9-D Silver Letters

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“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.

DATE: 6/21/520 – 0455
ROUTE: 1449

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.”

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