9-E – Matilla Geffray

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Elmidde.  ‘The Middle’ in old common.

A sprawling coastal metropolis of over ten million people.  Massive grey towers, dense apartment buildings with tiny studios, automobiles roaring through labyrinthine streets, so loud you couldn’t sleep at night.  All along the slopes of a towering mountain.

The Principality’s capital intimidated a great many people.  Country folk used to a quiet, simple world.  Foreigners from ruined, backward nations like Shenten.  Citizens from smaller, slower cities around the Principality called it cramped, dirty, rushed.

One look, and Matilla knew she was home.

On the last night of her boat trip, she’d tossed and turned in her bunk, unable to fall asleep.  She’d read her acceptance letter again and again, watching moonlight from a window reflecting off the silver envelope.

Dear Ms. Geffray,

I am delighted to inform you that our admissions committee has offered you a place in the class of 519.  Please accept my congratulations for this momentous achievement.  Our admissions committee evaluated tens of thousands of applicants this year, and only accepted those with the highest scores on cognitive reasoning, tactical proficiency, and projection potential.

Your scores on the entrance exam were as follows:

Critical Reasoning and Rhetoric – 96/100
Strategy and Tactics – 93/100
Natural Science – 98/100
Psychology and Social Engineering – 91/100
Projection Potential – 94/100
TOTAL: 472/500, out of a minimum of 470 required for consideration

Projection Ranking Estimate: Silver

Enclosed is a list of publicly available items and books required for your first year.  If you wish to attend, please report to the cable car station at 717 Darius Street on 8/21 at noon for your screening and pre-orientation.

May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Tau

Headmaster

Matilla gazed out the round window, at the two full moons overhead.  Everything else – the studies, the sleepless nights, the test and the endless interviews – those were just a lead-up.  This was where her real life began.

At the crack of dawn, she leapt off her bunk and clambered up to the front of the ship’s deck, clutching the silver envelope in her fist.  Matilla leaned over the balcony and squinted, hoping to catch a glimpse of the city approaching.

Through the dark fog, she could make out the coast of the Principality’s mainland, a long, rocky cliff face passing alongside the boat.

Too early.  The rest of the ship hadn’t woken up yet.  But she couldn’t go back to sleep, not when they were so close.

It took two more hours before Matilla saw anything.  In that time, the sun rose over the ocean, warming the late summer air, and groggy passengers trickled onto the deck, more and more until they were a crowd behind her, pushing past each other for a spot at the railing to gaze out at the horizon.

The ocean liner passed through a thick fog bank, a grey cloud enveloping them on all sides.

The front of the ship emerged into the light, and Matilla gaped.

Four massive statues rose out of the shore, each dozens of stories tall.  The grass on the hillside grew taller and longer in patches, becoming long vines that wove together into the legs and arms and torsos of the figures.  Bright flowers grew out at every point, forming their skin and clothes and faces.

The statue of Rana the Monk sat cross-legged at the edge of the water, his feet and ankles underwater at high tide.  Green roses made up his skin, outlining his tranquil expression in exquisite detail.  He held a stone bowl in his hands, twice as wide as Matilla’s cabin.  The Neke’s inspiration.

Akhara the Polymath leaned against the side of the hill, made of purple wisterias, beaming.  She held a spherical metal astrolabe in her hand, extending it towards the heavens.  For when the stars still existed.  Ilaqua and the Harmonious Flock’s inspiration.

Tegudar the General stood near the top of the hill, made from bright red azaleas.  He held a crescent knife in his fist, brandishing it below towards the boat.  The Shenti’s inspiration.

And Darius the Philosopher, the root of the Principality’s ethos.  He knelt at the bottom of the hill, made of blue cornflowers.  His hand held an open book, and he gazed out at the horizon, warm and inquisitive.  The Principality’s inspiration.

The Gakusha.  Living statues of the Four Eternals.  One of the Principality’s great wonders, gifted to them by the Neke.  At night, they were said to glow, like a firework frozen in time.

They guarded the northern entrance to Elmidde, the official start of the city limits.

Matilla’s breath caught in her throat.  She leaned out further, eyes wide with wonder.

A man spoke next to her, his voice tinged with an Ilaquan accent.  “Akhara, Rashi, Tegudar.  Who’s the blue one again?”

Matilla spun around, her eyes lighting up.  “Darius the Philosopher!” she said.  “He lifted the foundations of Paragon Academy out of the ocean, developed the Basic Sleep and Precision Wipe Vocations, and ruled the Great Scholars alongside his colleagues with ambition and brilliance.”

The Ilaquan man looked confused, glancing at the Principian woman beside him.  He wasn’t asking me.

Matilla kept going anyway.  “He also loved practical jokes.”  She gestured with her hands.  “And did elaborate pranks on the other Great Scholars!”

As she gestured, her hand clipped the metal railing, and she dropped her silver letter over the edge of the ship.

It fell towards the rushing water, and Matilla reached.  Her Pith stretched out, and she grabbed the letter with it.  The envelope hovered above the splashing waves for a moment, before she yanked it back into her hand.

Nearby passengers stared at her, jaws hanging open.  The Ilaquan man’s eyes widened.  “You’re a – you’re a magician.“

“Yes,” she said, giving a modest smile.  “A projector, we call them.  I’m heading to Paragon for my first year.”

“My nephew is a bit of a projector,” said the man.  “He took the entrance exam, but he didn’t even get close.  How on earth did you do it?”

Sleepless nights.  Hyper-caffeinated tea.  Good genetics.  Carpal tunnel syndrome.

“Hard work, I guess,” said Matilla.

The Ilaquan man gazed at her with admiration, like she was one of the Great Scholars themselves.  Other bystanders looked at her the same way, transfixed.  Humdrums.  Most of them had probably never seen a projector in their lives.

Matilla got an idea.  “Do you want to see a trick?”

They nodded, excited.

“Stand back.”  Matilla stuffed the envelope in her back pocket, pulled open the pouch at her waist, and projected out a ball of sand.  This sort of projection was probably illegal in public, but Paragon wouldn’t pressure her for something this insignificant.

The others backed away from her, and she clapped her hands.  The sand exploded into a cloud, each particle suspended in a perfect geometric matrix.

Matilla put her thumb and index fingers together.  Each grain of sand heated up, becoming a field of bright orange dots.  She drew her hands together, and the dots came together in a single glowing sphere of liquid glass.

Then she flicked her palms up, and the sphere transformed into a glass sparrow.  It flew over the heads of the onlookers, shining down on them.

A simple parlor trick, a pittance next to what real Guardians could do.  But everyone still clapped, or gasped, or stared at it with awe.

Matilla walked around the deck, making the bird fly over the water, and someone grabbed the letter from her back pocket.

She spun around.  The crowd went silent.

A middle-aged Principian man wobbled behind her, unsteady on his feet.  His breath stank of cheap gin, and his right hand clutched the silver envelope.  A green circle had been tattooed on the back.

“You’re all…cheering,” he slurred.  “Do you remember what the Guardians did to us?  Or did they wipe that too?”  He crumpled the envelope in his fist, staggering back from Matilla.  “They put us in factories to work until our lungs were black, then hijacked anyone who caught on.  They’re monsters.”

“I’m sorry.”  Matilla held up her hands in a non-threatening gesture.  “I didn’t do any of that.  I’m just a first-year student.”

The man spit at her.

Matilla weighed her options.  My paper projection isn’t strong enough to rip it out of his hands.  He hadn’t assaulted her, but he’d stolen her property.  By Principality law, she would be justified in Nudging him to take it back.

The man had a switchblade in a pocket, but no gun.  No Voidsteel.  Paragon’s restrictions on public projection meant Matilla only knew the simplest basics, but even with those, it would be trivial to defeat this drunkard.

But Matilla hadn’t become a Guardian to beat citizens up.  The guy was just being rude.

She floated the glass bird back into her pouch, turning it back into sand.  “I’m barely eighteen,” she said.  “You’re what, three times that?  I don’t want to fight you, please just give me my letter back.”

“So what,” he said.  “So you can go back to ignoring us?  Live the Epistocrat’s dream in your sky castle while the rest of us toil beneath you?”

“I’m not an Epistocrat,” said Matilla.  “I’m from Asnep.  It’s a town off west, near Brenby.  My parents are both Humdrum teachers at the community college.”

“Then you’re abandoning them,” he said.  “So you can cavort around in expensive dresses and chassis.”

Matilla shrugged.  “I’m borrowing tens of thousands of pounds to afford tuition.  It’s used skirts and cheap pasta for the next decade or so.  I hear the mulled cider is free, though, so I am looking forward to that.”

The drunk Green Hands paused.  I don’t fit his stereotype.  The rest of the crowd backed away from him.

“Listen,” she said.  “I don’t want to get into a fight.  I’m just here to go to school, make some friends, maybe try a little cider.  I want my family to have a bright future, that’s all.”

“Give it back!” a woman shouted in the distance.  Others murmured agreement.  The crowd’s on my side.

“I’m sure you’re a great guy,” she said.  “You know what it’s like to support your loved ones.  Can we just move past this and go our separate ways?”

Nobody spoke.  The waves washed against the ship, and the rising sun bathed the deck in warm yellow light.

The man handed her the letter.  The silver envelope uncrumpled in her fist, becoming smooth and flat again without the slightest crease.

“Thanks,” she said.

He stalked off belowdecks.  The crowd turned away from him and started talking amongst themselves again.

Matilla let out a sigh of relief, sagging over on the railing.  Next time, they might not be so friendly.  Her neighbors in Asnep all missed the Conclave of the Wise, and looked on projection with wonder.  But the city was different.  Elmidde had more Commonplace, more danger.

The boat turned a corner, and across the glimmering water, Mount Elwar rose out of the ocean.  Towers and streets and buildings covered it from top to bottom.  A ferry sailed across Meteor Bay, towards one of the outer islands.

And Paragon Academy, floating chunks of rock suspended in the sky, connected with wooden bridges.  Spires and dorms and lecture halls.

This city, her new life, would be dangerous.  It would be more strange and complicated and difficult than anything she’d done, a maze full of thorns she’d have to navigate at a sprint.

Matilla couldn’t wait to get started.

________________________________________

Matilla stared at the golden fried wedge in her hand.  “What’s this, again?”

Aunt Sibil leaned against the statue.  “A samosa,” she said.  “Ilaquan street food.  They eat them in Neke, too.”  She grabbed one out of the paper bag, slathered it in mint sauce, and stuffed it into her mouth.  Crumbs spilled into her black hair, and she brushed them out.

Matilla squinted at hers, taking a sniff.

“Don’t worry, you won’t get food poisoning,” Aunt Sibil said.  “This restaurant takes its hygiene seriously.”

“Sorry,” said Matilla.  “Sorry.  This isn’t what I’m used to.”  There was no ethnic food in Asnep.  The average chef there had skin whiter than a glass of milk.

She glanced around Darius Park.  The sun set over the horizon, bathing picnicking couples and drunk college students in warm light.  A pair of men walked their dogs across the grass, laughing.  A brown-haired woman leaned against the far side of the Darius statue, face buried in a book.

“When you wrote my mother,” said Matilla.  “Saying you’d take me out to dinner, I expected – “

“Marbled steak?” said Aunt Sibil.  “Tsukian Omakase?  One of the Cooking Gods?  Your rich auntie shelling out some cash to give you a taste of the high life?”

Matilla’s stomach clenched.  “I – I’m so sorry, Aunt Sibil, that was out of line, I – “

Sibil laughed, patting Matilla on the shoulder.  “It’s alright.  This is my favorite spot in the city.  It’s not as squeaky clean or sparkly as Hightown and the Kesteven Building and Paragon, but it’s full of people, you know.  It’s full of people.”

Matilla nodded, and bit into the samosa.  A dozen flavors exploded into her mouth.  Chicken and onions and curry and peas, all at once.  Salt and oil and spices.

Her eyes widened, and she shoved the rest of it into her mouth, devouring it.  She ate another samosa, then another one.  Dipping them in the mint sauce made them even better.

Aunt Sibil smiled at her.  “Not too fast, or you’ll get a stomachache.”

Matilla stuffed them down anyways, mint sauce dripping down her chin.  She breathed in the cool evening air, and watched a man set up a guitar in the middle of a path.  A small crowd gathered around him as he played, dropping bills in a bucket beside him.  At the other end, a pair of women walked around their hands, performing feats of acrobatics.

Aunt Sibil was right.  This was much better than a fancy steakhouse.

“So,” said Aunt Sibil.  “Can I see it?”  She indicated her head to Matilla’s pocket.

Matilla’s mother had set up this meeting for her.  After marrying some fast food heir, Aunt Sibil had become richer than the rest of her family put together.  If Matilla earned her favor, Sibil would pay off her academic debt with a snap of her fingers, maybe even cover the rest of her tuition at Paragon with room and board.

But Aunt Sibil had moved to the other side of the Principality.  Her mother hadn’t talked to her in almost two decades.

Aside from her Paragon interview, this was the most important conversation of Matilla’s life.  In this next hour, eating street food in the park, the course of her life could be decided.

Matilla pulled the silver envelope out of her pocket and handed it over.  Aunt Sibil flipped it open and examined the letter inside.  “Different,” she muttered, holding it up to the light.  “Looks different.”

“Have you seen one of them before?”

“One of my husband’s friends,” she said.  “They let you keep this after orientation?  They didn’t use it to confirm your identity or anything?”

“No,” said Matilla.  “That was just pre-orientation.  They do other stuff for your identity.”

At the cable car station, Paragon’s security team had checked her Physical Vocation, an ability that gave her precise control over individual grains of sand.  A Guardian had taken an hour to give her a basic Pith scan, an advanced technique that let them see the general shape of her soul.  They cross-referenced it with another one they’d done during interviews.  If her Pith had changed a lot or if she’d been replaced with an imposter, they’d notice.  Then, they’d given her security questions and a subconscious key.

It seemed a bit paranoid, in Matilla’s opinion.  And they hadn’t even let her into the academy yet.

Aunt Sibil squinted at the letter.  “So.  Why?”

“What?”

“With your grades, you could have become anything.  So why become a Guardian?”

Matilla had to stop herself from laughing.  Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t become a wizard who shot lightning and flew in wingsuits?

Ten years ago, an entire world had opened up before their eyes.  Frightening and dangerous, yes, as shown by the Pyre Witch and the Edwina Massacre.  But also full of wonders.  Everything they’d known about physics, chemistry, history, consciousness, was only a faint shadow on a cave wall.  A mere illusion next to the beautiful universe outside, in the light.

How could anyone become an accountant, or a lawyer, or a middle manager when all that magic was real, waiting to be discovered?

“Matilla?”

Matilla blinked, jerking back to reality.

Her aunt still gazed at her, expectant.  “Why did you want to become a Guardian?”

Matilla took a deep breath.  This is it.  Her best chance at securing that tuition money – her future.

“My mother didn’t tell you this,” she said.  “But five years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer of the blood.  The doctors tried a regime of antifolates and nitrogen mustards to make it go away.  It worked, for a few months, while I threw up in the hospital and lost all my hair.”

“But it came back,” said Aunt Sibil.

Matilla nodded.  “When it became clear that no treatment was going to save me, my parents put together their money, did their research, and bought me a new body.  It took three years’ salary and some help from my grandparents, and it forced them into debt for a while.  But it saved my life.”

“A miracle,” murmured Aunt Sibil.  “A medical miracle.  And that is a nice chassis you picked out.  Elizabeth Cranbrook?”

Matilla shook her head.  “Maxine Clive.”  It would age slower, get fewer diseases, stay fit with only a sliver of exercise.

“A designer body.”  Sibil raised an eyebrow.  “That was very generous of Beatrix.”

“She wanted me to have a study model.”  Matilla nodded, emphatic.  “If I’d been born a century ago, I’d have been left to die.  If our worlds stayed separate, I would have had nothing.”  She shrugged.  “I’m not an Epistocrat.  I could probably make more money as a doctor, or a stockbroker.”  She raised her voice.  “But I want to fly in that beautiful world.  I want to better my nation for other people like me, so their hopes aren’t in vain.”

“I know what you mean,” said Aunt Sibil.  “I’m an official member of Commonplace.”

Matilla choked on a piece of samosa, coughing up bits of ground pork.  “What?”

“Commonplace,” said Aunt Sibil.  “The political organization.  I’ve joined them.”

Matilla froze.  Blood rushed in her ears, and her breaths became short and rapid.  Oh, no.  A Commonplace member would never pay Paragon tuition.

The future Matilla had imagined shattered before her, breaking up like cheap porcelain.  I thought Commonplace didn’t want rich people like Aunt Sibil.

“I’m – I’m sorry,” she said, her neck tensing.  “I don’t mean to offend.  I didn’t know that about you.”

Aunt Sibil put a comforting hand on Matilla’s shoulder.  “I don’t hate you,” she said.  “But I do find myself curious.  After all their atrocities, why do you want to join them?”

Be honest, but diplomatic.  Though the venture seemed a bit pointless now.  “Paragon’s far from perfect,” said Matilla.  “But atrocities?  That seems a little extreme.”

“The Spirit Block,” said Aunt Sibil.  “Psychic genocide on a mass scale.  Tearing open a hole in reality.  Wiping an entire culture out of existence.”

“That was messed-up,” said Matilla.  “But the Shenti were winning their war of conquest.  Nothing else was stopping them.  If it weren’t for Headmaster Tau, we’d all be in redemption camps right now.  Those monsters had to be stopped.”

Aunt Sibil pursed her lips.  “And the Treaty of Silence.  Projectors keeping their existence hidden for thousands of years, wiping the memories of anyone who found out.”

“What’s wrong with that?” said Matilla.  “No one got hurt.  Most people just lost a day, or a week at most.  What’s wrong with them taking a memory or two?”

“Those memories were not theirs to take.  Your Pith is a beautiful, miraculous organism that belongs to you.  None other.  Just like your body.  The first mental hijacking laws only applied to projector victims, but they still existed.  Even the old Principality understood the value of a free mind.”

“They were scared,” said Matilla.  “They just wanted to stay safe.  I’m glad our worlds are joined now, but looking at all the violence now, I see why they were kept separate.”

“Let’s talk about right now, then,” said Aunt Sibil.  “There are many in this country like you, saddled with terminal illness.  But most cannot afford a replacement body, or are forced to spend the rest of their lives paying off the debt.”

“I agree,” said Matilla.  “We need a better system to distribute chassis.  Anyone who needs a replacement body should be able to get one.  But that’s for the future.  Right now, we just don’t have the resources to do that.”

“Epistocrats own dozens of bodies that they keep for fashion, or to show off their wealth.”  Aunt Sibil brushed crumbs off her hands, chewing the last samosa.  “Does that seem just to you?”

“I don’t think wealthy people are evil,” said Matilla.  “You have more money than the vast majority of this country, and you’re a wonderful person.”

“You’ve known me for less than two hours.  You have no idea who I am.”

Ow.  “I think most of them earned their place.  And Guardians put their lives on the line to protect this country.  I think they should get all the resources they need to do their jobs.  Combat requires a lot of bodies.  If someone is vital to the nation’s well-being, then they should get whatever special medical resources they need.”

“Someone like you?”

“I didn’t say that.  I’m just saying that sometimes, special treatment is earned.”  She folded her hands on her lap, crossing her legs.  “I think Commonplace comes from good intentions, but if you want to change the system, you should do it with civil discussion, not anger and destruction.  Peaceful protest.”

Aunt Sibil raised an eyebrow.  “Ah.  Have you joined a protest, then?”

“I just got here,” said Matilla.  “But that’s not the point.  If we want to make the world a better place, then we should start with ourselves.”

Aunt Sibil sighed.  “I understand.  You’ve worked hard to get where you are.  You don’t want to tear apart the ladder you just climbed.  This is your path to becoming an Exemplar.”

Of course I don’t.  The people who wrote angry rants in the papers, the Commonplace members who called people like Matilla entitled or lazy or spoiled, they knew nothing.  They didn’t know about the times she’d fainted from sheer exhaustion, or the friendships that had withered while she studied, or the agonizing pain in her hand that flared up during practice essays.

She hadn’t bought her way into Paragon.  She’d fought to get into this miraculous place.  The people that criticized that couldn’t see that through their jealousy and resentment.

But her aunt might be different.  If Matilla could make her understand, then maybe, maybe there was a chance.

“I’ve been in the military before,” said Aunt Sibil.  “It’s the same there.”

What?  Matilla didn’t remember anything about military service from her Aunt.  Her mother had never mentioned anything along those lines.

This conversation wasn’t remotely what she’d expected.

“The top brass send thousands of grunts to die in the trenches, for the sake of glory.  And when anyone has the gall to question this system, they take it as a personal affront.”  Aunt Sibil sat up, staring out at the park.  “See, they used to be grunts too.  They braved the bombs and bullets and fire, crawling through the mud with Jannat flu and rotting feet.  All so they could earn the great honor of standing above us and ordering us to our deaths.”  She gave Matilla a wan smile.  “If they could do it, why not us?  That’s fairness, to them.“

Isn’t it?  Merit had to be the deciding factor, not pity.

“That’s the brilliance of Paragon Academy,” said Aunt Sibil, looking up at the statue of Darius in the park.  “Anyone could be a Guardian, one day.  But most people never will.”

