2-F – Samuel

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Samuel

Samuel wasn’t supposed to break under pressure.

He’d been trained.  His mind had been molded by years of intense study under impossible conditions, so that even when he was sleep-deprived, wounded, exhausted, and desperate, he could wade through the fiery nightmare of a modern battlefield and save lives.

Paragon Academy’s curriculum was fine-tuned to keep every student exhausted and terrified and constantly studying, in preparation for the struggles they’d face as Guardians.  But Samuel had remained cool and rational through it all, through three-hour duels and ten-page essays and weeks of night patrol. His grades were the best of anyone he knew.

Recently, a criminal had blown his leg off with a shotgun, turning his knee into a shredded tangle of flesh and pain.  And he still hadn’t panicked. He’d pushed through the pain to alert the nearest guards, and get paramedics on scene before there was any serious damage.

So why was today different?

A wave of water crashed into him, twice as tall as he was and many times as wide.  It threw him back, driving him away from Chimera Squad and towards the edge of the arena.  Samuel forced his eyes shut as it jetted into his face, filling his mouth.

He projected into the metal cable next to him, wrapping one end around his hand.  The other end shot towards the flagpole in the middle of the squad, curling around it several times.  The line went taut, anchoring him, and he jerked to a halt, water rushing past him.

When the wave passed, Samuel dropped to his knees.  Brushing a wet strand of dark blonde hair out of his face, he squinted in the afternoon sun, scanning his surroundings.

Chimera Squad, dressed up in combat suits, was surrounding a flag planted on the top of the grassy hill at the center of the pavilion.  He noted Eliya, floating two large ice shards behind her. Leizu, swinging a heavy double-sided glaive like it was a twig.

And the imposter.  The one who had stolen Nell’s body and started this misery.

The flag, like the armbands they all wore, was painted a bright green.  Our opponents, wearing orange bands, flanked them from two diagonals. The members of Golem Squad.

Naruhiko, the Neke boy who had launched the wave, gathered up water behind him from pools and puddles, preparing another tsunami.  Lorne Daventry, Golem’s leader, floated thirty feet above him, riding a large pile of scrap metal like it was a magic carpet.

As Samuel ran back up the hill, Deon, another Golem member touched his palm to the ground, and a thick ring of grass around the base of the hill turned pitch black, crumbling into powder, with a single opening on the side opposite to Samuel.  His vocation.  With a touch, Deon could project into large swaths of organic material and transform them into coal dust.

A spark materialized on the tip of his finger, and he tapped the edge of the circle.  It exploded into a wall of flames, and Samuel crawled back to evade it. His suit would protect him from any serious burns or injuries, but only for a limited time.  He was cut off from the rest of his squad, and the flag they were supposed to defend.

The last Golem charged forward through the opening, yelling.  Kaplen Ingolf.

Kaplen floated a pair of plywood boards in front of him as shields, shooting a wooden rod forward in an attempt to hook Eliya’s green armband and take her out of the match.  Foolish, thought Samuel.  Those aren’t thick enough to block anything.

Sure enough, Eliya sidestepped his attack and shot one of her chunks of ice at him, smashing the wood into splinters.  A second later, she extended her hand towards him and pinched her thumb and index finger together. Kaplen went limp, collapsing to the ground and rolling down the hill, accidentally dodging an orb of energy thrown by Nell.

Mental stunning.  Eliya’s Whisper Vocation.  It was only temporary, though.  Three seconds later, Kaplen was crawling to his feet, dirt and grass staining his face.

While he was occupied, Eliya broke her other chunk of ice into shards, and shot them behind her at the fire.  They evaporated, cutting a temporary path through the ring of flames. She sprinted through it, heading straight for Samuel.  After a moment’s hesitation, Nell followed her.

Leizu, the last one still inside, grabbed the flagpole with one hand, and ripped it out of the ground.  That thing was planted in concrete.  Not a problem for a joiner of Leizu’s caliber.  She leapt twenty feet into the air, soaring over the flames with the flag one hand and her double-bladed glaive in the other, looking like some angel of patriotism descending from the sky.

Lorne shot a pair of metal strips towards her armband.  She spun in midair and kicked them aside like they were made of cardboard.

Chimera Squad regrouped around Samuel, and together, they all sprinted away from the burning hill.

“Plan?” shouted Leizu, looking at Samuel.  Eliya nodded assent.

Samuel looked at his watch.  Three minutes remaining.  If they held onto their flag or took all of Golem’s orange armbands, they would win the match, starting the school year off in a solid position on the leaderboard.

Lorne’s team was famously good at wide-area attacks.  In the past, Chimera had used Nell’s paper projection to block their vision and separate them, relying on her improvised tactics to take their armbands one by one.

But their squad leader was gone now.  Replaced by a stranger who looked and sounded exactly the same.  No thanks to you.  Samuel had studied with her, lent her his lecture notes, and steered her away from heavy drinking before exams, but in the end, none of it had been enough.  He’d failed her.

“Samuel!” yelled Eliya, shaking him out of his fugue.  “If we just stand here, they are going to slaughter us.”

“I – “  Samuel stuttered.  “I think we can – “

Naruhiko finished collecting water and launched another tidal wave, twice as large as before.  A dozen yards away from them, it broke, spilling around them in all directions. Before any of Chimera could react, they were surrounded by a thick dome of muddy water, sealing them off and blocking their vision.

Tiny holes opened up in the barrier, and a pair of wooden rods shot at them.  Kaplen.  Another second later, two planks flew from the opposite end, missing them.  A clump of coal dust followed them, exploding in Leizu’s face, though she barely reacted.

“Back to back!” Samuel shouted.  They gathered around the flag, blocking attacks from the north, south, east, and west from opponents they couldn’t see.

While Eliya swatted aside a clod of coal, a strip of copper dropped from above and wrapped around her armband, ripping it off.  It flew straight up through a hole in the ceiling, and into the hand of a grinning Lorne.

Samuel shot a metal cable at him, and he zipped to the side, the hole closing below him.  He’s whittling us down.  Using Chimera’s own tactics against them.

Eliya pulled off her helmet and threw it to the ground, fuming.  Waves of her platinum blonde hair spilled out from underneath, somehow still perfect and unmussed.  Now it’s four on three.

Work the problem, thought Samuel.  They’re spread out, hitting us from all sides, counting on us to stay defensive.  What weren’t they expecting?

“Sideways!” he shouted.  “Group up and hit them while they’re spread out!”

As the next piece of wood flew towards them, Nell leapt towards the source without signaling, anti-projection light materializing in a flat circle around her fists.  She punched through the dome of water.

Samuel followed her, and Leizu hesitated a moment before pulling out the flag again and mirroring him, charging through the gap where Naruhiko’s Pith had been pushed out.  The remains of Chimera squad surrounded Kaplen, their chosen target.

Suddenly facing three people, Kaplen’s eyes widened with panic, and he shot pieces of wood in every direction.  One of them hit Deon, his own teammate, in the face, knocking him down. As he fell, Samuel snaked a steel cable underneath his orange armband and yanked it off.  3v3 now.

Leizu bounced from side to side, weaving through Kaplen’s assault, and tore off his armband with ease.  3v2.  She spun around him, running back to Samuel.  Naruhiko appeared at the top of the water dome, standing on the top where Lorne used to be.  Lorne himself was nowhere to be seen.

Naruhiko swung his hands forward, turning the dome into another tidal wave crashing towards Chimera, three stories tall.  He rode on top, staring down at them.

Leizu tossed Samuel the flagpole, then leapt straight up, towards Naruhiko.  Samuel projected into his suit, flinging himself to the side.

Nell floated upwards after Leizu, balls of energy coalescing in her palms.  “Wait!” he shouted. “We need to defend the flag!” We’re not coordinating.

Naruhiko bent back to dodge Nell’s flung orb.  Leizu came from beneath, leaping through his blind spot.  She whipped her leg around, kicking him in the stomach and knocking the air out of him.  Her hand lashed out in a blur, ripping his armband off. 3v1.  Just one more enemy left.

Samuel heard a loud ripping sound next to him and spun to confront its source.

Lorne stood next to him, holding the flag in his hand.  He tore it off.

The student referee blew the whistle.  The match was over.

Samuel slumped over, and Nell and Leizu floated to the ground next to him, scowling.  Naruhiko flicked his hand, sending the wave off to the other end of the pavilion, where it spread out over the grass, harmless.

Applause rang out to the left, and Samuel turned, seeing a small crowd of students in uniforms on the bleachers, cheering and clapping.  First years.  The bridges and hallways of Paragon were teeming with them, loud and awkward masses all excited for Welcome Week, and the upcoming first day of classes.  They have no idea what’s in store for them.

Lorne cheered with them, so loud he was almost roaring.  He whooped, pumping his fists and clapping Naruhiko and Deon on the back.  He looked at Samuel, his cheers turning into snorts of laughter. “Nicely done, Razor Bull!”  Samuel’s nickname, after his Vocation. “Top-notch coordination!” He snickered. “You and your fiancé work great together.”  He pulled off his helmet, his pitch black hair sweaty and disheveled.

Samuel didn’t dignify him with a reply.  But he’s right.  Without the real Nell’s barrage of instant tactics and battlefield control, Chimera Squad crumbled.  This placement match alone put them in the bottom half of the standings for the semester. And given their performance, much worse was in store.

With the match over, the first-years filed out of the pavilion, clomping across the wooden bridge back to the main floating island of the academy.

Kaplen walked away, silent, probably trying to avoid attention.  Lorne turned to him, and his smile curdled. “Ingolf!” he shouted.  “Get back here!”

Kaplen sidled back towards Lorne and the rest of Golem Squad.  He removed his helmet, showcasing his round, cherubic face and short red hair.  His bright blue eyes were wide, imploring. “Lorne, I am so sorry. And Deon, any body maintenance fees are on me, of course.”  Deon squeezed his nose, blood dripping out of it, glaring at Kaplen.

Lorne clapped Deon and Naruhiko on the back, muttering words of encouragement, then turned to Kaplen.  “We almost lost,” he said. “Because you hit your own teammate in the face.”

Kaplen flashed him a forced smile, voice wavering.  “But we didn’t! All thanks to you and your agility!  Have you taken flight classes already? Really, I think we’re set as long as we have yo – ”

“You realize how much you’re embarrassing yourself, right?  The more you talk, the more everyone realizes how moronic you are,” Lorne growled.  “If you shut your mouth more, people might not mistake you for a Humdrum so often.”

I can’t just watch this.  “It’s disgraceful,” Samuel called out.  “To speak to your subordinate that way. No one wants to follow a leader who dishonors his men in such a way.“

Lorne glared at Samuel, then grabbed Kaplen by the back of the neck, steering him towards the bleachers and growling into his ear.  Kaplen didn’t resist, a dejected look on his face. This isn’t the first time he’s messed up.  

The two of them crossed the bridge, returning to the main island of the academy.  Judging by Lorne’s expression, Samuel could almost believe he was going to throw Kaplen off the side, to send him plummeting thousands of feet into the ocean.

Leizu and Eliya strode towards him, forming a circle on the grass.  Leizu’s hard shoulders were tensed. Her calloused fingers clenched into fists.  Eliya scowled.

Samuel sighed.  We’re better than this.  “Alright, let’s analyze what we could have done better.”

“We don’t have Nell,” said Eliya, folding her manicured fingers together.  “We lost our core offense, and our instant recon. And as a leader, you’re much slower and less effective.”

Way to sugarcoat it, Eliya.  “Yes, and – “

Leizu held up a hand, yanking off her helmet and freeing her black bob of hair, soaked with sweat.  “This is on me. I fucked up. With my joining and enhanced reactions, I should have stayed with the flag, not charged ahead.  Samuel can tie bastards up and he can cut them in half, but he’s not great on defense.”

The fake Nell approached the group from behind, biting her lip.  She was hunched over, black hair falling in front of her eyes. “If I’m not speaking out of turn, I think I was probably too aggress – “

“Good point, Leizu,” said Samuel, interrupting her.  Don’t acknowledge her presence.  “Scholars, I hate losing to Daventry.”

“Lorne, right?  Yeah, that guy seemed rude,” the imposter Nell again, leaning into the circle, though nobody made an opening for her.  “Is he always such a bad winner?”’

Eliya followed Samuel’s lead, talking past the girl as if she weren’t there.  “And I was looking forward to so much this year.”

Nell looked back and forth, confused.  “I’m sorry, am I interrupting someth – “

“Fuck Lorne.”  Leizu ignored the fourth member of the squad.  “The prick took advantage of our loss.” She clenched her fingers around her helmet, causing cracks to spiderweb on the surface.  “I bet he laughed when he heard she got Ousted.”

The imposter Nell looked at Samuel, lips pursed.  “Squad leader, if I could participate in these discussions, I think we could improve much faster.”

Samuel kept ignoring her.  She’ll get the hint sooner or later.  Chimera Squad had been shrugging Nell’s Ousted replacement off in this way for the entire past week, ignoring all attempts at conversation, responding only for the most basic necessities.

You think we’d forget what you did to our leader?  Our best friend?  Samuel had told the squad the results of his secret meetings in the Ebbridge gardens.  The real Nell couldn’t even hear her own name anymore. She was scared and isolated and deep in her bottles, throwing herself into danger at the slightest possibility of returning to her family.

And you abandoned her, said a voice in Samuel’s head, making his stomach tighten.  When she needed you most, you threw her away to rot and drink herself to oblivion.  After Admiral Ebbridge had threatened to expose his illegal meetings, Samuel stayed up the entire night agonizing over the decision to separate.  He sprinted laps around Paragon’s grounds until his shins ached and he was dry heaving off the edge of the bridges, staring down into the black ocean below.

In the end, resisting the Admiral seemed like a pointless act of defiance, something that would just get him Ousted along with Nell, and hurt his squadmates even more.  Cutting off contact was the sensible choice, the rational choice. He’d already broken enough rules.

That didn’t mean he had to like it, though.  That won’t be the last night you’ll lose sleep over it.

The fake Nell walked away, slumped over, dejected.  A part of Samuel twinged with sympathy, and he suppressed the instinct to run after her and hug her.  That’s not Nell.

She had the same bright green eyes, the same dark hair and glowing smile.  But it was all wrong. The sharp gaze and heart-shaped face he’d grown to love were now owned by a stranger.

A stranger who he was now expected to marry and live with for the rest of his life.  The entire tradition of Ousting is lunacy.

“Brooding won’t help, Samuel.”  Leizu put a firm hand on his shoulder, interrupting his train of thought.  “Let’s get you some food. Dinner at The Silver Flask?”

Samuel nodded slowly.  One foot, then the next.  He followed her and the others headed for the bridge.  The school year was starting in a few days. He could think about other things besides his fiancé.  Besides the marriage pact his family was still pressuring him into, even after the real Nell got Ousted.  One step, then another.

________________________________________

The Silver Flask was every Academy student’s favorite hangout spot.  It had everything: twenty-four-hour breakfast food, caffeine, a soda fountain, and the perfect combination of prestige and coziness to appeal to all levels of wealth.  It was only two blocks from the cable car station in Hightown, which meant easy access, and even on the days before exams, it always had enough tables and couches to seat everyone.

Samuel prodded a steak and kidney pie with his spoon, feeling the crust give underneath.  It was otherwise untouched.

“Eat, dumbass,” said Eliya, glaring at him.  She sliced a tiny sliver off her fish and chips, inserting it into her mouth.  “Being hungry won’t help you either.”

Samuel stabbed the pie, digging out a spoonful of steaming meat and pastry.

The front door burst open, and Leizu strode through, clutching a piece of paper in her fist.  She approached Samuel and slammed it in front of him, hard enough to shake the table.

Samuel raised an eyebrow, spoon hovering in front of his mouth.  “What?”

Leizu scowled.  “Patrol schedule for the week.“  Once every seven days, every student in Paragon had to go on call somewhere in the city, to respond alongside police if any serious crimes developed.  The last time he’d responded to an emergency, a body thief had tricked Samuel into chopping off Eliya’s hands, and blown off his leg with a shotgun. Professor Brin had finished off the perp, but Samuel and Eliya had barely made it out alive. 

Samuel scanned the paper, reading through the list of shifts and partners.  He stopped at the top, on tomorrow.

SOUTHERN MIDTOWN | 2100 – 0300 | SAMUEL PAKHEM [Chimera] and NELL EBBRIDGE [Chimera]

Samuel dropped his spoon, spilling crumbs across the table.  He pushed the pie away from him. “Anyone else hungry?”

________________________________________

It was raining outside.  A warm, humid summer rain, accompanied by sweat and the rotten odor of mildew on everyone’s clothes.  Droplets pinged on the roof of the police van, and a small puddle of water had formed beneath Samuel’s dripping combat boots.

He turned the page of his Pneumatology textbook and closed his eyes, summarizing its contents in his mind.  A mind-sphere or biological brain imposes a structural lattice on the framework of the Pith, and when the lattice is incompatible or too small, sections deemed less important will be deleted.

Nine times out of ten, nothing happened during these shifts, and you would sit in a van for six hours.  Most people, especially the real Nell, found being on call mind-numbingly boring, but Samuel had always found the stillness refreshing.  Guardian work wasn’t all glamorous and thrilling. A lot of it was sitting and waiting for the right time to move.

Plus, it was extra time to study.  Now was not the time to let his grades slip.

Like the rest of the week, however, tonight was different.  The imposter Nell sat across from him in the van. Not studying, not reading, just staring at her feet, her hands folded across her lap. She hadn’t changed positions or so much as fidgeted in the last two hours.  In that way, she was the opposite of her predecessor.

The girl had tried to start up a conversation with him three times this evening, always friendly, always hesitant.

Is she really, though?  Samuel thought back to the real Nell’s warnings, from one of their secret meetings.  She could be manipulating all of us, playing on our sympathies.  The replacement was either awkwardly earnest, or a patient social operator.  In theory, Isaac Brin’s Social Engineering course was supposed to help him spot con artists, but in practice, guessing people’s intentions was still bloody difficult.

Either way, their partnership tonight had to be Admiral Ebbridge’s work.  All it would take was a phone call to Sebastian Oakes, Paragon’s Chief of Operations, and she could modify the pairings for second-year patrols.  The Admiral wanted to force the two of them together, get them to bond to prop up her marriage alliance.

The fake Nell turned her gaze towards him, green eyes pleading.  “Please, Samuel. Can I at least explain my Vocation to you?”

Samuel kept reading, clenching his teeth.  During the Synapse, when all projection is heightened, the Pith can compress more efficiently into such a framework, or exist without any framework at all, which is otherwise impossible.

“You’re the squad leader, shouldn’t you know what all of your members can do?  I’m just trying to help all of us succeed.”

Samuel’s frustration built up like water in a boiling kettle.  He slammed his book shut, turning his eyes on the imposter. “Let me make our situation clear, since you seem incapable of picking up subtext.  I’m not your lover, not your boyfriend, not even your friend. I’ll put on a face when our parents are watching, and I’ll fight beside you when Paragon requires it, but that’s it.”

“Can I – “

“Unless it’s mandated, I don’t ever want to see you.  You’ll eat at the opposite end of the banquet hall, or at different times.  You’ll sit away from me in any classes we have together. If we pass each other in the corridors, we won’t acknowledge each other.  And I am never calling you by the name you stole, the name the real Nell can’t even think of ever again.”

“Tasia,” blurted out the imposter.

“What?”

“I agree with you,” she said.  “It doesn’t feel right to be taking someone else’s name.  You don’t have a choice in front of the Ebbridges and teachers, but otherwise, just call me Tasia.  Soon as I can afford it with my own funds, I’m getting a different body too, one I didn’t steal, and finding a way to give this back to the real Nell.  Anything less feels disrespectful to my predecessor.”

Samuel snorted.  “Disrespectful.” It was almost absurd.  “If you cared about respect, why would you destroy her life?”  The anger slipped into his voice. “It would have been a pittance for you to get into Paragon with the normal entrance exam.  How hard would it be to take on some debt for your tuition?” He felt his face grow hot. “Why?”

The imposter – Tasia – reached into the cloth bag by her side, pulling out a shining, lacquered card, dark turquoise on one side, and golden on the other.  The golden side was embossed with Paragon’s seal, a blue fist clutching a scroll, and two rows of cursive letters.

Lady Nell Ebbridge
Level 4 Access

It was a library card, made of the same flexible, strong material as business cards around the world.  Samuel had only seen the golden sheen of a Level Four card a handful of times. Even his parents’ cards only went up to Level Three.  Higher, more exclusive levels involved going through layers of armed soldiers, locked vault doors, and Guardians.

“With the Ebbridge’s Level Four card,” said Tasia, “I have access to almost all of the Vocation Codices in the Great Library.  With time, I can learn almost any projection technique I want, research any topic that isn’t on Level Five.”

Samuel ground his teeth together.  “And why is research worth ruining another person’s life?”

“I need it to save someone,” she said, simply, not elaborating.

She could be lying, said the suspicious part of Samuel.  She could be telling the truth, said the morally upstanding part, and you’re just afraid to admit that possibility.  He grunted, considering whether he wanted to ask for more information.

The door of the van burst open.  Samuel stood up in less than a second, extending a thin metal cable in front of him.  Tasia reacted just as fast, materializing two balls of blue and purple lightning around her fists.

The figure at the edge of the van staggered back in shock, landing in a puddle and splashing.  “Aa! Peace, peace!” He was a pale-faced boy, with a round face and frizzy red hair, all combined with the angelic good looks of an expensive body.

It’s Kaplen Ingolf.  The screw-up from Lorne Daventry’s squad.

“What are you doing here?” said Samuel, confused.

“Hi, Kaplen!” said Nell, her voice brightening.

Kaplen beamed, climbing upright and projecting water out of his clothes.  “Hi, Tasia! Sorry for startling you two. Luckily, I kept my cargo safe.”  He moved his hand, and a paper package floated forward, raindrops bouncing off an invisible barrier on top of it.  Water projection, no doubt. “Still hot and fresh!”

“You two know each other?” said Samuel, pursing his lips.

“Oh yes, we’re good friends, the two of us.”

“How long have you known her?”

“Oh, since this morning.  She looked lost in the entrance hall, so I gave her a tour of the grounds.  She’s great.” The boy clambered into the van, pulling open the package to reveal a steaming pie, sprinkled with powdered sugar.  “Strawberry-rhubarb pie! Hot from the oven.”

Samuel grit his teeth.  “Why are you here? You’re not assigned this sector.”

“To see Tash! ” Said Kaplen, his smile not faltering.  His words came one after the other, rapidfire and full of enthusiasm.  “After you guys crushed me in the squad battle yesterday, Lorne Daventry uninvited me from his cocktail party tonight.  I was planning to make friends with his uncle, get a scholarship for next semester’s tuition, not collapse beneath the overwhelming debt of my education, you know the deal, so I was a bit miffed.  I’m swamped looking for replacements.”

“Uh huh,” said Samuel.  He felt bad for anyone unlucky enough to be on Lorne’s team.

“I love, love parties.  Tea, cocktail, late-night dancing, you name it, but Lorne never invites me to any.”  Kaplen’s face fell. “Tonight was supposed to be the exception. But he still doesn’t want to be my friend.”  He wrapped his arms around Tasia in a tight bear hug. After a moment’s hesitation, she hugged him back. “Besides, Tash told me her shift tonight might get lonely.  So I thought I’d bring a slice of the party.”

As always, Kaplen’s oblivious cheer made no sense to Samuel.  Is he wooing her?  No, even Kaplen wasn’t stupid enough to pursue a betrothed Epistocrat.  And Samuel hadn’t ever seen the boy express attraction to anyone, much less flirt with them.  Among all the hormones swirling around Paragon, Ingolf seemed like the only second-year not interested in screwing anyone’s brains out.

A stray cat ran out of the rain and bounded into the van.  Its thick, light green fur was tangled and soaked with water, dripping all over the metal floor.  Samuel stepped back, holding out a hand between him and it. Cats carried diseases.

Kaplen picked it up, and it went limp as a ragdoll.  “No need to worry. That’s just Cardamom.” He plopped the cat on his shoulder, and it rubbed its waterlogged head against his neck, affectionate, clinging to Kaplen’s dress shirt with its claws.

Only poor people owned cats nowadays.  Cat owner, terrible fighter, prolific baker.  Kaplen was definitely the strangest person Samuel knew at Paragon.  Word was, the boy hadn’t even found his Vocation yet. That was rare even in first-years, and unheard of in classes above that.

Samuel put on his best disapproving glare.  “You shouldn’t be here, Kaplen. If we get a call, we need to drive off.  Right away.” Please don’t make me talk to her.

“I’ll just hop out if you do.”  Kaplen reached past the green cat, into another bag over his shoulder, and pulled out a bright yellow box.  “In the meantime, I brought Jao Lu! Should help us pass the time.” Kaplen unpacked the hexagonal game tiles.  Picking up a pre-cut slice of pie, he handed it to Samuel.

Samuel bit into it.  Surprisingly good.  “Kaplen, if you’re swamped looking for tuition money, why in the scholars’ name did you make dessert?”

“I stress-bake.  You should try it someday.  Does wonders before exams.”  Kaplen talked like he was on stimulants, with barely any space between the words, as he set up the game board, balancing it between the knees of him and Nell – him and Tasia.  “Wanna join? It’s more fun with three players. Diplomacy and betrayals and everything.”

Nell loved Jao Lu.  Samuel stared at him blankly for a good seven seconds before speaking.  “No.” He went back to his book.

When the alert rang one and a half hours later, he was almost grateful.

The light on top of the police van flashed red, the klaxon blaring in Samuel’s ears.  Nell leapt up, scattering the Jao Lu pieces on the floor. Kaplen reached for them.

