Queen Sulphur has been selected for a mission.”  She pressed a business card into my hand, dark green with a bright orange rose.

“Who are we beating up?” said Right-Hira, sticking his hands in his pockets.

The Shenti man tossed a tiny piece of metal to me, and I caught it.  “Shrapnel from the bomb attack on the Silver Flask.”

“And?” I said.

“It matches three much larger suicide attacks on military locations throughout the country in the past year,” he said  “An airfield in Corsair.  An oil refinery north of Arvik.  And a destroyer docked at the port of Malbet.”

“Based on a shipment he intercepted twelve hours ago,” said the Rose Titan.  “Isaac thinks it’s all coming from a single bombmaker, and a single weapons depot.  One intermediate location being used to transport weapons into the Principality from other nations.  And – ”

“- He thinks it’s the coordinates I gave him,” said Hira.  The intel he found from the Broadcast King’s files.

“The kind of weapons stash a billionaire can buy,” I said.  Large enough to wage a war.

“It’s on an abandoned island in disputed territory,” said the Rose Titan.  A round, flat crisp floated out of her bag, looking like a cross between a potato chip and a pancake.  

“If we fuck this up,” growled the Shenti man. “We could start a war.”

“So what’s the objective?” I asked.  “Sneak around?  Gather info on a bunch of shady arms dealers and a bombmaker?”

“Oh, no,” said the Rose Titan, munching into her snack.  “We’re going to kill them.”  She extended another giant cracker towards me.  “Hungry?”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




6-A The Bombmaker

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

The clock ticked in the corner of the kitchen, the only sound in the entire house.

Hira stood at the edges of the room, watching us with both bodies crossing their arms.  Ana clenched her fists, staring me down.  Neither of us spoke.

Ana’s hands were out of her pockets.  She hadn’t made any moves to assemble her machine pistol or draw her cattle prod.  At least, she hadn’t appeared to.

I projected towards her, feeling the position of her gun’s barrel and the handle on her baton.  They match what I can see.  They hadn’t moved – not yet, at least.  But at a moment’s notice, Ana could flip on her illusions and take me out when I wasn’t paying attention.  If I projected into her gun too long, she might notice too.

If we fought, I’d have to rely on my paper to scout Ana’s position, but I didn’t like my odds against a gun at this range.  I didn’t have an autonomous bullet defense, and she could get the drop on me at any time.  Plus, I got the feeling that if anything happened, Hira wouldn’t intervene on either side.

No, if Ana wanted to kill me, I had to strike first.

You worthless piece of filth.  She hadn’t said a single word, and I was already thinking of how to kill her.  Was this how I wanted to treat people?

“Hira’s not lying,” said Ana, “is she?”  She clenched her jaw.  “It makes perfect sense.  Your fixation with the Broadcast King.  Your desire to get back to your old fiancé.  Your style of projection training.”  She shook her head.  “How the fuck did I not I see it earlier?”

There’s no point in lying now.  No matter how hard I denied it, Ana could test me by saying my old name and verifying my mental block.

And maybe she deserved to know the truth.

“Hira’s telling the truth.”  I nodded.  “Once I got back into my family, I was going to give you a body for free – the one that my fitness double Poppy uses.  And all the money I could spare.”  That hadn’t been true when I met her, but it was now.

“If there had been one more member of Steel Violet in the penthouse,” said Ana.  “Or if they’d positioned themselves a little better, or if Hira hadn’t intervened.  We would have died, or worse.  We weren’t ready for that, and you pushed us in anyway.  Because you wanted the rewards all for yourself.”

I held up my hands.  “But we made it – together, we made it through.  And do you know why I’m going to all this effort to get back to my family?”

“No.”

“You could offer me five times the Broadcast King’s fortune, and I still wouldn’t want to go back to my mother.  It’s not about the money, or the power, or the spot at Paragon.  It’s not even about the body.”  Passion slipped into my voice.  “When I was Ousted, I got separated from my fiancé, Samuel Pakhem.  I got separated from Eliya Brin and Leizu Yao, my best friends.  I need to get back to them.”

“Wait.”  Ana’s eyes widened.  “You’re telling me you’re engaged to Samuel?  The guy with the metal wires?  And you’re best friends with Eliya?  The people who I fought the night of my body heist?”  She turned her glare towards me.  “What is this, some kind of revenge thing?  Are you trying to hurt me like I hurt them?”

“No!” I shouted, then lowered my voice.  “No, that’s not it.  I thought you were dangerous, but that wasn’t – that wasn’t it.”

“Explain yourself.”

“I can’t apologize for wanting to go home.”  Desperation slipped into my voice.  “You know what that’s like, don’t you?  I needed those files to get back to my family.”

“Hey, Wes,” Ana stared at the ground, and her voice grew soft.  “Back in that penthouse.  If it was a choice between my life and going home, what would you have picked?”