Matilla closed her eyes.  “I understand if you don’t want to help with my tuition,” she said.  “If your political beliefs are opposed to that.”  She took a slow, deep breath.  “But I want you to ask yourself: Don’t you still have dreams?  And if not, don’t you remember what that was like?”

Aunt Sibil laughed.  Matilla’s eyes snapped open.  Her aunt was doubled over, shaking, tears running down her face as she guffawed.  A few passers-by glanced at her, confused.  On the other side of the statue, the brown-haired woman looked up from her book.

“Yeah,” said Aunt Sibil.  “I might know something about that.”

Birds chirped in the trees.  In the distance, the guitar player strummed, and the crowd clapped along.  Outside the park, automobiles roared past.  A cool breeze blew over Matilla’s face.

“I’m sorry,” said Aunt Sibil.

Scholars.  Well, Matilla had tried.  She’d find some other way to pay off her debt.

“My colleagues,” said Aunt Sibil.  “Wanted me to go through with this plan, but I thought it was an unnecessary cruelty.  I started this conversation to find out who you were, beyond your public record.  So I could have an excuse to call off the operation.”

Matilla’s throat clenched.  The cool summer air dropped a few degrees.  Operation?

“Call what off?” she said.  “Aunt Sibil, what are you talking about?”

“I didn’t go to college in Asnep.”  The woman stuffed the dirty napkins and sauce container into the empty paper bag.  “I’m not fifty-one years old, and I’ve never met your mother in my life.”  She folded the bag up and tossed it in a trash can.  “I’m not your Aunt Sibil.  With great regret, I’m stealing her body for a day.”

Matilla stood up, staggering back.  Her heart thumped in her ears.  Her chest rose and fell in rapid, panicked breaths.  What do I do, what do I do?  Paragon was supposed to train her for this type of scenario, but she hadn’t started classes yet.  Do I run?  Do I call for help?  Do I fight?  With her limited projection, could she even win a fight?

Keep her talking.  That could buy Matilla time, at least, to think of a way out.

“Who – who are you?” said Matilla.

Aunt Sibil’s body leaned back against the statue.  “I founded Commonplace,” she said.  “My blood runs through your veins.  This entire country sits on a mountain forged of my flesh and bone.”  She gave Matilla a pained smile.  “My name is Maxine Clive.  And I’m trying to do the right thing.”

Maxine Clive?  Like the designer body line?  Like Matilla’s body?  How is that possible?

“But it’s hard,” said Clive.  “To hold the moral high ground, while the earth collapses under you.”

Matilla’s breath quickened.  Her hands shook by her sides, betraying her terror.  Scholars, please.  Don’t let me die.  Not here.  Not today.

But the Great Scholars were all dead.  Praying to them was just a figure of speech.  If Matilla wanted to survive, she’d have to figure it out herself.

“So I’m sorry,” said Maxine Clive.  “You’re too important.  Your Vocation is generic enough to be mimicked by a talented projector.  You have no friends or family in Elmidde who know you well.  And you are a student, not a full-fledged Guardian, so you’ll get far lighter Whisper-sec than most people at Paragon.”

She’s explaining everything to me.  Why?  If she was stalling, why confess the truth?  Why not just keep the facade and wait?

Then it hit Matilla.  It doesn’t matter.  This ‘Maxine Clive’ person didn’t care what she knew, didn’t care what Matilla did.

“You are blameless.  A good person in a twisted system.  I wanted to spare you,” said Maxine Clive, sadness slipping into her voice.  “I want to spare every life on our path towards freedom.  But we can’t.  The pain is unbearable, but that doesn’t change the facts.”  She squeezed her eyes shut.  “You’re a brick in their pyramid now.  And you are not the Common Foundation.”

The panic burst forth out of Matilla.  Tears collected at the edges of her eyes, and she clenched her fists, projecting into the sand in her pouch.  So little.  But heated to a boil, it could do plenty of damage.

Maxine Clive glanced up at the clock tower in the distance, squinting at the second hand.  “And now,” she said.  “Grace has heard enough of our conversation.  She knows how to mimic your personality with her Vocation.”

Who’s Grace?  The brown-haired woman by the statue stood up, dropping her book.  She nodded.  Matilla took another step back, heating her sand into a molten sphere at her waist.

“Thank you,” said Maxine.  “For sharing the samosas with me.  I hope you liked them.”

The pressure built inside Matilla, a swelling tension that grew and grew until it was unbearable.

She whipped her hand forward, and shot the liquid glass out of her pouch, at Maxine Clive’s face.

Three bricks tore off the ground and flew in front of Clive’s face.  The molten sand splattered over them, blocked.

Maxine Clive didn’t lift a finger.  She didn’t even flinch.

Matilla projected into her clothes and leapt back, jerking herself twenty feet away and spinning herself around, as she pulled the sand back into her pouch.  Her feet touched the pavement, and she sprinted forward, away from the statue.

She pushed forward with her clothes, accelerating faster and faster, until her legs could barely keep up, bounding her out of Darius Park and onto the street.

An automobile screeched past her, honking its horn, one of countless on the street.

It gave Matilla an idea.

As the next car rushed past, she leapt forward, projecting into her clothes.  She grabbed onto the back of the car, then projected into the steering wheel and the pedals, taking it over, making it rocket down the street faster and faster.

She peered over the top of the car.  The brown-haired woman from the statue stood at the far end of the one-way street, cars weaving around her.  Blocking the exit.

Matilla leapt off the car and projected herself onto the sidewalk.  She sprinted in the opposite direction, panting.

A dozen men and women stood on the opposite end of the street, wearing long coats, and hats to cast shadows on their faces.  Mobsters.  Blocking the other side of the street.  Were they working with Commonplace too?

All of them stared at her.  One of them grinned.

Matilla glanced back at the park, to see Maxine Clive herself walking out from the dirt path, wearing Aunt Sibil’s body.  No, no, no.  They were blocking her off on all sides.

I need another way out.  Matilla glanced behind her, at an alleyway blocked by a tall steel fence, too high for her to fly over.  That’ll do.

Matilla sprinted for it and shot the molten glass forward, superheating it.  She slashed it in a circle, slicing through the metal links on the fence and cutting a hole.  Then she leapt through, darting through the narrow alley.

Something zipped through the air and punched her in the back of her neck, knocking Matilla to her knees.  She coughed, and her vision blurred.

As she blinked, clearing her vision, blood dripped onto the dirty pavement.  I’m injured.

Matilla gasped, and gagged on a thick, wet liquid in her throat.  It was like she’d contracted a cold in an instant, and her windpipe was full of mucus.

She doubled over, retching and coughing, and spit up a globule of saliva, tinged with red.

Then she felt her throat.  Warm liquid poured out of a hole in the front, coating her hand.

Blood.

Her blood.

Then the pain hit.  A stabbing agony exploding in her neck, like a scalpel twisting in her throat, cutting through every nerve.  And a burning sensation in her lungs, as they heaved and wheezed for breath, starved of oxygen.  Oh, scholars.

Someone had shot her in the throat.

She projected into the blood around the wound, plugging up the hole on both sides to slow the bleeding.  But that couldn’t stop the internal bleeding, the liquid filling up her windpipe, starving her of air.

Move.  Matilla staggered to her feet, her neck on fire, gagging and spitting up blood.

She took a step forward, and a baseball bat swung at her chest.  It slammed into the side of her ribcage, knocking her onto her side.  Matilla’s head slammed into the pavement and the world muffled around her.

Her vision blurred, and she blinked, clearing it as the throbbing headache grew and she gasped for air.

Four Green Hands stood above her, holding baseball bats.  Two men, two women.  Adults.  All beating on a defenseless girl, because she was, what, a Paragon student?  Because she wanted a future for her family, and believed in magic?  Who could be so cruel?

Burning rage rose inside Matilla, building in her chest and spreading to her arms and legs, until all her limbs were shaking, with either pain or anger.  Every muscle in her body seemed to tense, and everything that wasn’t the Green Hands faded into the distance.  Green lightning crackled around her, and her vision swirled around in circular patterns, like the universe was a bucket of paint being stirred before her.

The bats swung down, thudding into her arms and legs and stomach, knocking the wind out of her.  But the pain was far away, unimportant.  The adrenaline, the fury spreading through her veins was stronger, drowning out the agony.

Matilla gasped for breath, and as the Green Hands swung down, she tackled one of them in the stomach, shoving him to the ground.  As the thug fell, Matilla grabbed the baseball bat, wrestling for control.  The world wobbled back and forth in dizzying motion, spinning in circles, as the lightning grew around her.

She ripped the bat out of the man’s hands and shoved him to the ground.  Matilla swung it around her, knocking down another Green Hands.

Matilla narrowed in on one, lifted the bat, and swung it down on the man.  She swung it again and again, her hands aching as it impacted the Green Hands’ chest, neck, and face.  Bones and cartilage crunched beneath the weapon, and blood stained the end.  Or was that just red in her vision?

And as she swung the bat, something felt off about her anger.  Unnatural.  I’ve never been this angry before.  Normally, she barely even raised her voice.

A Whisper vocation.  Someone was messing with her head.  Why?

Matilla stopped swinging the bat, and narrowed in on the source of the rage.  She took a slow, deep inhale, and shifted her Pith, realigning her mind and calming her emotions.  She exhaled, and her vision cleared.  She looked down at her bloody target, the young man she’d been beating.

No, not a man.  Blonde hair.  Large green eyes.  Pale skin.  An arched nose, bent to the side from a blow.  Blood, trickling out of a bullet hole in the neck.  A Maxine Clive chassis.

Me.

Matilla was staring at herself.  It was like looking in a mirror.

She stared at her own hands holding the bat.  Green Circles had been tattooed on the backs, and her skin had turned a light brown color.  Nekean.

Forced transference.  Someone had forced a body swap between her and one of the Green Hands, while she was distracted with her wounds and the fight and the rage vocation.

She’d been beating her own chassis to a pulp.

And she was holding a baseball bat covered in her own blood.

Something thudded in the distance.  Matilla spun to her left, her arms shaking, still clutching the weapon.

Professor Isaac Brin stood at the far end of the alleyway, decked in full combat armor, his Guardian’s cloak flapping behind him.  His dark green eyes stared at her, unblinking.

Matilla opened her mouth to shout, and something moved in a blur.  An invisible fist punched her stomach, and she staggered back, crashing against a dumpster in a sitting position, dropping the baseball bat.

She glanced down.  A wide gash had been torn through her stomach, from the front to the back, exposing the purple and grey flesh inside.  Blood poured out, and a stabbing sensation exploded in her gut.

The other Green Hands fell, hit through the chest, the stomach, and the neck.  They dropped to the pavement, motionless.

The pain exploded again, this time in her stomach, a twisting, overwhelming ache that tore her insides up and screamed in her mind until she couldn’t think of anything else.

Matilla stretched her Pith out of her body, to project into the blood and slow the bleeding again.

Her soul bounced off her skin, locked inside her body.  She pushed again, but the resistance grew stronger, impossible to break out of.

Null Venom.  This body had been pre-injected with Null Venom, blocking her from external projection.

They planned for this.  They’d planned for all of this.

Blood poured out of the hole in her chest, forming a puddle on the pavement.  Matilla wheezed, every rattling inhale an agony.  “No – “ she croaked.  “No – “  The dart had hit near her diaphragm, making it hard to breathe or talk.  “Wait.”

Isaac Brin walked past her and projected into her original body’s clothes.  He lifted her body – the imposter’s body, now.  The Maxine Clive her parents had spent so much money on, so much effort.  Broken and bloodied in less than a minute.

One flick of his wrist, and the blood stopped pouring out of the imposter’s neck.

“No – “ wheezed Matilla.  “No.”

Isaac Brin didn’t even look at her.

They forced me into this body.  You’re saving a Green Hands.  Her lips moved, and she tried to articulate the words.  But nothing came out.  Only the faintest whisper, a soft hiss from her lips.

The ache doubled, and Matilla clutched her stomach, shaking.  Warm blood soaked into her hands.

I need to get his attention.  The Green Hands had shot her earlier.  Maybe they’d have a gun on them.

Matilla leaned forward, landing on her hands.  She pulled herself forward, dragging her torn belly along the pavement.  The pain spiked, a wave of pure agony exploding in her stomach.

She felt herself fade out of consciousness, and coughed, yanking herself back to reality.  Her hand reached forward and scrabbled at the closest Green Hands, feeling around his waist.

No gun.  No holster.  Not even a knife.

Her hand grasped onto something, pulling it close.  She squinted, focusing on it through the pain.

It was the silver envelope.  Her acceptance letter to Paragon.  The slip of paper she’d fought for with such passion.  Now stained red with a stranger’s blood, an imposter whose body she was now stuck in.

Isaac Brin turned away from Matilla, and walked down the alleyway, towards the hole she’d cut in the fence.

Wait,” she half-whispered, tears running down her face.  “I’m the real Matilla.”  I’m the real Matilla.

Brin didn’t hear her.  He leaned down, peering at the cracked bones and bloody wounds on the Maxine Clive body’s skull.  How many times did I hit it with the bat?  Her face was almost impossible to recognize.

Monsters.  How cruel were Commonplace, to trick her into destroying her own body?  Why force her into such brutality, such violence and horror?  Why make her turn her own face into a bloody mash?

Then it all came together.  Maxine Clive’s plan, why they’d put Matilla in this trap and forced the rage vocation on her.

Pith scans.  Paragon had given her two already, and they’d give her more at the start of the school year.  A general scan missed fine nuances, but could pick up big changes to a Pith, that could catch a serious hijacker or an imposter.

But brain damage could also alter your Pith, even after a transfer into a fresh body.  Make the general shape look different.  So if Commonplace wanted to sneak an imposter past a Pith scan, they just had to hit her on the head a few times, in a way that didn’t look staged.  Paragon would think the baseball bats caused the changes, but it would, in truth, be a whole different soul.

If they got her passwords and her subconscious key, the disguise would be perfect.

The stomach pain spiked again, and Matilla curled up, shaking.  Just how big is their operation?  “Grace” as a name had to be significant.  And Maxine Clive.  The original Maxine Clive was running all of Commonplace, plotting to destroy Paragon from within.

I have to warn them.

Matilla stretched her hands forward, pushed with her legs, and started crawling to the edge of the alleyway.  To Isaac Brin.

The pain grew a thousand times worse.  She felt something fall out of her stomach, dragging along the bloody pavement, and her insides burned.

But she kept crawling.  Inch by inch.  Brick by brick, she moved closer to the Scholar of Mass.

Another Guardian flew down from the sky, folding up her wingsuit and touching down next to Brin.  A stretcher and a bag of medical supplies flew down next to her, lifted with projection.

The Guardian turned, looking at Matilla and the dead Green Hands.

Matilla pushed, through the agony, through the exhaustion, with her blood and guts all strewn behind her.  With every bit of will in her body, she raised her left hand, stained with a Green Circle tattoo, and waved it back and forth.

A signal.  I’m still alive.  Help me.  With her injuries, speaking was impossible now.

Once they were all treated, she could explain the situation to Paragon’s counterintelligence team.  There would be a thousand ways to verify her identity over the imposter.  She could warn Paragon, help save countless lives, help save the whole country.

The Guardian looked at her for a moment.

Then she turned away, and put the stolen body on top of the stretcher.  Special treatment.  A fresh body had already been placed there, and the two chassis sat parallel to one another.

No.  No.  Matilla kept waving.  But no one was watching.

Blue and green lightning crackled around the Guardian and the imposter.  A forced transference.

Her old body, the Maxine Clive, flopped to the ground, limp, empty.  Blood pooled beneath its broken skull.

The imposter had been transferred to an emergency chassis on the stretcher, a young silver-haired woman.  Another Maxine Clive, that looked remarkably similar to the old chassis.

Fake-Matilla groaned, eyes fluttering.  She stirred to life on the stretcher, murmuring.  The girl looked weak, but otherwise unscathed.

Matilla kept waving.  A soft hissing noise came out of her throat, but nothing else.  They don’t think random Green Hands are worth interrogating.  Protecting their student and watching for other enemies took priority.

Isaac Brin unfurled his wingsuit and flew forward down the street, probably to survey the area and catch any other perpetrators.

The paramedic Guardian wheeled the stretcher down the sidewalk, away from the alleyway.

While the Guardian looked away, while no one but Matilla was watching, the imposter turned her head in the stretcher.  Looking back at the real Matilla.

For a split second, the two made eye contact.

And fake-Matilla winked.  A faint smirk played at the edge of her lips.

Then she passed out of sight.  The stretcher wheeled away from the dark alleyway.  The cars kept driving.  The remaining bystanders backed away from the crime scene, afraid of messing with Humdrum law enforcement that was certainly on the way.

And Matilla was left to die alone.

She flopped onto her back, in a lake of her own blood, guts spilling out of her belly.  The pain had muffled, grown distant.

Above her, beyond the dark rooftops of Elmidde, an oracle snake flew across the evening sky.  A silver omen, weaving back and forth through the clouds.

Matilla wanted to scream, to call for help, to wake herself from this nightmare and reclaim her destiny.

But all she could do was clutch her letter, shivering, as the universe faded away.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




9-D Silver Letters

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“I want to speak to the woman with half a thumb,” I said.  “I want to talk to your leader.”

The line went silent, but didn’t click.  They’re still listening.

I said nothing.  They’d heard me say I was the Blue Charlatan.  And if they weren’t asking questions, they knew who ‘the Blue Charlatan’ meant.

The phone stayed silent for a good thirty seconds.  The rain poured down around me, and I shivered in my wet clothes.

Then, someone picked up on the other end.

Hi, Ana,” said Tunnel Vision.

A wave of blinding rage washed over me.  My stomach clenched, and my hands shook as I gripped the receiver.  You broke out Lyna Wethers.  You let all those people get hijacked.  You’re the reason Kaplen killed himself.

I wrenched my thoughts into order.  Think, fool, think.  The Pyre Witch would be weighing her options.  Trace the call and send hitmen, or listen to what I had to say?

Maybe a part of her still saw me as a victim.  And I didn’t mind if she sent a sniper after me.  A bullet’s better than waiting another five months.

“Are you the leader of Commonplace?” I said, forcing my voice to stay calm.

Would you believe me if I said no?

“I’m sure you have some puppet,” I said.  “Some poor hijacked fool who the Humdrums see as one of their own.”  And now I’m sure you won’t let me talk to her.

Ah,” said the Pyre Witch.  “Now you’re thinking like a Guardian.”  It was clear she meant that as an insult.  “Perhaps you do belong in Paragon after all.”  Thunder boomed in the distance.  “Do you think I’m being hijacked too?  By the Droll Corsairs, or the Shenti, or some other bogeyman?

“No,” I said.  My instincts could be fooled of course, but something told me the Pyre Witch was a true believer.  Which, if anything, was more terrifying.

You were trying to make money,” said Tunnel Vision.  “To buy a new body.  Or get into Paragon and do the same.  You fought for survival.  A beetle, not an ant.

She said ‘fought’.  Past tense.  Did she know how much despair I felt now?

So,” she said.  “Why are you calling us?

“You tipped Paragon off, didn’t you?  You made them attack us.”  Who else would have done that?

I loaded the gun.  I gave it to them.  But Paragon Academy fired it. You were fighting their battles for pennies, and they still abandoned you.

“Shut up,” I said.  “Shut up.”  She hurts people.  She hurts people.  She burned civilians.  She freed Honeypot.

But doesn’t she have a point?  Did Lorne really need all those chassis in his mansion?  That vintage Maxine Clive body?

And you survived.  Perhaps I should have blown you up after all.”  Her voice grew irritated.  “You have wasted enough of my time already.  Why are you calling?

Lightning flickered in the night sky.  I stared up through the rain, catching a glimpse of the glowing lights of Paragon, before a cloud passed over them.

“I’ve read your pamphlets,” I said.  “I’ve heard the speeches at your rallies.  I know what you pretend to believe.  Disbanding the house of lords, projector regulation, redistributing chassis.  I also know you’re planning to burn down the country.”  I shivered, wrapping my free arm around my chest.  I couldn’t even project the water out of my clothes.  “What I want to know is why?  Humdrums in other nations have made changes, but they haven’t tried to destroy it all.

Tunnel Vision said nothing.  I stared down at my body, at my two destroyed fingers and my bulging grey veins and my twisted organs.  I gazed at the chassis that I’d failed to replace, that the world had sentenced me to.

“I want to know,” I said.  “Why you think this country can’t be saved.”

Tunnel Vision chuckled.  “If you want something that valuable,” she said.  “You’ll need to make a change first.

“A change?”

Tattoos.  On the backs of your hands.

A Green Circle.  She wanted me to become a Green Hands.  She’s trying to recruit me.

“I thought Commonplace didn’t want projectors.”

I’m an ex-Guardian,” she said.  “Kahlin’s a billionaire.  I think we can fit one illusionist.

I don’t know what to say.  I leaned on the payphone, dripping water onto the metal.  My lungs took slow, tired breaths.

I’d had no real plan for this call.  I’d hoped to get information, maybe, get an opportunity to cause real damage to Commonplace as one of my last acts.  Get revenge for Kaplen, for my destroyed future at Paragon.  Mentioning my name could get me killed, but it could also stir the pot more.

