1-E The Caterpillar’s Dilemma

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Ana

When I first got migraines, I couldn’t think of anything but the pain.

The pressure built and built in my head without showing any sign of stopping.  I wailed and shook, certain that my skull would pop like a balloon, that it was cracking at the edges and was on the verge of exploding.

I was only eight, but I thought I had experienced the worst agony imaginable.

In the next year alone, I went through dozens of headaches, each more intense than the worst one before it.  As my case of Loic’s Syndrome grew worse, I kept deluding myself, thinking I had hit rock bottom. But the pain kept rising, through doctor’s appointments, failed drug treatments, and an entire week shaking under my covers.  Until one day, when my parents went to the black market, and I switched into a new body.

This blew it all away.

I stumbled backward, crashing against the wall of the boat behind me.  My stomach burned, screaming a hundred alarms of irreparable damage.

I slid down to a sitting position, and tried to calm myself, think of a way out, figure out what just happened, something.  The pain crushed every rational thought underfoot.  It was like someone was twisting a corkscrew through my gut.  I writhed, unable to form words in my mind.

I glanced down past my collar and stared, unable to look away.

A wide gash had been torn through my stomach, all the way from the front to the back.  Inside, greyish-purple flesh shifted as I moved, pushing around and changing position inside my chest.  I felt another stabbing sensation in my gut, and dry heaved, coughing and spitting.

Blood poured out of the hole and onto the deck below, soaking into my pants and the wooden deck beneath me.  In a few seconds, the floor was already sticky and red underneath my fingers. I coughed, and tasted a sharp, metallic liquid in my mouth.

I’d dreamed of tasting Paragon’s mulled cider, and this was what I got.

I could feel my eyes grow wet.  Don’t cry.  Don’t fucking cry.  Go out with a scrap of dignity.

The warm tears came out anyway, pouring down my cheeks and dripping from my chin.  With this body, I could taste the salt on my lips.

I’m going to die here.

A freak.  A failure.  No family, friendless.  Sitting here alone on an empty boat.  Not smart enough for Paragon Academy. Too reckless to keep her mouth shut.  A stupid, selfish amateur who’d lost at everything she’d tried. Who’d never get to help anyone.

An image of Eliya the Paragon student flashed into my mind.  I saw her hands chopped off at the wrists, watched the blood pool beneath her and heard the screams.

I had hurt people, good people, for what?  A few moments of joy and an even earlier grave.

The sob built in my lungs and rose in my throat.  It came out as a whimper. The noise of a wounded animal in a cage, howling in terror at the violation of its body.  I keeled over, holding my hands over the hole in my stomach. The corkscrew in my gut twisted deeper, and I retched, coughing up a spray of blood.

I let out another whimper, half a scream this time.  “Help,” I sobbed, even though I knew no one could hear me.  “Help. Please, help,” I whispered. It was almost a prayer.

Back in the hospital, my mother would visit the moment she got off work.  She would bring me little tea cakes and hug me, stroking my hair while talking me through the pain.  “I’m so proud of you,” she would murmur, “for enduring.” It made the pain a little less excruciating, to have someone there, someone who cared.

Right now, on this boat, floating away on the dark, empty ocean, all I wanted was for someone to hug me and tell me how proud they were.  Even if it was all over now.

Far above me in the distance, the spires of the academy glimmered in the night, a sleek, modern vision of a fortified castle.  The multi-colored needles of the towers stabbing into the night sky, the tops almost invisible above the clouds. Aloof.   Unattainable. Below them, the lights of Midtown and Hightown seemed tame in comparison.

I wondered what Eliya and Samuel would say about me.  Would they talk about tonight to their friends over drinks in their common room, a daring story of their exploits with a dangerous criminal?  Would they laugh at my incompetence and hubris, after the rejection letter was found in my coat?

Or would they just go about their business as usual?  To them, maybe my involvement was little more than a tiny, forgettable obstacle in their wondrous day-to-day lives.

The pain swelled in my gut.  It felt like someone was sliding a buzz saw through my intestines.  Sweat dripped from my hair and ran down my neck.

A shadow passed over my vision.  I could make out the silhouette of a man, a cloak flapping around his feet in the wind.

The man landed on the boat, steel-soled boots clinking against the deck.  As he strode towards me and into the moonlight, his features became clear.  Tall. Olive-skinned. Wearing the blue cloak and black body armor of a Guardian.  Dark green eyes gazed down at me. And despite his cold expression, I could see a smile playing around the edge of his mouth.

Major Isaac Brin.  The Scholar of Mass.  Senior professor at Paragon Academy.

Major Brin lifted a finger, and the door to the belowdecks flew off its hinges, splashing into the river next to him.  He ducked below, and emerged carrying my old, grey-haired body, dripping water onto the wood.

“On behalf of the Principality Armed Forces and Paragon Academy, I am formally placing you under arrest.”  He dumped the lifeless body next to me. Blood soaked into its shriveled grey hair, and water dripped off its clothes onto the wooden deck.

Light green metal handcuffs secured the chassis’ wrists and ankles.  Voidsteel.  No projecting out of those.  Not that I could break through normal steel restraints anyway.  I knew next to nothing about metal projection.

Major Brin reached for the body’s pockets and bag, yanking them open.  I reached for his mind, projecting an illusion to hide their contents, but a stab of pain tore through my stomach, and my concentration snapped.

Brin emptied the bag, and flipped through my papers, including my identity documents and my rejection letter.  “Mr. Anabelle Gage,” he said. “Transfer your Pith back into this body so that I can take you to prison.”

Think, idiot, think.  How can you get out of this?  My rifle was out of reach.  There was nobody else nearby I could trick into attacking him.  If I tried running in my current state, I’d die in minutes. If I tried transferring back and then fleeing, he could cut me down the moment I went more than twenty-one meters away from him.  He could rip a hole in me just as easily if I was underwater, and I couldn’t swim anyway.

“Transfer back,” he said.  “You only have a few minutes before you bleed out.”

What if I obeyed his instructions?

I pictured myself spending the last year of my life in a prison.  Surrounded by violent men ready to pounce at any sign of weakness.  Watching my body and mind decay until I was too frail to feed or defend myself, and the wardens decided to stop paying my medical bills.

I shook my head, forcing coherent words out of my mouth.  “N – N – No,” I said. “Only a year left in that body anyways.  Would – would rather – “ I retched, and looked down at my stomach, letting my eyes finish the message.

The major sat down in front of me.  The blood pushed away from him, forming a dry circle on the wood for him to sit on.  He sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

An even more terrible thought came to mind, and I blurted it out.  “P – please don’t N – N – Nudge. Please.” If he Nudged me into obeying his orders, I’d be little more than a meat puppet.  And there was no hope that he’d forget to try it.

I felt a bright light playing at the edges of my vision.  It was like a warm, soothing blanket wrapped around my consciousness, beckoning me to sink into its folds.  Relax, it seemed to say.  Let go.  You’ve been through more than enough.

I knew it wasn’t an afterlife. Merely my oxygen-starved brain flooding itself with chemicals and hallucinations as it died. One last kindness to my soul before it flickered out. Piths didn’t soar in the heavens when they died, they withered into grey, motionless clouds of particles.

But still, it was comforting.

All I had to do was close my eyes, and let myself slip out of consciousness. The light would envelop me, and all my problems would fade into the void.

Brin raised a narrow eyebrow.  “You don’t know how to defend against Nudging?  Even untrained projectors are usually capable of that.“

I coughed up blood and grit my teeth through the pain.  “No.”

Major Brin laughed, doubling over.  “My students can fly, freeze bullets in midair, and can stop moving cars with their bare hands.  You beat the shit out of two at once, and you can’t even defend against Nudging. My four-year-old son could trounce you.”  He pulled up my rejection letter. “And your scores on the exam were so…average.”

I resisted the urge to spit blood onto his uniform.

His fingers curled, and a tiny dart exploded from the wooden wall next to me.  So that’s how he got me.  His Vocation was mass alteration.  With enough weight added onto it, even something that small could cleave a hole through someone.  And with enough weight taken off, it could be shot at ridiculous speeds.

“I’m not going to Nudge you,” he said.  “If you want to go out, don’t see why I should waste taxpayer dollars keeping you in a high-security prison.  Scholars know we already have enough to deal with.“ Major Brin removed a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped the dart clean, slotting it into a hidden pocket in his sleeve.  “If you want to let go, right now, I can make it instant and painless.”

I sagged in relief.  “Thank you,” I choked out.

“All that said.”  He folded his hands together.  “First, we’re going to have a chat.”

“What – “ I retched again.  The motion made the pain in my stomach spike.  “ – could you possibly care to chat about?”

“Do you know what an Exemplar is?”

It was the last few minutes of my life, and I was taking a pop quiz.  “Your best self,” I hissed through clenched teeth.

“Not quite,” Major Brin said.  “An Exemplar is a perfect mind.  A Pith that has achieved both moral and intellectual enlightenment.  One that understands the fundamental patterns of creation, and is capable of learning anything, unfettered by the restraints of ordinary minds.  It is the abstract ideal every projector reaches for.”

“The fuck,” I coughed.  “Does that have to do with anything?”  Other than being on my rejection letter.

“When you applied to Paragon.  All – “ he checked the paper. “- three times.  Were you striving to become an Exemplar? Did you think that was possible?“

I closed my eyes.  “After the first rejection, no.  For the most part.” Talking made the pain more bearable.  Even if I had no idea where this conversation was going, it was a distraction.  “But every time, after I took the exam. There was a moment, for an hour or two, when I got caught up on a swell of pride.  And…” And I actually believed.

Isaac Brin leaned forward.  “In that case,” he said. “I would like to extend an offer to you.”

“O – Offer?”

“Do you know what Grey Coats do at Paragon?”

I nodded.  Each year, a handful of Paragon applicants who were just below the cut were selected to be student assistants.  Had I scored better on the exam, I might have been a candidate. Their purpose was to help the real students: by taking notes, annotating books, and anything else required of them.  All without any personal instruction, dorm rooms, or access to the Great Library. Their drab uniforms gave them their nickname.

Assistants didn’t even get to go to most of the lectures.  At best, they were tutors for the wealthier students. At worst, they were glorified maids, doing the same things I’d done for Clementine, except without any pay.

“I can’t make you a full student.  We take our admissions very seriously.   But.“ He tucked my rejection letter back into my bag.  “I can give you an assistant position this semester. I’ll tell my superiors that you died here, and that I couldn’t find your original body.  Nobody would know what transpired tonight.”

There’s a catch.  There had to be.  “But,” I said.

“Paragon Academy is designed to teach a limited number of students,” he said.  “Only a select few deserve the knowledge we teach there. This keeps us safe from many who would abuse this power.  Epistocrats will even disown their children through Ousting, if they prove themselves unworthy. But there are unintended consequences.  In desperate times, we don’t have enough soldiers to defend ourselves.”

I nodded.

He looked me in the eye.  “I want you to help protect our country.  In exchange for your life and your admission, I want you to fight for me.“

“N – not genius material.”  I coughed up blood again, spraying it onto my legs.  Talking was getting harder and harder.

He glanced at my letter again.  “Probably not. But there are going to be jobs I can’t ask my geniuses to do.  Jobs I can pay you for, that people like me can’t be seen doing in public.  Do you understand?”

The Major was talking down to me like I was a child, or a troublesome student in a classroom, but his meaning was clear.

He wanted me to be a butcher.  An illegal secret mercenary, who would kill whomever he wanted, and take the blame if things went wrong.  It was the kind of thing you’d hear on conspiracy radio stations after midnight, with some rambling man screeching on about secret government projects.

I’d listened to a few of them when I got insomnia at Clementine’s, but I never paid much attention to them.  Why would the Guardians betray their code of ethics? And why would the greatest warriors on the Eight Oceans need to buy mercenaries?

But here was one of them, standing in front of me and offering just that.

I shivered.  “You want me to be a cutthroat.”

“Seven years ago, Paragon Academy named me the Scholar of Mass.  Do you know why I still have my title? Do you think it’s because I’m brave, or powerful, or kind?  Or because of my knowledge of mechanical physics?”

“No,” I mumbled.

He projected into a dart, floating it out of a slot in his belt.  “No. It’s because when I watched you engage the guards and my students, I stayed back to assess your abilities from afar.  Because I deduced your mental projection stopped working at about twenty meters. And because when I had the opportunity, I didn’t hesitate to deal you a lethal blow.”

Another wave of nausea hit me.  The ordinary soldiers fighting Clementine had been losing.  His students had lost limbs to me, an unknown foe with unknown abilities.

