The first thing I did was go to a diner.
I needed somewhere to plan, and I was hungry.
The brown paint on its sign was peeling, and its windows were dirty and fogged up, letting in the dim afternoon light. The only person in it was a gruff-looking man reading a newspaper behind the counter. The talk show Verity played on a scratched-up old radio next to him. It didn’t look like they even had a telephone.
I sat down, dripping water onto the counter. The stool’s seat made a horrible squelch as I sat down on it with my drenched servant’s pants. “Two baskets of bread,” I said. “And a pitcher of water. Two pitchers.”
It had been an hour after Clementine had cast her ravenous hunger and thirst on me, and it still hadn’t worn off. All I had left was the money in my pockets. Twenty-one pounds and thirty-five cents. It was barely enough for this half-meal.
I counted out a few bills and put them on the counter. The man gave me an odd look, then went back to the kitchen to fetch it all.
I must have made a comical sight. Starving, soaked from head to toe, with a head of short, grey hair.
The man came back with my food. As I stuffed bread down my throat and chugged glasses of water, I pulled out the blue folder again, staring at it. The detailed plans for a body theft, detailed down to the minute.
Clementine’s people even knew the names of the Paragon students on patrol that night. Since the Edwina Massacre, Guardians were integrated at every level of military and law enforcement. If a projector fought guards at the port, they’d be flying over there in a heartbeat.
And if Clementine or her mobster bosses ever found out what I did, she’d slice my skin off with a potato peeler.
Suddenly, my grand heist sounded like a terrible idea. It was impossible, stupid, impractical. I couldn’t even hold down a job. How could I possibly think I was qualified to filch millions of pounds worth of property?
But what were my other options?
I had no job, no money, and no fallback. If I had friends, I could stay with them or ask them for money while I figured things out. But I didn’t. The other servants either hated me, or preferred to ignore me. I’d be staying in a homeless shelter, applying to jobs that would never hire me.
The fact was, my best and only asset for an employer was my Whisper Vocation, which was useless outside the military. But combat projection was illegal for non-Guardians in the Principality.
I could fight somewhere else in the Eight Oceans, but the militaries of the other three great nations were cruel, vicious, working to bring down our country and all it stood for. International mercenary corporations were just as bad, if not worse. PMCs like the Droll Corsairs were known for the atrocities their soldiers committed.
I could go back to my parents. Somehow get funds for a ferry ticket back to the Agricultural Islands, and buy a bus to my hometown.
But what then? They didn’t have enough money to buy a used car, much less a body.
And I’d stolen their money. Three hundred pounds of it, to buy a one-way ticket to Elmidde. Not their life savings, but enough to hurt. I’d made excuses for myself: becoming a Guardian in the city was my best chance at a working body. I’d mail them a fat percentage off my salary to pay back my debt and more.
But I’d failed the exam. And I’d barely made enough to feed myself.
If they didn’t disown me outright, I’d be spending the last year of my life as a burden, to an overworked, struggling couple who resented me. I’d be causing them nothing but grief.
Yeah, that option was off the table.
I took another bread roll into my mouth and pulled out the crumpled rejection letter from my pocket. It unwrinkled, flattening itself out of its own volition. It wasn’t even damp.
Three hundred sixty-six out of five hundred. My test scores weren’t even close.
A wave of anger rushed over me, and I grabbed it, tearing at it with my hands. The letter didn’t budge. It was made of some sturdy, flexible material I’d never seen before. That’s Paragon for you. Even its letters were bloody perfect.
I wanted to hate the academy. I wanted to curse them for thinking I wasn’t smart enough to join their ranks. Because the truth was, even after two rejections, I’d secretly thought I was special, no matter how low I tried to set my expectations.
Deep down, a part of me believed that I was smarter and more determined than the competition. That I had some grand destiny ahead of me, and deserved to live in a place where miracles were commonplace.
But the truth was, there were tens of thousands of applicants to Paragon each year. And there was nothing special about me.
Our nation was surrounded by militant states, monstrous projectors, and rising oceans. The denizens of the Principality needed real champions to defend it from the terrors across the sea. Noble geniuses who had the chance to become Exemplars. Not scullery maids in ugly male bodies.
The wrinkled blue folder sat on the counter, mocking me.
If I did nothing, those expensive bodies would end up with Clementine. She’d sell them to some sleazy black market fence like the one who’d scammed my parents with my poor chassis.
If I warned local law enforcement, I could have the satisfaction of watching Guardians tear her little gang apart. But then the bodies would end up with some wealthy epistocrat, and I’d still rot away into a pile of twitches. If her boss’s people didn’t find me first.
