12-D – Max

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Max leveled her shotgun at Tunnel Vision’s back, and fired.

It only took two seconds for the mobster to crush her.

As Max squeezed the trigger, Tunnel Vision flicked her palms up, and tore chunks of stone from the street below, forming a shield behind her, without even looking.  The Voidsteel pellets tore through the rock, making a cloud of grey dust.

As Max cocked back her shotgun, another chunk of stone shot out of the dust cloud.  It whipped around and slammed into her gun, knocking it out of her hands.

A second later, Tunnel Vision shot out of the cloud too.

She slammed into Max’s solar plexus, tackling her.  The two of them flew backwards, propelled by the mobster’s projected clothes.  They shot down the winding stone path out of the village, and over the edge of the seaside cliff.

The mobster let go of Max, dropping her towards the Hibun Ocean hundreds of feet below.  The wind whipped through Max’s hair, deafening in her ears.  Max closed her eyes, and her stomach clenched.

I just wanted to help these people.  Her fledgling group, Commonplace, had been gathering support in the rural West of the Principality, and several of the locals had asked them to help with the local mobsters, who were crippling the town with protection fees.

Max thought she was laying the ambush.  But this mobster had proven herself more than your average thug.

And now, it was over.

Halfway down the cliff, Max’s clothes dragged her upwards, slowing her to a stop.  She hovered mid-air, arms and legs flailing.

Tunnel Vision leapt off the edge of the cliff, and floated down towards Max.  Max drew her pistol from its holster, aimed it at the brown-haired woman, and fired.  It clicked.  She jammed it.

The mobster woman ignored Max’s efforts.  Her Pith pushed into the edges of Max’s consciousness.  She’s trying to Nudge me.  Like the scientists at Buttercup Lodge.  Max shifted her mind in response, scrubbing out the foreign Pith.

“You,” said Tunnel Vision.  “Are not one of Paragon’s beetles.  But you are in the way.”

She raised her hand towards Max, and a flicker of white flames sprouted from her palm.

“Wait,” said Max.  “Wait!”

Tunnel Vision ignored her.  The flames grew into an orb of fire.  Max could feel the heat on her face.

“You fight the Principality too?” said Max.

“Yes,” said Tunnel Vision.  The orb didn’t vanish, but it didn’t shoot at Max either.

“Why are you with the mob, then?” said Max.  “Why are you extorting innocent people for profit?”  I thought she was just some profiteer.  Just another projector trying to use people as vacant tools.

“I’m fighting a war,” said Tunnel Vision, looking down on her.  “I need resources.”

“No,” said Max.  “You need a cause.  You need people.  Not just lackeys.  A common foundation.”

Tunnel Vision clenched her teeth.  “I won’t be lectured by some half-witted Humdrum.”

“We have the same goals,” said Max.  “And I’ll bet you have some fancy, expensive vocation to tell if I’m lying.”

“You have no power,” said Tunnel Vision.  “No projection.  No army.  And you stand in the way.”

“Obstacles are good,” said Max.  “They force you to maneuver.  Grow.  Confront who you really are.”

The mobster didn’t move.  But she didn’t burn Max either, or drop her into the water.  Not that it would have mattered.  None of this is real.  I’m asleep in Buttercup Lodge.

“Here’s how it’s going to go, Tunnel Vision,” said Max.  “I’m going to tell you who I am.  And when I’m done, you’re not just going to spare me.  You’re going to join me.”

Tunnel Vision closed her fist, snuffing out the flames.  She folded her arms.  “You have nine minutes, Humdrum.  I’m on a schedule.”

What a strange dream this is, thought Max.  What a strange, strange dream.

She took a deep breath, and began.

________________________________________

Inch by inch, Max clenched her hand into a fist.  Max walked down the stone steps, deep into the rocky base of Buttercup Lodge.

They’re going to execute me.  The scientists were going to dunk her into the pool at the bottom of the silent library.  They’d cut her apart, stitched her back together, and used her as the blueprint for hundreds and hundreds of clones.

And now that she’d served her purpose, they were disposing of her, in some other experiment that none of the subjects at the lodge had ever returned from.

Max loosened her fist, and clenched it again, confirming that she was free of the lodge’s commands.  The strange man in the room across from her had given her the override command, a series of clicks and whistled notes that paused all of the other orders that controlled her body.

A whistle and clicker signal from a guard would subdue her in an instant, turning her back into a puppet.  So her escape would be difficult.

For now, she would play along.

The scientist in the yellow lab coat led Max down the stairs.  The man who’d killed someone in front of her.  Whose face she’d spat in.  Dim pale light bulbs hung from a wire strung on the ceiling, illuminating the tunnel as it wound down into the island.

The scientist didn’t speak.  Their footsteps echoed on the hard steps, the only sound in the tunnel.  It wound down, turning left, right, in spirals, seeming to go on forever.  And as the minutes passed and Max descended further, the air grew colder, her breath fogging in front of her.

It’s a hot summer on top of the island.  How was it so freezing down here?  Max had gotten used to Buttercup Lodge over the months and years.  But this place?  No one should be down here.

A sudden urge seized Max, to turn around and sprint back up the steps, four at a time.  To abandon the scientist or knock him out, then make her escape.  Down here, it would take a while before anyone found him.

Run, a voice whispered in her head.  Get out of this tunnel and far away from this island and whatever’s at the bottom of the pool here.

But her entire body ached.  Every step sent stabbing pain throughout her muscles, her bones, all over her skin.  It took almost all her effort to keep herself from falling over.

I can’t overpower this man.  And even if she could, the island was swarming with guards.

She needed a better plan.  But she couldn’t think of anything.  The exhaustion permeated her entire body.  Her eyes wanted to flutter shut.  Her legs wanted to sit down.  And her skull throbbed, a dull pain that made it hard to think.

Before she could plan anything, she and the scientist emerged from the tunnel, into a cave at the bottom of the pit, lit by more lightbulbs on the ceiling.  Thin wooden walls divided the space into rooms, but Max knew what the entrance of the cave looked like.  A ledge, leading into the pool of silent water with a cage and pulley hanging above.

Paintings covered the walls of the cave, faded from the wear of time.  Letters had been carved into the stone around them, mad scrawlings of letters in some language Max couldn’t read.

In the paintings, primitive human figures drowned in a rising ocean of pitch-black water, flailing and sinking beneath the waves.  A single boat floated on the surface, packed from end to end with people, overfull.  Men and women threw figures overboard, tossing them into the dark waves to lighten the load.

The Great Scholars.

In other places, chunks seemed to have been torn off the walls – paintings and writings that had been broken and removed.  For every foot of the wall adorned with a message, another ten, twenty feet had been erased.

I need to get out of here.

In this cordoned-off room, a line of prisoners sat on the floor, leaning against the cave wall behind them.  No handcuffs.  No rope.  Why bother, when their own minds were trapping them?

The scientist gave her a clicker and whistle signal, pointing behind him as he walked back up the steps.  Directing her to sit next to them.  The command held no sway over Max, but she played along, trudging to the edge of the cave and sitting down.

A guard stood at the far end of the room with a rifle, watching them.  His fingers tapped against the hilt of a knife at his waist.  No clicker.  The guard could shoot her, but wouldn’t be able to turn on her controls again.

None of the prisoners spoke.  Muffled voices rang out from the other end of the cave, but Max couldn’t make out any words.  A thin mist hung in the air, chilling Max’s face even further.  Spray from the waterfall.  The pool of silent water was just in the other room.

One of the scientists emerged from that other room.  With a clicker and whistle signal, she had the woman at the front of the line stand up and follow her.  The door swung shut behind them, and the muffled voices continued.

A few minutes later, the woman took the next prisoner in line.  Then the next.  Faint orange sunlight shone over the top of the makeshift walls, and faded into evening, then pure darkness.  And the scientists kept taking prisoners, one by one, like they were all waiting at the doctor’s office.  And none of them came back.

Two hours ago, Max would have welcomed the endless silence, the chance to escape her pain for good, to get rid of this mangled creature they’d turned her into.  Maybe she’d die for good.  Maybe she’d wake up from this strange, extended dream.

But she was free, now.  The strange man across the hall had given her a second chance.  To escape, to share the truth of this place and right all its wrongs.

Max couldn’t die.  Not anymore.  I have a purpose.

Now she just needed an opportunity.

More time passed.  More prisoners got taken.  The light drained out of the sky.

And then, the ground shook.  Short, rhythmic impacts, less like an earthquake, and more like a bomb, or many bombs.  Dust rained from the ceiling of the cave, and the light bulbs flickered overhead.

Another impact, and a chunk of rock broke off from the ceiling, smashing on the ground in front of Max.  But despite the intensity of the blasts, there was no sound.  No rumbling, no booms or thuds in the distance.

As the world fell apart, Max could only hear silence.

