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.
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?”
“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 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.
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.
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.