I hadn’t expected a job offer.

I’ll leave you to it,” said Tunnel Vision.  “If you change your mind in the coming months, go to 92 Tefrar Street, third floor, and read the paper behind the trash can.  If you accept the invitation, you’ll learn all about Paragon Academy.

The line clicked.  She hung up.  The Pyre Witch wasn’t going to shoot me after all.  Though it would be best to take a careful, roundabout path back to the house, just in case someone was tailing me.

I dropped the phone, and stumbled back into the dark rain.

________________________________________

When I woke up the next morning, I started to form the beginnings of a plan.  I called it Plan A92 Tefrar Street, third floor, trash can.  I would have to remember that.

And I said nothing to the others.  Not a word about the business card, or the phone call, or my half-baked ideas for my next move.

If the rest of Queen Sulphur knew what I was thinking, they’d try to stop me.  They wouldn’t want me to carry out Plan A.

I kept lying in bed, but instead of sleeping for fifteen hours a day, I started thinking of alternatives, different strategies I could use.

Because, to be honest, I didn’t want to carry out Plan A either.  The only move I could picture was unthinkable.

So in between brainstorming sessions, I lay back in my covers, held my Pith inside my body, and pretended I was somewhere else.  My Vocation was powered by my imagination, my ability to escape into a world outside reality.  So in a way, this counted as practice.

At least, that’s what I told myself.

As the days passed by, I pictured myself back in my house, in the agricultural islands.  I sat down in the dining room on my favorite chair, the one with blue cushions, that creaked when you moved but was more comfortable than all the rest.

Warm morning sunlight streamed into the window, the start of an exciting new day, and my mother deposited a plate of steaming pancakes in front of me.  I slathered maple syrup on them, and gazed out the window to the wheatfields in the distance.

A strand of red hair drifted into my face, and I brushed it aside, smiling.  I was inhabiting the body that Hira painted.  What would have happened, if I’d spent the last decade at home, without Loic’s Syndrome.  What was meant to be.

I sliced into the pancakes, and picked up a forkful.

Outside the window, a dark gravestone sat in my backyard.

Anabelle Gage
The road is broken, but the journey lives

Nausea crashed over me, and I dropped the fork.  No, don’t think about that.  Imagine something else.

I pictured myself on the ledge behind Alabaster Hall, at Paragon.  Kaplen and Tasia sat next to me on the outcropping, and we all laid back on the cool grass, gazing up at the moons overhead.  Cardamom nuzzled Kaplen’s shoulder, and he scratched behind the cat’s ears.

When I glanced down, my hair was red again, and my uniform was blue, instead of grey.

Kaplen poured me a cup of mulled cider, and I raised it to my lips.

When I sipped it, it tasted like sawdust.  Paragon abandoned you, whispered Tunnel Vision.  They all abandoned you.

I blinked, and saw myself in Clementine’s basement, splayed out on a filthy mattress.  The twin moons vanished, replaced by a dark wood ceiling.  Laughter echoed from the floors above.  The other servants having fun without me.  Or Clementine entertaining guests.

This was where I’d done most of my daydreaming, where my Vocation had gained its true power.  With the pain and mediocrity of my daily life, it was the only way to stay sane.

I hadn’t tried to escape like this for more than half a year – since I’d started working for Isaac Brin.  In those months, I’d learned how to shoot, how to project, how to use my Vocation in combat.  I’d made allies, friends.

But in a way, I was back to where I’d started, now.

I opened my eyes, and let the images fade away, finding myself back in the abandoned building, in reality, lying under a pile of scratchy blankets.

My right foot felt numb.

Scholars, not again.  Pulling my feet close, I slipped off my sock.

The fourth toe on my right foot had turned grey, frozen in place.  Dead and broken, like the two fingers on my right hand.  And that’s just what’s visible.  Who knew what was going on inside?

I’m running out of time.

But still, I couldn’t think of any alternatives to Plan A.

And for now, life went on.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d taken projection for granted.  After the fingers on my right hand had decayed, I’d used my abilities to compensate.  Now, even eating food, putting on clothes, or going to the bathroom became a complicated struggle.  I had to use three fingers, or my clumsy left hand, and all of it needed to be slow, meticulous, so I didn’t use projection by accident and activate Lorne’s tracer.

While I struggled with basic tasks, the rest of Queen Sulphur supplemented our funds with petty crimes, hitting smaller targets all around the city, adding memory wipes to hide them from Paragon.  With my distinct grey hair and veins, I couldn’t join in.  The veins alone had spread to my face, meaning I couldn’t hide myself even with a wig and makeup.

Besides, without projection, what help would I be?

Wes kept pushing for the group to steal a body from a vault or store.  Eminent Forms in Hightown, or the vintage Maxine Clive in Lorne’s mansion, or even Paragon’s vault, which he dreamt up during an especially wild train of thought.  After we had the body, we could go on a faraway vacation and get out of range of Lorne’s tracer, before transferring my Pith.

“The cable car station has subconscious keys and security questions,” said Hira.

“We have you,” said Wes.  “Your Vocation can steal all that.”

“And they do basic Pith scans,” said Hira.  “If one of us tries to be an imposter in a student’s body, they’ll see the differences in Piths right away.  It’s not possible.”

But despite all of Wes’ complaints, no one came up with a realistic plan.  My illusions were our best method of infiltration, and after the Commonplace riots, all the body stores had ramped up their security.  My first body theft had been a stroke of luck, a piece of critical intel I’d snatched from Clementine at the perfect moment.  We had nothing like that now.

And outside Elmidde, none of us knew where to find spare chassis.  The culture of projection in the Principality was concentrated around the capital.

One night, when I was in another room, Wes suggested breaking into a prison on the opposite end of the country, hunting down some mass murderer who we could do a forced transference on.  I overheard his voice through a wall, pretending to be asleep.

Hira laughed at that.  “Think you’re the first shithead to think of that?  All our faces and Vocations are going to be on a list for them.  And that’s assuming Lorne’s tracer won’t reach that far.  A full transference is going to send a big signal.  Even I don’t know the true limits of that technique.”

“Then we go overseas,” said Wes, pacing back and forth, folding origami in his hands.  “Neke, like Jun suggested.  Just for a few weeks.  We steal some mass-murderers body there, then come back.”

“Out of the four of us,” said Left-Hira.  “How many speak either of Neke’s languages?”  Just her.

“We can’t just abandon her,” Wes snapped.  “You might be some cutthroat mercenary, but she’s the only reason I got this far.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “The bitch is loyal.  And she knows how to fight.  But I don’t have a workable plan.  You don’t either.  And neither does she, which is why she’s rotting away on that mattress for days on end.”

“Fuck me,” muttered Wes.

“I’ll pass,” said Hira.  “The walls are thin here.”

With all the alone time, I listened to radio shows on a set that Jun had fused out of spare parts.  The Broadcast King’s propaganda dominated the airwaves, seeping into almost every news show.  But if I focused, I could pick out the truth from the mountain of whaleshit.

The Humdrums protested more, and the Green Hands incited them into riots.  The prime minister made feeble pleas to the public, urging everyone to remain civil.  Members of parliament shouted at each other, too hesitant to stamp out the chaos.

As spring turned into summer, new MPs got elected, and Commonplace won six hundred and nineteen seats, almost enough for a majority.  As a news reporter blurted the numbers from the radio, I found myself wondering.  If we’d killed Afzal Kahlin in his penthouse, could we have avoided all this?

And while this all happened, the students and teachers of Paragon spent more and more time away, sealing themselves in the academy and their mansions, tripling the guards at the cable car station.  The body stores tripled their guards too, making a break-in even more impossible.

Paragon is preparing for war.  But they weren’t stepping in to fix things, either.

Through all this, Verity became my favorite show.  Christea Ronaveda couldn’t escape Kahlin’s influence, but the woman was literally incapable of lying.

I’m going to leave the Principality this year,” she said one evening, as I huddled under my blankets.  “Fuck patriotism, fuck ‘doing my part’, fuck courage.  Ilaqua has karaoke bars.  I want to eat cake, belt some catchy shit, and forget about my problems.  How am I supposed to do that when half the bloody city’s on fire?  And to those of you who tell me that fleeing is a ‘luxury’, and that I’m a ‘rich bitch celebrity who’s out of touch with the common folk’, that’s absolutely true.  Living in a bubble of wealth and ignorance is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.  Don’t like that?  Listen to a different show.  Or buy a gun and rob me.

Um, Christea,” said her producer.  “This is a segment about gardening.

Oh, right,” she said.  “Gardening is boring, and involves massaging cow dung into the dirt for hours.  But on the plus side, it gives you a fuckload of potatoes for when our supply lines collapse and society descends into chaos.  So it’s best to convince your red-hot, mentally stable boyfriend to do it for you.

Yeah,” her guest said, also forced to tell the truth by her Vocation.  “I’m moving to Ilaqua next week.  I already have a summer house there.

Bloody rich people.  But Verity was still a good chart of the country’s decline.

When nothing interesting was on the radio, I just listened to swing music and watched Wes and Hira study.  Wes insisted on singing along whenever a Steel Violet song came on, which made for an amusing distraction.

Sometimes, the pair left to practice projection in some secluded space, but they spent most of their time here, poring over books, filling out practice tests that Hira had stolen from college professors.

“I’m moving too slow.”  Wes fidgeted with a piece of paper.  “Samuel spends way more time studying, and I’m sure ‘Tasia’ does even more.”

“Sure,” said Hira.  “All my favorite fighting pits are hunting me now, so it’s not like I’ve got better shit to do.”

But the longer they studied, the more frustrated Wes became.  When Hira left to buy groceries or drugs, Wes slumped over on his books and folded origami, absentminded and exhausted.

After watching him do this a dozen times, I spoke up from my bed.  “Do you care about my opinion?”

“To my surprise, I do.”

I pushed myself upright, wrapping my blankets around my shoulders, and trudged over to Wes.  “I think you’re doing it wrong.”

“Great,” said Wes.  “You, my mother, and half of Paragon.”

“No,” I said.  “I mean – you’re trying to study like your fiance.  But you’re not Samuel, you’re Wes.”

“So this is the sort of stunning insight you got out of bed for.”  He folded an origami crane.

I shivered, wrapping my arms around each other.  “It seems like you’re just doing what you did in Paragon, except with Hira yelling at you.”

“To be fair, he’s really good at yelling.”

“Don’t be Samuel,” I said.  “Be Wes.  Have pride in your own mind.”

Wes chuckled.  “You,” he said, “are lecturing me about pride.”

“I failed.”  I stared at the floor.  “I’d give anything for a different life.  And I know I’m not special.”  I thought of Headmaster Tau’s words, and Lorne’s.  Everyone hopes they have a grand destiny.  “But I’m me.  I wouldn’t be anyone else.  I’m not going to beat myself up trying to mold myself into the right shape.”

“What about that thing you told me about?” said Wes.  “‘Write the next page’ or whatever.”

“‘Write the next page’ doesn’t mean ripping out the rest of the book,” I said.  “At Paragon, they say ‘forge the stars in your image’, not ‘throw your image in the trash’.”

“What if your image belongs in the trash?”

“I’m not clever, Wes,” I sighed.  “I’m just saying that you should be flexible instead of trying to headbutt your way through everything.”  I glanced down at the chemistry textbook.  “Your biggest problem is when you get distracted and tired, right?”

Wes shrugged.  “I guess.”

“So, what’s making you distracted and tired?  Self-awareness isn’t just about self-deprecating humor – ”

“But that’s the only thing I’m good at.”

“ – It’s about improving yourself.”  I stared at Wes.  “What was that thing Jun said?  Self-loathing is your security blanket.  Don’t hang yourself with it.”  I stared at the floor.  “You’ve still got a future.  What it looks like is up to you.”

“Why are you helping me?” said Wes.  “If things go right for me, I’ll be using these studies against your friend Tasia.”

“You’re my friend, I guess,” I said.  “I want all my friends to succeed.”  And a part of me doubted that we would ever get to that point.

Then I flopped back onto the bed.  Solving other people’s whaleshit was so much easier than confronting my own.

When Hira came back, Wes stood up.  “Let’s try something different,” he said.

Over the next few weeks, their routine shifted.  Wes and Hira took shorter, more frequent study sessions with rotating topics, to accommodate Wes’ short attention span, and scheduled them all so Wes had structure.  Rather than sitting down and burying his face in a book, Wes paced back and forth while floating his reading in front of him, folding a piece of origami with his hands.

Then the two of them moved to a different room, and asked me to turn down the radio, removing Wes from distractions that broke his focus.

And then, something remarkable happened.  Hira stopped yelling at Wes.  The boy had said something to her, and their shouting voices stopped ringing out from the door.

As a result, I saw less and less of them, as studying became easier for them.

And I kept sitting on my hands.  The only thing I studied was telegraph code, the old communications system used by the military to turn dots and dashes into letters.  Spring turned into early summer, and I still didn’t enact Plan A.  I still couldn’t think of a better option.

Time passed in a haze, and the days grew hot and humid.  The overwhelming heat made the anemia chills more bearable, but also drenched my clothes with sweat.

One morning, I found myself shaving with my left hand.  My remaining right fingers had turned stiff, incapable of anything more precise than holding my machine pistol, so I had to use my off hand.

Everything else in my life had fallen apart, but no matter what, I wasn’t going to let myself grow stubble.

My hand slipped, and the razor nicked my face, sending a thin trickle of blood down my chin.  It dripped onto the floor, and I looked down.

Small tufts of grey hair sat on the white tile.  Last night, I’d run my hands through my scalp, and chunks had fallen off without me noticing.

I’m going bald.  More than anything, that fact made me sick to my stomach.  And the decay had spread to three more of my toes, turning them withered and grey.  The infrequent showers and heat made my body odor worse, too, a thick stench that I couldn’t get used to, no matter how hard I tried.

Another red droplet splattered onto the bits of fallen hair.  I stared at it, transfixed.  Most caterpillars die in the cocoon.

A cat meowed nearby, and I spun, turning towards the source.  It meowed again, and I strode forward out of the bathroom.  Where is that coming from?

The meow rang out a third time, and I ran to the front door, throwing it open.  A cat with long green fur sat on our doorstep, staring up at us.  Cardamom.

Somehow, the wily feline had found his way back to us.  He’d tracked our scent, or saw Wes and Hira around the city.

Scholars, I’ve missed you,” I said.  I picked him up and hugged him, petting the warm fluff on the back of his head.  Then I carried him back into the house, towards the rest of Queen Sulphur.  “Look who I found.”

Jun’s eyes widened, and he jumped up, running over and petting Cardamom.  Left-Hira pulled the cat out my arms and scratched behind his ears.  “You made it.  Clever green bastard.”

Right-Hira stood up.  “There’s nothing big and obvious on his Pith.  I don’t think this is a trap.”

Left-Hira stretched Cardamom out to Wes, who sat at the table, looking away.

“Fine,” the boy grumbled, and started to pet Cardamom.  He’s still ashamed that his body has the Maojun bacteria.  Wes liked Cardamom a great deal, but wasn’t about to admit it to anyone.

We reveled in our cat’s return for a good half an hour, before the others left to go on a ‘mission’, or whatever we called petty crime nowadays.  I lay down in bed and Cardamom curled up next to me, purring.

It was a moment of pure bliss.  The happiest I’d been in months.

This is as good as it gets.  I was never going to be as happy as I was right now.

As I thought that, my hand reached into my bag, pulling out the metal pillbox at the bottom.  I flipped it open, staring at the dozens of white pills inside.

Kraken’s Bone.  Ventrinol.  The pills meant for Lyna Wethers.  That had taken Kaplen’s life.

If I downed these, I’d be vomiting blood in minutes – faster, if I took them all on an empty stomach.  In a short timespan, my Pith would be sealed inside my body, and soon after, it would all be over.

I closed my eyes.  Kaplen’s face stared back at me, desperate, imploring, as I poured seven pills into the gift basket at his bedside table.

Months ago, I’d told Wes to feed these to me, if my brain decayed and I forgot who I was.  That might be sooner than you think.  I didn’t want him to make that choice.  I didn’t want to put him in that position.

There was a single, core reason why I didn’t like Plan A: If I carried it out, I would almost certainly die.

I’d faced difficult opponents before, come out of odds that seemed impossible at first, but if I went forward with this, it would be a suicide mission in the most literal sense.

Going through with it would be admitting defeat.  Accepting that my life had come to an end, that it was time to embrace death, no matter how much I’d fought it until now.

With this happy moment, I could go out on a good note.  Say goodbye before things got much worse and I dragged my friends into a darker place.  I’d had my shot at a new body, at becoming a Guardian.  Now it was time to face the inevitable.

This would free my friends from a lot of burdens, but it would also devastate them.  Maybe it was a selfish act, like so many people said.

But it had been a rough month, a rough year.  A rough two decades.  I’d earned a selfish act or two.

Before the rest of Queen Sulphur came back, I went to 92 Tefrar Street, an apartment building on the border of Midtown and Lowtown.  The door to the stairwell was unlocked.  I went to the third floor and spotted a trash can at the end of the hallway.

Leaning down, I reached behind it and pulled out a silver envelope.  Then I peeled it open and shook it, to drop a piece of paper onto my hand.

ADULT Class STANDARD
FROM: ELMIDDE E PLAT 7
TO: RACHDALE
DATE: 6/21/520 – 0455
ROUTE: 1449
ONE-WAY

A train ticket.  For tomorrow morning.

And Rachdale was a tiny mining town towards the core of the Principality, northwest at the end of the line, with a station in the middle of being dismantled.  I flipped it over, reading the words scrawled on the back.

Walk east

I walked back to the house, and thought over my plan.

That night, the other members of Queen Sulphur stayed up late again, playing Jao Lu and some other card game.  I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep.

The next morning, while they all snored away, I pushed myself out of bed, eyes aching, and threw on my clothes over my blue combat suit, with a grey beanie to cover my hair and bald spots.  I left my machine pistol and cattle prod on my bed, and made sure to avoid the creaky parts of the floor.

I shut the door behind me and strode into the morning twilight, heading for the train station.  Dim streetlamps shone down on the cobblestone, and the wind blew a paper bag across my path.

The platform was empty as the train arrived, a lone light in the darkness, barreling down the tracks.  It rushed past me, blowing air into my face, and slowed to a stop.

The train had emptied too.  I got a whole car to myself, a grey metal box with creaky wooden seats.  I sat down on one, slouching over.  It would take hours to get to my destination, so I had lots of time to think.

A warm summer breeze blew around me, thick and heavy.  Outside the station, the streetlamps flickered off, signaling the dawn to come, and a thick layer of fog had descended over the city.  After a few minutes, the train engine huffed and puffed, preparing to leave.

The carriage jerked, and the train started moving.  As it accelerated, a figure sprinted down the dark platform, pumping its arms.  It leapt onto the car behind me as the train sped up, chugging down the slope towards the edge of the city.

We passed westwards over a bridge, leaving Elmidde Island and Mount Elwar behind, as the lights of the city flickered off, one by one.  Hightown, Midtown, Lowtown.  The outer islands.  Paragon Academy.  All fading in the distance.

Through the foggy glass, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the figure move in the other car, staggering towards me.

I clenched my fists, hunching over further.  My weapons were at home, my body was weak, and any projection would alert Lorne to my location.  I’m defenseless.

The figure opened the door between cars and stepped through, revealing its narrow face and light brown hair.  Wes.

I exhaled, but only a little.

Wes stumbled over to me and leaned against a seat, wheezing.  “Lost you for a few dozen blocks,” he gasped.  “Wasn’t sure which place you were going to.  And the Humdrum at the ticket desk.  Scholars, he moved like a sloth on ataraxia.”  He slumped down on the seat next to me, catching his breath.  “So what are you doing?  Trying to leave us?”

“No.”  I avoided eye contact.  Elmidde had shrunk in the distance, until the entire mountain looked like a foggy blot on the ocean.  “Leave.”

Wes bit his lip, thinking for a moment.  “No thanks.”

Why?” I said through gritted teeth.

“I’ve seen that look,” he said.  “You’re about to pull an Ana.”

“An Ana.”

“Charging off.  Doing something harebrained and dangerous just because you think it’s right.”

I stared out the window.  The landscape around us turned flat and grassy, as we left the outskirts of the city and entered the countryside.

“We’re running in place,” I said.  “And I don’t have much time left.”

“Whatever you’re planning, there’s got to be a better option.”

I held up the grey fingers on my right hand, then pointed to the swollen veins inching up my cheeks, the fresh bald spots on my head, under my beanie.  “I’m all ears,” I said.  “But give it a week and those might be gone too.”

Wes gazed out the window with me, as the hills and meadows of the central Principality rolled by.  He didn’t say anything.

“You have nothing,” I said.  “No escape plan.  I’ve been trying to think of a clever way out for months, and I have nothing.”

“That’s not true,” said Wes.  “You have, whatever – “  My ticket shifted in my hands, as Wes felt its contents.  “Whatever ‘walk East’ is.  What is that?  What were you avoiding for weeks and weeks?”

“If I tell you, you have to promise not to try and stop me.”

Wes laughed, the sound echoing around the empty train car.  “Ana, when have I ever been able to stop you from doing something?”

Fair enough.