The other prisoners’ eyes widened.  They cast their gazes around the room, frozen in place, unable to move anything but their pupils.  Unable to even flinch.

Then, someone shouted in the distance.  A muffled scream from far above, a yell from the room next door.  Gunshots rang out.  All distant.  All muffled, like they were echoing through a vast ocean.

The one guard in the room hefted his rifle and looked around, panicked.  He aimed his rifle at the door to the next room.  Towards the pool of water.  Trembling fingers pulled back the hammer.  He ignored the prisoners behind him.

The ache grew in Max’s stomach, as she shivered.  If I stay here, I will die.  Or worse.

If she ran, the guards would kill her, hurt her, control her.  And the guard hadn’t left.  She couldn’t flee without being noticed.

For months, years, since Max had boarded that boat, she’d been taught obedience.  Fear.  Staying in line.  What do I do?  What do I do?

Max’s hands shook.  From the cold, or her fear, she couldn’t tell.  And then, with a fraction of a thought, she pushed herself upright, sliding off her shoes.  Her feet carried her forward on the cold stone, silent.

Her shaking hand reached forward, grabbing the guard’s face from behind, putting her hand on his mouth to muffle him.  The other hand pulled the knife from his sheath and stabbed it into his stomach.

The guard wheezed, scrabbling at Max’s hand.  Max pulled the knife out and stabbed it into his chest.  The guard exhaled, a soft hissing noise escaping his lips, and his arms went limp.

Max let go, shaking, and he lay down on the floor, coughing, bleeding into his shirt.  A thin line of blood stained her right hand, which had held the knife.  Max staggered back from the guard, shivering.  She slid her shoes back on.

And she ran.

She sprinted back up the winding staircase, leaving the knife and the guard and the pit beneath her.  She left the other prisoners too.  I’m sorry.  The guard didn’t have a clicker on him, and she couldn’t make the right sound with her mouth.

Every step made her legs burn.  The light bulbs flickered again, then went dark, turning the tunnel pitch-black.  The ground shook again, and Max placed a hand on the wall to steady herself, using it to guide her through the darkness.

Blinded, she had to take the steps slower, or she would trip and fall.  Her chest ached, and she wheezed for breath.

But she kept climbing.  Kept taking the steps, one at a time.  The tunnel muffled all the gunfire and shouting in the distance, so the only sounds she could hear were her pained breaths and the clack of her shoes on the stone.

Don’t stop.  Don’t stop, and don’t look back.  She didn’t want to think about what was happening below her in the cave.  It had something to do with the pool they kept dropping people into.  The pool, and the scientists’ experiments.

Then, she emerged from the top of the staircase, into the moonless night.

Buttercup Lodge had turned into a den of chaos.  Men and women ran across the fields, trampling the flowers underneath.  Guards hefted rifles and machine guns, sprinting towards the edge of the pit and the top of the waterfall.  Men in blue armor unfurled wingsuits and jumped into the pit, blue and green lightning crackling around their fists.  Scientists cowered in buildings, or ran away, scattering.

A dark, silent fog surrounded the pit and the waterfall, impossible to see into.  Guards ran into the cloud, but didn’t run out.  None of them paid Max any attention, or re-activated her commands.

Max sprinted away from the cloud, away from the pit, down the path towards the edge of the island.  Go, go, go.  She needed to get off this island.  Away from this nightmare into some brighter reality.

A young man stepped onto the path, in Max’s way, and she jerked to a stop.  He smiled and waved at her, wearing a yellow prisoner’s uniform.  “Hey, Max.”

She recognized his voice in an instant.  The strange man across the hallway.  Who’d given her the override command and freed her.  He’d broken himself out, too, somehow.

The island shook again.  Max leaned on her knees and wheezed, out of breath.  “What’s going on?” she gasped.

“The scientists made such sweet music out of my mind,” he said.  “But I played their instruments too.  When they heard the right notes, they made some mistakes.  Reached too far.”

Max glanced behind her, at the billowing dark fog around the pit.  What did he do?

“This world is a web,” said the man.  “And all of us are squirming bugs, stuck on the threads, unable to move from our predestined fates.”  He lowered his voice.  “They plucked the strings, and the spider woke up.”  He beamed.  “And now, you get to walk out of here!”

“You’re freeing me?”

“Of course, silly,” he said.

The lump swelled in Max’s stomach.  She had to leave, now, but a single question burned in her mind, overriding the others.  “Why?

“You were on the way out,” he said.  “And people’s minds are fascinating.  Your’s especially so.”

Max gave a mirthless chuckle.  “I’m a pretty skull,” she said.  “Was, at least.”  She’d just gotten unlucky.

“Most people wouldn’t have spit in that scientist’s face,” he said.  “Most people would have stayed in that pit, watching the guard, waiting for someone to save them.  Another thirty seconds down there, and you wouldn’t have made it.  But here you are.”  He stepped to the side, off the path.  “The rest is up to you.”

“What?”

“You have four minutes and thirteen seconds to leave this island,” he said.  He strode past her, towards the pit.  One of the guards pointed her shotgun at him, and pulled the trigger.  A gunshot rang out, but nothing happened to the man.  She pulled the trigger again, but nothing seemed to hit him.

The guard looked down, at two fresh bullet holes on her own chest.  Blood spread into her shirt, and she collapsed on the buttercups.  He reflected the bullets.  How?

“I look forward to seeing you forge the stars in your image.”  The man stepped over her body, walking to the center of the island.

“Wait!” shouted Max.

The man stopped.

“Are you controlling me too, then?  Are you using me to play your music?”

“And ruin all the fun?”  The man looked offended.  “See you later, Maxine Clive.”  He strode into the dark cloud, out of sight.

Max grabbed the guard’s shotgun, prying it out of her limp hands.  The rounds at her belt and the gun’s mechanism seemed to be made of a greenish metal, something she hadn’t seen before.

Go.  She ran, not down the main path, but behind one of the dorm buildings, through a thicket of bushes to the secret path she’d spotted earlier.  The scientist’s secret escape route.  Her stitches burned, and her lungs ached all over again, but she kept running, clutching her stolen shotgun.  Don’t look back, don’t look back.

She pushed through another dark thicket, emerging next to a short pier with a boat floating at it.  A scientist threw a stuffed bag onto the deck and jumped on, the last one.  He ran belowdecks, not noticing Max.  The boat’s engine sputtered to life, pushing the boat away from the dock.

Max ran down the pier and threw the shotgun ahead of her.  She jumped, and grabbed onto the edge of the deck as the last boat sailed away from the island.  She pulled herself up and over the railing, her body screaming in agony, her stitches tearing.

She collapsed on the deck for a second, curling up, nursing her aching fingers and arms.  Then she grabbed her shotgun and used it as a cane, pushing herself up.  She staggered forward and tiptoed down the stairs belowdecks.

A group of scientists sat on the couches belowdecks, shivering and passing around a flask of wine.

They saw Max, and froze.  Among them, Max recognized three of them, two men and a woman.  Surgeons who’d chopped her up and sewed her back together.

And the man who she’d spit on.  The one who’d forced her to sit still and watch someone die.

He held up a non-threatening palm.  “Maxine,” he said.  “Let’s talk.  Please, don’t do anything rash.  Please.”  One of the other scientists inched his hand towards his collarbone.  Towards a metal clicker hanging from his neck.

“Say it,” said Max.  “Apologize for what you’ve done.  For all the people you’ve hurt.”

“I’m sorry, Maxine,” said the scientist, with his mouth, but not his eyes.  “I’m so sorry.”  His voice stayed calm and steady.  The other man’s hand had almost reached the clicker.

“Thank you,” said Max.

She pulled the trigger.

________________________________________

“Monarch Squad!” shouted Captain Reddish.  “Fire at will!”

Max squinted down the sights of her heavy rotator gun.  Dark-skinned men and women streamed across the arid, cracked ground, bathed in noon sunlight.  They sprinted over bodies and tangles of razor wire, over the no man’s land from their trench to the Droll Corsairs’.

Max pulled the trigger.  The machinery of the weapon whirred, and a storm of bullets shot out of the barrel.

The gunfire cut through the charging soldiers, and they tumbled over like bowling pins.  They clutched their stomachs and legs, screaming in pain, or went still.

Please, let this be the dream, said Max.  It felt so real.  The stench of blood and chemicals and trench foot assaulted her senses, overwhelming.  Scars on her finger pressed into the gun’s trigger, remnants of her old stitches.  The heat boiled her like an egg, drenching her uniform with sweat and making her lips dry and cracked.

Insurgents had taken over the desert continent of Kiterjede, according to their briefings.  The Droll Corsairs had been hired to defend the innocent people of the nearby towns and cities.

Max had rolled her eyes at this.  The Corsairs had a majority stake in the vast deposits of Voidsteel here, discovered in Great Scholar ruins uncovered a year ago in the desert.  That might have had something to do with their decision to fight the locals.