“Pick them up later!  Go!” shouted Samuel, clicking on the helmet of his combat suit.

Kaplen grabbed Cardamom and jumped out of the back of the vehicle as it accelerated, splashing him with water.  He lost his grip on the pie, and it flopped onto the wet ground, splattering to pieces.

Samuel grabbed a harness to keep the acceleration from knocking him over, and pulled himself to the front of the vehicle, poking his head next to the police officer driving it.  “Situation report, officer.” Technically, he outranked all the cops in this detail.

The cop turned the car through streets and alleyways, splashing through puddles.  His partner in the passenger seat turned to Samuel. “Red Five-Two on thirty-second street!”  The man had to shout to be heard over the siren.

Samuel had Memory Burst all the police codes, using mental projection to memorize them in seconds.  Red Five-Two meant multiple shooters targeting civilians. He turned back to Tasia. “Hey! Know how to make an autonomous bullet defense?!”

The girl shook her head, loose black hair flying in her face.

Scholars.  This could be difficult.

They raced through the rain, past white street lamps and dark storefronts, scattering the few cars that were still on the street ahead of them.  After several frantic minutes of screeching tires and sharp turns, they arrived in front of a grey, nondescript building.

Samuel ran in first, pushing the magnetic field on his ABD up to full power and floating four near-invisible metal threads in front of him.  Nell followed close after, orbs coalescing around her hands.

They entered a packed lecture hall, and in an instant, Samuel knew where they were.  Entrance exam studying.  Late-night lessons for middle-class teenagers desperate to get into Paragon Academy.

Samuel heard a sharp intake of breath from Tasia.  “Scholars,” she whispered.

At least half the students were keeled over at their desks, bleeding from bullet wounds.  The other half were hiding under their desks, or pressing bloodsoaked articles of clothing on exit holes.

The room was filled with the sounds of sobbing, wailing.  A fourteen-year-old boy grabbed at Samuel’s leg as he passed with a damp hand, staining his pant leg with red.  The kid was quivering in the corner, hyperventilating. Shock.

Samuel squeezed his hand.  “Help is on the way. You’ll be alright.”  What else could he say? “Listen, listen. Help is on the way, but I need you to help me.  Can you do that? Nod to say yes.”

The shivering boy hesitated, then nodded.

“I need you to tell me.  Are the shooters still here?”

The boy raised his finger slowly, pointing to the back door.  The sound of screeching tires could be heard outside.

“Back to the van!” barked Samuel.  “They’re running!”

“But the students – “

“Reinforcements will cover them!  Now!” Samuel sprinted back to the van and leapt in with Tasia, shouting to the driver.  “Back side of the building! Perps are fleeing in a vehicle!”

The van kicked into gear and turned the corner, racing to the rear of the building.  Samuel spotted the rear lights of a car turning on thirty-second street, then flicking off.  “Thirty-second! Eastbound!”

The driver obeyed him, and the van made a series of turns, following the same path.  Through the torrents of rain, Samuel could make out the black outline of the car ahead of them, swerving and honking its horn.  A dark figure leaned out of one of the back windows, pointing an object at them.

“Gun!” shouted the cop in the passenger seat.  “Target now headed southbound on Eighth Aven – “  A series of cracks echoed through the storm, and the figure lit up with muzzle flashes.  A pair of holes appeared in the windshield, cracks spiderwebbing out from the impact.

The cop in the passenger seat made a coughing noise, and went silent.  “Bastard!” the driver shouted.  “Black Eight-One! Black Eight-One!”  The code for an officer down.  Samuel felt his stomach turn, as more cracks rang out, putting more holes in the windshield.  My ABD can only protect me.

“Tasia!” shouted Samuel, his chest tight.  “Your orbs knock people out, right?”

Tasia nodded.

He pointed upwards.  “Get on the roof! Aim for the driver!”  He didn’t trust either of them to fly directly at the targets.

Tasia leapt out of the back, projecting into her suit and flying to the top of the van.  Four indents appeared in the metal of the van’s ceiling in the shape of Tasia’s hands and knees.  The girl has good balance.

Through the broken windshield, Samuel saw a pair of orbs fly at the car.  The gunman slapped the window behind him, and the car swerved around a lamppost, making a sharp right turn to dodge.

Samuel climbed between the two front seats, shooting a thin metal wire and a thick cable through the holes in the windshield.  Extending his Pith as far as it would go, he lashed out with the cable, shattering the rear window of the car. He pushed it further, straining his mind and feeling his head hurt, and slapped away the shooter’s submachine gun, sending it clattering to the pavement.

They’re at the edge of my effective range.  Nell threw another orb at the driver, and they swerved to the side, dodging it again.

The shooter leaned out of the opposite window, hefting another submachine gun.  This time, he aimed down. Another barrage of gunshots rang out, bright orange tracer rounds impacting below the hood.

When Samuel yanked the gun out of his hands, he heard a loud hissing from the police van’s wheels.  They blew out our tires.

Nell climbed down from the roof, swinging back into the rear of the van.  “I can’t get a clear shot!”

The black car made another right turn.  When the van followed, it wobbled, skidding and wildly overshooting the target, riding up on the sidewalk.  Before it slammed into a wall, Samuel projected his Pith into the metal of the car, yanking it to the right and keeping it straight.

The van swayed right and left, both front tires blown out, crashing through garbage cans and bouncing from potholes.  We can’t keep this up.  Reinforcements wouldn’t get here fast enough, and the murderers would get away.  Samuel had never failed a mission before. Think, damn you, think.  Nothing.

“Anchor them!”  Tasia’s voice. “Like you did to yourself yesterday!”

Samuel understood her meaning in an instant.  As the car approached a right turn, he shot one end of his cable through the cops’ shattered windshield, wrapping it around the side of the enemy’s car to form a loop at the very edge of his range.

When the car started to turn, he twisted the other end around a lamp post.  The cable went taut, and the vehicle screeched around, slamming into a storefront with a metallic crash.  The front of the automobile crumpled, and the windows shattered, showering the inhabitants with shards of broken glass.

The driver floored the brakes, struggling to control the van.  Samuel leapt out of the back, projecting into metal buckles on his combat suit to ease his fall.  He hit the ground sprinting, his bullet defense thrumming around him.

“Stay back!” he shouted at Tasia.  Without an ABD, they’d make quick work of her.

When he reached the car, its two inhabitants were pointing pistols to their foreheads.  As they squeezed the trigger, Samuel projected into the inner workings of the gun, holding back the firing pin from hitting the primer on the cartridge.  The gunman squeezed the trigger again and again, to no avail.

The female driver pulled a switchblade from her pocket, driving it towards her neck.  Samuel projected into it, freezing it mid-stab. He pressed the auditory and executive functions of their Piths, Nudging both of them.  “Stop!” he shouted. “Don’t move!”

Both of them froze.  A raindrop fell onto the woman’s open eye, and she didn’t blink.

Samuel shouted at them.  “Answer all my questions truthfully, to the best of your ability, and without misdirection.  Are there any others working with you?”

“No,” both of them said, voices shaking.

“Do you have any other traps or plans set up?”

“No.”

“Did you do this voluntarily?”

“No,”  The woman spoke up, her voice hoarse.  “Someone nudged us, I think.”

Samuel sighed, slumping over.  “I release you from all nudges given by anyone,” he said, and pulled back his Pith.

The man and woman dropped the weapons and collapsed to the wet ground, shaking.  The woman forced her eyes shut, sobbing.

Samuel kneeled next to them and pulled off his helmet, raindrops running down his cheeks.  “Do you remember who forced you to do this?”

The man shook his head, wrapping his arms around his chest.

A chill came over Samuel.  “Do you remember anything from the last two days?”

The man shook his head again.

Not again.  The perpetrators had been nudged and block memory-wiped to erase the memory of the nudging itself.  Attacks like these were easy to set up and almost impossible to trace. The victims-turned-terrorists almost never survived, and when they did, they had no evidence pointing to the real masterminds.

At least a dozen similar attacks had happened over the last year, all attacking Epistocrats or Guardian-related locations.  None of the cases were ever solved, but Samuel would bet his life that Commonplace was behind it.

Almost everyone in Paragon agreed with him, but every time the idea was brought up in public, Commonplace representatives called it a false flag operation, an attempt to discredit their movement. The front-facing political organization couldn’t support terrorists, at least not in the open.

Hypocrites.  They claimed to stand against mental hijacking and projection abuse, then brainwashed Humdrums to carry out their mass murder.

The van driver stepped past Samuel, uniform soaked with water, and kicked the nudged gunman in the face.  The man fell back, blood pouring from his nose.

“What are you doing?” shouted Samuel.  “Stop! He was nudged!”

The cop kicked the shooter again, this time in the chest, with an audible crunch as his boot dug into the man’s rib cage.  As he lifted his heel above the man’s neck, a blue and purple orb of lightning passed through his chest, and he fell to the ground, limp.

Nell stood next to the van, holding another orb in her shaking palm.  “Stay – stay down please, officer,” she stuttered.

“Hubert’s dead,” the cop said, his voice weak.  “They shot Hubert, and he’s fucking dead.”

Samuel looked back to the van.  The cop in the passenger seat was splayed against the headrest, clothes covered in blood, a bullet hole through his neck.  Even a replacement body couldn’t save him now.

It was quieter now.  Nobody spoke. The only sounds were the rain pinging off the sidewalk and the sirens in the distance, growing louder by the second.

Samuel sat down on the sidewalk, slouching over.  Droplets of water trickled down the sides of his head, exposed without his helmet.

Samuel was supposed to be cool and rational in the face of terror, to not be affected by the horrors he saw.  When he failed, he was supposed to get up and try again, without letting it scar him. Everyone expected him to succeed – his parents, his teachers, his peers.  In the real Nell’s absence, even Chimera Squad, his friends, had appointed him leader without a second thought.

He was supposed to be the Razor Bull, the brilliant crusader who they all trusted to get the job done.  But tonight, surrounded by rain and darkness and blood, he just felt cold. Exhausted. Is being a Guardian always so lonely?

He looked at Tasia, a beauty with black hair, a stranger in his fiance’s body, an outcast in her own right.  She sat at the rear of the police van, legs hanging off the back, staring into space.

Do I really want to know?

________________________________________

Samuel and Tasia rode the trolley back up the mountain to Hightown together, and then the cable car up to Paragon.  The rain had softened to a light drizzle, and out of the windows, they could see the lights of Elmidde shrink below them.

It was past 3 AM, so the two of them were the only ones in the car, save for a pair of half-asleep guards at the other end.  Two’s not enough, thought Samuel.  It’s not even close.


It was dead silent.  The motor and the cable made no noise.  There were no lights inside the cabin, the only illumination coming from the city below and the academy above, with some extra from the two moons in the sky.  Samuel’s pant leg was still damp with blood, and the rest of his clothes still soaked from the rain.

“We’re not friends,” said Samuel.  “And we’re definitely not anything more.  I’m not going to desecrate Nell’s memory.”  He looked at the fake Nell – no, Tasia, who was staring out the window.  “But you’re a member of this squad, too. I’ll talk to the team about bringing you to strategy meetings.”

Tasia met his gaze, nodding.  It looked like she was holding back tears.

“Get some sleep tonight.  You’ll need more than you think.”

“I don’t – “  Tasia chuckled under her breath.  “I don’t expect I’ll be falling asleep any time soon.”

She has a point.  Even by Paragon’s standards, it had been an intense night, an intense weekend.  If Samuel went to bed now, he’d probably just spend the next eight hours thinking about Tasia, or Commonplace, or that wounded boy he’d tried to comfort at the lecture hall.  They’re probably safe, he told himself.  The EMTs had fresh bodies.

And if the Epistocrats or Parliament felt generous, they could award the victims money so they wouldn’t be crippled with debt from the transfer.

It was unhealthy to dwell.  Nell had used alcohol to cope, but Samuel hated everything that dulled his mind.  I need something to loosen me up.  Something to unwind.

In the station at the top, he disembarked to find Kaplen waiting on a bench, a warm smile on his face.  The boy ran forward, wrapping both Samuel and Tasia in a hug, squishing them together.

When they broke the hug, Kaplen lifted his hand.  An apron floated out of his bag, unfolding in midair.  “Either of you two busy?”

________________________________________

How did I get roped into this? thought Samuel, stirring cake batter with a projected metal whisk.  It’s two hours before dawn, how did this happen?

Nell stood on the other side of Citrine Hall’s dimly lit kitchen, intently measuring milk into a mixing bowl.

Kaplen stood next to her, reading the recipe book and absentmindedly eating whipped cream.  Every few seconds, he grabbed a clean spoon from a drawer and dipped it into the bowl, scooping out a massive heap and stuffing it into his mouth.  He already had a white mustache of the stuff, but didn’t seem to notice or care.

He pointed at Samuel, shaking his head, mouth full of cream.  “No, wait, you have to hold it in your hands. No projection. You can feel it better that way.”

Samuel obeyed him, wrapping his fingers around the whisk and continuing to stir.  The thick muscles of his combat chassis were more than strong enough.

Kaplen smiled, turning a page of the book.  “Next step,” he said reverently, “we simmer the pistachio syrup.”  He put a saucepan on the stove and turned it on, every movement gentle and patient.  Cardamom sat on his shoulder, and the green cat nuzzled his neck. Soft, but cheery swing music played from a gramophone on the counter, some I-Pop song about dancing and sisterhood.

Baking was oddly relaxing, Scholars only knew why.  Not that he’d ever admit it to Kaplen.

Tasia approached him with her bowl.  “Gotta add this.” She tilted it, pouring the liquid into his mixture.

“Thanks,” said Samuel.

Tasia nodded, smiling at him.

On accident, Samuel smiled back.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




2-E The Problem of Names

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



A Boy

“My mother knows?” I exploded. “That we’re meeting?”

Samuel looked over me, and his blue eyes widened with concern.   His dark blonde hair was a tangled birds nest, tousled and damp with sweat.  “What happened to you? Did Commonplace and Kahlin – “

“I lost your recorder,” I said.  “Sorry. No evidence.”

Samuel cradled my broken fingers in his hand, examining them.  His touch was still soft, comforting. “I told you to stay away from Commonplace.  Those guys – “

“Have machine guns and voidsteel and Joiners strong enough to tear my spleen out with their pinkies.  Yes, I encountered a few of those things.” I sat down on the wooden chair behind me.

“Are you in danger?”

What do you think?  “They know my face and my Vocation, but, silver lining, if they track me down and murder me, I won’t have to think about that conniving little psychopath riding you like a mule in my bed.”

Samuel frowned at me.  “That’s not fair. I’m still keeping my distance from…her.  The whole squad is.”

For now.  I didn’t feel like arguing with him.  There were more urgent problems. “How did my mother find out about us?”

“The audio equipment,” said Samuel.  “She saw the records of me borrowing it from Paragon’s supply yesterday.  She tailed me that afternoon with one of her birds.” He grit his teeth. “I didn’t notice it.  She was watching when I dropped it off for you.”

I massaged my temples.  “The handoff was the same afternoon that you checked it out.  How does anyone move that fast?”

“It’s your mother.  For all we know, she was already monitoring me.  Or both of us. But regardless, she knows we met.”

I leaned my head off the back of the chair.  “What did you tell her?”

“I told her you were going after Commonplace.  And the Broadcast King. She already knew everything else.”

I squeezed my eyes shut.  “And today?”

He shook his head.  “It took me an hour to shake the bird she assigned to spy on me.  I was planning on bringing the rest of Chimera squad, but there’s no way we all could have kept it hidden from her.  But I don’t think I was followed here.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.  Of all the scenarios I’d dreamed up in my head, this one might have been the worst.  Full separation was a strict rule of Ousting, and if my mother had proof I’d broken it, she could legally impose all sorts of horrible punishments on me and Samuel.

“She’s not going to go after you.  Or me. On one condition.”

My fingers tapped on my thighs in a rapidfire pattern, faster and faster.  I felt my shoulders tense.

“We can’t meet again.  Ever. Full separation, just like everyone else.  I shouldn’t even be here. If she catches me, and she tells my parents, I could get Ousted.  At the very least.”

I didn’t like where this was going.  “Alright, then. We’ll have to lie low for a while, not see each other in person, at least until she stops spying on you with her creepy birds.”  I thought for a moment. “If you go inside to leave dead drops, the birds won’t be able to follow you there. And if it’s a place you go normally, she won’t think to post permanent sentries there, and I can pick them up.  We can exchange messages to coordinate when it’s safe to find a new spot to – “

“I’m sorry,” said Samuel, speaking slowly, as if afraid of his own words.  “I wasn’t making my point very clearly. What I mean, is – “ He stopped himself for a moment.  “What I mean is, I’m taking your mother’s offer.”

Silence.  The chill air bit at my skin.

“What the fuck?”  I stared at him.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make.  But I don’t think it’s wise for either of us to keep meeting.”  Samuel kept his voice level.

“Speak for yourself,” I said.  “I lost all my friends, my money, my name.  I don’t have anything left she can take. Except you.”  She got to him.  Admiral Ebbridge was nothing if not methodical.  I didn’t think that Samuel would cave so easily. That everything would happen so fast.  Damn her, I wanted more time.

“I thought you didn’t want me to get Ousted,”  Samuel raised his voice. “My family may not be in debt, but they still need me.  And Chimera Squad already lost its team leader.”

I grit my teeth.  “But you don’t know that my mother will find out.  And if she tells your parents, they don’t have to Oust you if they don’t want you.  They need a candidate for replacement.”  I counted the requirements off on my fingers.  “If you haven’t committed a serious crime, they need to wait until the ceremony a year from now.  And they need to be massive, gaping assholes who have no love for their children.”

Samuel said nothing.

I stood up, staring him down.  “Don’t abandon me based on a hypothetical.”

“I know my parents,” said Samuel.  “If they find out, it’s a little more than a hypothetical.”  He furrowed his brow. “But you can study. Train. Get a spot back in your family, and we’ll be allowed to contact each other again.”

I paced back and forth.  “That bitch who Ousted me?  The one who gave me this?” I pointed at my face.  “Unless she gets struck by lightning or I get spontaneously recruited into a Shenti Commando unit I’m not going to beat her.  Not in the exams or the ring.”

“But you could still get into Parag – “

“- And I failed most of my classes last semester,” I interrupted him.  “I have no chance in the normal entrance exam.” I said my next words slowly, through gritted teeth.  “I’m not getting my name back. I’m not getting my body back. If you break off contact now, you will probably never see me again.”

Samuel stuffed his hands into his pockets, clenching his fists.

“Give me the mask back,” I said.

“What?”

“The crane mask I lent you.  Your gift for the masquerade.  Give it back.” I extended my good hand.  The ache in my stomach grew.

“You said you wanted me to keep it.”  Samuel looked hurt. “So I could have something to remember you by.“

“Give it back,” I repeated.

Samuel reached into his bag with one hand, rummaging through and pulling out the white masquerade mask.  Lightweight, covered with intricate designs and pristine feathers.

With his other hand, he reached in and removed a large paper package, and extended both objects towards me.

“No,” I said, feeling sick.  First he dumps me, then he tries to buy my forgiveness.  I reached into my coat, grabbing his original package of bills from yesterday, and tossed it towards him.  “I don’t want your money.”

“It was the largest sum I could gather without drawing attention.  Any more and your mother would have found out.” He moved both hands closer to me.

I grabbed the mask out of his right hand, ignoring what was in his left.  “Fuck off,” I said. “I don’t have anything left to say to you.” Nothing I could say would change his mind, make him think beyond basic self-preservation.  This money was just an attempt to drown his guilt in pity cash.

“You need this.  It’ll help you get a job, pay for any medical expenses, let you have an adequate quality of li – “

“If you make me take it,” I said.  “I’ll dump it into the ocean.” It felt like someone was driving a corkscrew through my stomach.  My headache was a dull throb at the back of my skull, rising, then falling, then rising again.  

“I don’t understand.  You were fine with taking it last time.”  Samuel looked confused.

Last time, I thought I had a future with you.  That I would be able to return the favor, someday.  Everything felt distant to me, like I was staring at it from far away.  The chair, the hedges, the garden around me.

And Samuel most of all.  A part of me wanted to embrace him, close my eyes, and pretend none of this had ever happened, to hold a last moment of sweetness before saying goodbye.

A larger part wanted to project into those bills and give him a few dozen paper cuts in the most painful places I could think of.  Leave a few scars to remember me by.

But I just stood there, frozen.  “Go,” I said, finally. “Have scones and strawberry jam and tea with the thief.  Marry her. Graduate side by side with the highest honors. Let yourself forget.”  I stuffed the mask into a pocket.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to – “

Go.”

“I’m sorry,” said Samuel.  “I’m so, so sorry.” He stepped back, hefting his bag over his shoulder, and walked out of the enclosure.  A dozen yards away, he turned back towards me. “Love you,” he called out, waiting for a response.

Several long seconds of silence passed.

After a few more, he started walking again.  I watched him go, until he turned a corner on the path, and vanished behind a tree.

I stood there for a while, every breath a small jab of pain where my rib had been broken.  This is the price you pay, I thought, when you can’t be smart enough, can’t work hard enough to stay afloat.  Dew soaked into my peeling shoes, getting my socks damp.

The guards will be back on shift soon.  David would get up from his morning nap by the fountain and start patrolling again.  It’d be much harder to leave then. I forced my feet to move, carrying me towards the fence at the edge of the Ebbridge estate.

But as I walked, mind off of my surroundings, I found myself turning around, taking strides back towards my mansion through the trees and gardens.  What used to be my mansion.

As I drew closer, my level of awareness increased, scanning the grass around me for guards and the branches above me for my mother’s birds.

In fifteen minutes, I found myself at my intended destination.  A smattering of hedge sculptures on the northern side of the mansion, packed close enough to act as a visual barrier.  And right next to the northern dining hall, where my mother’s weekly breakfasts were held.

I ducked from sculpture to sculpture, getting closer and closer to the house until only a huge green eagle stood between it and me, taller than the top of my head.  I peered through the leaves and branches on its wing, gazing through one of the dining hall’s two-story windows.

Samuel and both of my parents were sitting around a table, in a dining room over three stories tall.  Samuel stared at a pair of untouched fried eggs on his plate, his dark blonde hair combed and pristine once more.

My father said something I couldn’t hear – judging by his expression, a mediocre joke.  He laughed, the kind of forced, uncomfortable cheeriness only he could produce, and nibbled a scone.

And my mother.  Admiral Ebbridge, the Typhoon of the South.  She sipped bitter tea from a porcelain cup, calm, measured.  As if nothing had changed. As if my replacement had always been her daughter.

A thin smile played around the edges of her lips.  I hadn’t seen that smile in over a decade. Not since I was a child.

Anger bubbled up within me.  She’s thrilled.  This is her dream come true.

At the other end of the table, sat me.

The thief inhabiting my body, with a name I couldn’t even think of anymore.  A pale, slender girl with wavy, pitch-black hair and a heart-shaped face. She was wearing one of my dresses, navy blue and white lace interspersed with one another: the colors of the Principality flag.

It wasn’t one of my favorites.  I didn’t like my dresses in general, but it was mine, damn her.

Unlike everyone else at the table, the girl was stuffing her mouth.

Pork sausages, poached eggs, bright yellow custard tarts and round green grapes.  Crumbs dribbled from her mouth and onto the dress as she bit into a piece of toast with grilled tomatoes on top.  She paused a moment to down a cup of coffee in two gulps, then dug into a strawberry shortcake, smearing a dollop of whipped cream on her cheek.

No table manners, I thought, with a twinge of satisfaction.  Despite her combat training, her academic prowess and powerful Vocation, she still betrayed her common origins.  She wasn’t fitting in.

At the same time, the breakfast was enough to make my stomach ache with hunger.  Some of those were my favorite foods.

She had all that and more, available at the snap of a finger.  I had burnt bacon and a three-year-old mask.

Not much left to lose.

I took one last lingering look at Samuel before turning around and leaving.

________________________________________

Four hours later, I was staggering across lowtown, clutching a brown paper bag with a bottle of Ilaquan arak inside.  Potent stuff, distilled from anise and bought with bills from the Rose Titan’s goodie bag.

I reached inside that bag, wrapping her dark indigo blanket around my shoulders and stuffing a handful of yuzu sponge cake crumbs into my mouth.

I could have gotten drunk for free at Leo’s Place.  I could have eaten some of his famous stew, complained to him, and watched him look at me with that perpetually worried expression.  Judging me. Pushing me to talk about my emotions. To think about the future.

I couldn’t handle that.  At least not for now.

Clutching a railing beside me for balance, I looked around.  I was standing on the side of North Bridge, the massive steel suspension bridge strung between Elmidde and the mainland of the Principality.  Roaring automobiles surged back and forth on the concrete road to my left. To the right was the Carheim Ocean, extending far into the horizon, speckled with the tiny dots of sailboats below and cargo ships in the distance.

A gust of wind blew over me, and I wrapped the crumb-coated blanket tight around my arms to keep it from flying away.

I pulled out the white crane mask from my bag, fidgeting with it in my hands.

I’d known Samuel since we were seven.  I’d played Scholar’s Puzzle and Hidden Snake and Jao Lu with him and other boys.  In burning hot summers, we’d chased each other around his family’s pool and pushed each other in, or smuggled towering ice cream cones into the movies past the ushers.

Years later, I’d fought alongside him dozens of times in squad battles.  And he’d helped me study through exam after exam, school after school, all the way up to Paragon.

Without Samuel, I’d have been Ousted years ago.

I kicked the railing, making the metal clang, then punched it, putting my entire body into the strike.  The impact sent shocks of pain through my fingers, and I clutched them, doubling over. It felt like I’d broken half the bones in my good hand.

