10-C – Samuel

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



The world’s gone mad, thought Samuel.

So why was everyone still pretending?

Kaplen had killed himself.  The Silver Flask was a pile of rubble.  Eliya had lost her eye, and her father, Professor Brin, had lost his legs.  Elmidde was tearing itself apart.

And despite all that, Paragon students still plodded along, eyes to the dirt like nothing had changed.  To them, they just had to ace tests, suck up to professors, and get into exclusive clubs.  Then, the world would realign itself.

How can they do it?  How could people just get out of their beds and care about schoolwork, while their classmates died around them, while the ground crumbled under their feet?

And Lorne Daventry was the worst of them, smug and cold through it all, as if death and cruelty were normal.

Sand blasted over Samuel, scraping his exposed skin under his combat armor, scratching his eyes.

Blinded, Samuel projected into the puddles around him.  He sucked in a breath and drew the water around him, a sheath protecting him on all sides.  It doused the sand, protecting him.

Then a piece of rebar slammed into his solar plexus.  It knocked the wind out of him, flinging him to the bottom of the hill.  Samuel rolled on the wet grass, water splashing around him, and pushed himself up, stomach aching.

Through the rain, Lorne Daventry and Matilla Geffray stood at the top of the hill, guarding their flag.  Lorne stared down at him, eyes flat.  Matilla smirked.

Two on one was hard enough.  With these two, it was near-impossible.  Eliya and Leizu had fought well, despite Eliya’s injuries, managing to take out the other two members of Golem Squad.  But they’d lost their armbands in the attempt.

And Tasia hadn’t even shown up to the squad battle.  She’d vanished this morning, and they hadn’t been able to find her in her dorm, or the library, or the rain-soaked pavilion.  Over the last few months, she’d missed strategy meetings and exams too, refusing to explain why.

How bad are her grades now?  By sheer virtue of failing attendance.  Almost as bad as mine.

Samuel squinted through the rain.  Lorne and Matilla didn’t move.  They just stood at the top of the hill, water running down their combat armor.

Waiting for him.

“I feel bad for you!” shouted Lorne.  He projected into the hill, making it vibrate with his voice.  “I mean, being saddled with an alcoholic moron of a fiance is hard enough.  But finding out she’s a traitor.”  He chuckled.  “Well, I can imagine.”

She’s not a traitor.  Nell, with her radio broadcast, had struck a massive blow to Commonplace – and to the Broadcast King.  Though, to be honest, Samuel had no idea why she was working with an Ilaquan heiress, a Shenti terrorist, and a violent body thief.

“It’s a miracle,” shouted Lorne.  “That you haven’t tried to join Kaplen already!”

He’s stalling.  Samuel needed to get the flag or take both of them out in the next ninety seconds, or Chimera Squad would lose.  Strategies ran through Samuel’s head, methods of snatching the flag.

“It doesn’t matter!” shouted Lorne.  “What kind of stunt she pulled on Verity.”  With your old assistant.  Ernest Chapman.  The awkward grey-haired boy who’d tailed Lorne wherever he went.  Now that was something Samuel hadn’t expected.  “It’s only a matter of time until we find her and the other freaks.”

A frontal assault wouldn’t work.  Even with his Vocation banned in squad battles, Lorne had far more raw power than Samuel, and that was without Matilla’s blinding sandstorms.

“Don’t feel bad, though,” said Lorne.  “If your grades keep slipping, your parents will catch on and find someone to Oust you.”  He grinned.  “Then you can rejoin your lady love.  Well, half a lady.”

Samuel clenched his teeth until they ached.  A wave of heat rushed over his body, even as the cold rain soaked his clothes.

He howled at the pair, a scream cutting through the storm.

And as he screamed, he attacked.  A chain burst out of the hill behind the two members of Golem Squad, reaching towards the flag to snatch it.

Lorne and Matilla turned in unison, moving to counter.  Matilla jerked her hand up, and the heavy flagpole shot into the sky, out of reach.  Lorne slashed his arm forward, and a sheet of metal slammed into Samuel’s chain, batting it aside like it was light as a string.  He pushed Samuel’s Pith out, green lightning crackling around his hands.

At the same time, Samuel tore up the ground in front of him.  He pulled out the water, drying the dirt, and exploded it in front of him, making a thick cloud of silt.  A classic smokescreen.

Footsteps rang out from Golem’s left.  At the same time, his outline charged them from the right.  A simple audio distraction, combined with a desperate attack.

Of course, Lorne and Matilla knew about those tactics.  And Lorne had studied some light eye-Joining, so he could see through some of the silt.

So in an instant, Lorne spotted his silhouette.  Matilla harassed with a storm of sand, and Lorne shot a volley of rebar straight into it.

The silhouette tore apart, falling to bits.

Samuel had taken off his combat armor, animating it with metal strings on the inside, imitating his gait.  Through the rain and dirt and sand, it looked exactly like him.

At the same time, the real Samuel dropped from the sky.  He swung a pair of metal chains, slamming Lorne and Matilla on their unprotected necks.

Both of them doubled over, gasping for air, and the chains looped back around, ripping off their armbands.  Chimera Squad had won the match.

Samuel didn’t stop.  He landed on the grass, knocking Matilla aside with a chain.  The girl rolled down the hill, and Samuel stepped forward.

The chain wrapped around Lorne’s ankle and yanked him off his feet.  Lorne slammed onto his back, still coughing and wheezing, rain pouring down on him.

Samuel clenched his fist, and a chain thudded into Lorne’s chest, knocking the air out of him.  Paragon’s combat armor worked great against bullets and shrapnel, but could only do so much against blunt force.

The end of the chain punched Lorne’s stomach.  Another pair of chains swung at his arms and legs, targeting his joints, hitting him again and again.

Lorne gagged, too disoriented to fight back.  What was it he did to Cyclops Squad?  Samuel kept up the assault, wrapped a chain around Lorne’s ankles, and pulled up.  The boy hung upside down in the air, swinging from side to side as the chains thudded into his armor.

One of the chains pulled off Daventry’s helmet.  Samuel swung his fist into Lorne’s nose.

Something crunched beneath his knuckles, and pain flared up in his fingers.  It hurt, like he’d just punched a concrete wall.

Samuel pulled his fist back again, and someone put a hand on his shoulder.

“Samuel,” said Eliya, her voice steady.

Samuel blinked.  The outside world popped back into existence.  The rain, the grey clouds, the rest of Chimera and Golem Squads watching.

He exhaled, and dropped Lorne on the ground.  The chains went limp.

Naruhiko and Deon, the other Golems, picked up Lorne, carrying him away.  They both glared at Samuel, ready to start a fight, but Matilla shook her head.  Not worth it.

We won.  Against the best squad in the academy, with one member down.  A remarkable feat, even though Chimera’s rankings were still in the middle.

“He deserves it,” said Leizu, walking up beside him.  “But you need to conserve your strength.”

Samuel leaned over, taking deep, ragged breaths.  “Conserve my strength?” he said.  “We don’t have classes today.  We were going to study in the common room.”

“Yeah,” said Leizu.  “Some grey coat gave this to me while I was on bleachers.”  She held up a new list of patrol shifts.

NORTH ISLAND | 1000-1600 | SAMUEL PAKHEM [Chimera], ELIYA BRIN [Chimera], LEIZU YAO [Chimera] and NELL EBBRIDGE [Chimera]

10 AM.  That was less than an hour from now, on the far side of the city.

“And,” said Eliya.  “Tasia’s still missing.”  He called her ‘Tasia’.  Not ‘bookworm’ or ‘the imposter’.

“Split up,” said Samuel.  “We’ll re-check the dorms and the library and the banquet hall.  All the usual spots.  Meet at the top of the cable car in twenty.”  If Chimera Squad was going up against Commonplace, they needed everyone.

The other two nodded.  “I’ll take the dorms and library,” said Leizu.  She took off at a blazing sprint, crossing the wooden bridge to the main island and vanishing into the rain.  Not a Joiner, Eliya jogged after her at a normal pace.

Tasia might be doing research in the upper levels of the library.  She might be in bed, or eating a late breakfast in the banquet hall.

But Samuel had an idea.  He knew where to look first.

________________________________________

Samuel projected into his combat suit, floating through the rain.

He pulled himself over a wooden bridge, around the edge of Alabaster Hall, past the lit common room to the far end of the floating island.

A grassy ledge jutted out at the back, about the size of a large bed.  Its position hid it from sight, unable to be seen from Alabaster’s windows, and the dormitory’s wall angled out, shielding it from most of the rain.

Tasia sat at the end, eating from a package of garlic bread.  She stared out into the grey sky, her legs hanging over the edge.  Rain soaked into her blue school uniform, and her black hair stuck to her neck, a wet, tangled mess.

Samuel touched down on the grass.  She didn’t even look at him.

“How did you find me?” she said.

“I asked around.”  Samuel sat down beside her.  “For places that you and Kaplen and Ern – and Anabelle Gage used to spend time in.  One boy in Alabaster said that the three of you used to walk around the edge of the building.  I just checked it out on a guess.”

Tasia didn’t reply.  Thunder boomed in the distance.

“We missed you at the squad battle,” said Samuel.

“Sorry,” she said.  “Did you lose?”

“We won, actually, but it was…”  Samuel flexed the fingers on his right hand, the knuckles peeling, still aching after he’d punched Lorne.  “It was difficult.”

“Admiral Ebbridge talked to me this morning,” said Tasia.  “Threw my breakfast in the trash.  Reminded me how fragile my position is.  I don’t need another lecture about how entitled I am.”

“That’s not why I’m here,” said Samuel.  “Chimera Squad has been called into action.”  He pointed at Mount Elwar below, obscured by the rain and clouds.   “The city’s tearing itself apart.  The people need us.”  He looked at her.  “And we need you.”

“Do you remember our first night?” she said.  “When we patrolled together.”

Samuel nodded.

“You would have given anything to get rid of me, to fight alongside a different student.”

Samuel nodded again, reluctant.  And now I’m begging her to join.  It had been a strange year.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t know you.  I didn’t trust you.”

“That’s not it,” said Tasia.  “What is it they say about college?  First year hope –

– last year rope,” finished Samuel.  But that wasn’t always true.  “What were you hoping for?”  He’d asked her before, but she’d never given him a straight answer.

Tasia stuffed a piece of garlic bread in her mouth and chewed.  She stretched her hand out, and raindrops splattered on her palm.  “My big sister is dying.  She came down with pneumatoma a few years back.”

Pith cancer.  You could call yourself lucky if it crippled you.  For many, it was a slow, excruciating death sentence.  And in the past few decades, it had gone from a rare phenomenon to something with tens of thousands of cases.

“I used my Vocation,” she said, “to cut the tumor out.  And it worked.  But in the process, I aged her over a century.”

Null particles.  So that’s why she wanted to research them.

Tasia held up her shining blue-gold library card, flipping it between her fingers.

Lady Nell Ebbridge
Level 4 Access

“I thought that with a high-level card, I could study the secrets of the Great Scholars, fix what I’d done.”

The Elixir of Life.  The font of eternal youth.  Surely, Tasia knew how difficult that problem was, the absurd complexity of the knot she was trying to untie.  For all her twitchy awkwardness, the girl had a lot of confidence in her abilities.

“But,” she said.  “A dead end.  So many dead ends.  And the things that weren’t dead ends…”  She trailed off, wrapping her arms around her chest.  “Nobody wanted to help me.  No one took me seriously.”  She chuckled.  “But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.  If this nation cared about medicine, they’d be mass-producing chassis and giving them out to the poor.”

She sounds like a Commonplace agitator.

She smiled.  “But Kaplen cared.  And so did Ernest.  He believed in me.  In my work, even if he didn’t always understand it.”  She closed her eyes.  “Was she lying about that too?”

Ernest wasn’t Ernest.  The grey coat boy was Anabelle Gage, a body thief, a girl, a mercenary, living right under their noses.

“What did she want?” said Tasia.  “Was she trying to use Lorne?  Was she going to break into Paragon’s chassis vault?”  She shrugged.  “I guess it doesn’t matter.  I don’t expect I’ll ever see her again.”  She turned her head, looking at Samuel for the first time.  “So please.  Let me be.”

“I understand,” said Samuel.  “I can’t imagine how much pain you’re in right now.  But we still have a job to do.”

“You think that’s going to change anything?” said Tasia.  “The tide is coming in, and you’re digging a trench with a spoon.  In the end, the Shenti have it right.  The sea remains.  Eventually, it’ll rise up and drown this barbaric age.  And in a few centuries, maybe the survivors can have their own delusions of grandeur, just like us.”

Both of them stared over the edge, gazing down at the stormy ocean far beneath, a swirling pot of chaos, extending to infinity over the horizon.

Samuel leaned to the side and hugged Tasia.  She hugged him back.  He couldn’t help but smell her lavender perfume, feel the heat of her body against his.

“Nell is a mercenary too,” said Samuel.  “To be honest, I thought she’d collapse after her Ousting, that she’d have a dozen breakdowns and drink herself into the ground.”  His old fiance had plenty of cleverness and warmth, but stable wasn’t a word that applied to her.  “I never expected this, that she’d become some hired killer.”  Should I be impressed, or horrified?

“I’m sorry,” said Tasia.