But she’d kept her mouth shut.  She needed the money, like every other sucker here.

In her days as a bike courier, she’d never gotten sick.  But after getting chopped up at Buttercup Lodge and escaping, she fell ill all the time.  Local infections, viruses and joint problems.  Within months of escaping to Ilaqua, she’d racked up a huge list of medical bills, and debt that would cost her ten lifetimes to pay off.

Everyone told her to get a job, but potential employers would take one look at her face and kick her out of the interview.  She didn’t bother to explain her story – no one would believe a word of it.

But the Droll Corsairs?  They could give a shit what you looked like.  They only cared if you could hold a gun and limp.  A rage-filled, indebted freak was what the Corsairs called a ‘perfect hiring opportunity’.

Another wave of insurgents charged across the desert, screaming.  Max shoved down her nausea, and pulled the trigger again.  Her accuracy wasn’t the best, but she knew which enemies to hit first.  The clusters, the fast runners, the ones with grenades at their belts or flamethrowers.

Monster.  I am a monster.

Max had received two rushed months of basic training and weapons handling, before being pushed onto the battlefield.  A glorified meatshield, and the pay reflected that.  But if she succeeded, her pay would go up, and she’d get more training.  A greater investment for a greater asset.

The last insurgent fell, bleeding into the dry earth.  Dark-skinned bodies filled the no man’s land, stacking on top of those of the Corsairs.  The medics from both sides got shot at, so they left the corpses in the sun, throwing up a thick stench of rotting meat.

A man strode down the Corsairs’ trench.  One of the bosses.  “New orders!” he shouted.  “All teams are to attack the enemy position at the sound of the siren.  We will finish the enemy off while they are disoriented and vulnerable!”

The trench went dead silent.  Every soldier’s throat clenched, their eyes hollowing out.

Captain Reddish thought about it for a minute.  “No,” he said.  “My men will get chewed up.  The enemy’s still got all their machine guns and fortifications.  They’ll do exactly what we just did to them.”

As usual, management had no idea what they were doing.

Or maybe they knew, and didn’t care.

The boss clenched his fist and punched it in the air.  “Soldiers!” he cried out.  “This is your moment!  Future generations will tell stories of how we defended this island!  Of this elite troop, which fought against impossible odds and came out victorious!”  He pointed towards the enemy trench.  “Soldiers.  Our actions today will sing across eons!  Now is the time for legends.

Silence.  No one cheered.  No one clapped or stomped their feet.  They just stared at him, equal parts confused, repulsed, and dehydrated.

“Fire me, if you want,” said Captain Reddish.  “Court-martial me.  Put this in my quarterly performance review.  But I’m not sending my people to die.”  The soldiers respected him more than any of the higher-ups.  They would listen to him.

The boss clenched his teeth, furious.  Then he put his hand on the captain’s shoulder, and his rage melted into a smirk.  “Please?  Inspire them.”

Max sat right next to him.  Under the boss’ hand, she glimpsed a dim flicker of blue lightning.

Captain Reddish straightened himself and saluted.  “Yes, sir!”

Max’s stomach sank.  The boss controlled him.  Just like her.  Just like the prisoners at Buttercup Lodge.

Her bosses, the ones in charge of the Droll Corsairs, were just like the scientists at Buttercup Lodge.  Magicians.  Who didn’t mind trampling people underfoot.

Is this the entire world?  How many governments and corporations had been taken over by these cruel demons?  Or was her dream just torturing her again?

Captain Reddish clambered out of the trench.  “With me!  Remember why you joined this company!  Come, and the survivors will get their lives back!  We can win!”

He charged, and they followed, shaking off their exhaustion and fear and sprinting across the desert.

Gunfire rang through the air, and bullets whizzed around them.  A soldier tripped on an enemy corpse, and a mortar launched him into the air.  Max wheezed for breath through cracked lips, her feet aching, her eyes heavy.  The sun glared into her eyes, and she charged through a cloud of sand, coughing.

Among the company, only Captain Reddish had been brainwashed.  But everyone still followed him, including Max.

As Max sprinted forward, as her comrades died around her, she found herself wondering.  Why?  They all knew that charging forward meant certain death.  The Corsairs punished insubordination with prison and hard labor for violation of contract, not execution.

So why?  Why was she still charging?

This world teaches us obedience.  It didn’t need magic to hijack their thoughts.  It taught you that kneeling, breaking yourself for the powerful was a good act, a just act.  Max remembered that fake letter from Paragon, her long hours as a bike courier.

And she laughed, as she ran.  She laughed, even though it made her chest hurt.

And then she let herself fall beside a pile of bodies, clutching her side as if she’d been shot.

A mortar struck the ground ahead of her, sending up a column of dirt, batting aside a pair of men charging ahead of her.  Max slammed onto a pile of corpses, stunned.  If I hadn’t taken a dive, that would have hit me dead-on.

When Max looked down, she had no injuries, besides bruises and cuts.  Nothing fatal.

Max lay on a pile of bodies, staring up at the sun, as the rest of her squad died ahead of her, blown up by mortars, cut apart by machine-gun fire and set on fire by incendiary grenades.

And she kept laughing.

________________________________________

“And you think that was all a dream?” said Tunnel Vision, floating above Max.

“Yes,” said Max.  “This conversation, too.  This is all a dream.”

“Let me get this straight.”  Tunnel Vision waved her hand behind her, and chunks of rock broke off from the cliff face, forming a ledge that she stood on.  “You got a fake acceptance letter to Paragon Academy, got lured to an island laboratory filled with buttercups, then got chopped up to create fabricated bodies, then escaped when the scientists woke up…something, thanks to some mad prisoner who talked about ‘music’.  And then you started having vivid dreams every time you go to sleep, that split your world in two – one real world and one dream world.”

“Yes,” said Max.

“I have a built-in lie detector,” said Tunnel Vision.  “And I’m not sure I believe a word you’re saying.”

“But you haven’t killed me yet,” said Max.  “I’ve been talking for a lot longer than nine minutes.  You’ve had plenty of chances to drop me into the water.  But you haven’t.  Because a part of you knows that I’m right.  And that part wants me to keep talking.”

Tunnel Vision grunted, and lifted her hand.  Max’s clothes yanked her up, and she landed on the makeshift ledge in a sitting position.

“Fine,” said the mobster.  “Finish the story, then.”

“After I got hit with the mortar,” said Max, “My superiors left me for dead.  I lay there for almost a day, as bullets flew over my head.  Dehydrating in the sun.  Filled with regret and self-loathing.  Tanks rolled past me, crushing bodies only feet away from me beneath their treads.  But still, I lay there.  Succumbing to the temptation of inertia, the exhaustion.”

“But,” said Tunnel Vision.

“But the answer came to me, finally.  When the Corsairs tried to take this field hours later.  And got massacred again.  And again.  And again.  And I realized: They were going to keep sending people to die.  Over and over.  Not just on this field, but around the Eight Oceans.  Across Kiterjede and in the Four Domains and on all the island nations.  People would be born, sent into debt, and pushed into service, to die and be replaced a thousand times over.  Places like Buttercup Lodge would find an endless stream of Maxine Clives to chew up and spit out.  Bodies to build the foundations of their magic.  Unless – ”

“Unless someone stopped them.”

Max nodded.  “Because the demons can always replace you.  No matter how young, or strong, or pretty, or smart you think you are.  They can always replace you.  But you can replace them, too.”  She hunched over on the rock ledge.  “So I dragged myself back to our lines.  As the world burned around me and I withered from dehydration, I crawled.  The men and women in our trench watched me for hours, expecting me to collapse, get shot.”  Max inhaled.  “And then I made it.  I drank water, got tended to by physicians.  A week later, I was on my feet again.”

Tunnel Vision snorted.  “They gave you free medical treatment?”

“I became a hero.  I boosted morale, inspired grit and determination.  So many had charged into that field of death, but only I came out alive.  My treatment didn’t come out of their medical budget, it came out of their PR budget.”  Max leaned back against the cliff face, exhausted.  “The troop’s respect continued, as I fought alongside them and showed them my competence.  They promoted me to First Artillery Lieutenant.”  She sighed.  “But that was when the real trouble started.”

________________________________________

Maxine Clive finished her beans.  Then she started a revolution.

She’d wanted to eat the bacon from the mess hall instead, but she needed to keep her health good.  In this rotting desert, in her fragile body, health was mandatory.

Men and women mumbled around her in the mess tent, chugging lukewarm water, forking bacon into their mouths.  Too exhausted to laugh or shout or crack jokes, the way they’d done in training.  The desert heat didn’t help either, soaking their clothes with sweat and drying their mouths.

The high-ranking officers were in their own tent, in a different part of the camp.  As rumor had it, they had air conditioning.