I didn’t have an answer for that.

I kept sizing Ana up, watching her body language, her clenched fists and downturned eyes.  Is she masking her true reactions with illusions?  She could be setting up a shot behind me right now, and pretending to look withdrawn.  Now I know what Ana’s enemies feel like.

“On the night that I decided to work for Isaac Brin,” said Ana, “I made a promise to myself.  That I would taste Paragon Academy’s mulled cider.  And when I did, it’d be with a friend.”

Cute.  To be fair, Paragon’s cider was bloody amazing.

“It was stupid and naive and childish, but…”  She bit her lip.  “I thought you could be that friend.  I imagined drinking it with you, fighting side by side, helping each other towards a better future.  I almost drowned for you.”  She looked up, staring me straight in the eye.  “I was lonely.  And you exploited that.”

This time, it was me avoiding eye contact.  Weston, you fucking asshole.

“I’m getting shivers now,” she said.  “Whenever I’m not moving a lot, I start to shiver and shake after a few minutes.  I hide some of it with illusions, but it’s getting worse.  At night, no matter how many blankets I throw on, it feels like I’m freezing from the inside out.”  She pulled up her sleeves, showing her bare arms with the bulging grey veins crisscrossing up and down.  “It’s been hard.  To get more than a few hours of sleep a night.”

When I squinted, I could see the movement, just barely: her arms were shaking.

“If I had to guess,” she said, her voice low.  “I’d say it’s anemia of some sort.  It could get worse and leave me bedridden for the rest of the year.  Or something else could snap – something important, like my lungs, or intestines, or kidneys.  I might have much less than a year.”

I felt like throwing up.  If Ana’s objective was to make me feel guilty, she was doing a bloody good job of it.  I’d treated her like a toy, or a Jao Lu piece in a game.  Just like mother would.

But I had to keep going.  For the sake of my family, and Samuel, and Chimera Squad.  I couldn’t back down now.

“What now?” I asked.  “Is Queen Sulphur over?  Are you going to rely on just Hira, now?”  My voice got louder.  “Do you think you can fight Commonplace and the mob with just the two of you?  The jobs are going to keep getting harder.”  I swallowed.  “You still need me.”

Ana stepped forward and slapped me.  It was a soft blow, but my cheek still stung.

“I don’t have many allies,” said Ana.  “I lack offensive power, scouting abilities, and traditional projection power.  I’ll still carry out jobs with you, but – ”  She scowled.  “Clear your things out.  And then get the fuck out of my storage unit.”  She glanced back at Hira.  “Copycat.  Is he hiding anything else from us?”

Both Hiras – both Copycats – shrugged.  “My background checks aren’t perfect, and my Vocation is more art than science.  But I don’t think so.”

“Good,” said Ana.  She leaned close to me, her hands folded behind her back.  “Lie to me again, and we’re done.”  She lowered her voice.  “And if you try to betray me, I’ll break you.”

I blinked.  When I opened my eyes, Ana had vanished.

The clock ticked in the background, the only noise in Copycat’s house.

“She was already gone.”  Hira snorted.  “Dramatic bitch.  Hope she doesn’t hit any of the booby traps on my front door.”  He glanced out a window.  “You want a drink?”

You’re stupid, Wes.  So bloody stupid.  But I couldn’t slow down.

I swallowed, wiping my sweaty hands on the pant legs of my suit.  “I want to make an offer to you.”

________________________________________

I gulped down the last of my Arak cocktail, feeling the warmth in my throat.  “Say what you will about Ilaquans, you people sure know how to put together a drink.”

“Meanwhile,” said Hira.  “You Principians still can’t cook a damn cow.”  He took a swig of his drink and slid his Dancing Painter forward on the Jao Lu board.  His hand slapped the timer between us, and it began to tick down for my turn.

The room wobbled back and forth in front of me.  Hira’s Right body was wearing only a bathrobe and a pair of underwear briefs, which made for a distracting image, considering the size of his pectoral muscles.

I mentally slapped myself.  You’re doing this for Samuel.  Don’t ogle other people.  Even if he was probably ogling my replacement.  As I thought of Samuel, Lyna Wethers’ face popped into my mind, giving me a burst of pleasure at its elegant aesthetics.  Followed immediately by a burst of disgust and horror.

Concentrate.  Just enjoy the game.

In response to Hira’s move, I played my Blue Charlatan in the center hexagon of the board, cutting off his assault.  A second after I slapped the timer, I realized my mistake.  In two plays, he could cut my forces off and put me in a stranglehold.

Thirty seconds later, Hira did exactly that.

“How the bloody fuck are you winning?” I grumbled.  “Oh, right – you’re cheating.”  I’d seen Hira stick his hands in his pockets before the start of the game, the telltale sign of when he was using his skill-stitching Vocation.  Copying skills made his hands flicker with purple lightning, so sticking them in his pockets kept it hidden.