“Look at me,” Samuel said, chuckling.  He pointed to his tangled hair, the dark circles under his eyes.  “My grades have tanked too.  I’m not happy either.  At this rate, maybe I never will be.  I’m nowhere near being an Exemplar.”  He stood up.  “But I still have a duty to this nation, a responsibility to our people.  Even if I fall, even if I can’t forge the stars, I can still help the people around me.  If I keep fighting for one more day, then I can preserve a tiny sliver of this world.  And then, maybe that can help me get better, too.”

Write the next page,” said Tasia.

What?  Samuel decided not to pry – time was already short enough.

He extended his hand to Tasia.  “Would your sister want to give up?”

“In a few years,” she said, “Sarah’s not going to want anything.”

“That wasn’t the question.  Would your sister want you to give up?”

Tasia squeezed her eyes shut.  She swallowed her last piece of garlic bread and squeezed the paper box into a ball.

Then she stood up.

Her weary expression stayed.  Her face sagged, and she took slow, heavy breaths, water dripping off her clothes.  Tasia still looked exhausted, down to the last soul particle.

“Alright,” she said.  “Where are we fighting?”

________________________________________

The van turned a corner, screeching, and drove straight past the riots.

Burning cars zipped by the vehicle, mobs of Humdrums beating each other, screaming crowds filling the streets.  The van splashed through a puddle, and the vehicle jerked beneath Samuel.

Samuel looked at Professor Oakes, at the driver’s seat of the van.  “Why are we driving past?” he said.  “This is North Island.  Is there a bigger riot somewhere else?”

Oakes leaned forward, too tall and broad for the van’s seat.  “We are not, dear boy,” he boomed, his voice low.  “That’s the only riot in the area.”

What.  “We’re on patrol duty.  What are we doing here, if not dealing with the riots?”

“All in good time,” said Oakes, driving past another street fight.  “All in good time.”

The van sped past a police barricade.  Through the rain, a Guardian stood on top of a police car, surveying the road, and Samuel squinted to make out his features.

Tall.  Broad shoulders with huge muscles and a thick brown beard.  With two thin black rapiers slung across his back.  Sebastian Oakes?  Samuel glanced at the front seat.  But Sebastian Oakes was sitting in the car with them.

There’s an imposter on the streets.  But then why had the real Oakes ignored him?

No, not an imposter.  A double.  Another Guardian, or a student, wearing one of his chassis.  Paragon was pretending that their top-level Guardians were out on the streets.  When really, they were driving to some other, more important mission.

Something’s happening.  Something big.

Tasia leaned back against the wall of the van, closing her eyes.  Samuel squeezed her shoulder under her light combat armor.  “You can do this,” he said.

“Whoever we’re fighting,” said Leizu.  “You’re strong.  You’ll break their bones and grind them into the dirt.”  She punched Tasia’s arm.

Tasia’s eyes fluttered open, and she smiled at both of them.

Under Samuel’s combat suit, his shirt sleeve tightened, pressing on his arm out of sight.  It pressed in rapid patterns of long and short.  Telegraph code.  Someone was sending him a signal.

Eliya glared at him with her one eye, and scratched her arm in an identical place to the sleeve-squeeze.  The message repeated, faster this time, and Samuel translated it in his head.

She’s our teammate,” said Eliya.  “She’s desperate.  And she’s not the monster we thought she was.”  She paused.  “But if you so much as caress her face, I will rip your spleen out, blend it, and drink it like a smoothie.

Samuel projected into Eliya’s sleeve, sending a message back.  “I haven’t,” he said.  “And we haven’t, you know, done anything else.

It’s called sex, you repressed beefcake.”  Eliya scowled at him.  “And no, you’ve done something far worse.  You’ve opened up to her.  You talk about your feelings.”  Eliya’s face screwed up with disgust, as if that was the most profane, horrifying thing imaginable.

Now who’s repressed? thought Samuel.  “Tasia’s been through a lot,” he said, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye.  “It’s not her fault that Nell got Ousted.

Remind me,” said Eliya.  “Who hit Nell in the throat, blasted sand in her eyes, and knocked her out of the ring?  Who destroyed our friend?  Your fiance.

Ousting is Paragon’s fault,” said Samuel.  “And Admiral Ebbridge’s, too.

Samuel reminded himself not to blame Eliya.  She’d been on edge since her father got implicated with the mercenaries.  Professor Brin hadn’t been sentenced yet, or even thrown in prison, but the man would face demotions, at the very least.

I know what you’re going through,” signalled Samuel.  “But –

Samuel’s stomach clenched.  A wave of fear washed over him, and he shivered with the intensity.  The walls of the van closed in on him, and Tasia’s tired stare became cold, calculating.

A wave of loneliness exploded on top of the fear, a longing that he had forgotten for months.  Nell.  The original Nell.  Playing Jao Lu with her and hugging her and – 

Tears trickled out of Samuel’s eyes and he wiped them away.  Leizu and Tasia gave him odd looks, and he blinked, regaining his senses.

Scholars,” said Samuel.  “Ask me before you use your Vocation on me.

Eliya’s Whisper Vocation involved forced, one-sided thought-stitching, forcing others to relive her past experiences for short bursts.  Normally, she used it to induce panic attacks, a mental stun grenade, of sorts.  She had already mastered it enough to start writing her codex for it.

You look surprised,” messaged Eliya in telegraph code.  “Imagine feeling that every day.

Samuel clenched his fists.  “Nell’s not coming back.

Eliya’s eyes widened, and she recoiled.  “Fuck you.

I hate to think about it.  It makes me feel awful.  But it doesn’t matter what trick she pulled with Verity, or whether she can pull off the impossible feat of out-testing Tasia.”  The van bumped again, and Samuel stared at the damp floor.  “To get a shot at her name again, she’ll have to win her mother’s approval.  And she’ll never, ever do that.

Why the fuck not?

You don’t know Admiral Ebbridge.  I do,” said Samuel.  “You haven’t had to eat breakfast with her every week.  The woman is a hero, but she hates her children even more than she hates herself.”  It felt like a corkscrew twisting through his gut, but that didn’t make it any less true.  “The sooner we all cope with that, and find a bright spot in this nightmare, the better our odds of survival.

The van screeched to a halt.  Tasia had fallen asleep, her head lolling to the side.

As Eliya glared at him, Samuel shook Tasia’s shoulder, a gentle wake-up.  “We’re here,” he murmured.

Professor Oakes listened to a radio with a pair of headphones.  “Understood!” he said.  He turned the steering wheel, and the car drove in a different direction, bumping down the cobble street.

“What’s happening?” Samuel asked.

“A short detour!” shouted Oakes.  “On the way to our destination!  Some brave souls need our help, and we are the closest.”

Brave souls?  “Who?”

The window rolled down, and a newspaper shot in the van, drying itself.  Samuel picked it off the floor and read the front page.

Paragon Mercenary Group Attacks Radio Host

Four photographs sat beneath the headline.  Anabelle Gage#516125871-R (née Nell Ebbridge), Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang.

“What is it?” said Tasia.

Samuel swallowed.  “We’re going to rescue Nell.  And Anabelle Gage.”

“This bitch,” muttered Eliya, massaging her eyepatch.  “She chops off my hands, and now I’m supposed to save her ass.”

“Technically,” said Leizu.  “Samuel chopped off your hands.”

“Wow,” said Eliya.  “I feel so much better, thanks.”

“Look at it this way,” said Leizu.  “If you save her, she owes you double.”

“Commonplace and the mob assail them in a building ahead,” said Oakes.  “Many Humdrums, and at least one mob projector.  Our primary target is a Shenti man known as Pictogram.  Though he has no bulletproof skin or improved defenses, his aim is perfect.  If possible, avoid him.”  The van screeched, turning another corner.  “Ready?” he said.

“Can I say no?” said Eliya.

“Hold on,” he said.

The top of the van ripped open, and Samuel’s combat suit jerked him up, pulling him into the air.  Wind whipped past his face, and rain splattered his helmet.  Gunshots rang out around them, as the others flew up with him.  His stomach dropped, and his legs wobbled beneath, searching for purchase.

Oakes, the Obsidian Foil, soared above them, drawing his two titular swords and flipping onto the roof.  Projecting into everyone’s armor.  Chimera Squad shot forward, smashing through a window halfway up the building.  

Samuel landed on a bed, breaking it beneath him and kicking up a cloud of dust.  His eyes flickered around, taking in his surroundings.  An abandoned apartment building.  No civilians.  No collateral damage.

Eliya landed next to the door, and it swung open in front of them.

Commonplace soldiers filled the hallway.  Green Hands, jogging into the stairwell with rifles and shotguns.  They froze, staring at the squad.

“Shield!” barked Samuel.  One of Nell’s old tactics.

Eliya stretched her hand forward, and the Green Hands closest to them froze, stunned with her Vocation.  Leizu shot a metal cable from her waist and yanked him back, into the doorway, putting him in a headlock.  A human shield.

The gunmen hesitated for a second, not wanting to shoot their comrade.  That was all it took.

Two of Samuel’s wires shot out, forming countless tiny loops, guided with precision and speed using his Physical Vocation.  A harsh whistling sound rang through the air as the wires flew through the air.

He clenched his fist, pulling the loops shut.

Thirty-two right thumbs sliced off tattooed hands, spurting blood.  The Commonplace thugs cried out in pain, doubling over, losing their grip on weapons, distracted.

Tasia charged forward.  Orbs of blue and purple lightning flickered around her fists – her Vocation.  She blazed through the line of Green Hands, swinging the orbs through their chests and heads, draining their Piths’ energy.

Within a few seconds, all of them lay on the ground, unconscious.  A man in the stairwell fired a shotgun at Tasia, and she fell back, groaning.

Eliya stunned him.  Leizu leapt forward and squeezed his hands, breaking the bones in his hands.  Tasia stood up, massaging her chest.  Her light combat armor had stopped the bullets, but it would leave a bruise.

They ran to the stairwell, and Leizu held up a hand, gesturing above them.  With her enhanced senses, she could find threats before the rest of them.  “More right above us,” she whispered, pointing at the ceiling.  “Voidsteel bullets.  Waiting to ambush us.”

“Trapdoor,” whispered Samuel.  Another trick the original Nell had devised.

Chimera Squad ran down the hallway, end to end.  They projected above them, targeting the ceiling, ripping through planks of wood, tearing through concrete and metal, breaking key structural pieces.  They kept it from vibrating, making the whole process silent, invisible.

Tasia put her two orbs together, forming a single, larger one.  They stood at the stairwell.

Then, Leizu leapt up and slammed the ceiling with her palm.

The entire floor above them split, tearing from end to end.  Dust and splintered wood filled the air, and forty Green Hands fell in unison.

As they fell, Tasia threw her orb forward.  It shot through them midair, wide enough to pass through every one of them.

They dropped to the floor, unconscious.

So many Green Hands.  Commonplace wanted these mercenaries bad.

They ran up the stairwell, and the next floor was empty.  Not a single soul in the hallway.

Leizu stepped forward and sniffed the air.  “Close your eyes!” she shouted.

Samuel snapped his eyes shut, a moment too late.  An intense burning sensation exploded in his pupils, then his nose and throat.  It felt like liquid magma being poured over his face.

He gasped, his throat closing up, making it difficult to breathe.  The sharp scent of chilis filled his nostrils.  Pepper gas.  The invisible kind.

We’re dealing with a projector.  He knelt, his face on fire.

Samuel stretched his Pith up, straining to scan the area.  He felt two Piths on the floor above, and an overwhelming itching sensation spread over his body, like every inch of his skin had broken out in hives.  Two projectors.

He scratched his exposed wrist.  If he could have, he would have ripped his skin off with his fingernails.

Samuel’s suit tightened around him, lifting him.  In his distraction, he’d stopped projecting into his own outfit.  Eliya and Tasia did the same, their armor immobilizing them.

His helmet ripped off, and his suit flung him down the stairwell.  He dropped two flights and slammed into the stairs, rolling to disperse the momentum.

Samuel groaned.  His body ached in a dozen places.  Water washed the pepper spray out of his eyes, bringing the burning down, and making his blurry vision clear.  The itchiness vanished.  Must be from a Whisper Vocation.

Beside him, Eliya and Tasia staggered up.  Eliya limped, coughing up blood, and Tasia wobbled back and forth, dizzy.

Leizu stood next to them, unblemished.  Not even a single bruise.  She glanced down at the rest of Chimera Squad.  “You alright?  Nothing serious?”

Samuel nodded, pushing himself to a standing position.

Leizu gazed up the stairwell.  Red lightning crackled around her left arm.  Her Joining Vocation.

Samuel’s eyes widened, and he grabbed Eliya and Tasia, pulling them down the stairs to the lower levels.  Leizu crouched, red lightning building, and snapped up, leaping out of sight.

The rest of Chimera squad crouched under a door frame, gripping it to brace themselves.

A low boom rang out high above them, and the building shook.  The glass windows at the end of the hall shattered, and dust rained down on their heads.

The aches faded, and Samuel ran back up the stairs.  Tasia followed after him, with a limping Eliya.

They passed Green Hands, lying on the stairs or the hallway, covered in bullet holes and bruises.  