There were so many options, and all of them were terrifying.
But my body was dying. In my last trip to the doctor six months ago, he’d described how the last months of my life would probably go. First, I’d lose pieces of my skin. Next, my fine motor control would decay, along with a few of my fingers and toes, if I was unlucky.
After that, no one knew. Even the slimy designer who’d stitched this chassis together couldn’t know. My intestines could break, and I’d be voiding my bowels twenty-four seven. My lungs could fail, and I’d choke to death. Or my brain could shrivel up, causing permanent damage to the Pith it was holding and giving me dementia.
I sagged forward, leaning on the cold wooden counter. Thinking about all this was exhausting. I’d lost count of how many nights I’d stayed awake in my bed, running through all the possibilities in my head. I’d coped by imagining Paragon, and that mulled apple cider they talked so much about.
I was good at escaping into my imagination, but I had to face the truth: If I wanted to live to see my twenties, there was only one viable choice. An awful, ugly choice. I’d be a fugitive, living in a tiny town where the authorities couldn’t find me, or overseas with my nation’s enemies.
But I’d be alive.
I flipped open the folder, and tried to piece together my opposition.
The shipment was coming in with over a dozen guards, spread around the docks and next to the crate. Clementine was planning to hit it when it was most vulnerable, driving in an armored truck up towards Hightown.
If I wanted to get to it first, I’d have to move in when the opposition was thickest. And unlike Clementine, I wasn’t willing to kill or hurt innocent people. I’d have to trick or sneak past the guards, but I wouldn’t lay a finger on them. Especially not when my motives were this selfish.
I’d need some way to break open the lock on the crate. I’d need a dry change of clothes. And I’d need some way to keep time so that I didn’t run into Clementine. Even without her cronies, she was more than strong enough to beat me into a pulp. Or make me beat myself into a pulp.
I pored through the blurry pages, and began to devise a strategy.
I strode down the harbor, covered in stolen goods.
The black shirt and pants I wore had been taken from a used clothes store. I had drawn an illusion over the eyes of the cashier, creating a fake accident on the far side of the building while walking out with a bag full of goods.
I’d felt a pit in my stomach the entire time, a quiet sort of disgust at myself for taking from these people, who didn’t have much to begin with. But the wealthier stores had better security, and I didn’t have much time.
You need this to survive. And in the grand scheme of things, it was a pittance.
I’d also taken a cheap wristwatch, a tiny backpack, and a ratty black mask that would fit over my entire head to disguise my identity.
After that, it got worse. I’d walked around Lowtown, looking for stores with only one clerk and no customers. In the late afternoon, in the middle of the work week, it wasn’t too hard to find some.
I made my real body invisible, then used my illusions on the clerk to fake a customer coming in. A deaf one who wrote on notecards, since my Vocation only worked on one sense at a time.
The customer asked for change on a bill, the clerk opened the register to give it. While the register was open, I grabbed a wad of single-pound bills and stuffed them into my pocket.
With my illusions, I could do it right in front of their eyes.
The first time I did it, my hands were shaking as they reached into the cash register. What if someone walked in and saw me? What if I couldn’t keep up my illusions? What if something went wrong that I couldn’t foresee?
I’d practiced my Vocation before, and imagined many strategies with it, but I’d never done anything like this. I had never been a thief.
The second time I did it, my hands were tense, but steady.
I pulled this trick on an antique store, a shoe shop, and a discount pharmacy. By the time the sun set, I counted a hundred and thirty-one bills in my pocket. They were all single-pound, so I wouldn’t have caused any lasting harm, but still, that guilty pit in my stomach refused to go away.
As I walked up to the boat store at the harbor, I glanced upwards. Above me, the sky was grey and overcast. Less light from the moons, I thought. That meant it’d be easier to hide, right?
I pushed open the door and walked to the woman behind the desk, looking down and keeping the hood over my face. When I got within twenty meters, the range of my Vocation, I illusioned a different face and hair on top of my own, disguising myself.
The illusion flipped off the hood of its rain jacket, creating a rugged-looking man with dark brown hair and sallow eyes.
“Afternoon, sir,” said the clerk. “How can we help you.”
“I’d like a boat, please.” I’d trained my normal voice to a softer resonance and a higher pitch, to sound more feminine. For this, I dropped it down an octave, hardening the sound to be more masculine. “Small and generic, with a quiet engine.”
“Rent or buy?”