“I came here to back you up.”

I explained what had happened – the Commonplace business card, the phone call with Tunnel Vision, the offer.  We left the bank of clouds over Elmidde, and the morning sun washed over us, bathing us in warm yellow light, lighting up the towns and villages we sped by.

“And your plan?” said Wes.

“Tunnel Vision and her friends know almost everything I can do,” I said.  “My illusions, my projection, my weapons, my allies.  Maybe even that one Voidsteel bullet in my gun.”  I leaned forward, lowering my voice.  “But unless she’s truly penetrated the highest levels of Paragon, she won’t know about the tracer Lorne’s put on me.”

“So?” said Wes.

“I’m going to meet the leaders of Commonplace,” I said.

Wes’ eyes widened.  “Don’t tell me you’re going to join them.”

“I’m going to meet them, and start projecting.  In patterns of long and short.  Not just sending my location to Lorne, but giving him a message in – “

“ – Telegraph code,” breathed Wes.  “That’s why you requested that book.”

“Paragon won’t just know where I am,” I said.  “They’ll know who I’m meeting, what bodies they’re in, how many guards they’re with, and the exact locations where they’re standing.”  The Pyre Witch is responsible for Kaplen’s death.  That couldn’t be forgiven, no matter what flaws Paragon had.

“And they’ll attack while you’re still there,” said Wes.  “They might just level the whole area.  That’d be the safer option.”

“Yes.”  And Commonplace might take me out of range, or not show me their leaders at all.

“And even if the Guardians don’t blow it all up, the enemies will know exactly what you did as soon as Paragon shows up.  They’ll put a bullet in your skull before you can say ‘Voidsteel’.”

“Yes,” I said.  “But if I make it out, I’ll have helped destroy one of the greatest threats in this nation’s history.  If anything can earn me a pardon, it’ll be that.  I just have to survive.”

“But you probably won’t,” said Wes.  “There’ll be an ocean of enemies, and as you said, they all know what you can do.”

“Yes,” I said.  “There are another fifteen stops between here and Rachdale.  You can get off at any one of them.”  The train shook as it went over a bridge.  “I made this choice alone.  And I have nothing else to lose.”

Wes leaned back in his seat, folding his hands behind his head.  “My studies have been going well,” he said.  “If I go up against that b – Tasia  – again, I’ll do much better than last time.”  He clenched his fists.  “But I have nothing on the Broadcast King.  No leads, no strategies, no brilliant ideas.  Samuel and my friends are looking very far away.”

But you still have a working body.  And he seemed not to mind it all that much.  Wes would still be breathing in six months.

Takonara,” said Wes.  “I could use an image boost too.”  He grinned.  “Besides.  You need someone to do all the talking so you don’t panic and trip over your words.”  Wes’ eyes lit up.  “The witch likes pyres?  Let’s give her one.”

He’s trying to protect me.  “You don’t have to do this,” I said.  “There are probably better ways to go after Kahlin.  To save your family.”

Wes extended his hand to me.  “Let’s write the next page together, Anabelle Gage,” he said.  “Let’s win together.  And if we don’t, let’s give those bastards a show they’ll remember.”

At his friend’s bar, Wes had joked about starting a suicide pact.  This isn’t far away from that.

But I extended my hand to him, and we clasped each other’s forearms.  Even though I could only move three of my fingers.

The landscape changed from green to grey, as we passed through other cities, and made stops.  People got on the train, and filtered out, one by one.  The temperature rose with the sun, turning my shivers into sweat.

At the second-to-last stop, everyone but us got off.  When the train kicked into motion again, we found ourselves surrounded by endless, flat plains.  Tall yellow grass as far as the eye could see, without a hint of civilization in sight.

Finally, at the end of the line, the train jerked to a stop, the engine hissing.  I shook the sleeping Wes, waking him up.  He groaned, rubbing the crust out of his eyes.  “I was having the most horrible nightmare.  Can I go back to that, please?”

We stepped out onto an empty platform.  Half the station had been torn down, surrounded by scaffolding, metal beams exposed to the air.  It looked like a construction project in reverse.

I glanced outside the station, to Rachdale, the town around us.  It was barely a village, consisting of a row of houses and a dirt road extending to the north, with a handful of boarded-up shops scattered throughout the empty street.

“What happened here?” said Wes.

“Used to be a mining town, I think,” I said.  “The mine got used up.”

We descended a flight of stairs, and stepped away from the shade of the platform, into the glaring sunlight.  A trio of people exited the platform on the far side, walking into Rachdale with their backs turned to us.  Other than that, we were alone.

Squinting, Wes traced the path of the sun with his finger and turned around, pointing towards the endless plains leading away from the town.  “That’s East,” he said.

Further in that direction, I spotted the faint outline of a road, winding and eventually turning East on a direct line from the train station.  That’s where we need to go.

Without a word, we both walked forward into the tall grass.  The noon sun glared down on us, and we crushed weeds with every step.  Before long, we’d drenched both of our shirts with sweat, and I found myself craving ice water.

We reached the road.  How old is this?  Weeds and yellow grass sprouted between the cobblestones, obscuring it, and a dusting of soil sat on top.  People haven’t come this way in a long time.

Wes and I stepped onto the pavement, and kept walking east.  After a time, the area grew less flat, and we went over a series of hills, one after the other.  When we glanced back, the town and train tracks had gone out of sight.

The road dipped, then climbed up again, over the tallest hill yet.  My legs burned as we climbed to the top, and I leaned on my knees to catch my breath.

“We’re here,” said Wes.

At the bottom of the hill, a town stretched out before us.

And not just any town.  The houses, the storefronts, every building I could see had been reduced to rubble.  Walls had been torn to pieces.  Bricks, splintered wood, and stone sat in huge piles.  Lamp posts and power lines had been knocked over, ripped in half.  Trees at the edges had been reduced to a blackened crisp.

And in the streets below, people milled about, marching in lines around the perimeter or assembling in neat rectangles.  Trucks drove in and out of the city, bumping up and down on the tall grass.  A Commonplace base.  One of many, no doubt.

“I know what this is,” said Wes.  “This is Helmfirth.  Just after the war ended, something like a decade ago, a team from the Droll Corsairs broke into an experimental missile silo in the South Principality.  Instead of launching them at Elmidde, or some other critical target, they sent them all here.”

“Why?” I said.  The Droll Corsairs were a private military company, not random terrorists.

“Most people think they fucked up the coordinates, or were using it as some sort of test.  Nobody knows who hired them.”  He squinted down at the activity below.  “I thought it had been closed off to the public.  Of all the places they could infest, why is Commonplace here?”

Let’s find out.  At this range, Lorne’s tracer would still work.

I strode down the hill, and Wes followed after me.

A muscular Shenti man sat cross-legged on a pile of rubble at the edge of the town, right in our path.  Pictogram.  The sniper from Attlelan Island who’d killed our allies, nearly killed us.

He cracked an egg against a brick, and poured the raw yolk into his mouth.  A massive rifle leaned against the wall next to him, but he made no move towards it.

Pictogram tossed the eggshells aside and glanced at us.  He’s checking us for weapons.  With his enhanced vision, he only needed one look.  Strange to see him out in the open.  I thought that Commonplace wanted to hide their Shenti ties.

He nodded, relaxed, and jabbed his thumb behind him, pointing down the street.

Wes opened his mouth, raising his finger like he was about to say something, then stopped himself.  Good move.  If these people got pissed at us, they might put bullets in our skulls and save themselves the trouble.

The two of us walked down the street.  The rubble had been swept to the side, leaving a clear path for us.  Lines of Green Hands jogged past us, giving us the occasional confused glance.  But no one talked to us.

A truck screeched in front of us, shattering the silence, and we stopped, watching it pass.  I glanced at the back as it drove away.  It’s full of weapons.

At the end of the street, we reached a single building left standing amongst all the rubble, the one structure that hadn’t been demolished by the missiles.  A two-story house with a manicured lawn and a white picket fence out front.  The windows had been polished to perfection, and a series of blooming flower pots sat in the windows, growing buttercups.

In this ruin, it looked surreal.  Unnatural.  This has to be the place.

I opened the picket fence and walked down the tile path.  Wes followed me, and we hovered in front of the doorway, unsure of what to do next.

After some hesitation, I stretched my hand forward and pressed the doorbell.  A chime rang out inside, and behind a window, a figure moved towards us.  Is this her?  Could this be the leader of Commonplace?

The door swung open, revealing a middle-aged woman with wavy blonde hair.  A breeze blew her dark green longcoat around her, revealing a holstered pistol at her waist.

And her face.  What happened to her face?  Scars ran up and down her cheeks and neck, crisscrossing over each other.  Where they met, bits of her face had been rearranged.  Her jawline zigzagged.  Her forehead sloped at an alarming angle, and her nose bulged and bent in all the wrong places.  

Piercing blue eyes stared at us, weary.

Despite all that, she looked familiar.  Where have I seen that face before?  The woman reminded me of the photographs I’d seen of Wes’ mother, Rowyna Ebbridge.  In fact, she was near-identical to many fabricated bodies I’d seen.

Then, it hit me.  The woman looked like a popular chassis model.  The first ever model of chassis, invented decades ago by Semer Bekyn.

Then: I know her name.

“Good afternoon,” the woman said.  “I’m Maxine Clive.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




9-C Silver Letters

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

I floated in an ocean of whispers.

The world blurred around me, every object fuzzing at the edges like a messy watercolor, buildings and people and objects fading into one another.

I had been teleported to the bottom of the sea, and the air itself had turned to a swirling liquid around me.

No, a voice whispered at the edge of my consciousness.  You’ve been drugged.  Penny Oakes hit you with knockout gas.  Snap out of it.

But there were so many voices, so many whispers.  How was I supposed to tell which ones were real?  Maybe they all were.  Maybe none of them were.

I do pity you, poor thing.”  Clementine’s voice.

No matter how bad it gets. Do you think your soul is worth fighting for?” Isaac Brin said in the distance.

I waved my arms around me, touching the fluid objects next to me.  The ground wobbled beneath me like gelatin, making my legs shake just to keep me from falling over.

The world is made up of smart people and the ones who hold them back.  Not everyone is worthy of the tools to forge the stars in their image.

Write the next page,” a boy’s voice drifted to me through the water.  “Fight for it.

I know that voice.  “Kaplen!” I shouted, looking all around me.  “Kaplen!”

Where was he?  I couldn’t see him anywhere, but he had to be here somewhere.  Kaplen would know what to make of this situation.

He’s dead, another voice whispered.  And if you don’t wake up, you’ll join him.

Something gnawed at my stomach, a pit opening wider and wider.  I glanced down.  A wide gash had been torn in my stomach, all the way from the front to the back.  Inside, greyish-purple flesh shifted around, as blood poured out of the hole.

Then, someone grabbed my hand, and the ground became solid again.

I was standing on a fire escape, and someone was pulling me up, dragging me from one landing to the next as my leg muscles burned.

Is this the real world?  Have I woken up?

When I glanced up, the fire escape extended into the sky, stretching upwards to infinity.  As I climbed, the light bled out of the sun, turning the world from day to night.

The twin moons shone down on me, but as I clambered up the metal steps, they faded too, and the night turned a pitch black.  All dark.  An empty, infinite, void, with no stars.

Then, something flickered, high above in the distance.  A green light, growing brighter and brighter until it stretched across the entire night sky in a pattern of glowing ribbons. It flickered, its edges tinged with blue and purple and red.

An aurora.  Like the northern lights.  It fought back the darkness, shining a beacon of hope, of magnificence and awe.

I climbed faster up the fire escape, no longer being pulled.  The staircase tilted back, getting steeper and steeper until I was climbing it like a ladder.

Faster, faster.  I accelerated upwards, and gravity lightened around me.  Each time I grabbed the steps, my pace quickened, until I was soaring into the sky, towards the aurora and its beckoning warmth.

I stretched my hand out to the light, getting closer and closer, reaching.

A face stretched over the heavens, blotting out the light.  A boy with pitch-black hair and icy blue eyes.  Lorne Daventry.

“Morning, Ernest.”  He waved at me.  “You’ve been up to some mischief, haven’t you?”

Above me, the fire escape became a molten soup, melting like a snowball in boiling water.  It flattened into a horizontal wall, hiding Lorne’s movements.  Where is he?

Something moved out of the corner of my eye, and I spun to look.  Lorne soared down past us, connected to the fire escape with a thread of molten metal.

When we got within range of his Vocation, he yanked the thread.  The metal connecting the fire escape to the building turned to liquid, severing it from the wall.

Wait, it’s attached to a wall?  I blinked, and the infinite stairway became an ordinary fire escape.  It screeched, dropping away from the brick apartment building.

I dropped with it, flailing my arms.  My stomach wrenched, and the darkness enveloped me.

Wes’ voice whispered in my ear.  “I’ll fight for you, Anabelle Gage.

A hand stretched out and grabbed my wrist, stopping my fall.  Its fingers dug into my skin, and it yanked me, into a window of the apartment building.

My shoulder slammed on the wooden floor, and the darkness vanished, replaced by dim grey sunlight.  Objects stopped bleeding into one another, and the ocean vanished, turning everything solid and ordinary again.

Left-Hira and a grey-haired boy stood next to me, wearing gas masks and holding a shotgun and briefcase, respectively.  Someone had put a gas mask over my head, too.  This is real.  It had to be.

“Ana,” said the grey-haired boy, in my voice.  “You still dreaming?”  That’s me.  It was like staring at a mirror.

No.  You swapped bodies with him, remember?

I grabbed a wall to steady myself, shaking off the dizzy sensation.  “Just a little,” I said.

“Great,” said Wes, patting me on the shoulder.  “Because your old boss is setting us on fire, and we’d love it if you could join us.”

“Move your ass!” shouted Hira.

They ran through the hallways, and I followed them.  In the stairwell, a cloud of smoke rose from below, and fires flickered in the lower levels.  None of the sprinklers were working.  Lorne’s blocking off our escape.

“Up!” shouted Hira.

We sprinted up the stairs, towards the roof.  One level below the top, an orange beam of light exploded through the ceiling, slicing through the concrete like it was made of cardboard.

We leapt to the side, heat washing over my face.

When the roof crumbled away, the sky had turned black again.  It’s not real.  Lorne floated over us, and for a second, the green aurora flickered behind him, burning my eyes.

He floated high above us, far out of my range.  A sphere of water surrounded him, peppered with sheets of paper from Wes’ attacks.

Hira blasted him with her shotgun.  The bullets zipped through the water, making ripples, but none of them touched Lorne.  Not Voidsteel.  Against his ABD, they’d be useless.

Spheres of molten metal floated around him, and he squeezed two of his fingers together, flicking them in our direction.

The closest sphere shot towards us, becoming another beam.  Wes yanked me by my collar, pulling me down the stairs and out of the way.  We landed with a thud on the floor of the apartment building, and Hira clenched her teeth, nursing a burn on her right arm.

This was Lorne’s Vocation.  The technique that made him the only platinum-ranked projector in his class.  So lethal, so full of raw power that it got banned from squad battles at Paragon.  With a touch, he could melt any metal, and shoot it with enough force to knock over cars.

We scrambled down the stairs, as beams of metal sheared through another level.  “How the fuck do we beat him?” shouted Wes.  “Takonara.

None of our attacks were working.  He knew everything we could do, and he was keeping us at a distance, staying out in the open.  My trick to beat ABDs from earlier wouldn’t work without anyone next to him.

We’d gotten lucky, but Lorne had outplayed us now.

“How do we take him out?” said Wes, repeating himself.

Hira held up a green bullet, spinning it between her fingers.  Voidsteel.  Where did she get that?

We all knew what that meant.  We’d shot other projectors, but with normal bullets.  Their bodies could be replaced.

But if we hit Lorne with Voidsteel, it would damage his Pith.  At best, the injury would be permanent, disabling.  At worst, it would kill him, and no chassis could save him.

Hira and Wes looked at me.  They still think I’m a leader.  After everything I’d put them through.  After I’d gotten us trapped in a burning building, surrounded by enemies, wanted by every Guardian in the city, they were still looking at me, trusting me.

I don’t deserve it.  But that didn’t matter.  They trusted me all the same.

“Shoot him,” I said.  “Not a headshot, if you can, but somewhere that’ll stop him from chasing us.  But don’t telegraph it.  Find an opening first.”

Wes scowled, with my face.  Hira nodded.  “And until then?”

I glanced down the hallway, out the window.  “We run.”

Hira sprinted down the hallway, loading the green bullet into a pistol at her waist.  We ran after her, and she blasted the window with her shotgun, shattering the glass.  She leapt across another alleyway, projecting into her clothes to lift her, and smashed through another window.

Wes leapt after her, soaring into the next building.  They make it look easy.

I jumped out of the window, arms flailing, my foot clipping the edge of the sill.  Then I projected into my clothes, dragging myself up, up, up.

A headache exploded inside my skull, and blue lightning flickered around me.  My shirt ripped, and I jerked downwards.

Wes grabbed my hand from the window, yanking me up before I slammed into the wall.  I landed on the floor with a thud.  Normally, an impact like this would be pure agony, but in Wes’ body, I could shake it off in seconds.

Wes helped me up, and we burst out of the empty apartment and into another one, racing to the far side of the building.

We ran through a bedroom, and Wes slammed into the side of a desk, knocking over a plate of bacon and eggs.  “Hey!” A man shouted at us as we passed his spilled meal.

“Sorry!” I shouted, as Hira burst through another window.  The second jump was easier than the first, with a shorter distance, towards a house several stories down that required less lifting on my part.  Wes formed a wall of paper above us, hiding some of our movements from above.

As I soared through the second window, a blast of molten metal tore through Wes’ barrier, raining hot bricks and liquid steel all around us.  A pair of droplets landed on my forearm, burning it, and I hissed with the pain.

Lorne’s not too accurate with his blasts.  That was good.  But the boy was still following us.

Hira held up a hand before we broke through the next window.  “Jun has an escape plan he’s explaining to my other body,” she muttered under her breath.  “This way.”

She made us turn left, through a different hallway, smashing through a different window and leaping into a different apartment building.

As we ran, Lorne’s voice rang out from the walls around us.  “This entire year, I’ve been asking myself: How did someone this clueless get into Paragon?  Even as a Grey Coat.”  The wood and brick vibrated, making noise.  “Now I know.

We leapt through another two buildings, directed by Hira, still pursued by Lorne, until my clothes had torn all over and my head felt like it was imploding.

“I can’t keep this up,” I wheezed in Wes’ voice, too exhausted to speak with illusions.

“One more,” said Hira.  We ran through the hallway.

What did Headmaster Tau tell you last night?” said Lorne.

More than you might think.  Even though I’d only understood half of the old man’s words, I knew this much: he’d told me about my talent, my potential, my future.

Did he flatter you?  Did he say, ‘your destiny will reveal itself in time’?”  Lorne’s bitter laughter rang around us.  “He says that to everyone.

My stomach wrenched.  No.  This was just another mind game.  Lorne must have listened in to our conversation.

Headmaster Tau loves rambling about destiny.  It’s his favorite trick to make students apply themselves.  Of course, it doesn’t work when you say it to everyone, but he’s too senile to know that now.

Hira broke through a window, and we leapt over a warehouse, crashing through a glass skylight in the ceiling.

Molten metal blasted towards us from above, a bright orange beam slicing towards us.  I projected into my sleeves, spinning myself around to face it.

The tail end of it crossed us for a fraction of a second, and Hira and Wes projected into a pile of crates, pushing them above us, making them into a shield.

Only a sliver of the liquid steel touched the makeshift shield, but the crates exploded, showering us with burnt apples and a cloud of sawdust.  A piece of broken wood struck me in the side, and I slammed into something metal, coughing up blood.  A forklift.

Lorne shot at me through the smoke.  He grabbed my throat with his ungloved hand, shoving me up against the vehicle.

Illusions.  Now.

The boy closed his eyes behind his helmet visor, and the sawdust hovered around him, landing on me, floating in the air.  He’s using it to feel.  Beating my Vocation with his projection sixth sense, though I could still mess with some of the positioning.

Lorne’s hand tightened, and I gasped for air.  I raised my machine pistol and put a burst in his stomach.  He grunted, and the bullets dropped to the floor.  Body armor.  His ABD wouldn’t protect him at this range, but his projection-enhanced suit would.

He touched the forklift, and it melted beneath me.  A wave of fire washed over my back, and I writhed, crying out in pain.

Hira dropped her go bag and aimed her pistol at Lorne’s head.  The one loaded with Voidsteel.

Before she could pull the trigger, Lorne let go of me and tackled Hira, soaring to the far side of the warehouse and grabbing her gun hand.  Out of my range.

Hira tore herself from Lorne’s grasp, flipping backwards, but the gun flew out of her grip.  It hovered in the air away from them, wobbling back and forth.  They’re both projecting into a part of it.

Purple and green lightning flickered around them, as they fought for control.  Then Hira shot forward, her gloved hand darting towards Lorne’s face, crackling with electricity.   Harder to see, a thread of water stretched from her pinky towards his ankle.

Lorne sliced the thread with a whip of molten metal, keeping it separate from his body.  Protecting him from her electricity.  Flicking his other hand, he stabbed at Hira with a molten spear, forcing her to dart to the side.  She’s too close for him to shoot a beam.