I screamed, a wordless yell echoing out over the water, making my vocal cords ache.  A handful of nearby pedestrians glanced in my direction and speed-walked away from me.

I wished I still remembered my metal projection, so I could tear it with my mind and toss the scraps into the ocean.

The pain arced up my arm, and I winced, squeezing it with my other hand.  I sighed, and the rage seemed to seep out of me. Slumping over on the railing, I stared down at the water hundreds of feet below.

It was probably selfish.  Wanting Samuel to risk his future for me.

How many times had he saved my grades from crashing?  How many times had he picked me up from a bar at dawn, making sure I was safe and sober by morning?  Even outside Paragon, I’d needed to be rescued by the Rose Titan.

For over a decade, I’d been a burden to the people around me.

My Ousting was born of my stupidity and mistakes.  My fault, not his. It wasn’t really even my mother’s fault, or my replacement’s.

I’d been given every privilege, every advantage, but I hadn’t truly earned those things.  I just wasn’t good enough.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out the two business cards tucked inside, and flipped through them.  First, Leo’s.

Leo’s Place
197 West 18th Street, Elmidde

Plain white paper, crumpled a little bit, with a standard font detailing his address and phone number.  It was like he’d pounded it out on his typewriter than cut it out with scissors. He was probably waiting for me back at the bar, keeping a bowl of his signature stew warm for me.  Another gift for the new hire.

And then, Professor Brin’s.

Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy

Major Brin’s card was a rectangle of bright, shining silver, with his information printed in a pitch-black cursive scrawl.  I bent it back and forth, trying to fold or tear it, but it always gradually bent back to its normal, wafer-thin shape. Not a crease on it.

The flexible material was only created by a single company, preventing counterfeits, and was rumored to be forged using projection.  It was the kind of opulent design limited to Guardians and the extraordinarily wealthy. In my hands was power and prestige and money, all contained inside a tiny, simple rectangle.

The roar of an engine sounded out in the distance.  I looked back towards the island. A dive bomber soared over Elmidde, circling Paragon Academy.  Navy blue, with white stripes crisscrossing its body.

Crooked Talon.  Harpy’s plane.  Only the Scholar of Air herself was famous or skilled enough to have her own special aircraft.

After she made her second pass, Harpy flew towards the bridge, spinning and making sharp ninety-degree turns that would be impossible without projection, with two tiny figures soaring beside her in a V formation.

As they grew closer, I could make out their wingsuits, the same color as the plane.  Guardians.  Using projection to propel themselves, they mirrored the plane’s every movement and stunt.

One of them projected into his fabric wings, detaching them from his arms and rolling them up by his sides.  He pressed his arms and legs together, making himself narrow, and he shot like a bullet towards the water.

Moments before he hit the surface, he snapped his wings back open and was gliding again.  In another second, he was flying straight up, projecting into his suit to accelerate himself.  He passed close enough for me to see the ear to ear grin underneath his helmet.

The daredevil rejoined the formation, and the trio kept flying in circles.  A training exercise, maybe.  The Scholar of Air tutoring some students before the school year began, in preparation for her legendary course, Combat Maneuvers and Aerodynamics.

The class I would be taking this semester, if I was still in Paragon.

The afternoon sun shone above them, casting them as silhouettes, and the glimmering water reflected their images.  With a gust of projected wind, Crooked Talon spun a hundred and eighty degrees, changing direction in an instant.  The two Guardians in training flipped in midair, following her. They were graceful, agile, perfect.  A brilliant show of competence and speed.

What must that feel like?  To be detached, blindingly fast, leaving everything on the ground with the wind in your face.  If I had just one more semester.  If I’d pulled myself together, concentrated during those stupid, boring pneumatology lectures and those ten-page essays, given a shit about anything other than fighting and booze.

I clenched my teeth so hard they felt like they were going to snap off, jaw aching from the exertion.  I gripped the railing, my broken fingers giving me jabs of pain.

The truth was, no matter how much I hated myself, I wanted to be up there with them, shooting through the air.  I wanted to know people as remarkable as Harpy and the Symphony Knight, to have the most thrilling job in the Eight Oceans.  I wanted to eat incredible food and go on wondrous adventures, and live in a world infused with magic.

I didn’t want to sit back as an honorary Humdrum, accepting my failure.  I wanted to strive to become an Exemplar. I wanted to fly.

Though it was hard to admit, I wanted to be back with Samuel, too.  But not as a sad weight dragging him down, but as an equal, someone worth respecting, who would push him forward, not drag him down.  The heir to a debt-free family ready to reclaim its noble standing in the Epistocracy.

Harpy and the Guardians finished circling, flying back towards Paragon.  It was pathetic, dreaming so hard for something I’d failed at so terribly.  But it was even more pathetic to let my family down. To let my friends and the love of my life drift away until they were gone forever.

Backsliding was not an option, nor was running in place.  I had to move forward and earn my place. But how?

I looked down at Isaac Brin’s silver business card, flipping it to see the address scrawled on the back, and the name written just below.

Anabelle Gage.  The illusionist who’d been rejected from Paragon, the crazy body thief who’d cut Eliya’s hands off and blew through Samuel’s knee with a shotgun.

Judging from the Rose Titan’s file, she was powerful, but an amateur.  Determined, but inexperienced. Tactical, but socially inept, and desperate to save up enough funds to buy a new body.

If I could convince this Anabelle Gage to go after the Broadcast King, I could use her to get incriminating evidence on him.  If I could trick Gage into chasing the same target as me, we could bring him down together, under the guise of whatever mercenary work Professor Brin was assigning us. Her illusion Vocation was perfectly suited for infiltration and thievery.  And I no longer needed to worry about Samuel’s involvement.

Given Gage’s record, it’d be dangerous, but possible.

If I was a mercenary, a year was enough time to study, to get better at fighting dirty.  Twelve months from now, I could show up to my mother with everything she needed to throw Kahlin in prison and get his contracts voided.  If it saved the Ebbridge family from her debt, she wouldn’t ask too many questions about where the information came from. My mother was nothing if not practical.

And if I pulled off something that huge, she might start to respect me.  She might give me back my name and title.

It was a long shot, a gambit that could blow up in my face like so many others had before.      But I was already at rock bottom.  There wasn’t much left to lose, weren’t many obligations holding me back anymore.

Not quite.  I looked at Leo’s business card, imagined him stirring that beef stew, waiting for me to come back.  Then I looked at Paragon Academy, floating high above Mount Elwar on massive chunks of rock, sunlight reflecting off its towers and halls and the Great Library.

I can’t settle for a Humdrum’s life.  Not when something more was possible.  But the thought of saying that to Leo’s face was excruciating.

You already gave him plenty of money.  At the end of the day, he’d probably be grateful to not have to take care of me anymore.  As his employee, I’d be little more than a forgetful, perpetually distracted alcoholic with violently low self-esteem.  Not worth the wages he’d be giving me.

This way, he wouldn’t have to fire me and feel bad about himself.

I let Leo’s card fall through my fingers.  The white slip of paper spun as it dropped towards the water hundreds of feet below.  It shrunk in my vision until it was too tiny to see.

I turned and started walking back towards the city, holding Professor Brin’s card up to the light, reading what was scrawled onto the back.  178 West Vanora Street, Sleeping Pod 151.  I patted my hair down, brushing dirt off my jacket.

________________________________________

By the time I made it over to southern Lowtown, the sun was setting over the water, silhouetting Bartolet Naval Base and the CNS Rhona with soft orange light.  The address pointed me to a storage facility in the industrial district.  It was the kind of place where people got murdered in pulpy detective novels, sporting windowless concrete walls and three separate locks on the front door.  I read the large poster over the front door.

Silver Palace Sleepbox & Depot
Storage Units and Capsule Hotel

It was a strange combination of amenities, and was caked with enough grime, empty beer cans, and cigarette butts to make me cringe.  Don’t turn back.  You can do this.

I approached the front door and rang the buzzer for Pod 151.  While I waited, I straightened my jacket and took deep breaths.  After what felt like several minutes, the door remained shut, with no response from inside.  I rang the buzzer again, tapping my foot.

After another few minutes, there was still nothing.

Maybe she’s not home.  I stepped back, preparing to leave.

The door opened.

A lanky young man stood inside, sporting tangled, short grey hair, wide shoulders, and grey veins bulging on his forehead and neck.  He – she – held a can of beans in her hand. It matches her physical description.

“Um, hi.” Anabelle Gage stared at me, blinking.  “Who are you?” she said, hesitant.

I can’t use my real last name.  She’d know I was an Epistocrat, and the most cursory research into the Ebbridge family would reveal my ulterior motives to set her against Afzal Kahlin.  In a flash, I decided on an answer: what my parents would have called me if I was born a boy.

I handed her Professor Brin’s business card and put on my most winning smile.  “Weston Brown. Wes for short. I understand you’re in need of assistance.”

My mother’s words echoed in my head.  Body is a privilege.  Memory is a privilege.

Name is a privilege.

Wes.  For the time being, it would do.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




2-D The Problem of Names

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



A Boy

The Broadcast King collapsed, bleeding from dozens of cuts.  Joseph raised his sawed-off shotgun toward me.

As he pulled the trigger, I dove to the ground, crashing into a pile of scrap metal and rotting fruit.  The crack of a gunshot rang in my ears, and the window exploded outward, glass shards raining onto my back.

He has a double-barrel.  Two shots. Block his second one.

I projected towards Joseph as he sprinted towards the broken window, into the paper bandages all over his body.  All at once, I ripped them off, shooting them towards his face. Pressing them together and against his eyes, I formed a barrier, blocking his vision.

As he clawed his face to pull them away, I gathered the rest of my stashed paper in the room, forming several layers of sheets floating in front of his face.  A trick I’d learned from one-on-ones against Leizu.

I half-crawled, half-swam out of the trash heap, cutting my biceps on the shattered glass as Joseph fired his second shot blindly, shattering a glass bottle behind me.

He snapped down the barrel to reload, climbing through the window, and I punched him in the throat, feeling a satisfying thud of impact as my fist connected with his larynx.

While he gasped for air, I sprinted away, heading for my original escape route.

My ears rang from the gunshot, a high-pitched whine that made it difficult to discern Joseph’s shouting or the movements of his men.  But as I reached the alleyway, I stopped short. One of Kahlin’s mercs is blocking the way.  That Ilaquan bastard with a submachine gun that would shred me the moment he saw me.

I gathered a swirling cloud of newspapers and sheets around me, then shot it down the alleyway, until it hit something solid and human-shaped.  In an instant I had a rough map of his body, sensing the outline from the positions of all my projected weapons.

Then I hardened the sheets, and started slicing.  Or tried to, at least. The mercenary’s skin was hard, rigid, not giving way to my paper cuts.  Body armor.  I had forgotten.  It covered him from his toes all the way to his neck, with no gaps I could slide them in.

So I went for his face and head, slashing at his scalp, his cheeks, his mouth, pressing in with each piece of paper and sliding as far as I could.  I couldn’t knock him out with blood loss, but maybe I could cause enough pain to distract him. He pressed his eyes and mouth shut, swatting at his bleeding face with his right hand and pulling bits of paper off.

Move while he’s blind.  I focused on his eyes, clumping as many layers as I could on top of them.

Still protecting his face, the mercenary held the submachine with his left hand, and fired short bursts down the narrow alleyway.  Covering my only pathway with sprays of bullets.

The others will be here in moments.  Everyone knew where I was and this asshole was probably already thought-stitching my tactics to his team.  I didn’t have the time to wear him down over time.

An idea flashed through my mind.  I ripped two tiny squares of paper off a sheet, about an inch wide each.  Projecting into them, I reached for my physics tutoring. The stuff I had been taught years before entering Paragon Academy.  That hadn’t been scrubbed from memory.

Pressing my palms together on both sides of them, I willed space to fold within the objects, and the width of each square warped and shrunk, giving it the appearance of a white needle, or a straight, one-dimensional line, so narrow as to be barely visible to the naked eye.  My Physical Vocation at work.

I kept up my assault on Kahlin’s merc, ears ringing from the noise of his shooting, and floated the shrunken paper towards him.

When they were less than a foot away from him, I shot the warped papers at his face, sliding them between his shut eyelids.

The moment they were in, I let them snap back into squares, shoved them into his eyeballs, and sawed back and forth.  I felt stiff flesh giving way, as the edge of the paper dug into his corneas, making shallow slices.

As the paper got deeper into his eyes, I felt my Pith bumping up against his, getting pushed out of my weapons.  I lost control of my two impromptu razor blades with them embedded about a quarter inch into his pupils. Yuck.

But the damage had been done.  Kahlin’s merc sank to his knees, blood seeping out of his eyes and dripping onto the ground beneath him.  He dropped his gun and lay down on his side, taking deep breaths.

I bolted past him with my storm of paper  How is he so calm?  If I got an injury like that, I’d be unconscious or screaming my lungs out.  He had to be using his mental link to his squadmates somehow to offload the pain.

I pumped my arms, shoes bouncing off the pavement as I ran.  My chest ached and stomach ached from the running, a stabbing pain getting stronger with every step.  Get to the larger street.  There would be more people there.  Maybe even a police officer or two.

The cloud of fluttering paper around me made rustling noises as it glided through the air, masking the sound of my wheezing breath.  I seem to be running from things a great deal this week.  A side effect of losing most of your projection and stalking Green Hands.

I turned a corner in the winding alleyway, and caught a glimpse of Main street a few dozen meters ahead, broad enough to fit four cars side by side.  It was the only road on Gestalt Island that still had working street lamps, which cast bright, pale light on the empty concrete.

A car drove in front of the alley, blocking it.  An Ilaquan woman hung out of the side with a bolt-action rifle, aiming it at me.  Another car pulled up behind theirs, full of Joseph’s men.

Damn their coordination.  I staggered to a stop and pushed my projected paper in front of me, linking them together to form a wall, a visual barrier.  As it formed, I shuffled to my left.

The crack of a gunshot rang out, and a bullet hole appeared in one of the sheets of paper, barely a foot off the ground.  Why aren’t they aiming for center mass?

Another bullet whizzed through my barrier, and I spun around, looking behind me.  Two Green Hands were charging towards me with pistols, from the far end of the alleyway.  But not firing.  

The answer to my question came to me in a flash: They want to interrogate me.  Another one of Kahlin’s mercs positioned himself behind the charging Green Hands, blocking that escape route further.

Just in case, I pressed my Pith towards their minds, to see if the Humdrums might be malleable to nudging or basic sleep.  Nothing. They’d had the standard defensive training.

I broke off a few sheets of paper to slash at their wrists and fingers, prompting one of Joseph’s men to drop his gun and the other one to stuff his hands into his pockets.  While that occupied them, I cast my gaze to the sides and above me, looking for another way out.

About halfway back down the alleyway, a rusty fire escape zigzagged back and forth several stories up an apartment building, culminating in a ladder towards the roof.  And there you have it.  Probably a dead end, but it was the only route they hadn’t closed off yet.

I ran towards it, projecting into the lever and pulling it to release the ladder at the bottom. When I strained, I could get weak metal projection.

Clambering up, I raised my visual barrier to keep it between me and the sniper in the car.  Seeing what I was doing, the Green Hands tried to follow me up. The moment they lifted their hands to grasp the first rungs, I slashed at the webbing between their fingers with paper, prompting them to let go.

The metal stairs rattled and groaned beneath me as I charged up, flight after flight.  Please don’t collapse.  Bullets pinged off the fire escape around me.  One went through a window above me, cracks spiderwebbing on the glass.

Nobody seemed to follow me up as I climbed the last ladder to the roof.  I ran to the middle and cast my eyes around, scanning the adjacent buildings for an escape route.

One of Kahlin’s mercs was standing on a rooftop looking straight at me.  An Ilaquan woman in a light purple tunic with matching pants, wearing thick steel gauntlets clenched in her fists.  Her face looked familiar. Must be a common fabricated model.

She stood a handful of stories below me, with at least ten yards horizontally between us.  Far out of reach.

I stuck my tongue out at her and waggled my fingers.

Then she bent her legs and leapt forty feet into the air.

Bloody joining specialists.  The techniques were mostly practiced by the dumb brutes on the front lines of the Shenti, but many of the common vocations had spread to the other three Domains.  Unfortunately for me. Here, the Ilaquan bitch was using a joining vocation to enhance her leg muscles and who knew what else in her body.

I scrabbled back the way I came, shooting my flock of sheets and newspapers around her eyes, craning my neck to watch her trajectory.

She landed on the roof where I’d stood moments ago.  In a flash, she jumped again, flying at me through my tempest of paper.  Before I could react, the cold metal of her gauntlet was around my throat, and she was tackling me off the edge of the fire escape.

I felt my stomach drop.  Wind blasted my ears, drowning out my screams as we plummeted towards the ground.  The Ilaquan joiner’s metal fingers tightened around my throat, squeezing my windpipe shut.  The sky and buildings spun around me, up and then down and then up again, until I stopped with a loud crack and a sharp stab of pain.

I coughed, the wind knocked out of me, but still unable to breathe.  The sharp stabbing pain expanded through my chest. Broken rib?

I stopped myself.  Wait, I’m alive?  Blinking, I looked up to see Kahlin’s merc cradling me in her arms like a baby.  She absorbed the impact with her legs. Most of it, at least.

“Stay back!” yelled the mercenary, looking towards the Green Hands.  “He’s got paper projection. You’re not equipped to defend yourself against it.”  Joseph’s people backed away.

Even in this state, it was still a surreal thrill to be called he.

Shaking off my initial shock, I covered every inch of my assailant’s body with paper, sliding it underneath purple cloth and into soft, squishy areas.  I pressed down and cut, like I had so many times before.

Nothing.  The edges of my weapons slid off her skin, not even breaching the top layer.  I might as well have been trying to slice through a steel wall. More joining.

If she hardens her skin, I’ll go for what it doesn’t cover.  I shrunk two pieces of paper into thin slivers, expanded them around her eyes, and sawed back and forth across her corneas.  The same trick I’d used on her comrade.

To no avail.  It was like trying to cut a diamond with a butter knife.  She looked down at me with contempt, not even blinking in the face of my assault.  Her voice was almost disappointed. “Is that really the best you can do?”

Actually, yes.  I’d try to talk my way out of this, but these guys were professionals and I was currently being choked into unconsciousness.

I recognized the Ilaquan mercenary now – she was inhabiting a chassis made popular by a beloved I-Pop band.  This model was almost identical to the lead singer, who had the voice of an angel and wrote the catchiest songs in the Eight Oceans.

I felt a pressure around my skull, the warm, stifling feeling of another’s Pith at the edge of mine, projecting into my mind’s executive function and twisting it, altering its path.  She’s trying to nudge me.  On instinct, I pushed back, easily throwing out the intruder.  Good to know I can still do that.  No matter how strong she was, she wouldn’t be able to force my mind into submission.

The joiner frowned, then turned and sprinted towards the car.  In a flash, the door was open and she was flinging me into the back seat.  I crashed onto the laps of the sniper and a man, dressed in purple like she was.  They grabbed my arms and legs, twisting them into joint locks.

I shifted my weight, trying to force out of the locks.

As I struggled, the man casually grabbed my left pinkie and bent it back with a sickening crack.

I howled in pain, writhing and slamming my head against the car door.  I overhead shouting in the distance. “What the fuck are you doing with him?”  Joseph’s Green Hands. The Commonplace thugs.

The joiner called out to them in that sharp, melodious voice.  “Safehouse. Locals heard the gunshots. Police will be on site in minutes.”

“We have questions for him.”

“When we’re done, you’re free to interrogate what’s left.”  Scholars damn them.  They couldn’t brainwash me, so they were going to torture the truth out of me.  “Go, now. The police are already on their way.”

As I caught my breath and regained my bearings, I reached for the paper around me and found nothing inside the car.  Not even a paper bill in someone’s pocket. They must have thrown it all out.  The driver floored it, and the automobile accelerated into the middle of the street.

After a few seconds on it, he swerved into a side street, tires screeching on the pavement.  Outside the car, we passed the occasional pieces of paper, and I projected into them, exerting myself to drag them alongside the car, each sheet matching the vehicle’s speed.

If I block the windshield, I thought, I can stop them from driving.  I gathered a cloud of paper on the hood, and – 

Another snap echoed in my ear, and I felt another stab of pain, this time in the fourth finger of my left hand.  I clenched my teeth, holding onto my projection.

The joiner in the passenger seat turned to look at me.  “Project again – “

– and we’ll chokehold you.”  The sniper grabbing my legs spoke.

“When you wake up – “ Said the driver.

– you won’t have any fingers left.”  The man who was holding me. They’re finishing each other’s sentences.  Insufferable twats.

I let go of the paper, letting it blow away in the wind.  Think, idiot, think.  Who were these people?  Their bodies were absolutely gorgeous, which meant they were wealthy.  They were ex-kuttas, so they were experienced skill-stitchers.

The joiner chuckled.  “You got some good hits on Mr. Kahlin, you know.”

“A few more minutes and he would have bled past the point of no return.”  The sniper.

“Even with that swap, it looks like he might have had some brain damage – ”  The joiner again.

“- And that means Pith damage – ”

“- And that means permanent.”  The joiner let the words sink in.  “Needless to say, he’s very eager to chat with the man responsible.”  Now far away from the scene of the crime, the car slowed down to a normal pace.

I snorted.  “What’s he gonna do, write a mean op-ed about me?”  In truth, I was feeling a lot less confident than I sounded.  Unless you knew how to modify your Pith’s pain receptors, which I didn’t, physical torture was more than enough to break someone.  The cold, inevitable reality of that was beginning to set in.

It would take every bit of willpower to resist them, especially if they brought extra bodies to force me into.  Chimera Squad.  My family. Samuel.  Spilling everything would be the ultimate betrayal of them.  The greatest possible failure.

I looked out the side window, at shantytowns, ruined buildings, and more heaps of trash.  There has to be some other way.  If I could alert the police as to our location, or get some message out to Samuel, maybe I could break myself out.

A few blocks ahead of us, I saw a strangely familiar face.  The homeless Neke woman I’d seen earlier, shivering under a blanket by the side of the road, two green stripes tattooed across her light brown forehead.  Odd, I thought.  Last time I saw her, she was on the other side of the island.

As we passed her, something moved next to her in a blur.

The tires hissed, and the wheels on the right side made an awful metallic scraping sound.  The car veered from side to side, braking to slow down. The driver grappled the wheel to seize control, to no avail.

As the car turned left and began to flip, all four of Kahlin’s mercs in the car lifted their arms, clenched their fists, and swung them to the side.  The car froze, diagonally balancing on its two right wheels. Metal projection.  It crashed back into a normal position, slamming my broken rib into one of the mercs’ knees.  I groaned in pain.

In an instant, the driver was stepping out of the car and floating two thick, curved swords from beneath his seat.

When the door was halfway open, a bare foot slammed into it with a side kick, smashing the driver’s head in between it and the vehicle’s roof.  As he collapsed, a bladed object smashed through the window, passing next to the joiner with gauntlets.

The joiner collapsed on the leather seat, limp, a thin red gash on her forehead.  How did that weapon cut through her skin?  And it had taken her out with barely a scratch.

I caught a glimpse of the object as it was yanked back into the assailant’s hand.  A wooden spear, with a thorny vine twisting around the shaft, culminating in a bright orange rose next to the blade and crescent-shaped crossguard at the top.

The homeless woman was clutching it, tattered rags rippling as she moved, eyes cold and focused.

The two Ilaquan mercenaries in the back with me looked upwards.  The roof of the car bent above us, breaking off into a huge sheet of metal from their projection.  They shot it towards the attacker and leapt upwards, out of the car. The sniper flipped backwards, putting the car and me between her and the attacker, while the other flew vertically into the sky, lifting himself by projecting into his clothes.

The homeless woman leapt over the car, going for the sniper on the right.  In response, the sniper flipped her hand, and the trunk of the car popped open. Half a dozen shotguns shot out of it, fanning out and pointing at the homeless woman’s head.  They opened fire all at once, taking chunks out of the concrete road around her.

Not stopping to gawk at the spectacle, I opened the door on the left side of the car, crawling out, wincing as my weight shifted onto my broken fingers.  Gunshots cracked from behind me, and I sprinted for the closest alleyway.

As I ran, something cold and hard clenched my ankle, yanking me off balance.  I slammed into the ground, scraping my hands on the pavement with a scalding sensation.

There was a chain wrapped around my ankle.  It moved upwards diagonally, hanging me upside down above the ground next to the car.  Looking upwards, I saw the source of the chain: the mercenary, floating a good fifty feet above me and grabbing the other end with his clenched fist.

Fuck me.  Couldn’t I fight some incompetent crooks for a change?  I hated feeling this helpless.

I reached for all the paper in my range.  Barely any in this part of town. A handful of newspapers.  An old pastry wrapper. A box of tissues. I floated them all towards the chain wielder.  He drew another chain, slapping them out of the way with ease.

Then I noticed.  The sound of shotgun blasts had stopped.

The homeless woman leapt onto the taut chain, sprinting up its length towards the mercenary.  She got almost halfway to the top before he reacted, letting go of the chain and tossing his end at her.  It twisted around her, coiling like a python, then snapped tight, intended to bind her limbs.

Inside the shrinking cage of metal, the homeless woman moved with the grace of a dancer, grabbing onto some chains and kicking off of others.  In two fluid movements, she slipped through a gap in the shrinking cage and leapt up, still a few dozen yards from her enemy.

She extended the spear, and the rosevine wrapped around the shaft twitched.  It unravelled, shooting out towards the chain wielder. At the end of it, the bright orange flower brushed his face, forming a path of living tissue: him, to the vine, to the spear connected to it and the hand of the woman wielding it.  All high in the air above me.