Max swallowed her beans, put down her spoon, and grabbed her metal tray – two trays, stacked on top of one another.  She split them apart, climbed onto the table, and banged them together.  “Excuse me!” she said.  “Please excuse me!”

The giant tent fell silent.  A thousand men and women stared at her, confused.

“The fuck?” someone muttered.

“Hey guys,” she said.  “Sorry for taking up your lunch.  We don’t get a lot of breaks.  But I promise this is important.”

A lot of the soldiers glared at her, pissed.  But nobody yelled at her, or ignored her.  She’d earned that much respect.

Max took a deep breath.  “I’m starting a union.”

Everyone yelled at her.  People shouted questions, frustrations, noises of fear.  The mess tent filled up with the noise of arguments and rants, an overwhelming din.

Because unions were forbidden, of course.  Tantamount to desertion.

Max banged the lunch trays together again.  “I’ve been talking to a lot of you in private!” she shouted, making herself heard over the chaos.  The noise quieted down.  “I’d hoped to do this quietly but I’ve just received word about our marching orders from the bosses!  We’re attacking the Bulun Pass tomorrow!”

Dead silence.  The Bulun Pass was a true nightmare, a chokepoint further north where tens of thousands of men had marched through, only to get torn apart from hundreds of hidden gun positions.

The Bulun Pass was a death sentence.  They all knew it.

“So,” said Max.  “We’re out of time.  We can beg our bosses, we can cry and shout and petition our COs to take back this whaleshit.  But they won’t.  This isn’t a democracy.  The executive board wants to take this bloody desert, and the enemy is dug in.  They’ll keep throwing us at those trenches until the sand buries all of us.  Until the world forgets we ever existed.”

A grim acceptance sank over the soldiers in the hall.  A part of them had expected this from the very beginning, a whispering voice that told them nothing mattered.  That they would be meaningless food for the desert ants, no matter what they did.

“Leomer.”  She pointed to one of the men nearby.  “You’ll never go home to your wife.”  She pointed at a woman.  “Orabella.  You’ll never open your ice cream shop.”  She pointed at another.  “Thorkel.  You’ll never drink pomegranate juice on the beaches of Ilaqua.”

She let that sink in.  Death meant nothing.  Their lives – their stolen lives – they meant everything.

“We didn’t join the Droll Corsairs for a cause,” said Max.  “We joined them because we were desperate.”  She swallowed.  “We’ve brought so much death into this world.  So many souls extinguished forever.  We can’t blame our debt, our orders.  We don’t have the right to fall into apathy and despair.  It is our duty to change our fate, and – ”

A hand grabbed her shirt and yanked her off the table.  She slammed onto the ground.  As she coughed, a man and woman wrestled her arms behind her and dragged her across the mess hall, towards the entrance.

Max thrashed and struggled, but both of them were stronger than her.  As she did, a third soldier pulled a gag over her mouth.

Commander Hibben stood at the entrance.  His soldiers dragged Max towards him, and he took slow, deep breaths, calming himself.

Then, he started crying.  “The Droll Corsairs are a family,” he said.  “We provide for each other, care for each other.  And in exchange, we respect the chain of command, so that order doesn’t break down.”  A deep calm settled over his voice, and he wiped away his tears.  “We believe that cooperation, not conflict, is the best road forward.”

Max screamed through her gag, and one of the soldiers punched her in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of her.

“In fact,” he said.  “We were just about to announce a new perk for all of you, since you’ve been doing such great work.  Starting tomorrow, once a week will be Beer Day!  You’ll all get to take an extra hour off and drink complimentary ice-cold beers.  With air conditioning.”

One of the soldiers spoke up.  “The Bulun Pass?”

“A lie,” he said.  “You aren’t being sent there tomorrow.  Tomorrow is Beer Day.”

The soldiers dragged her across the desert.  The noon sun glared in her eyes, making her squint.

“What happens to Phoebe?”  Max’s fake name in the Corsairs.

“Phoebe broke the rules,” said Commander Hibben.  “So she’s going to be imprisoned for a few months.  Then we’ll reassign her.”

Everyone knew what that meant.  Max wasn’t going to be reassigned.  Not after the trouble she’d just caused.

A series of gunshots rang out.  The man and woman carrying Max fell next to her, letting go of her.

Then, Commander Hibben fell on top of her, splattering a warm liquid over her face.

Max’s ears rang from the gunshots.  The world spun around her, her face burning up, the sun beating down.  She didn’t move.  She couldn’t move.  Everything felt numb, distant.  That’s blood covering my face.

Someone shoved Hibben’s body off of Max, freeing her.  Still, she didn’t move, her chest rising and falling, out of breath.

Another soldier knelt beside her with a wet towel and wiped the blood off her face.  He grabbed her hand, and pulled Max back to her feet.

Max shook off her stupor, and looked around the Corsairs’ camp.

The entire company gathered around her in a half-circle.  Two of them had smoking rifles, and another group surrounded the officer’s tent, preventing them from leaving.

Silence hung in the air for a few seconds.  A scalding wind blew across the camp, kicking up sand.

“What did you do?” One of the soldiers shouted, his voice tinged with panic.  “What the fuck did you do?  They’ll kill us all!”

Mutiny was unforgivable.  When High Command found out about this, they would send soldiers to this camp until every last one of them had died.

“Let’s defect to the natives!” another shouted.  “At least then we’ll have someone on our side.”

“The people we’ve been gunning down for months?” said the first soldier.  “Even if they didn’t shoot us on sight, they’re losing.  They’re trapped in the desert and starving.“

The camp broke out into chaos, everyone shouting or arguing or staring into space.  What the fuck do we do next?  How will we survive?  Through the overwhelming din, Max sucked in a deep breath, and bellowed.

“Hey!”

Once again, her shout quieted everyone down.  Everyone turned to her, expectant.  Is this what a leader looks like?  Am I worthy of this?

No.  But it didn’t matter.  Nobody else was stepping up.

“First, we get out of this bloody desert,” she said.  “We’re not native, we don’t know where to hide here.  Command will have a much harder time tracking everyone inside a dense port city, and we can leave a false trail to make them think we’re still in the wilderness.”

A man pulled the holstered gun and belt off the dead Commander Hibben and extended it to Max.  After a moment’s hesitation, she tied it around her waist.

“Then,” she said.  “We get more people.”

________________________________________

For the first time in their conversation, Tunnel Vision looked surprised.

“You defected from the Droll Corsairs?” she said.  “And you survived?”

“I smuggled us off the island of Kiterjede,” said Max.  “And back to the Principality.  Some of us went into hiding.  Others drifted away to countries where the Corsairs couldn’t extradite.”

“And what, the rest of you started a local militia?”

“The Droll Corsairs weren’t our only enemy,” said Max.  “The Principality were the ones behind Buttercup Lodge.  And they enforced our debt, supported the Droll Corsairs’ claim to our lives.  We had to stop them.  So I laid the foundations, built a secret group of Humdrums united against the elites in power.  Commonplace.”

Tunnel Vision raised an eyebrow, impressed.

“The Treaty of Silence still existed during our founding.  Paragon’s self-isolation helped us grow unnoticed.  They thought little of Humdrums, so they didn’t deign to notice us.  When you set the Shenti on fire and exposed them, our membership turned into an exponential curve.”  Max’s eyes lit up.  “We’re like a drip of water, steady, but inevitable.  We’re going to turn it into a flood, an almighty tsunami like the one that brought down the Great Scholars.  And from the wreckage, we’ll build something beautiful.”

“You did all that.  As a Humdrum.”  Tunnel Vision still looked surprised.  “How?”

“Simple,” said Max.  “This is a dream, and you’re all figments of my imagination.  Every risk I’ve taken, every leap of faith has been because I know that.  You’re not real.  This world isn’t real.  It’s a twisted joke, played on me by my captors at Buttercup Lodge.  So why not reshape it into something magnificent?“

For a moment, the mobster almost looked scared of her.

“In this dream, I am cursed to live, so I must continue my mission as long as I’m still asleep.”

Max pointed up.  Tunnel Vision followed the direction of her finger, gazing towards the top of the seaside cliff.

A dozen snipers lay on their stomachs, green circles tattooed on their hands, aiming their rifles down at Tunnel Vision.

“Don’t underestimate Humdrums, Grace Acworth,” said Max.  “On our own, we’re not capable of much.”  She smiled.  “But string our minds together, and there’s nothing we can’t beat.”  Max stood up on the ledge, now level with Tunnel Vision.  “So.  What do you say?”  She extended her hand.

Waves crashed against the rocks below.  A chill sea breeze blew through her hair.  The Green Hands held steady, waiting for the order to open fire.

Tunnel Vision shook Max’s hand.  “Allies,” she said.  “For now.  And I’ll leave this town alone.”

