“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 Grace’s 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.”
“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.”
“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 – Grace – 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. Grace Acworth had become the Pyre Witch, 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.”
Important Author’s Note:
Hi all. Normally, I just prefer to talk about the story. I don’t usually do this sort of thing. Please bear with me.
I want to let y’all know that for the month of October and the first half of November, Pith will be publishing once every other week – half as fast. After this, 10-B will publish on October 12th. Then 10-C on the 26th. And so on. Normally, I would desperately try to avoid doing this, but these are desperate times. And I’m planning to spend a lot of my time volunteering.
If there’s one thing you take away here, let it be this: If you live in the United States and are old enough, please vote for Democrats. Register to vote today and make a plan. Vote early if you can, or in person on November 3rd. Then be prepared to protest. I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times already, but still. America is sliding into autocracy, climate hell, and civil rights nightmares. Don’t sit this one out. See y’all in two weeks.