I expanded my visual illusion, turning my single-pound bills into thousand-pound bills, and made a show of sliding them onto the counter, one by one. To her, it’d look like I had a small fortune in cash. “Buy, please.”
After a brief conversation, I showed her an illusioned-up copy of my ID, I forked over some of my counterfeit cash, and she handed me a set of keys.
She smiled at me, happy to have made a sale, and I felt another twinge of guilt. I’ll leave the boat when I’m done, I thought. She’ll get it back with no trouble.
“We can have it fueled up and ready to go for you by tomorrow morning, if you want to come around at about ten AM.”
I shook my head. “I want to take it out tonight. Within the next four hours or so. Is that possible?”
“Are you sure?” The clerk pursed her lips. “You hear the forecast for tonight?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
She looked me over, and snorted. “You got a raincoat?”
Raindrops fell around the dark alleyway, soaking through my pants and filling my shoes with water. I pulled my cheap raincoat tight around me, shivering and wishing I’d also thought to buy a pair of rubber boots. It was still summer, so the chill wasn’t unbearable, but it was still irritating.
The itchy black mask had gotten wet and clung to my face, making it hard to breathe, so I’d pulled it up halfway to expose my mouth and nose. It was still damn difficult to see out of the top half, but I didn’t want to leave my identity exposed.
I peered out of the narrow space, watching for any guards that might pass by. It was barely wide enough for me to fit in, made by the space between two metal crates.
Faint moonlight shone down on the cheap watch around my wrist. I wiped water off its face and squinted to see what it said.
11:07 pm. Three more minutes.
Then I noticed. My hands were shaking.
I hadn’t noticed it before, occupied with running the plan over and over again in my head, to make sure I got it right. My stomach was aching too, and I was breathing much faster than normal.
Calm your nerves, idiot. This was the same reaction I’d gotten before all of my Paragon exams, and clearly, it hadn’t done wonders for my performance. Breathe. Stay focused.
But that was easier said than done.
With my Vocation, stealing the items and dry clothes from bored convenience clerks on their own had been simple. But this was harder. There would be multiple guards, watching for people like me and spread out so I couldn’t put illusions on them all.
I’d tied up my boat a mile away, on a part of the docks that was under development and uninhabited. I’d removed and hidden a few parts that I thought would make it impossible to hotwire, and made sure to keep it out of sight in case someone saw it. When I made my escape, I could be safe on the open ocean in a matter of minutes, then double back in another part of the city.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the rain came down harder. My hiding place was just across the edge of the water. I could see the dark waves cresting and breaking on the ocean, a swirling storm stretching out far beyond the horizon.
The ocean isn’t the safest either. I’d never piloted a boat before, and couldn’t swim. One wrong move and I’d be at the bottom of the harbor.
And the water was rising. Last year, sea levels had risen more than two millimeters on average. This year, it was already on course to go up by three. To the east, the Neke believed that one day, if the gods judged humanity to be unworthy, the sea would rise up to meet the sky and demons would rule over the ruins.
It seemed a little far-fetched, but if the rate kept increasing like this, we’d all drown like the Great Scholars within a few decades, or less.
I glanced back at my watch. The minute hand inched forward. 11:10. It was time. I slung my backpack over my shoulders and stood up.
I reached my soul out, sweeping the area for other Piths. I felt the glimmer of a dozen souls in the near vicinity, and their relative positions to me. There were four guards around the crate, two in an elevated position, and six more doing the rounds further away. If one of them spotted me, all twelve would likely open fire on me.
The docks were built with multiple levels: cranes unloaded crates from ships, transferring them to trucks for later transport. This crate had fragile, high-value merchandise inside, however, so it was to undergo an inspection before being moved through the city.
There was a ten-minute window between unloading and inspection, which was when I would strike.
I stepped out of the alley, inched my way to the edge of the road, and leaned my head around. It was as I’d predicted. Two guards on a high-up balcony with rifles, and four around a large shipping crate, taller than the men in front of it and many times longer. It was painted with bright green stripes along the side, like the folder said it would be. That’s it.
Bright, pale floodlights lit up the area right in front of the crate, illuminating a wide circle through the pouring rain.
Another two men sat inside an armored truck at the road. I couldn’t see where the rest were, which hopefully meant they wouldn’t be able to see me.
Most of them were smoking cigarettes, looking like tiny red lights hovering in front of their mouths. All of them were carrying wooden bolt-action rifles, like the ones they had in the military.
My stomach tightened. They’re all armed. Defending against bullets was an advanced projection technique, and far beyond my abilities. If one of them landed a hit on me, I was done for.