“Of course I copied your Jao Lu abilities, dipshit,” said Hira.  “It wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise.  On my own, I don’t even remember the rules.”

But he wasn’t just playing me at an even level.  He was crushing me.

If I was being honest, the booze wasn’t helping.  I’d downed enough to make this body feel nauseous.  Thank the Scholars for low alcohol tolerance.

It was probably dangerous to be this drunk in the house of someone I knew this little, but what the fuck else was I supposed to do, confront my feelings?  Think about Ana and Lyna Wethers and all the other shit that made me sad and angry?

“What was that offer you mentioned?” said Hira.  “Was it just to get drunk and play the most boring game in the Eight Oceans?”

“It wouldn’t be boring if you challenged yourself,” I grumbled.

Hira leaned forward, smirking.  “What I’m saying is, there are much more entertaining things to do in this city with red-hot people when you’re all hosed up.”

Is he coming on to me?  I slid my pieces forward, forfeiting the game.  “The offer is this.  You’re part of Queen Sulphur now, so you’re getting a share of the profits like me and Ana.  But I don’t need the money.  Not really.”

“You gonna stop wearing those pretty suits and give up your nice briefcase?”

“I’ll figure something out.“  I’ll steal.

“What are you paying me for?”

I clasped my hands together.  “In most of my recent fights, I’ve either gotten my ass kicked, or I’ve escaped just in time.  My mother’s mind-wipe did a number on me.  If I want to counter-Oust my replacement at the end of the school year, I need to get stronger.  And smarter.  I’ll turn twenty next summer.  After that, she’ll be past the maximum age permitted for Ousting.”

“ – Which means you’ll only have one shot.  Fuck this up, and you’ll never get your life back.”  Right-Hira leaned forward, spreading his legs.  “You want me to train you.”

“I was going to ask Ana for help, but…”  I felt another stab of guilt at my gut, and banished it.  But you had to tell her everything.  At this point, I was too tired to be angry at him.

“How many hours a week?”

“As many as you have,” I said.  Before, I’d spend a good chunk of my free time with Ana, or at the bar.  Now, I’d have a lot more.

Hira bit his lip.  “Pay me seventy percent of your share.”

“Forty,” I said.  “We can change it if the training goes well.”

“Seventy.”  Hira scowled.  “Lund pe chadh.”

“Forty-five.”

After some heated debate, the two of us settled on fifty percent of my share.  “I should have copied a stockbroker this morning,” grumbled Hira.  

“What does lund pe chadh mean?” I asked.  “It’s Ilaquan, right?”

“‘May you find joy and happiness in the souls of kinship’,” he said, deadpan.

“Uh huh.”  Yeah, right.

“I’m not going to pull any punches when you do something fuckin’ stupid,” said Hira.  He stood up.  “And I’m not gonna stroke your little Epistocrat’s ego if you start crying.  I’m going to make this training as brutal and fast as possible.  And you only have a year.”

“Good,” I said.  This would give me something else to think about besides my replacement, and Lyna Wethers, and Samuel, and Ana, and what she’d said about our friendship.  Did she really hate me that much?  And would she ever forgive me?  Was she the type of person who would hold a grudge?

And what if she was right about me?

Shut up, idiot.  I had to focus on something else.  “I’ve been procrastinating my training,” I said.  “Because most of it is boring, and I’m shit at motivating myself.  So please, light a fire under my ass.”

“You can stay here tonight on the couch,” said Hira.  “If you drink more, don’t fall asleep on your back.”

“Oh, I’m definitely going to drink more.”

“We’ll begin tomorrow morning,” he said, striding towards his kitchen.  “When you finish vomiting into my trash can.  I know just where to start.”  He turned back to me, a glint in his eye.  “You don’t happen to have a rowboat, do you?”

________________________________________

My biceps ached as I pulled the oar through the water.  “Why am I the only one rowing?” I grumbled.  “I have twice as much of a hangover as you do.”

At the other end of the canoe, Right-Hira lounged back on a pillow, wearing a thick winter coat and a pair of sunglasses.  “Upper body strength.”  He snorted a line of yellow powder off a curved knife, took a gulp from a bottle of sake, and nibbled at the end of a kebab.  “You gotta keep your body in shape.  This is part of your training.”

How are you still in shape?  As far as I could see, Right-Hira was as decadent and lazy as they came.

A chill breeze blew through the morning fog, and I shivered.  Beneath me, the wooden seat was damp, soaking through the seat of my pants.  “Why are we even here?  It’s winter.  You don’t go canoeing in winter.”

“Exactly,” said Hira.  “Did you see how cheap the boat rental was?  And there’s nobody around to watch us do illegal training.  If Paragon caught me teaching projection, they would not be pleased.”  He yawned.  “Sorry.  My other body is still in bed right now.  Catching up from a night of revels.  So I am literally half-asleep.”