For several seconds, they clashed in a blur, Hira with her martial arts, Lorne with his metal projection.  They swung fists and metal, weaving around each other’s strikes, each failing to land a critical blow.  Both of them used the same style, western-style boxing with fast jabs, haymakers, and dodges.

Purple lightning flickered around Hira’s palms as she ducked and lashed out.  She’s using her Vocation.  Stitching Lorne’s thoughts in short bursts to keep herself alive.

Then Wes threw a concussion grenade at them, and blew it up behind Lorne’s head.  He doubled over, then shot into the air.  He blasted through the warehouse ceiling, keeping himself safe while he regained his senses.  Hira shot her wrist-grapple at him, but he darted to the side, dodging it.

So, we ran again, even as my back sent searing pain throughout my body.  Hira grabbed her bag and pointed towards one of the doors, and we ran there, supporting her as she wobbled back and forth, dizzy, fighting off the effects of the concussion grenade.

We burst out, and Hira ran to a car with the doors open, its engine already running.  Jun and Right-Hira hotwired it for us.  The three of us leapt in, and Hira floored the gas pedal.  The tires screeched, and we shot down the empty streets.

On North Island, this early in the morning, the streets were empty.  Hira accelerated, zipping around flooded streets and through alleyways.  Wes shot more paper out of his briefcase, forming an angled wall behind us.  He nodded at me, and we clasped hands.  Lightning crackled around us, and our Piths swapped back, flowing into our normal bodies.  I stared at the grey-haired boy with the bulging forehead, until I became him,

I regained my senses in my usual body, feeling all the usual aches and weights again.  Wes ran his fingers through his brown hair, taking stock of his familiar body once again.

And one of the trucks behind us melted into a molten sphere.  It turned into a beam, shooting in our general direction.  The beam sheared through the paper barrier, blasting into the side of the car and tearing off one of the rear wheels.

The vehicle swerved, metal screeching on the concrete.  It started to tip over, and Hira clapped her hands, projecting all the doors open.

We leapt out as another beam tore into the car, ripping a hole in the center as it flipped over.  I projected into my clothes one last time, lifting myself up and away from the crashing vehicle.  My headache tripled, making my vision blur, and I slowed to a running stop as I touched the ground.

Smoke bombs exploded all around us, and Hira grabbed my hand, dragging me forward.  We burst through a pair of double doors, and found ourselves in a crowded shopping center, filled with shops, restaurants, and bustling people.

This is Hira’s target.  Where she and Jun had been leading us to.

With the smoke still around us, Hira floated three outfits out of a box on the floor, complete with pants, coats, and hats.  She slid them onto our bodies and pulled off our old clothes.

In less than three seconds, we were striding into the crowd, disguised, moving away from the smoke with the confused shoppers.  She and Jun set this up too.

I used illusions to make us blend in further, whipping up some fake security guards for the Humdrums around us to pull them closer, blocking our movements with their bodies.

Behind us, the doors burst open, and I turned my head to watch it out of the corner of my eye.

Lorne shot out of the smoke, flying above the crowd.  “Remain calm!” he shouted.  While he talked, I projected into everyone in range, blocking out his orders.  “Do not leave, this is a police operation!”

Then, Lorne looked straight at us, and shot towards our group.  How can he still see us?  He hadn’t been projecting around us during our quick change, and Hira’s disguises were thorough.

I made my fake security guards bark out orders, drawing the crowd closer to us, swelling its size.  Lorne was a brutal bastard, but even he wouldn’t burn dozens of Humdrums just to take out a target.  His attacks were broad, imprecise.  And if he got too close, Hira could still shoot him with the Voidsteel bullet, which would shear through the enhancements on his armor.

So he hovered at the edge of the crowd, staring at us from less than thirty feet away.

We’d bought time.  But more cops would come, more Guardians.  They might already be here.

Hira whispered the rest of the plan to me, and I shifted my illusions on the crowd around me, creating fake gunmen shouting orders at them.  Several of them broke off from the group, jogging through corridors and down stairwells.  Lorne glanced at them, but kept following us as we strode through the shopping center.

“I have a hunch,” whispered Hira.  “Once you send the signal, stop using all projection.  Don’t let a single bit of your Pith leave your body.”

Huh?  I nodded, confused.

Then, Hira nodded to me.  It’s time.  I shifted my illusions on the crowd of Humdrums around us.  In unison, all of them screamed, a deafening sound that filled the entire room and made my ears ache.  That’s the signal.

At the same time, dozens more smoke bombs exploded around us, and a pair of concussion grenades.  The crowd scattered, and the three of us scattered with them, stumbling from the effects of the grenades.  As we ran, Hira yanked off the coats and hats of people around us, switching our clothes again.

I ascended one level, darted down a hallway, and hid behind a counter in a coffee shop, massaging my aching temples.  Don’t project.

If Lorne had lost us, he’d be watching the exits, and waiting for backup to surround the place properly.

Tires screeched on the concrete outside, and I glanced out a window.  A dozen automobiles sped away from the shopping center at the same time, driving from the sidewalk, across the street, and the small garage underneath.  Each one held three or more people, so if you projected inside, you’d feel at least three Piths.

In unison, at least a hundred people fled from the building, pouring onto the sidewalks.

Lorne would have to stop every car, and check if we were inside, or if we were among the fleeing pedestrians.

“Stop!” he bellowed, his voice ringing out from the concrete.  “By order of Paragon Academy, stop!”

Some of them stopped.  Others didn’t.  Police cars with sirens pulled up around the streets, stopping more of them.

While Lorne and the cops focused on the people outside, I sprinted to the ground floor, meeting Hira and Wes in a clothing store.  Hira opened a door to a backroom, revealing her Right body and Jun standing over a hole cut in the floor.

“I’ll lift your clothes,” said Hira.  “Don’t project, Ana, or we’re fucked.”

We’re fleeing.  That had to be the right choice.  We’d never beat Lorne in open combat.

One by one, we dropped into the hole, landing on a dry patch of a sewer tunnel.  Jun projected above us, locking the door and sealing the hole behind us with a shower of sparks.  They’ll find it eventually.  But it would take time.

We jogged through the sewers, and I gagged at the stench.  Why couldn’t my sense of smell be broken too?  As the adrenaline wore off, the headache returned. And the exhaustion.  My lungs burned, taking huge, gasping breaths.  It took all my effort to put one foot in front of the other and keep myself from collapsing.

“Lorne touched your skin, right?” said Hira.  “With his skin.  When he choked you.”

I nodded, too winded to speak much.  It was odd, how he wasn’t wearing gloves, given Wes’ paper projection.  Paper cuts to your fingers could hurt like hell.

“I think he put a tracer on you.”

“What?” I panted.

“A tracer.  It’s a Whisper vocation, advanced.  Requires physical contact to get activated.  As long as you’re within roughly a hundred kilometers or so of Lorne, give or take, it’ll send your vague whereabouts to him.  Right now, he knows you’re still in Elmidde, but that’s it.”

“How is that a problem?” said Wes, jogging ahead of us.  “I know my ex is still in the city, but that doesn’t mean I can hunt down his exact location and slap his face off.”

“When you project, Ana,” said Hira.  “When your Pith leaves your body.  The tracer pings him.  And he’ll know exactly where you are, down to the inch.  That’s how he tracked us in the shopping center.”

Any projection?” I said.

“Anything that makes your Pith leave the confines of your body.  Lift a pebble, and they’ll hunt us down in minutes.”

My shoulders felt heavier, and my pace slowed.  Scholars, why?  I was basically a Humdrum now.  And I can’t swap bodies anymore.  Not without giving him my precise location.

“I’m so sorry,” said Jun, squeezing my shoulder.  “I’m so sorry.”

We emerged from under a manhole cover in an empty street, flooded at the far end.  Before anything else, we fetched my emergency cash out of my hidden stashes.

It would pay for food, but our posters would be all over the city, our records stamped red.  We’d never be able to buy a chassis legally.  And now, who would rent to us?  Who would hire us?

We found ourselves on a half-flooded street again, empty and silent, as the sun rose, dim behind grey clouds.  “What the fuck,” said Wes.  “Do we do next?”

Everyone looked at me again.  Why are they still looking at me?

I leaned against a wall, closing my eyes.  Every muscle ached, weighing me down.  “I have no idea.”

“Well,” said Wes.  “While we think it over, I know a place.”

________________________________________

Wes handed a stack of bills to a brown-haired man with a thick neck.  “Thanks, Leo.”

“I’m sorry.  You and your friends can’t stay here,” Leo said.  “If the cops find out, I’ll lose everything.”  He slid the bills into a cabinet behind the bar, chuckling.  “I want to nobly refuse this money, too, but rent is expensive.  I hope that’s not a problem.”

Wes smiled at him.  “When you agreed to talk to me, that was already beyond my wildest hopes.”  They have history.  How did Wes know some random Humdrum?

Leo poured him a cup of tea.  “Welcome back, kid.  Wish you’d stayed here from the start.”

“Yeah,” Wes sighed.  “Me too.”

Queen Sulphur gathered around a table, pulling up stools.  Leo poured tea for the rest of us, and dropped a bowl of walnuts in the middle.

“So,” said Wes.  “If I may sum things up: We have no house, no sleeping pod, and no money.  Our leader can’t project, or swap bodies.  Our main source of funds, Professor Brin, is either in prison or an enemy, and we’re all wanted projectors being hunted by the most powerful military in the Eight Oceans.”

“Yes,” I said, picking apart a walnut and dropping the tasteless crumbs into my mouth.  “That sounds right.”

“So what are we thinking, suicide pact?  Get shitfaced and cry ourselves to sleep?”

“We could leave the country,” said Jun.  “Get out of range of Lorne’s tracer Vocation.  We can find mercenary work overseas without compromising our morals.”

“Not in Shenten,” said Wes.  “People there would throw their sister under a tank if it meant gaining another yard of frozen rubble.”  He glanced at Jun, the lone Shenti in the room.  “No offense.”

“I’m not offended,” said Jun.  “Just disappointed.”

“And, while I’d love to visit the glimmering home of I-Pop, Hira said he didn’t want to go back to Ilaqua.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “If I go home, I’ll probably get tortured to insanity, which would put a real damper on the year for me.”

“Fair points,” said Jun.  “That’s why we should go to the Neke Islands.  They’ve got issues, but there’s no war, no one trying to torture Hira, and they have ramen, for when Ana gets her taste buds back.”

He said ‘when’.  Funny.

“We head for a port,” Jun said.  “On the far side of the Principality.  When we’re out of Lorne’s range, we use Ana’s illusions to get on a boat and past border patrol to the Floating City.  Plus, Ana’s part Nekean, right?”

“Quarter,” I said.  “On my mother’s side.  I’ve never been there.”  And I don’t speak either of the languages.

“If we’re guns for hire, anywhere but here,” said Hira.  “We’re competitors to the Droll Corsairs.  They’re not just the biggest private military company, they’re one of the biggest companies, period.  They’ll buy us up or try to kill us.”

“And Afzal Kahlin is here,” said Wes.  “He’s not going anywhere.  I can’t save my family from debt and go back to my friends if I’m chugging sake halfway across the world.”

“And Commonplace is still trying to destroy this nation,” I said.  “Tunnel Vision – the Pyre Witch – is still trying to burn down everything I care about.”  Even if I was powerless, a fugitive, unable to project, I couldn’t just sit by while that happened.

“I understand all that,” said Jun.  “And I’m sorry.  I can’t imagine the roots you have here, and venturing out carries its own risks.  Do any of you have better plans?”

Wes spoke up.  “When Lorne gets Ana’s location, it’ll take him a while to wrangle all the necessary forces.  We could break into a body vault somewhere – not Paragon’s, but somewhere less secure.  Lorne’s maybe, with that vintage Maxine Clive chassis Ana told us about.  Ana could swap, and we could run before they catch us.”

“Won’t work,” said Left-Hira.  “The tracer probably wasn’t fully activated yet, when the two of you swapped back.  But the more you project, the longer the ping lasts.  If Ana swaps bodies now, Lorne might have her location for hours.”

Silence.

“We have plenty of money to last out the year,” said Jun.  “Buy toothpaste, food, supplies.  We can lie low and think it over.  Until then, we need a place to live.”

“Somewhere quiet, shady, underground,” said Wes.  “Where the law won’t find us.”

Everyone looked at Hira.  Our go-to criminal expert.

She rolled all four eyes at once.  “Fine.  I’ll work on it.”

But there was another possibility for us, that Jun hadn’t raised.

We could split up.  Nobody said it, but everyone had to be thinking of that as a possibility.  If the rest of Queen Sulphur abandoned me, they could move about freely, without fear of Lorne’s tracer.  And without Hira, Ilaqua wouldn’t be as dangerous.  And even if Wes and I wanted to stay in the Principality, Jun and Hira didn’t have to.

They’re my friends.  Losing them would tear a hole in my heart.

But in a few months, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

________________________________________

Hira found us an abandoned duplex in a slum on East Island.

The windows were broken, and the roof had been torn off in places.  Dust covered the entire thing from top to bottom, and plants grew out of cracks in the wood.

And the neighborhood, if anything, was worse than Lowtown.  According to Hira, it didn’t flood quite as often as North Island, but it had been abandoned all the same.  Men and women sat on the steps of tiny houses and apartment buildings, spilling over into the streets as homeless people.  Trash covered the streets, and rust covered the streetlamps.

But it was out of the way.  And it had running water in one tap in the backyard, plus a toilet in the basement.

When I went to the second floor, I found a group of squatters.

Three men and two women sat on the floor upstairs, huddling close to each other and counting out money.  A cart with a bucket and mop sat off to the side, overflowing with cleaning supplies.  They’re janitors.  Or maids for hire.  Half of them looked foreign.  Nekean or Shenti, maybe.

They stared at me, shocked.

Then Hira came up the stairs, spotted them, and cocked her shotgun.  “Fuck off.  This is our place now.”

The squatters clambered back to the far end of the room, holding their hands up and shaking.  One of the men nodded, his eyes wide, and the rest of them nodded with him.

Scholars, she’s being vicious.  I knew she was just trying to scare them off, but still.  “It’s alright,” I said.  “We can find another place.”

“It wasn’t easy,” said Hira.  “Finding a spot in this part of town that wasn’t owned by a vigilant land-grubber or some pissed-off public housing official.  Most homeless people sleep on the street.  These ones weren’t here when I found this spot.  For all we know, they got here five minutes before we did.”

“All the more reason to let these people stay,” I said.  “They’ve done nothing wrong, other than having jobs that don’t pay them enough by the hour.”

“We’re – we’re part-time,” said one of the women.  “We don’t get paid by the hour.”

Jun strode up the stairs, joining us.  “Hi!” he said, beaming.  “How’s this.  We need a place to stay, you need a place to stay, it’s a solid house.  How about we become roommates?  How would you feel about that?”

They muttered amongst themselves.  Then one of the men gave a short, hesitant nod.

“In exchange, I could help fix the water and lights and clean the place up a bit.”

“They’re not evil.  But they are a risk.”  Left-Hira turned to us.  “The more they know about us,” she said under her breath, “the higher risk they are.  Sooner or later, our faces are going to be on some newspaper next to a big fucking sum of money.  They could report us to Paragon.”

“These people barely have anything.”  I spoke at a normal volume.  “I’m not going to kick them out just because you’re scared of strangers.  Let’s stay with them.”

Hira grit her teeth.  “Wes?”

“Your old place had a bubble bath,” sighed Wes.  “I’m going to miss bubble baths.  But if we’re staying in a fetid garbage heap, I don’t care if we have to share it.  Being homeless is a fucking nightmare.”

“Fine,” muttered Hira.  “But if this fucks us, I’m going to say ‘I told you so’ while they line up the firing squad.”

We moved our possessions in, what little we had, and found some blankets and pillows on the streets.  Jun boiled the fleas out of them with projection, and we set them on the ground floor, sweeping aside the broken glass to make room.

Jun promised that he would make upgrades, as long as he could hide his projection from our housemates.  But for now, next to Hira’s house, the ruin was cold, dusty, and broken.

“We’ll get through this,” said Jun, putting a hand on my shoulder.  “It’s going to be alright.”

We played a game of Jao Lu from a set Wes had scavenged, and then settled in for the first night.  I lay on my pile of blankets, staring at the ceiling long after the others fell asleep.  Maybe it was the new aches and pains, in my stomach, my lungs, my ears.  Maybe it was the anemia-induced chills.  Maybe it was the fact that Cardamom was gone.  Maybe for good.

Or maybe it was the realization, gradually settling in, bleeding into all my thoughts.  You are going to die.  Working as a mercenary, as a Grey Coat, was already the backup plan.  The doors had shut.

Jun sprucing up the house, my friends’ words of kindness, those were just hospice.  Making me comfortable in my final days.

At least I wouldn’t pass alone.  Six months ago, I would have passed away in Clementine’s basement, and all the other servants would have forgotten about me by the end of the month.

I have friends now.  That was a mercy.  I wanted to drink mulled cider with them, not die with them, but that had always been a long shot.

Eventually, the exhaustion overpowered the dread, and I fell asleep.

A hand shook me awake.  My eyes snapped open.

One of the squatters stood over me, her face masked in shadows.

My stomach wrenched.  I leapt out of my makeshift bed, staggering back, and reached for my machine pistol, before stopping myself.  It takes projection to assemble.  I couldn’t do it by hand.

I’d come this close to using projection, to slipping up and revealing our location to Lorne.

Before I could shout for help or grab my cattle prod, the woman held up her hands, stepping back from me in a non-threatening gesture.

If she wanted to hurt me, she would have just stabbed me in my sleep.

I exhaled, letting my shoulders relax, my heart thumping in my chest.  “What?” I said.

“Thank you,” the woman said.  “For your kindness.”

I shrugged.  “It’s basic decency.  It doesn’t deserve praise.”

“We’re all fighting together,” said the woman, her lips chapped.  “For a better life.  I can tell you’ve been fighting for a long time.  For survival.  To get through the day.”

Is this a trap?  She wasn’t wrong, though.  I nodded.

“But,” the woman said.  “If you want to fight for something more, call this number.”  She pulled a business card out of her pocket and extended it to me.

I took it.  Dim moonlight streamed through a half-broken window, illuminating its contents.

Foppington’s Bakery
Pastries, Bread, and Flour
515 Bay Avenue
59 – 1987 – 2170

I bent the card back and forth.  Mundane paper.  Not like the fancy, impervious cards that projectors carried.

Then I flipped it over.  A different phone number had been scrawled on the back, next to a green circle.

17 – 0302 – 5157
Say “Bicycle, Envelope, Flower, Circle”

My breath quickened.  “Is this for – “

“The forgotten, the tread upon, the ignored.  The souls who get hijacked, sacrificed, broken for the powerful, who get our memories wiped.  Who will never become Exemplars, or forge the stars in our image.  This isn’t just for our political group – the front.  This is for the real warriors.  The people who go to war.”  The woman clasped my hand, smiling.  “We are the common foundation.”

A chill spread across my skin.  Commonplace.  She’d given me a number to become a Green Hands.  A terrorist.

I held onto the card for almost a week, without telling anyone.  It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them, but I wasn’t sure if they’d want the same things with it.

I spent most of the week lying in bed, too tired to get up.  I couldn’t project, anyways, and with the state of my body, physical labor would just hasten the decay.

A month ago, I’d sprinted from project to project, studying or practicing or coming up with plans during every waking minute.  I could see my future as a Guardian, far above me, and I’d climbed towards it, even when my arms shook and my skin tore and I wanted to give up.

Ambition was its own sort of drug.  It drove you forward, sucking up more and more of your mind.  And when it vanished, the withdrawal could break you.

Before, I’d been losing sleep, going from classrooms to missions with aching, heavy eyes.  Now, I slept fifteen hours a day, which was somehow even more exhausting.  I got up to eat, shave, and use the bathroom, but that was it.  Lying down that long made my skin and muscles ache, and without showers, the stench of my body odor built up into a potent cloud around me.

But still, I lay there, trying to escape into my imagination, to escape the waves of disgust and loathing at my crumbling body.  The other members of Queen Sulphur talked sometimes, or went out, or brought back scrap metal to make repairs on the plumbing and lights and stove.  Wes and Hira practiced projection and natural science at the other end of the room.  But I didn’t join in.

It made me think of my study sessions with Tasia.  Hanging out on the grassy pavilion at Paragon Academy, or that Shenti bakery in Lowtown she’d taken me to.  Listening to her excitement, her passion for learning and her relentless, hard-working optimism after everything she’d been through.

Does she hate me, now?  Did she resent me for lying, for pretending to be Ernest Chapman?

I might die without ever knowing.

The rest of Queen Sulphur staked out Lorne’s mansion for a few days, at Wes’ insistence, to see if we could take him out to disable the tracer.  But the bastard was sleeping up in Paragon for the rest of the year.  He anticipated that, too.

I even tried feeding the obscure pattern-matching Praxis vocation I’d studied, running everything I’d learned about the Pyre Witch, Lorne, Isaac Brin through my mental spreadsheet along with the rest of my data, over and over again.  Maybe there could be some connection, some insight that could get me out.

But the technique was clumsy, basic.  It only could give me matches on the most obvious, clear connections.