And Isaac Brin was using them as test subjects, content to risk their lives to uncover my weaknesses.  What kind of Guardian would do that?

The Major pointed a finger at me.  “Tactical prowess. Improvisation. A willingness to cause harm, when necessary. Exam scores or no, you demonstrated all of those qualities.  You show potential. If I thought otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.“

“Killer.”  He was one, and he thought I was one too.  Or wanted to turn me into one.

During Paragon’s live shows, Major Brin had presented himself with a warm, fatherly persona.  I had cheered at his stunts, laughed at his quips with the rest of the audience. His cheerful banter with the other Guardians seemed effortless.  Was any of that camaraderie genuine?

How could I have looked up to someone like this?

He sighed, and crossed his legs, resting his arms against his thighs.  “Last night, a group of Humdrum thugs attacked a girl. About your age. She’d been waving her silver acceptance letter all around her neighborhood, bragging to everyone about how she’d achieved the impossible.”  His fists clenched. “They shot her in the throat, then went at her with baseball bats. She couldn’t even find the breath to nudge them away. We got to her with a new body just minutes before she would have gotten permanent brain damage.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

I could see a flash of anger in his eyes.  “The Humdrums hate us. Paragon, Epistocrats.  All of us. Since the moment they discovered the existence of projection, they’ve feared those of us who can wield it.”  He sighed. “We should have wiped their memories, every last one of them. Like we did in the old days. No matter how many tens of thousands there were.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“After the Pyre Witch,” Brin said.  “There were so many bodies. So many witnesses.  The Conclave decided that trying to stay hidden would tear the country apart.  And we were fighting a war. But it backfired. The country is tearing itself apart anyways.”

The ship rocked back and forth on the ocean.  It had drifted further out since the beginning of our conversation, and the lights of Mount Elwar and the city were now tiny dots in the west.

Major Brin looked away from them, out over the endless horizon of dark water.  “And the savages across the sea. The Harmonious Flock. The Neke. The Shenti.  Any one of them will strike if they sense weakness. The moment they realize how much the Humdrums want to burn us down, they’ll move in.  I also have reason to believe the Pyre Witch is still alive.“ He glanced over the edge of the ship. “And,” he said. “The water is rising.”

The water is rising.  The air seemed to get a little colder as he said those words.

And the other threats were terrifying in their own way.  I imagined the unstoppable brutes on the frontlines of the Shenti, the endless waves of battleships they’d built during the war, and the horrors of the redemption camps they’d set up for their own citizens.

Major Brin looked back towards me.  “Yes, I want you to be a killer. But if it that’s what it takes to defend our people, I’ll live with that burden.”

The bright warmth swept over me again, turning my thoughts to mush.  Thinking was difficult. It would be so much easier to let the light engulf me, to let go.  The more the light flooded my mind, the more distant the pain felt.  It still hurt, but it was like I was watching it from a distance, or in a dream.  Somehow, it mattered less.

The Major snapped his fingers in front of my face, jerking me back to reality.  “Hey. You still with me?” My eyes snapped open. “My contractors start small. Thousand pounds a job.  But if you succeed, and keep succeeding, your pay goes up exponentially.  We’re talking ten, fifty, a hundred even.  Play your cards right, use superior tactics, and you’ll have enough to afford a replacement body.  And as a Grey Coat at Paragon, you have a chance of becoming a full-time student, too.  Accomplish that, and you’ll also get a new body.”

Or I’ll get crushed less than a month in.  It was hard to imagine myself beating foes much stronger than the ones I’d faced tonight.

“If – If I fail?” I whispered.  Anything louder brought further stabs of pain in my stomach.

“You’d be an investment.  I hope you’ll succeed, and I’ll invest more every time you do.  But if you crash and burn, you’re no worse than where you started.” 

His voice grew hard.  “To me, it looks like you have two choices.  You can spend the last minutes of your life wallowing in self-pity.  Or you can do something to change your circumstances.”

Water lapped against the sides of the boat.  The cool night air blew against my skin. In the quiet, I could hear the sound of my ragged breathing.  The world spun around me, and my vision blurred in and out like a poorly tuned radio.

The light was almost overwhelming now.  I couldn’t have much time left.

Major Brin’s expression softened.  “Look. I hope I’m not being presumptuous here.  I may not be experienced with…this.” He gestured towards the grey, decaying figure lying next to me.  “But I know what it feels like to be stuck down the wrong path.”

I looked at my old body.  Blank grey eyes stared back at me.   “How did you get out of it?”

“Who says I did?” His mouth curled up in a wan smile.  “But you sure as fuck won’t do it if you’re dead.” Major Brin held up a finger.  “See yourself as a caterpillar. Imagine your potential future as a butterfly.”

I chuckled, even as it made the pain spike.  “You know, my mother used to say that cliché all the time.”  When I was in the hospital.  “It’s funny, because most caterpillars die in the cocoon.  They’re eaten by ants or birds or reptiles. Parasitic wasps will lay their eggs inside them and sprout out of them.  The vast majority of them never make it to adulthood. They’re not inspirational stories, they’re victims.”

Major Brin didn’t have a response for that.

My gaze fell on my old self again.  The gangly limbs and broken taste buds and bulging veins  I’d dreamed of leaving for a decade. Broad shoulders. A square jaw.  Grey hair cut short and messy by Clementine’s knife. What was in between my legs.  Everything about it looked masculine, withered, and ugly.

It was a man’s body.  A dying man’s body, with less than a year left in its lifespan.

I wasn’t sure if I could go back.  Maybe that made me irrational, or selfish.  But the thought of drifting away in this body was almost easier to stomach than the thought of living in that grey mannequin again.  It would be cleaner. And it would be over.

The light felt so inviting.

“Now, I can’t promise anything, but,” Major Brin stood up.  “If you’re looking to buy this back again.” He pointed at me, to my female body.  “If you want people to see you as this. Respect you as this.  This is your chance.  A poor chance, but your last one.  I’d say that’s worth one shitty year, don’t you?  And even if you fail, you’ll still get to protect the people of this nation.“

My body stopped shivering.  The dark ocean was silent around me.  The pool of blood around me had spread to where my hands rested on the deck, and was now soaking my palms.

Major Brin had to be manipulating me here.  He would probably stab me in the back or abandon me at the first sign of trouble.  Could I trust him to deliver on his promise? Could I trust myself to not become a cold-blooded murderer for him?  And could I make enough money in the next year to afford a working body before my old one killed me? Would my strategy be good enough?

Would this be my best self, or my worst?  Was I striving to become an Exemplar and help others, or making excuses for my selfishness?

I made a silent promise to myself.  I’m going to taste that mulled cider, I thought.  And when I do, it’ll be with a friend.  I wiped away my tears.

“One last question,” said Major Brin.  “Something with only a single possible answer, if you choose life.”  His eyes lit up with manic energy. “No matter how bad it gets. Do you think your soul is worth fighting for?”

My eyes glanced down, taking one last look at my perfect, broken physique.

I pressed a bloodstained hand against the dying man’s forehead, and reached away from the light.

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1-D The Caterpillar’s Dilemma

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Ana

I charged forward, and imagined a fireball forming at my fingertips.

The illusory version of me threw it, and it transformed into a wave of flames washing towards the two guards ahead of me.  Only the two of them were within my Vocation’s range, but that was all I needed. They leapt out of the way, clearing a path for me.

Then I made myself invisible to them.

“Heads up!  Pyrokinetic!” said the captain.  Good.  If they thought I could do that, maybe they’d give me a wider berth.

Or they’d call sniper backup and riddle me with bullets from afar.

I sprinted at the semicircle of guards, and they aimed their rifles at me.

The moment I got within twenty-one meters, I shot another imaginary fireball at one of them, following it.  The guard dropped prone to avoid it, and I leapt over him, still invisible. My legs, like my arms, were surprisingly strong, and carried me higher and faster than I had anticipated.

I made the illusion-Ana turn, running in the opposite direction as me.  The guards opened fire on her, turning their backs to my real self. I made her jump fifty meters up onto the stack of crates on the ship, then run out of sight.

To the guards, it would look like I had a superhuman body.

“Target is a joiner with enhanced strength!”  The guards ran after the illusion, their backs turned to me as I ran away from them, towards the edge of the harbor where my boat was stashed.  They’d be distracted combing through the ship for a while, but it was only a matter of time before backup arrived.

And if there were Guardians patrolling nearby, my odds of escaping dropped pretty low.

A pair of guards emerged from one of the alleys I was running towards, outside my range.  They aimed their rifles at me through the rain.

“Second target!  In the road!“ Cracks echoed in my ears as they opened fire with their bolt-actions.  I sprinted forward towards a different alleyway, leaning down to try and evade their bullets.  My old body bounced up and down on my shoulders as I ran.

The guards were difficult to make out in the darkness.  Thankfully, that also meant I’d be difficult to hit.

“Lock the harbor down!  Close the gates!” I could hear shouting all around me.  Glaring white spotlights in guard towers flared up, sweeping over the crates.

The dark outline of a guard stepped out behind a crate in front of me.  At least thirty meters away.

He raised his shotgun.

I stretched out my hand, extending my Pith, not into his mind, but the wooden stock on his weapon, remembering all of the information about organic compounds I’d memorized.

Carbon and oxygen.  Micro-fibules of cellulose and hemicellulose.  Lignin. Five-carbon sugars linked together.

He pulled the trigger.  I yanked my extended Pith upwards.

His barrel lifted up.  A dull crack echoed in my ears, making them ring, but I felt no impact.  A miss.

I charged towards him and pulled my arm towards my chest.  The gun flew out of his grasp, spinning in the air. It smacked into my hand and I grabbed the grip, shaking off the stinging pain.

The guard pulled a baton from his belt and held it in front of him.  He’s in range now.  I conjured up an illusion of myself, making the real me invisible.  The illusion changed directions, jogging down an alley towards the west.

The guard ran after it.  “Second target has wood-projection!  Carrying a shotgun and heading westward!”

I sprinted northward, light and fast despite all the weight on my shoulders from my old body and the bag.  How am I not out of breath?  It felt like I could run a hundred miles at this pace and not get winded.  This new body was incredible.

As I ran through the dark lanes, rain pouring down over me, I went over my escape route in my head.  There were two main gates to the harbor. North and East. As long as I got out and evaded the initial pursuit, I could double back and get to my boat, then drive it out onto the ocean to lose the guards for good.

If they were following the plan, Clementine and her cronies were to the East by the main road, waiting in a safe house to intercept the shipment at just the right moment.

I could probably illusion my way past a group of guards at the North Gate, but there the moment I got out of range, they’d see me and start following me all over again.  And there was a limit to how many times I could divert them the wrong direction. Eventually, they’d realize I was a Whisper Specialist using illusions on them.

Plus, the longer I waited, the more likely it was for Guardians to show up.  And then I’d be screwed.

I needed to shake the guards before that happened.  Occupy them with something else. And to do that, I needed a real distraction.

An idea came to me.  An ugly, uncomfortable idea.

I spun around and changed directions, running towards the east gate.  A minute later, I arrived, and peeked around the corner to look over my opposition, cloaked in shadows.

Ten guards stood with their backs to the mesh gate, shining flashlights and aiming barrels out in every direction.  A guard tower extended above it, complete with a roving searchlight and two riflemen.

From my hiding place, I could get a good look at their faces.  They were terrified. Their eyes were wide. Their weapons were shaking in their hands.  One of them even looked like he was crying a little.

To them, they were fighting a pair of monsters with fire projection.  For all they knew, I was about to fry them to a crisp.

How the hell was I supposed to get past this many at once?  I could weave illusions over the eighteen guards on the ground, but unless I was right underneath it, the tower was out of my range.  Even if I used illusions to scare them, they weren’t likely to open the gate.

One of the men started shouting.  His tone seemed inspirational, and his dark blue hat was taller than everyone else, so I assumed he was a captain of some sort. 

“Listen up, everyone!  We are dealing with multiple assailants, capable of both wood and fire projection!  At least one of them is capable of invisibility, which means light or mental projection may be in play as well.  We have two Guardians en route, with a possible third if we’re lucky. Our job is to keep the targets in here until they arrive!  Hold your positions, but don’t do anything stupid!”

I exhaled, stretching out my soul towards the guards like a fog.  Settling on each of them, I pressed, conjuring up a suite of sounds in my mind’s eye, all coming from outside the gate.

The growl of an engine.  The slam of a car door, and the clink of metal boots on the concrete pavement.  Auditory illusions.

