On the day I lost my hair, I decided to steal my first body.
Most people would be happy to get rid of it. At the age of nineteen, my scalp was already overflowing with grey, wispy strands, overpowering the blonde tresses it was designed to grow. I had combed it three times a day, tied it in a ponytail, and drowned it in dye, but couldn’t hide that it looked like a mangled bird’s nest.
But still, it was my best quality. And it was getting stained with cooking grease.
I wiped sweat off my forehead and dried my hand on my white dress shirt. Steam rose from the stoves in the middle of the kitchen, filling the room to the brim. It drifted into my eyes, making them sting.
Or was I just tired? Last night, I’d tossed and turned on my mattress in the basement, unable to fall asleep. My eyes were fluttering shut of their own volition, and every inch of my body screamed at me to lie down on that tiled floor and nap.
I waved my hand to clear the smoke and glanced around the room.
The other female servants crowded around a radio at the other end of the table, giggling and nibbling on slivers of cake. When Guillaume, the head chef, had made the batter for the tea party, there had been some left over. Enough for a petite snack, a reward for a job well done. When the little pan came hot out of the oven, it had smelled like cinnamon and apples and vanilla.
I had declined the offer, reminding the chefs that my taste buds had stopped working more than a year ago.
Beatrix, a tall, auburn-haired maid, shifted to the side, and a tiny gap opened in their tight circle. Clutching a cigarette in her fingers, she looked over her shoulder to breathe out a cloud of smoke.
Talk to them. I took a step in their direction. You don’t know for sure that they hate you.
I gathered up all my courage and shuffled outside the gap in the circle, putting on an upbeat smile. “Hi,” I said. “What are you guys listening to?”
They went silent.
Beatrix glanced in my direction, and we made eye contact for a split second. I wasn’t sure whether her expression was one of pity or discomfort.
The other girls looked away. Pretending I didn’t exist.
Beatrix moved to the left, closing the opening, and the conversation continued as before.
My stomach clenched up. I backed away.
Beatrix said something under her breath, and the other girls laughed. Was she talking about me?
I couldn’t exactly blame them. My shoulders were broad, my jaw wide and my forehead bulging. A web of thick grey veins coated my skin from head to toe, turning my face into a discolored nightmare. It was hard for me to even look in the mirror without getting a little nauseous. Ugly as it was, my long hair was one of the few things I liked about myself.
Most fabricated bodies lasted for at least fifty years. After I’d worn it for less than eleven, mine was already breaking down.
“Gage!” barked Guillaume. “Boy!” I tore my gaze away from the girls, and looked at his glaring eyes. “Do you get paid to daydream?”
Beatrix and the other servants had been mucking about for hours, and Guillaume hadn’t yelled at them once.
But if I talked back to him, I’d be scrubbing dishes alone all night until my skin peeled. Or he’d delay my paycheck by another month.
I had saved less than two hundred pounds in my locker downstairs. I couldn’t afford that.
“No, sir,” I said.
And Clementine’s going to tear me in half if I let her guests run dry. She had requested Neke plum wine for her guests, fermented in the Far East and shipped hundreds of miles across the oceans for her pleasure. I could only guess how expensive it was.
When seeking the favor of the local mob bosses, my employer spared no expense.
I walked to the wine rack. The bottle sat on the top shelf, a full meter out of my reach. And one of the girls was sitting on the only stepstool. I sighed. Fuck it.
I closed my eyes, picturing the glass bottle above me. Common glass. Silicon Oxide. Density, two point five kilograms per square meter. High compressive strength. Refractive index one point five. Physical and chemical attributes flew through my mind, memorized after dozens of midnight study sessions.
Then I looked within the confines of my skull. I inhaled, and sensed a tingling at the center of my perception, an electric sort of pressure spreading from inside. I felt the substance shooting through the neural pathways of my brain, crackling with energy to form the pattern of my mind, the essence.
My Pith. A psychologist might call it my consciousness. A philosopher might call it my soul.
But here, tonight, it was just a cheap tool.
Focusing on the science of glass, I extended my hand upward, and reached with my mind. I felt my Pith seep into the glass of the bottle above me, felt its position and curved shape like a sixth sense. My essence extended out of my body, invisible, filling my target object.
I twitched my left index finger, and pulled with my Pith. The bottle slid off the shelf and dropped to the ground. I yanked upwards with my soul, and it jerked to halt centimeters above the floor.
An experienced projector could fill entire battleships with their soul, crush tanks with raw telekinetic power or alter the thoughts of a hundred people at once. At one of Paragon Academy’s public events, Guardian Isaac Brin had juggled a dozen cars without blinking an eye, while I watched starry-eyed with the rest of the audience. His projection let him reduce their mass to that of a feather.