I sucked in a deep breath, and imagined a voice, crackling out of the truck’s dashboard radio. I didn’t know what these guys’ boss sounded like, but in this profession, he was probably a man, and if I filled it with enough static, it didn’t matter as much. I layered it over any actual sound that would come out of the speakers, masking the real radio noises.
I pushed my auditory illusion onto the truck drivers, making the male voice form words. “Truck. You are ordered to move from the crate to the southeast sector immediately. You’re wanted to load something extra, over.”
Muffled voices emanated from the car, responding into their radio. When they went quiet, I made the voice talk again.
“Truck. Do not copy. Bad signal. Repeat, you are ordered to move from the crate to the southeast sector immediately. Matter is time-sensitive, over.”
The truck’s engine rumbled and its high-beam headlights flickered on. The other guards stared at it, confused. It started forward, driving down the waterfront towards the south. In about ten seconds, it was going to make a turn towards the east as per my fake instructions.
I switched my illusions from auditory to visual, making the rain fall down and mask their windshield for a moment, then changing the turn to make it look fifteen feet closer than it actually was.
The truck turned early, and slammed into a metal crate with a loud crash. It wasn’t fast enough to cause serious injuries, but all the guards stared at them regardless.
Three of the four guards around the crate ran towards the truck, and the fourth watched them. Everyone’s attention was focused on the truck crash in the southwest.
I ran into the open, hugging the northern edge of the road where it was darkest, letting the rain cover me.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in my attempted theft was my Vocation. Over time, I’d learned it had some strict limits. On occasion, after hours of practice, I could bend them in the safety of my home. But not in a situation like this. I could affect any number of people with any illusion I could imagine, but my range was limited to about twenty-one meters. In addition, I could only affect one sense at a time. If I made myself invisible, I couldn’t turn myself silent at the same time.
Which meant if any of the guards looked towards me, I couldn’t block their vision. While they were out of my range, I was vulnerable. I ran towards the crate, holding my breath. Forty meters away. Thirty. Twenty-Five. They were all still looking towards the car crash.
One of the guards on the second story turned his head, leaning down towards me.
I imagined my dark shape morphing into a shadow, shifting into a harmless trick of the light as I got closer, and pushed it into his mind.
He looked away.
I jogged forward and slid into a shadow on the north side of the closed shipping container, hoping my timing was correct.
After what felt like an eternity, the four crate guards came back inside the range of my Vocation, striding back towards me. As soon as they got within twenty-one meters, I pushed an illusion onto them, making myself invisible to them.
One of the guards stepped forward with a key, setting his rifle down. He fiddled with the thick lock on the door’s chains. Inspection time. I breathed a sigh of relief. They were sticking to the schedule.
Now it was time to make my play. I imagined the crate inside being empty, having no cargo inside, and layered the image over the four guards.
The chains screeched as they slid off the door handles. With a metallic groan, the guard pulled the crate open, looking inside. His expression morphed into confusion. “Um, sir. There’s nothing here.”
I tiptoed past him. I could feel his breath tickling the back of my neck. The edge of his shirt grazed my arm, and I slid into the container, pressing myself to the wall. Raindrops pattered on the metal ceiling above me.
“Fuck,” muttered one of the guards.
“Could someone have stolen it during the crash?” asked another one.
The man shook his head. “Voidsteel lock, and it was unbroken. Couldn’t have happened that fast. Someone stole the bodies en route.”
The door was still open, and all four of the guards were staring right in my direction. Out of the corner of my eye, I could make out three limp figures hanging from hooks on the walls, wrapped in protective tissue paper.
Bodies. Two male and one female. Three empty shells, ready to be filled with a soul. I turned around, facing the guard and his superior now both looking inside the container, bemused.
“They couldn’t have been nabbed on the ship,” growled another guard. “This was at the middle of a ten by ten stack of crates on the ship. They’d have to lift or cut through hundreds of tons of metal without leaving a trace.”
The first guard scowled. “Leave it for now. Call in the missing cargo and get the others to run a sweep. If someone took it during the unloading, they can’t have gone far.”
The guard swung the door most of the way shut, but didn’t lock it. No need to keep an eye on an empty box.
Maintaining my illusions, I walked over to the female body. A thin sliver of light illuminated it from the crack in the door, and I looked over it.
Its skin was stitched from thin, translucent silk cloth. Beneath, thick red threads wrapped tight around each other, in the shape narrow, dense muscles. Two cut sapphires glimmered inside its face, bright blue gemstones in place of its eyes. Behind it, the pale wood of the skull reflected the moonlight. Light brown strings hung from its scalp, forming its hair.