It did nothing for me here.

On the seventh night after I got the card, a rainstorm passed over the city.  While it poured down around us, the rest of Queen Sulphur went upstairs and played Jao Lu with a pack of beers, joining up with the squatters.  Jun cobbled together a gramophone, and Wes played some of his favorite Steel Violet tunes on it.

Wes had invited me to join, of course, and Hira had told me to not be a ‘sad, grey puddle of angst’.  Jun had hugged me.

I’d still refused.  They don’t understand.  They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but at least they had a tomorrow.

While their shouting and laughter and swing music echoed through the ceiling, I sunk back into my pillow and thought about my parents.

It’s spring now.  Asparagus and peas and strawberries would be in season.  The Agricultural Islands supplied the majority of the Principality’s crops, so my hometown would be bustling.

I hope they’re alright.  They didn’t work on a farm, but a good season was good for everyone.  I’d dreamed of sending money back to them.  Maybe I could still take the money I had left and ship it to their address.  It wasn’t even a fraction of what I’d hoped for, but it was something.  It was leaving something positive behind.

I thought of Clementine, too.  In years past, when I was toiling away in her kitchen, lying on that mattress in her basement, I’d wondered.  I was a projector.  I had some measure of skill.  Why had Clementine never tried to hire me?

I’d have turned her down, of course.  I could be a maid for some petty criminal, but not a thug.  But why had she never asked?

But I understood, now.

On some deep, subconscious level, Clementine had always looked down on me.  She didn’t consider me worthy of such a position.

And she was right.

As the night went on, the others finished their fun and went to sleep around the ground floor.  But I stayed awake – I’d slept through most of the day, and found it difficult to fall asleep

So I shivered under my covers, listening to the rain outside, staring out the dark windows and taking slow, aching breaths.  I held up my left hand, examining my two grey, decayed fingers.

Then I came to a decision.

I threw off my blankets and stood up, pulling on a coat Jun had scavenged from the street.  Then I strode out the front door, into the storm.

Rain poured down around me, seeping into my shirt and dripping from my hair.  I stumbled down the sidewalk, and the rusty streetlamps flickered around me, casting a wavering orange light on the pavement.

My foot splashed into a puddle, soaking into my socks.  Lightning flickered in the sky, and thunder roared in the distance.  My wet clothes stuck to my skin, making me shiver even more.  Thanks to the tracer, I couldn’t even warm myself up with projection.

I half-jogged to the far end of East Island, and over a short bridge to Lowtown.  At this hour, in this storm, the streets of Elmidde had emptied.

This is far enough.  I scanned the street, walked towards a payphone, and pulled the business card out of my pocket.  My shaking fingers picked up the receiver, slid in a coin, and punched in the number.

It rang for a few seconds, and I huddled closer to the payphone under an overhang, shielding myself from the rain.

Then the line clicked.  Someone picked up.

“Bicycle, Envelope, Flower, Circle,” I said, my chest aching, my voice deep and hoarse and exhausted.

Welcome, brother,” a voice said on the other end.  “What can we do for you?

Brother.  Even with everything else, that still stung.

“I’m the Blue Charlatan,” I said.  “I want to speak to the woman with half a thumb.”  My hand shook.  “I want to talk to your leader.”

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9-B Silver Letters

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

We’re fucked, I thought.

But that was a fine starting point.  We’d been fucked before, and none of us were dead yet.

Of course, we’d never gone up against a full team of Guardians.  And the enemy knew our Vocations.  And we had no Voidsteel.  And I had a hangover.

But we were fine.  “I know what I’m doing,” I muttered under my breath.  “I know what I’m doing.”

I floated my new briefcase towards me, flipping it open and shooting paper out in every direction.  Then I checked the objects I’d flattened.  All secure.

While I was at it, I took the white crane mask out of the briefcase, the one Samuel had given me, and I put it on.  The enemies already knew my identity, but it seemed like a nice touch.

Mark!” shouted Ana with illusions.

The first step was simple: Buy time, learn the enemy.  Figure out who we had to target, and if the rest of her plan would even work.  Jun, on his way back, had jerry-rigged a telescope out of spare parts, so he and Right-Hira could spy on the alleyway from a distance, without exposing themselves to the police.  And Hira could wield his Vocation here too, using his Left body.

Cardamom coughed from the pale gas, his green fur standing on end.  I crawled towards him, but before I could reach him, the cat clambered onto a chair and leapt out one of the broken windows, yowling.

My stomach jerked.  No.  He was going to get hurt.

I closed my eyes.  Shouts rang out from the outside, but so far, not a single gunshot.  He must have gotten out.  Lucky green furball.

His human owners would have a harder time escaping.

I reached upstairs, feeling around Hira’s bedroom.  Where did I leave my gas masks?

“Here’s the situation,” said Hira, his voice soft.  “They’ve got cops holding a perimeter on all sides.  Pistols and rifles.  Voidsteel bullets, maybe.  Keeping their distance.”

Makes sense.  At close range, Ana’s Vocation could turn enemies in seconds, making them useless, or hazards.  She was forcing them to make this a long-range battle.

More gas grenades shot through the window, spewing white smoke.

“Six projectors,” said Hira.  “Oakes, Olwen, a squad of students led by some ginger with a blue scarf.  Basic body armor.  Students don’t have ABDs.  They – “  Hira stopped for a second.  “ہمیں کرنا ہو گا.”  His eyes widened in confusion.  “آخر کیا بات ہے؟?”

He’s speaking Ilaquan.  Hira relied on his Praxis Vocation to speak Common and other languages.  Was something wrong there?

“مجھے دس ہزار بھڑکتے نیزوں سے بھاڑ میں جاؤ,” Hira said.  Purple lightning crackled around his palms, then fizzled out, suppressed.

This is Adam Lynde’s Phoenix Squad,” said Ana, as Hira clamped down with more bowls on the new gas grenades.  “One of them has a long-range Whisper Vocation that can suppress the effects of skill-stitching while he concentrates.

They brought him in to counter us.  Without his stitching, Hira couldn’t talk to us at all, much less use his skills.  And Adam Lynde had been sabotaged by Ana before, at Lorne’s request during a squad battle.  Thanks to her, he was at risk of getting Ousted this summer, just like me.

Penny Oakes’ Vocation makes gaseous chemicals, and she can control their movement.  Lady Olwen’s Vocation is Whisper, not relevant for this fight – she’s just extra muscle.  Lynde himself can harden concrete in seconds.  Number two in his squad can stretch his Pith into a large area without losing energy – it’s good for scanning, it’ll let them track our movements.

That one would make it harder for Ana to fool people.  Another direct counter to us.  My stomach sank.

The last one creates a large number of frozen projectiles and –

Hundreds of icicles blasted through the windows, shattering what was left of the glass and slamming into the wall, shattering or sinking into the wood.  They formed a storm of ice, like a dozen machine guns were shooting at us from the outside, all loaded with tiny shards.

Hira flipped the coffee table over, using it as a shield.  The frozen bullets weren’t going fast enough to penetrate walls, but they were ripping through the cabinets in the kitchen, shattering Ana’s mug, tearing splinters off the table.  They whistled as they shot through the air, a sharp, piercing noise that made my ears ache.

A few more minutes of this, and we’ll have no cover left.  And if we stood up, the icicles would puncture our flesh like a hundred nail guns.

While we cowered from the barrage, a single thought rang through my head.  How the fuck did Paragon find out?  Had someone talked?  Was this because Ana told Professor Brin about the Pyre Witch?

More gas grenades flew in, and Hira was out of stuff to cover them with.  The white gas ballooned out from a dozen clouds, washing over the room and making me feel dizzy.

I finished fishing out the flattened gas masks I’d hidden in Hira’s bedroom, pulling them out beneath his bed legs, then floating them down the stairs.

Then I shot them into each of our hands, and slid mine on.  The dizzy sensation faded, and the gas coalesced around us, forming a dense cloud in the living room without spreading to the kitchen or upstairs.

Oakes’ Vocation.  Keeping the knockout gas where it would hurt us the most.  If we moved, it would follow us.

The icicles kept coming, thudding into Hira’s wallpaper, poking holes in the coffee table.  One sliced my arm, leaving a burning streak of pain.

None of Hira’s booby traps went off.  At Ana’s request, he’d turned them all off, so they wouldn’t get triggered by accident during the barrage.

And in the meantime, Hira floated a golf bag down from upstairs and pulled an anti-tank rifle from it, taking the place of his usual weapon.  His fingers fumbled with the clip, and he grabbed the barrel, clumsy and confused.  He relies on his stitched skills to shoot.  With the enemy suppressing him, he wouldn’t be able to hit a drunk elephant.

A pair of grenades dropped onto the floor, and turquoise gas hissed out of them, a new color.  It shot towards me, Ana, and Left-Hira, collecting around our heads.

Something sizzled, and a piece of Ana’s mask fell off.  I touched the filter of my mask, and bits of metal crumbled away.

Takonara,” I muttered.  This gas eats metals.  Penny Oakes was using it to break our defenses.

In less than a minute, our masks would be gone.  And we’d have to breathe it all in.

It’s time,” said Ana.  She made a flashing red light in front of Hira, a nonverbal signal.  “Wes?

I whipped the papers around me in the air, causing disturbances in the gas, making it difficult for Penny Oakes to sense our movements, since air projection was already so difficult.  Then I nodded, crawled over, and grabbed her hand.  The headache throbbed in my skull, made worse by the gas and the chaos.  This will be unpleasant.

Do you trust me?” she said.

Scholars help me, I do.

I reached.  She reached.  Green and blue lightning crackled around us, hidden from outside view with layers of paper walls.

My Pith melted down and flowed through my arm, like a river of lava from a volcano.  With one pair of eyes, I gazed at a desperate grey-haired boy, veins bulging on his neck.  With another, I stared at an exhausted young man with freckles.  I felt the warm stasis of one body, and lingering aches of another.

I blinked, gasped for breath, and clenched my fists.  Ana’s fists.  A successful body swap.  Now I was in her chassis.

A chill sensation bit into my skin, and my stomach ached.  The fingers on my right hand went numb, and my chest felt tight, short of breath.  In an instant, I felt tired.  Thick, heavy exhaustion stronger than any I’d felt in weeks, and a bitter chill on my skin from her anemia.

I’d been in Ana’s body before.  The decay is getting worse.  She was running out of time.

Next, I scanned the storm of icicles, feeling where they struck, the patterns and gaps in the assault.

There were a few spaces.  Parts where the wall or the door blocked the barrage of ice.  We lifted the table with projection and moved through those, walking towards the front exit.  Out of the cloud of gas and towards the enemy.

Then Ana, wearing my body, staggered out of the door, raising her hands above her head.  I floated pieces of paper around her, then let go of them, letting them drop to the ground.

That’s a solid body, I thought.  Please don’t break it.

The Guardians and students turned their attention to her.  A ball of white gas coalesced around her brown hair as she stumbled into the alleyway, ensuring she’d breathe in a knockout dose the moment her mask broke.

A tiny icicle hit her thigh – my thigh, and she staggered.  Another pair hit her arm and her shoulder, drawing lines of blood.  But nothing on her head and neck.  Nothing that would put her in the hospital.

We guessed right.  My mother had helped plan this attack.  She despised me, but a part of her still clung to me.  She wouldn’t want to kill the child she’d raised for nineteen years unless there was no way to avoid it.

And right now, it looked like Weston Ebbridge was surrendering.

Outside, the Guardians had split into two groups, blocking the street from both sides.  Ana couldn’t get both in range of her Vocation at the same time.

The left group contained the two real Guardians, Lady Olwen and Penny Oakes, along with the Hira-suppressor and icicle-shooter members of Phoenix Squad.  The right group included Adam Lynde himself, the concrete projector, and the one with the stretched Pith, who could sense everything in the vicinity to see through Ana’s illusions.

Ana moved towards the left group of enemies, but before she got within range, she collapsed, falling onto her belly.  Her mask broke beneath her, exposing her nose and mouth to the melon-sized ball of knockout gas floating around her head.

Her chest rose and fell, and her arms and legs went limp, as if she had breathed in the gas and had fallen unconscious.

With luck, Penny Oakes wouldn’t notice that Ana was wide awake, holding her breath, making tiny exhales to send disturbances through the gas.

And the Guardians thought Ana was me.  They’d still keep their distance, but they wouldn’t focus on that.  They were expecting illusions from the grey-haired skeleton, not the brown-haired alcoholic.

Adam Lynde floated a sphere of liquid concrete across the alleyway, and dumped it on Ana.  It splashed around her arms and legs and back, soaking everything except her chest and head.  My chest, my head.

She would be able to breathe, but not much else.

Through a hole in the coffee table, I spotted green lightning flickering on the right side of the alley, around Lynde’s fingers.

The thick sludge of the concrete began to harden, starting from the outside around her hands and feet and working in towards the center of her body.

Thanks to Ana’s illusions, we could see the process happening in real-time, seeing through the thick white gas to the action outside.  Ana’s Vocation had better range on me and Hira, so she could share her perceptions with us.

I felt my gas mask break down further, and sucked in one last breath as the metal pieces of the filter crumbled.

The concrete kept hardening, spreading around Ana’s body.

Now it gets complicated.

Then, Jun’s car slammed into the police barricade, sending up a deafening clang.  It exploded, and in a fraction of a second, the entire alleyway filled up with hot steam.

A steam explosion.  A worthy distraction, for a split second, just weak enough to avoid maiming anyone.  Every head turned in that direction, and the projectors shielded themselves from the blast.

At the same time, I made paper explode from the second floor, shot it towards the cops and Guardians, and cut every piece of exposed skin I could find.  A second layer of distractions.

And, at the same time as that, Ana dragged herself forward, projecting into her clothes – my clothes – and the concrete to pull herself a few yards towards her enemy.

The concrete scraped on the cobblestone, but made no vibrations.  No sound.  Most of it hadn’t hardened yet, and poured down her back in a thick grey sludge.

She got within range of a few soldiers, and two students: The Whisper specialist boy – the one suppressing Hira, and the icicle-shooter-girl.  Both had body armor, but neither of them had ABDs.

Ana made an illusion of two Hira bodies leaping out of the house, two blurs that would be just slow enough to get seen by the students.  That’s the real attack, our enemies would think.  The steam and paper were distractions for this.

The illusory Hiras launched illusory projectiles from beneath their clothes, dark brown spheres the size of grapes, with a tiny bit of red material at the end.  Micro-bombs.  Like the ones used by Shenti commandos, or my mother with her birds.  One would be enough to blow off an arm, or destroy a person’s brain.

The fake micro-bombs shot forward at rapid speeds, appearing to blow up the soldiers around Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl.  The trick wouldn’t fool the stretched-Pith student, who could see through Ana’s illusions, but for a few seconds, it would work just fine on these two.

The barrage of fake explosives turned to the Guardians.  There was no point trying to push them away, since Hira’s Pith would be inside them already, and the icicles were for attack, not defense.

But, as Guardians-in-training, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl had absurd reflexes.

So they dodged them all, bobbing and weaving and ducking like Nekean moon dancers, projecting into their combat suits to enhance their movement.

And in half a second, their dodging brought them next to Lady Olwyn, Penny Oakes, and a Humdrum soldier, all of whom were invisible to Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl.

The soldier, controlled by illusions, swung the butt of his rifle into Whisper Boy’s face, bashing in his nose.  The act broke his concentration, freeing Hira’s skill-stitching for an instant.

A moment later, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl collided with the two adult Guardians, bumping into Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes.  Their body armors scraped up against each other, and the steam was pushed away, clearing the alleyway.

In that instant, Hira fired.

He squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession.  The anti-tank rifle thudded into his shoulder with a pair of dull booms, loud enough to make my ears ache.  He aimed into the wall of pale gas from the very back of the room, holding his breath and lying on his stomach.

He was out of Ana’s range, unable to see through the gas.  But on the outside, his other body had a sightline to the alleyway through Jun’s telescope.  He always knew the position of his bodies, relative to one another, which meant he could aim with one body and fire with another.

The student’s body armor could stop a pistol, or even an ordinary rifle bullet, but not an anti-tank weapon.  However, Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes, the proper, full-time Guardians, had autonomous bullet defenses – that could stop any bullet, as long as it wasn’t Voidsteel.

But, an ABD had limits.  It hovered a foot or so around a person, slowing and deflecting bullets that came within its field.

So if you put a gun to someone’s forehead and fired, the bullet would go through the ABD.  There wouldn’t be enough space to slow it down or deflect it.

Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl?  Their bodies were full of Pith, and they had no bullet defenses.  Rashi’s Second Law meant an ABD couldn’t deflect a bullet inside a person’s body.  If you acted as a human shield for someone, at close enough range, you could disable their ABD.

So when the fifty-caliber steel rounds blew through the students’ chests, they punched through the Guardians too.

Two bullets.  Four targets.  All executed with perfect timing thanks to Ana’s illusions.

Penny Oakes, Lady Olwen, Whisper Boy, and Icicle Girl all collapsed, bleeding from their chests, coughing.

They would all get fresh bodies in time, and suffer no permanent damage to their Piths, but they were disabled for the fight.  The enemies would have to spend resources to evacuate them and save their lives.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle, aiming at Adam Lynde and the stretch-projector.  Before he could fire, Lynde lifted a wall of concrete between him and the window, and hardened it, barely visible through the gas.  Green lightning crackled around him.

The stretch-projector knows exactly what happened.  We no longer had the element of surprise.

And then, Ana’s illusions vanished.

The alleyway became invisible again, cloaked by Oakes’ wall of white gas.  She’s asleep.  For real this time.  During the commotion, she must have inhaled the knockout gas.

She’s going to get caught.  

My lungs burned, a building pressure in my chest from holding my breath in Ana’s body.  This wasn’t part of the plan.  Outside, the girl was exposed.  And now, the Guardians would know she wasn’t me – they might shoot to kill.

Hira stared at me, and his eyes flitted to the staircase.  I knew what he was thinking.  On the second floor, we could get gas masks and equipment, escape before the enemy reinforcements sealed the trap.

Maybe the Ebbridge family was sealed off forever, now.  But maybe not.

And to rescue Ana, we’d have to venture out into the open, through the gunshots.

Strive to become an Exemplar.  If it weren’t for Ana, I’d be a hollowed-out, depressed thrall of Lyna Wethers.  Or dead, a dozen times over.  I owed her, for more things than one.

I didn’t have to be here.  I had a choice.

But the answer was pretty obvious.

I spent my last breath on a shout.  “Help Ana!”

In the chaos and smoke, Left-Hira and I scrabbled forward towards Ana, reaching our Piths forward into her clothes and the concrete blocks around her limbs.

Together, we pulled, yanking Ana back towards the front door, towards safety.  Green and purple lightning crackled around us, and a headache exploded in my skull.  My pieces of paper drifted to the ground, as I put all my concentration and effort into this one task.

In response, figures moved through the smoke, charging towards the unconscious Ana as she scraped across the ground.  Humdrum cops, or the two remaining projectors.  The footsteps grew louder and louder.

Too fast.  They’d reach us before we could escape, and they had functioning gas masks.  In our state, they’d crush us.

We pulled Ana over the doorstep, my lungs screaming, and Hira clapped his hands together, slamming the door shut.  Something clicked in the wall.

A cop burst through the door, bashing it down with his shoulder.

Then, electricity ran through his body, reducing him to a pile of twitches.

A second and third cop ran over the doorstep, onto Hira’s rug.  A pair of pressure plates sank, and two concussion grenades dropped on their heads.  They exploded with an ear-splitting crack, and the two cops fell over, clutching their heads.

Hira’s booby traps.  The stretch-projector could sense them, but the cops couldn’t.

And the cops were wearing gas masks.  We weren’t.  And with Oakes out of the picture, the turquoise metal-destroying gas had dispersed, leaving the filters intact.

So we took the cops’ masks.  Or at least, we tried.

We stretched our Piths towards the chin straps.  Someone else’s Pith was already inside, blocking us from projecting into them.  The stretch-projector.  The one who could project into a huge volume, even if weakly.

So we pushed, brute-forcing the stretch-projector’s Pith out.  Green and purple lightning flickered around us, the headache grew, pressing the edges of my skull with a burning sensation.

But the stretch-projector pushed back, keeping us out, holding his position.  Green lightning flickered from through the smoke.

No masks for us.  Which meant no breath.  My lungs screamed for air, a void opening in my chest.

While we reeled, our chests burning, the students attacked.

Only two enemy projectors remained – Adam Lynde, the concrete projector, and the stretch-projector.  They burst through the wall, wood splinters raining down around them.  None of the booby traps activated for them.  The stretch-projector could sense them all, and dodge or disable every single one.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle towards the pair.  As he aimed down the scope, Adam Lynde shot concrete at the gun.  The grey sludge blocked the sights, sliding down the barrel, sinking into the mechanisms.  Lynde clenched his fist, and it hardened.

Hira tossed the rifle aside, and it thudded onto the floor.  At the same time, he rolled to his left, and his pitch-black trench shotgun floated into his hands.

In response, Adam Lynde shot a dozen concrete blocks forward, each the size of a melon.  They floated in front of the shotgun barrel, moving as it moved.