Lucky bastard.  My head ached, a thick, heavy pressure crushing it from all sides.  I leaned over, clutching my stomach and pushing down the nausea.

In retrospect, training with a hangover may not have been the best idea.

“Stop here,” said Hira.

I let go of the oar, rubbing my sore arms.  Fog surrounded us, making Mount Elwar a blur above us.  There wasn’t another soul in sight.  As soon as I stopped rowing, the air fell silent.

Hira stepped out onto the water.  The surface ripped beneath his feet, and he lied down on top of the water.  The liquid depressed to fit his body like it was a mattress.  “Now,” he said, floating the pillow beneath the back of his head.  “Did you read the books I assigned?”

“Yes,” I said.  He’d given me a set of chapters from three separate natural science textbooks, dusty old tomes lying beneath a pile of shirts in his bedroom.  Two on physics, and one on chemistry.

“Really?”  He took a swig of sake.

“Alright, I skimmed them.  I was drunk and it was past midnight.”  My eyes had glazed over after the second paragraph, and besides, it was a ridiculous assignment.  “How is any person supposed to go through that many pages in seven hours?”

“You studied at Paragon, you tell me.”  He chewed on a piece of kebab meat, talking with a full mouth.  “Oh.  Right.  You flunked out.”

“I am beginning to regret inviting you onto Queen Sulphur,” I said, massaging my temples.  “You’re the child of a billionaire.  How are you so….coarse?  Where are your manners?”  I reached for the sake bottle, and Hira slapped my hand away without looking.

“You can drink once you’ve trained.”

“But I need to drown my hangover in alcohol.  And I’m freezing.”  Another icy gust blew across the water, and I stuffed my hands into my pockets.

“You want a drink?  Let’s see how much you remember.  State Rashi’s Three Laws.”

I know this.  “First law,” I said.  “To control, you must understand.

Hira nodded.

“Second Law.  The Pith cannot – will not – of the in-itself and the of-itself…fuck.”

“Even Humdrums know the Three Laws,” said Hira.  “How much did you drink last night?”

“I got my memory wiped,” I snapped.  “Just explain them to me again.”

Hira sighed.  “Pay attention, because I won’t repeat this.  Rashi’s Three Laws were discovered by Such-and-Such the Noble, some old fart from the Great Scholars who nobody cares about.”

“Rashi?”

“Whatever.”  He took a swig of alcohol and lifted a single finger.  “First law.”  A book floated from his lap, unfolding in the air.  “To control, you must understand.  If you want to project into something, you need to understand the details of how it works.”

“Like studying chemistry for Physical projection.”

“Yes, and individual Vocations have lots of details to them in their codices.  Rashi’s First Law is why even talented projectors can barely lift a pebble without good training.  And why all the strong Vocation Codices are locked up in Great Libraries.  They don’t want you learning too much.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Paragon Academy is a school.  Learning is the whole point.”

“The Yokusei Pact limits the number of projectors any one nation can have.  And nobody has tried to break it, even during the Shenti War.  Because every projector is a time bomb.  The less of you there are, the easier they can control you.  They’re afraid of people like you and me.”

He doesn’t see the value of stability.  Not all ancient traditions were bad.

Hira tossed a kebab stick overboard and held up a second finger.  “Second law.  Two Piths cannot occupy the same space.

“Like if I wanted to project into something you were already projecting into.”

“You’d have to push my Pith out first.  The same goes for my body.  Though I’d love to boil my father’s brain fluid with water projection, I can’t do it unless I force his Pith all the way out of his body.”  He lifted a third finger.  “Third Law.  Weirdest law.  Pay attention, cause I’m not going to repeat myself.”  He folded his hands across his stomach.  “Projection cannot beget projection.

The concept echoed in my mind.  A memory bubbled up of my tutor, a tall, bone-thin man screaming at me in my mansion’s study room.

“Rings a bell,” I said.  “What does it mean?”

“Skill-stitchers like me,” said Hira.  “Can copy over abilities from the Piths of others.  Mathematics, dancing, martial arts, anything we want, with some caveats.  But if I went to your Headmaster Tau tomorrow and used my Vocation on him, I wouldn’t become the strongest projector on the planet.  Because you can’t use projection to make someone better at projection.”

I scratched my head.  “Well, that’s bloody confusing.  Why’s that important?”

“Well, for one, it means Praxis specialists can’t recursively upgrade their intelligence to make themselves mind-gods.  Their extra smarts don’t make them better at projection, which limits how much they can improve.   It also means you can’t teach someone to project using a Whisper Vocation.  No shortcuts.”  Hira glared at me over his sunglasses.  “There.  That quick enough for your attention span, princess?”

I tapped my fingers on the oar.  “You know, there’s no need to be so harsh.  I’m a fast learner, when the situation calls for it.”