He went limp in an instant, dropping like a rock.  The chains around my ankle loosened, and I fell to to the ground.  There was a sickening crunch as the merc landed nearby.

The homeless woman rolled as she hit the ground, taking a five-story fall like it was nothing.  Before I could get up to run, or gather paper, or open my mouth to protest, she was next to me, clamping her hand to my neck.

The last thing I heard was sirens in the distance.

________________________________________

My eyes fluttered open to the pale, bright glow of a street lamp above me.  I was splayed out on the soft ground, staring up at the empty night sky. Cold, wet grass tickled my hands, and I pushed myself into a sitting position, dew soaking into my clothes.

My vision snapped left and right, getting my bearings.  I was in an empty park, still in the dead of night. Next to me sat a life-sized marble statue of Darius the Philosopher.  Darius Park.  Where Samuel had given me my audio equipment earlier today.

Then I froze.  Shit.  I’d left the audio equipment on Gestalt Island, back in the heap of trash where I’d been hiding.  Joseph was probably poring over it now with his Commonplace buddies.  There go my chances of incriminating the Broadcast King.

“Great, you’re up,” The Neke woman swung around from behind the statue, smiling broadly.  She had changed out of her tattered trousers and coat, and was now wearing a bright green set of robes, tied around her waist with a sash and extending just above her knees.

I scrambled to my feet, backing away from her and projecting outwards, searching for paper I could use.  Nothing. Not even a single scrap.

The woman held up a hand.  “Breathe, boy. You’re safe, at least from me.  I just wanted to talk to you.”

I stopped backpedaling.  If it came down a fight, I’d be done for anyways.  The woman was a good head taller than the statue, six feet at least, with much broader shoulders, muscles bulging underneath her clothes.  The two green stripes on her forehead meant she had experience. And that was without her joining-enhanced physicals or the spear.

I’d had enough of getting my ass kicked tonight.  Talking seemed the best way out.

My shoulders relaxed a hair, and I nodded.  “Who are you, then?”

 “Real names are dangerous in my industry.”  The woman sat down on the edge of the statue’s pedestal, leaning against Darius’ leg.  “But you can call me the Rose Titan.”

“I’m – “ I stopped myself.  I didn’t actually have a name right now.  “What did you do to these guys?” If she wasn’t going to kill me, I wanted to extract as much information as possible.

The woman – the Rose Titan – clenched her teeth, glaring at me.  Finally, she exploded. “God, what were you thinking?!” she shouted, not answering my question.  “Taking Steel Violet head-on.”

“Steel Violet? What are you talking about?” They can’t have been Steel Violet. That didn’t make sense.

“The guys who were a fourteen-minute drive away from torturing you.” The Rose Titan swept her dark brown hair out of her face.  “An Ilaquan merc group from the Harmonious Flock. Damn expensive one, too.  You know they used to be – “

“A band,” I said. “They’re an I-Pop band, not a bunch of stone-cold skill-stitchers. I’ve bought every single one of their albums, I should know. One of those mercs was just using a similar chassis.”

“They’ve been a girl group,” the Rose Titan said. “And a champion cricket team. And award-winning chefs. And Kutta special forces. That’s the kind of career path you can have when you’re expert skill-stitchers with an endless supply of bodies.”

Bloody scholars. They’d been my favorite band, and now they were working for my worst enemy. I need a drink.

Plus, this woman’s chastising was reminding me, oddly, of my mother, and it was starting to irritate me.

“And yet you still tried to fight them.  They could have killed you! You ever try picking on someone your own size?”

“You took them on just fine,” I muttered under my breath.

“I took on four out of eleven of them, with the element of surprise.  And as far as I can tell, their teammates rescued them before the police got there.  Commonplace got off too. Not a single arrest.”

So they’re not dead.  She must have been using some kind of Whisper Vocation to stun or paralyze them.  And the Broadcast King had escaped too, albeit with some damage to his Pith.

In truth, no matter how much I hated him, I was glad to know he wasn’t dead.  No matter how much they had tried to prepare me for it at Paragon Academy, I didn’t feel comfortable taking another human’s life.

With no paper to fold, I tapped my fingers together in rapid succession, fidgeting.  Then I stopped.

My fingers weren’t broken.  The fourth and fifth fingers on my right hand bent and wiggled with ease, unscathed. What the fuck?

I felt around my face and body, noting the shape of my jaw, the ratty clumps of light brown hair, the series of scars on my back.  As far as I could tell, I was still in the same body, or at least a very remarkable replica.

My shoulders tensed.  “What did you do to me?” I growled.  “Mental projection? Are you inside my head?”  

She had touched me to knock me out earlier, using some Vocation I was unfamiliar with.  Had she slipped in the backdoor of my mind while I was unconscious? What if she had twisted my thoughts, snipping and tearing and modifying how she pleased?  Like mother.

The Rose Titan raised a hand, indignant.  “Calm down. I said you were safe from me, and I keep my word.  You’re in a mental reality inside my Pith. Sort of like a dream, but fancier.  In the real world, you’re lying asleep in my safehouse on a very warm Kotatsu sofa, but I’m afraid I can’t share the location with anyone.”  Her expression was apologetic. “Last time I messed that one up, I barely escaped a Shenti commando.  He ripped out my intestines with his bare hands, and I had to go apartment hunting in Elmidde.  All in all, a pretty bad week.”

I’m inside her Pith. Was this her Vocation? She was keeping its details hidden from me.

I gazed around me at the park.  “Then why – “

“I thought you’d be more comfortable with something familiar.  But if you don’t mind, then – “ She snapped her fingers.

The night sky and the park dissolved around me, including the ground.  For a moment, my feet were hanging in empty air, until they touched down on smooth, brown wood, illuminated by warm daylight.  

The noon sun hung above me in the bright blue sky, and the environment around us had shifted to a broad canal, teeming with boats, people, and cars on the shore.

Me and the Rose Titan stood on a long, flat barge. Surrounding us were tables and tables of food and drink.  Platters of round, yellow cakes and tea stands stacked high with strawberries and grapes.  Wooden trays with neat rows of fresh sushi, and dozens of carafes of wine.

“A Neke pleasure barge,” said the Rose Titan.  “From the Floating City. Home sweet home.” She reclined on a plush couch, head hanging off the end.

My mouth opened and closed, not forming words as I drank in the scenery.  In truth, I had never traveled across the Eight Oceans, or to any of the Four Domains outside of The Principality.  Even rendered in a dream, the sight was far more breathtaking than the magazine photos I’d seen. I should get kidnapped more often.

I plucked a piece of fatty tuna with my fingers and dropped it into my mouth.  Immediately, a sharp, tangy flavor filled my mouth, sickly sweet and full of citrus.  I spat it out, and it plopped into the water of the canal.

“Oh, yeah.  Sorry,” said the Rose Titan.  “All the other senses work just fine, but for some reason, all the food here tastes like Jwala’s Orange Soda.  My brain can’t seem to get enough of that stuff.”

I set down the sake glass I had just filled with Tsunemori Sake.  Jwala’s had spread across all Eight Oceans like an epidemic, but the liquid was as filthy as it was cheaply made.

“So,” she said, closing her eyes.  “Why were you going after the Broadcast King?  I have my theories, but I’d like to hear it from you.”

I began the lie I’d prepped.  “Well, I was on Gestalt Island to tour the Shenti slums, when I saw someone with green tattoos on his hands and a gun – “

“Nope,” said the Rose Titan.

“Excuse me?”

“Doesn’t fit your profile.  I should know.” She held out her hand, and a manila folder dropped into it.  “I read through your whole dossier the day you got ousted. You are Lady Ebbridge, right?  Sorry, the former Lady Ebbridge.”

Scholars damn her.  How did she know?  Who had a dossier on me?  “I’m sorry, what are you talking about?”  I wrangled my face into an expression of innocent bemusement.

“Nope again.  You lied to me.  Just now.” She leaned upright, giving me a knowing look.  “I’ve studied the Empathy vocation, and it’s very easy to tell.  There are people who can resist it, but you’re not one of them, Mr…Ms…do you have a preference?  Or a name?”

“My family owes about fourteen million pounds to the Broadcast King,” I said.  “I knew he was working with Commonplace and that if he got convicted of treason, they’d dissolve all his assets.  I was following him to catch him in the act.”

The Rose Titan chugged an entire goblet of orange-soda flavored wine, pouring herself another.  “Interesting. Isaac did say you were, quote, ‘a feisty little shit’.”

I froze.  What the fuck.  “You work for Professor Brin?” Eliya’s stone-cold father.

“Whoops!”  The Rose Titan covered her mouth.  “Don’t think I was supposed to reveal that.  I’m bad at this whole tradecraft thing.” She winced.  “My expertise is more in pneumatological neuroscience and beating the snot out of people.”  She brushed a brown strand of hair out of her face. “Me and Isaac have a sort of under the table thing going.  Nothing intimate. Gods, I wish, though. Whoever designed that chassis deserves a raise.”

“Wonderful,” I said.  “I lose half my memories, my body, almost get killed by my favorite band, and now, it seems my old professor is running some kind of sinister conspiracy with promiscuous Neke War Priests from the other side of the bloody Eight Oceans, all in the span of six fucking days.”  I dropped onto a sofa face-first.  “What’s next? Is Samuel’s pet guinea pig a Droll Corsair?  Is he secretly undermining governments with his furry little paws?“

The Rose Titan chuckled, looking around her at the Neke city.  “Just because I’m from here doesn’t mean I’m a war priest. I’m not very religious.” She smiled, stuffing grapes into her mouth.  “So Isaac gets me tailing a mid-level Green Hands. Joseph Kemp. I follow at a distance, expecting to take a few pictures and be in bed by midnight, reading a pulpy romance novel under a heated blanket.  Tia Wallace. Great chemistry, nightmarish prose.”

“I don’t see how this is relevant.”

“Imagine my surprise when I see you, the guy slash gal at the top of my shortlist, getting tenderized by Steel Violet.  I felt awful. I was supposed to watch your back! Keep you from trouble! I would make a terrible mothe – ”

I held up a hand.  “Shortlist?”

“Darn,” she said, rubbing her striped forehead with a calloused hand.  “I was supposed to practice a whole pitch and everything. Oh well, here goes: how would you like to make some money off that highfalutin Paragon training?”

Interesting.  I rolled my eyes.  “What training? They took almost everything.  I can’t even do a water walk.“ If she has to convince you, she’ll talk more.

“Didn’t look like you forgot everything out there.  You’ll do just fine.”

“For?”

“Isaac is hiring mercenaries.  Discreet ones, who can act when his hands are tied.”

Everything fell into place.  Professor Brin was chief of counterintelligence for Paragon, which basically meant counterintelligence for the whole country.  If anyone could pull off an operation like that, it’d be him. My head was still spinning, but it made a certain kind of bizarre sense.  “You. That’s your job. That’s what you’re offering me.”

The Rose Titan nodded.  “You start with barely anything, but the salary goes up with every successful job, and I do make a hefty amount now.”  She clapped her hands, and another folder appeared in my hand. “You’d be helping this one. Odds are, she is far too gullible and inexperienced to last more than a few weeks on her own.”

I skimmed through the folder, past fields of mundane details until my eye stopped on a single line.

Vocation: Audiovisual Illusions (limited range, high potential to strengthen parameters)

It’s her.  The psychotic body thief who butchered Samuel and Eliya.  I breathed deeply. Stay calm.  Don’t give anything away.  I glanced at another line.

Three-Time Paragon Applicant. Former Scullery Maid.

Another puzzle piece fell into place for me.  “You know, I took a class on psych warfare from Professor Brin, and I paid attention at least some of the time.”  I grinned, in spite of myself.  “Let me guess. You’re recruiting desperate projectors down on their luck.  You promise them the world, then use them as disposable cannon fodder. It’s the same shit Guardians do when they honeypot agents in other countries.”

“Yup.”  The Rose Titan nodded emphatically.  “I was building up to that. Unlike Isaac, I don’t lie whenever it’s convenient.”

I thought for a moment.  “I bet every loser who gets Ousted from Paragon goes on that shortlist.”

“Right again.  And most of the people do die on the first or second job.”  She clenched a fist, and her spear materialized in it. “But a year ago, I was that cannon fodder.  And now I get paid better than most surgeons.”

“I don’t need money.  Probably.” Thanks, Samuel.

The Rose Titan snapped her fingers again, and the lively canal melted around me, replaced by a familiar sight.  Rows and rows of tables, covered with sky blue tablecloths. A glass ceiling extending dozens of stories above us.  Warm, yellow light, seeming to emanate from the walls themselves.

Paragon’s banquet hall.  I felt a twinge of nostalgic pain.

The Rose Titan picked up a porcelain creamer, examining it.  “Is this really how people drink tea in this country?” She snorted, pouring its milky white contents onto the marble floor.

“Why did you take me here?”

The Rose Titan pointed towards the wooden chair at the raised end of the room, a light grey oak, covered from top to bottom with swirling, ornate carvings of the Great Scholars in various dramatic poses.  Like the rest of the hall, it was empty. “When was the last time you saw that principal of yours?”

“Headmaster Tau?”  I sat down on a plush chair.  “Start of summer. He gave the most dull end of term speech about moral responsibility and scholarship and whatnot.  I think he changed about five words from last year’s.”

“Know how old he is?”

I shrugged.  “Old enough to be more patronizing than my mother.”  It was a silly question. At Paragon, there wasn’t a grey hair in sight.  The moment a body aged a day over forty, it was swapped out with a new one, more inhumanly beautiful than the models used for its blueprints.

“A hundred and eighty-three years.  The body can be replaced, but the mind, the Pith?”  She shook her head. “Even he can’t stop it from aging.  Constant fatigue. Dizziness. Sometimes, according to Isaac, he gets this vacant look in his eyes, and he forgets the contents of entire meetings.”

I hunched over, gritting my teeth.  It was sobering news.

The Rose Titan waved her hand, and the headmaster’s chair disappeared.  “When the other three Domains learn the greatest projector in the Eight Oceans, the most powerful defender of this nation, has become a senile old man, how long do you think it will take them to pounce on the opportunity?  And that’s not even counting Commonplace, or whoever is hiring the Droll Corsairs right now.”

I stared at the floor.  “You’re from the Neke. Why help us?”

The Rose Titan pointed to the two stripes on her forehead.  “I’ve been reborn through the Liminal twice. Ninety-two years in total.  I was on the front lines of the Shenti War. I have no intention of fighting another.“

I sighed.  “And I probably fucked that up a bit, didn’t I?”

The Rose Titan nodded.  “Kahlin and Commonplace know we’re tracking them now.  They’re going to up their security. We’ll need good agents more than ever. The water is rising.”

I didn’t need the money.  Even if I didn’t get butchered within the first week of babysitting that psychotic body thief, I would probably land a substantial prison sentence if they caught me.  Tailing Joseph a few times was one thing, and joining a criminal military operation was another.

But still, her offer was tempting.  The Principality was clearly on the verge of something dire.

She smiled, extending her hand to shake.  “What do you say?”

I thought about Samuel.  The secret meetings we’d planned.  If I got caught as an illegal merc, he could be incriminated with me.  He could get ousted, or arrested with me. Chimera Squad too, if they made contact regularly.

If Samuel hadn’t studied with me four nights a week, my mother would have kicked me out years ago.  Him and Eliya and Leizu had put their trust in me, elected me their team leader, given me every fleeting success and victory I’d enjoyed at Paragon.

I’d already let them down enough.  If I took this offer, I’d have to stop seeing all of them to avoid the risk.

“No,” I said.

The Rose Titan nodded, unfazed.  “Why?”

“I’ve already let down my friends enough,” I said.  “If I get caught, they could lose everything, just like I did.”

“Good,” said the Rose Titan.

“What?”

“You’ve got to know when to say no. You’ve got to trust your moral compass, know the lines you won’t cross, no matter what. Throw those out, and there’s no telling how far you’ll sink.” Silent, she walked up to me and patted me on the shoulder. “Stay warm, kid. Things are going to get a lot colder around here.”  She smiled. “You ever change your mind or find yourself in a corner, you’ll know how to find me.”

She flicked her wrist, and her dreamscape dissolved around me like wet paint, walls and tables and chairs melting into each other, getting darker and greyer.

“May you strive to become an Exemplar.”

The Rose Titan vanished, and I found myself standing on a street in Midtown.  I teetered off balance for a moment, catching my bearings. The sky was black again.  In front of me, was a cable car station, with tracks leading down the mountain towards Lowtown.

Our meeting was over, without even a goodbye.

The pain was back in an instant.  A stinging sensation on my upper arms and palms.  Aches all over my chest and neck. And two of my fingers on my left hand, bent back at brutal angles.

I reached towards my back, feeling a new weight there.  A dark indigo blanket was draped over my shoulders, soft and warm.  Guess she was literal about staying warm.  On top of it, a cloth bag hung from a strap.  Not one I’d ever seen before. Parting gifts from the Rose Titan.

I opened it.  Inside were a handful of bills, a cable car ticket, and a warm, white paper box the size of a loaf of bread.  I held up the ticket. One pound and thirty-nine sen. Exactly enough for a trip to southern lowtown.

Five minutes later, I was sitting on the wooden bench of a late-night cable car.  As it descended a steep street, engine creaking, I leaned out the window. The lights of the city spread out below me, growing dimmer and more sparse as they got lower.  Across a short bridge, Gestalt Island was almost pitch black, with no working electricity.

It wasn’t much, next to a mansion.  It was barely anything at all. Better get used to it.  The one lead I’d managed to catch was dead.  The Broadcast King would be watching his penthouse more closely now, and I had no idea where Commonplace would stage their next meeting.  I hadn’t even deduced what Kahlin’s vocation did.

Half a dozen kilometers from the shore, at Bartolet Naval Base, a handful of orange lights around the base illuminated the airstrip, and the faint outline of the CNS Rhona.  My mother’s flagship supercarrier.  Even on the opposite side of the island, I couldn’t escape the old hag.

A chill breeze blew through the open window, and I wrapped the Rose Titan’s blanket around my arms.  Undoing the laces, I pulled open the lid of the box she’d given me. A bright yellow, rectangular sponge cake sat inside.  A gift of some sort.

Why was she being so nice to me?  Was this all a ploy to coax me into accepting her offer?  What possible use could she have for me?

It was the same question I’d wanted to pose to Leo.  In my experience, most lowtown strangers who were this nice to me either wanted booze money or oral sex, neither of which seemed applicable here.

Fuck it.  When had long-term, paranoid planning gotten me anywhere?  At the end of the day, I wasn’t going to pass up on free dessert.  I ripped off a corner of the cake with my fingers and stuffed it into my mouth.  Yuzu Lemon.  Tart and soft and better than anything I’d had all week.  I’d made the right choice.

I bent down to shovel another piece in, and noticed a glimmer on the box.  A silver business card was taped to the bottom of the lid, reflecting light from the two moons off its surface.  I peeled it off, examining the front.

Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy

On the back, an address in western Lowtown had been scrawled on top of the printed cursive phone number.  178 West Vanora Street, Unit 27.  Presumably the body thief’s base of operations, since the Rose Titan was unwilling to share hers.

Sorry, professor.  I wasn’t in the mood to become anyone’s pawn, especially if it meant never seeing my friends again.

All the same, a card like this usually meant access.  Exclusivity. Favor. I could probably wave this around at any restaurant in Hightown and get a table at the snap of my fingers.  Department stores might give me free samples in the hopes of impressing such a high-ranking Guardian. There were all sorts of ways one could leverage a treasure like this.

I stuffed it into my coat pocket.  I’d always wanted to try wearing a dinner suit.

________________________________________

I slammed the empty beer mug on the bar, letting out a loud belch.  “How long?”

Leo rolled his eyes, looking at the wall clock.  “Nine seconds. And maybe a half.” He cut himself a slice of sponge cake.

“Damn.  Almost,” I said.  “Half a second short.”  My chugging record was just under nine.  I slid my mug towards him, slapping a handful of bills next to it.  “One more. I got this.”

Leo poured it.  “One more. Then you should go to sleep.  You have that meeting with your fiancé in the morning.  And you’ll heal better.”

I looked down at myself.  After I’d insisted I didn’t want to go to the hospital, Leo had wrapped thick white bandages over the glass cuts on my biceps, my scraped palms, and my two broken fingers.  When I moved, my broken rib sent stabs of pain through my chest, and my neck ached after being choked by that joiner.

Thank the scholars for hard liquor.  With no Whisper Specialists on hand to dull my pain, it was the next best thing.

“Can I ask what happened tonight?” said Leo.  “Did you get mugged?” He chewed a bite of cake thoughtfully.  “Wow, this stuff is amazing. Where’d you get this?”

I rested my head on the bar, stuffing a handful of crackers into my mouth from a bowl, feeling the energy drain out of me.  “Purshued an opportunity,” I muttered, my mouth full. “Did not pan out.”

If Leo was frustrated by my vagueness, he didn’t say anything about it.  He sighed. “What are you going to do next?”

I tapped my fingers on the beer mug in front of me, thinking about my options.  I had zero clues as to how I’d spy on the Broadcast King again, or move against Commonplace.  I’d fucked up my only shot at erasing my family’s debt. My only chance of going back to Paragon.

If I became one of Brin’s henchmen, I risked incriminating Chimera squad.  Or never seeing Samuel again.

And I was exhausted.  I’d spent seven days running, fighting, and getting the shit kicked out of me.  Before that had been two years of desperate, sleep-deprived chaos at Paragon, never stopping, constantly on the verge of collapse, until I finally did.

Everyone had limits.  Maybe it was time to finally accept mine.

I grabbed the mug and tilted it back, chugging it in a handful of gulps.

“Eight seconds,” said Leo.  A new record.

I slammed the mug on the bar.  “I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll work for you.”

________________________________________

I came downstairs to the smell of burning pork.  The bar was filled with smoke, and all the windows had been opened, letting in a chill morning breeze.

The smoke billowed out from a side room with the door flung open.  Leo emerged from a cloud of it, carrying a frying pan with a dozen pitch black rashers of bacon, looking frazzled.

“Leo?  What’s going on?”  I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, blinking from the smoke.  Once again, I had a throbbing headache from the night before, on top of all my other injuries.

“Sorry, sorry!”  Leo used a shirt to fan the smoke towards the windows.  “I’m not used to waking up this early. Or cooking bacon.”

“Why were you – “

“I wanted to make you some Principality-style breakfast before you went.  To welcome you to the team!“

“Is it a team if it’s only two people?”

Leo nibbled the end of a rasher, wrinkling his nose.  “Yeah, I can’t salvage this.” He stroked his chin, then nodded to himself.  “Let me make it up to you. I’ll go to the grocery store and throw something together for lunch.  I don’t know a lot of recipes, but I do make a lethal beef curry.”

Eclairs, sponge cake, and now bacon.  Everyone I know is giving me food handouts.  “You can take the cost of the ingredients out of my wages.”  I didn’t want to be in debt to anyone.

He waved his hand dismissively.  “You don’t owe me anything. It’s just basic hospitality for a new hire.”

Could I get used to this?  I wasn’t sure.  In comparison to the world-altering intensity of Guardian training, the Humdrum life was pretty dull.  But I’d have Samuel. I’d have Chimera Squad. And I’d have Leo.

“Besides,” he said.  “You’re going to need all your energy for the evening rush.”

“I must warn you,” I said.  “I have the dexterity of a drunk whale.  And the short-term memory of a chimpanzee.  And according to my mother, the work ethic of a sloth on painkillers.”  And she was probably right.  I turned to leave before he could respond.

“One last thing,” Leo ran up to me and handed me a small business card.  Thin, off-white paper, in standard typewriter font. “I had them made a few years back when I thought this place was gonna go big.”

Leo’s Place
197 West 18th Street, Elmidde

I stuffed it into my pocket.  “Thank you,” I said to my new boss.  “I’ll try not to lose it.”

________________________________________

Samuel was an hour late.  Or at least, that’s how it felt.  It was difficult to keep time without a watch, and there was no clock on hedge walls surrounding me.  Or anywhere in my family’s gardens. But I’d timed my break-in using a clock tower in hightown to ensure I’d evade the guards, and I knew I, for once, had actually shown up on time.

After folding origami cranes out of every piece of paper in my bag, I was out of distractions, and was starting to worry.  On this day every week, my parents hosted a breakfast in their mansion, one that took place an hour and a half after this meeting.  If he was too late, he’d have to bail completely.

Maybe he already has.  Hot tea and a red-hot girl with huge knockers sounded a lot more appealing than wet grass and a petulant ex with a hangover.

I’d been on our dew-soaked blanket for what felt like an eternity, staring up at the morning clouds when I finally heard footsteps approaching.  I pushed myself upright to face Samuel, dressed in a suit and grimacing.

I spread my arms for a hug.  He didn’t move to reciprocate.

“What happened?” I said. “Alarm broke?  Car trouble? My father tell you one of his Shenti War stories?  At this point I’ve memorized about all of them, which is impressive, considering they’re about five hours ea – “

“Your mother,” said Samuel, interrupting me.  “She knows we’re meeting.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




2-C The Problem of Names

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



A Boy

My estate is far too easy to break into.  I clambered over the metal fence bordering my mansion’s gardens and dropped into a bed of dewy grass.

I shook my head at the negligence.  Commonplace Humdrums were rioting in the streets, launching suicide attacks, and plotting with Ilaquan media moguls.  Security was not something to skimp on.