Near the top floor, a massive hole had been blown in the side of the building, taking out a chunk of the wall spanning several floors.  The two enemy projectors – the pepper gas one and the itchiness one – had vanished.  Leizu stood in their place, near the top of the steps.  She leaned on a railing, out of breath.

“Scholars,” said Eliya.  “Thank fuck you’re on our squad.”

They emerged onto the roof, back into the rainstorm.  Lightning flashed in the grey sky, followed by the roar of thunder.

The roof was empty, save for a group of five individuals, crouching behind a large pipe and keeping their heads down.

A boy with a grey beanie, clutching a machine pistol in a shaking hand, rain soaking into her ratty coat and blue combat suit.  No, not a boy – someone wearing a boy’s chassis, covering up her withered hair. Anabelle Gage.  With her knelt a girl and a boy, Ilaquan, holding a shotgun and a sniper rifle, respectively, eyes flitting over Chimera.  Hira Kahlin, with some other southerner.  An old Shenti man with a long, wispy beard.  Jun Kuang.

And Nell, wearing a boy’s body, brown-haired and freckled and lanky.

She looked at Samuel, and the two made eye contact.  Her eyes widened, and her grip tightened on the brown briefcase by her side.

Neither of them spoke, or gave away much with their expressions.  But Samuel felt a warm swelling in his chest.  I’m glad you’re alive.  But he didn’t say that out loud.

Gunshots rang out in the distance.  Samuel glanced up at the neighboring buildings, where the noise came from.

Next to the apartment, a ruined tower stretched above them, an abandoned construction project filled with half-finished rooms.

A dark figure flew through the rain, leaping from floor to floor.  A dozen rifles floated around him, shooting one after the other.  Pictogram.

Another figure chased after him, taller and larger, swinging two razor-thin swords, slicing through concrete and wood like they were made of air.  The Obsidian Foil.  Professor Oakes, darting behind cover, floating chunks of concrete around him to block gunshots.

For a few seconds, they danced back and forth.  Oakes, trying to get close.  Pictogram, swirling his rifles around him, shooting in patterns and keeping his distance.

Pictogram leapt down a floor, using the ceiling as cover, and Oakes sliced through it, dropping down on the Shenti sniper with a wave of rubble.

The swords moved in a blur, and the rifles sliced in half.

At the same time, something cut into Samuel’s leg.  He winced, stinging pain arcing over his skin.  A line of warm blood trickled down his pants.

As he glanced down, a piece of paper slid into his pocket, unseen by everyone except him.

Samuel looked back up.  Nell was watching him, out of the corner of her eye.  Sending me a message.  A secret one.  Why?

It would have to wait.  He couldn’t read it in front of everyone else.

In the building above them, Pictogram ran back, with his rifles destroyed, shooting a handful of pistols to cover his retreat.  A dozen Green Hands burst out of a door behind him, covering his retreat with shotguns.  Four mobsters stepped up next to them, their hands swirling with fire and lightning and icicles.

Oakes flashed forward, his swords whipping through the air.  A few gunshots went off, but none of them hit him.  Before Samuel could blink, Oakes had passed through them all, dancing on the tips of his toes.

Blood spurted out of the enemies, and sixteen heads fell off their bodies.  They hadn’t even touched him.

But in that handful of seconds, Pictogram had vanished into the stairwell.

“Come out and fight!”  Oakes bellowed into the rain.  “Coward!”  He charged into the building, going out of sight.

More gunshots rang out, more shouts and the crackle of electricity.  Samuel and the others watched for several minutes, no one speaking.  The rain poured down around them, making it even harder to see the neighboring building.  Samuel’s eyes flickered around, scanning for movement.  Chimera Squad stood at the ready, prepared to fight, or flee sniper fire at a moment’s notice.

Oakes leapt back onto the roof, jumping from the ground to the top.  He landed in a crouch and slung his swords on his back, projecting the blood out of them.  “A man should face his enemy when he fights,” he grumbled.  “Only a spineless worm uses such tactics.”  He glanced at us.  “Chimeras.  Queen Sulphur.  Are you alright?”

“I broke a few teeth,” said Eliya.  She pointed to the still-dizzy Tasia.  “And bookworm here’s still wobbling a bit, but she’ll be alright.  Leizu, of course, hasn’t broken a single bone.”

“I drink a lot of milk,” said Leizu.

Anabelle Gage nodded.  “We’re, um, we’re okay too.”

Professor Oakes walked towards Queen Sulphur, towering over them.  “If it were up to me, brave soldiers, you’d all be given medals, and pardons, and a big, proper feast with crispy pork and mango!”  His face fell.  “But I am under the command of Paragon Academy, which finds you guilty of the following crimes, which I am required to list: Operating as illegal projectors, assaulting officers of the law, assaulting Guardians, resisting arrest, assault with a deadly weapon, murder, breaking and entering, and catfish poaching.”

“Catfish poaching?” said Gage.

“One time,” said Hira.  “It was a bull market.”

“I’m here to take you all to a location.  I can’t tell you where, but I’ll say this: it’s not a prison.  Ousting law will be ignored, temporarily, for this transport.”  He glanced at Chimera Squad, then Queen Sulphur.  “Will you come peacefully?”

Say yes.  Please say yes.  If Queen Sulphur resisted arrest, it didn’t matter how skilled they’d become.  The Obsidian Foil was Scholar-ranked.  He would cut them apart in seconds, without even needing to draw his rapiers.

The mercenaries muttered amongst themselves for a few seconds.  Then Gage nodded.

They floated themselves from the building to another building, then a different street.  Oakes loaded them into a different van, larger, with no windows and a single light in the back.  The door slammed shut, and they drove off, rain pattering on the metal roof.

Samuel looked at the members of Queen Sulphur, their weapons taken away, hands cuffed in front of them.  Voidsteel locks, but not Voidsteel cuffs – a cheaper design, that would only take seconds to break.  A mere formality from Oakes.

Hira Kahlin, the Ilaquan, stuffed her hands into the pockets of her orange blouse, and waggled her eyebrows at him.  Jun Kuang, the Shenti bombmaker, flashed him a shy smile.

Anabelle Gage gave Samuel a nervous look out of the corner of her eye, shivering and hunched over, grey veins bulging in her wrists.  She had been his first real enemy in the field.  A frightening one, though he’d kept his cool throughout, even as she’d tricked him into chopping off Eliya’s hands, as she blew out his knee with a shotgun.

Feels like a century ago.  Though it had happened less than a year before.

And Nell.  The girl in the boy’s body, clutching his briefcase, avoiding his gaze, water dripping from her brown hair and her suit.  I’ve failed you in so many ways.  But he’d tried to cope, to deal with the loss and move on with the rest of his life.

Seeing her again just twisted the knife.  And she slipped a message into my pocket.

Nell glared at Tasia, dissecting her old body’s inhabitant with her eyes.  Tasia stared at her feet.

The van bumped, going over an uneven road.  The old bombmaker spoke up.  “I’m Jun Kuang,” he said.  “You probably know that already, if you read the news.”  He smiled at them.  “I know the circumstances are weird, but, uh, thanks for saving us!  Let’s do our best to keep the people here safe.  It’s nice to meet you all!”  He extended his hand out to Eliya, to shake.

Eliya didn’t shake his hand.  No one replied, and an uncomfortable silence descended over the van, as the raindrops stopped overhead.

The van drove over a bump, then up some sort of ramp at an angle.  Where are we going?  The vehicle stopped, and the entire thing bobbed up and down.  We’re on a boat, Samuel realized.

“So,” said Jun.  “Does anyone know any good jokes?”

Leizu coughed.  “What do you call someone who never wins at Shenti board games?”  She waved her hands.  “A Jao-Loser!”

Silence.

Then Jun guffawed, doubling over with laughter.  When nobody joined him, he trailed off into a nervous chuckle.

“I have one,” said Eliya.  “What’s shriveled, ugly, and blew out my eye, chopped off my hands, and shot my favorite teacher in the pancreas?”  She looked at Kuang, Gage, and Kahlin in order with her single eye.

Jun stroked his beard.  “I don’t get it.”

“Easy, Eliya,” said Leizu.

“That was a pretty shallow dig,” said Hira.  “But I’m not surprised.”  She leaned back, closing her eyes.  “Since you have no depth perception.”

Eliya stood up, lunging at her, and Leizu held her back with a hand.  “I’d make you piss yourself,” she said.  “But it could be a long ride, and I don’t want the van to smell.”

“Sorry for my temper, your ladyship,” said Hira.  “I’m half on my period, and the other half hasn’t smoked for five hours.  Makes it hard to cope with your loyalist death mobs.  Or tolerate whaleshit attacking my friends.”

Two bodies? thought Samuel.  That can’t be possible.

“Adam Lynde was my friend,” said Eliya.  “And you blew off his leg with a shotgun.”

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “Really missing my hookah.”

“Fuck you,” hissed Eliya.  “And fuck your hookah.  I hope you get lung cancer and die.”

“Me too!” snapped Hira.

“What?”

One more hour in here, and we’ll all murder each other.  Or worse, Leizu might make a second joke.

“Don’t worry,” said Leizu, to the bombmaker.  One Shenti speaking to another.  “Paragon isn’t going to abandon its citizens.”  Its Shenti citizens.  She smiled, though her eyes looked less certain.

Nell – the real Nell – opened her mouth to say something, holding up a hand.

Before she could speak, the boat jerked, coming to a stop.  The back doors flew open, letting in flat grey light.  Oakes stood on the deck of the ship, and motioned to them.  “This way, chaps.”

He led Queen Sulphur and Chimera Squad out of the van, onto the back of a coast guard ship.  They walked down a ramp, and Samuel recognized his surroundings in an instant.

Bartolet Naval Base.  Concrete landing strips crisscrossed the ground ahead of them.  Battleships, destroyers, and fueling ships stretched down the shore of the island, into the distance.  A pair of zeppelins sat at the far end of the runway.

A massive grey aircraft carrier towered over the rest.  The CNS Rhona.  Admiral Ebbridge’s flagship.  Sailors and mechanics ran in and out.  Trucks drove around the airfield, carrying crates of equipment, and soldiers jogged in regimented lines over the damp asphalt.  The moisture from the rain hung in the air, like another storm was about to start.

Samuel glanced behind him.  The ships blocked his view of Elmidde and the mainland, but the capitol, and Mount Elwar stood only a few kilometers to the west.

Ahead, a dense forest covered the far half of the island, past the end of the naval base.  It reminded Samuel of the forest near the top of Mount Elwar, surrounding Elmidde’s cable car station.  A piece of untouched nature, surrounded by grey industry.

Oakes indicated his head, and the Chimeras all jogged forward, making a line behind the professor.  Queen Sulphur followed their lead, despite their lack of military training.

Every few seconds, Samuel glanced back, making sure the mercs weren’t running away somewhere.  It made for an odd sight, the five of them running with their hands cuffed.

As they ran through the base, others ran alongside them  Men and women decked out in the latest combat armor, wearing the blue cloaks of Guardians.  

Professor Tuft – Harpy – leading Ralph Corbiere and Cyclops Squad.  Lady Olwen, accompanied by Sphinx Squad and a pair of Guardians Samuel didn’t recognize.

And across the grass, to Samuel’s left, on a different runway, a boy with pitch-black hair led a squad of other students to the same location.  Lorne Daventry.  With Deon, Naruhiko, and Matilla Geffray.  Wearing an identical body, but without the broken nose Samuel had given him.

To Samuel’s right, the Symphony Knight, Lorne’s mother, sat on top of a crate and strapped on a suit of heavy plate mail.  She tightened her arm guard, clenching her teeth.

Professor Oakes guided the Chimeras and Sulphurs into a domed building, through a wide set of double doors.  As they passed the entrance, a woman checked their subconscious passwords and security questions, her voice whispering the questions.  Then she posed a series of riddles to Queen Sulphur, one by one, and shined a flashlight into their pupils as they answered.  Some bizarre identity check.

Samuel pushed in through a thick crowd of Guardians, all gathered around the outside of the room.  In the process, Leizu and the bombmaker, Kuang, got a few hostile glares.  A circular platform had been raised in the center of the room, a stage for important generals and officers to stand and give orders from.

Higher-level Guardians stood there, including General Benthey, Admiral Ebbridge, and the old man himself.  Headmaster Tau, leaning against Lord Fabyan’s shoulder with a bemused expression frozen on his face.  Professor Oakes leapt out of the crowd and landed on the platform, joining them.  The Symphony Knight climbed up next to him, slow under the weight of her armor.

A narrow tower stretched out of the center of the platform, with a perch up top like a crow’s nest on a ship.

Samuel glanced back, as the doors swung shut behind them.  We were the last to arrive.

Admiral Ebbridge floated to the top of the crow’s nest and snapped her fingers.  The bustling noise in the room fell silent, and the domed ceiling lit up.  Guardians at the edges of the room pressed their palms together, and different colors of paint shifted, sealed in by a narrow glass wall.

The paint morphed, forming a giant map of Elmidde and the area surrounding Mount Elwar.  Midtown, Lowtown, and Hightown were marked with labels.  Meteor Bay and the outer islands too, surrounded by deep blue water.  Paragon Academy stood separate from the rest, a collection of multicolored shapes floating above Mount Elwar.