Max exhaled, slouching over, and waved at her snipers to stand down.  “Phew.  Thought you were going to kill me for a second, there.”  She adjusted her green longcoat, sweat soaking into the armpits.  “Want to get lunch?  There’s a great salad place where I tried to shoot you earlier.”

Grace nodded, dumbfounded.  She lifted herself back up the cliff, projecting into Max’s clothes to lift her as well.

“And I’m sorry, Maxine,” said Grace.  “This world is real.”

“You know,” said Max.  “That’s just what my therapist said.”

________________________________________

“This will either save us,” said Max.  “Or screw up everything.  Forever.”

She stared out the window of the tiny cabin, into the blizzard.  The fireplace crackled behind her, and Grace slid her Dancing Painter forward on the Jao Lu board.  A hilariously bad move.  For a Praxis specialist genius, Grace had no skill at board games.  A side effect of her Vocation.

“He’s here,” said Tunnel Vision.  “Let’s hope he doesn’t murder us.”

“He can do worse than that,” said Max.

“Like what?”

“Buy us.”  Max pulled on her longcoat and threw open the front door of the cabin.  The two of them strode out into the blizzard to greet their guest.

A figure emerged from the blizzard, a silhouette skiing down the mountainside.  A Shenti man.  Muscular, square-jawed, with a heavy sniper rifle slung on his back.  He slid off his skis, jogged towards them, and shook both their hands on the doorstep.

“Pictogram,” he said.  “You must be Ms. Clive and Ms. Acworth.”

“I’m Max,” she said.  “This way.”  Max led him back inside the cabin, little better than a shack.  Grace had picked it up from a mobster she’d deposed, who’d set it up as a last-ditch hiding spot in the Silver Mountains of the Principality.  She’d waited for him here, then set him on fire while he ran to the front door.

Pictogram floated a packet of meat from his bag with a frying pan. “I brought some bacon.”  He held them over the fire.  “I thought you two might appreciate something warm after waiting so long.”

Max loved bacon.  “I don’t eat bacon,” she said.  She had to stay healthy in this body.

And besides, this was a tactic, trying to soften Max up, endear her to the Shenti’s cause.  I am not so easy to purchase, Pictogram.  He was looking at her like a magnificent sword, or a hammer waiting to be swung.  He wanted her to be a mere figure in his hands, a mask of popular support to wear over his master’s agenda of revenge.

“Let’s begin, then,” said Pictogram.  He launched into his initial pitch, a flurry of statistics and logistics numbers, outlining all the small arms, tanks, explosives, and training they could bring to Commonplace’s operation.  Then, he outlined his experience, working as a military leader during the Shenti war and training guerillas overseas.

“Stop,” said Max.  She held up a hand.  “I’ve read all this in your reports.  We don’t need to rehash it, this isn’t a job interview.”

“Of course,” said Pictogram.  “It is as you say.  My apologies.”

“I’ve talked to revolutionaries in all corners of the Eight Oceans,” said Max.  “I’ve read the works of many that came before.  And I see a recurring theme.”  She leaned forward in her chair.  “Trust in the people.  Don’t taint yourself with foreign influence.”

When revolutions had let other powers define them, they lost their identity, lost the faith of large segments of the populace.  Worse, they risked turning into violent police states, even if they did succeed.

“I’ve walked,” said Max.  “Through the ruins of your country’s redemption camps.  I’ve seen the piles of dirt where you put your mass graves.”

Pictogram stared at his feet.  “A disgusting, evil policy, made by a government that no longer exists.  A leader, the Black Tortoise, who no longer rules the nation.  Our fight is righteous, now.  We battle against the Principality, against imperialism and cruelty.”

“Your enemies are evil,” said Max.  “That doesn’t make you good.”

You could say the same of us.  If this deal corrupted them.  Grace said nothing, staring into the crackling fire.

“I know your skills,” Max continued.  “I know the kind of weapons Warlord Luo Cai is willing to give me.”  She picked the package of bacon off the table, turning it over in her hands.  “My question is this: Why the fuck should I trust you?”

“You can’t,” said Pictogram.

“Excuse me?”

“I can share my life story, why I believe in your movement and think we can help each other.  But they’re just words.  I will have to prove myself with my actions.  But you’re going to need a, what’s the expression?  Leap of faith.  Because without us, you’ll lose.”

“Commonplace is larger than ever,” said Max.  After the Edwina Massacre and the exposure of projection, the public had channeled its frustration and powerlessness into the public side of her movement, exploding into protests and street organizing.

Everyone was adapting faster than they could have imagined.  In a few years, people wouldn’t remember a world without projectors.  Without Paragon Academy.  They might even overthrow the government with the sheer force of nonviolent protests.

“When The Black Tortoise took power in Shenten, the people tried a peaceful revolution.”  Pictogram leaned back in his rickety chair.  “Not to restore the Emperor – to institute democracy, broad civil rights, and investment in public works.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” said Max.  Grace nodded in agreement.

“Because the records got destroyed,” said Pictogram.  “They failed, and the world forgot them.  When they took to the streets, the calm moderates and statesmen of the old world painted them as violent agitators.  The media backed up this smear, and the military sided with the Black Tortoise, mere weeks after his coup.”

Max shivered, and she moved her chair closer to the fire, wrapping her arms over her chest.

“Soldiers broke up demonstrations.  Despite their public support, the revolutionaries had no choice but to fight for survival.  When the time came, they had slingshots, kitchen knives, and bricks.  And the Black Tortoise had machine guns.”

Max hunched over.  “So.  What’s the lesson, then?”

“There are many,” he said.  “Who prefer calm instead of justice.  And when those people come for you, you had best be ready.”

So many revolutions had been forgotten by history.  So many visionaries and idealists shattered on the cold truth of this world.

“You’re not naive, Maxine Clive,” said Pictogram.  “But you’re not strong enough, either.  If you go up against Guardians right now, you will shatter.  And in ten years, no one will remember you.”

Max closed her eyes, massaging her temples.  “Can I tell you two a story?” she said.

“Of course.”

“It’s called Khona and the Farmer.”

Pictogram raised an eyebrow.  “Haven’t heard of that one.”

“It’s from the Great Scholars,” said Max.  “Once upon a time, there was a farmer.  A rich farmer, whose okra and wheat fed his village of hundreds.  One season, a terrible blight spread through his land, killing his whole supply.  So he prayed to the God Khona, imploring him to save his crops, to save his people from starvation.”

Snow battered the windows of the cabin, and the wind howled outside.

“Khona appears, and tells the farmer: Kill one innocent, and I will bring your crops back.  The farmer agonizes over the decision, but at the end of the day, it’s a god’s offer.  So the farmer takes his knife, and slits the throat of one of the villagers he’s trying to save.”  Max’s voice grew quieter.  “Khona comes to the farmer again and tells him: Your sacrifice was not enough.  Kill five innocents, and I will bring your crops back.”

“What kind of idiot would take the same offer again?” said Grace.

“The farmer is horrified, and distrustful.  But his crops are still dead.  Hundreds will starve, and he needs to do something.  What are five lives next to five hundred?”  Max exhaled.  “So he takes up his knife again and butchers a few more couples.  Khona appears again, and tells the farmer: Kill ten innocents, and this village shall be fed for eternity.”

Pictogram leaned in.  He knew where this was going.

“The farmer, disgusted with himself, still cannot turn down the prospect of a God’s blessing.  Not in this cruel and dangerous world.  So he kills ten more, and returns to Khona, dripping with blood and tears, finally worthy.”  Max closed her eyes and listened to the icy chaos outside for a moment.  “Khona laughs at him.  ‘This doesn’t prove you’re worthy,’ he says.  ‘It proves you’re a killer.’  The farmer is furious.  ‘I’m not a monster!’ he cries.  ‘I cared about the villagers!’.”  Max’s voice fell almost to a whisper.  “‘Really?’ laughs Khona.  ‘Then why did you butcher so many of them?’  Covered in the blood of his neighbors, the farmer turns himself into the villagers, who throw him in prison.  Only then do his crops bloom once again.”

She let the words sink in for a few seconds.

“Wow,” said Pictogram.  “Khona.  A vicious trickster, then.”

“He was the god of justice,” said Max.

Am I the farmer?  Was Grace?  Was Pictogram?  She couldn’t tell at this point.

But moral purity was a luxury Max didn’t have.  Paragon Academy would fight dirty, so Max would too.

Because she couldn’t lose.  Because her cause was more important than her feelings.

“Alright,” said Max, turning to Pictogram.  “Let’s work out the details.”

________________________________________

Max fired her shotgun at a Guardian.

The Voidsteel pellets punched through a thin piece of armor on his neck, and he fell over, gurgling.  A mobster pulled off his helmet with projection, and fired another round into his head, finishing him.  The kickback felt light, easy for this combat chassis, this brand new Maxine Clive, without any scars, without any of the wear and tear on its body.