Though, to be fair, only I knew about this particular flaw.  David, the man who was in charge of this wing, secretly spent the first quarter of his mornings napping by the fountain where the water was loud enough to hide his snores.  Lucky for me, my mother hadn’t wiped all the conversations I’d had with my servants, or the shift schedule I’d memorized a week before my Ousting.

As I darted past trimmed trees and flowerbeds, I cast my gaze upwards, watching and listening for birds in the branches.  Nothing.  The private guards might be careless, but my mother’s Vocation let her encode all kinds of instructions into her little creatures.  If one of them saw me, it might sound an alarm.

After several minutes of careful sneaking through the foggy greenery, I crossed a trickling brook, catching a glimpse of a lawn encircled by trees.  The place I’d been ousted. The wooden arena I’d fought on was gone, without having left a lasting mark on the grass. It was as if it had never happened.

I arrived at a tall hedge, shaped in a circle.  I crossed to the other end, to a narrow archway, an entrance to a tiny, private enclosure surrounded by walls of foliage.

The space was sparse, almost empty.  The only objects on the grass were a wooden chair and a thick folded blanket.  My grandfather had commissioned it for private reading sessions, a tranquil place to sit down with a book and no distractions.

Frankly, the idea sounded mind-numbingly boring to me.  But I was grateful for the spot. My father and mother had a dying newspaper and a fleet of warships to manage, respectively, and had little time for leisure.  So the groundskeeper was the only one who came here anymore, on the first Sunday of each month.

Which made it the perfect location for coitus and conspiracies.  Hence the blanket, neatly folded and washed by housekeeping, but left here after our business was done.  I grabbed and unfurled it, spreading it onto the damp ground before spreading myself onto it. It was a whole lot more comfortable than my bed last night.

I stared up at the flat clouds overhead, massaging my temples, still nursing remnants of last night’s hangover after chugging eight glasses of water at Leo’s behest.  The last time I’d been here, me and Samuel had stayed up until dawn on a warm summer night, gazing at the empty sky and wondering what the stars might have looked like, thousands of years ago in the time of the Great Scholars.

Even on a chilly, grey morning like today, there was something comforting about that pathetic, inane bit of nostalgia.  I was nothing if not a dumbass romantic.

I lay there fidgeting and massaging for some time, wondering what the rest of Chimera Squad was up to.  Probably sleeping, like normal people do at five AM, I thought.  Or eating breakfast, like you should have done before stumbling out the door.  Leizu would probably be awake, doing those meticulous Shenti joining exercises with her enhanced strength, crushing boulders with her bare hands or deadlifting motorcycles.

My ears picked up the sound of footsteps padding on the dirt nearby.  I grabbed the blanket and rolling to one side of the passageway, pressing my body flat against the side of a hedge wall.

As the footsteps grew louder, a red and yellow spider crawled onto my shoulder from its web on the hedge, visible out of the corner of my eye.  Slapping it is too loud.  I floated a piece of paper out of my breast pocket with projection, and squeezed it with the edges from both sides, bisecting the creature.  The two twitching halves of it fell to the ground, silent.

The person stepped into the circle.  It was a tall male figure with dirty blonde hair and bulging muscles, wearing a navy blue sports jacket over broad shoulders and carrying a cloth bag at his side.  Samuel.  Wearing his bulked-up combat chassis, red-hot as always.  “Oh, thank the scholars,” I said.

He jumped a little at the sound of my voice, turning towards me and revealing his face.  Bright green eyes. A clean-shaven, square jawline with perfect symmetry. Not a blemish in sight.  A top-shelf designer body, through and through.

After a week in the filthy unknown, it was beyond comforting to see something so familiar and gorgeous.

I ran forward, grabbing his hair and kissing him full on the lips.  The sensation of his body on mine was so spectacular, so electric and joyful, that it took me several seconds to realize he wasn’t kissing me back.

As I pulled away, Samuel was frozen in place, an expression of shock and confusion etched on his face, which was turning a bright shade of red.

I realized what I looked like to him, and felt heat rush to my face.  Dumbass.  “Samuel, I am so sorry.  I thought – “

“I know.”  He rubbed his lips, his expression relaxing.  “It’s nice to see you too.” He threw his arms around me in an awkward, but tight embrace.  I hugged him back, letting out the breath I’d been holding. Even in a new body, it still felt as warm and cozy as always.  Samuel let go, grasping my shoulders. “Have you been sleeping, and eating, and – are you safe? How are you doing?”

I gave a quick bark of laughter.  “Spectacular. I’ve already adopted a quartet of lowtown rats.  I’m naming them after the Great Scholars.” I spread the blanket back onto the grass and flopped back onto it.  I hadn’t had enough money to buy a trolley ticket, so I’d had to trudge up the slope of Main street from the bottom to the top of Elmidde.  Sweat drenched my clothes.

“I – “ Samuel stopped himself a moment.  “When I saw you there, lying on the edge of that platform, staring up at me.”  He knelt next to me. “I’ve had bad days in my life. Hopeless moments. But that one.  That one – ” His voice trailed off. “I wanted to protect you. Leap onto that arena and be a shield for you.  A real Guardian, like the one I try to be every day. But I couldn’t. I didn’t. Please forgive me.”

“You couldn’t have done anything.”  I reached for his hand, then pulled back.  He’s not into you when you look like this.  Give him some space.  “And your technique saved my ass.  Would have, if I hadn’t been so careless.”  I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket, folding it with a sliver of my attention.  “You should compliment that shit-eating name thief. Takes a real snake to come up with a gambit like that.  How is he?”

“Have you had breakfast yet?”  Samuel threw open the cloth bag, pulling out a pair of éclairs and handing one to me.

“You’re deflecting, but yes, I am hungry.”  I grabbed it, tearing off half of it with one bite, savoring the chocolate and cream as I chewed.  “You would not believe how atrocious the food is down in Lowtown.”

“I don’t care what the records say,”  said Samuel, munching on his pastry. “To me, you’ll always be [            ].” At the end of his sentence, I heard a screeching burst of static, like someone was tuning the world’s largest radio next to my ear.

On instinct, I rolled away from Samuel, covering my ears and clenching my teeth.  He leapt next to me, looking concerned. “Are you alright?!”

I sat up, taking deep breaths, then looked him straight in the eye.  “I’m fine.” I grit my teeth. “Spell my first name.”

Samuel spoke, his lips and vocal cords forming a number of distinct letters.  In the moment of his saying them, I could grasp each individual sound, and categorize it in the alphabet.  But the moment he spoke the next one, the previous one slipped out of my memory.

When he finished, I couldn’t remember a single letter he had uttered.

Samuel laid down on the mattress next to me.  “A memory block?”

I nodded, clenching my teeth.  “My mother once again demonstrates her boundless generosity.”

Samuel turned away from me, staring at the wall.  “For…the present. Is there something I can call you?”

“Angel the Luscious,” I said, deadpan.  Samuel flipped over to glare at me, not amused.  “It’s been a very exciting week, alright? I don’t have one yet.”  I grabbed another éclair from his bag, stuffing it in my mouth. “Wanna know the best part about being stuck in this grubby little body?  Don’t have to give a shit about table manners.  That and not wearing a bra.”

Samuel sighed.  “I’m glad you’re finding a silver lining.”

“So,” I looked into Samuel’s eyes, both of us facing the other.  “Tell me everything. How are my parents? Chimera Squad? The pimply bum who replaced me?”

“Your father has been distant all week.  Locking himself in his study. The one time I had dinner with your family this week, he didn’t say a word, and drank about three times the usual amount.”

I finished the paper crane I’d been folding, flicking it to the side.  Good to know at least half my family misses me.  “And?”

“Your mother is…well…”  Samuel glanced at the ground.  “Chimera Squad’s been difficult.“  What is he not saying about mother?  “Eliya won’t admit to it in front of us, but I think she’s been crying a lot.  She shows up to practice and her eyelids are puffy and red.”

“What about Leizu?”

“You saw her a week ago.  Girl was about ready to chop your mother in half.  I’m fairly certain the only reason she hasn’t already is because she gets to smash practice dummies during training.”

I smiled at the thought of my team missing me.  Even if they were practicing without me, it was nice to know I hadn’t just disappeared without a trace.  “And your newest member?”

Samuel closed his eyes.  “There is so much to think about.  So much to talk about. Are you sure it’s the best idea to – “

“No.  But I don’t much care.  What is he like? Is he shy, loud, cruel?  Does he prance around in my dresses like a ballerina?  Did he tell you his strategy for filleting me last week?”

Samuel sighed.  “Sometimes, it’s easier to not know things.  Are you sure this isn’t the kind that’ll stick in your head for weeks and weeks?  That you’ll lose sleep over? Because sometimes, you tend to get stuck on things.”  He trailed off.

I grabbed another pastry from the bag.  “This year should be rather miserable no matter what I do, so I think I can live with whatever terrible knowledge you can give me.  Stop hedging. What is he like?”

Samuel took in a deep breath.  “She’s…enthusiastic. Excited about getting a free ride to Paragon and all your family’s resources, but awkward.  Me and the rest of the squad refused to speak to her at all, but she took it all in stride. Very demure, very apologetic.  It’s still too fresh and too personal for us to acknowledge her, and…she kind of gets that.”

I broke into laughter, sitting up on the blanket.  “You and Eliya took the same psych warfare class as I did, right?  You can’t have forgotten all of Professor Brin’s lectures on charm offensives and personas.“

Samuel didn’t budge.  “I remember. It doesn’t feel like manipulation.”

“That’s because it’s good manipulation.”  I walked over to the chair, sitting down in it.  “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”

Samuel sighed.  “It’s not always a mind game.”

“My mother selected her.  How could it be anything else?”  He’s already warming up to her.  By the time you make it back, it’ll be too late.  “At least tell me she didn’t get the mask.”

Samuel reached into the bottom of the bag and pulled out my white-beaked masquerade mask.  Relish the small victories.  He turned it over in his hands, examining it, and the edges of his mouth curled up.  “Remember the first night you wore this?”

I smiled with him.  “Lorne Daventry’s first masquerade of the summer.  I thought it was a casual event, so I came in my sweaty school uniform.  Everyone was staring at me.”

Samuel chuckled.  “While you were arguing with Daventry about the dress code, I ran out to buy you proper attire.  But the only open store was for menswear.”

I smiled, remembering.  “I looked rather dapper in that tuxedo.”

“Yes, you did.”  Samuel stood up, taking his hands in mine.  “And I can help you again.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “What do you mean?”

“When you went in to kiss me, I could smell the liquor on your breath.”

I tensed.  “And?”

“You don’t have to hide it.  Your allowance is running out, isn’t it?”

“And why would you just assume that from a little booze?”  I clenched my teeth. “Everyone assumes I can’t handle anything.  Not school, not my mother’s test. Do you honestly think I can’t last a week on the streets with an allowance higher than most make in a month?”

Samuel gave me a pitying look.  “I don’t think you’re stupid.”

“Just lazy and irresponsible.”  My fists clenched, and I felt the urge to punch something wash over me.  “But you’re right. I spent about half of it on bullshit I can’t even remember.  And I lost the rest while blitzed out of my mind last night, and in a place I shouldn’t have been near.  My noble mother has found another pet project, so I don’t have to pretend to be good anymore.” I stuffed a whole scone into my mouth, chewing it and spilling crumbs all over the chair.

Samuel frowned.  “How did you lose half of it all at once?”

Shit.  I couldn’t tell him the truth about my escapades with Joseph.  If he found out I was charging headlong into danger, he’d chastise me, argue, try to stop me.  “Pickpocket,” I lied, praying he’d accept it and move on.

Samuel looked more confused.  “A pickpocket? Steal from you?  You still remember how to paper project and nudge, right?  And probably a little metal and wood and water projection, too.  I don’t think it’s very easy to wipe away the basic stuff, or the stuff you’re really familiar with.”

I shrugged.

Samuel reached into his bag again, pulling out a large rectangular bundle wrapped in paper.  “Well, this should get you through the next few weeks at least. You need this much more than I do.”

He tossed it at me, and I projected into it midair, letting it float into my lap.  The package pressed down on my thighs, heavier than expected. This must be most of his monthly allowance.  A substantial amount, especially for a third child of a family.

And he’d had it all ready for me.  He predicted I would have run out already.  I wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or furious.

“Come to think of it,” Samuel said, “You wouldn’t mind some extra clothes too, would you?”

I nodded reluctantly.

Samuel extended his hand towards me, and I felt the raggedy shirt and pants I was wearing shift over my skin.  Projection.  He leaned in towards me, looking at my body from all angles.  I could smell the scent of the citrus shampoo he washed his hair with.  It was clean, sharp, and painfully familiar.

He lowered his hand, stepping back, and the sensation stopped.  “There. Got your measurements, down to the millimeter. Gimme a place and time and I can drop off some stuff for you.  Save you the trouble of buying a whole wardrobe.” He frowned. “Why are there bruises on your shoulder?”

Shit.  From Joseph and his crazy fucking Green Hands.  I composed myself.  “Last week’s fight? I’m not sure.”

Samuel shook his head.  “I was watching that whole affair.  She never fell at that angle.”

I took his inquisitive glare for a few seconds before conceding.  “Alright, alright, I got in a fight.”

“With who?”  A look of concern came over Samuel’s face.  “Are you safe? Do they know where you live?  Can they project?”

I sighed.  “About that.”  He’s probably going to find out either way.  Maybe he can help you.  “I went after a Green Hands and a couple of his thugs.  Trying to get a lead on the Broadcast King’s ties to Commonplace.”

Samuel’s face paled.  “Commonplace? No, no, no way.  Stay away from those guys.”

I shrugged.  “I’ll be alright.  It’s not like they can project.  That’s kind of their whole thing.”

Samuel shook his head emphatically.  “No, but they don’t play around. I’ve heard reports from Intelligence.  They’re starting to use voidsteel bullets. Snipers inside Elmidde itself.  Plus whatever elite mercs the Broadcast King may have hired. And you’re not at your best, either.  Can you even summon an Autonomous Bullet Defense?”

I shook my head reluctantly.  I’d learned how to create an ABD over the summer, so it hadn’t stuck enough to survive the memory wipe.

“Without one, any fool with a pistol can gun you down in the streets.  They won’t even need voidsteel.”

“You’re right.”  I looked him straight in the eye, staring him down.  “But that doesn’t change a thing. I am not going to fade into obscurity like a common Humdrum, and I am not going to let my family collapse into bankruptcy.  I’m moving forward tonight.”

“Tonight?”  Samuel paled.  “No, there must be some other way.  I’ll keep giving you my allowance. The rest of Chimera squad can pitch in.  You can study and practice sixteen hours a day and you’ll ace the Paragon entrance exam at the end of next summer.”

I sighed.  “And pay for it with what?  Take out a huge loan for tuition?  Even if my family accepted me back, they’ll be even poorer than me by next year.”

Samuel winced.  “Is the debt that bad?”

I nodded.  “And that’s assuming I’d pass the exam.  They wiped or blocked almost everything. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had to re-learn the fucking times tables from scratch.”

Samuel pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.  “Please tell me you at least have a plan for Kahlin.”

I fidgeted, uncomfortable.

“You were going to go up against Commonplace and one of the richest men in the Eight Oceans, and improvise?“

“I know what I’m doing,” I snapped at him.  “Didn’t need a plan to knock your ass out of the ring in one on one duels.  I’m good at impromptu stratagems. I’ll eavesdrop, get some more evidence, figure out where all the baddies are hiding, move forward.  That sort of thing.”

Samuel sighed.  “When you get an idea, I can’t convince you away from anything, can I?”

I grinned.  “Nothing can.  Especially not my better judgement.  Thought you would have figured that out after seven years.”

He bit his lip, thinking.  “Let me and Chimera squad help you then, at least.  You may not be able to do an ABD, but I can, and Leizu’s skin is bulletproof.  If everything goes south and they notice you, we’ll keep you safe.”

“Four is a lot less conspicuous than one.  If word ever gets out that you helped me, they’ll Oust you too.  Probably deport Leizu back East to the Shenti. They’ll take away everything you’ve worked for so hard.“  I shook my head. “After a week shivering in a hovel with a sticky floor, I’ve decided that being poor is rather unpleasant.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst – “ I stopped myself. “Actually, I would wish it on my mother, but that’s not the point. I don’t want you to suffer too.”

“Then at least let me help you indirectly,” he said.  “Right now, if you try to listen in to their conversation, you’ll have to get close.  If they’re at all professional, they’ll probably notice you. I can rent audio monitoring equipment from Intelligence and lend it to you.  If you set up beforehand, you can listen in and record from a safe distance.” He nodded to himself. “I can also get you some black clothes and face paint.  Help you blend in at night.”

I smiled.  “Now that, I could go for.”

Samuel gave me a slip of paper, and I wrote down a public park near my address and a time early this afternoon for him to drop off the goods.  After some arguing, we agreed on when to meet next: The same place, same time five days from today.

Samuel stood up.  “Hey. So sorry to leave you like this, but I have to get to, well….”

“Squad practice.  I know,” I said, standing up with him.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as we stared at each other.  Then Samuel rushed forward and gripped me in a tight hug. He kissed me on the cheek.  “Don’t die. Please.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

________________________________________

For the first time in a week, I was taking a shower.  And it felt better than sex.

There was always the possibility that I’d taken one in the last seven days and forgot, but according to Leo, I had spent almost the whole week locked up in my room or drinking, or both.  And since my room didn’t include a bathroom, finding a gymnasium with a shower and an affordable day pass had been as boring as it was difficult.

But it was all worth it.  The dirt caked on my skin was sliding off, pooling beneath my complimentary shower shoes in a brown puddle, and the thick stench of stale sweat and body odor was finally beginning to clear.  It was hardly my preferred standard of hygiene, but after the last seven days of filth, it felt like breathing for the first time.

And once it didn’t smell like rotten onions, I could appreciate certain aspects of this body.  It was muscular, square-jawed, and well-proportioned in all the right places. Occupying it felt sinful, in a way.

Once out of the shower, I stared at myself in the mirror for a good ten minutes at least, poking and prodding it and twisting it into extreme expressions.  The nose was too large, the cheekbones a hair asymmetrical, but otherwise, it wasn’t bad for an organic, non-fabricated form.

I had never felt the deepest connection with any of my designer bodies before – they were pretty enough, but I’d felt like a primped-up doll more often than not.  As a result, the new face was less jarring than expected. A fact I appreciated, since I’d be stuck with the damn thing for at least another year.

I had a few hours to kill before Samuel could drop off the audio bug, so I went back to the bar, intending to practice my projection, see if I could recall enough precise metallokinesis to jam a gun’s inner mechanisms.  Maybe I could grab a drink to calm my jitters.

And yet, twenty minutes later, I was not practicing my projection, and was sipping cranberry juice without a drop of alcohol.  Leo had cut me off, telling me that if I was going to drink myself to death, I could at least do it after the sun went down. Plus, the bar wasn’t even technically open until noon.

While I sat on a stool, he scrubbed shot glasses on the other side of the bar, a one-sided game of Jao Lu in between us on the counter.  The hexagons on his half of the board were almost all empty, or occupied by my pieces.

Takonara,” he growled, as he pondered his next move.  He twisted the knob on the wooden radio next to him, changing the station to some upbeat swing music.

“What’s that mean?”  I smiled.

“I grew up in the Floating City.  Picked up some Neke slang,” he said, chuckling.  “It means octopus cunt.  And that you’re kicking my ass.  I thought I was good at this game.  Where’d you learn to play like that, Mr. Tactician?”

Procrastinating assignments at Paragon.  I shrugged, folding a bar napkin into a swan.  Playing Jao Lu reminded me of Alabaster Hall’s common room, and lounging on the plush couches with Chimera Squad.  The memory was both sweet and painful.

But regardless, it was nice to take a breath before jumping deep into the shit.

Leo picked up one of my swans, examining it.  “Back east, I used to see street artists fold origami all the time.  You’re not half bad, for a Principality native.”

“A classmate from the Neke taught me,” I said.  Not that I’d ever be caught admitting that out loud.  “Relatively affordable distraction.” A useful quality for when your family was deep in debt.

“Speaking of that,” said Leo.  “I waived this week’s rent fee.  I know you’re short on cash, but nobody else is using that room anyway.  Nobody wants to live in this neighborhood anyway.”

“I – “

“- And if you feel like going and giving some polite little refusal like a good little Epistocrat – “

He thinks I was a good Epistocrat.  Cute.

“- then help around a bit.  Wash some dishes. Swab a table here or there.  I’ve been looking for a good bus boy around here for a while.  I can pay you triple minimum wage, plus the room.”

“Well, that is a very generous offer – “  But I have Samuel’s allowance already.  “But – “

“Think of all the free drinks you could snatch under the counter while I’m looking the other way.”

“Leo – “

“If you listen once in a while, you might even learn how to make one.”  He grinned.

“Leo,” I said.  “I can’t.” Why is he being so nice?  This would be so much easier if he was a prick.

“Oh,” his face fell.  “Sorry. I just thought, since you – that you might enjoy – “  He stopped himself. “Can I ask why?”

I projected upstairs with my Pith, into the stack of bills in the bag under the bed in my room.  After pulling out a handful, I floated them underneath the door, down the steps, and onto the counter.  They did the talking for me.

Leo sighed.  “You already got a job, didn’t you?”

I didn’t respond.

“No?  That stash of money going to last forever, then?”

That depends.  How long can my ex-fiancé keep up his pity hard-on?  My money’s on six months.  I was being too harsh on Samuel.  But even at Paragon, it had been difficult to shake the feeling that everyone would eventually leave me behind.

“Not to be presumptuous, but when you run out, you might appreciate having a steady position.  Something you can put on a resumé.” He poured glasses of water for both of us. “Everyone needs a start.“

Resumés.  Job applications.  Scholars, is this my life now?  Was I going to work at a fast food joint and live in some dingy rowhouse, paying mountains of bills while dreaming about a pension?

On the Jao Lu board, I slid my Golden Lancer onto the hexagon with his Empress.  “I think that’s the game.”

“Takonara.”  Leo didn’t say anything more on his offer.  He grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled LEO on one side with a pencil, with a large zero underneath.  Keeping score. Drawing a vertical line through, he paused on the other side of the paper. “Decide on a name yet?  There is no way I can remember that serial number, and I gotta write something.”

“Been busy,” I said.

“Any ideas?”  He flipped the paper over and started scribbling on the back of it.  “Did your parents ever tell you what other names they were considering before you were born?  Mine almost named me ‘Buddy’. Narrow escape on that one. Buddy is a dog’s name. Not even a good dog’s name.”

I thought back to conversations with my parents.  What-ifs. Most of the ones they’d talked about were girl names.  Julia. Elizabeth. Dorothy. Useless in this scenario. But I remembered, once, on my ninth birthday, I’d asked my father what they’d have named me if I were a boy.  Before the doctors projected into the surrogate’s uterus and found out my gender.

Weston, they’d said.  After the Great Scholar, the trusted companion of Darius the Philosopher.  As Epistocrat names went, it wasn’t bad.

But I still couldn’t bring myself to choose it, to say it out loud.  Names were significant. And no matter how I tried to spin it to myself, picking a new one felt like leaving something precious behind.  It wasn’t that I’d loved my old name. In fact, I’d had a notable distaste for it.

But that name, whatever it was, had meant I was an Ebbridge.  A Guardian in training. Someone valued and important and going somewhere with their life.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Whatever I pick, I don’t intend to keep.”  I hope.

“All I’m saying is,” he said.  “Were you happy, back then?”

“Well,” I said.  “It may not be the highest bar to clear, but I think I was happier than I am now.”

He shrugged.  “Maybe you just need to settle.  Accept where you are. Picking a name could be a good start.”

Settle.  Admit defeat.  Become a functional humdrum for all eternity.

I felt a pit in my stomach, a sharp aching sensation that reminded me of nights before exams.  I stood up. “Lovely game,” I said. “Let’s do it again sometime.” I strode towards the door.  It was more than two hours before Samuel’s drop.

Leo gave a strained smile.  He sees right through me.  “I’ll beat you one of these days, I’m sure.”  He called out to me as I left. “Stay safe.”

I was at Darius Park by 1:58 in the afternoon, two minutes before Samuel was scheduled to deliver the goods, sitting on a bench and staring at yet another statue of the eponymous Philosopher, just like the fountain in Paragon’s atrium.  The stone Darius stared towards the heavens, turning its nose up at those on the ground. “Smug squidfucker,” I mumbled under my breath.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Samuel walking in my direction from the right, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying a paper grocery bag over his shoulder.  As he passed by, I reached my Pith towards the bag, feeling the presence of hundreds of sheets of paper placed at various points inside. I projected into all of them, and the bag itself

Samuel passed by, ignoring me, and casually tossed the bag into a trash can next to me.  Before it could hit the garbage below, I yanked upwards with my Pith, freezing them in midair, out of sight.

When Samuel passed out of my vision and I determined nobody was watching me, I stood up and increased the upward force on the bag.

I walked past the can, and the bag flew into my outstretched hand.

An hour later, I was on the other side of Lowtown, scoping out the location of the meeting.  Joseph and the Broadcast King were scheduled to convene in an empty Shenti temple on Gestalt Island, a newly abandoned slum mostly inhabited by squatters and petty criminals.

As I walked through the filthy streets, I passed drunks stinking of rice wine, dead-eyed families in shabby clothes, and a homeless woman from the Neke lying in the street.  She must have been at least eighty years old, judging by the two maroon stripes tattooed on her light brown forehead, though her body looked about half that age. All poor, all foreigners, many of them Shenti.

I circled the building from the back, scanning it for signs of Joseph’s men or a good hiding place.  All I could find were piles of stinking trash – rotting food, paper, and books stacked up together. Nothing I could use.