Nell moved around, shifting her head from side to side, trying to get a view of her mother.  She stared up at her with eager eyes.  She’s never going to welcome you back, thought Samuel.  Best to realize that now and get it over with.

“Thanks to the recent broadcast on Verity,” shouted the admiral.  “Public opinion has shifted!  Only a hair, but it’s growing.  Commonplace’s false image has shattered, and our most loyal supporters have rallied as one!”

Dozens of students and Guardians turned their heads, staring at the members of Queen Sulphur.  The foreigners didn’t seem to mind, but Gage shrunk from the attention.  Nell stood at attention, taking a dignified posture in her pimply male body, as if she’d never been Ousted.

“Early this morning,” said the Admiral.  “Parliament traveled to Paragon for security, and conducted a vote in secret.  With a narrow majority, they’ve authorized us to take broad military action against Commonplace and the mob.”

How about that?  Some of the Humdrums had finally come around.  They’d been tying up Guardians with red tape and bloated regulations for a decade.  But when it counted, they knew, deep down, what every student at Paragon knew.  We are the only thing that stands between them and chaos.

“Commonplace and the mob are diffuse groups,” said Ebbridge.  “They hide in the shadows, operate through proxies and cells, move their bases of operations around and keep low-level soldiers in the dark.  We have had difficulty pinpointing their leaders and critical points of failure.”  A smile spread across her face.  “Thanks to the work of Guardians around the country, we can now.”

Guardians around the country?  That had to be a fake cover for the real source of the intel.  How had Paragon found out so much about the enemy?

She clapped her hands, and red circles appeared on the map overhead, around at least a dozen places in Elmidde.  The crowd murmured, staring up at the dome.

“We’re going to wipe out Commonplace,” she said.  “We’re going to snuff out the Pyre Witch.  And we’re going to do it today.”

Today?  That was insane.  Go on the attack while popular opinion was just starting to shift, while half the city was on fire?  This had to be the worst possible time.

No, dummy, Nell’s voice said in the back of his head.  It’s the perfect time.  The enemy thinks we’re swamped, and they don’t know about the vote yet.  Or that so many of their critical locations had been exposed.

The entire room broke out into applause.  Samuel joined them, with the rest of Chimera Squad.  Among Queen Sulphur, only Nell clapped.

“In one hour,” said Ebbridge.  “We will hit these locations in unison.  There will undoubtedly be heavy resistance.  And if any of us finds one of the key figures in Commonplace, you are to radio the other teams, and keep them from escaping.“  Pictures appeared on the map, some precise, some little more than a sketch.  “Their leader, a Humdrum wearing an aged Maxine Clive chassis.  Or Grace Acworth, or Afzal Kahlin, or the enemy’s Shenti liaison, who goes by the moniker ‘Pictogram’.”

Jun Kuang, the bombmaker, raised a wrinkled hand, sticking out of the throng.  “Excuse me.  What about the street violence?  And the mobs on Gestalt Island?”  The Shenti slums.

Murmurs of discomfort drifted through the air.  People stared at him, in confusion or irritation.  Anabelle Gage stared at the ground, frozen in place like a statue.

“Gestalt Island is not our priority,” said Admiral Ebbridge.  “Let’s move on.”

Admiral Ebbridge described the teams, and the locations they’d been assigned, along with details of how to reach their targets without being seen, and how to counter the most likely resistance.

Then, she finished.  “The nation, the people, the light.

The crowd applauded again, and split into groups.  Chimera Squad walked to the far end of the room, where the Symphony Knight was gathering her team.  Samuel hung at the back, away from their gazes.


He glanced over at Nell.  She stood next to the platform, looking up.

She was talking with Admiral Ebbridge.  How is that legal?  Her left hand folded a piece of origami – a fidget, getting faster and faster.  But the look in her eyes wasn’t fear, or discomfort, but excitement.  Samuel caught the words “Kahlin” and “debt”.  They’re talking about the money the Ebbridges owe to the Broadcast King.

While Chimera Squad looked away from him, Samuel pulled the bloody piece of paper from his pocket, and read Nell’s message out of the corner of his eye.  It’s conjecture.  A false hope.  But was it possible now?  Was it possible?

He read the paper again.

It was all my fault
But I’m fixing it, too

And I’m coming home

Samuel thought about it.

He didn’t smile.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



If you’re enjoying the story, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction! (Click the link, then “Boost” in the top right corner)

10-B The Wrong Side of History

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

The guards dropped onto the lawn, twitching, as Hira’s electricity ran through their nerves.

Wes and I broke from the line of manicured bushes, sprinting up the hill through the darkness.  We knelt next to the guards and injected syringes of tranquilizer into their necks.  They went limp.

“This,” said Wes under his breath.  “Is either the best idea you’ve ever had, or the dumbest mistake in our lifetimes.”  His black ski mask muffled his voice.

“That’s every mission we’ve done,” said the masked Left-Hira, dragging a guard behind a dark bush, away from the lights on the mansion’s front gate.  “I joined Queen Sulphur because you guys were fun, not because of your good judgment.”

Jun walked up and fiddled with the gate lock, jamming a pair of lockpicks in.  “I thought you joined to protect yourself from the Broadcast King.”  After a few seconds, the gate swung open.

“True,” said Right-Hira.  “But I never would have considered it if you people were the boring careful type.”

We all jogged forward through the mansion’s sparse grounds, staying in the shadows, avoiding pools of light.  No fountains or canals, no giant sculptures or topiaries.  Restrained, for a woman worth over a hundred million pounds.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine.”  Jun sat down and leaned against the front door.  “We made it this far, didn’t we?”  He crossed his legs and closed his eyes, taking deep, slow breaths.  Green and purple lightning flickered around him.

While he worked, the rest of us sat on the grass, projecting out the dew to make a dry circle.  I stared up at the night sky, and the twin crescent moons overhead.

“Are you sure about this?” whispered Hira.  “Are you sure it was the Pyre Witch who sold you your body?”

“Of course,” I hissed, rubbing my arms as I shivered.  “My pattern-matching vocation confirmed that she used the same type of shell company and anonymous trust layering as Sapphire Industrial.  The vocation doesn’t make mistakes.”

But others did use shell companies, not just the mob.  What if they were using the same techniques, too?

No.  The timing was too perfect.  It had to be Tunnel Vision.  Who else would be running a scam like that in the Principality?  Only organized crime.

“Hanging out with you is fucking weird,” said Hira.  “I never know whether you’re a genius or the biggest idiot in the world.”

“I believe her,” said Wes.

“Let’s just focus on the mission,” I said.  I can stress about this later.

“Even if this works,” whispered Wes.  “It won’t be admissible in a court of law.”

“No,” I muttered.  “It’ll be better.”

“And the idiot Humdrums might not believe you.”

“I’m sure many of them won’t,” I said.  And they’re not all idiots.

“And after we do this, everyone is going to try and kill us,” said Wes.

“Weren’t they already doing that?” said Hira.

“Everyone is going to try and kill us more,” said Wes.

“Maybe,” I said.  There were a lot of unknowns.  But a day ago, I’d come this close to committing suicide with a plan, so this was a step up.

“To be honest,” said Hira.  “I’m surprised that no one has tried this idea before.”

“That’s good for us, right?” said Wes.  “It means we’re intrepid trailblazers.”

“Or,” said Left-Hira.  “We’re dumb fucks who can’t see the obvious pitfalls.”  She finished assembling my machine pistol, and loaded our one Voidsteel bullet into the side chamber.  Miraculously, it fit.  With projection, I could load the Voidsteel into the main chamber at any time and fire it.

Hira dropped the gun into my shaking hand, and nodded at me.

Is it shaking because of decay?  Or was it my fear again?  My stomach was aching too.  Is this a good plan?  My shoulders tightened, and I forced myself to take slow, patient breaths.

Jun stood up.  “The alarm system is down.  That was fun!”  His eyes lit up.  “The power operated on a redundant system that kicked in when one source was cut, which meant I needed to use a pattern of alterations to avoid the loop creating a – “

“Jun,” said Wes.  “We don’t have engineering degrees.”

“Right,” he said.  “Sorry.  I cut the phone lines, too, and locked the front gate.”  He pushed open the door, beckoning us in.

I held up my machine pistol and cattle prod, and moved in.

We walked through the dark house, our footsteps quiet on the smooth wooden floors.  Moonlight streamed in through floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating vast, open rooms filled with plush couches, television sets, and piles of uneaten snack food, with a dead fireplace in the corner of the room.

A chocolate fountain burbled on a marble countertop.  Some people have too much money.  

Left-Hira scooped up a handful of chocolate and poured it in her mouth.  Her right body did the same.  She wiped her hands on her pant legs and checked the cable launchers attached to her arms.  Wes unlatched his briefcase.

Then Hira held up her fist and knelt.  Stop.

We stopped, taking cover in the shadows.

Footsteps clunked on the wood floor, and a pair of guards walked past us, carrying pistols and muttering about something.

Hira made a motion, ran up with her two bodies, and grabbed the guards’ necks, shocking them.  She lowered them to the ground, and we injected them with tranquilizer.

At the far end of the living room, down a staircase, another pair of guards stood on a balcony, overlooking a swimming pool lower on the hillside.

And beyond them, we saw a spectacular view.  On the other side of Meteor Bay, the lights of Elmidde spread out before us, a carpet of lights wrapping around Mount Elwar, dwarfed only by the glow of Paragon high above.  A group of clouds surrounded the floating islands, lit up blue and red and green by the lights of the academy, glowing in the sky.

Hira signaled to us.  Jun projected forward and slid open the door, making a soft scraping noise.

The guards at the balcony turned around, and Left-Hira shot the cables forward from the tops of her wrists, grabbing onto one end and touching the other end to the guards’ necks.  Electricity ran through them, and the guards dropped to the ground with two loud thuds, twitching.

Wes and I ran forward.  Two more injections.

Footsteps rang out from the staircase below.  “Someone heard the commotion,” I hissed.  “We – “

Another guard clambered up the stairs, aiming his shotgun at us.

Wes jabbed his hand forward, and a blanket shot off the couch, wrapping around the guard’s head, muffling his shouts as it shook him back and forth.  The Humdrum pulled the trigger of his weapon, but it didn’t fire.  Hira’s jamming it.

Right-Hira, closest to the stairway, sprinted forward and grabbed the guard’s wrist, shocking him, then injecting him with the knockout drugs.

The guard slumped to the ground, and I exhaled.

“How many guards did you say she had?” said Wes.

“Eight,” said Hira.  From our last stakeout.  “And her red-hot boyfriend’s out of town.”

I did a quick count in my head.  “We’ve taken out seven.”  I glanced around.  “Where’s the last one?”

A soft splash rang out in the distance.

Then the house shook.  The floor to ceiling windows shattered, and a flower vase fell off a shelf, breaking into pieces.

A thick tentacle of water reached up from below the balcony.  The tip of it narrowed into an icy blade, and it stabbed forward at me.  I leapt to the side, and the tentacle punched into the floor, sinking a foot deep.

As I clambered away, I caught a whiff of chlorine.  Water from the swimming pool.

Our target had hired a projector.

The tentacle bulged, pulling up something from below.  A huge mass heaved itself over the balcony, and thudded onto the floor of the living room.

It resembled a giant octopus, made of dozens of ice-tipped water tentacles, all converging at a sphere in the middle.  A short-haired woman floated in the middle of the sphere, breathing from an oxygen tank.

I aimed my pistol and squeezed the trigger.  The gun kicked back, firing a suppressed burst at the projector.  Hira fired at it with her black trench shotgun and sniper rifle.

The bullets made white streams of bubbles in the water, curving around the projector.  An ABD.

I had to stop myself from throwing an illusion on her.  Lorne’s still got the tracer on you.  I could shoot her with my one Voidsteel bullet, but it’d be hard to recover and I wanted to save it.  Besides, we were trying to avoid killing anyone.

The tentacles lashed out, cleaving the coffee table in two.  We dashed out of the way, and Wes shot paper out of his briefcase, forming walls in front of the woman’s vision.  Jun floated the unconscious guards’ guns over to him, breaking them down into parts.

The tentacles swung blindly, tearing through the paper, smashing couches, and ripping through columns.  We ran back to the far end of the room, keeping our distance.

One of the tentacles stabbed a marble wall and got stuck, trying to pull itself out.  Hira jumped over a broken chair and touched the tentacle with one of her cables, electricity running through her palms.

Nothing.  The woman didn’t react.  The water yanked the cable out of Hira’s grasp, and Hira leapt back, sprinting with us to another room.  The water must be insulating her somehow.  And Hira couldn’t penetrate it with her weak cable launchers.

We ran.  The water-octopus dragged itself towards us, smashing through walls and doorways.  I gasped, out of breath almost instantly.

“Your cables!” shouted Jun.  The gun parts floated in front of him, crackling with green lightning, and a piece of the kitchen faucet broke off, adding itself to his contraption.

Hira tossed him her remaining cable with her wrist launcher, and he grabbed it, working it into the storm of lightning and metal before him.

“Why are we always running?” shouted Wes.  “Are all mercenaries just cowards?”

“We’re not mercenaries,” said Jun, panting as he assembled his machine.  “We’re unemployed.  We should file for assistance.”