Then a deep female voice, confident and light.  “Is this the right address, or did we make a wrong turn?”  I ad-libbed the lines, trying to remember what Florence Tuft, the Scholar of Air, had sounded like during Paragon’s radio ads.  “Open the gate so we can rescue your asses.

All ten of the guards spun around.  As they did, I shifted the illusion from auditory to visual, imagining an armored truck stopped outside the gate, with a man and a woman waiting outside.  

After flipping through so many newspaper clippings and catalogs, the Guardian uniforms were easy to conjure up.  Padded black body armor, made from layers of rigid, interlocking squares. Steel-tipped boots. And the iconic dark blue cloaks slung over their shoulders.  Their faces were Majors Florence Tuft and Isaac Brin, two of my favorite Guardians who were known for their exploits and heroism.

My Tuft illusion waved, motioning for the guards to open the gate.  I held my breath. If the guards had any official codes prepared, or knew which Guardians to expect, they’d see through my ruse right away.

And if guards talked to my illusions, they wouldn’t be able to talk back – modifying two senses at once was an incredible strain for me, and I could only do it for a few seconds before breaking from exhaustion.

The captain waved his hand.  “Open the gate!” One of the guards pulled a key out of his pocket and inserted it into a metal box on a pillar.  The metal gate creaked and slid open. The guards in the tower looked down, confused as to what the commotion was about.

My illusions of Tuft and Brin strode past me, and I adjusted my grip on the body over my shoulders.

Then I sprinted forward, towards the open gate, making myself invisible to the guards on the ground.

This next part would be tricky.

The men in the tower shouted out.  Both of them were out of my range, so they could see me, even through the rain.  They aimed their rifles at me, but I was weaving in between their comrade. They couldn’t shoot without risking friendly fire.  “Target spotted! Going towards the gate!”

The men on the ground looked around, confused.  In a flash, I shifted my illusion for the guards on the ground, creating a fiery version of myself emerging from the South, not the West.  Far away from where I actually was.

They knew a target was going for the gate, but they didn’t know from what direction.

My illusory Guardians turned in their direction, and adopted fighting stances.  The real soldiers followed suit, aiming guns at the fake me. I zipped past them, practically flying out of the gate.

The moment I moved away from the crowd, the guards in the tower started shooting at me.  Cracks echoed in the night air, and bullets took chunks out of the pavement around me. “Target has escaped harbor!  Going east!”

I clung to the right side of the street, legs pumping beneath me.  A bright white light washed over me from behind, casting the concrete around me in a harsh glare.  A spotlight.

I ran out of range of the guards on the ground, and more gunshots rang out around me.  Voice shouted behind me, and I heard the thumping of boots on the ground. Something grazed my forearm, and a hot stinging pain flared up on the skin.  I felt a trickle of warm liquid down to my shoulder. Blood.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.  They knew where I was, and they stopped and thought about it, they would figure out my Vocation created illusions.  I was running out of tricks.

I hoped this last one would be enough.

I took a sharp turn left town a dark street.  Two more streets, then right, then left, then forward two streets.  The gunshots had stopped, but the guards couldn’t be far behind me.

I turned a corner and found myself facing a tiny house, painted dark green and wedged between two larger ones.  The lights on the first story were turned on, and the blinds were pulled down. That’s the one.

I ducked into an alley when the guards were out of sight, crouching behind a dirty used couch chair left on the sidewalk.

As I felt their minds running within my range, I created an illusion of myself, making the real me invisible.  The fake image of me ran to the green house, opened the front door, and ducked in, slamming it behind her. 

The guards fanned out around the door, taking cover around the street.  I backed away, as more of them streamed towards the building.

One of the guards ran in my direction, eyes fixated on the house.  He glanced at my hiding place, squinting.

If I ran, I’d alert the rest of the guards to my location and put myself out of range.  I cowered behind the chair, making myself as small as possible.

On the far side of the street, a guard strode up to the green door and lifted his boot to kick it down.

The door blew off its hinges with a dull boom, knocking him back into a puddle.

The guard turned on his stomach, dunked his head in the water, and gulped down mouthful after mouthful.

Extreme thirst.  Clementine’s Vocation.

Bright white light exploded from the doorway, glaring brighter than the sun, and I forced my eyes shut.  For a moment, night turned to day, as the pale glow flooded the street.

The guards dropped their rifles, clutching their faces.  Light projection.  Even with my eyes shut, I could feel the burning glare on my corneas.

A knife flew out of the doorway, and wove between the guards’ calves, slicing three of them.  Blood poured from the wounds, and they collapsed. The metal blades turned, and shot towards another pair of men.

I’d led the guards to Clementine’s safehouse.  And now, they were distracting each other.

Everyone opened fire on the house, bullets cutting through the thin wood.  The man walking towards me turned around, following suit. A shotgun blast discharged from inside, clipping him in the shoulder.

She’s going to tear them apart.  Even amateur projectors like these were more than strong enough to crush a group of Humdrums like this.  I suppressed a pang of guilt. With luck, once the real Guardians arrived, they’d take them into custody with ease.

I stood up and started running again, heading north in a roundabout path to my boat.  For the first time tonight, I felt a little tired, and noticed the full weight of my old body pressing down on my shoulders.

I cut through side streets and public parks, my chest burning.  Was that sweat trickling down my forehead, or raindrops? Every so often, I glanced behind me at the street, to see if anyone was chasing.  It was empty, rows of houses and apartment buildings extending into the darkness behind me.

I emerged from a narrow alley onto an empty street square, and bent over, taking in heaving breaths.

The square was quiet.  The only noise was the pattering of raindrops on the pavement, and the trickling of a fountain in the center, lit by a dim orange street lamp.  I staggered towards it, set down my old body and the shotgun, and leaned against it, panting.

The fountain’s water lifted up in a wave, washing towards me.  It crashed into me like a truck, and the world spun around me. Something hard slammed into my back, and a sharp pain exploded through my spine.

The water wrapped around me, forming a human-shaped sheath around me and pinning me to the wall of a building.  I twisted back and forth, trying to break free, but the water around me was as hard as rock.

Raindrops froze in midair, hovering in place around me.

The silhouette of a woman strode out of the darkness, wearing a dark Blue Guardian’s cloak and extending a hand in my direction.

Her other hand reached into her pocket and pulled out a flare.  She uncapped it, and it floated high above her head, weaving back and forth above the rooftops.  Signaling our location.

As she stepped into the light, I could make out her face more clearly.  Her dark green eyes were narrowed in concentration, and her mouth was curled up in a grin.  She had to be a year older than me at most. Did Guardians graduate that young?

Her voice was cheery, almost singsong.  “Please refrain from trying to go invisible, criminal!  I got a ninety-nine on my latest aquakinetics exam, and if you try anything, fire or wood or light, I’ll boil you!”

She was a Paragon student, then.  A trainee.

“Not to mention, my partner will be showing up shortly.  He’s a metal projector, and his Vocation lets him control ultrathin metal wires.  One wrong move, and he’ll cut your limbs off.” Her grin widened. “How would you like to live as a cripple, thief?  When you shoot at innocent people, fuck with our soldiers, we’ll do all that and more.”

Shoot at innocent people?  I hadn’t used the shotgun at all, or even made illusions of guns.  They must think I’m working with Clementine.

I tried to project into the water around me to force out the girl’s control, but her projection was too strong, and it refused to budge.

Lucky for me, they thought I was actually an experienced projector.  They had no idea I was vulnerable to nudging. If they knew, I’d be putty in their hands.  A few words, and I’d tell them everything.

I didn’t know what this girl’s partner looked or sounded like, so I had no way of faking his presence.  If I went invisible or made an illusory version of myself, she’d feel where I was with her projection and sear the flesh off my bones.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.  I had to think of something.

The girl strode over to my old body beside the fountain and flipped it over.  She picked up my stolen shotgun, turning it over in her hands. “Want to tell me who you are, why you were doing this?  Make the paperwork a little easier for me?”

She reached for my mask.  As she pulled it off, I pictured the first face that came to mind.  The diner owner from this afternoon. I layered his features over my own, erasing the bulging veins on my neck, making my skin look wrinkled, and shifting my hair from grey to dark brown.

The girl tore off my cloth mask and threw it into a puddle.  Her nose wrinkled. “Yuck. Gross old fart. Looking for a taste of youth before your mind turns to mush?”

“No!” I yelled.  “I – “ I stopped myself, realizing how high-pitched and bright my voice was.  Even after years of training my larynx and vocal cords, the female voice in my other body wasn’t even close to that.  “I – “ Even that stutter sounded more melodic and sweet than anything I’d uttered in the last ten years.  The hum in my throat was soft, easy.

The girl reached for my bag, and I replaced its interior with an illusion of empty space, making it look empty inside.  She peered inside for a moment, then pulled the drawstring shut, turning her attention back towards me.

“Well, if you’re not a creep, who are you working for?  The Harmonious Flock? The Shenti? Very naughty of you, trying to steal our design secrets.”  She smiled, and flicked her hand. The water coffin around me shifted, forcing me to lie down on my back.  She stood over me, a shadow blocking out the light of the moons.

“Please.  It’s not what you think.  I’m not – I’m not – ” I said.  I felt like I was about to cry.  She thought I was a monster. A religious fanatic or an emotionless killer, sent by a foreign government to undermine the Principality.

I wanted to tell her how much I admired her, that I dreamed of studying and fighting alongside people like her.

My voice stuttered.  I wasn’t sure if I could articulate the right words.  “I – I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Didn’t think violence was necessary.”

The girl slid a combat knife from a sheath and crouched down, hovering the tip over my eye.  “Want to know how many innocent men your group killed? But your boss doesn’t care, does she?”

She still thought I was working with Clementine.  “They’re not – I’m not – “ I forced my mouth shut.

She’s trying to get information out of me.  Her insults were calculated, loaded with allegations she was encouraging me to deny.  Every time I protested, I let slip another detail. Mind games like these were part of Paragon’s core curriculum, and even a student as young as her was effortlessly playing me.

Not that it matters anyway.  Five minutes into an actual interrogation and they’d find out I was susceptible to nudging.  I’d spill everything in a heartbeat.

“Not what, freak?”

I looked up towards the moons, centering my attention on something other than her voice.  Something besides the stinging embarrassment I was feeling. Rain pattered on my face, little droplets getting past the girl’s projection.

As I focused on my senses, I realized how cold the water had gotten.  It had been cooling down steadily over the past few minutes. I shivered.  Another technique to immobilize me in case I broke free.

What illusion could convince her to let me go?  Even if I knew who her commanding officer was, I couldn’t fake a conversation with only one sense at a time.  A possible answer jumped into my head, and I started assembling the details.

I pushed them into her mind, starting with auditory illusions.  The click of a rifle behind her. The stomping of feet. And a man’s voice, coming from straight behind her.  “Don’t move.  Release our colleague, drop the weapon, and put your hands behind your head.  Project anything, and we open fire. You have ten seconds.

Sheathing her knife, she put her hands behind her head, and turned it slightly.  

The girl backed away from me.  As she glanced behind her, I switched my illusion from sound to sight, and created fifteen masked men with rifles in a semicircle.  All aiming at her.

The girl let go of the knife, and turned to face my fake soldiers.

“Let’s talk.”  She made eye contact with the fake gunman in front of her.  “Pull those triggers, and he’s dead.”

I kept him silent.  Unless she looked away, I wouldn’t be able to make the auditory illusion of speech.  I made him raise his gun and aim it in between her eyes.

“You want me to release my hostage?” she shouted.  “Let’s negotiate! Hello?”

No response.  She sighed. Then she moved.

In a single fluid motion, she spun around his rifle and pulled her knife back to her hand with projection, plunging it towards his throat.

Her other hand reached around him to drag him towards her as a human shield.  Streams of water shot out from the fountain towards the other images. If they were real men, they’d have been knocked over from the sheer force of the jets.

Her blade and hand passed through empty air.  The water splashed onto the ground. She blinked for a moment, confused, then whipped back around towards me.  “So. You can fuck with my senses, is that it? You’re a whisper specialist.”

I withdrew my projection, and the men vanished.  My last advantage was gone. Now that she knew about my Vocation, it was pointless to try anything on her

I heard footsteps in the distance, and felt another soul at the edge of my range.  Her ally, the metal projector. The one who was going to cut my limbs off. He was about to turn the corner and see us.

“Eliya!  Status?” The voice came from to my right and behind me.  He was coming from the narrow alleyway next to us.