As for exit routes, there was a side alley that led straight to a more populated street.  If the local police heard gunshots near there, I could use their response as a distraction.  Most projectors could just project into their uniform and fly away, but Flight was a second-year class at Paragon, and in this state, I could barely lift myself a foot off the ground.

The central chamber of the temple had floor-to-ceiling windows on almost every side.  That’ll make hiding a bitch.

A decade ago, before the war, the building had been inhabited by Shenti monks like the rest of the island.  Today, it was deserted and decaying, thrown aside by its followers like every other Shenti temple in the world.  Filled with shelves of books no human could read ever again, that described a philosophy no one could remember anymore.

Now that I knew what memory blocks felt like, I could almost feel sorry for the Shenti, who were permanently locked out of the religion that governed their whole society.  One Whisper projection from Headmaster Tau, and their entire philosophy was erased from reality.

No.  Remember the war.  Remember the camps they set up, and the innocents they butchered.  The world was a safer place without the Shenti’s vicious theocracy.

When I reached the Eastern side of the building, I knew where the meeting was going to happen, and where I could set up my equipment.

There was a side room in the temple, with only a single tiny window to the outside.  Everywhere else in the building was visible from the outside.

If I was Joseph, I’d want to meet somewhere I couldn’t be seen easily.  I’d want cover and concealment. The side room was ideal for that.

Making my way inside, I gathered a small cloud of newspaper scraps and burnt pages from books, sending them throughout the room into every nook and cranny I could find, and scattering them across the floor.

If I needed to fight, I’d have no shortage of ammunition.

It took me twenty seconds to find a rusty air duct in the corner of the side room, too small to crawl through, but more than large enough to fit a cable.

I removed the grate on the outside, wrapped Samuel’s mic with an old magazine, and fed it through the ducts, using projection to float it up, down, and sideways until it was close enough to hear the interior.  The long, thin wire it was attached to unspooled, connected to a pair of headphones and a tape recorder on the outside.

Then I projected into a nearby pile of trash, pulling it towards me and dumping it on top of the headphones and recorder next to the open grate.  I shifted bits of filth around, until my pile was identical to the other heaps of trash in the area.

Time to repress my gag instinct.  And prepare my brain for hours of boredom.

I knelt, and climbed into the trash pile I’d made.  Pieces of damp paper crowded around my head, getting my hair wet.  A piece of rusty scrap metal poked my right calf, and I winced from the pain.   Hope this asshole had his tetanus shots.

I settled into a position on my back, with enough trash on top to completely conceal me, but little enough that I could push it aside in a crisis.    A pair of headphones rested on my head, connected to the tape recorder on my side beside the grate. I could hear and record everything that was going on in the temple’s side room.

And I was already bored.

This was even worse than the stakeouts I’d done at Paragon.  You could at least read a book or pace around the van or fold origami in those.  Here, every move or attempt at a stretch caused a rustling cascade of paper and metal all around me.  The only thing I could do was stare up at the two moons, and run over my thoughts over and over.

It was not unlike those endless hours at lectures, eyes aching while Professor Oakes droned on about the chemical properties of steel.  Watching the other students projecting into their pens, diligently scribbling in their notebooks at the speed of sound. How could they concentrate in a situation like this?  And for this long?

Unfortunately, I had never found the answer to that question, and as a result was now lying for hours in a mountain of garbage, smelling like moldy oranges and rust and a third smell I desperately hoped was not some form of bodily fluid, but probably was now that I was thinking about it.

I thought about Samuel.  Eliya and Leizu. My parents.  My replacement, winning over my friends and family with calculated charm.

Even if I excelled on tests, my mother would use every possible excuse to reject me, to deny my chance to oust the new Me and take back my name.  If I wanted to go home, I had to go big, demonstrate my worth in the most overwhelming, undeniable way possible.

Like rescuing my family from over two million pounds of debt.


As my mind drifted, I thought back to the homeless people I’d seen on the way in.  The filthy Neke woman, shivering under a pair of thin blankets, clutching a brown paper bag of booze like a lifeline.  If things didn’t pan out, the line between me and her would be pretty thin.

Now that I was no longer red-hot and rich, my alcoholism was no longer a fashionable quirk.  It was just sad.

I went through loops of thought like this for what felt like hours upon hours, twitching and squirming and sweating like a pig in the trash heap.  My mental tangents got stranger and stranger, until finally, in the midst of imagining a night of wild abandon with Samuel, I heard voices in the distance.

I stopped fidgeting, straining my ears.  The voice got louder, and more familiar. “Check for squatters, then stay inside the church.  Kahlin’s people are covering perimeter guard.” Joseph’s voice.

A woman in civilian clothes stepped into my alleyway, and I slowed my breathing.  Her hand, tattooed with a green circle on the back, patted a rhythm against the pistol at her waist.  She’s a Green Hands.  A Commonplace thug.

She glanced in my direction for a moment, scanning the area, then turned back inside the church.  “North alleyway clear,” she called out.

After a few more reports, the voices quieted down.  Several minutes later, they started up again, this time from my headset, unintelligible, but getting louder until I could make out what they were saying.  They’re gathering in the side room.  My guess had paid off.

“He’s outside.  On his way in. Surrounded by Ex-Kutta nutters with sniper rifles, from the looks of it.”  A female voice, probably one of his henchmen.

An Ilaquan man with light brown skin walked into the alleyway, wearing thin, pitch-black body armor and combat boots and hefting a submachine gun.

Ex-Kutta.  Fuck me.  If Joseph’s underling was right, the Broadcast King had hired former members of the Harmonious Flock’s special forces.  Battle-hardened southern fuckers from Ilaqua who could perform spycraft, assassinations, and just about every military maneuver known to man, depending on what they’d skill-stitched in.

The man stopped less than ten feet away from me, nodding to himself as if listening to someone talking.  Experience-stitching.  His Pith was linked to the rest of his team, letting them communicate with the speed of thought.  Even if I took him out silently, they’d still be onto me in an instant.

I slowed my breath further, my sweaty shirt clinging to my chest as it rose and fell.  Then the voices started up again in my headphones, this time including a familiar patient drawl: Afzal Kahlin, the Broadcast King.  “Why must we meet among this dross? My apartment is more than suitable.”

“Your apartment isn’t secure anymore.  I was followed from there yesterday.”

 “Followed?  Did your tail do that to you?  You currently have more bandages than a small hospital.  Or did you run into some other trouble? On the way over, I passed a Neke woman who looked positively feral.”

An irritated grunt from Joseph.  Must be from my paper cuts.  “Small trouble.  Nothing we can’t deal with.”

“You know, you don’t have to deal with those irritations.  I can recommend some wonderful emergency swap services. Call them up and five minutes later, they speed in with a new, shiny duplicate chassis for you to jump into before your Pith flickers out.  You look like you could use one.”

I projected towards both of them, feeling a stack of papers in a briefcase and several bandages floating in space in a vaguely human shape.  Kahlin and Joseph, respectively.  Now I had a general sense of their positions.  Joseph made another frustrated noise. “I was told you were charming.”

A warm, deep chuckle from Kahlin.  “When I need to be. Our intermediary notified me of our mutual interest.  She told me you and your boss were desperate for my Vocation, so I didn’t need to pitch myself.”

Kahlin moved a small, rectangular piece of paper from his belt to Joseph’s hand.  His business card.

He has a Vocation?  The Broadcast King was supposed to be a Humdrum.  This is huge.  As far as I knew, even Paragon’s Intelligence Bureau didn’t know he could project.  Combined with his fortune in newspapers, a large-scale Vocation could shoot him to the top of the Principality’s threat rankings, right next to the Black Tortoise and the Droll Corsairs.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to rob you blind.  Money is of no concern to me. I’m interested in what comes after your little coup.”

“It’s not a coup.”  Joseph, not bothering to hide his irritation.  “It’s a – “

“Right, right.  Your revolution.  Apologies.  When your boss and her horde of bitter Humdrums find themselves running this foggy trash heap of a country, I will expect your wholesale assistance overseas.  Military and political.” I felt the blood drain from my face. Commonplace is planning a takeover.  It was everything we had feared since the Humdrums found out about projection.

“Assistance with what?”  Joseph sounded more frustrated by the moment.  Why is he Commonplace’s negotiator?

“Saving at least half a million innocents.  And killing the smartest woman in the world.”

“I see.”  Who could he be referencing?   The Locus?  One of the Four Daydreamers?  Someone else I didn’t know about?  “What’s your range?” Joseph asked.

“My Vocation?  Three point two kilometers, give or take,” said Kahlin, nonchalant.  “But with a plane and the right positioning, I can cover a whole city in an hour or so.  No limit on population size.” Three kilometers?  The pit in my stomach grew.  Even Headmaster Tau didn’t have that kind of range on his projection.  That could put his projection at Scholar-rank, at least.

Joseph was silent for a moment, no doubt processing this.  “And your time frame?”

A soft chuckle from the Broadcast King.  “By the time you move, you’ll have all the popular support you need.  I suppose you’ll want a demonstration.”

“Yes.”

“I can give you a glimpse.  It takes quite a bit of energy from my Pith, so I usually only do it about once a week.  It’s like running a marathon inside my head.”

There was a long silence, and the sound of deep breathing, probably Kahlin’s.  Then I felt a faint twinge at the back of my head, like an itch inside my skull.  It vanished in an instant, so soft I wouldn’t have noticed it in any other circumstances.  This must be his Vocation.

“Done,” said Kahlin.  With my Pith, I felt the stack of papers in the briefcase go flat on the ground.  A single sheet was taken out, and scribbled on with a pen. “This is a brief description of the effects and results.  I think you’ll find them self-explanatory.”

I focused my attention on Kahlin’s writing, noting where his pen had made an indentation on the paper, and analyzing the shapes to come up with the letters and words he was inscribing.  It took me a few seconds to deduce his message, as he held it up towards Joseph.

Unknwn prsn listening withn 50m.  Act nrml. Blk exits. Will ambush.

My skin turned cold.  “I see,” said Joseph, with no change in his tone.  “Very interesting.”

Nonchalant, the mercenary standing nearby walked past me, and entered the side alleyway to the East, striding out of sight.

My only escape route.

They’re blocking the exits.  Projecting into the papers in the church, I felt boot prints crunch against them, moving outside the side room and throughout the church.

And they’re searching for me.  It’d only be a matter of time before they found my hiding place.  Get out now, idiot.  But how?  I couldn’t run anywhere without a confrontation, and I didn’t like my odds in a fight against those ex-Kutta hired guns, especially without an Autonomous Bullet Defense.

Joseph and the Broadcast King were still in the side room.  Time to do what I do best.  Improvise last-minute, and then probably crash and burn.

I reached into every sheet of paper in Kahlin’s briefcase, every newspaper scrap I’d hid in the side room, everything I could find all at once, and shot them all towards him.  I rested them on his neck, his face, his wrists and the inside of his thighs. Every exposed blood vessel I could find. Other bits of paper snaked underneath his clothes, settling on his crotch, armpits, and abdomen.

I pushed myself upright in the trash heap, my headphones sliding off, and screamed at the top of my lungs.  “Don’t move!” I took a deep breath, then launched into a rapid-fire speech. “We have eyes on all your mercs and Green Hands,” I lied.  “If you or any of them move a muscle, we will slice open every vein and artery on this hornet’s body!”

I ran around to the window, looking in on my two targets.  Joseph stared straight at me, the sawed-off shotgun at his waist still holstered.  “This squidfucker,” he growled. “Not again.”

“Hey, Jo.”  I beamed, waving at him.  “Now, this is how things are going to go.  Your men are going to rotate out of the – “

“Kahlin,” called out Joseph, speaking over me.

The Broadcast King breathed heavily, tears at the edges of his eyes, unmoving and covered in paper.  “Yes,” his voice was half a whisper, his confident mask shattered. He’d clearly never had his life threatened like this before.

“Just listen to my voice and breathe slowly.  Breathe.” Joseph said, eyes still trained on me.  “You’re gonna be alright. Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” Kahlin whispered, his voice wavering.

“I’m going to ask you a simple question, and I need you to answer it so I can help you, alright?  Can you do that for me? Nod if you can.”

Kahlin nodded slowly.

“Hey!”  I shouted, hardening the edges of my thin, pale weapons.  “Shut the fuck up and follow my instructions, unless you wanna choke on your own blood!”

Joseph ignored me.  “Kahlin, that body replacement service you mentioned to me.  The one with the emergency ambulances. How long do they take to get to a location in Elmidde?”

“A few – ” Kahlin closed his eyes.  “A few minutes, tops. They promise.”

“Call them,” said Joseph.  “East Alleyway!” he bellowed.  “Paper projector!” He reached for the sawed-off shotgun at his waist.

“Takonara,” I said, to no one in particular.  Pressing down with thirty-seven pieces of paper on the Broadcast King, I sliced.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




2-B The Problem of Names

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



A Boy

I could not remember my name.

Everything else was clear.  My background, my family, my situation at large.  I was not some oblivious Humdrum from a decade ago, memory-wiped of a whole year to protect the secrets of projection.  The lacerations on my mind were clinical, precise.

Just as they had promised.

But still, the exact nature of my name eluded me.  The more I reached for it, tried to grasp its letters and syllables, the more it slipped away from me, fading into the confines of my subconscious like a forgotten dream.

A fist smashed into my face, knocking me into a puddle on the pavement.  “Ow! Shitfuck!” My hindquarters ached, and my head spun. I could hear a faint buzzing in my ears, which only sounded half as strange as my voice, which had come out both deep and hoarse.

“You miserable fuck.  I am going to tear you a new asshole so wide your Pith falls out.”  A thick-jawed middle-aged man in a trench coat and a porkpie stood over me, his knuckles bloody.  Even through the darkness, I couldn’t help but notice how ill-fitting his outfit was, how ugly it looked on him.  Did Joseph think he was a private eye from the movies?

Wait, what?  Joseph? How did I know his name?

An important piece of information poked its way into the edges of my consciousness.  The Guardians in charge of my mental blocks had warned me about something. Short something.  Short term memory loss.  That was a potential side effect for about a week.  And the tendency to confuse flashbacks with present experience.

The first thing I noticed was a parade of drunks in rags stumbling around the bar down the street.  Another group of men in ratty clothes smoked cigarettes underneath the orange glow of a streetlamp. Well, I’m definitely not in Hightown.

The second thing I noticed was how dizzy and warm I felt.  It was like someone had tapped my skull with a hammer, leaving the contents inside to spin and shake.  Was I drunk?  That probably wasn’t helping with the memory loss.

Two other men with equally mediocre taste in fashion strode up next to Joseph, clutching combat knives in calloused fingers.  The man spat at me, and his glob of saliva splashed on my big toe. “You think you can just get away with something like that, you entitled little shit?”

“Hey,” I said.  “Only my mother gets to call me that, Jo.”  Seriously, how did I know this idiot’s name?  My voice still sounded strangely deep. Hoarse.  Had I been shouting a lot?

Joseph drew a sawed-off shotgun with a wooden stock.  As he pulled back the hammer, I noticed the bright green circles tattooed on the backs of his hands.  He’s a Green Hands.  One of Commonplace’s fanatics.

He pressed the barrels to my forehead.

I held up my hands in front of me, shaking them in what I thought was a desperate, but non-threatening manner.  “Wait! Wait, wait, wait! I can explain everything! I can explain.”

Joseph didn’t lower the gun, but didn’t pull the trigger either.

Think, think.  How did I get here?  I racked my memory for clues, trying to remember what I had done to piss this stranger off so royally.  Nothing came to mind.

“Wait, nope.”  I shook my head.   “I can’t explain, sorry.  Could you fill me in on what just happened?”  I flashed them a winning smile. “It’s been a very strange day.”  Day?  Week?  How long had it been since the Ousting?

The butt of his gun smashed against my nose, knocking me flat on my back with a splash.  Unbidden, techniques drifted into my head to counter, how I could grab his wrist and use his momentum to knock him off balance.  If I wasn’t so drunk and confused, I might have carried them out on pure instinct. And then the other two would have stabbed me to death.

Well, at least I remembered my martial arts training.

 I wiped away a thick stream of blood pouring out of my nose, and gazed up at the starless sky.  “Let’s start with a simple question. Who are you, and have I done something to offend you?” I beamed at him.

“You tried to nudge us, little mind rapist,” Joseph said, teeth clenched.  Humdrums loved to throw that insult at Guardians, no matter how inaccurate it was.  “You stalked us in that bar, and tried to brainwash us.”

“And… I guess it didn’t work?”  It was a stupid question, but I wanted to keep them talking.  Why did I go after these radicalized thugs of all people, and in a public place, too?

Joseph chuckled.  “We followed half your orders, more or less.  But we’ve had training in how to defend ourselves from scum like you.”

There was no point in negotiating with close-minded book-burners like him.  The only kind of language these bigots would understand was violence. I took a deep breath and extended my Pith forward.  It would be a pittance to hold the trigger in place. Once I did, I could pull the gun out of his grasp and go from there.

I reached for my studies on the properties of metal, my knowledge of the internal mechanics of firearms.

Nothing.  The invisible force of my Pith sunk beneath the surface of the metal, but was unable to budge it.  I tried projecting into the water around me, the concrete pavement beneath me, the fabrics in Joseph’s clothes.  None of them worked.

Damn that memory wipe.  It’d fucked up my projection, too.

While I was rummaging through my memory, a phrase came up, completely out of context.  Call is Meeting.  Cleaners is Broadcast, my mind told me.

What the fuck does that mean?  I was certain I’d heard that statement before, and that it was important, but I had no idea where or why.

I smiled at them.  “Okay, okay. Let’s all stay calm, right?  I have money. I think.” My mother had mentioned an allowance.  Giving me an initial sum of cash to feed me until I could get a job.

“Hand it over.  Now.” It looked like Joseph was ready to pull the trigger any second.  If I gave him the money, he might do it anyway.

But without Paragon training, I was just another lowtown drunk, completely in over my head.  Even common thugs like these would make a paste of me.

I patted myself down, feeling inside my ratty brown coat.  Most of my pockets were empty or full of holes. As I felt up my chest, I noticed how flat it was.  It was an odd sensation, to be free of those heavy, cumbersome weights.

There was a hard rectangular object where my breast would have been.  It felt like a book of some sort. Not money.

As I rummaged around, I caught a glimpse at the surface of the water and froze.  A boy stared back at me from the puddle. His face was pale, with a mop of light brown hair and clusters of freckles all around his nose and eyes.  Blotches of dirt covered his cheeks, and a bright red pimple stuck out of the left side of his forehead.

Common-born.  And in desperate need of proper skincare.

As I recoiled, the face recoiled as well.

My face.

That explains the deep voice.  My hand reached down and patted in between my legs, feeling the presence of something there.  I felt the blood rise in my cheeks from the embarrassment.  Or maybe that was just the alcohol. I’m in his body.  The boy had taken my name, my body, and as if that weren’t bad enough, now I had to spend the rest of my life in his pasty skin.

There was a clump of something stuffed into my waistband.  Crinkling. A paper package. I pulled it out and held it in front of me.

It was already half empty.  What had I been spending my money on?  How many days had it been since I got ousted?

Joseph grabbed it, still training the shotgun at my forehead.  He grinned, pausing for a moment, then swung his arm around. The butt of his gun crashed against the side of my face.  As the world spun around me, and my vision darkened, I heard his voice ring out, mocking. “You Epistocrats think you can buy your way out of anything.”

_______________________________________

I sprinted down a dimly lit alleyway, making my way towards the sounds of a crowd in the distance.

Wait, why am I running?  How much did I black out this time?

A crack echoed in my ears, and something flew over my head, impacting in the brick wall next to me.  Bullets.

I glanced behind me.  Joseph and his two buddies were charging after me.  He was shooting with his left hand. Four of the fingers on his right hand bent back at a sickening angle.  Did I do that?

I stumbled, crashing into a wall.  Pain shot through my right shoulder, muffled by the alcohol.  “If I make it out of this, I swear I will go dry for eternity,” I muttered to myself, for the fifth time that month.

Another spray of bullets impacted above me.  Good thing he’s shooting with his off hand.  The noises of people in front of me grew louder, shouting and cheering, with a voice from a loudspeaker carrying over them all.

I emerged from the alley, arriving in a large town square, which was packed completely with a mass of cheering men and women.  I dove into the throng, weaving in as deep as possible. He won’t shoot me with this many witnesses.

In the distance, I spotted the slopes of Mount Elwar, and the cloud of lights from Midtown and Hightown.  Above the peak, the floating multicolored spires of Paragon Academy shone brighter than all the rest.

I was in the outer isles of the city, then.  Some of the few areas of Elmidde that were even poorer than lowtown.  About as far from home as you could get without leaving the city. Not home anymore, I reminded myself.

I bumped into a woman, and felt the book in my jacket jab my chest again.  I reached for it, and pulled a fish leather-bound notebook out of my pocket.

Call is meeting, my mind said.  Cleaners is Broadcast.  Fragments of a memory.  A riddle, or a code. Something important to remember.  But why? What did it mean? “Makes no damn sense,” I grumbled.

The crowd was gathered around a large fountain of the Four Scholars in the middle of the square, which had been turned off.  A man stood on top of Darius the Philosopher’s granite shoulders, shouting into a microphone with a spotlight trained on his face.

The man held up a photo.  “This is Emily Blake. A girl of seven.”  His voice blared from speakers on all sides.  “Two days ago, a projector showed up at her door and nudged her and her father.  A projector trained at Paragon Academy.”

As I pushed through the crowd, I caught glimpses of some of the people at the rally.  Green circles were tattooed on the backs of their hands. This was a Commonplace rally.  Fuck.

I glanced behind me.  Joseph moved through the crowd, shouting to be heard.  I made out the words ‘Guardian’ and ‘Paragon’ before I turned and kept shoving my way to the other side of the square.  These radicals wouldn’t look twice at the murder of a projector like me. Especially at the hands of one of their henchmen.

The man at the fountain kept shouting.  “The projector made Emily’s father empty his life savings, savings he was using to feed his family!”  Jeers and hisses from the crowd. The speaker paused. “The projector ordered him to cut his wife’s throat with a kitchen knife.  He forced him to lock his daughter in the attic. And when that was done, he ordered him to douse his house in gasoline, and set himself on fire.”

A roar of anger swept through the square.  The screams of the men and women were deafening in my ears.

“What does Paragon do?  What do the Epistocrats do?!  They sit in their mansions and castles while a backlog of Mental Hijacking cases festers and grows in the courts!  They protect the wealthy and powerful, letting our nation bleed while the water rises around us!”

The roar grew in volume as I pressed onward, halfway to the other side.  Idiots.  The only thing that could reliably stop a rogue projector was another projector with more power.  Guardians risked their lives protecting ingrates like this every day from the real monsters out there, and all these idiots could do was complain.

“They expect us to trust them, when they hid away their magic for centuries, wiped our minds while they ruled our nation from the shadows!”  He pointed to the sky. “What do you think made the stars disappear? What drowned the Great Scholars beneath Eight Oceans of water?” His voice raised to a fever pitch.  “Projectors!” he cried. “Devils gone mad with the power of gods!”

It was complete nonsense, of course.  Nobody knew how the Great Scholars vanished.  And the mind-wipes had been for the Humdrums’ own safety.  But it wasn’t like that mattered to most common people.

I glanced behind me.  Joseph was gaining on me, close enough to make eye contact with me.  He snarled something at me, but it was drowned out by the spokesperson.  “They call us Humdrums, unenlightened, ignorant! But we are the people of the Principality.  We work its factories, teach its schools, ship its goods across the seas. We are the common foundation!“

“Common foundation!” the sheep bleated in unison.  “Common foundation! Common foundation!” Only a few tightly packed people stood between me and Joseph now.

Call is meetingCleaners is Broadcast.  Why was I remembering that?  Was that some key to a puzzle?  Some vulnerability of Joseph’s that could help me beat him?

Images flashed into my mind, bursts of memory accompanied by waves of insight.

_______________________________________

It was mid-afternoon.  I sat on a couch beneath a chandelier in an apartment building’s lobby, which sported gleaming white marble floors, a chandelier, and a bored-looking doorman.   The Broadcast King’s apartment.

I watched the elevator out of the corner of my eye, pretending to listen to Verity playing from a radio next to me.  The doors opened, and a square-shouldered man in a trench coat and porkpie stride towards the exit.  He wore thick gloves, and beneath his coat was the telltale hump of a concealed handgun.

One of the Broadcast King’s contacts, no doubt.  Looking rather sketchy.

I stood up, following him to the revolving door onto the street.

_______________________________________

I tailed the man through the streets of lowtown as the sun set over the ocean, occasionally stopping to pretend to examine a storefront, or blending in with crowds.  He crossed a rickety wooden bridge onto the outer islands, heading straight for a dive bar overflowing with drunks.

Still hidden, I pursued him to the crowded, smoky interior, where he met two burly men.  I slid into an adjacent booth, and ordered a drink or two to avoid looking suspicious.

I had barely finished downing the second before realizing how dizzy I felt.  New body, idiotLower alcohol tolerance.  The duplicitous freak whose body I now inhabited clearly didn’t enjoy drinking as much as I did.

“I just don’t see the point, Joseph,” said one of the burly men.  So that’s his name.

In front of me, oblivious to my surveillance, Joseph brandished a fish leather-bound notebook out of the corner of my eye.

“It’s a code, you idiots,” I had to strain to hear his exasperated voice over the background noise.  “I shouldn’t even be talking about this in public. A call means an in-person meeting. The cleaners means the Broadcast King.  Boss wants tight opsec from everyone.”

Too bad they hired you.  I stifled a snicker, and thought about my options for a moment.  This was my only lead to the Broadcast King, and if I waited too long, Joseph might sniff me out and report me to his bosses.