“Shut the fuck up and run,” said both Hiras, throwing debris at the water-monster behind us to slow it down.

One of the tentacles whipped forward and slammed into my back, flinging me forward.  I crashed next to the stone fireplace, and something snapped in my shoulder, sending stabbing pain throughout my torso.  Dislocated?

I tried to stand up, and the pain tripled, forcing me back to a sitting position as I wheezed for breath.

“Help her!” shouted Wes.

Hira’s bodies grabbed me, and ran towards one of the living room’s exits.  A tentacle smashed the doorway, blocking it with a pile of rubble.  The projector did the same to the other exit, covering our last escape with her water monster.

Cornering us.

“Cover!” shouted Hira.  Wes exploded his paper barriers, shooting them all at the sphere of water, distracting the projector.

Jun grabbed a poker from the fireplace, broke off the handle, and dropped it in the gun he’d assembled, as he tossed it to Hira.

As the woman tore through the last barrier, Right-Hira grabbed the makeshift gun, spun around, and fired.

The poker punched through the water sphere, stabbing the woman’s calf.  Hira’s cable connected it to Jun’s weapon.  A harpoon.

Hira grabbed the cable, and electricity crackled through it.  The water-monster dissolved, splashing onto the floor.  The woman collapsed, twitching.  Wes staggered forward, pulled out a syringe, and injected her in the neck.  She fell unconscious.

An instant later, all three gathered around me, inspecting my shoulder.

“Are you alright?” said Wes.  “I mean, apart from your impending death and all the people trying to murder us.”

“Your shoulder is dislocated,” said Jun.

“You can pop it back in, right?” I said.  “You just have to – “

Something wrenched my arm around, and another wave of pain exploded in my shoulder.

“Ow!”  I grimaced.

“Done,” said Hira.  “Put a splint on it later, let’s get going.”

I stood up, able to move again, but the pain didn’t fade, a throbbing ache that refused to go away.  Is that going to heal right?

“That’s eight,” said Hira.

________________________________________

We found the target at the front gate, trying and failing to climb out.  A tall blonde woman in a frilly nightgown, dark circles under her eyes, armpits soaked with sweat.  The famous star of a radio show, Verity.

“Christea Ronaveda,” Wes called out.

She turned to face us.  “Scholars,” she said.  “Not more fans.  Do you want an autograph, nude photographs, or my severed head on a platter?”  Her nose wrinkled.  “All three?”

“The first one,” said Wes.

“No,” I said, stepping in.  “No, none of those.  Let’s go back inside.”

“You know,” said Christea Ronaveda.  “Rich people store most of their assets in abstract stocks and real estate.  If you want to make money, you should rob casinos or armored trucks.”  We pushed her back towards the house.  “Or chain restaurants,” she said.  “They have loads of cash on hand and none of the employees care enough to stop you.”

“Quiet,” I said, shoving her, trying to sound scary.  She talks even more than Wes.

We went back inside, stepping over piles of rubble, glass shards, and shredded pieces of furniture, and passing unconscious guards in the corridors.  The chocolate fountain in the kitchen had been knocked over, and a pool of fondue spread across the floor, seeping into a carpet.  

In other places, water from the swimming pool soaked into the floor, dripping down staircases, filling the whole house with the stench of chlorine.

Ronaveda sighed at the damage, and stared at the spilled chocolate.  “Ants,” she muttered.  “Not more ants.”

Hira pushed Ronaveda out a doorway and down a path, to the edge of her empty swimming pool, overlooking the glimmering lights of the city.  She forced the celebrity to a sitting position.

“A few questions,” I said.  “About your Vocation.”

“Sure,” Ronaveda said.  “If you kill me, please make it fast and let me take some painkillers first.”

“First,” I said.  “Why did Paragon ban you from using your truth aura in court?”

“Due to a combination of incompetence and laziness,” said Ronaveda.  “I’ve been unable to write a Vocation Codex.  As a result, I can’t share my Vocation with anyone.  Paragon said they didn’t want this country’s legal system to become dependent on a single mortal woman.”  She shrugged.  “That’s what they said, at least.”

“And what do you think?”

“They’re afraid,” she said.  “Guardians and Epistocrats stay off my show because they’ve got dirty laundry.  Why go on a show when they’re forced to tell the truth?”

“Second,” I said.  “How does your Vocation interact with other Praxis and Whisper Vocations?”

“If your mind’s been altered a fuckload,” said Ronaveda, “the truth aura won’t work normally.  You’ll freeze up, stutter.  It’ll be difficult for you to communicate anything at all.  Skill-stitching’s the only real exception.”

I glanced at Hira out of the corner of my eye.

“In the early days of Verity,” Ronaveda said, “people tried to Nudge guests beforehand, or encrypt their memories before going onto my show.  It never worked.  To my knowledge, it’s impossible to use mental projection to lie under my aura.  You have to believe you’re telling the truth.  Only genuine delusion would work.”

I nodded.  “Third.  If someone makes a promise under your Vocation, are they bound to keep it?”

Ronaveda shook her head.  “You can’t lie about your intentions, but your intentions can change.  For example, if you swear to quit drinking, then find out that your high school bully has become a CEO with ten times your salary, that might make you down a few shots.”

“Sorry,” said Jun.  “If that really happened to you.”

“That being said,” she added.  “If you make a promise under my Vocation, someone can ask you what might change your mind, and how likely you are to keep your word.”

Excellent.  Then we could move forward.

I pointed to Left-Hira.  “Use your Vocation on her.”

Christea Ronaveda nodded, and blue and purple lightning crackled around her face.  “Done.”  Hira was now unable to tell lies.

Left-Hira knelt next to her, clenching her fist.  “I’m lowering my voice and getting in your personal space so I sound more intimidating,” she said.  “But I’m regretting that now, because your shampoo smells like the fucking tears of the Oversoul and I’m jealous.  Is that sage?”

“Rosemary,” said Ronaveda.

“Where did you buy it?”

“Hey,” said Wes.  “Stop flirting with her and get to the point.”

“Lund pe chadh,” said Hira.

“Takmeel Beauty Lounge,” Ronaveda whispered.

“Thanks,” said Hira.  “Here’s the deal: You have a tape recorder here somewhere, right?”

Ronaveda nodded.

“We’re gonna use it to record something,” said Hira.  “Then, you’re going to promise to play that recording on tomorrow’s Verity show.  And you’ll do everything in your power to play the whole thing.  No stops, no breaks, no cop calls.”

“And if I don’t?” said Ronaveda.

“I’ll k – “  Hira clenched her teeth, struggling to speak under the truth aura.  “No, fuck, I won’t kill you, I like you too much.  And we won’t kill your guards, either.  But I will…shoot both your kneecaps, break your fingers, and then burn down your house.”  She glanced back at the mansion.  “What’s left of it.  Which, all in all, would probably ruin your week.”  Hira projected into a guard’s shotgun, pulling it into her hand.  “So?  How about it?”

“That depends,” said Ronaveda.  “If you’re calling for mass murder, I’ll probably just get the police.  And I can’t stop my producers if they want to cut off my broadcast halfway through.  I’d need to hear your message first.”

“Fair enough,” I said, massaging my shoulder.  “Let’s get the tape recorder.”

________________________________________

First, we moved to a different house.

When Verity aired, we didn’t want to be anywhere near our Commonplace-sympathizing housemates, or anyone else.  Hira had already found an empty basement in a ruined building on the far side of North Island, in a neighborhood even more run-down and empty than the old one.

It took a while to move our few possessions across town, along with a frustrated Cardamom.  We couldn’t use projection in public, and my shoulder was still aching from the mission.

It even took longer to make sure we weren’t being followed.  Wes grumbled about how dirty and cramped it was, but after a few eye-rolls from Hira, he quieted down.

After forcing Ronaveda to record our statement, he’d gotten her to sign her name on a scrap of paper he ripped from one of her books, which technically counted as an autograph. That probably improved his mood too.

By the time we’d settled into the dusty basement and cleared out all the spiders, the sun had sunk past the late afternoon, setting over the horizon.  The clock struck 7:58 – almost time for Verity to air.

The building’s first and second floors had been demolished, so we sat on the rubble above the basement, exposed to the air.

I leaned back on a blanket, staring up at the night sky.  The clouds had vanished, and the twin moons shone down on us, two perfect orbs in the darkness.

Cardamom sat on my lap, purring.  The rest of Queen Sulphur leaned back with me, and Jun tuned the makeshift radio he’d built.  “ – presents, Verity, with Christea Ronaveda!

Jun twisted the dials, editing out the static.  “Good evening,” said Christea Ronaveda.  “I mean that as a generic sort of greeting.  It’s not actually a good evening.  My chocolate fountain got trashed, ants are swarming over my house, and also the world is ending.  Though for once, it wasn’t my fault.

Now, the critical moment.  Whether our efforts would pay off or not.

We’re changing things up this evening.  I’ve asked my producers to let me play this audio clip on air, and they’ve agreed not to cut me off or take it away from me or tackle me to the floor.”  She cleared her throat.  “When it’s over, I’ll let you know what I think.  But for now, I’ll stop being cryptic and let the recording speak for itself.

A click rang out from the radio, the tape recorder starting.  “My name is Anabelle Gage.

I winced as I heard my voice.  Even after the work I’d done on it, it still sounded weird played back to me.  And I could hear the hesitation in my voice, the fear.

I failed three times to get into Paragon Academy.  I became a mercenary for them, then a fugitive, when I was discovered.”  The recording took a deep breath.  “My body is decaying.  I’m probably going to die in the next few months.  But before I do, I’d like to do my part.  I’ve done so many things I regret.  I’d like to leave behind something good.

They hadn’t taken the show off the air yet, or stopped the recording.  So far, so good.

I’m saying this under the truth aura of Christea Ronaveda.  She can testify to this.”  The recording paused, and silence hung in the air.  “Commonplace is lying to the Principality.  It’s conspiring with the mob, the Pyre Witch, and Afzal Kahlin to overthrow our government.  It scammed innocents with defective bodies, preying on their hopes and letting them rot away.”  Pain slipped into my voice.  “It freed Lyna Wethers from prison, unleashing her on hundreds of innocents so she could make Paragon look bad.  And it accepts billions in military equipment from its real backer: Shenti Warlords.  The foreign monsters who almost destroyed this world are now conspiring to break our nation from within.

That was the strongest bit.  The mob, Wethers, scams – those were all bad, but after the war, Principians hated the Shenti more than the rest of them combined.

I don’t believe this,” the recording said.  “I know this.  I’ve been on Attlelan Island, where they ship their weapons.  I’ve watched Lyna Wethers’ victims crawl over each other’s corpses, blind and mute.”  My voice slowed.  “For the last decade of my life, I’ve been scared almost every day.  Scared of dying, of failing, of losing my identity and being trapped in this withering corpse.  I carry that fear in my Pith.  When I drag myself out of bed in the morning.  When I drift through the ruins of my life.  When I force myself to fall asleep.

A cool breeze blew over my face, and I closed my eyes.  Millions of people are listening to this.  It made me want to run back to the basement, hide under a table, and throw up.

But these monsters scare me more than anything else.”  The recording raised its voice.  “So, to the citizens of the Principality.  If you believe in order.  If you still love this nation, despite its flaws.  If you still believe in magic.  I ask you to fight.  Beat back the Shenti, and their puppets.  Take back the Principality.

A pause, then –

The choice is yours.  It always was.

The radio clicked.  The recording ended.

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, and sat up on the blanket, gazing at the dark street around me.

Wes stepped forward and hugged me.  I hugged him back.  Behind him, both Hiras nodded at me.  Jun stared at the ground, avoiding eye contact.

Ronaveda continued.  “So, this ‘Anabelle Gage’ and her friends broke into my house last night and forced me to record this while I used my truth Vocation on her.  They knocked out my guards, threatened me, and wrecked half my house, but, to my surprise, I think I believe what they –

Jun clicked off the radio.  “We won’t see the results until later, so until then, may I suggest we get some sleep?”  He stepped down the staircase, back into the basement.

Hira shrugged with both bodies.  “Not like there’s anything else to do in this dump.”  She walked down after Jun.  Cardamom stood up and padded after them.  I scratched between his ears as he left.

And then it was just me and Wes.

Wes leaned back against a broken wall, gazing up at the sky.  “You know, all those months ago, just before we first met – “

“Half a lifetime ago,” I said.

Wes nodded.  “I never told anyone this, but I made a choice.  I was standing on North Bridge, looking up at Florence Tuft flying with her students in that fighter plane.”

Crooked Talon,” I said.

“I could have moved in with Leo.  Accepted a quiet Humdrum’s life.  But I saw her, and I wanted to fly.  I wanted to fly.”  He chuckled.  “The more time passed, the more ridiculous that seemed.  A dumb, impossible fantasy.”  He turned to me, his eyes filled with excitement.  “Not anymore.”

I nodded.  In my speech, I’d mentioned Afzal Kahlin – connected him to the mob, Commonplace, and most importantly, the Shenti.  It wouldn’t be legal evidence, but if it turned public opinion enough, it might help bring action against the Broadcast King, wipe out the Ebbridge’s debt, earn favor from his mother.

It was a long shot, but Wes might get to go home.  And if everything went well, I might get a pardon.