Green Hands and mobsters streamed ahead of Max through the dim hallway, stepping over the corpses of Guardians and soldiers.

Max pushed open the door.  And for the first time in her life, she gazed at the Principality’s Great Library.

A vast, open chamber towered before Max, filled with circular levels of bookshelves on the walls, and balconies overlooking the vista.  Even in the middle of the night, warm sunlight filled the room, glowing from a tall, narrow crystal in the center of the space, stretching hundreds of feet tall.

Two slogans stretched across the mural on the ceiling, in between images from the Principality’s bloody conquests.

Forge the Stars in Your Image
May You Strive to Become an Exemplar

One nation’s Exemplar is another’s devil.  The Principality had the strangest values.

Max gaped at everything, transfixed.  This has to be a dream.  No reality would ever look this beautiful.

Her feet carried her to the center of the room, and her hand stretched out, touching the sun crystal.  It burned her hand, as hot as a car hood on a warm summer’s day.  But Max didn’t recoil.

This is everything we fought for.  This moment.  The pain, that felt real.  When her hand burned, she could believe in the reality of this world.

“Maxine,” a man’s voice called out in the distance.  “Maxine!”

Max shook herself out of her stupor.  Afzal Kahlin, the Broadcast King, stood behind her, covered in bulletproof armor.  “They know we’re here.  Parliament’s probably holed up in the top level.”

“Well,” she said.  “We voted for half of them, didn’t we?”  She removed her burnt hand from the sun crystal and hefted her shotgun.  “Let’s go get our MPs.”

Max jogged up the stairs with her soldiers, past bookshelves and the security checkpoint from Level Zero to Level One.

Level One looked just as breathtaking.  The sun crystal extended upwards, into the higher levels, and a metal staircase wrapped around it, ascending to the higher levels.  The bookshelves stretched even taller here, accompanied by tower ladders attached to curved rails running along the floor, so a clerk could reach any height if they desired.

And here, pieces of the conical outer wall had been made transparent from the inside, turning into one-way windows, glimpses of the night sky outside.

But Max didn’t have time to admire the view.  Another group of soldiers fired at them from the other end of the room, with grenade launchers and sniper rifles.  A squad of Guardians tore chunks off the metal staircase, flinging them like throwing knives at the Green Hands below.

Max took cover, firing back with her shotgun alongside the other Green Hands.  The mobsters rushed forward, engaging the Guardians.  In a few seconds, the enemy soldiers had been torn apart.  The Guardians flew up to Level Two, retreating to higher ground.

They don’t want to come at us one squad at a time.  They’d gather all their strength together and attack in unison.

They ran up the half-broken stairs.  The Broadcast King stayed near the back, unable to fight.

Level Two was empty of soldiers or Guardians, filled instead with blue lanterns, floating around the sun crystal and casting the bookshelves in an eerie glow.

I could spend a lifetime in this place.  Simply marveling at the architecture, the feats of wizardry and the endless piles of books.  But she had a job to do.

Here, the enemies had destroyed the metal staircase behind them, forcing the mobsters to float everyone up with projection, one at a time, then throw down knotted ropes beneath them.  Slowing us down.  Buying time.

The enemies had fled Level Three as well.  In this part of the Great Library, there were no shelves.  No books, either.  In their stead, words and letters floated in the air, lines of ink swirling around the sun crystal like orbiting planets, forming thousands of streams and eddies and lakes.  Blank sheets of paper and covers sat beneath them, stacked on top of desks.

Max picked a piece of paper up, and letters poured out of the air, bleeding onto the page and forming text.  The empty book.  This shouldn’t be possible.  Not with the projection that she knew.  What else is Paragon hiding from us?

They ascended another level, to Level Four, the second-highest in the library.  Here, the sun crystal ended, turning the space almost pitch-black.  The light came from the unbound pages themselves, which floated in the center of the room, rearranging themselves in arcane geometrical shapes.  Explosions rang out beneath them, and the building shook, but Max paid them no heed.

The mobsters moved to the sealed double doors on the ceiling, preparing to throw them open.

“Wait,” said Max, holding up a hand.

“Ma’am?”

“The enemy Guardians are all waiting up there,” said Max.  “With the Librarians.  We’re not strong enough to fight them on our own.  We wait.  For Grace.”

The Green Hands dug in.  The mobsters sat on the floor, staring up at the flowing pages overhead.  Max knelt with the radio team, listening to the transmissions coming in.  On this level, the walls muffled the outside sound, and no one spoke, so the only noise came from the rustling paper above them.

If this wasn’t a dream, it sure felt like one.

Minutes later, Grace soared through the hole in the floor, purple lightning flickering around her suit jacket.  She collapsed, out of breath, blood dripping from her black skirt and shoes.

And the purple lightning just now.  For something as simple as flight.

Grace was exhausted.  Whatever she’d just been through, she had almost none of her energy left.

Max knelt beside her friend and pulled a bandage out of her bag, wrapping it around Grace’s leg.  “What happened?  Are you alright?”

Grace blinked, half-awake.  “No time.”  She looked up at the door to Level Five.

“Can you do it?” said Max.  Are you strong enough?

Grace nodded, as Max bandaged the rest of her wounds.  “Have to.”

This might kill her.  But they’d survived this much.  I’ll put my faith in you, Pyre Witch.  One last time.

Max squeezed Grace’s hand, and Grace flew up to the ceiling.  She slammed her palm against the double doors, throwing them open.

Arcs of blue lightning shot out of the Fifth Level.  The bolts crashed into the soldiers and mobsters next to Max.

They all went limp.  Dead.

Five hooded figures stood around the edges of the door, clad in dark blue robes, blue lightning flickering around them.  The Librarians.  Max hadn’t known much about the Librarians going in – who they were, what sort of abilities they wielded.  Only that they had power, and loyalty to a set of arbitrary rules.  Only that they would be dangerous.

Grace flew into Level Five, blasting Palefire around her, turning the Librarian’s attention onto her.  Other soldiers and mobsters flew in after her, supporting her.

Afzal Kahlin tugged Max’s shirt.  “Wait,” he said.  “Please.  We need you.”

Smoke, dust, and debris filled the air of Level Five, making it impossible to see inside.  Blasts of palefire rang out from inside, gunshots, screaming and the dull booms of explosions.  The building shook.

A minute passed.  Then two.  More shaking.  More blasts of fire.

And then silence.

A soldier emerged from the cloud, as the debris cleared.  He waved Max in, and Kahlin floated both of them up through the double doors.

Level Five was stranger than the others put together.  Its floor curved in the shape of a massive sphere, and gravity curved with it, letting people and jade glass bookshelves stand on the ceiling, the floor, and the walls.  Another sun crystal hovered in the center of the sphere, casting warm yellow light over everything.

The members of Parliament clustered together on the far side of the sphere, at least a thousand of them, all staring up at Max.

Corpses littered the curved floor.  The blue robes of the librarians, and the armored bodies of Guardians.  But Green Hands, too.  Mobsters.  A carpet of bodies, spreading blood in pools beneath them.

Scholars.  There were so many.

And Grace, lying back against a bookshelf.  No.  Max sprinted over to her, her stomach dropping.  She ripped open the woman’s shirt, noting the bruises and cuts running up and down her torso.

“Grace,” murmured Max.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” Grace mumbled.  “I’m – “  She winced.  “I’m not dying.  Probably.  Spent the last of my energy healing the hole I stabbed in my neck and the worst cuts.”

Grace’s Joining.  She’d only learned the basics over the last few months.  Just enough to let her breathe out of that hole, enough to keep her away from death’s door in that body.  If Penny Oakes had touched her with any of her poison chemicals, Grace would have been in trouble.

And enhanced healing, slow as it was, drained energy like nothing else.

Grace indicated her head to the piles of robes where the Librarians had been.  Then she chuckled.  “It’s been a long day.  Maybe I’ll take a nap.”

She’s spent.  All her energy.  All her willpower.  Max had never met anyone as single-minded as Grace.  The Pyre Witch might not be dying, but if she was passing out here, she’d given everything she had.

“You won, Grace.  You won.”  Max squeezed her shoulder.  “Thank you.”  She gestured behind her, and a mobster pulled a hooded figure through the double doors, pulling off its hood.

A skinny blonde woman blinked at her, squinting from the sudden light.  “Scholars,” Christea Ronaveda grumbled.  “If the world is ending, could you just shoot me and get it over with?”

Kidnapping the radio host of Verity had been simple.  Anabelle Gage and her friends had already injured most of the private guards around her mansion, and the mass protests and street violence had provided a useful cover for the operation.

“Hey,” said Max.  “Your Vocation can’t cure mental hijacking, but it can identify it, yes?”

“Yes,” said Ronaveda.  “Is that…a Maxine Clive?  Scholars, you need to buy a new one, whoever you are.”

Max grit her teeth.  “If your truth Vocation’s been used on someone whose Pith has been modified a lot, it’ll basically paralyze them, yes?”

Ronaveda nodded again, incapable of telling a lie or misleading someone.

“Good,” said Max.  “You’re going to come with me, and you’re going to use your Vocation on the members of Parliament, one by one.”  That would tell them which ones had been mentally hijacked, which ones had been caught up in Paragon’s grand conspiracy.  “Then, we’ll use you to broadcast a message to the country.”

“A message?”

“About how Paragon Academy has hijacked members of their own government.”

“How do you know it’s Paragon?” said Ronaveda.  “It could be Ilaqua.  Or the Droll Corsairs.  Or maybe it’s you guys.  I’m not a liar, but I’ll bet you guys are.”

“Use it on me.”  Max jabbed her fingers at her skull.  A low hum settled in the back of her mind, compelling her to tell the truth.  She leaned closer to the radio host, lowering her voice.  “My name is Maxine Clive.  I will show you how hollow your kings are.  Then I will set you free.”

She’d release Ronaveda to a foreign country with protection, so that the public could confirm that she was the real Ronaveda, not some imposter stealing her body.

Max had already planned on exposing Parliament’s hijacking to the world, but she’d never thought to use a radio celebrity to do it.  That idea had come from Anabelle Gage, and her gambit to turn the public against them.

A Green Hands jogged up to Max, running around the sphere.  “News, ma’am!  I have news!”  Joseph, his name was.  “Enemies are fighting their way up the library.  Paragon students.  And The Blue Charlatan’s group.”

Gage.  Why had Max ever thought she could recruit her?  The thick-witted idiot would sacrifice herself for the elites at Paragon, again and again, no matter how many times they kicked her.

A warning.  Many Humdrums in this country were like Gage, violently committed against their own self-interest.  Pacifying them would be difficult.

Gage, on the other hand, would be much simpler.  They just had to kill her.

“Can we beat them?” said Max.

“Our forces have dwindled,” Joseph said.  “We’ve taken out the remaining Guardians and the students in our way, but we’ve lost most of our troops in the academy.”

Not surprising.  They’d prepared well, but Guardians and students were well-trained, tenacious fighters.  “Tell everyone to retreat to the higher levels,” Max said.  “We’ll make a final stand up here, together.”

The man nodded.

“What’s your other news?  Our assault in the North?  Do we control the Principality’s missile silos?”

“We – “  The Green Hands stared at his feet.  “We have lost contact with all teams assigned to the missile silos.  The last we heard, they spotted Headmaster Tau flying towards them.  No one else.”

Max closed her eyes.  A critical piece.  Lost, now.  Taken out single-handedly by that senile old fool.  Guess he’s still got a sliver of his old strength.  Enough to fly back in time and wipe the floor with their assault team.

This is bad.  Without those Voidsteel-tipped missiles, they would not be able to defeat Paragon’s Guardians in the field.  Grace had raw strength and tactics, but even she would pale against Scholar-ranked projectors like the Symphony Knight, like Headmaster Tau.  And she already looked exhausted from the battle.

“And what of our Shenti allies and their diversion fleet?  What of our mutiny?”  Talking to the Admirals had been difficult, but it had paid off.  Now, at least a third of the Principality’s Humdrum navy had joined their side.

Joseph avoided her gaze, his voice growing soft.  “Gone,” he mumbled.

Gone?” said Max.  “What do you mean, gone?”

“The Symphony Knight took out our mutiny fleet in less than five minutes,” he said.  “Then she flew to the Agricultural Islands and took out our diversion ships.  On her own.”

Max’s stomach clenched.  No.  The Symphony Knight was powerful, but they’d never expected her to be capable of this much.  When they’d fought earlier, that must have been but a sliver of her real power.

All those aircraft carriers and battleships and submarines and planes.  Thousands and thousands of sailors, pilots.  All the work they’d done to convince their fellow Humdrums of the righteousness of their cause.

All gone now.  All sinking to the bottom of the ocean, with their hopes of an overwhelming victory.

Max had hoped that their initial revolt would inspire more of the military to join the coup – both scared idealists, and those who wanted to pick the winning side.  No chance of that, now.  All would cower in fear of Isabelle Corbin, the Symphony Knight.

It would take that music bitch a while to get back to Elmidde, but when she did, Max didn’t like Grace’s odds.

“We can still win,” muttered Max, for herself as much as the others.  If they convinced enough people, set up enough of the other pieces, the public could still turn against Paragon.

A whirring mechanical clock ticked on top of a bookshelf, its metal hands stretching towards the artificial sun.  Tick, tick, tick.

“You should leave, ma’am,” said Joseph.  “If you and Tunnel Vision and our other top people escape, we can fight another day.  We’ve already dealt a serious blow to the Principality.  But we can’t win conventionally anymore.”

“I keep telling you,” she said.  “‘Max’ is fine.”  She turned away from Joseph.  “Ronaveda!” she barked.  “With me.”  She waved her pistol at the celebrity, and the two of them jogged to the members of Parliament.  A pair of mobsters and engineers floated electrical parts in front of them, jerry-rigging a high-powered radio for the broadcast.

Christea Ronaveda approached the closest MP.  A loyalist named Enoch Trembath.  Blue and purple lightning flickered around her, as she threw her truth aura over his Pith.

He twitched and shook, and rolled over on the floor, his lips blurting out incoherent syllables.

Ronaveda recoiled.  “He’s been hijacked.  Badly.”

No surprises there.  The hardline loyalists would be kept under a tight leash.

“Next,” said Max.  She took Ronaveda to Esau Westlake, a political moderate who sympathized with Commonplace, but voted with the loyalists most of the time.

He rolled over and had a seizure too.  Another victim of Paragon’s hijacking.

Max clenched her teeth.  “Next.”  The building shook, and she led Ronaveda to Joyce Fulmer, a strong pro-Commonplace MP.  She voted against Paragon’s interests almost every time.

Fulmer twitched, shaking and babbling nonsense.  No.  “Scholars,” breathed Max.  No, that’s not possible.  She had expected a large conspiracy, yes, but this?

Ronaveda tested another one.  And another one.  And another one.  And another ten.  Loyalists and Commonplace sympathizers and everything in between.

All of them had the same reaction to the truth aura.  All of them seized up, shivered, lost their ability to speak.

Ronaveda’s eyes widened too, her breaths quickened.  She knew what this meant, too.

“They’re all – “ she said.

“They’re all being hijacked,” said Max.

Every single member of Parliament was being hijacked.  From the most devoted Commonplace idealist, to the most staunch loyalist.

Max knew there was hijacking going on, but she’d never expected anything on this scale.  Paragon’s controlling everything.  Absolutely everything.

Max staggered back, dizzy.  It’s worse than I could have imagined.

The building shook again.  They’re coming.  Max was running out of time.  She ran over to Grace, slumped against a bookshelf.  Still too weak to fight.  They couldn’t rely on her anymore.

“Don’t worry, Grace,” Max said, kneeling beside her.  “I’ll fight strong enough for both of us.”

Grace tried to push herself upright, clenching her teeth.  A second later, she dropped back down, too exhausted.

Max placed a hand on her shoulder.  “You’ve done so much for us, Grace.  You’ve brought us to the doorstep of freedom.  We can do the rest.”

She hugged Grace.  Grace hugged her back.

“See you at the finish line.”

Grace went limp in her arms.  Max let go of the hug, and watched the woman’s chest rise and fall.  Passed out.  Not dead.

“Well,” Max said.  “She deserves a break.”  She turned to the Green Hands and mobsters gathered in the spherical library room.  Just a few dozen left, along with the Broadcast King, standing off to the side, unarmed.  Others trickled in through the double doors, bleeding from wounds, covered in burns, unconscious or dying.  This is it.  The last line of defense.

They all looked at her, waiting for orders.

“In the next twenty minutes,” said Max.  “We will win.  Or we will lose everything.  Two different worlds stretch before us.  Two different countries.  Two identities.”  She made eye contact with all of them.  “You get to choose.  With your actions, we all get to choose.  So let’s get to work.”

Joseph tossed Max a grenade launcher, and she directed everyone to their positions.  They used the bookshelves as cover, aiming at the barricaded double doors, which someone had knocked a bookshelf on top of.

The doors boomed and shook, something crashing into them from below.

Then they exploded outwards, flinging aside the bookshelf on top of it.  A beam of molten steel shot through the doors, forcing them open.

Max fired a grenade at the door.  It bounced off, exploding on a bookshelf.  She loaded and fired another one.  It bounced too, exploding off to the side.  Bloody Shenti, giving us their second-hand trash.

A cloud of fluttering paper shot through the doors, spreading throughout the room.  They dove into the crowd, slicing at every inch of exposed skin.  Sheets of paper slashed at the webbing on Max’s hands, her face, her arms.

She cried out in pain, squinted to protect her eyes, and loaded another grenade.

Paper.  The Ousted Epistocrat’s weapon.  Max glanced around, forcing herself to concentrate as blood poured down her arms, soaking into her shirt.  The paper disrupted the Green Hands closest to the door, but further away on the sphere, the effects were weaker, more limited, and the mobsters were able to use water as armor to foil the attacks.

The enemy is fighting blind.  They’d have to come through those doors sooner or later.

A metal wall floated through the door, bent in a V shape to cover different angles.  It looked thick enough to stop Voidsteel bullets.  Even Max’s grenades, probably.

They’re following Paragon’s Tactics Guide.  Max had read a stolen copy.  Which meant one of the students was in charge, not Gage or a member of Queen Sulphur.  So predictable.

A corner of the wall lifted for an instant, then jerked back down, the enemy taking a glance at Max.

Max raised her grenade launcher, and thin metal wires shot towards her, making a whistling noise as they flew through the air, wrapping around her throat.  Preparing to chop off her head.

Max fired her bouncing round.  It shot over the top of the metal wall.  The warped gravity of the room made it curve, and it bounced off the floor, flying through a narrow gap and behind the enemy’s makeshift cover.

A dull boom rang out from the double doors, and the room shook.  Cries of pain rang out from the enemy’s improvised bunker, and the wires around Max’s throat went limp.

Max tore them off and tossed them aside, her fingers sticky with blood.

“Samuel’s down!” an enemy shouted, their voice muffled.

Good.  Badly injured and unconscious was better than dead.  This way, they would take action to help their friend.  Queen Sulphur’s only real doctor, Jun Kuang, would be compelled to heal him.  One more enemy they didn’t have to deal with.

On the other side of the sphere, Christea Ronaveda spoke into the radio, held at gunpoint by Afzal Kahlin.  Come on, come on.  They just had to finish getting the message out.

Before Max could load another shot, the metal wall melted into a glowing orange sphere.  An armored man floated beneath it, touching it with his bare fingertip.  Lorne Daventry.

The sphere fanned out, turning into a dome to give him cover.  At the same time, it blasted out in a beam, shooting all over the sphere in random directions.  It sheared through bookshelves, and knocked into a pair of Green Hands, bowling them over, ripping off their limbs, and covering them with molten steel.

Everyone fired at the sphere, trying to hit the boy hidden inside.  The air filled with the deafening thunder of gunshots.  “No!” shouted Max.  “Wait!”

The rounds punctured the molten metal, and they did so at angles.  With his projection sense, Lorne could map out the paths of the bullets, and deduce where everyone was shooting from.

“Move!” shouted Max.  “He knows where you are!”

The beam shot out again in short bursts, fueled by a supply of melted-down scrap metal from below.

This time, it didn’t miss.  It hit people’s faces and chests, scraping away their skin and hair, killing them in an instant.  Some tried to take cover behind the jade glass bookshelves, crawling away from their old positions.  As they did, Lorne Daventry lowered his sphere to see them and shot them anyway, safe from return fire.  His beams tore the ancient bookshelves into pieces, sending scraps of paper and shards of jade glass flying into the air.  The mobsters held up shields of water and metal and stone, trying to defend themselves from the overwhelming assault.

It took Daventry a second to tear through their defenses, and a second to kill the rest of them.

Then, he turned to Max, as she dropped her grenade launcher and drew her shotgun, the handle slippery with blood.

Max dove backwards over a fallen bookshelf, and fired.  Daventry made his molten sphere again, and chilled it, turning it back to solid metal, with a narrow slit he could see through.

The Voidsteel pellets clanged into the solid metal, unable to puncture.  At the same time, a smaller orb of molten steel floated above and shot out at her.  It clipped her side, batting her aside and ripping a hole in her green longcoat.

Max slammed onto the floor, the right side of her torso covered in burns.  Pain exploded across her skin, and she screamed, clenching her teeth.  She tried pushing herself back upright, and the pain tripled, making her shake and drop her weapon.  Blood poured over her clothes, and she felt dizzy, like she’d just downed a dozen shots.  Her vision went blurry.

On the far side of the room, Afzal Kahlin turned off the radio, and herded Christea Ronaveda behind a group of Green Hands.  It worked.  They’d finished sending the message.  Without Radio Man, its reach would be limited, but it would do something.  The public still took Ronaveda at her word.

A chunk of metal pushed the fallen bookcase aside, removing her last piece of cover.

I’m the last one.  And it wasn’t enough.  They hadn’t bought nearly enough time to get the radio broadcast out.  She’d run out of Voidsteel.  Normal pellets would never get through his ABD at this range.

Daventry stared at Max through the metal slit in his dome.  She picked up her shotgun with a wobbling hand, and aimed it at him, squinting to make out his features.  

And she spat at him.  A final act of defiance.

A Voidsteel knife shot across the room, flying at Daventry’s face.

Daventry turned his dome back into liquid, forming a molten blockade in front of the eye slit as he leapt upward.  Before he could harden it, the dagger shot through his liquid metal, and a cry of pain rang out from inside.

Is he playing possum?

The liquid dome collapsed, and Lorne Daventry crawled forward on the floor, the Voidsteel dagger lodged in his belly.

Not playing possum.

Grace Acworth limped forward across the sphere, and extended her hand.  Purple lightning crackled around her, and the tanto dagger, Reverie, dragged itself through Daventry’s guts, then pulled itself out and flipped into her hand.  Even that was a massive effort for her.

Lorne groaned, bleeding onto the curved wooden floor.  Grace raised the knife, preparing to finish him off, and he turned the metal to liquid again, forming a cocoon around himself and hardening it, protecting him.

On a normal day, Grace would have cooked him in seconds.  Now, she didn’t have the energy to punch through.

“Max,” she shouted, hoarse.  “Max!”  Her Pith was exhausted, but her body looked far more intact than Max’s.

“I’m alive,” said Max, dropping her blood-soaked shotgun.  “For now.”

Three figures emerged from the double doors.  A brown-haired boy in a suit, carrying a briefcase.  A dark-haired girl with orbs of blue and purple lightning crackling around her fists.  And a masculine chassis, covered in bulging veins, wearing a grey beanie and holding a sleek machine pistol, limping and clutching her side.

Weston Ebbridge.  Nell Ebbridge.  And Anabelle Gage, the Blue Charlatan, the unseen variable.

Gage opened fire, and Grace dove behind a bookshelf, projecting into Max’s clothes to drag her into the same cover.

The woman stared at Max with desperate eyes.  Wide, exhausted, bloodshot.  She can’t beat those three.  Not in her state.

“Do you trust me?” said Grace.

“After all we’ve been through.”  Max smiled.  “Do you really need to ask?”

“Grab on.”

Max wrapped her arms around Grace’s back, holding on tight.

Grace projected into the belts of two dead Green Hands and pulled the pins on their smoke grenades.  Then, she stretched her hand towards the far wall of the sphere, purple electricity swirling around her, tears running down her cheeks from the effort.

Cracks spiderwebbed through the wood.  Then it exploded outwards, opening up to the dark sky.

Bullets whizzed around them, and Grace blasted spears of fire out of her fingers, distracting the enemy.  Then she shot forward, across the sphere and out of the hole.  Max hung on, dragged with her.

The two of them flew out of the smoke cloud, and into the air.  Anabelle Gage ran to the hole, still shooting at them, but they were too far away, and the enemy couldn’t fly.

The wind whipped through Max’s blonde hair, blowing droplets of blood from her sleeves.  She sucked in breaths of the cool, fresh air, every gasp making her side burn.

“We’ve lost,” she mumbled, the wind drowning out her voice.  They’d gotten a message out, but their military coup had failed.  They’d lost their fleet, their missiles, their forces in Paragon.  The battle had ended.

The blood kept pouring out of her skin, and the burns on her torso looked bad.  This body doesn’t have much time left.

“No,” said Grace.  “No.”  A cloud of purple lightning swirled around her.  This flight is killing her.

“Our defenses on Parliament are gone.  Our message won’t get out to the public.”  The street violence would continue, but subside.  There would be no revolution, no epic defeat of the parasites in charge of the Principality.  “We spent all our resources on this,” she whispered.  “We have nothing left.”

“No,” said Grace.  “We have this.”  She opened her jacket, revealing a thick purple tome, sealed with a Voidsteel lock.  The Lavender Book.  The most important volume in the world.

It hadn’t all been for nothing.  Even if they lost today, they’d escaped with something.

“I know you want to wake up, Max,” said Grace.  “But please.  Hold onto this dream just a bit longer.”

Do I want this to be real?  Do I want to live in this world?

Max stared down at the burning city below, the crashing waves against the shores of Elmidde.  The people dying down there.  Breaking against the horrors of this nation.  Their hope and effort and passion.  All riding now on a single book.  A single door to a brighter future.

She held on.

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