“And when does the situation call for it?”

I shrugged.  “Anytime I’m not bored.  During a fight, sometimes.”

“Alright, then.”  Hira grinned and sat up.  “Let’s see what you can do.”  He held up the bottle of sake in his fist.  “Try to take a sip.  Succeed and I’ll buy you breakfast.”

Shit.  I forgot to eat breakfast again, didn’t I?  I did enjoy fighting, and I’d made a similar offer to Ana when I first met her, but I sensed foul play here.

“No,” I said.  “You’re trying to kick my ass so you can humble me and make yourself feel strong.  I won’t play into your student-teacher power trip.”

“Well, yes, obviously I’m going to crush you,” said Hira.  “But you’ll learn from it.  Or you’ll just get pissed.  Either way, I get to have a fun new experience and wake – “

As he talked, I formed a blunt icicle out of the cold water and shot it at his hand from behind, hard enough to knock the bottle out of his grip.

Without looking, Hira lifted his right arm, dodging the projectile.  In the same motion, he lifted his left pinky finger, and a cold, stinging pain rushed through my body again.  I fell back onto the boat, twitching.

I glanced down at my feet.  A thin rope of water connected a patch of skin on my ankle to Hira’s finger, letting him conduct electricity into me.  How long did he have that there?

“Not bad,” Hira said.  “Distracting me before a quick strike.  But you lack awareness.”  He slapped the water next to him, sending out ripples.  “Can you do a water walk?  Surely one of your seventeen tutors must have taught you.”

So many digs at my wealth.  And yet his daddy was a hundred times wealthier than my family had ever been.

“I don’t think so.”  I remembered some of the fundamentals – the basics of surface tension and adhesion and dynes per centimeter, but there were gaps in my knowledge, conclusions that I knew without understanding the proofs, or independent facts disconnected from outside context.

The water walk was one of the first things you learned at Paragon – I’d learned it years before – but I wasn’t sure anymore.

Hira stood up on the water and extended his hand, several meters away from the canoe.  “Come here and shake my hand, and I’ll give you a sip.”

I focused on what I remembered.  Cohesion and adhesion.  Force over length.  Difference in pressure.  Contact angles.  I reached my Pith out into the water in front of me, willing it to harden, strengthen.

My mind flashed back to the day I’d first learned the water walk.  Samuel had guided me by the hand across his family’s swimming pool, both of us only thirteen years old.

I leaned out of the boat and pressed my palm against the surface of the water.  It bent beneath me, like an invisible skin had been stretched across.

Then I put some of my weight onto it and it snapped beneath me, exploding in a splash of water and swallowing my hand.  I reeled back, flailing my arms to regain balance, and slumped back in the boat.  Something thin and sharp poked into my leg, probably a splinter from the canoe’s damp wood, and the boat rocked back and forth.

My Pith hadn’t even strained.  No green lightning, no headache.  Well, no headache beyond the usual hangover, that is.

At the Golden Moon when fleeing from Lyna Wethers, I’d controlled the water just fine.  Why was I having so much trouble here?

Idiot.  I felt like Ana – too inexperienced to even know the basics.

I projected into the water and tried again.  Then again, and again, and again.  Every time it was the same result.  The water broke underneath me.  I need to refine my technique.

“You’re not going to beat your replacement if you can’t even do a water walk,” said Hira.

“Really?”  I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm.  “I had no idea.  Thank you for the insight, wise master.  Now I know why I pay you so much.”

“If you spent more time studying and less time mouthing off like a fourteen-year-old,” said Hira.  “Maybe you’d actually be smart by now instead of just clever.”

More criticism.  And comparing me to a child.  My mother was fond of that one.

“What is your problem with me, exactly?  Are you this rude to everyone who has the misfortune of talking to you?”

“No.”  Hira tapped his foot on the surface of the water.  “Just the Epistocrat princesses who want to lick off their war criminal mommies so they don’t miss out on their chocolate scones and barrel-aged gin.”

I wrinkled my nose.   “You think I like gin?  What kind of swine do you take me for?”

“You were part of the ruling class of one of the ugliest nations in the world, at one of the most repressive, uptight projection schools, inside one of the nastiest social groups.  And now that you’re free, all you can think about is how to wriggle your way back in.”

So that’s how he sees me.  I clenched the oar handle, tapping my fingers in a rapid, escalating pattern on the wood.

“You’re paying me,” said Hira.  “So I’ll keep kicking your ass until you get better.  But nothing in our agreement requires me to indulge in your petty Epistocrat fantasies.  Your odds are shit, [    ] Ebbridge.”

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

“And even if you do get back to the Southern Typhoon and her fucked-up world, it’s not going to make you happy.”

“I’m not going back for myself,” I hissed.  “I’m going back for my family.  Because I’m loyal to them.  Maybe you find that concept too hard to understand, after dear old dad used you as his lab rat.”