But, if I played the situation just right, I could turn all three of them into sleeper agents.

I needed to move quickly, and these idiots seemed incompetent enough for it to work.  Time to improvise.  I stood up, striding next to their table.  Joseph looked up at me, still pissed. “Fuck you want?”

I cleared my throat, and pressed my Pith around the edges of his and his goons’ minds, focusing on their auditory processing and decision-making centers.  Using the Nudging vocation, to force them to obey my commands. Haven’t been mind-wiped of that little trick, then.

“Hey guys,” I said.  “Could you come outside with me, please?  And don’t attack me or flee or try to alert anyone.  Let’s talk.”

Joseph’s eyes widened in surprise, then rage.  He growled. Before I could react, his hand was around my throat, and he was dragging me outside, out the front door and into the cold.  He pushed me away from the crowds, making his way towards a puddle from a recent rainstorm.

“Alright, projector,” he said, clenching his fists.  “Let’s talk.”

_______________________________________

In the present, I pressed my way through the crowd of Green Hands, Joseph close behind.  Still reeling from the burst of memories I had just experienced, I tried to sum up recent events for myself, put the obvious together.

I got ousted by a boy, swapped bodies and got most of my Paragon knowledge wiped.  Staked out the Broadcast King, and tailed Joseph after figuring out he was Commonplace.  And then, I followed him here. And sort of blew it.

I thought back to the phrases that had been bouncing around my mind.  Call is meeting.  Cleaners is Broadcast.  They finally made sense.  The media mogul was meeting in secret with a terrorist member of Commonplace, and using codes to hide it, even in his private notebook.

A few arms lengths behind me, I watched one of Joseph’s flunkies reload his shotgun, handing it back to him.  If that Green Hands shot me point blank, it wouldn’t matter what hand he used, or how good his aim was.

Kahlin was going to have a private meeting with terrorists.  There’s dirt there.  Dirt that could finally link Commonplace to illicit activity, if I played my cards right.

And if Afzal Kahlin was implicated, the Principality might decide to dissolve his assets.  Including the debt the Ebbridge House owed him. In one move, I could get rid of our family’s biggest problem.

And if I did that, a year from now I could oust the bastard that stole my name.

I need to read his notebook.  I reached my hand into my jacket, then stopped.  He’s right behind me.  If he sees that I have it he’ll switch all the locations and times.

I needed a distraction.  Something that would let me read his schedule, and slip it back into his bag without him noticing.

An idea came to me.  I reached out with my Pith, stretching it behind me towards Joseph.

Then, in spite of myself, I grinned.

The package full of my money tore open in Joseph’s hands, and bills exploded out in a hundred different directions.  In a split second, Joseph and his two goons were surrounded by a swirling storm of paper.

The force I could apply to each bill was minimal, but a piece of my soul was extended into every single one of them.  I had precision. I focused on their internal makeup, willing their edges to grow rigid and hard, like knives. They caught the wind, like a thousand little origami birds, and flew at my assailant.

There were shouts from the Commonplace members pressed close to him.  Luckily, the mob had no idea I was behind the attack.

When I felt the paper touch bare skin, I pushed them down and sliced them, giving Joseph’s men a dozen simultaneous paper cuts.  Then I let them blow away in the wind, joining the swirling storm of money, then replaced them with another squad of bills, shooting down, cutting, retreating.

I targeted their veins and arteries, the webbing in between each of their fingers, their armpits and neck and face.  Anything that would cause enough damage or pain. I felt blood seep into many of the bills as they pressed into their flesh, making it more difficult to keep them rigid.

Joseph and his goons roared in pain, swatting the air around them and pulling their coats over their faces.  “Squidfucker!“ Joseph bellowed at me. A piece of paper shot for his tongue, and he clamped his mouth shut.

The crowd surged around them, panicked and angry.  Initially, they mirrored Joseph’s frantic defensive measures, batting the paper away and covering their vital areas.  But as they realized they weren’t being targeted, they began to grab at the hundred-mark bills, stuffing them into their pockets.  I couldn’t leverage enough force to wrench the paper out of their hands.

In a matter of seconds, my flock shrunk to half its size.  Well, I’d come up with some other way to keep myself fed.

While Joseph was occupied and not looking at me, I pulled out his notebook, flipping through to this week’s schedule, scanning the pages.

There it was: Call cleaners about supplies, Shenti Church #51, Gestalt Island.  Tomorrow at eleven PM.  I sorted the phrase through the code I remembered.

Joseph was meeting the Broadcast King tomorrow night, at a church in the Shenti slums.

I projected into the book, and sent it weaving through the crowd at ankle level, shooting towards Joseph.  As it got close, I sent all the bills towards my assailants’ eyes, turning the cloud of paper into a dense barrier for their vision.  

As they clawed at their faces with bleeding hands, I slipped the book into a pocket of Joseph’s bag.  I’d managed to read it, and they were none the wiser.

And then I ran.  I pushed against the current of the crowd, then broke into a sprint as it thinned out.  I wheezed for breath from the exertion, my lungs burning. I kept running, maintaining my attacks against Joseph even as he receded in the distance.

I ducked into an alleyway and kept sprinting, legs aching, head thumping from the blows it’d been dealt.  I was stable on my feet now – the surge of adrenaline had wiped away some of my drunkenness.

The paper passed out of my projection range, and my Pith snapped back within the confines of my body.

I ran across a busy street, weaving between honking automobiles stopped at a crosswalk.  As I stepped onto the far sidewalk, I retched, doubling over and stumbling. My body screamed at me to stop and catch my breath, take my bearings and calm my beating heart.

No.  If Joseph and his goons caught me, I’d be in for a lot worse than a little nausea.

I kept running, dashing through alleyways and narrow roads until all I could think about was the pain.  The cars grew more frequent as I drew closer to the central island of Elmidde. Finally, my feet thumped across a creaky wooden bridge, and exited among the squat buildings of Lowtown.  I’m off the outer islands.

I stumbled into a side street, leaned against a street lamp, and vomited onto the grimy pavement.  The sharp tastes of stomach acid and gin mixed with each other, coating the inside of my mouth.

My armpits, thighs, and behind were all damp with sweat, and the seat of my pants was soaked from the puddle I’d been knocked into.  My shins felt like they’d been beaten with hammers. Damn this body.  Though its muscles felt stronger than my combat chassis, the prick who’d stolen my identity hadn’t done much endurance training.

I took in deep, gasping breaths, coughing.  The side street was dead silent, only lit by the pale lamp I was standing underneath.  I wiped my mouth, spitting out the foul taste of my own sick.

Far above me, I could make out the glimmering lights of Paragon Academy, each floating island gradually fading from one primary color to another.

In the span of a few days, I’d gone from there to here.  From silk dresses to dead broke. From kissing Samuel to throwing up in Lowtown.

A breeze blew over my wet clothes, and I shivered.  My stomach ached, and I felt myself craving one of Paragon’s spicy beef pies, the kind they served every Saturday at the banquet hall.  And a glass of fresh lemonade, to balance out the rich, savory flavor of the pastry.

I didn’t think I’d ever been this hungry in my life.  I couldn’t remember the last time I ate.

What was I going to do for money?  Where would I sleep, eat? All the questions I’d never had to ask now came crashing over me, and I didn’t have answers to any of them.  The decaying hovels of the alley seemed to press in on me, oppressive in their filth and squalor.

I needed a drink.  Something familiar, to calm me down and postpone my hangover.  Once I was too drunk to be terrified of the future, I could make my next move.  I’d find my way to a homeless shelter, preferably a clean one. Or nudge strangers into emptying their wallets.

An image of a bar flashed its way into the edges of my memory.  Different from the one I’d followed Joseph to, but equally dingy.  A location I’ve been to recently?  It would do.  I let my intuition guide me through the streets of Lowtown, which had grown empty and dark.

Half an hour later, I found myself before a sign, illuminated by a flickering light: Leo’s Place.

Please be open.  I pushed open the front door.   A bell rang, and I found myself in an empty bar.  Half the lights had been turned out, and all the chairs were placed upside down on the tables.

“We’re closed, dumbass!”  A male voice barked from behind the bar.

I sighed.  Give me this at least.

The man behind the bar stood upright, carrying a soapy rag.  His face softened when he saw me. “Oh, it’s you.”

I squinted at the man.  Dark brown hair, tight shirt, a thick neck.  Middle-aged. I searched my memory, feeling twinges of familiarity, but nothing definitive.  “Have we met before?” I said.

The bartender nodded, giving me a knowing look.  “You said something like this might happen, that you could have memory problems for a week or so.  You handed me a stack of bills to rent out my spare room upstairs. A few hundred more than I actually needed.”  He extended his hand. “Leo. Nice to meet you for the second time.”

I reached out to shake his hand, then hesitated.  Lots of people might know about my memory issues, and could use that to manipulate me if I blindly took them at their word.  “I can’t remember any of the last few days. How do I know what you’re saying is true?”

Leo rolled his eyes.  “You were crying over your drinks, slamming your head against the counter, and muttering to me about someone named ‘Samuel’.  As I recall, you called yourself a ‘stupid lazy arseface who deserves everything that’s been happening to her’.”

“Okay, yeah, that does sound like me.”  I sat at one of the bar’s stools, leaning my aching head against the counter.  “Speaking of which, a glass of sake, please. Chilled. If I paid you extra that’s gotta mean you owe me a few free drinks.”

A few seconds later, Leo slid me a glass filled with clear liquid, dumping an overflowing bowl of cashews next to it.  I threw it back, then recoiled at the flavor, spitting it back out. “Water?!” I sputtered. “Are all Humdrums as rude as you?”

Leo refilled the glass from a bottle, calm.  “Drink up. The nuts should also help. Soak up the booze.”

“Old man, I swear to the Scholars I will…”  I bolted upright and clenched my teeth, staring him down, prepared to bicker until he relented and let me procrastinate my hangover

Then the room spun around me, and I felt my head falling forward.

_______________________________________

“Kid?  Hey, kid.”  Leo’s voice yelled at me from far away.  I felt something slap against my forehead with a sting.  The other side of my face pressed into a hard, flat surface, making my headache even worse.  “Wake up, you bloody drunk.”

My eyes fluttered open.  My head was lying on the bar counter, next to a small puddle of drool.  How long was I out?

“Your room’s upstairs.  You’ll be more comfortable there.  Go to sleep,” Leo sighed. “I’ll clean this up.”  He held out the bowl of cashews to me, and I stuffed a fistful into my mouth.

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  Why is he being so nice to me?  I chewed, swallowed, and grabbed another handful, pushing myself off of the stool and staggering towards the staircase at the back of the room.  My stomach ached, making me bend over.

As I climbed the first step, I heard Leo’s voice behind me.  “And for the record, I’m forty-three!” I turned to look at him, and he stabbed a judgemental finger in my direction.  “That’s not old. You Epistocrats just look too damn perfect.”

I froze.  Don’t give anything away.  “What are you talking – “

He smiled.  “Your ID, when you first tried to get in here.  Might want to get that fixed.” His expression became serious.  “And I’m sorry for your loss.”

I reached towards the small lump in my back pocket, extricating a wallet that contained only a single freshly laminated card.

Age: Twenty.  Sex: M. Name: #516125871-R.  Ousted Epistocrats received serial numbers instead of names.  It was possible to change it legally at government offices, but the process was notoriously bureaucratic.  Some died without ever doing it.

“Speaking of that,” said Leo, scrubbing away at my mess.  “What do I call you? I never asked.”

I leaned down and retched, pausing for a moment.  “Good question,” I said, walking up the stairs and out of sight.

As I ascended the steps, I thought of possible answers. It would have been easy to give him some random false name off the top of my head, or to spend five minutes and think of a new name for myself that didn’t sound terrible.

But I didn’t want to.  Taking a new name felt like accepting defeat, the first step to accepting a new life of mediocrity.  Stagnating in the flat, painfully ordinary world of the Humdrums. I don’t belong here.

I swung open the door of my rented room.  The space was practically a closet. It was barely large enough to fit the twin bed wedged into a corner, and dustier than my father’s wine cellar.

Even if I couldn’t remember my first name, I was still the Lady of House Ebbridge, not some blockhead with acne.  And now, with the intel on the Broadcast King, I had the opportunity to earn my way back to civilization. Implicate him, get rid of the debt, and come back a hero.

I slumped down on the bed, feeling the tears in the mattress below me.  The only other objects in the room were a rusty alarm clock on the floor, and several pieces of paper tucked underneath the pillow, with notes written on them in my handwriting.  Little reminders, just like the ones I’d made for myself back at Paragon.

You have ~5000 pounds left, one said.  Not anymore. Don drink 2 much dumbass, the second one said.  I tossed that one aside.  What did that idiot know, anyway?

When I read the third and final one, I sat up.  Samuel meet tomorrow morn.  Set alarm.  The meeting Samuel had promised to give me, in the event of my failure.  Tomorrow was a week from when I was ousted. Friday. That meant I had blacked out seven entire days in a row.  And that Joseph’s secret business deal with the Broadcast King was tomorrow too.

Everything was happening so fast.  With the constant blackouts, the past seven days barely felt like one.  It was as if my mind was trapped between sleep and consciousness, half-aware, constantly on the verge of waking up or falling asleep.  I needed to drag myself back to reality, before I fucked up something important tomorrow.

The pressure in my head increased, and I massaged my temples.  The hangover wasn’t helping. I’d only experienced it about twice in my life, and never this strong.  Most of the time, I swapped with Poppy and let her experience the fallout of my revels, while I passed out and woke up spry and energetic.

If I had known they got this bad, I would have tipped her more.

I shivered, realizing how cold the room was.  There was only a single blanket on the bed, thin and rough.  My head dropped onto the pillow, and I pulled the covers over me, bringing my knees to my chest.  If I thought hard enough, I could pretend I was back in my dorm, snuggled under layers of silk and wool, curled up next to Samuel’s warmth.

I shut my eyes, and tried to pull up the details, to transport myself out of the room, away from the chills and headache and nausea gripping me and into my memories, or my hopes.  Tomorrow is the day.  Tomorrow, you’ll make things better.

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2-A The Problem of Names

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Nell

At the crack of dawn, I was to enter the most important challenge of my life.  A battle with no holds barred, a final exam to determine my future against an opponent who had beaten me at every turn.

So naturally, I didn’t start studying until the night before.

I had made promise after promise to myself, reminded myself of the consequences if I failed.  The low hum of panic at the back of my mind had kept me awake for nights on end, imagining the worst possible outcome in numerous different permutations.

It didn’t matter.  The longer I waited to start, the more impossible the task appeared.  And I let myself be distracted by easier, less terrifying thoughts. Until, less than twelve hours before the duel, my mind snapped into wild focus.

In this way, I had passed essays, tests, and tactical slugfests designed to confound geniuses.  Despite my chronic laziness, I had managed the bare minimum of adequacy for my parents, my professors, and my fiancé’s family.  Until recently.

And now here I was, pacing back and forth in my dorm room at Paragon, muttering equations under my breath, and wishing I had half a dozen shots to wash away my dread.

It was still dark outside when Samuel stirred from my feather bed.  I noted him out of the corner of my eye, intent on my studies.

My white lace nightgown clung to my legs, soaked with sweat.  A notebook sat in my left hand, filled with notes on fluid dynamics, organic chemistry, and projection strategy.  Meanwhile, my right hand fidgeted with a ripped page, folding it into an origami crane.

A hand touched my shoulder and I jumped, before remembering who it belonged to.  “Get any sleep?” Samuel’s voice was deep, calming. He was still dressed in his button-down and slacks from last night.

I snorted with laughter.  “You?”

“Few hours.”

I turned around and kissed him, running my fingers through his dark blonde hair.  His chest rose and fell, warm as it brushed against mine. My aching eyes fluttered shut.

He squeezed my arm, murmuring through his grogginess.  “Anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are?”

I smiled.  “You. About twice a week, with the same line.”  I let myself relax a hair. Let myself forget everything except how warm and comfortable and simple he felt.  Enjoy it while you can, dumbass.  Stupid, stupid idiot.

“You know, at a certain point, it becomes more efficient to sleep instead of cramming further.  How long until – “

I shook my head.  “Two hours.”

Samuel stepped back from me.  His measured expression broke.  “You’ve reviewed everything, then?  Play conservative, make her expose her Vocation as early as possible.  Go for tendons and neck arteries and the – “

“- Face.  And hit the bitch from behind like the devious little shit I am.  Thank you for the reminder.” I tossed him the notebook. “Your tactical notes are as thorough as they are dull.  Your fiancé may be stupid and lazy, but she can read.”

A finished origami crane dropped from my hand, joining a pile of several more on the floor.  “There’s something else I want to discuss. Something personal.”

Samuel strode to the window and threw it open, letting in the cool morning air.  “Is this the best time?”

A bitter laugh escaped my lips.  “When have I ever done anything at the best time?”

He didn’t have an answer to that.  “What about the technique I taught you?”

“Practiced it once or twice.  Not very confident about it.”

He frowned.  “Any discoveries with your Vocation?”

I reached my Pith out into the masquerade mask on my desk, saturating it with my soul and yanking it towards me.  It floated between my hands, narrow, pristine, and coated with white feathers. An old gift from Samuel, from when we went to a themed ball.

I pressed my palms together, calling on my intuition, my physics lessons, my instinctive understanding of space and dimensions.

Green lightning crackled around the mask, and it warped, flattening into two dimensions.  It looked like an oddly-cut piece of paper, hanging vertically in the air. My Vocation.

I held it for a few seconds, then receded my Pith.  The electricity vanished, and the mask snapped back into its normal shape, clattering to the floor.

Samuel tried to look hopeful.  “I’m sure there’s some application for literally folding space and – “

“I’d stuff it in the bitch’s throat and let it unfold, but it doesn’t have enough expansion force.  And full lethal is forbidden. That’s not what I wanted to talk about. If things go bad – ”

Knocking at the door interrupted me.  Three sharp raps. Poppy.  “Come in!”

Poppy stepped into the room, dressed from head to toe in the lightweight navy blue body armor of a Guardian and staring at the floor.  Her hair was tied up in a bun, the same pitch black as mine. Her narrow, heart-shaped face and bright blue eyes echoed my own. It was like looking in a mirror, or at a twin sister.  The only difference was her muscles, bulging underneath her outfit in contrast to my lithe, delicate frame.

Her salary wasn’t cheap.  And neither was the combat chassis she was inhabiting.  I’d had to beg my mother for her, pull out every argument and persuasion technique I knew.

In the end, I convinced her that even if we were saddled with debt, keeping up appearances was important in the Epistocracy.  A combat chassis had to be strong, and a social one had to have a proper lady’s proportions. A fitness double was a worthwhile investment, and Poppy was one of the best, ensuring both my bodies were in perfect shape.

Poppy extended her hand towards me, pulling off a black glove.

I grasped her hand, and pushed my Pith forward, pulling hers around me and towards my body.   Green lightning crackled where our skin touched, and I blinked. I found myself standing in her place, staring at a sweaty, exhausted version of myself in a nightgown with tangled hair.

Do I really look that bad?

Poppy, having swapped bodies with me, began to comb her tangled dark hair, and picked the paper cranes off the floor.  “I did your requested workout last night, Lady Ebbridge, and made sure it was warmed up and fed for this morning. The suit has been fitted with wooden strips in the arms, legs, and torso for maneuvering.  I hope it’s to your satisfaction.”

I stretched my arms.  The body was energetic, strong.   My hunger pangs had vanished. Almost enough to make me forget how much sleep I’d lost.  Nodding at Poppy, I picked up the white feathered mask, turning it over in my hands, and slid it into a spacious pocket on the combat suit.

Now fully dressed, I indicated my head to Samuel, and we strode out the door.

During the school year, Alabaster Hall’s common room was bustling at all hours, filled with students scribbling papers, trading gossip, or playing Jao Lu by the fireplace.  More often than not, a bowl of popcorn and a jug of hot mulled cider would be set out on a table, sometimes with a tray of sweets and chocolates.

Today, it was dead quiet.  Dark. Swept clean by the janitors in preparation for the new semester, with the chairs flipped upside down on the tables.   I took one last look at it as we stepped out the front door.

Alabaster Hall, like the other dormitories, was connected to the central buildings of the Academy by a sturdy wooden bridge, all floating more than a thousand feet above the city of Elmidde.  In my parent’s day, it had been hidden from the Humdrums below, a team of sleep-deprived light projectors keeping it invisible to the naked eye at all hours.

Now, the Academy hung like a magical fat cloud of classical architecture above the metropolis, visible to any common dimwit with dreams of becoming a Guardian.

If I fail today, I’ll be just as hopeless as them.  We crossed the fog-covered bridge through thick clouds of grey, and I held back the question I needed to ask.

At this hour, even the main corridors of the Academy were empty, lit only by the dim morning light streaming in through the windows.  I noted the lecture halls I’d had classes in, the grassy pavilion where I’d won dozens of squad battles, the winding metal staircase leading upwards to the Great Library.

Huge hoops floated in the sky above them, courses for wingsuit racing.  I was slated to start flight training next semester, during my second year.  It was something I’d dreamt of since I was a little girl, and now, it was just beyond my reach.  If you make it through today.

Ahead of me, Samuel walked with a slight limp, a single imperfection in his otherwise flawless physique.  I banished my daydreams and jogged up beside him. Ask him.

“Leg’s looking strapping as ever,” I said, making small talk.  Some body-snatching psycho had blown it off with a shotgun while he was on call last week, rendering his knee a disgusting mess of flesh and bone.  Luckily, Paragon Academy was one of a handful of places in the Eight Oceans where you could get a new body at the snap of your fingers. As long as you were a student.

“Thanks,” he said.  “Pellets weren’t Voidsteel, so my Pith stayed just fine.

Ask him, coward.  “Ah, the joy of midnight patrols,” I said.  “Last time I was assigned one of those, I had two papers due the next morning.  If they Oust me, I will at least be spared from that particular extracurricular.”

“Liar,” said Samuel, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth.  “We both know you wish you’d been there.”

I chuckled with him.  “Would have sliced that amateur into gourmet steaks.”

We stepped into the main building’s atrium.  Flay grey sunshine streamed through the skylight stories above us.

The crystal fountain trickled in the middle of the room, not a soul in sight.  It took the form of a glittering statue of Darius the Philosopher, spurting water from a carved scroll in his hand.  Tour guides and the Headmaster presented his ancient legacy as an ideal to eternally aspire to. These days, it seemed more like an impossible standard to eternally fall short of.

I stopped next to it, sitting at the fountain’s rim and motioning for Samuel to join me.  We sat together for a few seconds, neither of us saying anything.

It was unfair, so damn unfair that we had to have this conversation.

Samuel rested his hand on mine.  “You want to talk about – “

“Yeah.”  Instinctively, I reached into my suit’s pocket and pulled out a square piece of paper.  Poppy had stashed spares, scholars bless her. I fidgeted with my fingers, folding it into another crane.  “If I lose – “

“You won’t,” he said, a little too quick for me to believe him.

“Wonderful,” I said.  “I scored two points lower on the natural science exam, four on the tactical reasoning essay, and almost eleven on the pneumatology test, but now that you said I won’t, I’m sure I’ll be fine.  Thank you for allaying my fears.”

“I control wires that can cut metal.  Leizu can flatten tanks with her punches, and Eliya can cause mental breakdowns with a snap of her fingers.  But in one-on-ones, you beat us almost every time. You’re gold-ranked.  There’s a reason we made you squad leader.”

“Do you know who I’m fighting?  Do you know what her Vocation is, or what projection techniques she’s studied?”

“Of course not.”

“Then please,” I said.  “Spare me the empty reassurances.”  My right hand tensed underneath his, as my left folded another bird.  “If I lose. If I get Ousted. If everything I’ve learned here gets scrubbed from my mind, and she takes my name, my body, my position, what will you do?”

“You know – “  Samuel’s eyes fell.  His expression looked both apologetic and frustrated.  “You know what’s required of me. You want me to give up everything and go down with you?  Let my family swap me out too? Do you want me to postpone the rest of my life in mourning?  Just, tell me what you want me to say.”

Tell me you won’t forget me.  “I don’t know,” I said.

His voice raised.  “I wish none of this was happening.  I wish I had a Vocation that could fix your mind and make you get straight As in every class.  But I don’t, and I’m sorry. I love you, and it hurts, but all I can do is watch.”

“If she beats me.  My parents. The squad.  I won’t be allowed to see anyone I – “ I stopped myself.  “It – It would just be nice to talk to someone. That’s all.  You can do that, right?”

Samuel hesitated.  “If we get caught – “

“Remember the place on my estate?  Where we used to, you know – “

Samuel nodded.  Arranged marriages were supposed to be chaste until the wedding day, but I was a famously impatient degenerate.

“A week from today,” I said.  “If everything goes to shit, meet me there at six in the morning.”

Another nod.  “And if you win?”

“Then I have a year to perform a vanishing act on my family’s debt.  Before they get another chance to throw me away.” A Guardian could make vast amounts of money, if they rose high enough in the military or became famous.  If they were smart. If they weren’t serial procrastinators.

I rested my head on his shoulder.  His muscles were soft and warm. I felt him sigh beneath me.

I wanted to live in that moment for another five minutes.  Another hour. But my mother had promised to disqualify me if I showed up late.

I stood up, beckoning Samuel to follow.

A trio of half-asleep guards with bolt-action rifles stood at the corners of the cable car station.  Another two sat by a pair of heavy machine guns mounted on the windowsills, pointed to cover the transport’s entrance.  New additions, ever since Commonplace had stepped up their suicide attacks.