The girl opened her mouth to yell at him.  Almost on instinct, I reached into his mind, layering over ambient sound and editing out her voice.  She shouted out in his direction. “Samuel! Poppy-Seven-One-Six! If you’re real, target has illusions!  Only respond to pre-assigned passcodes!” She grinned at me. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Samuel didn’t hear her.  And if he was approaching us from an alley behind, he would only be able to see the flare.  We would be hidden from his view until he turned the corner.

I imitated the sound of the girl, Eliya’s voice.  I imagined her accent, how every syllable and word would sound coming from her mouth.  Then I added it to my projection into his mind.

Poppy-Seven-One-Six!” my illusion-Eliya screamed.  “Help!  She’s going to kill me!”  I prayed that he was alone.  That was the only way this would work.

A second before he turned the corner, I shifted my illusions from auditory to visual.

Using my Vocation, I swapped the positions of Eliya and myself, making it look like I stood over her, instead of her standing over me.  I positioned my arms in the exact same position and configuration as hers, with a pistol gripped in each hand. To him, it would look like I was about to pull the triggers, and end his teammate’s life.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a broad-shouldered man in a Guardian uniform turn the corner.  I caught a glint of a narrow steel wire floating next to him in the moonlight, before it shot forward.

There was a high-pitched whistling sound as it whipped through the air, and I flinched.

Eliya’s hands fell off.  Blood spurted out from the two red stumps of her arms, splashing onto my chest.

She screamed and dropped to the ground, thrashing.  I gagged, feeling a rush of nausea come over me. Razor wires.  He must have cut clean through her wrists.

The hovering raindrops fell to the ground, unfrozen.  The hardened water around me turned to liquid.

I clambered away, making my real self invisible to both of them.  I moved the Eliya-illusion on top of the real Eliya, and made it open its mouth in what appeared to be a scream.  I made the Ana-illusion fall off to the side, unconscious and bleeding.

Samuel ran over towards her, cradling her in his arms.  “Eliya! What’s wrong, why are you screaming? Did she hurt you?!  Did she use mental projection?!”

I tossed my bag and old body over my shoulders, and grabbed the shotgun I dropped off the ground.

“Don’t worry.  Whatever she did, I’m taking you to a medic now.”  I ran over behind Samuel, and held the end of the barrel to the back of his knee.  Close enough for his autonomous bullet defense to fail.

I wrapped a shaking finger around the trigger, and pulled.  A crack echoed in my ears, and his kneecap exploded in a shower of bone and blood.

Samuel collapsed, clutching his leg.  Blood poured out of the tangle of flesh where his knee used to be.

His screams soon joined Eliya’s.

I ran, sprinting Westwards towards my boat and leaving the two trainees howling in agony behind me.  I layered an illusion of myself jogging East as I ducked into an alley, making my true self invisible.  When backup arrived, they’d pursue me in the wrong direction.

And as I ran, dripping water, I thought about what I’d just done.

Reinforcements would find Eliya and Samuel’s flare long before they bled out or sustained permanent damage.  If they were anyone else, they might have been mutilated for life. However, as Paragon students, they could transfer into replacement bodies in a flash, and suffer zero lasting effects.

Unlike me and everyone else, they were valuable assets worth repairing.  The pain would be excruciating, but they’d be fine in no time.

Still, it was hard to get those screams out of my head.

After a few minutes of nonstop running and checking for pursuers, I arrived at my boat, bobbing up and down on an empty part of the harbor.

I clambered on and ducked down into the room below decks.  I stuffed my old body behind a crate full of lifejackets, wanting it as far out of sight as possible.  When I reached my destination, I would swap back to avoid detection, but for now, I wanted to savor my new, fully intact self.

Once I had dropped all of my gear, I undid the knots around the ropes tying it to the pier, and put back the parts I’d removed from its engine.  The motor started up with a putter, and the tiny vessel slid out onto the ocean, away from the bright lights of Elmidde.

After a few minutes, the empty buildings by the waterfront shrunk into dots in the distance.  When they were too far away to make out, I let my legs collapse, and flopped into a sitting position deck.

I realized how hard I’d been breathing, how winded I was.  Even with this body, there was an upper limit to how fast human lungs could draw in oxygen.

The rain had stopped.  The skies were dark, but clear.  The two moons shone above me, unobstructed by clouds.  I projected into the water in my clothes, squeezing it out and drying them.

My shoulders relaxed.  My mouth drooped open and my eyes fluttered shut.  My fingers and toes traced the grain of the wooden floor.  In a few minutes, I would have to stand up and steer a roundabout route back to the city.  But for now, I was content to lie back and do nothing.

I’d done it.  Against all odds, I’d done it.  I’d escaped the choking shackles of my body, into a new one that could taste food.  One that wouldn’t kill me in a year.

None of this felt real.  The theft, the chase, the fight, they all had the trappings of a nightmare, complete with the blood and gore at the end.

And the body.  The auburn-haired body that moved like a dancer, light and powerful and fast.   I had the physique of a model, the face of an Epistocrat, the strength of an athlete. I had never really expected this plan to work.

It was too good to be true.

If this was a dream, this is the part where I’d wake up in Clementine’s basement with the other servants, roll off my mattress, and resign myself to another day of monotonous, back-breaking work.

But I didn’t wake up.

I took a deep breath, sucking in the night air.

None of my dreams were this vivid.  My olive skin was uniform, without the slightest hint of swollen veins or greyness.  Everything about my body was in perfect alignment, intimately familiar even though I’d worn it for less than an hour.

A laugh escaped my lips.  Then another, louder, before I could clamp it down.  I hadn’t made sounds like that in years. My mouth curled up in a smile.

I wouldn’t become a Guardian.  I was a thief, miles away from striving to become an Exemplar.  The dream I’d held onto for years was dead. And I’d be a fugitive from now on.  There would be hardships in my future. There would be battles, difficult battles to fight for my freedom and security.

But for a moment, I was content with that future.  I would do it as my best self. I would do it as me.  My lungs exhaled, and my muscles relaxed.

That was when the arrow flew out of the darkness, and punched a hole in my stomach.

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1-C The Caterpillar’s Dilemma

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Ana

The first thing I did was go to a diner.

I needed somewhere to plan, and I was hungry.

The brown paint on its sign was peeling, and its windows were dirty and fogged up, letting in the dim afternoon light.  The only person in it was a gruff-looking man reading a newspaper behind the counter. The talk show Verity played on a scratched-up old radio next to him.  It didn’t look like they even had a telephone.

I sat down, dripping water onto the counter.  The stool’s seat made a horrible squelch as I sat down on it with my drenched servant’s pants.  “Two baskets of bread,” I said. “And a pitcher of water. Two pitchers.”

It had been an hour after Clementine had cast her ravenous hunger and thirst on me, and it still hadn’t worn off.  All I had left was the money in my pockets. Twenty-one pounds and thirty-five cents. It was barely enough for this half-meal.

I counted out a few bills and put them on the counter.  The man gave me an odd look, then went back to the kitchen to fetch it all.

I must have made a comical sight.  Starving, soaked from head to toe, with a head of short, grey hair.  

The man came back with my food.  As I stuffed bread down my throat and chugged glasses of water, I pulled out the blue folder again, staring at it.  The detailed plans for a body theft, detailed down to the minute.

Clementine’s people even knew the names of the Paragon students on patrol that night.  Since the Edwina Massacre, Guardians were integrated at every level of military and law enforcement.  If a projector fought guards at the port, they’d be flying over there in a heartbeat.

And if Clementine or her mobster bosses ever found out what I did, she’d slice my skin off with a potato peeler.

Suddenly, my grand heist sounded like a terrible idea.  It was impossible, stupid, impractical. I couldn’t even hold down a job.  How could I possibly think I was qualified to filch millions of pounds worth of property?

But what were my other options?

I had no job, no money, and no fallback.  If I had friends, I could stay with them or ask them for money while I figured things out.  But I didn’t. The other servants either hated me, or preferred to ignore me. I’d be staying in a homeless shelter, applying to jobs that would never hire me.

The fact was, my best and only asset for an employer was my Whisper Vocation, which was useless outside the military.  But combat projection was illegal for non-Guardians in the Principality.

I could fight somewhere else in the Eight Oceans, but the militaries of the other three great nations were cruel, vicious, working to bring down our country and all it stood for.  International mercenary corporations were just as bad, if not worse. PMCs like the Droll Corsairs were known for the atrocities their soldiers committed.

I could go back to my parents.  Somehow get funds for a ferry ticket back to the Agricultural Islands, and buy a bus to my hometown.

But what then?  They didn’t have enough money to buy a used car, much less a body.

And I’d stolen their money.  Three hundred pounds of it, to buy a one-way ticket to Elmidde.  Not their life savings, but enough to hurt. I’d made excuses for myself: becoming a Guardian in the city was my best chance at a working body.  I’d mail them a fat percentage off my salary to pay back my debt and more.

But I’d failed the exam.  And I’d barely made enough to feed myself.

If they didn’t disown me outright, I’d be spending the last year of my life as a burden, to an overworked, struggling couple who resented me.  I’d be causing them nothing but grief.

Yeah, that option was off the table.

I took another bread roll into my mouth and pulled out the crumpled rejection letter from my pocket.  It unwrinkled, flattening itself out of its own volition. It wasn’t even damp.  

Three hundred sixty-six out of five hundred.  My test scores weren’t even close.

A wave of anger rushed over me, and I grabbed it, tearing at it with my hands.  The letter didn’t budge. It was made of some sturdy, flexible material I’d never seen before.  That’s Paragon for you.  Even its letters were bloody perfect.

I wanted to hate the academy.  I wanted to curse them for thinking I wasn’t smart enough to join their ranks.  Because the truth was, even after two rejections, I’d secretly thought I was special, no matter how low I tried to set my expectations.

Deep down, a part of me believed that I was smarter and more determined than the competition.  That I had some grand destiny ahead of me, and deserved to live in a place where miracles were commonplace.

But the truth was, there were tens of thousands of applicants to Paragon each year.  And there was nothing special about me.

Our nation was surrounded by militant states, monstrous projectors, and rising oceans.  The denizens of the Principality needed real champions to defend it from the terrors across the sea.  Noble geniuses who had the chance to become Exemplars. Not scullery maids in ugly male bodies.

The wrinkled blue folder sat on the counter, mocking me.

If I did nothing, those expensive bodies would end up with Clementine.  She’d sell them to some sleazy black market fence like the one who’d scammed my parents with my poor chassis.

If I warned local law enforcement, I could have the satisfaction of watching Guardians tear her little gang apart.  But then the bodies would end up with some wealthy epistocrat, and I’d still rot away into a pile of twitches. If her boss’s people didn’t find me first.

There were so many options, and all of them were terrifying.

But my body was dying.  In my last trip to the doctor six months ago, he’d described how the last months of my life would probably go.  First, I’d lose pieces of my skin. Next, my fine motor control would decay, along with a few of my fingers and toes, if I was unlucky.

After that, no one knew.  Even the slimy designer who’d stitched this chassis together couldn’t know.  My intestines could break, and I’d be voiding my bowels twenty-four seven. My lungs could fail, and I’d choke to death.  Or my brain could shrivel up, causing permanent damage to the Pith it was holding and giving me dementia.

I sagged forward, leaning on the cold wooden counter.  Thinking about all this was exhausting.  I’d lost count of how many nights I’d stayed awake in my bed, running through all the possibilities in my head.  I’d coped by imagining Paragon, and that mulled apple cider they talked so much about.

I was good at escaping into my imagination, but I had to face the truth: If I wanted to live to see my twenties, there was only one viable choice.  An awful, ugly choice. I’d be a fugitive, living in a tiny town where the authorities couldn’t find me, or overseas with my nation’s enemies.

But I’d be alive.

I flipped open the folder, and tried to piece together my opposition.

The shipment was coming in with over a dozen guards, spread around the docks and next to the crate.  Clementine was planning to hit it when it was most vulnerable, driving in an armored truck up towards Hightown.

If I wanted to get to it first, I’d have to move in when the opposition was thickest.  And unlike Clementine, I wasn’t willing to kill or hurt innocent people. I’d have to trick or sneak past the guards, but I wouldn’t lay a finger on them.  Especially not when my motives were this selfish.

I’d need some way to break open the lock on the crate.  I’d need a dry change of clothes. And I’d need some way to keep time so that I didn’t run into Clementine.  Even without her cronies, she was more than strong enough to beat me into a pulp. Or make me beat myself into a pulp.

I pored through the blurry pages, and began to devise a strategy.

________________________________________

I strode down the harbor, covered in stolen goods.

The black shirt and pants I wore had been taken from a used clothes store.  I had drawn an illusion over the eyes of the cashier, creating a fake accident on the far side of the building while walking out with a bag full of goods.

I’d felt a pit in my stomach the entire time, a quiet sort of disgust at myself for taking from these people, who didn’t have much to begin with.  But the wealthier stores had better security, and I didn’t have much time.

You need this to survive.  And in the grand scheme of things, it was a pittance.

I’d also taken a cheap wristwatch, a tiny backpack, and a ratty black mask that would fit over my entire head to disguise my identity.

After that, it got worse.  I’d walked around Lowtown, looking for stores with only one clerk and no customers.  In the late afternoon, in the middle of the work week, it wasn’t too hard to find some.

I made my real body invisible, then used my illusions on the clerk to fake a customer coming in.  A deaf one who wrote on notecards, since my Vocation only worked on one sense at a time.

The customer asked for change on a bill, the clerk opened the register to give it.  While the register was open, I grabbed a wad of single-pound bills and stuffed them into my pocket.

With my illusions, I could do it right in front of their eyes.

The first time I did it, my hands were shaking as they reached into the cash register.  What if someone walked in and saw me? What if I couldn’t keep up my illusions? What if something went wrong that I couldn’t foresee?

I’d practiced my Vocation before, and imagined many strategies with it, but I’d never done anything like this.  I had never been a thief.

The second time I did it, my hands were tense, but steady.

I pulled this trick on an antique store, a shoe shop, and a discount pharmacy.  By the time the sun set, I counted a hundred and thirty-one bills in my pocket. They were all single-pound, so I wouldn’t have caused any lasting harm, but still, that guilty pit in my stomach refused to go away.

As I walked up to the boat store at the harbor, I glanced upwards.  Above me, the sky was grey and overcast. Less light from the moons, I thought.  That meant it’d be easier to hide, right?

I pushed open the door and walked to the woman behind the desk, looking down and keeping the hood over my face.  When I got within twenty meters, the range of my Vocation, I illusioned a different face and hair on top of my own, disguising myself.

The illusion flipped off the hood of its rain jacket, creating a rugged-looking man with dark brown hair and sallow eyes.

“Afternoon, sir,” said the clerk.  “How can we help you.”

“I’d like a boat, please.”  I’d trained my normal voice to a softer resonance and a higher pitch, to sound more feminine.  For this, I dropped it down an octave, hardening the sound to be more masculine. “Small and generic, with a quiet engine.”

“Rent or buy?”

I expanded my visual illusion, turning my single-pound bills into thousand-pound bills, and made a show of sliding them onto the counter, one by one.  To her, it’d look like I had a small fortune in cash. “Buy, please.”

After a brief conversation, I showed her an illusioned-up copy of my ID, I forked over some of my counterfeit cash, and she handed me a set of keys.

She smiled at me, happy to have made a sale, and I felt another twinge of guilt.  I’ll leave the boat when I’m done, I thought.  She’ll get it back with no trouble.

“We can have it fueled up and ready to go for you by tomorrow morning, if you want to come around at about ten AM.”

I shook my head.  “I want to take it out tonight.  Within the next four hours or so.  Is that possible?”

“Are you sure?”  The clerk pursed her lips.  “You hear the forecast for tonight?”

“No,” I said.  “What is it?”

She looked me over, and snorted.  “You got a raincoat?”

________________________________________

Raindrops fell around the dark alleyway, soaking through my pants and filling my shoes with water.  I pulled my cheap raincoat tight around me, shivering and wishing I’d also thought to buy a pair of rubber boots.  It was still summer, so the chill wasn’t unbearable, but it was still irritating.

The itchy black mask had gotten wet and clung to my face, making it hard to breathe, so I’d pulled it up halfway to expose my mouth and nose.  It was still damn difficult to see out of the top half, but I didn’t want to leave my identity exposed.

I peered out of the narrow space, watching for any guards that might pass by.  It was barely wide enough for me to fit in, made by the space between two metal crates.

Faint moonlight shone down on the cheap watch around my wrist.  I wiped water off its face and squinted to see what it said.

11:07 pm.  Three more minutes.

Then I noticed.  My hands were shaking.

I hadn’t noticed it before, occupied with running the plan over and over again in my head, to make sure I got it right.  My stomach was aching too, and I was breathing much faster than normal.

Calm your nerves, idiot.  This was the same reaction I’d gotten before all of my Paragon exams, and clearly, it hadn’t done wonders for my performance.  Breathe.  Stay focused.

But that was easier said than done.

With my Vocation, stealing the items and dry clothes from bored convenience clerks on their own had been simple.  But this was harder. There would be multiple guards, watching for people like me and spread out so I couldn’t put illusions on them all.

I’d tied up my boat a mile away, on a part of the docks that was under development and uninhabited.  I’d removed and hidden a few parts that I thought would make it impossible to hotwire, and made sure to keep it out of sight in case someone saw it.  When I made my escape, I could be safe on the open ocean in a matter of minutes, then double back in another part of the city.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the rain came down harder.  My hiding place was just across the edge of the water. I could see the dark waves cresting and breaking on the ocean, a swirling storm stretching out far beyond the horizon.

The ocean isn’t the safest either.  I’d never piloted a boat before, and couldn’t swim.  One wrong move and I’d be at the bottom of the harbor.

And the water was rising.  Last year, sea levels had risen more than two millimeters on average.  This year, it was already on course to go up by three. To the east, the Neke believed that one day, if the gods judged humanity to be unworthy, the sea would rise up to meet the sky and demons would rule over the ruins.

It seemed a little far-fetched, but if the rate kept increasing like this, we’d all drown like the Great Scholars within a few decades, or less.

I glanced back at my watch.  The minute hand inched forward.  11:10.  It was time.  I slung my backpack over my shoulders and stood up.

I reached my soul out, sweeping the area for other Piths.  I felt the glimmer of a dozen souls in the near vicinity, and their relative positions to me.  There were four guards around the crate, two in an elevated position, and six more doing the rounds further away.  If one of them spotted me, all twelve would likely open fire on me.

The docks were built with multiple levels: cranes unloaded crates from ships, transferring them to trucks for later transport.  This crate had fragile, high-value merchandise inside, however, so it was to undergo an inspection before being moved through the city.

There was a ten-minute window between unloading and inspection, which was when I would strike.

I stepped out of the alley, inched my way to the edge of the road, and leaned my head around.  It was as I’d predicted. Two guards on a high-up balcony with rifles, and four around a large shipping crate, taller than the men in front of it and many times longer.  It was painted with bright green stripes along the side, like the folder said it would be. That’s it.

Bright, pale floodlights lit up the area right in front of the crate, illuminating a wide circle through the pouring rain.

Another two men sat inside an armored truck at the road.  I couldn’t see where the rest were, which hopefully meant they wouldn’t be able to see me.

Most of them were smoking cigarettes, looking like tiny red lights hovering in front of their mouths.  All of them were carrying wooden bolt-action rifles, like the ones they had in the military.

My stomach tightened.  They’re all armed.  Defending against bullets was an advanced projection technique, and far beyond my abilities.  If one of them landed a hit on me, I was done for.

I sucked in a deep breath, and imagined a voice, crackling out of the truck’s dashboard radio.  I didn’t know what these guys’ boss sounded like, but in this profession, he was probably a man, and if I filled it with enough static, it didn’t matter as much.  I layered it over any actual sound that would come out of the speakers, masking the real radio noises.

I pushed my auditory illusion onto the truck drivers, making the male voice form words.  “Truck.  You are ordered to move from the crate to the southeast sector immediately.  You’re wanted to load something extra, over.

Muffled voices emanated from the car, responding into their radio.  When they went quiet, I made the voice talk again.

Truck.  Do not copy.  Bad signal. Repeat, you are ordered to move from the crate to the southeast sector immediately.  Matter is time-sensitive, over.

The truck’s engine rumbled and its high-beam headlights flickered on.  The other guards stared at it, confused. It started forward, driving down the waterfront towards the south.  In about ten seconds, it was going to make a turn towards the east as per my fake instructions.

I switched my illusions from auditory to visual, making the rain fall down and mask their windshield for a moment, then changing the turn to make it look fifteen feet closer than it actually was.

The truck turned early, and slammed into a metal crate with a loud crash.  It wasn’t fast enough to cause serious injuries, but all the guards stared at them regardless.

Three of the four guards around the crate ran towards the truck, and the fourth watched them.  Everyone’s attention was focused on the truck crash in the southwest.

Now.

I ran into the open, hugging the northern edge of the road where it was darkest, letting the rain cover me.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in my attempted theft was my Vocation.  Over time, I’d learned it had some strict limits. On occasion, after hours of practice, I could bend them in the safety of my home.  But not in a situation like this. I could affect any number of people with any illusion I could imagine, but my range was limited to about twenty-one meters.  In addition, I could only affect one sense at a time. If I made myself invisible, I couldn’t turn myself silent at the same time.

Which meant if any of the guards looked towards me, I couldn’t block their vision.  While they were out of my range, I was vulnerable. I ran towards the crate, holding my breath.  Forty meters away. Thirty. Twenty-Five. They were all still looking towards the car crash.

One of the guards on the second story turned his head, leaning down towards me.

I imagined my dark shape morphing into a shadow, shifting into a harmless trick of the light as I got closer, and pushed it into his mind.

He looked away.

I jogged forward and slid into a shadow on the north side of the closed shipping container, hoping my timing was correct.

After what felt like an eternity, the four crate guards came back inside the range of my Vocation, striding back towards me.  As soon as they got within twenty-one meters, I pushed an illusion onto them, making myself invisible to them.

One of the guards stepped forward with a key, setting his rifle down.  He fiddled with the thick lock on the door’s chains. Inspection time.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  They were sticking to the schedule.  

Now it was time to make my play.  I imagined the crate inside being empty, having no cargo inside, and layered the image over the four guards.

The chains screeched as they slid off the door handles.  With a metallic groan, the guard pulled the crate open, looking inside.  His expression morphed into confusion. “Um, sir. There’s nothing here.”

I tiptoed past him.  I could feel his breath tickling the back of my neck.  The edge of his shirt grazed my arm, and I slid into the container, pressing myself to the wall.  Raindrops pattered on the metal ceiling above me.

Fuck,” muttered one of the guards.

“Could someone have stolen it during the crash?” asked another one.

The man shook his head.  “Voidsteel lock, and it was unbroken.  Couldn’t have happened that fast. Someone stole the bodies en route.”

The door was still open, and all four of the guards were staring right in my direction.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could make out three limp figures hanging from hooks on the walls, wrapped in protective tissue paper.

Bodies.  Two male and one female.  Three empty shells, ready to be filled with a soul.  I turned around, facing the guard and his superior now both looking inside the container, bemused.

“They couldn’t have been nabbed on the ship,” growled another guard.  “This was at the middle of a ten by ten stack of crates on the ship. They’d have to lift or cut through hundreds of tons of metal without leaving a trace.”

“Fuck me.”

The first guard scowled.  “Leave it for now. Call in the missing cargo and get the others to run a sweep.  If someone took it during the unloading, they can’t have gone far.”

The guard swung the door most of the way shut, but didn’t lock it.  No need to keep an eye on an empty box.

Maintaining my illusions, I walked over to the female body.  A thin sliver of light illuminated it from the crack in the door, and I looked over it.

Its skin was stitched from thin, translucent silk cloth.  Beneath, thick red threads wrapped tight around each other, in the shape narrow, dense muscles.  Two cut sapphires glimmered inside its face, bright blue gemstones in place of its eyes. Behind it, the pale wood of the skull reflected the moonlight.  Light brown strings hung from its scalp, forming its hair.

Though it wasn’t visible, I knew the brain inside had been constructed by the finest glassblowers, an intricate web of clear, branching connections that would transform into billions of interconnected neurons.  The concrete vessel for the abstract pattern of my soul.

Empty physiques didn’t look quite natural before a Pith transformed them.  In this form, they looked like an odd cross between a doll and a mannequin.  But still, there was something elegant to it. I could see the artist’s hand at work, the dedication to making it strong and healthy and unique.

My shaking palm touched its cold forehead, and I reached forward with my Pith.

It began with a tingling in my fingers, a faint electric buzz building through my entire body and flowing down my arm towards the body.  Most projection felt like I was forcing my way through mud, but this felt smooth, like shooting lightning through a conduit There was almost no resistance.

Blue lightning crackled over its surface, the color of my Pith.  It made a faint sound, but was masked by the white noise of the rain outside.  The body was like a gaping void, sucking up more and more of my Pith.

As my consciousness transferred through, the body began to change underneath the crackling energy.  Underneath the transparent silk sheath, the red threads pulsed and tensed, morphing into muscles.  The silk turned into an opaque beige, becoming a layer of skin. The gems on its face glowed, transforming into bright blue eyes.  The strings on its scalp and face changed into a stream of light brown hair and narrow, arched eyebrows.

I held onto my illusions, making sure I was still invisible to the guards.

My vision flickered, and I saw myself through two pairs of eyes.  I watched the female fabrication become human, and watched my soul drain out of my grey masculine frame.  I felt the breeze blow over me in two different positions, heard the distant voices of the guards from two sets of ears.

For a few seconds while I left my old self behind, I was two different beings.  Boy and girl. Ugly and beautiful. Half-dead and full of new life.

The lightning faded.  Then half my senses popped out of existence, and my male body collapsed.  On instinct, I reached out to grab it before it hit the floor, lifting it under its elbows.

It was only when I collected myself that I realized how light it felt.

I looked down.  A pair of slender, pale arms were supporting the empty body with ease.  My arms. I lifted my armpits off the hooks on the wall and set my old, masked self down on the ground.

I’d only experienced transference once before.  This was much better than the first time.

The tension and weight on my shoulders I’d been holding for years had vanished.  Every movement I made was fluid, graceful. And even though I’d never seen this body before, much less sat inside it, everything felt natural, like two puzzle pieces sliding together perfectly.  The shifts in height and dimensions felt intuitive, easy to grasp.

I was a girl again.

I shook myself out of my happy daze and slid off the soft tissue paper wrapped around my body, taking care to not make too much noise.  My hands reached into the backpack on my old body, pulling put black underclothes and pants.

As I slid them on, I marveled at how smooth my skin felt.  The best artisans and engineers in the business had designed this body.  No grey veins here. I’d be stronger than other women my age, with better endurance and excellent health.  On top of all that, I’d age far slower than the norm. My hair might stay brown for the rest of my life.

Despite my natural grace, it took me a few seconds of struggling to put on the training bra I’d brought.  The shirt came more easily, along with my second black mask, drier than the other one.

Once I had my clothes on, I grabbed my bag and the empty body, slinging both over my shoulders.  It might slow me down a little, but if I left my old chassis here, the authorities would have a much easier time tracking me.  Once again, I marveled at the strength of my arms and core, and how easy it was.

This way, I could buy ferry tickets with my male body, and stow the new, female one in my luggage with nobody the wiser.  The authorities would be looking for a twenty-something girl with brown hair, not a grey-haired boy of nineteen. By the end of the week, I could be on an island on the far side of the Principality, or even further away, in the Neke Islands or Ilaqua.

I wouldn’t go to Paragon.  I wouldn’t become a Guardian.  Wherever I was, I’d have to find another way to help people and make friends and strive to become an Exemplar.  It would a short, disappointing end to my lifelong dreams.

But here I was, breathing air in a body that had working taste buds.  A body that made sense. In spite of everything, it was exhilarating.

The metal door creaked, and swung open, letting in the sound of the pouring rain.

I’d forgotten to maintain my illusion.

In a flash, I constructed an image of an empty container and pushed it forward, jamming it into the first two minds I felt and making myself invisible again.

The two guards looked past me, pulling both doors all the way open.  I let out a sigh of relief, then froze.

Three men stood more than twenty-one meters away from me.  Outside my range.

The rain made them hard to see, but I could make out the basics.  All three were staring at me.

One of them raised his rifle.  “Target spotted! In the container!”

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1-B The Caterpillar’s Dilemma

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Ana

Yellow and orange sunlight shone down on me, still bright after teatime.  The late summer glow illuminated the letter, and my eyes flitted over it, scanning its contents.

Paragon Academy
717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

Dear Mr. Gage,

Thank you for your interest in Paragon Academy.

I am sorry to inform you that we cannot offer you a place in the class of 519.  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 – 71/100
Strategy and Tactics – 97/100
Natural Science – 73/100
Psychology and Social Engineering – 67/100
Projection Potential – 58/100

TOTAL: 366/500, out of a minimum of 470 required for consideration
Projection Ranking Estimate: Bronze

We wish you well in your future endeavors.  May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Tau
Headmaster

A sinking pain grew in my stomach.  A dizzy sensation washed over me, and I grabbed a streetlamp to steady myself.  I read the letter over again, to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I paused over every sentence, parsing the meaning of each one.

The sinking sensation spread from my stomach to every muscle in my body.  No, no, no.  I blinked several times, feeling tears collect at the edges of my eyes.

The rumble of automobile engines drifted out from the streets of Elmidde’s lowtown.  To my right, I could hear waves splashing against the docks. To my left, the streets curved upwards, to the nicer buildings of midtown and hightown.

Further up, on the dense forests surrounding the peak of Mount Elwar, I could make out a thin diagonal line stretching up from a building below.  A cable car.

Paragon Academy floated on the other end of the line.  A vast network of halls, pavilions, and glittering spires on top of hovering chunks of rock, frozen in midair high above the city.

When the sun went down, the outsides of Paragon’s buildings were lit up with lights, in blues, greens, and reds, changing from color to color.  How many times had I stared up there, late at night, when the rest of the house was fast asleep?

It was beautiful, but still, I’d always found myself wondering what the view looked like from up there, cozy and warm inside one of those common rooms.

Now I would never know.  The rest of my life would be as mundane and grey as the first nineteen years had been.  I would die as a scullery maid, without ever mattering much to anything. Or anyone.

My legs carried back towards the house.  Bursting through the front door, I grabbed the blue folder on the table, stuffing it into an inner coat pocket.

It contained the plans for Clementine’s illegal operation.  Maybe I could give it to the police, and get the bitch arrested.

Then I strode down the hallway towards the dining hall.

Normally, I’d think about the repercussions, how if I got caught, a stunt like this could end my future, or my life.  But right now, it didn’t look like I had much in the way of either.

I pulled the door open a hair and peeked through the crack, looking up and down the length of the table.  The criminals inside were dining on slices of the apple-cinnamon cake we had baked. I breathed in the scent, savoring it.

I closed my eyes, picturing the layout of the room, the people sitting there, the locations of the cake pieces.  I imagined swarms of maggots, wriggling in and out of every slice, plopping into glasses of wine and onto expensive clothes.  In my mind’s eye, I saw every detail, every squirming larva and all the movements they made.

I took this mental image and reached out with my consciousness, feeling the Piths of twelve guests in the room and Clementine.  Thirteen webs of light inside thirteen skulls. I touched the edge of them with my soul, on the locations where their minds processed sensory input.  And pushed.

Inside, Gabriel Cunningham stood up and screeched, knocking over his chair.  He dropped his plate onto the floor, and it shattered. Others followed suit, yelling.  Eda Fortescue backed away, swatting at her dress. A broad-shouldered man doubled over, retching.

The image in my thoughts was now layered over their senses.  They were seeing maggots,

It may not have been kind, but fuck if it wasn’t satisfying.

The next part was easy.  In my mind’s eye, while still picturing the maggots, I added another imaginary layer to my world: an empty space where I stood.  An illusion to erase me from their vision.

Invisible to them, I pulled the door open, witnessing the chaos I had created.  Men and women swatted at themselves, gagging and backing into the corners of the room.  The cooks and other servants burst in from the kitchen, gazing dumbfounded at the commotion.  I layered on the illusion for them too, hiding myself from them.

This was my Vocation.  The special technique that only I knew how to use.  The fundamental expression of my projection. This was the reason I’d thought I had a shot at Paragon.

Of all the guests, only Clementine was still sitting.  Calm, she set her plate down in front of her and scanned the room.

That’s strange, I thought.  She should be seeing the illusion too.

I felt a warm, soft force press up against my consciousness.  It increased in pressure, like a suffocating pillow pushed into my face.

Oh shit.

I turned to run, and the pressure increased, wrapping around my mind, filling it with a thick fog.

“Don’t move.” Clementine’s voice rang out in the hallway.

I froze.

“Turn off your projection.”

My extended Pith slid out of the others’ minds, snapping back into the confines of my skull.  My illusory maggots vanished, and her guests stopped panicking. They looked around the room, confused.

There was no force exerted on my body.  My muscles weren’t even paralyzed. But no matter how much willpower I summoned up, I couldn’t let myself run away or even defend myself.  For reasons that made no sense to my panicking conscious mind, I just didn’t feel like it.

It was the same sensation I had when procrastinating, except a thousand times stronger.

Nudging.  The most common of Whisper vocations.  A Vocation from long ago that had been adopted into a technique that anyone could use now.

Clementine was projecting into my mind to heighten my suggestibility.  She couldn’t control my thoughts, but now, she had command of everything else.

And, like an idiot, I’d had no idea she was capable of that.

She stepped into the hallway, glaring at me, and tapped my forehead with a glossy fingernail.  “And after all I’ve done for you.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” I growled.

“You think I’d normally hire someone that looked like you as a servant?” She laughed.  “But when you came in for your interview, you told me how you ran away from home.  How you had no money, and dreamed of getting into Paragon Academy and becoming a Guardian.  You had no chance, obviously, but it moved me.  You made me feel so sad.  So I took you in. Because I help people.”

You exploit people.

“But not when they spit in my face.  Not when they disrespect me and my guests.” She folded her arms for a moment, then nodded to herself.  “Go downstairs and grab whatever money you’ve stashed. Bring it here.”

I turned and walked down into the basement, lifting up my mattress and pulling out my key.  My feet carried me to my locker and unlocked it.

My hands pulled out the wads of cash inside.  My meager life savings. No! No! Fuck you.  I gathered them against my chest and jogged upstairs.  The mission folder in my coat pocket dug into my chest.  When I emerged, everyone had moved into the hallway. I dumped the stacks of bills onto the floor.

“Georgina.  Count those, put them in a bag and give them to one of my men.” Georgina, a dark-haired servant, knelt to the floor and began to pick them up.  Nobody spoke up for me.

“Ana.  Outside.  Porch.”

My legs strode through the dining room and through several doors, emerging on a balcony overlooking the sea.  No matter how much I wanted to resist, tear Clementine apart, a part of me knew it was important to obey her, somehow.  It felt like my brain was being drowned in a warm bath.

The sun set over the water.  It illuminated several areas on the balcony still under renovation, lacking a proper railing.  Clementine indicated her hand, and I walked over to the edge.

Thirty feet below, water bobbed up against the concrete sea wall.  “Turn around.” I spun to face her. A small crowd had gathered behind her, watching my humiliation in silence.  Some of the servants looked away. Most of the mobsters stared at me with rage. I’d humiliated them in front of their peers, and that was an unforgivable sin.

“Tell me the truth.  What was that? What did you do to us?” The pressure on my mind intensified, and all the anger I summoned was helpless before it.

“My Vocation.  Illusions. I projected into your minds and altered your perceptions.”

Clementine reached into her pocket, and, and pulled out a long straightedge razor with a pitch black handle.  She walked up to me, unfolding it. She held it before my eyes, poised to slice my face into ribbons.

She flipped it around, extending the handle to me.  “Take it. Put it to your throat.”

I grabbed it, touching the blade to my throat.  Without putting any pressure on it, I could already feel a light, warm trickle of blood down my collar.  I wanted to curse her with every hateful word I knew, to scream how pathetic and fake and cruel I thought she was.

“Ma’am.  Clementine.  Please.” I racked my brain for what would sway her.  My eyes grew wet, and tears poured down my cheeks. “You don’t have to do this.  Please.” The metal edge of the razor was bitter cold.

Please don’t make me take off my jacket.  If she saw the file I’d stolen, she’d kill me without a second thought.

Clementine frowned, looking around at her audience.  Her voice grew hard. “What, you think I won’t? Think I don’t have the guts?” She placed her index finger to her throat.  “Mirror my movements.” She tapped her finger against her thigh.

My hand reached down and tapped the razor to my thigh.  It parted my pants like they were made of air, and I felt a stinging sharp sensation where it touched my leg.  A thin line of red appeared, and droplets of warm blood trickled down my calf.

Clementine moved her finger back to her throat, and I did the same.

“Don’t twitch too much.  That blade was sharpened by a metal projector.  It’ll slice through you like you’re made of warm butter.”

She grinned, and touched my forehead with a finger.  “Then there’s my Vocation.” Dark blue lightning crackled around her fingertip.  Her Pith is blue.  That meant she was a Whisper specialist.  Like me, her Vocation could mess with people’s minds.

The pressure on my mind shifted, and my throat felt dry.  Thirsty. More thirsty than I had ever felt in my life. Pangs rose in my stomach, and hunger was added to the mix.  It was like I had spent a week in a scalding desert with no food or water. I wanted to eat or drink something, anything, even if I couldn’t taste it.

If Clementine hadn’t nudged me, I would have run into the dining room and wolfed down every slice of cake in that room.  I’d never felt this famished in my life.

I craned my neck to look behind me at the drop below, overcharging my brain to search for solutions.  What made her hire me last time? What moved her?

Clementine lifted her finger, preparing to draw it across her throat.

“One year!” I screamed.

“What?” She stopped.

“I only have one year to live.” I spoke between sobs.  “The results came back from the doctor a few weeks ago.  The decay in my body is accelerating. In nine months, I’ll barely be able to move.  In ten, I’ll be too paralyzed to even feed myself. And then, my body falls apart. Literally.”

“Are you telling the truth?” The pressure of her nudging redoubled.  I tried pushing back against it, but all I could think about was how much I wanted to down a warm glass of cider, and swallow all the food in the world.

I bobbed my head up and down in a frantic nod.  “When they rejected me, Paragon took my last chance at a free body, and I don’t have any money.  Please. My life is already worthless. Take pity on me. Don’t take my last year away from me.”

Clementine stepped close to me and whispered into my ear.  “I do pity you, poor thing.”

That moment, more than anything else, made me want to kill her.

She leaned away and made motions for people to go back inside, shooing them away.  “Come on,” she said. “We’ve got a meeting to finish.”

The others filed back into the door, still looking at me.  Judging me. Clementine was the last to reach the door. I let out a half-sigh of relief.

When she grabbed the doorknob, she stopped and turned back towards me.  “Cut your hair off. Drop the knife. Then jump.”

My left hand grabbed my blonde-dyed ponytail, pulling it taut.  My right hand jerked back and up, feeling only the faintest resistance as it sliced through.  I dropped the blade, and it clattered to the wood beside me.

Then I leaned back off the ledge.

I whipped through the air headfirst, and the water rushed up to meet me.  It slapped into my face, and I plunged into the sea.

The first thing I felt was the cold.  Then the weight, as my shoes and clothes pulled me under.

Below me, the ocean was pitch black.  An endless, dark expanse stretching far below out of sight.

I twisted myself around right-side up, then tried kicking.  My legs flopped feebly beneath me, slowing my sinking, but not stopping it.  I’d never learned how to swim, and my clothes dragged me down, growing heavier by the second.

I stretched my hand up, breaching the edge of the water into the air.  Concentrating all my efforts on the area around it, I focused on my knowledge of water.

Surface tension.  Up to four hydrogen bonds with neighboring atoms.  Cohesive forces pushing outwards to minimize surface area.  I pushed my Pith into the area around my hands, willing it to coalesce, strengthen, solidify.

As I slid further down into the water, I extended my fingers over the surface, and gripped.  The liquid formed a rough handhold.  The surface of the water bent and stretched above me like a trampoline, and then straightened itself.

I grabbed on with my other hand, still clutching my decapitated blonde ponytail in it.  Straining with my arms, I pulled myself out of the water and onto the improvised solid I’d created on top of the water.

A splitting headache exploded in my skull from the strain, and the water shook.  Blue lightning crackled around the water, as my Pith strained to keep me afloat. I can’t keep this up for long.

Moving my makeshift raft forward, I crawled onto a small staircase carved into the sea wall, off the water.

I collapsed on the hard steps, shivering in my soaked clothes.  The setting sun behind me bathed the grey concrete in bright orange light.

I need to drink something.

Unable to resist the urge, I leaned over and chugged salt water from the harbor.  I knew it would dehydrate me in the long run, but I didn’t care. Every gulp made my stomach hurt more, made me feel sicker, but I kept lapping it up like a dog, water splashing in my face.

After three full minutes, I stopped.  Pulling my head out of the water, I retched, then vomited into the harbor.

Wiping my mouth and spitting, I stumbled back up the stairs.  I coughed, nursing a bloated, heavy stomachache. For once, I was grateful I couldn’t taste the acid in my mouth.

In my palm, the cheap blonde dye leaked out of my wet hair, washed off by the ocean.  It trickled in between my fingers and dribbled into the water, revealing the withered grey strands it had covered up.

I touched my scalp gingerly, feeling the ragged edges where I had cut.  Even my hair was like a boy’s, now. Or like an old man’s.  It had been the one part of my body that I tolerated, that didn’t make me feel sick.  And Clementine had taken that away, too.

Needless to say, I was fired.  And if I tried to go back in for my spare set of clothes, Clementine might do something worse to me.

I pulled off my wet jacket, dropping it on the stairs below me.  Clementine’s blue folder dropped out, bouncing down to the bottom steps.

I picked it up and flipped it open.  It was soaked through with water, dripping all over my lap.  I projected into the water permeating the paper, then pulled, sucking all the moisture out of its damp pages.

Most of the ink on the documents was smudged, but I could figure out the basics of Clementine’s plan if I squinted.

Luxury body shipment coming in at southeast docks tonight night at 2300.  Cargo ship 9187, Crate Serial 541256h. One female. Two male. Intercept truck en route to midtown at 0130.  Haul 400K low, 1M high.

Clementine worked for Tunnel Vision, a known mobster.  Tonight, she and her cronies were going to steal a trio of fabricated bodies to sell on the black market.  Expensive ones, by the looks of it, worth up to a million pounds between the three of them.

There was a two and a half hour window between when the shipment came in and when they were going to execute the heist.  Two and a half hours where the precious cargo would be exposed and vulnerable.

Clementine’s crew wanted to steal a fabricated body? Fine.  I’d beat them at their own game. I’d use the intel they’d gathered to steal it before they could.

But I wouldn’t sell the female body.  I’d take it for myself. I’d transfer my Pith into it, and save myself from the decay that would kill me in a year.

Or die in the attempt.

Wringing out my wet jacket, I folded it up over the file with Clementine’s plans.  I took one last look at the clumps of grey, battered hair in my palm, then tossed them into the ocean.

I strode up the staircase, away from the sunset, leaving the strands to drift away on the current.

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1-A The Caterpillar’s Dilemma

Next Chapter


Ana

On the day I lost my hair, I decided to steal my first body.

Most people would be happy to get rid of it.  At the age of nineteen, my scalp was already overflowing with grey, wispy strands, overpowering the blonde tresses it was designed to grow.  I had combed it three times a day, tied it in a ponytail, and drowned it in dye, but couldn’t hide that it looked like a mangled bird’s nest.

But still, it was my best quality.  And it was getting stained with cooking grease.

I wiped sweat off my forehead and dried my hand on my white dress shirt.  Steam rose from the stoves in the middle of the kitchen, filling the room to the brim.  It drifted into my eyes, making them sting.

Or was I just tired? Last night, I’d tossed and turned on my mattress in the basement, unable to fall asleep.  My eyes were fluttering shut of their own volition, and every inch of my body screamed at me to lie down on that tiled floor and nap.

I waved my hand to clear the smoke and glanced around the room.

The other female servants crowded around a radio at the other end of the table, giggling and nibbling on slivers of cake.  When Guillaume, the head chef, had made the batter for the tea party, there had been some left over. Enough for a petite snack, a reward for a job well done.  When the little pan came hot out of the oven, it had smelled like cinnamon and apples and vanilla.

I had declined the offer, reminding the chefs that my taste buds had stopped working more than a year ago.

Beatrix, a tall, auburn-haired maid, shifted to the side, and a tiny gap opened in their tight circle.  Clutching a cigarette in her fingers, she looked over her shoulder to breathe out a cloud of smoke.

Talk to them.  I took a step in their direction.  You don’t know for sure that they hate you.

I gathered up all my courage and shuffled outside the gap in the circle, putting on an upbeat smile.  “Hi,” I said. “What are you guys listening to?”

They went silent.

Beatrix glanced in my direction, and we made eye contact for a split second.  I wasn’t sure whether her expression was one of pity or discomfort.

The other girls looked away.  Pretending I didn’t exist.

Beatrix moved to the left, closing the opening, and the conversation continued as before.

My stomach clenched up.  I backed away.

Beatrix said something under her breath, and the other girls laughed.  Was she talking about me?

I couldn’t exactly blame them.  My shoulders were broad, my jaw wide and my forehead bulging.  A web of thick grey veins coated my skin from head to toe, turning my face into a discolored nightmare.  It was hard for me to even look in the mirror without getting a little nauseous. Ugly as it was, my long hair was one of the few things I liked about myself.

Most fabricated bodies lasted for at least fifty years.  After I’d worn it for less than eleven, mine was already breaking down.

“Gage!” barked Guillaume.  “Boy!” I tore my gaze away from the girls, and looked at his glaring eyes.  “Do you get paid to daydream?”

Beatrix and the other servants had been mucking about for hours, and Guillaume hadn’t yelled at them once.

But if I talked back to him, I’d be scrubbing dishes alone all night until my skin peeled.  Or he’d delay my paycheck by another month.

I had saved less than two hundred pounds in my locker downstairs.  I couldn’t afford that.

“No, sir,” I said.

And Clementine’s going to tear me in half if I let her guests run dry.  She had requested Neke plum wine for her guests, fermented in the Far East and shipped hundreds of miles across the oceans for her pleasure.  I could only guess how expensive it was.

When seeking the favor of the local mob bosses, my employer spared no expense.

I walked to the wine rack.  The bottle sat on the top shelf, a full meter out of my reach.  And one of the girls was sitting on the only stepstool. I sighed.  Fuck it.

I closed my eyes, picturing the glass bottle above me.  Common glass.  Silicon Oxide. Density, two point five kilograms per square meter.  High compressive strength. Refractive index one point five. Physical and chemical attributes flew through my mind, memorized after dozens of midnight study sessions.

Then I looked within the confines of my skull.  I inhaled, and sensed a tingling at the center of my perception, an electric sort of pressure spreading from inside.  I felt the substance shooting through the neural pathways of my brain, crackling with energy to form the pattern of my mind, the essence.

My Pith.  A psychologist might call it my consciousness.  A philosopher might call it my soul.

But here, tonight, it was just a cheap tool.

Focusing on the science of glass, I extended my hand upward, and reached with my mind.  I felt my Pith seep into the glass of the bottle above me, felt its position and curved shape like a sixth sense.  My essence extended out of my body, invisible, filling my target object.

I twitched my left index finger, and pulled with my Pith.  The bottle slid off the shelf and dropped to the ground.  I yanked upwards with my soul, and it jerked to halt centimeters above the floor.

An experienced projector could fill entire battleships with their soul, crush tanks with raw telekinetic power or alter the thoughts of a hundred people at once.  At one of Paragon Academy’s public events, Guardian Isaac Brin had juggled a dozen cars without blinking an eye, while I watched starry-eyed with the rest of the audience.  His projection let him reduce their mass to that of a feather.

Me? I struggled to lift a single wine bottle.  Almost all my skills were self-taught, which was nothing next to Paragon’s training.

As I left the kitchen, the sound of laughter grew louder in my ears.  I twisted the screw into the bottle cork and yanked it off, striding into her dining room.

Clementine loved giving out food.  She saw herself as some sort of friendly neighborly mother, which meant a lot of spooning soup to homeless people, and a lot of extravagant parties.

And people liked her.  Word was, she was some sort of hero from the Shenti War, a survivor of the Edwina Massacre half a decade ago.  A Shenti projector had torn through a whole carrier group of mundane sailors, back when Guardians kept themselves hidden from the public and were too far away to intervene.

Clementine had apparently fought in the battle.  She’d hung up all sorts of medals over her mantelpiece.

I’d believe when I saw it.  Clementine wouldn’t save a drowning kitten unless everyone was watching and it cost her nothing.  And she charged the same protection fees as the rest of Tunnel Vision’s mobsters.

The ceiling of Clementine’s dining room extended two stories high, with an expensive-looking glass chandelier hanging from it.  White faux-marble columns stretched down to the floor, framing the massive oak table at the center. A thin layer of imitation gold leaf coated almost every surface, reflecting the late afternoon light.  Classical music drifted from a gramophone in the corner.

As I entered the room with my floating bottle, I stared at the floor.  The first guest, a tall, broad-shouldered man, cackled at one of Clementine’s jokes.  Gabriel Cunningham.  The man who presided over the whole southern half of the docks.