At Tasia’s expense, a voice whispered at the back of my head.

“I’ve hurt you in the past.”  Wes made eye contact with me.  “I’ve used you, betrayed your trust.  I can’t blame my parents for that, or make excuses for it, or pretend that hating myself is enough.  I chose this.”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t have to forgive me.  But we have a chance now, thanks to you.  A real chance, to get back our futures, to write the next page and drink that mulled cider together and forge the stars in our images.”  He extended his arm to me again.  “Sacrifice isn’t radical.  Not for people like us.  Let’s live, Anabelle Gage.”

I clasped his arm.  The moons shone down on us, lighting up our faces.

For a moment, I let myself believe in his giddy optimism.  For a moment, everything felt real.

“Let’s live,” I said.

________________________________________

Wes offered to play a game of Jao Lu to ease the tension, but I was too exhausted.  So he and I crawled back into the basement, and for once, I got a good night’s sleep.  Even amidst the dust and filth, I closed my eyes, and drifted off with a lingering sense of peace.

When I woke, the city was in chaos.

Wes shook me awake, and my eyes fluttered open.  Water dripped through holes in the wood ceiling, and rain poured down outside.

Dim, grey light streamed in through the staircase, with a steady trickle of water.  My head throbbed, and my eyes stung, matched by a stomachache swelling in my belly and nausea building in my throat.

“Come on,” he said, pulling me out of bed.

Jun and Hira huddled at the far corner of the basement, leaning close to a radio with the volume turned down, water dripping over their heads.  Hira puffed on her purple hookah, filling the damp air with cherry-scented smoke.  Cardamom sat on the other side of the room, avoiding the smell.

I trudged over to them, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.  Hira twisted the knob, turning up the volume.

– have started using pepper gas at the protestors gathered around Paragon Academy’s cable car station.  The Guardians Charles Hou and Isaac Brin have been spotted patrolling the streets of Hightown, and the prime minister has called for peace and open dialogue.

“What the fuck,” I said.  “Happened while I was out?”

Hira beckoned to the radio.

I listened for a few minutes, as Jun flipped between frequencies, and the rest of Queen Sulphur filled in the blanks.

The morning after Verity aired, Commonplace had gathered outside the radio station where the show got recorded.  They’d screamed slogans and brandished signs, calling for Christea Ronaveda to be taken off the air, and for me to be hunted down and arrested.

Anabelle Gage.  People kept saying my name, speculating about my identity, my crimes, my connections to Paragon.  Anabelle Gage, Anabelle Gage.  I don’t think I’d ever heard my name that many times.

Thanks to my speech, thousands of loyalist counter-protestors had shown up against Commonplace, defending Verity with makeshift weapons and battle lines, speaking on the side of the Epistocracy and tradition.

The Midtown Post said it was the loyalists who got violent first, the people on our side.  But Oracle Media Group, and Afzal Kahlin owned the Post.  Other radio shows disagreed, stating that Commonplace had thrown the first punches, dragged a patriot out of the crowd and beat him up.

Now, the police had stepped in to restore order against Commonplace, and the rioting had spread to dozens of locations around Elmidde, including Gestalt Island, a slum filled with Shenti immigrants.  The poorest places are going to get the hardest.

Christea Ronaveda had vanished, unable to be found in her house or studio or any of her usual spots.  Most people speculated that she’d fled the country, like she’d promised earlier.  I couldn’t blame her.

Or she’s dead, a voice whispered at the back of my mind.  And your words killed her.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “You’ve outdone yourself, Ana.  For a neurotic bunny rabbit, you sure have an eye for chaos.  I think half the city might be on fire this time.”

I’m not a rabbit, I thought.  I’m a caterpillar.  And right now, all the wasps and spiders were descending, ready to pluck me off my leaf.

Jun stared at the radio, his eyes wide.  “Please, don’t joke about this.  Protestors have died already.”

I looked at Wes.  “Have they talked about the Broadcast King at all?”

Wes nodded, his eyes lighting up.  “Constantly.  The Oracle-owned radio shows are practically at war with all the rest.  Another pair of riots have broken out around Oracle’s headquarters and the Kesteven Building, where Kahlin’s penthouse is.”

Hira grinned.  “Dad’s probably cowering in his zeppelin, screaming into his pillow and trying to figure out how to control this narrative.”

The radio show continued, and started accepting callers.

We have an Aelric from East Lowtown.  You’re live, Aelric.

Hi,” said Aelric.  “I just want to ask.  Who is this Anabelle Gage, this girl who broke into a house, shot a poker through the leg of a guard, attacked and threatened an innocent woman?  It doesn’t matter if she was under a truth aura.  That kind of person – that kind of person lives with a lot of delusions.  Why should we pay attention to her violent crackpot manifesto?

Thank you, Aelric,” said the host.  “Next, we have Joy Gonfrey, from Shelworth.  Good afternoon, Joy.

I don’t believe her,” she said.  “I don’t believe that violent creature, and I don’t believe the stuck-up celebrity she held hostage either.  Commonplace protects Humdrums, ordinary people.  The common foundation.  They would never free a woman like Lyna Wethers.  This Gage person wants to be a Guardian.  Two decades ago, she would have been hijacking people just like the rest of them.  I don’t know how, but Paragon must have orchestrated this with her.”

“Thank you, Joy,” the host said.  “We have Sylvia Redmond, from West Midtown.  Welcome, Sylvia.

Silence.  No one spoke.

Sylvia?  Can you hear us?

The nation, the people, the light,” said Sylvia.  “I don’t care who she is.  I don’t care what she’s done.”  Her voice grew cold.  “There are Eastern dogs, choking our nation from within.  And they need to be put down.

The radio clicked, the sound of the woman hanging up.  Jun flicked his wrist, and the radio turned off.

Everyone looked at Jun.  He sagged against the corner of the wall, the energy draining out of him.  His white hair fell over his face.

Sylvia isn’t alone.

“I think,” he said.  “That I should be careful showing my face in public.  Or talking with this Shenti accent.”

I’ve started something.  The most aggressive loyalists wouldn’t know about Jun’s past, or his kind heart.  They’d just see the vicious foreigner, a ghost from an old war, tearing their nation apart.

An image I’d painted for them.

Scholars.  My stomach clenched.  I hunched over.  “I’m sorry,” I said to Jun.  “I’m so sorry.”

Jun turned away from me, closing his eyes.  I deserve worse.

“What do we do now?” said Wes.

I stepped back, dizzy.  No, no, no.  The original plan was to wait for an olive branch from Paragon, some sort of reward for the huge blow we’d dealt to Commonplace – maybe even a Pardon.  But now, the city was burning.  The country, too, in cities around the Principality.

What was going to happen to the Shenti people in this city now?

What the fuck did I do?

You know what you’ve done, whispered a voice in my mind.  Maxine Clive’s voice.  Judging.  Repulsed.  You’re still their loyal butcher, Anabelle Gage.  And you always will be.

And now, I’d put Jun at risk, too.  My friend, my ally.

Hira turned on the radio again.  “Two more riots have broken out, in Southern Lowtown and North Island.”  That was where we were.  “Law enforcement is stretched thin across the city, and have only been able to send a few riot police to the area.  If you’re in Southern Lowtown or North Island, please stay indoors.

Don’t whine.  Don’t feel sorry for yourself.  I had to do something.

“Jun knows medicine,” I said.  “Hira can too.”  I looked at the members of Queen Sulphur one by one.  “Wes has his paper.”  I walked across the room and pulled my stun baton out of my bag.  “Let’s get to work.”

________________________________________

We ran into a storm.

I’d heard about riots like this before, and witnessed the outskirts of a few.  Commonplace had been stirring up trouble for years, and since I formed Queen Sulphur, it had only escalated.

But I’d never seen one up close.

Rain poured down around us, streaming into gutters and drenching our clothes.  We jogged the street, splashing through ankle-deep puddles, past smashed storefronts and wrecked cars.  Newspaper boxes had been torn, leaving the papers to spill out over the street.  The sound of the mob rang out ahead of us, screaming and shouting in a wave of deafening noise.

Men and women sprinted past us, charging into the fray with masks and weapons, or fleeing in the opposite direction, bruised and bleeding.  Others coughed, or threw up, or sported burns beneath their blackened clothes.

A few gave us odd glances as we passed them by, or glares.  What’s that about?

I could smell rain, and blood, and smoke from fires that hadn’t been doused.  But one scent was missing, a distinct smell I remembered from every riot I’d gotten close to.  Pepper gas.  There was no pepper gas.

The cops weren’t here.

And that meant the Guardians probably weren’t here either.  So we had to act in their place.

Thunder boomed in the sky, and we turned a corner, into the thick of it.

Two huge crowds had gathered in front of a local Commonplace building, screaming, packed shoulder to shoulder.  Commonplace and loyalists.  The people who’d hated my speech, and the ones who loved it.

A car burned on the sidewalk, still going despite the rain.  Dozens of smaller brawls went on away from the main group, throughout the neighboring streets and on the sidewalk.

A Green Hands wrestled a middle-aged man in an alleyway, then got hit by a man from behind.  A pair of loyalists dragged a man out of his front door, threw him on the ground, and started kicking him.  Two small groups on a side street threw punches at each other.

The loyalists are more violent than the Green Hands.  My speech had stirred them up, more than I could have possibly imagined.

You did this.  You did this.

I pulled my mask over my face, patting down my blue combat suit under my ratty clothes.  Jun nodded at me, also wearing a mask.  I’d lost my wigs, and my grey hair gave me a distinct look, so hiding myself was a good option here.  And Jun, of course, was Shenti.

Wes wore his white crane party mask, hiding at least part of his identity.  His light brown hair wasn’t as distinctive as ours.

The four of us jogged around the edge of the crowd, staying out of the dense center.  Ahead of us, a loyalist punched a Green Hands at the front of the crowd, knocking him back.  The man behind him drew a knife.

In response, the Green Hands pulled a pistol out of a holster and cocked it back.

Left-Hira stepped behind him, and the Green Hands twitched, electricity running through his body.  A thin cord of water ran between her hand and his ankle, running along the ground, almost impossible to notice in all the rain.

The pistol clattered on the ground and the trigger snapped off, making it unusable.

Another Commonplace thug with green circle tattoos lit a fire cocktail in a wine bottle.  Wes unclasped his briefcase and shot pieces of paper out of it.  They grabbed the lit scrap of cloth, the fuse, and yanked it out, tossing it into a puddle where it fizzed out.

Another shock from Hira, and the firebomb lady fell to the ground too.

A gunshot rang out from the side, and I spun around.  One of the loyalists held a pistol on a Green Hands in an alleyway.  She fired again at his chest and ran away, vanishing into the rain.

I stared at her go, frozen.  None of us moved to chase after her.

Jun pointed at a pair of men on the far side of the street.  They lay against a wall, blood staining their clothes.  Their chests rose and fell.  They’re still alive.

Left-Hira and Jun and I ran over to them, pushing through the crowd.  Right-Hira and Wes stayed, taking down the most violent Commonplace members without calling attention to themselves.

As we weaved through the mob, more of them gave us odd looks, staring at us as we passed them.  Am I imagining that?

Jun knelt by the first man and pulled bandages and alcohol out of his bag.  The man groaned, and Jun squinted at him.  “Gunshot wound,” he said, his voice calm.  “Lower abdomen.  Hira, help me.”

The bleeding man’s eyes widened.  Hira jogged next to Jun, sticking her hands in her pockets and copying his skills.  Then she knelt next to him, grabbing the bandages.

“How can I help?” I said.

Jun pointed to the other man on the ground.  “Put pressure on his leg.”

I knelt next to the man.  Blood trickled out of a hole in his calf, seeping into a puddle.  He groaned, eyes half-closed, arms hanging limp at his sides.

I pressed on the wound with both my palms, pushing his leg into the ground.  Blood soaked onto my hands, and my muscles burned from the exertion.  My wet clothes stuck to my skin, and a wind blew down the street, making me shiver even more than usual.  Bloody anemia.

My injured shoulder ached from the effort, but I kept pushing.  My chest rose and fell, winded, and I pulled up my mask to breathe easier.

“Thank you,” he mumbled.  He exhaled, and reached up to massage his throat.

A green circle had been tattooed on the back of his hand.  He’s Commonplace.

I hesitated.  Is this a waste of my time?  But without treatment, he might die.

Fuck it.  I kept the pressure up.

Down the street, a dozen Green Hands stared at us through the rain.  I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye.

One of them pointed.  “That’s them!” she shouted.

They charged us, hefting baseball bats and hunting rifles.

Both Hiras darted forward.  The Green Hands aimed the hunting rifles at her and squeezed the triggers.  The guns jammed, not firing.

Wes tossed out a pair of flattened grenades, and a cloud of smoke swallowed the thugs.  He stepped into the cloud, flipping his briefcase open, sheets of paper flying out.  The two Hiras leapt in after him.

Shouts rang out from the smoke.  The sound of fists thudding into flesh, cries of pain, the quiet buzz of Hira’s electricity hands.

A Green Hands fell out of the cloud, collapsing into a puddle.

The smoke cleared, revealing Wes and Hira, standing over a dozen unconscious Green Hands on the ground.