Hira clenched his fist and the boat flipped underneath me, throwing me at the ocean face first.

As the icy water rushed towards me, I reached towards it reflexively, flailing my arms.  I reached.

I bounced off the water.

The surface had been hardened beneath me.

I was doing a water walk.

It felt like the insides of my skull were on fire, and little bursts of green lightning flickered around my arms.  The scabs on my back stung, splitting in places.

But still, I was doing it.

I tensed my muscles, holding myself above the water on my hands and knees.  Hira’s book and his plate of kebabs bobbed up and down in the water around me.

“Unless I ask you,” said Hira.  “Don’t fucking talk about what my father did.”

“Did you set all this up to help my projection?”

As I stopped focusing on it, my projection broke beneath me, sending me splashing into the cold water.

“Lund pe chadh.”

I paddled back towards the capsized boat and clambered onto the top, then released my projection and relaxed my Pith.  “What does that mean?”  I gripped the side of the canoe.

Hira strode towards me.  “It means you’ve got a lot of work to do.”

________________________________________

As per usual, I was bored.

It was remarkable.  Even when things were dire, when I was prepping for the fight to take my life back, I was incapable of concentrating on something.

I sipped my ice cream soda.  If I gave a thoughtful look at the chemistry textbook in front of me, I would look like I was reading it.

Of course, I was just scanning the same two paragraphs over and over again.  Who the fuck cares about the difference between instantaneous and induced dipoles?

Advanced Chemical Principles was written by the worst kind of academic, who couldn’t describe a piece of toast without using every ten-syllable word in the dictionary.  The language was elaborate, the examples were confusing, and the font was so tiny and poorly spaced that I had to squint to read it.

Natural science could be intuitive and beautiful, when the concepts built on one another and flowed in elegant patterns.  But most of the time, you were expected to memorize an equation or a set of rules, rushing onto the next topic before you could fully process the first one.  There was nothing beautiful about that.

It was so much easier to just skim them, cram the night before and wing it when test time came.  But Hira had made me promise not to do that anymore.

So here I was, sitting in the Silver Flask, leaning against an unstable wooden table that wobbled back and forth every time I shifted my weight.  Pretending I wasn’t miserable.

I glanced around the bustling room.  I noted members from Centaur, Phoenix, and Sphinx squads, but nobody who would recognize me in this body.

Most of the other guests had metal tables.  They didn’t wobble.  They didn’t creak.  They were thick and sturdy and weren’t a constant bloody distraction, unlike mine.  How was I supposed to concentrate with all this stimulus?

I glanced up at Hira, who was reading a gun magazine.  “Where am I going to stay?” I asked.

Hira stuffed a fistful of almonds into his mouth, talking as he chewed.  “Shtop dishtracting yourshelf and get back to shtudying.”

I fidgeted with the corner of one of the pages, folding it into an origami leaf.  “Ana kicked me out, homeless shelters are filthy and dangerous, and now that I’ve given you such a big share of my profits, even renting something as cheap as a sleeping pod is going to be tricky.”

“No,” said Right-Hira, leaning back in his chair.  “You cannot stay at my house.”

He catches on quick.  “You have a couch,” I said.  “I’m already paying you money.”

“You’re not broke, and you’re clever.  You’ll think of something.”

“Just give me a month,” I said.  “I’ll find my own place, I just need time.”

He sighed.  “Two weeks,” he said.  “And don’t try to haggle with me, I copied the skills of a very persistent stockbroker this morning and we both know that’s the lowest number you’ll agree to.”

Two weeks.  It wasn’t a lot of time, but I’d solved harder problems with less.

“Now,” said Hira.  “Leave me alone and get back to reading.”

I forced my gaze back towards the book, doing my best to filter out the constant noise in the background.  Students chattering with one another about squad rankings.  The clink of metal utensils on plates.  Swing music from a gramophone.  The clatter of dishes and faint shouts from inside the kitchen.

A middle-aged Neke man picked at the bread of his sandwich, removing the crust.  At the far side of the room, an old woman with chapped lips rubbed her fingers on her thick briefcase, looking half-asleep.  In the corner of the room, Anira Olwyn of Talos Squad touched her finger to a mind-sphere holding the Pith of her squad leader.

Stop, idiot.  Focus.  Why was this so difficult?  Ana was improving.  Her physical projection was inching along towards competence, she could block most common Whisper techniques, and her Vocation was improving in leaps and bounds.  The girl was always buried nose-deep in one of her books.  Why was I having so much trouble with it?

How had I survived nineteen years in my family when I was this airheaded?

The old woman was listening to a popular radio talk show, which I could catch snippets of.  They’re talking about us.