Hira fired, and the concrete exploded.  Another block took its place, as the Ilaquan dove behind the kitchen counter, bobbing and weaving.  How is he doing all that in one breath?

The stretch-projector came a second later, floating orbs of water around him.  I shot a storm of paper at him from all sides, and the orbs stretched, forming thin walls of water to cover his skin.

Another counter to our projection.  Between the armor and the water barriers, my paper was all but useless.  I assembled it into barriers in front of the enemy’s eyes, blocking their vision.

And while Lynde was focused on blocking the shotgun, turning his back to me for an instant, I separated two pieces of paper, unflattening a grenade behind the small of his back.  It exploded, throwing Lynde forward with a splash of red.

Adam Lynde dropped, bleeding from his back and arms.  The concrete blocks dropped with him.

As the stretch-projector turned to look at the noise, Hira threw his shotgun forward.  It spun through the air, stopped next to the student, and pumped four rounds into the boy’s kneecap.

The body armor stopped the first shot.  The second one blew holes in it.  The third and fourth ones reduced the knee to a red mush.

I projected forward, ripped off the boy’s mask, held it to my face, and gasped, sucking in a desperate breath.  My chest rose and fell, as I wheezed and coughed, securing the straps around my head and chin.  My throat burned, and my shoulders shook.  Ana’s shoulders.  Her lungs are decaying too.

Hira did the same, and both of us fell to our knees in the white gas, hyperventilating, my head spinning, and my chest aching.

Then, gunshots rang from the outside, and bullets shot through the smoke.

We flattened ourselves to the ground, taking cover as my ears rang.  Humdrum police.  They couldn’t see us, but I had no ABD, and Ana wasn’t wearing her blue combat suit.  Now that the Guardians were out of the line of fire, the cops could shoot up the house as much as they wanted.

I crawled over to Ana and fit a gas mask over her face, bullets whizzing over my head.

Hira crawled next to me and projected into the concrete, making cracks spiderweb out all over.  Purple lightning flickered around him, and the concrete broke into pieces, freeing Ana’s limbs.

At the same time, I pulled a trio of flattened concussion grenades from my briefcase, floated them out the windows, and let them pop back to three dimensions.

They exploded among the cops, making my ears ache even more.

The gunfire paused.  Now.  We grabbed Ana under her arms.  I projected into Ana’s torso, helping to lift her, and Hira did the same for her legs.

Together, we sprinted up the stairs to the second level, gasping for breath.  We projected into the wooden floor beneath us, muffling our footsteps, and set Ana down.

The gunshots started up again, a deafening hail, but none of the bullets went to the second floor.  They still think we’re downstairs.

I ripped open Hira’s cabinets, tossing aside shirts, beer cans, and bags of tobacco.  “Where are the smelling salts?” I hissed, speaking with Ana’s voice.

Hira stuffed his hands into a hole in the mattress, pulled out a glass bottle with tufts of cotton, and tossed it to me.  I unscrewed it, lifted Ana’s mask, and held it under her nose.  The knockout gas was thin up here, so she could go without her mask a little.

Ana’s eyes shot open, and her lungs sucked in a deep breath.  She coughed, spluttering, and I put the mask back over her.  Her eyes darted around the room, taking in the new information.  The gunshots downstairs.  Hira grabbing a go bag from under the floorboards, stuffing Ana’s combat suit into it with his black sniper rifle and every other weapon in the room.  Along with his purple hookah.

“We took out the projectors,” I said, leaning into her ear so my voice wasn’t drowned out by the gunshots.  “But the cops are still shooting at us.”

She nodded, still confused, and pushed herself to a standing position.   The girl wobbled back and forth, dizzy from the gas, and she grabbed my hand to keep herself from falling.  “I’m okay,” she slurred in my voice, a surreal sound.  “I’m okay,” she repeated with illusions.

You don’t look okay.

Thanks,” she said, her eyes unfocused.  “For not leaving me out there.

I slapped her arm.  My shoulder – her shoulder ached.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  Of course we got you.”

While Ana regained her senses, Hira walked over to a wall, clenched his fists, and slammed them together.

The plaster wall crumbled before him, spilling onto his bedroom floor, silent.  Grey morning sunlight washed in, revealing a fire escape on the building next to us.  Hira’s secret backdoor.

Hira leapt out, grabbing onto the fire escape on the building next to us.  The metal didn’t clang, silenced by his projection.

A police officer stood on the level above him, wielding a shotgun.  She aimed it at Hira, sticking the barrel through a hole in the metal grates, and pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked.  Nothing.  Jammed.

Hira jumped up and grabbed the metal grate above him with his bare hand.  The cop fell over, twitching, as electricity ran through his body.

Hira clambered up the stairs and grabbed the rifle, pulling out the clip along with a single green bullet, wiggling it between his fingers.  A Voidsteel round.  That could come in handy.

Ana groaned, still half-asleep, and limped forward to the hole in the wall.  Hira and I projected into her clothes, lifting her across the gap and onto the fire escape.  She sagged over and grabbed the railing, pulling herself up the steps.

I followed her, and the three of us climbed up the fire escape, one flight at a time, towards the cloudy grey sky.  Hira’s neighboring building stretched seven stories tall, filled with dingy apartments.  Once we got to the top, we could leap from rooftop to rooftop and make our escape in a side alley.

In the street below, one of the cops pointed at us, shouting.  Bullets whizzed around us, taking chunks out of the brick wall.

Then, as we climbed the fire escape, a wave of heat washed over us, and the top half melted.

In an instant, the cold metal turned into an orange magma, dripping down the walls and pouring over the stairs beneath, collecting in pools around us.  I could feel the heat on my face, radiating from all around us.

There’s only one projector I know with a Vocation like that.

Lorne Daventry leaned over the edge of the rooftop, smiling down at us.  The edge of his pinky finger touched the molten metal.

“Morning, Ernest.”  He waved at us with his other hand.  “You’ve been up to some mischief, haven’t you?”

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9-A Silver Letters

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Ana

At Lorne Daventry’s spring equinox party, I wore a new body.

“Are you sure?” I’d said to him, wondering if this was a trap, or a prank.

“It’s not a request, Ernest,” said Lorne, glaring at me as we strode across a bridge in Paragon.  “You are to attend my party, and I won’t have you looking like a shriveled tumor with two broken fingers.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, glancing ahead, at the banquet hall towering over us.  “That’s very generous.”

“It’s nothing,” said Lorne.  “Just in our vault, my family has an Allen Norrys, a pair of Johen Wardes, a Luca Hagan, and a vintage Maxine Clive.  That one’s female, but it’s the first-ever chassis model that was sold in the Eight Oceans.  Worth a lot.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’ll have fun,” he said.  “Or you won’t, but it’ll be educational either way.”  He floated an embroidered invitation out of his bag.  “Show me your midterm grades again.”

I fished my transcript out with my good hand and extended it to him.  There weren’t many classes on it – just Harpy’s Tactics course, Oakes’ chemistry, and Hewes’ physics – Grey Coats didn’t get a full roster.

But still, I’d done far better than expected.

Lorne pursed his lips.  “It’s sink or swim, and you’re not drowning.”  That was probably the closest he ever got to a compliment.  “And Matilla likes you.”

Matilla Geffray.  The girl who controlled sand.  Kaplen’s replacement, who joined in Lorne’s bullying without the slightest hesitation.  Who’d been assaulted at the start of the school year by Commonplace thugs with bats.

Lorne floated the invitation into my palm.  “Strict dress code.  Don’t be late.”

I still hate you.  For how he’d treated Kaplen, how he punched down to all the other students.  How callous he was.

But still, I’d worked so hard for this.  I’d spent so many nights awake in my pod, scribbling notes and practicing for exams until my hand ached.  I’d washed so many of his clothes, fetched him so many meals.  After class, I’d reviewed the most difficult concepts from every angle I could think of, asked Tasia a hundred questions until they fell into an intuitive shape.

I couldn’t help but feel a little proud.  A little grateful.

The morning of the party, Lorne gave me the body and suit, so I could get used to it.  A male body, even a healthy one, still felt uncomfortable.  But it was nice to have all ten fingers working again, to not be shivering all the time, to have normal skin.

The young man in the mirror stood tall, with bulging muscles, a sharp jawline, and short blonde hair.  Large, round eyes stared back at me in the mirror.  A handsome form, certainly.  The exact kind of form Lorne needed me to have.

The worst symptoms had vanished, for the present.  But the twinge of disgust, of wrongness was still there.

For an instant, my mind jumped back to where it had been at the end of last summer.  And I imagined stealing this body.  Using my Vocation to get a ferry ticket to a foreign country and leaving this all behind, even if I didn’t love this body.

But I banished the thought.  Why throw away everything now?  I was making good money on Isaac Brin’s payroll.  And the path to Paragon was looking clearer and clearer.

I arrived at the party half an hour early, just to be safe, striding to Lorne’s mansion from the Paragon cable car building.  If I was late, he would yell at me.

As expected, his family’s estate was massive, especially given the city he was in.  His stone front wall extended as far as the eye could see.  To get to the mansion from the front gate, you had to cross three separate bridges over a network of canals, past five-tiered fountains and beneath intricate wooden pavilions.

The guards didn’t let me in, so I spent half an hour hanging around the front gate, sweating into my grey suit and nursing a stomachache.  Don’t fuck this up, I repeated to myself.  Don’t fuck this up.

When the party finally began, most of the guests showed up late.  Only a handful of them were at the gates when Lorne strode across the bridges and clapped his hands, swinging them open.  “Welcome!” he shouted.  “I hope you’re ready to make some memories.  And then get so drunk you forget them all.”

Cheering and laughter.  I blinked, and for a second, I was back on the yacht, the Golden Moon, surrounded by rich people in masks.  Staring across the deck at Kaplen as he vanished.

I blinked.  Everyone else had already started for the mansion.

I jogged after him.

Inside, servants ushered us into a lavish ballroom, sporting beacon vine chandeliers, floating blue lanterns, and windows extending many stories from the floor to the ceiling, letting in the evening light.  Upbeat swing music played from an amplified gramophone on a raised dais.

In less than a minute, the older nobles gathered into tight circles, sipping cocktails and complaining about Commonplace, or fuming about how well their rivals’ Ilaquan stocks were doing.  Ilaqua’s GDP had eclipsed the Principality’s this quarter for the first time in history, and people weren’t happy about that.

More than half of the guests were Paragon students, though.  But they had made tight circles too, muttering about professors and squad rankings and exams.  Others convened in adjacent, smaller parlors, filling them up with tobacco smoke.

It reminded me of the other servants at Clementine’s house.  Setting a hard boundary.  Pushing people out.

And I was easy to push out.  Lorne had given me a grey suit, the same color as my uniform, but everyone else wore in blue, or black, or white.  The only others in grey were the servants.

So I hovered to the side, glancing around with a busy, focused expression, so it looked like I was alone on purpose, avoiding the towering plates of appetizers and pastries, declining offers of white wine or cocktails.  This was just a temporary body.  I didn’t want to taste anything until I’d earned it.  And I’d lost all my appetite.

After half an hour of discomfort, Lorne approached me, and I found out why he’d dragged me here.

He pulled me in front of a tall woman in a shimmering blue gown, made from thousands of tiny scales, like the skin of a fish.  Her wavy maroon hair had been tied back in a bun, and she smiled at me.

Isabelle Corbin.  The Symphony Knight.  The Scholar of Music.

And Lorne Daventry’s mother.  A common-born Guardian who had refused to give her surname up to the noble she married.

She shook my hand.  “Isabelle Corbin,” she said.  “Wonderful to meet you.  Wonderful.”  Though she made eye contact with me, she seemed to almost be looking past me, like she was straining to see something behind me.

“Er – Ernest Chapman,” I said.  I’d spent time around celebrities at Paragon, but this was a whole new level.

“Ernest has a disease,” Lorne said.  “A terminal one.  We’re trying to get him into Paragon as a proper student, so he can transfer to a fresh body and get his feet under him.  I’ve been helping him study, boosting his grades up.  It’s a lot of work, but I think we can both speak to the results.”

Corbin’s smile widened, and she nodded.  “Good, Lorne.  That’s very good.  A noble of this nation has a duty.  When you reach down and pull someone up, you live up to your country’s promise.”

Her smile seemed forced, her words rote and formulaic.  Is she even paying attention?

Before I could ponder this, Lorne pulled me to another noble, a handsome man with long black hair.  He introduced me, and launched into a conversation with him, too fast and complex for me to want to say anything.

Then the conversation turned to me, and Lorne gave him the same speech.  “Great tragedy,” he said.  “Ernest’s illness.  But I’ve been trying to get him into Paragon as a proper student, get him a fresh body so he can get his feet under him.  It’s a lot of work, getting his grades up in a school like this, but I think we can both speak to the results.”

He moved to another person, and we went through the same thing all over again.  Talking of my illness.  Praising his generosity.

Then we did it again.  And again.

And I understood.  I’m social capital for him.  A trophy of his benevolence to parade around.  Just like Clementine.

But Lorne was actually doing something for me.  If it helped get me into Paragon, I could endure this.

In between bouts of parading me around, Lorne dragged me aside and gave me orders to pass on to his butlers.  Refilling food, replacing one wine with another, yelling at the chef so that the Lord of Buxworth got his favorite dish, picking up his mail from the front to see if anything urgent arrived.

I welcomed the opportunity to leave the party.  When I was outside that ballroom, I could catch my breath, take in the cool night air.

When I showed him the mail, he tossed it all aside, except for one engraved one in cursive from a luxury car company, and a sealed silver letter from some unknown address.

“Silver means it’s from Paragon,” he said, tucking it into his shirt.  “Go talk to the chef.  Tell him to double the custard tarts for the second half of the night.”

It was strange.  Even though he was using me, even though he could be cruel at the drop of a hat, a part of me knew he had grown to respect me, to some extent.  He believed in the survival of the fittest, and I’d managed to survive.

Lorne took me to a coffee table at the edge of the party, where a man in a beige suit lounged back on a couch, alone.  A long black beard hung from his face, and the rest of his hair stretched almost to his shoulders.

The man looked peaceful, like he’d just woken from a restful sleep.

Headmaster Tau.  The strongest projector in the world.  Or the former strongest projector, since his aging Pith had filled up with Null Particles.

I gaped at him.  This was Nicholas Tau.  The man who’d built the Spirit Block, saved the country countless times, and instructed generations of students at Paragon with his patient wisdom.

And he was eating crab cakes.  A whole platter of them.  Crispy, brown, each with a dollop of caper sauce on top.  He ate them with a silver fork, eyes lighting up with glee at every bite.

“Good evening,” he said to me.

“Er – Ernest Chapman, sir,” I said.  “I’m Ernest Chapman.”  Then I forced my lips shut, trying not to look a fool in front of the most famous person I’d ever met.

Lorne started his whole speech about me and his generosity.  Halfway through, Headmaster Tau lifted a finger.  “Not to interrupt, Mr. Daventry, but I believe your mother wished to talk with you about a private matter.  I can keep your friend entertained in the meantime.”

“Of course, sir,” said Lorne.  He walked away, shooting me a glare that said don’t make me look bad.

Then he was gone.  Headmaster Tau beckoned me to sit.  He extended the platter of crab cakes to me.

I held up my hand, though they looked delicious.  “No thank you, sir.  I’m stuffed enough as is.”  I have to earn it.

“More for me,” Tau said, biting into another.  He smiled at me, an easy, simple expression that made me feel warm.  “You seem ill at ease, Ernest.”

“Is it that obvious?”  I chuckled, sounding more nervous than I wanted to.  Say as little as possible.  I didn’t want to let anything slip.  Tau had been one of the smartest men in the world, and had at least some of his wits still about him.  “I’m not used to gatherings like these.”

“Few people are,” he said, leaning back.  “There is a dance here, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, and these people have trained in it their whole lives.  Do not feel guilty for not knowing the steps.”

He seems so lucid.  This was nothing like Paragon’s opening banquet, where he’d struggled to even get through a pre-written speech.

“I’ve been to many gatherings such as these,” he said.  “I learned to smile and nod at the right times, but they are not in my blood.”  He spread sauce over a crab cake.  “So I sit, find something tasty, and relax.  And I don’t worry about what they’ll think of me.”

He makes it sound so easy.  And, to be sure, the man’s calm expression hadn’t budged an inch.

“If, um, if I may ask then, sir.  Why did you come here tonight?  I don’t think anyone could force someone of your stature to attend an event, especially – “  At this age.  I stopped myself.

“Especially because I’m a doddering, ancient goat?” he said, still smiling.

“I – I’m sorry, sir, I shouldn’t have – “

“There is no shame in stating the obvious.”  Tau held up a hand.  “In this stage, I am still sharp enough to know my condition, to be aware of my mental decline as it happens.  On most days, at least.”

Is that a blessing or a curse?

“And my age makes me rather unpopular at parties,” he said.

“May I ask why?”  Keep asking questions.  The more he talked, the less I’d have to explain about myself.

“I remind these people.  That no matter how young and powerful they are, they’re going to grow old and die.  I might not have wrinkles or white hair, but every time I forget something, every time my mind wanders, they feel a whiff of terror.”  I leaned back on the cushions.  “One day, these people will be right where I’m sitting, in a gathering like this, confused at all the music and too slow to keep up with the young people.”

He doesn’t make it sound very appealing.

“But it’s not so bad,” he said.  “I am grateful that on a beautiful day such as this, I can be sound enough to hold a conversation with remarkable young people like you, Ernest.”

I shook my head.  “I’m no one remarkable.”  Still, I felt a twinge of pride.  That’s what he thinks of me?

“Mr. Daventry seems to disagree,” said Tau.  “Those such as you are quick to downplay your talents.  But that’s fine.”

“That’s…fine?”

He nodded.  “Your destiny will reveal itself in time.”

A thrill rushed through my veins.  He thinks I have a destiny?  But I was just an assistant, a Grey Coat who came from nothing, who failed her admissions test three times in a row.  But he thinks you have a destiny.

I had to remind myself to not get swept up too much, not to let slip my true identity.

“What about your destiny, sir?” I said.  Fuck.  Why had I said that?  I was still on the rush.   “Is there anything you can do about Commonplace?”  Or the Shenti, or the rising water.  “You’re still the strongest projector in the world.  They say you can level mountains.”

“When you’re young,” he said.  “You learn how to level mountains.  But when you’re old, you realize that leveling mountains doesn’t solve anything.  All it does is make a bunch of rubble.”  He munched on a crab cake.  “Now, putting a mountain back together.  That’s a Vocation I’d pay to learn.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow.  When the world was in this much chaos, how could anyone leave things the way they were?  But maybe that wasn’t what he meant.

Headmaster Tau laughed.  “Of course, I’d also pay for a Vocation to make crab appear out of thin air.  So maybe I don’t know so much.”  He finished his plate, brushing crumbs out of his beard.  “My time has passed.  I have sacrificed too much to bring us to this point.  I will rise when I am called, but can only do it so many times before I fade.”

Lorne stepped next to me, glaring at me with a forced smile.  “Chapman,” he said.  “May I speak with you in private?”

The headmaster bowed his head to me.  “It was lovely to meet you, Ernest.”

“Thank you – “  I bowed back to him, stiff in my movements.  “It – it was nice to meet you too, sir.”

I don’t think I’ll ever understand that man.  But that had to be a common effect of his.  When you took one of the smartest minds in the world and choked half its soul particles, strange things were bound to happen.

And he said I had a destiny.  He hadn’t talked to anyone else at the party.

Lorne pulled me aside.  “My chef is missing from the kitchen,” he said.  “My servants are idiots, and busy anyways.  Find him, now.  Before everything goes to shit.”

I nodded.  “Understood.”  I remembered what the chef looked like, after picking up a meal from him last month.

He’s either sick, in the bathroom, or smoking somewhere.  I moved through the party, glancing at students sipping cocktails and Epistocrats in evening gowns.

Before I could reach the ballroom’s double doors, a girl’s voice drifted through the crowd, familiar.  “ – and therefore, the inhibitory effect can be reduced, or erased.”

Tasia.  I spun towards the source of the voice.  Tasia stood near the middle of the room, gripping a full wine glass, dark circles under her eyes.  Bunches of tangles hid under her straight black hair.

She must have arrived late.

I recognized the man and woman she was talking to.  Lord Lynde and Lady Olwen.  Two of Paragon’s reigning experts on pneumatology.  They each stood half a head taller than Tasia, looking down on her with bemused curiosity.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Tasia, pleading.  “The Great Scholars must have found a way to remove Null Particles.  And we can too.”

“The Great Scholars drowned,” Lady Olwen said.  “And crackpots have been dreaming up immortality schemes for millennia.  Nobody’s solved it.”

“It’s not an immortality scheme.  And Humdrums had been dreaming of flight for millennia.  They didn’t figure that out ‘til a few decades ago.”

Lord Lynde smirked.  “You’re suggesting that we take scientific cues from Humdrums?”

“How about this, then?” said Tasia.  “Semer Bekyn invented the first Maxine Clive in your lifetime.  Before then, fabricated bodies were nothing more than a fantasy.”

“It’s all been tried,” said Lady Olwen.  “Voidsteel scalpels.  Particle burning.  Specialized mind-spheres.  Using the Synapse and the Nadir.”

“I addressed those in my report,” said Tasia.  “I’m not suggesting any of those things.”