Though it wasn’t visible, I knew the brain inside had been constructed by the finest glassblowers, an intricate web of clear, branching connections that would transform into billions of interconnected neurons. The concrete vessel for the abstract pattern of my soul.
Empty physiques didn’t look quite natural before a Pith transformed them. In this form, they looked like an odd cross between a doll and a mannequin. But still, there was something elegant to it. I could see the artist’s hand at work, the dedication to making it strong and healthy and unique.
My shaking palm touched its cold forehead, and I reached forward with my Pith.
It began with a tingling in my fingers, a faint electric buzz building through my entire body and flowing down my arm towards the body. Most projection felt like I was forcing my way through mud, but this felt smooth, like shooting lightning through a conduit. There was almost no resistance.
Blue lightning crackled over its surface, the color of my Pith. It made a faint sound, but was masked by the white noise of the rain outside. The body was like a gaping void, sucking up more and more of my Pith.
As my consciousness transferred through, the body began to change underneath the crackling energy. Underneath the transparent silk sheath, the red threads pulsed and tensed, morphing into muscles. The silk turned into an opaque beige, becoming a layer of skin. The gems on its face glowed, transforming into bright blue eyes. The strings on its scalp and face changed into a stream of light brown hair and narrow, arched eyebrows.
I held onto my illusions, making sure I was still invisible to the guards.
My vision flickered, and I saw myself through two pairs of eyes. I watched the female fabrication become human, and watched my soul drain out of my grey masculine frame. I felt the breeze blow over me in two different positions, heard the distant voices of the guards from two sets of ears.
For a few seconds while I left my old self behind, I was two different beings. Boy and girl. Ugly and beautiful. Half-dead and full of new life.
The lightning faded. Then half my senses popped out of existence, and my male body collapsed. On instinct, I reached out to grab it before it hit the floor, lifting it under its elbows.
It was only when I collected myself that I realized how light it felt.
I looked down. A pair of slender, pale arms were supporting the empty body with ease. My arms. I lifted my armpits off the hooks on the wall and set my old, masked self down on the ground.
I’d only experienced transference once before. This was much better than the first time.
The tension and weight on my shoulders I’d been holding for years had vanished. Every movement I made was fluid, graceful. And even though I’d never seen this body before, much less sat inside it, everything felt natural, like two puzzle pieces sliding together perfectly. The shifts in height and dimensions felt intuitive, easy to grasp.
I was a girl again.
I shook myself out of my happy daze and slid off the soft tissue paper wrapped around my body, taking care to not make too much noise. My hands reached into the backpack on my old body, pulling out black underclothes and pants.
As I slid them on, I marveled at how smooth my skin felt. The best artisans and engineers in the business had designed this body. No grey veins here. I’d be stronger than other people my age, with better endurance and excellent health. On top of all that, I’d age far slower than the norm. My hair might stay brown for the rest of my life.
Despite my natural grace, it took me a few seconds of struggling to put on the training bra I’d brought. The shirt came more easily, along with my second black mask, drier than the other one.
Once I had my clothes on, I grabbed my bag and the empty body, slinging both over my shoulders. It might slow me down a little, but if I left my old chassis here, the authorities would have a much easier time tracking me. Once again, I marveled at the strength of my arms and core, and how easy it was.
This way, I could buy ferry tickets with my male body, and stow the new, female one in my luggage with nobody the wiser. The authorities would be looking for a twenty-something girl with brown hair, not a grey-haired boy of nineteen. By the end of the week, I could be on an island on the far side of the Principality, or even further away, in the Neke Islands or Ilaqua.
I wouldn’t go to Paragon. I wouldn’t become a Guardian. Wherever I was, I’d have to find another way to help people and make friends and strive to become an Exemplar. It would a short, disappointing end to my lifelong dreams.
But here I was, breathing air in a body that had working taste buds. A body that made sense. In spite of everything, it was exhilarating.
The metal door creaked, and swung open, letting in the sound of the pouring rain.
I’d forgotten to maintain my illusion.
In a flash, I constructed an image of an empty container and pushed it forward, jamming it into the first two minds I felt and making myself invisible again.
The two guards looked past me, pulling both doors all the way open. I let out a sigh of relief, then froze.
Three men stood more than twenty-one meters away from me. Outside my range.
The rain made them hard to see, but I could make out the basics. All three were staring at me.
One of them raised his rifle. “Target spotted! In the container!”