A projector did this,” said the man on the radio.  “Witnesses reported a figure seen flying into the top window moments after the car bomb went off, and Kahlin’s bodyguards all describe grievous injuries from two projectors who stole the bodies of staff to enter the premises.

Kahlin had disclosed a great deal to the local police.  Thankfully, he’d left out most of the details that could identify me or Ana.

Are you suggesting a foreign element?”  A woman.  One of the other hosts of the show.  “One of Kahlin’s enemies in Ilaqua or The Neke Islands.  Or perhaps a private military, like the Droll Corsairs?

Angela, what group of projectors hates Afzal Kahlin the most?  Who did he displace when Oracle Media Group rose to power in this country?”  The man paused.  “Epistocrats. Billionaires with more money than they could ever spend in their lives and an army of ruthless black ops Guardians at their fingertips.  Specifically, the Ebbridge newspaper family.  The nobles who helped keep an entire world of magic secret from the people of this country.

My stomach clenched.  It was just speculation.  They didn’t have any evidence.

House Ebbridge owes millions of pounds to Afzal Kahlin’s private equity firm.  The wealthy have done a lot worse things than murder for much smaller numbers than that.

And they wonder why people are rioting.  When you’re made that powerless, when you’re cornered like that, what choice do you have?  Commonplace just wants stronger regulations, an end to the house of lords, redistribution of bodies.  But when that’s impossible, you get desperate.

As I recalled, this talk show was owned by a company affiliated with Oracle Media Group.  These are Kahlin’s words.  Kahlin’s narrative.  The rhetoric was amping up since our mission, getting more aggressive, more violent.

Water splashed on my shirt.  I jerked back, and saw Hira holding his empty glass towards me.  “You’ve been reading page thirteen for the past twenty minutes.  Were you listening to the radio?”

“It’s difficult to concentrate when I have to listen to your father causing the end of the world over there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Hira.  “No, he’s just trying to end the country.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Been meaning to ask you about that.  How much do you know about your father’s plan?”

Hira shrugged.  “I know the basics.  It’s pretty simple.  Get the public hateful, dehumanizing their enemies, and believing that violence is the only option.  Then when it’s hit a fever pitch, Commonplace and the mob are going to use the weapons they bought with my dad’s coffers.  The ones stored at those coordinates I gave you.  And they’re going to try to burn down this trash heap.”

I frowned.  “Kahlin’s strong, but he’s not a god.  I’ve landed hits on him, and I’m an idiot.”

“He’s unfamiliar with combat.  But he’s not alone.”

“The Principality has,” I counted off on my fingers.  “The Symphony Knight, who can tear through fleets with a single song.  Sebastian Oakes – the Obsidian Foil, who’s never lost a fight against anyone.  And Headmaster Nicholas Tau, the most powerful projector in the world.”

My voice faltered at the last one.  He’s a senile old man.  For all we know, he can’t even project anymore.

“How the fuck,” I said.  “Is your father going to beat all those people?”

Hira shrugged.  “No idea.  But those are his most obvious obstacles.  You really think he hasn’t planned for them?”

“Is that all you know?” I asked.  “You did use your Praxis Vocation on the Broadcast King, didn’t you?  You could read his thoughts, right?”

Hira folded his magazine shut.  “I may have…implied that my Vocation was more versatile than it is.  It lets me skill-stitch over an entire person’s abilities within a few seconds, but each copy only lasts around ten hours.  And every time I copy from a single person, their mind builds up resistance and it gets a little less effective – I can only do it about ten-twenty times on a target, and only for about five seconds at a time.”

“And that’s when you can read their mind.”

“I can experience the target’s thoughts when I’m copying them, yes.  For spurts of five seconds.  And I can’t view their memories unless they use them all the time.”

“So even when you did use it on your father, it didn’t tell you what his plans were.”

“Oh, I didn’t use it on him,” Right-Hira said.  “He built up natural immunity a long time ago.”

The Silver Flask’s front door opened, ringing a bell.  It drew my attention for a split second.

Before I could look away, Samuel stepped into the diner.

I could recognize that dirty blonde haircut even from across the crowded room.  A platinum blonde strode into the room behind him.  Eliya.  My throat tightened.  I felt myself breathe faster, and my grip tightened on my textbook.

Don’t look at them directly.  I watched them out of the corner of my eye, keeping my face turned away from them.  If they spotted me, there could be problems.  And if they were seen interacting with me, Samuel could be Ousted and Eliya could lose her place at Paragon.

The two of them sat down at a table near the middle of the room, just far enough to be out of earshot.  Neither of them so much as glanced at me.  They haven’t seen me yet.  Or were pretending they hadn’t.

“Those people,” said Hira.  “The boy and the girl you’re pretending not to look at.  Who are they?”

“Waiter,” I said, waving him over.  “I’d like a shot of rum, please.”  I turned back to Hira.  “He’s my ex-fiancé.  And she’s one of my former best friends, and Professor Brin’s daughter.  I’m not supposed to talk to them at all.  And we split up on bad terms.”

A look of realization dawned in Hira’s eyes.  “You did this on purpose, didn’t you?”

“What?”

“You suggested that we come to the Silver Flask to study.  And at this time.  You knew when your old buddies liked to visit, and you wanted to stalk them.”  He grinned, clapping me on the shoulder.  “You could have just told me up front.”

“I’m not stalking them,” I snapped.  “This is tactical.  I wanted to spy on my replacement.  She just didn’t show today.”

“What do you gain by watching her eat pancakes?”

“I need to know her strengths and weaknesses.  Where she spends her time and what she cares about.  How she does in class and on the battlefield, and where the fuck she came from.”  I took another glance at Samuel’s table.  “Projectors as skilled as her don’t just materialize out of thin air.  Someone trained her.  Someone good.”

“And you’re going to get all that by watching her eat lunch.”

“Knowing her schedule would be a start, yes.”

Over by their table, Eliya hunched over, whispering with Samuel.  How would she feel if she knew I was secretly working as a mercenary for her father?  Knowing Eliya, I wasn’t sure if she’d slap me or hug me.

She said something, and both she and Samuel laughed, smiling.  My stomach clenched.

The two of them didn’t look sad, or grieving, or anxious.  They looked like they did in the year before I got Ousted.  They were joking with one another, smiling, going out to lunch during their break and enjoying their favorite dishes.

That stung, more than any failure I had today, more than any criticism from Hira.  How long did it take them to adjust?

I thought back to something Ana had told me, when describing her early teens.  The worst loneliness isn’t pure isolation.  It’s watching people have fun without you.

“Waiter,” I said.  “Another shot.”

How much could they have adjusted?  Was life really back to normal?  I would have given anything to have one more conversation with Samuel in private, one more update on his life without me.

I’d need to be drunk, of course, and I’d probably throw my drink in his stupid face, but it’d still be worth it.

“What’d he do to you?” said Hira.  “Or, what did you do to him?”

Three shots later, I spilled everything to Hira.  My engagement with Samuel.  Chimera Squad.  Our secret meetings after I’d been Ousted and how Samuel had abandoned me.

And my resolution to win him back, along with my name and my position in my family.

Why am I being so open with him?  It was the kind of information Hira could use against me, if he wanted to.  He wasn’t the type to offer emotional counsel, and even if he did, there wasn’t much he could do about my situation.

But fuck, it felt good to finally vent to someone about all this whaleshit.  I’d kept all this hidden from Ana, and now that she hated me, that door was shut.

“You should have expected it,” said Hira.

I scowled at him.  “Samuel is the most loyal person I know.”

“People give off that impression because they have the bare minimum of a moral compass and are afraid to challenge authority.  Don’t mistake that for genuine faithfulness.”

“Boy, I bet you’re overflowing with friends.”  I poured my shot into the rest of my ice cream soda and gulped it down.

“The bottom line is, you put your trust in him, and when you needed him most, he left you to the wolves.”

Samuel and Eliya still hadn’t seen me.  “He did what he had to do.  To protect himself and his team.  If he’s seen with me, he could lose everything.”

“Yes,” said Hira.  “And that’s the first and last thing he thinks about every time he pictures you now.  He’s shown you his priorities.  If you rely on him again, he’s going to ‘do what he has to do’ again and again until you learn your lesson.”  He leaned forward.  “I’m considering this part of your training.”

“Insulting the love of my life is training?”

“There are lots of ways to protect your mind.  Whisper defenses.  Killing the right projectors.  Recognizing cult tactics.  And,” he said.  “Not letting the wrong people get your emotions by the balls.  The Neke call that ‘Mental Hygiene’.”

Nothing’s sacred to him.  And I thought I was callous.

“He’s not some kind of monster,” I said through clenched teeth.  “Where did you learn to shit on people so much?”

“Meeting lots of Samuels,” Hira said.

“Fuck you,” I said, raising my voice until it was almost a shout.  “This is none of your business.  Stay away from Samuel.”

Samuel turned towards the source of the noise, and looked straight at me.

My chest tightened.  The world in the background faded to a distant blur.  The two of us made eye contact, staring at each other.

In spite of myself, I smiled at him.

Samuel looked away from me and said something to Eliya, his face pale.  In response, Eliya’s brow furrowed, and she dumped a stack of bills onto the table.  Both of them stood up and walked towards the front door, avoiding eye contact with me.

They walked towards the old woman, and she flipped open her briefcase, peering in.

In the seconds while they passed her, several things happened.

The woman reached her arm deep inside.

Hira grabbed my shoulder and reached his other hand towards the metal table to our right.  It flipped onto its side and shot towards us, spilling fries and soda all over the floor.

As the table rolled between us and the old woman, her briefcase exploded.

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