“What next?” said Lord Lynde.  “Should we turn mud into gold, drain the oceans, bring the stars back?”

Forge the Stars in Your Image,” said Tasia.

“You do know that’s an expression, right?” said Lady Olwen.  “It’s just saying you should imprint yourself onto the world.  It’s a metaphor, not an endorsement for….misplaced hubris.”

“Listen,” said Lord Lynde.  “It is noble and fine that students like yourself carry themselves with passion and vision.  And your grades are admirable.  But rather than looking to us for research help on this daydream, you should do something practical with your talents.”

“Lady Hewes in my department is sharpening several Praxis vocations for spatial awareness,” said Olwen.  “I’m sure she’d welcome the help.”

“Annotating old books,” said Tasia, barely hiding her contempt.  “Squeezing out a few percentage points on techniques that haven’t changed for decades.”

“Careful,” said Lady Olwen.

“This is the greatest projection school in the Eight Oceans,” said Tasia, desperation slipping into her voice.  “So why is progress so stifled?  Why is so much of the Great Library locked away from everyone?”  She stared at the two of them.  “What do you care more about?  Stability, or building a better future?”

“Do not forget your place, Henry,” said Lord Lynde, raising his voice.  “Your admission here is a gift.  Not a certainty.”

In unison, the two of them strode off.

Henry.  That had to be Tasia’s old name.

Tasia stalked into a side room, hyperventilating, turning her head down and hiding her face from the other guests.

I froze for a moment.  Lorne will punish you if you fail.  If his guests went without food and his party was anything less than perfect.  And he’d forbidden me from talking to Tasia.  If he caught me, I could lose so much progress, hurt my chances of getting into Paragon.

But she’s your friend.  And she probably needed help.

Fuck it.  I jogged after Tasia.  Lorne’s chef could wait.

Tasia moved through drawing rooms and antechambers, past bookshelves and pianos until she reached a balcony, overlooking the rest of the Daventry’s estate.

She cried, wiping her tears and snot on the sleeve of her dress.  I approached her from behind, calling out.  “Tasia.  Is this a bad time?”

Tasia glanced back at me, then looked away, hunching over the balcony.  I stepped next to her, and looked at the view for a moment.

The balcony overlooked the network of canals, bridges, and gardens around the mansion.  Lines of glowing blue lights illuminated the pathways beneath us.

And from this angle, we couldn’t see the city around us.  It was if Elmidde had vanished.  Like this mansion was the only place in the world.

“Did you hear that conversation?” Tasia said.

I nodded.  “Most of it.”

“Those two were my best chance,” she sighed.  “Of getting my project off the ground.  Of creating a cure for Null Particles, or at least something.  They want me to work on Praxis Vocations,” she said.  “But those make more Null Particles.  The more Praxis Vocations you use, the faster your mind ages, which puts hard limits on how many you can install.  We can’t truly unlock our potential until we learn how to remove them.  If we can’t fix that, we’ll never become Exemplars.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She squeezed her bloodshot eyes shut.  “I thought that if I did the right work, if I showed them enough promise, that I could convince them.”  She shook her head.  “So stupid.  My sister.  Sarah, she’ll – “

She’ll drown in Null Particles.  And she’ll be lucky to live another year.  What could I say in the face of that?  What words could possibly comfort her?

“A barbaric age,” she muttered.  “We live in a barbaric age.”

“For what it’s worth,” I said.  “I believe in your mission.”  Though I wish you hadn’t Ousted Wes as part of it.  That still sat in my stomach, burning a hole in my abdomen.  “I still believe in you.”

“I can’t stay,” she said.  “I have to get back to work.”  We broke our embrace.  “It’s alright.  This just means I can solve more of the problems myself.  Get all the credit.”  She smiled at me through her tears.  “It’ll be fun.”

Tasia’s failed so many times.  Despite her talent, despite her knowledge of pneumatology.  And yet, she didn’t stop.  She kept chasing that dream with her love of learning, her hunger for knowledge.

If I’d been in her place, if I was as gifted, would I have done the same thing?  Maybe.  Tasia had such a grand vision.  Maybe that was a privilege.  All I could think about was getting through the day.

It sounded nice.  Imagining a future, instead of the past.

“I’ll help you,” I said, clasping her hand.  “I’ll do everything I can.  If I get Lorne’s favor, I’ll use that too.”  I stared at her.  “I promise.”

Tasia stepped forward, hesitant, and hugged me.  I wrapped my arms around her, hugging her back.  Is this what she wants?  Will this help?

When we broke apart, she just nodded at me, and strode back through the rooms, heading for the exit of the mansion.

When I returned to the hallway, Lorne was waiting for me.  A man slouched over behind him, his hair covering his face.

“Enjoy your chat?” Lorne said.

My heart wrenched in my chest.  A freezing sensation spread over my skin.  He saw me.  He’d seen me talking to Tasia.  He’d forbidden me from talking to her, and I’d done it anyway.

There was only one way to protect myself, to keep my entire future from collapsing.

I knelt in front of Lorne, staring at the ground.  “My apologies, sir.  How can I repay this?”

Lorne pulled me to my feet, a pensive expression on his face.  The silver envelope I’d picked out sat in his coat pocket, unopened.  Then, he pointed at the man behind him, beckoning him to approach.  His breath smelled like cheap liquor.

I recognized the light brown beard, the slim jaw and small eyes.  That’s the Daventry’s chef.  Lorne had found him before me.

“Poor Joshua was stressed from the day’s work, so he decided to go and get drunk in a bathroom instead of doing his job.  Thanks to his laziness, the kitchen is in chaos now.”  He looked at me.  “You want to repay me?  Nudge him.”

A spike of pain jabbed into my stomach.  What?

“We’ll memory-wipe him after, it’ll be no fuss.  Make him start punching that wall as hard as he can.”

I’d done a lot of petty, cruel bullying at Lorne’s orders.  I’d ruined people’s evenings, vandalized their possessions, sabotaged their homework.  More than enough to make me loathe myself.

But never physical violence.  Never mental hijacking.

“Are – are you sure, sir?” I said.  “It’s your mansion, he might damage the wall.”  Maybe I can convince him away from this.

“It’s stone,” he said.  “It’s not going to break.”

“Someone might see,” I said.

“They won’t,” he said.  “People don’t come this way often.”

I closed my eyes, blood rushing in my ears.  Every time I thought I made progress with Lorne, every time he seemed to show some sliver of humanity, he went off and did something like this.

I threw up visual and auditory illusions on Lorne, hiding me and the chef’s actions from him.  Then I muttered to the chef, Joshua.  “I’m not Nudging you.  Go over to the wall.  Do as I say, and he won’t hurt you.”

Confused, the chef nodded, and walked over to the wall.

Go over to the wall,” I said with my Lorne illusions, making it seem like I was Nudging him.  “Start punching it as hard as you can.  Don’t stop or make any noise.

I made the illusions look and sound like he was punching the wall, fists thumping into the marble, face contorting in pain.

A few seconds passed.  I added blood on the marble, making the chef’s knuckles torn and bleeding.  I made tears run down his face, and his shoulders shake.

Finally, Lorne called out.  “Enough.”

Stop,” I said, and my illusory chef stopped punching the wall.  I lined the real one up with the fake one, and kept making the knuckles look bloody.

Lorne placed a hand on the man’s forehead, and the man’s eyes went blank.  He blinked, his recent memories wiped.  The technique would keep wiping his memory for the next few minutes, so the chef wouldn’t remember what happened right now either.

“Go,” said Lorne.  “You go with him, Chapman.  Make sure the kitchen’s back in order.  I don’t want to see blood in the soup.”

I bowed, and made it seem like I was jogging after the chef, keeping Lorne fooled with my Vocation until he stepped into another room and shut the door behind him.

When I arrived at the kitchen, I wrote down a note and floated it in the chef’s pocket.  Lord Daventry thinks you were Nudged into punching the wall, and that you injured your hands in the process.  Put bandages on the next time you see him, or he’ll punish you.  Speak nothing of this.

As I left the kitchen, I made an illusory whisper into his ear.  “Check your pocket.

Hopefully, that would be enough.

The rest of the party went by without issue, though I stayed tense the entire time, terrified that Lorne would notice my deception.

Time passed.  The party ended.  The guests drifted out, and I swapped back to my normal body, under careful guard.  And Lorne insisted that I help clean up with the servants.  Another punishment for speaking with Tasia.  The real punishment would probably come later.

After mopping the floors and scrubbing dishes for hours, I managed to leave close to midnight, jogging out the front gates towards the cable car station, in hopes of catching the last tram back to Lowtown.

As I ran along the cobble street, something flew out of the darkness, shooting towards me.

I dove to the side, stretching my soul around me.  Feeling a Pith ahead of me, I threw an illusion over it, making it look like the projectile had hit me.  As I ran to the side, illusion-Ana crawled on her belly, groaning and bleeding out of a stomach wound.  I projected into my clothes, preventing anyone from yanking me around.

A dark figure stood ahead of me, cloaked in shadow.

Damn it.  I’d left my machine pistol, body armor, and cattle prod back in my sleeping capsule.  They would have been noticed at the party.

I reached under my belt and slid out a square and a rectangle.  They expanded into three dimensions, becoming a frag grenade and a knife.  Wes’ flattening Vocation.

I threw the grenade forward, pulling the pin, and floated it so it sat just behind the dark figure, making it a shield between me and the explosion.  Then I charged at him from an angle, driving my knife towards its throat.

The knife froze.  The grenade didn’t detonate.

Up close, I could make out the figure’s features.  Olive skin.  Dark brown hair.  Sideburns.  Isaac Brin.

I glanced behind me.  A dart lay on the cobblestone.

“Half a year ago, that would have hit you,” said Brin.  His eyes glimmered at me.  “This one wouldn’t have ripped your guts out, of course, just given you an annoying pinprick.  But you dodged it all the same.”

I exhaled, relaxing, and let go of the knife.  Crickets chirped in the public park next to us.

Brin floated an inch off the ground, his legs hanging limply beneath him.  A metal contraption floated down above him and unfolded, becoming a wheelchair that slid beneath him as he sat down.  Scholars, is he paralyzed?

“What happened?” I said.

“The Pyre Witch,” he said.  “And a sniper with Voidsteel.  Pictogram.  The one you fought on Attlelan Island.”

“Did you win?”

The exhausted look in his eyes was his answer.

“I’m so sorry.”  I wanted to comfort him, but had no idea how.  Would he even want it?  “Do have a job for me, then, Major?”

“We lost,” he said.  “But they’re quieting down.  Commonplace.  Tunnel Vision’s mob.  The Broadcast King’s affiliates.  Whoever that leader is, the person you mentioned with half a thumb.  And nothing from the secret Shenti connections you saw.  Fewer attacks, operations, shipments. I’d still move out of that house on North Island and your sleeping, but the mob probably won’t move on you for at least a week. They’re not moving on anyone.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said, staring into the darkness.  “And that scares me more than anything.  They’re getting ready for something.”

“So you have nothing,” I said, sighing.

“Apologies,” he said.  “You are close to your required amount, no?”

Don’t let him know how desperate you are.  Or how close.  That could be leverage for him to pay me less.

“I’ve got a ways to go,” I lied.  I’m just a few thousand away.

“Well,” said Brin.  “I have nothing new.  But if you don’t make enough by the end of the year, or if your body decays and leaves you unable to work, show me your funds and I’ll pay for the rest.”

I threw up an illusion, masking my surprise, and the thrill that ran through my body.  Why would he do that?  Was this just a fake reward, another tool to control me?

“I know you don’t trust me,” said Brin.  “And that’s smart, the world is full of liars.  And there’s nothing I can say to prove my honesty.  But it’s the truth.”  He handed me a silver card, reflecting moonlight off its surface.

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

His business card.  And a sign of his favor.

Isaac Brin looked straight at me.  “I’m proud of you, Anabelle Gage.  And I will not let you die.”

Crickets chirped in the trees around us.  In the distance, one of the trams chugged along its rail, heading down the mountain to Midtown.

“What was that you told me,” he said, “on the night we first met?  About caterpillars dying?”

“Most caterpillars die in the cocoon,” I said.  “They’re eaten by animals or injected with parasitic wasp eggs.  A majority of them never get to become butterflies.”

“Do you still believe that?”

It’s a fact.  It’s not about belief.  But that wasn’t what he meant.

I thought about Headmaster Tau, and his speech to me about destiny.  I thought about how close I was to a new body, a new life.

“There were men and women,” I said.  “Crawling over each other’s corpses on Lyna Wethers’ yacht.  And Kaplen, he forced me to feed him – “  I closed my eyes.  “In a flash, the Silver Flask cafe turned into a mass grave full of rubble.  Your other mercenaries – the Shenti man, the woman with mortars – they both died too, on Attlelan Island.”  I stared at the ground.  “How many of them had hopes and dreams and ambitions?  How many of them thought this was just the beginning of their story?”  I clenched my teeth.  “Of course I still believe that.  How could I not?”

You told me yourself.  It doesn’t get easier, but you do get used to it.  My soul was worth fighting for, but that didn’t mean I would win.  I could write the next page, again and again, but that wouldn’t fix my circumstances.

Brin got a sad look in his eyes, and sagged in his wheelchair.  “I hope you are proven wrong.”

The chair unfolded, and he soared into the air, vanishing into the darkness.

________________________________________

Instead of returning to my capsule, I went to Hira’s house.

The conversation with Brin, Lorne’s cruelty, watching Tasia’s dream struggle for breath.  If I went back to my sleeping pod, I knew I’d just toss and turn in the cramped space, obsessing over all that, and thinking about everything that could go wrong.

Lorne could get worse.  He could ask me to do something that went utterly beyond my moral code, something I couldn’t do, no matter how much he offered me.

Then all my work would have been for nothing.  It had taken half a year of all-nighters and tears to get to this point, and he could break it all with a snap of his fingers.

I took the last tram down to North Island and passed through the bustling Neke night market, past stalls hawking sea urchin and persimmons and wall hangings.  The place where Wes and I’d been tailing Hira only a few months ago.

Ignoring the vendors, I strode out the far end, to the alleyway that was Emerald Street, and the squat yellow building halfway down, number 189.

The members of Queen Sulphur sat on the front steps of Hira’s house.

Wes, pouring a bottle of sake into a coffee mug, petting Cardamom’s green fur, while the cat purred on his lap.  Hira, dressed in bright orange, her Left body puffing her purple hookah, her Right body sharing the sake with Wes.  And Jun, leaning back against the wall, munching on spicy chicken skewers from a cardboard takeout box.

Orange lights from the night market lit up their smiles.  Their voices drifted through the cool spring night.  “Praxis is the best, obviously,” said Wes.  “You could fix anything wrong with your Pith, turn your mind into a powerhouse.  It makes you smart.

“Being smart is overrated,” said Right-Hira, while her other body took a long, slow puff.  “I’d rather be red-hot, rich, and famous any day.  If I were a Joining specialist, I could do anything to my body, with no consequences.”

“You could just learn Joining the normal way,” said Jun, leaning forward and petting Cardamom.  “‘Specialist’ just means your Vocation.”

“Too much work,” said Left-Hira, blowing out smoke that smelled of sour cherries.

Wes saw me and raised his bottle.  “Ana!”  Everyone laughed and cheered, all drunk except Jun.

I couldn’t taste any of the food, and I couldn’t get drunk anymore without vomiting up blood, now that my liver had decayed.  So I sat down on the top step, and leaned against Hira’s front wall, taking care to avoid pushing on the booby-trapped front door.

“Settle our debate,” said Wes, scratching behind Cardamom’s ears.  “If you could pick any specialization, which would you choose?  Praxis, Whisper, Physical, or Joining?”

“I’ve got to go with you here,” I said.  “Praxis specialization opens all kinds of doors.  I don’t think I could even imagine being a Joining specialist.”  I can’t even imagine feeling at home in my body.

“Alright, alright,” said Wes.  “Next question: If you could get drunk with any projector from history, who would you pick?”

“That depends,” said Hira.  “Can I beat the shit out of them while drinking?”

As the conversation wound on into the night, and we cracked open a game of Jao Lu, I found myself doing something I wasn’t very good at, or experienced with.

I forgot my body.  I forgot the stench of my sweat, my broad shoulders, the tufts of grey hair.

And I wasn’t escaping into my mind.  I was here.

In the coming days, we’d have to leave this place, move to some new location, stay hidden from the Pyre Witch’s assassins.

But for now, I sat back, closed my eyes, and just breathed.

________________________________________

I woke up slow, with a throbbing headache.

The nausea hit next, and the stomachache soon after.  I exhaled, feeling the dryness of my mouth.  When my eyes fluttered open, the morning light glared at me, grey and bright and stinging.  A hangover?  How?  I hadn’t drunk a single drop of liquor last night.

The first thing I saw was a bullet hole in Hira’s ceiling.  How on earth did that get there?

Back to work.  The world didn’t stop turning just because I felt like death.

Groaning, I pushed myself off Hira’s couch, and rubbed the crust off my squinting eyes.  Wes boiled a pot of water on the stove, flipping through jars of tea leaves and muttering to himself.  He ran his fingers through his tangled brown hair, his mouth hanging half-open, dark circles under his eyes.

“Finally up?” he said.  “You look almost as bad as I do.”

I staggered forward, grey hair falling in my face.  I was still wearing my grey assistant’s coat.   “Did I drink last night and forget it?”  Did I swallow a Kraken’s Bone pill by accident?  Or Jun’s tranquilizer?

Wes shook his head.  “If you did, we’d probably be carrying you to the hospital now.”

“Then why – “ I coughed.  “ – do I feel so terrible?”

He shrugged.  “Don’t ask me, I slept through all my biology classes.”

Left-Hira’s voice rang out from the second floor.  “I asked Jun.”  She jogged down the stairs, her hair wet from a shower.  “He says it’s your liver.  It’s still fucked up from the decay, and that’s one of the symptoms.”

“Fuck me.”  I’m still running out of time.

“He says to ‘hydrate, don’t panic, and stay out of fights’.”

Wes handed me a cup of water.  “Well, one out of three.”

“Thanks,” I murmured.  He poured me a mug of tea to go with it.

Hira sat down on the couch, folding her hands behind her head, smiling.  Grey morning light washed over her through the shut curtains.

“You look great,” I said.  “How come you don’t have a hangover?”

“My other body got drunk,” she said.  “That one’s going out to pick up breakfast with Jun and that scrap metal car he made.  Paratha and baozi and whatever you Principians eat.  Fried custard sausage or whatever.  We’re out of food here.”

My stomach growled.  Despite all my symptoms, I was starving.  “Not even marmalade?”

“I don’t know what the fuck that is,” said Hira.  “But I don’t have it in this house.”  She waved her hand.  “My other body is on the way back, don’t worry.”

“Drive fast,” said Wes.  “I’ll teach you all about the strange wonders of marmalade.”

“Strange,” said Hira.  “The morning market was here when I left with Jun an hour ago.  It’s empty now?”

“What?” I said.

“Someone cleared the people out.”

Oh shit.

“Get down!” hissed Hira.

Wes and I dove for the floor, flattening ourselves.  My shoulder ached from the impact.

Spherical objects smashed through the windows, bouncing off the wall and landing on the floor.  White steam hissed out of them, spreading throughout Hira’s living room.  Smoke.  A sharp, chemical odor filled the room, and my dizziness tripled.

Not smoke, gas.  My chest tightened.

A booming woman’s voice shouted from a megaphone.  “Anabelle Gage, 516-R, Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang!”

Penny Oakes.  The Obsidian Foil’s wife.  A chemist, and Physical specialist.

“This is the Elmidde Police department!  You have thirty seconds to come out before we are authorized to use lethal force!”

They know my real name.  I’d been exposed.  Everything was over.  Brin’s jobs, my chances with Lorne, my odds of getting a new body.  I’m going to die in prison.  The world became hazy around me, and my chest pulsed, hyperventilating.

“What the fuck do we do?” hissed Wes.  “Ana?”

Don’t panic.  My mind raced.  Think, idiot, think.  What do you know?

“Twenty seconds!”

They’re not authorized to use lethal force yet.  Which meant the gas wouldn’t kill us.

They know our names.  Which meant they knew we were projectors.  They would have Voidsteel, maybe even counters for our Vocations.  There would be more Guardians among them, not just Oakes.

But they said ‘Jun Kuang’.  They thought all four of us were still in the building.  They didn’t know Jun and Right-Hira had left earlier.  And we didn’t have an execution order, which meant they thought little of our projection skills.

Fire rushed through my veins.  They’re underestimating us.

“Ten seconds!”

Hira floated metal bowls and glass jars on top of the gas grenades, stopping them from releasing any more.

“Don’t shoot!” I screamed.  “We’re coming out!”

At the same time, with my illusions, I drew arrows and instructions over reality, outlining the beginnings of a strategy for Wes and Hira, who hefted their briefcase and sniper rifle.

Ready?” I said with my illusions.

The two of them nodded.  Hira tossed me the pieces of my machine pistol.  I caught them with projection, assembled them, and slid the clip into place.

“Don’t shoot!” I shouted.  “I’m trying to get through the smoke!”

On my mark,” I said.  “Three, two, one –

I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Mark.

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