Dozens more people looked at us, both from Commonplace and the loyalists.  Why?  We’d hidden our projection.  We weren’t the only ones fighting on the street.

Jun glanced at a newspaper on the ground, squinting.  He picked it up, shaking the water off.  “Um,” he said.  “Guys?”

He stepped next to me, and I glanced at the front page.  It was the Elmidde Journal, the most popular newspaper in the city.  And owned by Oracle Media Group.  Owned by the Broadcast King.

Paragon Mercenary Group Attacks Radio Host

Our faces had been splayed across the front.  Me, Wes, Jun, Left-Hira.  Four black and white photos, filling the page.  They looked recent, too, including all the precise deformities and repulsive bald spots on my head.  I don’t remember anyone taking my photo.

Anabelle Gage, the caption said.  #516125871-R (née Nell Ebbridge), Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang.

Wes read over my shoulder.  “Oh.”

He published our faces.  The entire country knew what we looked like.  Every Green Hands, every mobster, every angry Humdrum could pick us out of a crowd.

Both Hiras looked away from us, ignoring the newspaper.  “Whatever the fuck that is,” she said.  “It can wait.  We’ve got bigger problems.”

I followed her gaze, squinting through the rain.

A man stood at the far end of the street.  The mob swirled around us, and he flickered in and out of view.  The storm blurred him even further, but I could still make out his basic features:

Tall, broad shoulders, pitch-black hair.  Shenti, and willing to show his face in public.  I know him.

“Pictogram,” breathed Jun.  They found us.

“Move,” said Left-Hira.  She grabbed my hands, yanking them off the Green Hands’ leg.  “Move!”

I projected around Queen Sulphur’s Piths, making an illusion.  Projecting for the first time in months, giving my exact location to Lorne Daventry.  I turned it off and on, sending a message in telegraph code.

Pictogram angled a pistol at the cloudy sky, and fired five shots into the rain.

We ran.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




10-A The Wrong Side of History

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“Good afternoon,” the woman said.  “I’m Maxine Clive.”  Her misshapen face sagged.  “Please, come inside.”

A million questions swirled inside my head.  But could I trust her answers?  I flipped on my Stone Mask vocation, flattening my body language and microexpressions so she couldn’t read me.  I flipped on my pattern-matcher in my Pith that I’d installed a while back, too, in case she dropped any significant details.  They would exhaust me, but I needed them for this conversation.

“No,” said Wes, staring at her.  “That’s whaleshit.  Maxine Clive is a brand name for tacky Epistocrats like my mother.  Marketing executives made it up to sell bodies.  Why would they ever use a real person’s name?”

“Epistocrats,” said ‘Maxine’, “have a strange sense of humor.”

“Maxine Clive isn’t a person,” Wes raised his voice.  “You’re just wearing some chassis you fiddled with.  This is just some propaganda stunt Afzal Kahlin came up with, to trick Humdrums into following the Pyre Witch.”

“Believe it or not,” said Afzal Kahlin.  “She’s telling the truth.”  The Broadcast King stepped into the entry hall behind Maxine Clive, wearing a set of flowing purple robes.  He waved at Wes, his hand twitching.

Wes clenched his teeth, and didn’t wave back.

“I would have loved to dream up something like this,” said Kahlin.  “But this is far too strange, even for me.  The public doesn’t know about her because they wouldn’t believe it.  They believe that magic cockatoos cause the rain.  They think the Droll Corsairs invented heart disease.”  He pointed at Clive.  “But if we put her on the radio tomorrow, they’d laugh at her.”

Maxine looked away from Kahlin, uncomfortable.

“Please, come in,” said the Broadcast King.  “Max’s brewed a marvelous cup of tea.”

Maxine Clive raised a wrinkled eyebrow.  “You called it ‘shark piss’ five minutes ago.”

“Yes,” he said.  “But that’s how people in this country like it, so I’m sure Mr. Ebbridge won’t mind.”

We stepped in, and walked through what looked like an ordinary house.  We passed walls painted a plain white, flowers in vases, still life paintings of fruit.  Maxine Clive led us into a cozy living room, filled with couches, pillows, and picture frames.  All the frames were empty, the photos removed from them.

In the living room, a limp body sat on a coffee table.  An empty chassis, lifeless and flat.

It was a Maxine Clive.  An original.  Nineteen years old, with the long blonde hair and deep blue eyes I remembered from the first chassis magazine I’d seen, given out for free in my hometown by the representatives of Sapphire Industrial.

The inquisitive joy had lasted until I found out what body my parents had bought.  And I found out what Sapphire had really sold to them.

The Maxine Clive’s eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling like an embalmed corpse.

We sat down at the table, and I squinted behind a pair of fluttering curtains.  Two guards stood at attention just outside the open window, both carrying shotguns.  She acts casual, but her henchmen are still close.  If we made any kind of move, they’d jump on us.

I glanced around the rest of the room, noting the simple furniture, the paintings on the walls.  All ordinary, as far as I could see.  And no Tunnel Vision.  The other three tentpoles of the movement were here – Clive, the Broadcast King, and Pictogram, representing the Shenti backers.  Where is she?

My stomach clenched.  Tunnel Vision is still the most important target.  She’d freed Lyna Wethers, gotten Kaplen killed.  As far as we knew, she was running the whole operation.

Don’t send the signal out yet.  I would wait for the Pyre Witch before sending out my suicide note to Lorne, the message that would almost certainly get me killed.

Maxine Clive poured cups of tea for us.  Neither of us moved to drink.  I adjusted the grey beanie over my head, making sure that all my bald spots were covered.

Afzal Kahlin rolled his eyes and took a sip from all four cups at the table.  “Poison is expensive.  If we wanted you dead, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”  He leaned back, staring at the ceiling, bored.

Clive nodded.  “I asked Grace and my allies to stay their hand.  I just want to talk.”

This was the part in stories where the villain tried to tempt the hero to their side.  Offering riches and glory and power.

Play along.  Whether Tunnel Vision showed or not, we needed time to get the signal out and have Guardians fly here.  Resist, Wes had advised me on the train.  Push back.  Make our ‘conversion’ believable.

And I had to admit, I was curious.

“I am a Humdrum,” said Maxine Clive.  “But I’m the ancestor of every fabricated body in existence.”  She pointed to me.  “That rotting shell you’re cursed with.”  She pointed to Wes.  “That pale doll your parents stole from you.  And the gaudy trinket Afzal is showing off.  All shaped from my flesh, my soul, my pain, at the behest of Paragon Academy.”

“What?” said Wes, irritation slipping into his voice.  “You’re suggesting Guardians did human experiments at Paragon?  In the labs that students have twenty-four-hour access to?  Or in the Great Library with no operating tables and no medical equipment, where every fleck of dust is recorded by security?  Which is it?”

“Neither,” she said.  “The experiments were performed on me and many others at a research facility called Buttercup Lodge.”

Buttercup Lodge.  The phrase hung in the air.  That’s what Joseph was talking about.  When we’d interrogated the Green Hands so long ago.  He must have met Clive.

“But Paragon was where fabricated chassis were actually discovered,” said Wes.  “Semer Bekyn, a biologist and pneumatologist, studied the bodies of mice and chimpanzees and studied how their Piths connected to their bodies.”

“It only takes common sense,” said Maxine, “to see the lie.  As of today, no one has succeeded at fabricating a body for a mouse or a chimpanzee, or any animal.  The artificial chassis was discovered in humans.  By studying the Nekean ritual of The Liminal, and by breaking down thousands of human bodies.”  She sipped her tea.  “Humdrum bodies, sacrificed so that the wealthy could feel pretty.”

Afzal tapped his foot, uncomfortable.

“So?” said Wes.  “Those are just words.”  He’s pushing back hard.  His frustration and disbelief sounded genuine, despite his use of the Stone Mask Vocation.  “Ana and I came here to learn the truth about the Principality.  We want proof.”

“An Ebbridge wanting proof,” said Kahlin.  “That’s a first.  I thought you just made up facts and then reported them.”

“I’ve got plenty of facts,” said Wes.  “For example: Your offspring, Hira, has a mole on the inside of his upper left thigh.”

Kahlin stared at Wes, his eyes bulging out.  Please don’t get us killed, Wes.

“Proof,” said Maxine Clive.  She gestured around her.  “This town.  Helmfirth.  Let’s start with that.”

Great.  More conspiracy theories.

“If you’ve read a history book,” she said.  “You’ll have learned that the Droll Corsairs broke into a silo and fired the missile here.  But the Droll Corsairs had no reason to do so.  No one would have hired them to demolish a small town in the middle of nowhere.”  She leaned forward.  “And if their Executive Board tried to fire missiles at Elmidde,” she said.  “They would not miss.”

“So?” said Wes.  “It could have been an experiment.”

“Those weren’t experimental missiles, though,” said Clive.  “Those were the most expensive weapons in history.  The result of many years of prototyping and testing.  Here’s something they don’t put in the history books: Those warheads were coated with Voidsteel.”

My throat clenched.  Ridiculous.  A Voidsteel bullet cost enough already.  But a suite of missiles would be staggering.

“They were god-slayers.  Designed to slaughter powerful projectors.  Why waste them on an experiment?”  She set her tea down, her scars shifting as she moved.  “I’ve seen Paragon’s intelligence file on Helmfirth.  It’s almost empty.”

I checked my pattern-matching Vocation, to see if anything Clive was saying matched with anything in my memories.  Nothing.

“The Droll Corsairs were competent, then,” said Wes.

Maxine Clive shook her head.  “No.  Someone tore out the pages.  Someone inside Paragon, who ordered an attack on the Principality’s own citizens.  On bakers and butchers and factory workers and store clerks.  On families.  Can you imagine?”  She slouched over, resting her hands on her knees.  “All fast asleep, imagining they’d wake up and start a fresh new day.”  Her voice cracked.  “How many of them died in their sleep?  How many were woken by the first blast, watching the first fireball?  Contemplating the horror for an instant, trying to flee with their neighbors before they, too, were turned to ashes.”

It was probably an act, of course.  Wes and I weren’t the first people she’d recruited.  But what if it’s real?

Maxine Clive closed her eyes, taking slow, deep breaths.  Almost as if she were sobbing.

I stifled a wave of disgust.  How many people have you killed?  The innocent people she’d brainwashed to shoot up buildings.  The bombs.  That horrifying limbless body we’d found.  The mind-spheres smashed with rock hammers.  Kaplen, whispering Lyna Wethers’ name over and over again as I fed him Kraken’s Bone.

“More words,” said Wes.  “Why would Guardians shoot missiles at their own city?  There’s no motive.  It makes no sense.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” said Clive.  “For the past decade, I’ve been trying to sift clues out of this rubble.  But all I find is dust, and corpses.  The answer isn’t here.”  She looked us both in the eye.  “But I know where we can find it.”

Play along.  Wait for Tunnel Vision.  “Where?” I said.

A warm gust of air blew through the curtains, and Clive pointed out of them, into the sunny plains.  “Up top,” she said.  “In the Lavender Book.”

My stomach clenched.  That’s their real goal.  They’d made up this entire mythology in an attempt to steal the Principality’s deadliest treasure.

With the Vocations in there, and enough time to study them, they might actually be able to take over the country.  Ten years ago, Headmaster Tau might have crushed them, but today?  I wasn’t sure.

But why were they revealing their plans to us?   Something’s not right here.

It won’t matter.  All of Commonplace’s scheming could end here, today.  I just had to stretch my Pith out of my body, cast the tiniest illusion, and Lorne Daventry would know my exact location.

But Tunnel Vision might still be nearby.  I wasn’t ready to die yet.

“The Lavender Book,” I said.  “That was her idea, wasn’t it?  The Pyre Witch.”  Divert the conversation.  Get them talking about Tunnel Vision.

“It was mine,” said Maxine Clive.  “But you think everything was Grace’s idea, don’t you?”  She glanced to her side.  “Grace and Afzal and Pictogram over there with his eggs.  You think they’re controlling me, and the whole movement.”

Yes.

“The thought did cross my mind,” said Wes.  “They’re Praxis Specialists.  You’re a Humdrum, or so you say.  Why are you the one in charge?”

Clive stared at Wes.  “You think of all Humdrums in this way, don’t you?”

Please, don‘t piss her off too much.

“Their lives are hard,” Wes said.  “But they lack education and training.  They’re not used to thinking creatively.  And they are naive about many of this world’s dangers.”  Dangers that Paragon keeps us safe from.

Maxine Clive laughed.  Her scarred face contorted, and she leaned back, closing her eyes.

For a second, I thought she was going to draw her pistol and shoot us both.

But she just laughed, a tired, bitter sound.  “You think the commoners are naive?” she said.  “All this time shooting at them, fighting them, trying to Nudge them, and you think they’re oblivious?”  She snorted.  “They know more about this world than you ever have.”

They’re panicked.

“Unlike you, they know there’s no such thing as ‘safe’.  Anyone, anywhere, could be pulling their strings, whispering in the edges of their subconscious.  They can’t trust their senses, their intuition, their memory.  Joy, hate, grief, love – those are just fertile ground for things to be planted, to grow and consume and control.  Identity is a joke.”

No.  Mental hijacking didn’t happen that much.  But I caught myself glancing at Afzal Kahlin out of the corner of my eye.