Me? I struggled to lift a single wine bottle. Almost all my skills were self-taught, which was nothing next to Paragon’s training.
As I left the kitchen, the sound of laughter grew louder in my ears. I twisted the screw into the bottle cork and yanked it off, striding into her dining room.
Clementine loved giving out food. She saw herself as some sort of friendly neighborly mother, which meant a lot of spooning soup to homeless people, and a lot of extravagant parties.
And people liked her. Word was, she was some sort of hero from the Shenti War, a survivor of the Edwina Massacre half a decade ago. A Shenti projector had torn through a whole carrier group of mundane sailors, back when Guardians kept themselves hidden from the public and were too far away to intervene.
Clementine had apparently fought in the battle. She’d hung up all sorts of medals over her mantelpiece.
I’d believe when I saw it. Clementine wouldn’t save a drowning kitten unless everyone was watching and it cost her nothing. And she charged the same protection fees as the rest of Tunnel Vision’s mobsters.
The ceiling of Clementine’s dining room extended two stories high, with an expensive-looking glass chandelier hanging from it. White faux-marble columns stretched down to the floor, framing the massive oak table at the center. A thin layer of imitation gold leaf coated almost every surface, reflecting the late afternoon light. Classical music drifted from a gramophone in the corner.
As I entered the room with my floating bottle, I stared at the floor. The first guest, a tall, broad-shouldered man, cackled at one of Clementine’s jokes. Gabriel Cunningham. The man who presided over the whole southern half of the docks.
I looked towards his glass, and rotated my projected Pith. The bottle tilted in midair, and the plum wine trickled into his glass.
Clementine spoke in a lilting voice, mimicking the speech patterns of the Epistocracy. “Plum wine. From the finest Eastern vineyards in the Floating City.“ Her pitch seemed higher than usual.
Noises of admiration echoed around the room, and I went on to serve the others. I recognized about half the faces, each one a crime boss of some segment in the lower city. All owned by Tunnel Vision. They’re superiors, not subordinates, I realized. Clementine’s trying to suck up.
“Amusing.” Gabriel Cunningham chuckled, his speech slurred. “Even your servants can project.”
So that’s why she requested I pour. Showing her feathers to the other peacocks. A hollow show of wealth, like the fake gold lining her walls.
“Of course. They all can.” Clementine told the lie so effortlessly I almost believed it was true.
More drunken noises of admiration from around the table. Did they believe her paper-thin charade? “You must be drowning in profits,“ the short man said, “No wonder you can afford a model like that.”
“I was wondering when you’d ask,” she said.
I tilted my head up and glanced at Clementine out of the corner of my eye. My heart beat faster, sending blood rushing to my ears.
Clementine was wearing a designer body.
The woman I knew was short, muscular, with dark curly hair and a square jaw. This one was tall, lithe; with milky white skin and cheekbones so high it was almost absurd. Long strands of wavy bright red hair cascaded past narrow shoulders.
She took a sip of wine with glossy, manicured nails. Her slender arms moved with smooth, effortless precision. Even that small movement seemed to carry more grace than I ever had in my lifetime.
The waterfront house, the large retinue of servants, and the full-time personal chef couldn’t have been cheap. But that body probably cost more than all of them put together.
Clementine smirked. “It’s an Elizabeth Cranbrook. A new design. Not as classic or popular as the Maxine Clive line, but it’s all the rage with the young Epistocrats these days. Muscles and skin woven from spider silk. Pink Ivory bones. And over three hundred billion neurons of spare space. You could fit three different people’s worth of Pith inside this brain.”
The party guests drew close to her, murmuring and examining her body with fascination. She beckoned them in, but held up a single finger. “Please, be delicate. I transferred my Pith in just a week ago, and I’d hate to mess up something so fresh.”
I used the opportunity to finish pouring the wine and step out. As I touched my hand to the knob of the kitchen door, one of the men called out to me. “Servant. Boy.”
I froze, then turned towards him, setting the bottle down on the table. I forced my mouth into a smile. “Yes, sir. Can I help you with something?”
The drunk man wobbled back and forth on his chair, and his bowler hat fell off. “The fuck is wrong with your skin?” He grinned at me, slurping from his wine glass.
I glanced around the room, avoiding eye contact with him. Other men and women turned to look at me. I’m the new entertainment. This had happened to me several times before. Every time, Clementine had smiled from the sidelines, polite. If her guests wanted to poke and prod and dissect me, she was there to make them happy.
“Look me in the eye, boy,” the man said. “What’s your name?”