I looked towards his glass, and rotated my projected Pith.  The bottle tilted in midair, and the plum wine trickled into his glass.

Clementine spoke in a lilting voice, mimicking the speech patterns of the Epistocracy.  “Plum wine. From the finest Eastern vineyards in the Floating City.“ Her pitch seemed higher than usual.

Noises of admiration echoed around the room, and I went on to serve the others.  I recognized about half the faces, each one a crime boss of some segment in the lower city.  All owned by Tunnel Vision. They’re superiors, not subordinates, I realized.  Clementine’s trying to suck up.

“Amusing.” Gabriel Cunningham chuckled, his speech slurred.  “Even your servants can project.”

So that’s why she requested I pour.  Showing her feathers to the other peacocks.  A hollow show of wealth, like the fake gold lining her walls.

“Of course.  They all can.” Clementine told the lie so effortlessly I almost believed it was true.

More drunken noises of admiration from around the table.  Did they believe her paper-thin charade? “You must be drowning in profits,“ the short man said, “No wonder you can afford a model like that.”

“I was wondering when you’d ask,” she said.

I tilted my head up and glanced at Clementine out of the corner of my eye.  My heart beat faster, sending blood rushing to my ears.

Clementine was wearing a designer body.

The woman I knew was short, muscular, with dark curly hair and a square jaw.  This one was tall, lithe; with milky white skin and cheekbones so high it was almost absurd.  Long strands of wavy bright red hair cascaded past narrow shoulders.

She took a sip of wine with glossy, manicured nails.  Her slender arms moved with smooth, effortless precision.  Even that small movement seemed to carry more grace than I ever had in my lifetime.

The waterfront house, the large retinue of servants, and the full-time personal chef couldn’t have been cheap.  But that body probably cost more than all of them put together.

Clementine smirked.  “It’s an Elizabeth Cranbrook.  A new design. Not as classic or popular as the Maxine Clive line, but it’s all the rage with the young Epistocrats these days.  Muscles and skin woven from spider silk. Pink Ivory bones. And over three hundred billion neurons of spare space. You could fit three different people’s worth of Pith inside this brain.”

The party guests drew close to her, murmuring and examining her body with fascination.  She beckoned them in, but held up a single finger. “Please, be delicate. I transferred my Pith in just a week ago, and I’d hate to mess up something so fresh.”

I used the opportunity to finish pouring the wine and step out.  As I touched my hand to the knob of the kitchen door, one of the men called out to me.  “Servant. Boy.”

I froze, then turned towards him, setting the bottle down on the table.  I forced my mouth into a smile. “Yes, sir. Can I help you with something?”

The drunk man wobbled back and forth on his chair, and his bowler hat fell off.  “The fuck is wrong with your skin?” He grinned at me, slurping from his wine glass.

I glanced around the room, avoiding eye contact with him.  Other men and women turned to look at me. I’m the new entertainment.  This had happened to me several times before.  Every time, Clementine had smiled from the sidelines, polite.  If her guests wanted to poke and prod and dissect me, she was there to make them happy.

“Look me in the eye, boy,” the man said.  “What’s your name?”

I looked him in the eye.  The man was thin, pretty, with a mischievous expression on his face.  Despite my best efforts, my smile wavered. “Anabelle, sir.”

“Show me your hand.”

I lifted up my arm.  Thick grey veins crisscrossed it up and down, bulging out from my skin.  They intersected and branched all over my body, stopping only at my chin.  I fought the urge to cover myself up.

“Where in the eight oceans did you get those? They look like a river delta.” Just like they did with Clementine, the inebriated, giggling criminals leaned towards my body, observing it like I was a caged animal in a carnival.

I had to force the words out of my mouth.  “A faulty design, sir. When I was young, I had a terminal genetic disease.  My parents couldn’t afford a proper fabricated body. So they went to a black market merchant.”

The man sniggered.  “Hope they didn’t pay him too much.”

Just their life savings and then some.

He continued.  “Too bad you’re not a Paragon rat.  I hear they give out spares like candy to students.” He lifted his finger, and a sphere of wine rose out of the glass, landing on his outstretched tongue.

My books said that only one in a thousand had the potential for projection.  Only one in a thousand of those had the intellect and training to wield more than a pound of force, or develop a Vocation.

So why were so many projectors like this man, like Clementine? Criminals, self-serving monsters preying on the poor and vulnerable.

This was why we needed Guardians.  This was why we needed Paragon Academy.  If I could project with the same level of power as Clementine, I’d help people.  Really help them.  Not just when it made me look good.

He gulped, swallowing the wine.  “Those veins? That hair? Shoddy craftsmanship.  Bottom of the barrel scam if I ever saw one. Would have been obvious to anyone with half a Pith.”

A woman with thin lips spoke up next to me.  Eda Fortescue, one of Tunnel Vision’s many lieutenants.  “What did they weave the skin out of, grey mold?” Laughter rang throughout the room.  Clementine gave a polite chuckle.

I clenched my fists.  My eyes bored holes into the floor.  I took a deep breath, exhaled, and pictured being somewhere else.  My mind settled on a familiar fantasy: the common room of a dorm at Paragon Academy.

I imagined myself sitting on one of their plush couches, feet stretched towards a crackling fireplace.  Surrounded by other students, studying, practicing projection, playing cards, like they did in all the photos.  Protecting my country and going on adventures with my new best friends. Sipping a mug of Paragon’s famous mulled cider with unblemished hands.

I could almost taste it.

Until the Edwina Massacre, the existence of projection had been hidden from the public.  Practitioners studied its powers in secret societies, and only an elite few were elevated to join their ranks.

But today, every soul in the Eight Oceans knew it existed.  And every child in the Principality dreamed of going to Paragon.  Near the end of every summer, millions of young applicants held their breath, praying for that silver acceptance letter that proved you were special.  That you were something beyond the ordinary and deserved to live in a world of miracles.

I was praying too.  But it was getting harder every day.

A hand grabbed my wrist, snapping me out of my make-believe.  “Hey. Isn’t Anabelle a girl’s name?” said Eda Fortescue. Her tapered fingers dug into my skin.

I squeezed my eyes shut.  My neck ached. “Ma’am, may I request that you excuse me, so I may perform my duties?”

“What duties, Ana?” said Clementine in a jovial tone.  “Surely our company is not that dull.”

“Guillaume and Jonathan need help with the clean-up, ma’am,” I lied.  For once, please let me go.

What I really wanted to do was check the mailbox at the front door.  I had been kept busy all day and hadn’t managed so much as a glance in its direction.  Since I lived in the basement with the other servants, all our postage got sent to the same place.  I had never got anything besides my monthly tax forms.

But this week was different.  This week, I had been hoping for a letter.

I had tried not to dwell on Paragon.  Tried not to think about how their admissions letter was five days late.  That the last two times I’d flunked, I hadn’t even gotten a rejection, having to file a form to get my scores back.

Odds were, all I’d get was silence.

In spite of all that, on every break, I had run to the front entryway, rifled through piles of junk mail and magazines.  And I allowed myself a sliver of hope.

Natural sciences.  Social engineering.  Strategy. I had studied them all and more with every second of my free time.  I camped out in libraries, forgoing sleep and leisure to surround myself with towers of books, kinematics problem sets, and scribbled practice essays.

On the day of the exam, I’d pretended to come down with a cough and gotten myself out of work.  I spent fourteen hours in a cramped gymnasium, packed wall to wall with desks and aspiring students.

By the eighth hour, my hand was shaking from all the little bubbles I’d penciled in, but I didn’t stop until I finished every question.

Even after two failures, I couldn’t quit.

Because Paragon was the only projection school in the country.  The only place where they trained Guardians. Many people could project, but only a few were permitted to train and improve, and Paragon was where that happened.

If accepted, I could take my pick of healthy, combat-ready bodies, all free of charge.  I could meet people, earn their respect, make friends for life. I could protect people like me from people like Clementine.

And this was my last chance.

In a year, my body would be too decayed to even take the exam.  My fingers wouldn’t be able to grip a pencil, much less write answers to the impossible questions they assigned.

“Ana, relax.  Look at us. You have nothing to worry about.” Clementine’s friendly voice carried a hint of menace.  Eda Fortescue hadn’t let go of my wrist. Her grip grew tighter.

I let out a nervous chuckle.  “They really do need help. I would not want to be negligent in my service, ma’am.”

“It’s a harmless question.  Answer him.” It was an order, not a request.  And a reminder of the consequences if I said no.  “Explain your name.”

Nobody spoke.  The table went quiet.  The gramophone played a calm piano solo, the only sound in the room.

“I was born a girl, ma’am,” I said.  “This male body was the only affordable transfer option during my sickness, so I moved my Pith into it.” I looked the woman in the eyes, and my skin crawled.  “One day I hope to buy something more comfortable.” I took small steps back. Please find me boring.  Please lose interest in me.

“Show us the full chassis, why don’t you?” Gabriel Cunningham leaned forward.  He pulled out a pair of glasses, scanning me like I was a painting in an art gallery.  “I’ve never seen a defect quite like this.”

“Please, ma’am.” I pleaded to Clementine with my eyes.  “They really need me in the kitchen.” If you give the slightest shit about your employees, say something.

Was that a hint of remorse in her gaze? “Ana, why don’t you carry out the gentleman’s request?”

The guests at the table fell silent.  Eda Fortescue let go of my wrist, leaving a bright red mark on my skin where her fingers had gripped me.

I reached up to my dress shirt and undid the buttons one by one.  Blood rose to my forehead and cheeks. I slid it off my broad shoulders, folding it in front of me.

My skin on my flat chest was cold and sweaty.  Bulging grey veins crisscrossed it, running down my neck and past my waistline.  The party guests gazed at me with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion.

Eda Fortescue leaned forward, lifting a cheese knife with one hand.  “Stay still, please.”

She made a tiny prick on a bulging vein on my chest.  It was numb, so I barely felt anything, but I still recoiled.  Fortescue ran a finger over the vein and gazed at the drops of blood on her knuckle.  “Still red. Fascinating,” she said. “How long did you say you had this body?”

“Ten years,” I said, feeling nauseous.  “Since I was nine.”

Clementine looked away.  Whenever her guests treated me like this, she never joined in.  Never took any obvious pleasure from it, or encouraged it. It was simply more convenient for her to smile politely and let it happen.

The one time I’d resisted, Guillaume had made me scrub the floors for forty-eight hours straight with no breaks, until I was collapsing from exhaustion.  And my pay went down by a pound an hour.

I knew who’d given him the order, but it wasn’t like I could do anything.

Do they want to see the rest of me? I took a deep breath and reached for my pants.  Cunningham held up a hand. “No, no, don’t go that far.  The top half is more than enough of that body for a lifetime.” The others broke into laughter again.  Not perverts, then.  Just creepy fascination.

I bowed at him and Clementine in rapid succession.  “Thank you! Please excuse me!” I half-walked, half-ran outside to the main hallway, holding back tears.

“Now that’s done, ladies and gentlemen, to my proposal,” said Clementine.  “The blue folder you were given earlier contains the details of the operation.” She was back to business in an instant.

I shut the door behind me, and squeezed my eyes, holding back tears.  Shaking hands threw my shirt back on and buttoned it back up. The prick from the cheese knife left a tiny damp stain on the fabric.

Why am I here? This job was supposed to be a stepping stone.  Getting me to a job with more than minimum wage, or at least a small promotion.  Clementine had promised me one, if my performance was satisfactory.

But nobody else had hired me.  My wages had gone down. And here I was, stripping for mobsters.

I glanced towards the table next to the coat rack, and spotted a dark blue folder.  The file that contained the details of Clementine’s upcoming mission. One of them must have forgotten it.

I ambled forward towards the front door for some fresh air.  A walk could clear my head, soothe my nerves for the rest of the evening’s work.

Then I froze.

A letter in a silver envelope sat in the mailbox, reflecting sunlight from the window.

My letter.

I was speechless for a few seconds.  My mind was in a daze, as my feet carried me forward, and my hand grabbed it, reading the address.

Mr.  Anabelle Gage
184 Worthington Place
Elmidde, 621-A

Then the return address.

Paragon Academy
717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

I burst through the front door and onto the street, running now.  My footsteps felt light, almost natural for the first time. The wind rushed in my ears.  Or was I just dizzy?

My hands ripped off the envelope seal and pulled out the letter.

I sat down on the curb, unfolded the paper, and began to read.

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