“Humdrums know they’re puppets waiting to be used.  They know their souls are little more than toys for people like you to play with.”  She leaned forward.  “But here’s why I’m recruiting you: You’re not much safer than they are.”

“Whaleshit,” said Wes.  “No one’s controlling me.”

“When you close your eyes,” said Clive.  “Do you see her face?  Does it make a part of you feel comfortable, happy?  Despite everything you know.”

Lyna Wethers.  Wes clenched his teeth, staring at the floor.  She’d made her point.

Maxine Clive lowered her voice.  “There are projectors in this world,” she said.  “So powerful.  So astute, that they need not care for the wills of anyone but each other.  In the silent edges of the world, I have witnessed minds as boundless and inexorable as the ocean itself.  Such beings could only be called gods.”

A scalding wind blew through the curtains, a wave of heat on my face.  But as she said those words, the room seemed to get colder.

“Do not put your faith in gods,” she said.  “Or the temples they build.  No matter what ideals they profess, they only see you as a cheap tool.  Quick to break, and quicker to throw away.”

“I can’t possibly imagine there’s proof to any of that,” Wes said.

“Look at the night sky,” she said.  “Or ask the Great Scholars, at the bottom of the ocean.”

Humor her.  “These things,” I said.  “What do you know about them?”

“Not much,” she said.  “But you wouldn’t believe most of it.”

“Did Tunnel Vision discover them?”  Turn it back to the Pyre Witch.  Find out where she is.

Maxine Clive gave me a strange look.  “No,” she said.  “I did.”

“I wanted to talk to her,” I said.  “Is she here?”

“That remains to be seen.”

I swallowed.  “And – and the Principality.  Are we being controlled by one of these – “

“An interesting question,” said Clive.  “I would like to know that as well.  So, five years ago, Grace and I recruited a candidate for parliament, and put several discreet surveillance Vocations on the internal structures of his Pith.  A man named Jeremy Salle.”

That, at least, is plausible.  I’d heard of those Vocations in class.  Markers that would note big changes and major alterations – the kind that could only be made with massive Whisper Vocations.  The techniques were advanced, and rare, so it was used for rare surveillance, rather than security.  Though, ‘Jeremy Salle’ didn’t ping my pattern-matching vocation at all.

“On his fifth day in office, someone hijacked Salle.  His Pith was altered so much it destroyed our sensors.  Someone ripped apart the basic tentpoles of his personality.”

“That’s absurd,” said Wes.  “We have internal security for that.  Counterintelligence.”

“Do you know why cancer is so deadly?” said Clive.  “For foreign viruses, bacteria, parasites, the body is equipped with incredible defenses.  It loses, sometimes, but it can fight.”  She leaned forward.  “But cancer is grown from your blood, your flesh.  So when it comes to butcher your organs, your body greets it as a friend.  An ally.  And so it grows.”

That means – 

“Your democracy,” she said.  “Is an illusion.  The Conclave of the Wise never left.  And we’re not going to beat them by asking politely.”

Nobody spoke.  Dead silence hung over the room, as her words sunk in.

“No,” said Wes.  “No.  That’s your excuse for your violence?  For the bombs and the innocents you nudged and – ”

“And Lyna Wethers,” I said, quiet.

“You don’t have to forgive me for any of that.”  Clive’s face fell.  “I don’t.”

You can hate yourself and be a self-centered prick at the same time.

“You just have to fight with me.”  Clive slid a folder across the coffee table.  “That folder includes the details of our operation to spy on parliament.”

I glanced at the file.  “You just met us.  We’ve been fighting you for the past six months.”  I looked up at her.  “Why are you trusting us with this?”

“Paragon knows all that already,” said Clive.  “It can’t be used to hurt us.”  She shrugged.  “And you deserve to know the truth.”

I didn’t pick up the file, or look at the contents inside.  At some point, I would scan over it to humor Clive, but if I waited to do that, I could drag the conversation out longer.  It’s probably all fake anyway.

In the meantime, I had a question that would get her talking.  And maybe draw Tunnel Vision out, if the mobster was close.

“You said they cut you up,” I said.  “What exactly did they do to you at this ‘buttercup lodge’?”

Maxine Clive traced the line of a scar on her cheek.  “They sliced into my skin and peeled it off.  They took a saw to my skull, my femur, my pelvis.”  Her voice hardened.  “They cut open my muscles, plucked my raw nerves like harp strings to observe my nervous system.  And at the same time, they pumped my Pith in and out of my body, over and over again, to observe.  They took my flesh and tears and face, and forged the stars in their image.”

Scholars. Though probably fake, the details made my stomach turn.

“When it was done, the scientists had invented the greatest medical tool in the history of humanity.”  She gave us a sad smile.  “Cancer, Loic’s Syndrome, fatal wounds – anything that doesn’t damage the Pith, and you can fix it in seconds with a swap.”  She gazed outside, at the piles of rubble that used to be a town.  “But what kind of world have our leaders built with it?  A pyramid, that depends on an endless stream of hopeful fools like you, but will throw you aside without a second thought.  Your minds are the most beautiful gifts in existence.  And you are wasting them, on a thousand elaborate reasons for the boot to stomp on a face.”

Images rushed through my mind, unbidden.

Isaac Brin’s dart punching a hole in my chest.  Wes, drinking himself to death at a bar, forced away from his family and friends.  Lorne Daventry, bragging about his many chassis, bullying other students for sport while the school protected him.  Matilla Geffray, taking Kaplen’s place as everyone forgot him in days.

A pack of Guardians, gathering outside Hira’s house, arresting us for doing their dirty work.  Lorne Daventry, who I’d worked so many hours for, smirking as he flung molten steel at me.

In a different world, could I have lived?

Could I be drinking mulled cider with a friend, playing Jao Lu with Wes in my proper body?  Instead of dying in this sun-drenched ruin, balding and grey, cursing my mediocrity.  Unable to taste even a mug of tea in front of me.

What was a Guardian, anyways?  What did it mean to defend the Principality?

She’s manipulating you.  But was she wrong?

I picked up the file and flipped it open.

There were many pages.  More than I expected.  All filled with pictures, diagrams, statistics, numbers and times on the operation.  Outlining exactly how Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive had infiltrated Parliament under Paragon’s nose, and discovered that they were being hijacked.

It could still be fake.  They had more than enough resources.

But as I scanned through the contents, my pattern-matching vocation pinged me a few times, noting where the information in the file matched with the information already plugged into my mental spreadsheet.

Match, Pictogram’s visual recognition

Match, Tunnel Vision’s lieutenants, times of active operating

The Praxis vocation backs them up.  They could have faked those details too, of course, but that would be hard.  And they had no idea I’d learnt this vocation.

Looking through the files, it was staggering to witness the size of Commonplace’s operation.  The number of agents Tunnel Vision had planted, the soldiers they’d recruited, the mountains of weapons given to them by the Shenti.  And this is just what they’re showing me.  Only a fraction of their true powers.

Halfway through the file, my pattern-matching pinged me again.

Match, Shell company and anonymous trust layering

What?  I didn’t remember learning anything about Tunnel Vision’s shell companies.  Why would my vocation be flaring up there?  Most of it operated on a subconscious level, but it did spit out a few extra details when I focused on it.

Maxine Clive and Tunnel Vision had bought and sold and hired a vast number of resources for the operation, and kept it all anonymous through a variety of semi-legal international shell companies and anonymous trusts.  They’d moved funds throughout this invisible spider’s web, using a method that matched something already in my database.

Only the slightest detail matched, the thinnest connection that I would never have noticed on my own.  A mistake made by whoever assembled this document, probably not someone at the top.

Where else do I remember shell companies from?

Then it washed over me.  Sapphire Industrial.  The fraudulent corporation I’d stopped investigating a few years ago.

The scammers who had sold me this body.

My breath froze in my lungs, and for a moment, I forgot how to breathe.  A wave of dizziness crashed over me and I closed my eyes, steadying myself.  The Stone Mask vocation kept my body language from showing anything serious.

It could be a coincidence.  Lots of shifty people used front companies.  But the timing made sense.  The Pyre Witch had earned her name, and begun her takeover of the mob a year or two before I’d been struck with Loic’s Syndrome.  In the chaos after the Treaty of Silence was broken, no one was paying attention to the black market.  It was the perfect time to make a quick buck off gullible Humdrums.

The insight was so obvious, so clear.  How had I never seen it before?

Tunnel Vision sold me this body.

She’d sold faulty bodies to countless people.  Preyed on people’s desperation and hope.  All to pay for her coup with Commonplace.

The rage bubbled up inside my Pith, turning my blood into a frothing storm while my face remained flat.

I put down the folder.  Something sparked in my mind.  A new door opening, a possibility for revenge and renewal when before, it had only been death.

And I didn’t project.  I didn’t turn on the tracer.

I put aside her words, her rhetoric.  None of that matters.  This country’s endless problems didn’t matter.  Lorne and the Epistocrats and Isaac Brin didn’t matter.  My poverty and prosecution and the impending civil war didn’t matter.

Even Maxine Clive didn’t matter, in her own way.

“Afzal believes in spin,” she said.  “And Grace believes in force.”

And Pictogram believes in murdering everyone who doesn’t worship the Shenti.  But selling your country out to eastern dogs wasn’t something to brag about.

“I will listen to those two when necessary,” she said.  “But I believe truth, more than anything, is the most powerful weapon.”   She stood up.  “I have done my best to tell the truth.  The rest is up to you.”

“And if I can’t choose right now?”

Maxine Clive slid another pair of train tickets across the table.  Tickets nack to Elmidde.  A message had been scrawled on the back.

17 – 0302 – 5157
Say “Hug, Waterfall, Earthquake, Dreamer”

The phone number I called earlier.  And another code.

“When you’re ready to stand up for yourself, you let us know,” said Clive.

“One more thing,” I said, standing up.  “The boy I shot.  Back at the stadium, when the Pyre Witch fought Professors Stoughton and Havstein.  Is he – ”

“Fine,” she said.  A confused look spread across her face.  “Of course he’s fine.  It only took us minutes to give him a fresh body.”

She walked to the front door.  Wes and I followed her.

Clive looked me up and down.  “If I had to guess now, I’d give you a month at best.”  She shrugged.  “But that’s what they said about me, so…”  She extended her hand to me.

I shook it.  Hide your anger.  Hide your thoughts.  I sealed the spitting rage inside, turning my insides to a frothing storm.  I hadn’t felt like this since the Golden Moon.  Since Lyna Wethers.

Wes set down his cup on a table in the entryway.  “Your tea,” he said, “is terrible.”

Maxine Clive smiled, and opened the front door.  “Well, what would you expect?” she said.  “My taste buds are broken.”

________________________________________

I waited to speak my mind to Wes.

As we walked through the rubble and back up the hill, away from Helmfirth and back towards the train station, I knew Pictogram was still watching us.  Even with our backs turned to him, he could still read our lips.  So while we walked out of the ruins, past the dust and broken buildings and streets filled with Green Hands, I said nothing.

We strode back down the overgrown road, over rolling hills and yellow plains extending in every direction.  The glaring sun sank in front of us, descending into the late afternoon.  When the town of Rachdale came into view, Wes turned to me.

“So, what do you think?”

They could still be watching.  “I’m not sure.”  I stepped off the road and onto the grass, sweat soaking into my armpits.  “I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

A lie, of course.  I hadn’t been this certain of something since I first applied to Paragon.

I said almost nothing for hours.  Until we were back on the train and approaching the bridge back into Elmidde.  The sun set in the distance, painting the sky red and orange.  The train’s wheels rumbled beneath us on the track.

Both me and Wes slumped on a bench, exhausted from the heat, the walking, the conversation we’d had.  I stared out the window, at the outskirts of the city.  Rows and rows of houses going by, streets and automobiles and stores.  Full of ordinary people, living their lives, unaware of the carnage on the horizon.

I don’t care what happened to Maxine Clive.  I didn’t care about Buttercup Lodge or the origins of chassis or all the endless injustice at the heart of this world.  I didn’t care about her Helmfirth conspiracy, or her hijacked Parliament, or her ‘gods’, if they even existed.

“So,” said Wes under his breath.  “Why didn’t you use the tracer?  What happened to your plan?”

This should be far enough.  And nobody seemed to be following us.  “Tunnel Vision wasn’t there,” I said.  “She would have survived.  And that was unacceptable.”

Then I told Wes what I’d found in Maxine Clive’s file.  The connection to Sapphire Industrial.

Wes leaned against the seat in front of him, closing his eyes, taking slow, heavy breaths.  “Monsters,” he whispered.  “Monsters.”  He looked up at me.  “What’s next, then?  You have an idea, I can see it in your eyes.”

I closed my eyes, and Kaplen’s freckled face stared back at me.  When I opened my eyes, I stared down at my broken body.  At the bulging grey veins running over my arms, my shivering torso, my withered toes.  The strands of grey hair broken off my scalp.

“Well?” said Wes.  “What’s the plan?”

Destroy the Pyre Witch.  Destroy her whole revolution.  From the ground up.  For Kaplen.  For me.  For all of the nobodies who get walked over on the way to paradise.  For an instant, I’d let myself forget that.  No more.

I smiled.  “We’re going to tell the truth.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter