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.”
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.