I looked him in the eye. The man was thin, pretty, with a mischievous expression on his face. Despite my best efforts, my smile wavered. “Anabelle, sir.”
“Show me your hand.”
I lifted up my arm. Thick grey veins crisscrossed it up and down, bulging out from my skin. They intersected and branched all over my body, stopping only at my chin. I fought the urge to cover myself up.
“Where in the eight oceans did you get those? They look like a river delta.” Just like they did with Clementine, the inebriated, giggling criminals leaned towards my body, observing it like I was a caged animal in a carnival.
I had to force the words out of my mouth. “A faulty design, sir. When I was young, I had a terminal genetic disease. My parents couldn’t afford a proper fabricated body. So they went to a black market merchant.”
The man sniggered. “Hope they didn’t pay him too much.”
Just their life savings and then some.
He continued. “Too bad you’re not a Paragon rat. I hear they give out spares like candy to students.” He lifted his finger, and a sphere of wine rose out of the glass, landing on his outstretched tongue.
My books said that only one in a thousand had the potential for projection. Only one in a thousand of those had the intellect and training to wield more than a pound of force, or develop a Vocation.
So why were so many projectors like this man, like Clementine? Criminals, self-serving monsters preying on the poor and vulnerable.
This was why we needed Guardians. This was why we needed Paragon Academy. If I could project with the same level of power as Clementine, I’d help people. Really help them. Not just when it made me look good.
He gulped, swallowing the wine. “Those veins? That hair? Shoddy craftsmanship. Bottom of the barrel scam if I ever saw one. Would have been obvious to anyone with half a Pith.”
A woman with thin lips spoke up next to me. Eda Fortescue, one of Tunnel Vision’s many lieutenants. “What did they weave the skin out of, grey mold?” Laughter rang throughout the room. Clementine gave a polite chuckle.
I clenched my fists. My eyes bored holes into the floor. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and pictured being somewhere else. My mind settled on a familiar fantasy: the common room of a dorm at Paragon Academy.
I imagined myself sitting on one of their plush couches, feet stretched towards a crackling fireplace. Surrounded by other students, studying, practicing projection, playing cards, like they did in all the photos. Protecting my country and going on adventures with my new best friends. Sipping a mug of Paragon’s famous mulled cider with unblemished hands.
I could almost taste it.
Until the Edwina Massacre, the existence of projection had been hidden from the public. Practitioners studied its powers in secret societies, and only an elite few were elevated to join their ranks.
But today, every soul in the Eight Oceans knew it existed. And every child in the Principality dreamed of going to Paragon. Near the end of every summer, millions of young applicants held their breath, praying for that silver acceptance letter that proved you were special. That you were something beyond the ordinary and deserved to live in a world of miracles.
I was praying too. But it was getting harder every day.
A hand grabbed my wrist, snapping me out of my make-believe. “Hey. Isn’t Anabelle a girl’s name?” said Eda Fortescue. Her tapered fingers dug into my skin.
I squeezed my eyes shut. My neck ached. “Ma’am, may I request that you excuse me, so I may perform my duties?”
“What duties, Ana?” said Clementine in a jovial tone. “Surely our company is not that dull.”
“Guillaume and Jonathan need help with the clean-up, ma’am,” I lied. For once, please let me go.
What I really wanted to do was check the mailbox at the front door. I had been kept busy all day and hadn’t managed so much as a glance in its direction. Since I lived in the basement with the other servants, all our postage got sent to the same place. I had never got anything besides my monthly tax forms.
But this week was different. This week, I had been hoping for a letter.
I had tried not to dwell on Paragon. Tried not to think about how their admissions letter was five days late. That the last two times I’d flunked, I hadn’t even gotten a rejection, having to file a form to get my scores back.
Odds were, all I’d get was silence.
In spite of all that, on every break, I had run to the front entryway, rifled through piles of junk mail and magazines. And I allowed myself a sliver of hope.
Natural sciences. Social engineering. Strategy. I had studied them all and more with every second of my free time. I camped out in libraries, forgoing sleep and leisure to surround myself with towers of books, kinematics problem sets, and scribbled practice essays.
On the day of the exam, I’d pretended to come down with a cough and gotten myself out of work. I spent fourteen hours in a cramped gymnasium, packed wall to wall with desks and aspiring students.
By the eighth hour, my hand was shaking from all the little bubbles I’d penciled in, but I didn’t stop until I finished every question.
Even after two failures, I couldn’t quit.
Because Paragon was the only projection school in the country. The only place where they trained Guardians. Many people could project, but only a few were permitted to train and improve, and Paragon was where that happened.
If accepted, I could take my pick of healthy, combat-ready bodies, all free of charge. I could meet people, earn their respect, make friends for life. I could protect people like me from people like Clementine.
And this was my last chance.
In a year, my body would be too decayed to even take the exam. My fingers wouldn’t be able to grip a pencil, much less write answers to the impossible questions they assigned.
“Ana, relax. Look at us. You have nothing to worry about.” Clementine’s friendly voice carried a hint of menace. Eda Fortescue hadn’t let go of my wrist. Her grip grew tighter.
I let out a nervous chuckle. “They really do need help. I would not want to be negligent in my service, ma’am.”
“It’s a harmless question. Answer her.” It was an order, not a request. And a reminder of the consequences if I said no. “Explain your name.”
Nobody spoke. The table went quiet. The gramophone played a calm piano solo, the only sound in the room.
“I was born a girl, ma’am,” I said. “This male body was the only affordable transfer option during my sickness, so I moved my Pith into it.” I looked the woman in the eyes, and my skin crawled. “One day I hope to buy something more comfortable.” I took small steps back. Please find me boring. Please lose interest in me.
“Show us the full chassis, why don’t you?” Gabriel Cunningham leaned forward. He pulled out a pair of glasses, scanning me like I was a painting in an art gallery. “I’ve never seen a defect quite like this.”
“Please, ma’am.” I pleaded to Clementine with my eyes. “They really need me in the kitchen.” If you give the slightest shit about your employees, say something.
Was that a hint of remorse in her gaze? “Ana, why don’t you carry out the gentleman’s request?”
The guests at the table fell silent. Eda Fortescue let go of my wrist, leaving a bright red mark on my skin where her fingers had gripped me.
I reached up to my dress shirt and undid the buttons one by one. Blood rose to my forehead and cheeks. I slid it off my broad shoulders, folding it in front of me.
My skin on my flat chest was cold and sweaty. Bulging grey veins crisscrossed it, running down my neck and past my waistline. The party guests gazed at me with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion.
Eda Fortescue leaned forward, lifting a cheese knife with one hand. “Stay still, please.”
She made a tiny prick on a bulging vein on my chest. It was numb, so I barely felt anything, but I still recoiled. Fortescue ran a finger over the vein and gazed at the drops of blood on her knuckle. “Still red. Fascinating,” she said. “How long did you say you had this body?”
“Ten years,” I said, feeling nauseous. “Since I was nine.”
Clementine looked away. Whenever her guests treated me like this, she never joined in. Never took any obvious pleasure from it, or encouraged it. It was simply more convenient for her to smile politely and let it happen.
The one time I’d resisted, Guillaume had made me scrub the floors for forty-eight hours straight with no breaks, until I was collapsing from exhaustion. And my pay went down by a pound an hour.
I knew who’d given him the order, but it wasn’t like I could do anything.
Do they want to see the rest of me? I took a deep breath and reached for my pants. Cunningham held up a hand. “No, no, don’t go that far. The top half is more than enough of that body for a lifetime.” The others broke into laughter again. Not perverts, then. Just creepy fascination.
I bowed at him and Clementine in rapid succession. “Thank you! Please excuse me!” I half-walked, half-ran outside to the main hallway, holding back tears.
“Now that’s done, ladies and gentlemen, to my proposal,” said Clementine. “The blue folder you were given earlier contains the details of the operation.” She was back to business in an instant.
I shut the door behind me, and squeezed my eyes, holding back tears. Shaking hands threw my shirt back on and buttoned it back up. The prick from the cheese knife left a tiny damp stain on the fabric.
Why am I here? This job was supposed to be a stepping stone. Getting me to a job with a livable wage, or at least a small promotion. Clementine had promised me one, if my performance was satisfactory.
But nobody else had hired me. My wages had gone down. And here I was, stripping for mobsters.
I glanced towards the table next to the coat rack, and spotted a dark blue folder. The file that contained the details of Clementine’s upcoming mission. One of them must have forgotten it.
I ambled forward towards the front door for some fresh air. A walk could clear my head, soothe my nerves for the rest of the evening’s work.
Then I froze.
A letter in a silver envelope sat in the mailbox, reflecting sunlight from the window.
I was speechless for a few seconds. My mind was in a daze, as my feet carried me forward, and my hand grabbed it, reading the address.
Mr. Anabelle Gage
184 Worthington Place
Then the return address.
717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality
I burst through the front door and onto the street, running now. My footsteps felt light, almost natural for the first time. The wind rushed in my ears. Or was I just dizzy?
My hands ripped off the envelope seal and pulled out the letter.
I sat down on the curb, unfolded the paper, and began to read.