As my eyes flitted towards the edge of the platform, I found myself smiling.  A girl with bright blonde hair leaned against a railing, next to a square-jawed Shenti girl with narrow eyes.  Eliya and Leizu. Both clothed in the latest silks, bodies sculpted to inhuman perfection.

With Samuel, that meant the entirety of Chimera Squad had come to support me.  An audience to my performance, for better or worse.

Leizu’s mouth broke into a wide grin as she saw me.  She ran up to me, gripping me in a tight bear hug, a faint reminder of her enhanced strength.  When she released me, she punched me in the shoulder, hard enough for it to ache.

“Good luck, Jitterbird,” she said.  Her nickname for me, after my fidgeting habit.  No empty encouragement, no fake optimism. It was oddly comforting.

Eliya glared at me, looking both elegant and harsh under her wide-brimmed feather hat.  Eliya liked her feather hats. “I don’t want any pussyfooting around in that ring. You’re coming back to us.  You, not some stranger wearing your body.  So no more of this self-pity nonsense, understand?  Win.”  She was the kind of friend who ordered you to be happy, and declared her desires as absolute destiny.

I stepped into the cable car, sitting down on a cushioned seat.  The others came in after me, shutting the door behind them. “Any advice?” I said to Eliya.

“Go for the – “

“Face, I know.”

“I was going to say ‘crotch’, but that works too.”

She waved at one of the guards.  An engine groaned above the station as the machinery started up, and the cable car descended from the station.

The floor beneath us was made of reinforced jade glass, as tough as steel, but completely see-through.  Hundreds of feet below, I could see the vast mansions and terraces of upper Elmidde, perched almost at the peak of the mountain.  Hightown. The wealthiest, most exclusive club in the Eight Oceans.

Not ten years ago, when the secrets of projection were kept hidden from the masses, the Ebbridge House had been revered here.  It had held seats on the Conclave of the Wise, negotiated with holy emperors and hive minds while ruling the nation. It had owned the largest newspaper in the city.

Today, bumbling Humdrums governed from Parliament, our wealth was deep into the negatives,  and my parents were considering replacing their only heir. Change was such whaleshit.

Once we reached the bottom of the line, it took us thirteen minutes to walk to my estate.  The wrought-iron front gate was wide open. Our butler, Oswald stood in the middle of them, balancing a silver tray of champagne flutes on his palm.  He bowed as we approached, cool and collected, as if he were welcoming us to another dull luncheon in the garden.

“How long have you been waiting there in that pose?” I said, resisting the temptation to snatch a glass or six.

“Long enough, Lady Ebbridge.  You are a welcome sight.”

“I want to see my mother.”

 “She’s at a meeting in her study.  And for the rest of you.” He beckoned to his left, towards the lush tea garden on the side of our family’s mansion.  “Ladies and gentlemen, if you will follow me, I shall lead you to the location of the event.”

As the other stepped away, Samuel embraced me.  “See you soon,” he said. When we broke away, I pulled the white masquerade mask out of my pocket and handed it to him.  He looked surprised. “Do you not like it anymore?”

I shook my head.  “If she beats me, she’ll have everything I’ve ever owned.  I want you to keep something that’s mine. Just mine.”

For a moment, Samuel looked like he was about to protest my pessimism again.  But he just nodded at me, then turned away to join the others.

My mother’s office was in the highest tower of our mansion, at the top of a twisting marble staircase that left most people sweating by the time they reached the top.  She loved to flaunt her dominance in the pettiest and least subtle ways.

I composed myself outside her door, calming my face and masking any emotional chinks she might seize on.  As I cracked open the door, I could hear voices arguing inside. My mother’s, sharp and collected, and a man’s, rich and melodious, the kind exclusive to I-Pop singers and Joining specialists.

“That is the third time you have repeated yourself, Hornet,” said my mother.  Hornet.  She was talking to a member of the Harmonious Flock.  A foreigner. “My time is valuable. Did you come here to screech and shake like a broken phonograph, or do you wish to negotiate?”

“You look agitated, Admiral Ebbridge.”  I imagined the man smirking as he talked.  “Is the great Typhoon of the South disturbed by my presence?  I shall be brief, then. I will forgive six month’s payment and lower your interest rate to zero.  In exchange for simple information.”

“No.”  She already knew what he was asking for.

“Your Vocation Codex.  I am told it makes up nine books in total.  I would very much like to learn your little gimmick.”

“I am not as great a fool as the Humdrums that read your propaganda.  No.

The man snorted.  “Then I shall not squander my morning any further.  It appears your daughter has arrived to berate you in my stead.”

How did he know it was me?  I pushed open the door to see a thin man in his thirties staring at me.  His skin was light brown, his eyebrows thick. A native member of the Flock, then, hailing from the windswept deserts of Ilaqua.

It took a few moments for me to recognize him from the photos I’d seen.  Afzal Kahlin. More commonly known as the Broadcast King. Owner of at least a dozen of the most popular newspapers, radio stations, and magazines in the Eight Oceans.  And the man holding our family by the balls.

He sauntered past me, paying me no heed.  “I expect your check by the end of the week, Admiral.”

My mother’s study was as joyless as it was huge.  Though it was three stories high and had more floor space than most living rooms, the only pieces of furniture in it were her desk and a few wooden chairs.  A framed diploma from the Academy and a smattering of medals were stuck on the wall behind her, next to a single bookshelf holding less than a dozen volumes.

The only notable things in the room were the perches, over a hundred thin wooden bars sticking out of various points in the walls.  Each one had a small swallow, falcon, or needletail sitting on it, unmoving. There was no chirping, no fluttering of wings. If it weren’t for their blinking, one could have mistaken them for statues.  My mother’s coveted Whisper Vocation at work.

Their effect was rather cold and unsettling which, knowing her, was probably the point.

As usual, the Admiral was inhabiting a Maxine Clive, clothed in the dark blue uniform of the Principality Navy.  An old classic: the same model as the very first fabricated body, all sweeping blonde hair and milky-white skin. It gave her the appearance of a woman in her early thirties, half her actual age.

Those flawless golden tresses were tied back in a tight military bun.  Long, tapered fingers flipped through the pages of a file on her desk. Bright green eyes flicked up, acknowledging my presence.

“Dearest Mother,” I said.  “How do you fare this magnificent morning?  Was that fine gentleman the Broadcast King?”

Two typewriters sat to my Mother’s left and right, clattering of their own volition to punch letters on two pieces of paper.  Metal projection.  My mother pulled one of them out of the machine, stamping a hot wax seal on the bottom.

“I thought you might want to bid me farewell,” I said.  “Perhaps fling a few more insults your daughter’s way before you disown her.  Blight on my family, lazy drunk cretin, the usual.”

“What do you want?”  My mother pressed the Ebbridge seal to another piece of paper, setting it on a pile of letters.

I strode up to her desk, putting on my best confident expression.  “Call this farce off. You’ve made your point.“

My mother inserted two more pieces of paper into the typewriters and went back to her reading.  “Which is?”

“You can throw me aside any time you want to.  You can wrench away everything I care about in an instant.  And you’re right. I fucked up.”  

She continued her work, refusing to make eye contact.  Does she want me to beg?  I sat on the wooden chair across from her.  “Let me retake the class this semester. I promise, I will pass it, and I will work twice as – “

“Promise?” my mother said.  “What trust should I put in the word of an addict?  I wonder how many times you’ve promised your professors.  You barely could even show up on time to this assessment.”

I leaned forward.  “I’m still smarter than half the humdrums out there combined.  I’m one of the best fighters in my year.”

“Then this should be easy for you.  Defeat your challenger, and you’ll be set until a year from now, no matter what I say.  Ousting is only allowed to happen annually at the end of the summer. You are only ousted if the challenger defeats you at everything.  You must prove yourself inferior in each category.  The deck is stacked in your favor.”

I changed tactics.  “No matter what you think about me, the replacement you have lined up?  She won’t be as loyal, as trustworthy. Even if she takes my name and body, she won’t be one of us.  And you need your family in times like these. The Principality is filled with enemies.“

“I do need our family.  I need our family to be strong, competent, tireless.  I need a child who will win glory for our name, help pay off our debts to that hornet and lead us into the light.”  She stamped two more papers from the typewriter. “Epistocracy houses have ousted their unworthy for centuries. Do you honestly think they didn’t factor loyalty into their tests?  So far, the young man I’ve selected has performed quite well.”

It took a moment for the words to register.  “Young man?  You’re trying to replace me with a boy?”

My mother placed another letter in front of her, ignoring me.  As she brought the seal down, I projected into the paper, yanking it out from under her.  The hot wax thudded on the desk. “Look me in the eye,” I growled.

She looked me in the eye.

“You know the mortality rates of ousted children.  You know how many end up in homeless shelters. You know the suicide rates.  I am your daughter. You raised me since birth. Surely, somewhere in your heart, there must be some remnant that still cares for – .”

In an instant, every bird in the room turned its head towards me.  Hundreds and hundreds of unblinking eyes, all staring at me in unison, silent.  My mother’s gaze could have cut diamond. “You have always treated your membership in this house as a luxury cruise, and after all my attempts to teach you, you are still as ignorant as a Humdrum.  Name is a privilege. Body is a privilege. Memory is a privilege. You don’t deserve any of them.”

My shoulders tensed.  “The first excuse you have, the first talented commoner you find, and you try to throw me out.”  I chuckled. “You think I’m going to lose. You’re sure I’m going to get pummeled by your golden boy.  Everyone thinks I am.”

“Yes,” she said.

“Have you imagined how stupid you’re all going to feel if I win?”  I stood up, stepping towards the exit.  “And since the decision is out of your hands now…”  Bowing towards her, I pulled it open. “I hope you drown in birdshit, you odious squidfucker.  I’ll see you outside.”

In the gardens to the side of our mansion, I passed over burbling creeks and dewy grass, through walls of fog and over terraces, until I reached an archway made from two trees bent towards each other.  Purple, green, and bright blue flowers wreathed the trunks and branches, lighting them up with color. I could make out some sort of wooden structure set up on the other side, on one of the lawns.

My father stood next to the archway, wearing a Louis Maugham, the male version of the Maxine Clive line.  He smiled weakly as I approached, running his fingers through his sandy hair.

“Hello, little duck,” he said.  He wrapped his arms around me in a tight embrace.  After a moment’s hesitation, I hugged him back.

I let go a few seconds before he did, and he stepped back, awkward.  “Your mother…” he said, hesitant. He was asking about the conversation I had just finished.  The argument he was too spineless to even attempt with my mother.

“Endearing as always.  She wasn’t in the mood for mercy this morning.”

“You have so much potential.  I always told her.” He stared at his feet.  “So much potential. Such a clever girl, with such a unique Vocation.”  He wrung his hands, fidgeting. An unfortunate habit I had inherited. “I don’t think we’ve seen a fraction of what you’re capable of.”

As usual, I wasn’t sure whether to thank him for his support, or curse him for being too weak to stand up to my mother.  “That routine gets pretty old, Dad.” I sighed, and let my feet carry me through the archway of flowers.

The arena for my upcoming fight was a circular wooden platform, about ten meters across, elevated to chest height above the grass below.  To my left, raised bleachers had been constructed, where Samuel and the rest of Chimera Squad sat, silent.

A figure stood on the far side of the glade, near the treeline.  A boy, maybe nineteen years old, with a mop of light brown hair, freckles spotted all over his clean-shaven face.  His clothes were loose, baggy, making it difficult to tell how muscular he was. He wasn’t even wearing any armor.

He glanced at me for a fraction of a second, before darting his head away, looking at the ground.  Anxious.  Good, I can use that.

Seven small crates stood on my half of the circle.  One crate was filled to the brim with water. Another with short steel rods.  Four more with stacks and stacks of paper.

The last box held several long coils of rope, woven from a dozen different materials, including Voidsteel.  The ends of the ropes were tied around thick wooden stakes. A recommendation from Samuel. My opponent had his own materials, but I wasn’t allowed to look at them.

It took a few minutes for my mother to make her way down from her study and to the top of the stands.  When she did, I climbed up onto the wooden arena. The boy mirrored me.

My mother stood up from her seat.  “The Epistocracy of the Principality operates on merit, not blood.  We are not like the aristocrats of other nations, withering in folly and blind orthodoxy.  When our branches grow rotten, we trim them.” She was reading out loud from a book, some old tome on the Epistocracy’s traditions.  “We are gathered here to decide the fate of the female progeny of the House Ebbridge. The winner of today’s bout will keep the name, body, and enrollment in Paragon Academy of the family member, until this day of the following year, when other challengers may be appointed to oust – “

I tuned out my mother’s speech, focusing instead on my opponent, who was stretching, and Samuel, grinding his teeth, the mask I’d given him in his hand.  We made eye contact, and his expression softened.

My mother’s voice droned in the background.  I was so tired. Another hour to sleep. That was all I asked for.  Another hour, and I could beat a whole battalion. Another hour, and my mind could work again.

You could have had another week’s worth.  Months, once you added up all of the time I’d frittered away at Paragon.  Stupid, so stupid.

“ – the first to touch the ground beneath the platform will be considered the loser.  May you strive to become an Exemplar.” My mother’s voice came back to my attention. “First combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

The boy nodded, sinking into a defensive stance.

“Second combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

I have a name.  “Yes,” I said, trying to sound confident.  I reached my Pith out into the crates holding water and steel rods behind me, leaving the boxes of paper be for now.  Best not to expose my fighting style right away.

“Begin!”  Before my mother finished barking the second syllable, I was already moving.  Swinging my fist dramatically, I sent two rods flying to my left, whipping around to hit from the boy’s side.

As his eyes followed the obvious attack, I shot the water straight at him, this time not telegraphing it with my body.  It formed a torrent strong enough to blast a dozen men clean out of the ring, crashing into his upper body. He raised his forearms to his face, protecting his head.

Through the stream of liquid, I could make out the flicker of blue and purple lightning radiating from his fists.  His Pith was two colors at once. He’s both a Whisper and a Praxis specialist.  He could both fuck with my mind and enhance his own.  A rare and dangerous breed of projector.

A wave of dizziness washed over me, like I’d drank a bottle of whiskey on an empty stomach.  I blinked, regaining my balance, and saw the brown-haired boy standing in a puddle of water, soaked but unfazed.  The two metal rods were clutched tight in his hands. Did he fucking catch them?

The lightheaded feeling passed as quickly as it came, but left a sense of fatigue in its wake.  My body felt heavier, drained, like I’d been exercising for hours already.

I called out to him.  “Do you know what they tell you on your first day of orientation at Paragon?“  He didn’t reply, circling towards me. “‘Wisdom is not for the weak.’ They like their catchphrases here.”

I mirrored his movements, keeping him on the opposite edge of the arena.  If he was a close-quarters fighter, I wanted him as far away as possible. “Sure, they advertise the adventure and lavish feasts and heroics.  Wingsuit racing! The largest Great Library in the Eight Oceans! But up there, nothing is free.”

As I spoke, I projected into the puddle of water.  Recalling my studies of pressure, thermodynamics, and the crystallization process, I willed the temperature to drop, freezing it into large chunks.  “The costs are small at first, but over time, they will peel away your time, your energy, your mind. Layer by layer. And when you have nothing left, they will cast you aside and make you thank them for it all.”

I feinted with the iron rods a second time, floating a pair of them in front of me as I launched the icy blocks from the side.  If the trick had fooled him the first time, it certainly didn’t now. He lifted his fists as the hail of slabs flew towards him.  Translucent orbs of electricity expanded around his fists, as large as his head, spherical maelstroms of bright blue and purple.

That’s his Vocation.  As the first shard came close, he swung the orb at it.  The multicolored lightning passed through the ice, and once again I felt a wave of dizziness and fatigue.

The chunk froze in midair, then shot straight at me.  I pushed a metal rod in its path, and it shattered. Shards of ice flew past me.  One of them sliced my cheek, and I felt a warm trickle of blood down my chin.

A second later, a dozen more chunks followed.  The rods blocked half of them, but the other six crashed into me.  The damage was absorbed by my suit, but the momentum shoved me backward, tipping me off the ring.

A surge of panic swept over me, as my inner ear realized I was falling.  As I accelerated towards the ground, I projected into my combat suit, into the wooden strips Poppy had inserted into chambers in the arms and torso.

I yanked the strips upward and wrenched myself to a halt.  My torso floated horizontally off the edge of the platform, my feet still in the ring.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the boy sprinting towards me, holding the metal rods in his hands, aiming to knock me off for good.  The bastard was fast.

Shifting my weight, I pushed off with my feet and pulled my suit upwards with my Pith.  I spun through the air to my right, landing on my feet, once again on the opposite side of the ring.  In spite of everything, I found myself grinning, savoring the adrenaline rush.

No matter how high the stakes, there was something beautifully simple about combat.  There was no meticulous research, no intensive studying, no essays to be written.  There was just you, and your opponent, and the brawl. The chattering distractions in my head melted away into sharp clarity.

I laughed, letting my giddiness show on my face.  “So, why do you want to be one of us?  Money? Power? Getting your ugly little face in the papers?”  I had only taken the one class on psychological warfare, taught by the rigid Professor Brin, but it had been one of the few I’d excelled in.  And today, anything but outright killing was fair game.

I grinned.  “That’s it! You must have failed with your own family.  You fucked up so bad, you’re crawling into someone else’s and taking it from them.  That’s pretty pathetic, don’t you think?”

I was hardly one to judge, but if he was willing to spend the rest of his life with another family, it had to be a soft spot.

The boy clenched his teeth, color rising to his face.  Yup.  He flew at me even faster than before, orbs coalescing around his hands.  Good, get him angry, clumsy, eager to end it fast.  It seemed his Vocation had the power to push my Pith out of objects I was projecting into, and caused some sort of fatigue on contact.  I didn’t want to see what would happen if it hit my body.

My feet pushed off again, and I pulled myself upwards with projection, flipping above the boy’s head.

He turned around, changing course, and I projected into the stacks of paper in my crates.  They exploded, swirling around him in a storm of sheets. I aimed for the arteries on his neck, his joints, his face, willing the material to harden, press down, slice.

His orbs could only cover so much area.  And if I hit anything vital, my Mother would intervene with a fresh body before he bled out.

The boy staggered back in the swarm of white, yelling in pain.  He swung his orbs around him, focusing on his face and neck. As the orbs passed through, I felt sharp pangs of fatigue and dizziness again, energy draining from the mental bank I used to project.

His Vocation was sapping the life from my Pith.  He’ll run out of blood long before I run out of juice.  

And then I noticed.

The orbs were bigger.

Their diameter had almost doubled since the beginning of the fight, and their shape had become flatter, closer to disks.  He could protect his face and neck with only one hand now, the other swinging like a fan to sweep aside the rest of my attack.  With every swing, the lightning around his fists swelled and I felt another jolting drop in stamina. The paper seemed heavier and heavier to move.

A chill came over me.  He wasn’t just pushing away my Pith.  His Vocation was stealing my fucking energy.

And I’d been feeding him this entire fight.  Where I was sweating and short of breath and struggling to project, he was stronger than he’d ever been, and would only get stronger as the fight went on.

In short, I was fucked.

“Think about – your – family.”  I spoke in between gasps, catching my breath as fast as I could.  Sensing his advantage, he leaped at me, crossing the entire arena in a single bound.

Wincing at the effort, I projected into my suit, flying around the edge of the circle to evade him, feet bounding on the ground to relieve some of the weight.  The effort felt like trying to hoist a car onto my shoulders.

But this time, the boy moved to respond faster, changing direction and sprinting in my wake the moment I lifted off.  I accelerated, trying to stay out of his reach. The boy matched my pace, clinging to my heels as I flew around the platform.

I could fly straight up, try to bombard him from above.  But I doubted I could sustain it for more than twenty seconds, and when I came crashing down, I wouldn’t have enough energy to defend myself.

So I kept my half-flight, half-run away from the brown-haired interloper, digging into my reserves and beyond.  He wasn’t even breaking a sweat as he went after me. Think, idiot, think.  None of my ranged attacks would work – he’d just absorb them and come back at me harder.

Get him to make a mistake.

“You would leave your parents?  Your friends?” I rasped. “You would abandon them?  You would take mine? For what? For what?  What is worth the cost?”  I spat at him as he chased me.  The saliva hit his heaving chest, dripping down his chest next to the bloodstains from my earlier papercuts.  “Selfish freak.”

The boy snarled, opened his palm, and flung the orb at me.  I jerked aside, to the middle of the platform.  The sphere passed through my ankle.

The dizziness was overwhelming.  I crashed to the floor, my Pith snapping back into the confines of my body.  When I stopped, I realized one of my arms was hanging off the edge. A meter away from losing it all.

The boy charged towards me.  Time seemed to warp, freezing me in this single instant.  I felt paralyzed. I could close my eyes and breathe, and he would knock me out in a few seconds.  Close my eyes and the stress would finally be over.

Eliya’s voice came cutting through my mental fog.  “Ebbridge! On your feet!” she screamed, her voice joined by the yells of the rest of my squad.  “Jitterbird! Get up!” bellowed Leizu.

Samuel said my name.  “Nell,” he said, softer but somehow clearer than the others.  “Come home.”

I thought back to the technique he had taught me, the one I had barely practiced at all.  And in a split second, I came up with a plan.

I projected towards the crate of voidsteel-laced ropes behind me, into the wooden rods tied to the ends.

Then I shot two cords through the beams and supports beneath the wooden stage.  I lifted them behind my charging adversary, dragging the voidsteel with the wood.

Two loops descended on the boy as he leaped at me, a larger one over his chest, and a smaller one around his neck.  I yanked the wood batons on the ends of the ropes, and the knots pulled taut, stopping him dead in his tracks.

Then I yanked with my Pith, harder than I’d ever done before, tightening the ropes and squeezing shut his windpipe and neck arteries.  Samuel’s technique, with my own twist on it.

His first response was to swing his orbs at the ropes around him, expecting to push out my projection and wrench them out of my control.

To no effect.  The ropes were lined with Voidsteel.  It was impossible to project into them.  I was controlling them with the four rods on the ends, far out of his reach.  While he tried that, I rolled to the side, getting behind him. He craned his neck to keep an eye on me.

Next, he flung the orbs at two of the rods on his sides, realizing what I was doing.  I shifted them out of the way, still maintaining the choke. My Pith was screaming in agony, desperate to stop projecting, to rest and recharge before something snapped.  Sweat poured down my back, and my muscles shook. The headache from the strain was enough to make my eyes water. I ignored it.

Gasping for air, the boy swung wildly with his fists.  A dozen full burlap bags flew out of a crate behind him.  The few that got near me exploded, spraying sand at my eyes.  I rolled to the side, avoiding the cloud. “I am Lady Nell of the House Ebbridge!” I shouted.  “I have a family to save, teammates, a fiancé to go back to!”

More jabs from the boy, this time sending metal rods and shards of ice flying at me.  His attacks were getting clumsier, more predictable. I bobbed and weaved, dodging them all, my feet stepping away from the piles of sand on the floor.  “You think your little gimmick is enough to make me leave them?!”

The rods and ice circled my head.  They shot at me from all sides, but the attacks were getting more and more inaccurate as the boy lost oxygen.  Samuel, you beautiful, brilliant squidfucker.  I let my body armor absorb some of the hits, maintaining my focus.  Any second now.  The brain, and the Pith it contained could only sustain so much.

Twitching on the rope, the boy flung forward his arms and legs.  The wooden crates themselves lifted from behind him, hurling at me.  I shot a metal rod straight into the closest one, and it exploded in a shower of planks and splinters around my head.

The boy went limp on the rope, head lolling to the side.  The crates around my head dropped to the floor. The metal rods clattered next to them.

Cheers broke out amongst Chimera Squad.  I caught a glimpse of my mother out of the corner of my eye.  Shaking her head. Full lethal was forbidden, as was permanent brain damage.  Let him go, she said with her glare, if he dies, Commonplace will have a field day in the papers.

I released the rods, and the boy crumpled to the floor with the ropes.  I pushed two of the metal rods towards him and slid him off the edge. There was a soft thump, the sound of a body hitting the dirt ground.

In spite of myself, I let out a sigh of relief, sagging from the effort I had just put out.  One year.  I have one year to rescue my family before she tries to pull this again.

Now the real work would begin.

Something hard collided with the back of my neck.  I felt something crack, and my vision blurred. A split second later, a metal baton slammed into my throat and the piles of sand around me blasted into my eyes.

I gasped for air, clutching my burning eyes, and caught a glimpse of a figure rising on the other side of the platform, lifted by his blood-soaked clothes.

The boy wasn’t unconscious.  He had never touched the ground.

An orb of lightning flew through my chest, almost the size of my torso.  My body dropped to the ground, letting go of all projection, the world spinning around me.  I tried to project into my suit, a weapon, anything.  I tried to move my legs, my arms, push myself back upright.  But nothing was responding. All I could do was lie there as the boy staggered towards me, and watch the spectators’ reactions while my vision cleared.

My father stared at the sky, no doubt trying to remember something less painful.

Eliya slouched over, dead-eyed, as if she had expected the worst outcome all along.

Leizu’s teeth were clenched, sending a murderous glare towards my adversary.  If the rules permitted it, she would probably be trying to snap him in half.

Samuel was the only teammate who looked me in the eye, shaking.  He clutched my crane mask, his gift, until his knuckles were just as white as it was.  In my last moments, I wanted to reminisce about him, all of the wonderful times I’d had with my friends.

But all I could focus on was my mother, as she stared down at me, cold and smug.  Body is a privilege.  Memory is a privilege.  Name is a privilege. You don’t deserve any of them.

As the world faded, and another orb flew at my head, all I could think of was how right she was.

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