12-E The Ant and the Beetle

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Wes

Me, Ana, or Tasia, I thought.

Me, Ana, or the imposter.

One of us would come out of this intact, and the rest would be cast aside, to be scorned or banished, doomed to live out the rest of their lives in resentful mediocrity.  A brutal competition for a name, a body, a family, a pardon.  Citizenship in this country.

That was the deal my mother had offered us, that Paragon offered everyone, to some extent.  Forge the stars in your image, or drown in the mud with the pigs.  It wasn’t kind, it wasn’t fair, but it was the world.  What power did we have to change it?

If it came to it, I would have to fight Ana myself.  What a bloody farce.

A spear of palefire shot through the top level of the library, aimed straight at Ana.  I stepped in front of her, holding my briefcase up to shield us.

The white-hot flames crashed against my briefcase and singed my hand, making me yell in pain.  “Takonara!”  The skin on my fingers had turned a waxy red.  That’s going to leave a scar.  Worse, the front of my briefcase had been burned a sickening black, ruining it.  I liked that briefcase.

Something boomed on the far side of the warped gravity sphere, the floor shaking.  I waved sheets of papers like fans, blowing away the grey smoke filling the room.

Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive flew out of a hole in the wall, soaring into the night.

No!” shouted Ana.

We sprinted after them.  I shot a storm of paper in their direction, and Ana raised her machine pistol, firing bursts at Maxine Clive, who lacked an ABD.  We ran around the sphere, over corpses and overturned bookshelves, until the hole in the wall became a hole in the floor.

None of my paper even touched the enemy.  Ana missed all her shots.  The enemy had flown too far away, too fast.  And neither of us had the raw projection strength to fly and pursue them.

Ana kept firing bursts at them, aiming down the sights of her machine pistol through the hole.  But she didn’t spend her one Voidsteel bullet.  Not at this range.

“Hey!”  The imposter – Tasia – shouted at us from the far side of the room, using my old voice.  “Parliament!”

That’s right.  We had a mission, to rescue the most prissy yellers in the county.  A group of public servants that spent most of their time sipping tea and making uninspired digs at each other.  Though, in their defense, that was my daily routine too.

I turned to the hundreds of MPs clustered on the far side of the sphere, surrounded by Afzal Kahlin and a bare handful of Green Hands and mobsters.  Is that all that’s left?  Lorne had been thorough with his molten carnage.

The three of us ran around the sphere towards them, and something exploded in the middle of the crowd.  A cloud of yellow smoke ballooned around the MPs and Commonplace.

“Gas!” Ana shouted.  “Gas!”

I flipped open my briefcase and pulled out a trio of flattened gas masks, letting them pop back into three dimensions.  Projecting into them, I floated them to Ana and Tasia, and pulled mine over my tangled brown hair, my burnt fingers stinging from the movement.  Lorne can take care of himself, right?

The yellow smog washed over us, filling the room and obscuring everything more than a few feet away from me.

Go!” shouted Ana with illusions.  “That gas might be lethal!

“Wait!” I shouted.  “Samuel’s down on Level Four!  He doesn’t have a mask!”  Maxine Clive’s grenade had ripped his body apart, so I’d begged Jun to tend to him and save his life.

“He’s right!” shouted Tasia.  “This way!”  She threw an orb of blue and purple lightning through the gas, illuminating a path towards the double doors back to Level Four.

Jun could assemble his own masks, but only if he had the right materials.  He could flee the gas, but dragging Samuel might worsen the boy’s injuries.

Ana nodded, and the three of us ran back, leaping through the double doors on the floor of the sphere.  Tasia projected into our clothes, slowing our fall through the vast chamber of Level Four, as we emerged from the cloud of gas.

Samuel lay on the wooden floor, glowing pages rearranging themselves in geometric shapes above him.  His arm had been blown off, and a chunk of flesh had been torn from his shoulder, forming a pool of blood underneath him.  Bandages and some congealed concrete-like substance had been wrapped over his wounds, stopping most of the bleeding.

He’s alright.  He’d last long enough for a transfer later.

I’d flattened a green backpack full of stuff from the blimp we’d used to get in here, and I was pretty sure it included a first aid kit.  But that didn’t seem necessary here.

But where’s Jun?

I raced forward and knelt by his side.  As I slid Samuel’s mask on, the boy’s eyes fluttered open, and he stared at Tasia, half awake.  Delirious.

He smiled at her.  “[    ],” he said, static crackling in my ears.  “You’re finally back.  Scholars, I’ve missed you.”

He thinks that she’s me.  Something twisted in my stomach, and I leaned over, hugging Samuel as he fell unconscious.  “I will see you again,” I whispered.  “I promise.”

“Where the fuck is Jun?” said Ana.

“Grandpa can make his own mask!” I shouted.  “He doesn’t need us.”  And the man didn’t like fighting, anyway.

Ana pointed to a pile of scrap metal on the floor.  “Jun would have taken those with him.  And he wouldn’t have abandoned his patient.”  She turned towards the hole leading to Level Three.  “Help Parliament.  I’m going to find Jun.”

I had no time to argue or think through strategy.  I stood up, nodding, and Tasia projected into my suit, yanking us back up through the glowing pages and the double doors, back into Level Five and the cloud of yellow gas.  I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up.  How am I supposed to Oust her when I’m this weak?

We touched down on the floor of the sphere, and I ran forward, panting, my lungs burning from the effort.  Every step made my body ache, made my shoulders feel heavier.

The gas made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead of me.  Figures moved to my left and right, running in the opposite direction, ignoring me.  Or were those just shadows in the fog?  Focus on the MPs.  Save the MPs.

I used my sheets of paper as fans again, blowing away the gas in a circle around me and Tasia.

And we saw Parliament.  Men and women, middle-aged and old, wearing their ceremonial robes.  Draped over each other on the floor, limp.

None of them were breathing.  Dead.  All dead.  There were over a thousand of them, packed into one half of the dome, and all of them lay on the floor, their eyes open, spittle foaming from their lips.  I noticed Enoch Trembath among them, my classmate’s father, with his bushy mustache.  His eyes stared at the ceiling, unmoving.

A handful of Green Hands lay next to the dead MPs, also foaming at the mouths.  Guess they didn’t get their gas masks on in time.

Tasia retched, doubling over.  My stomach churned, and my skin turned to ice.  For a moment, both of us stood there, dumbfounded.

Commonplace killed them.  Commonplace had just murdered all of Parliament.  The seat of government.  The democratic core of this nation.

Tasia ran around, touching people’s necks, looking for pulses, shaking people to see if they woke up.

But nobody moved.  Nobody breathed, or stirred.

Afzal Kahlin, and the rest of Commonplace were nowhere to be seen.

I shot my paper towards the double doors, clearing a tunnel through the gas.

A thin Ilaquan man with a gas mask glanced back at us.  Afzal Kahlin.  He jumped through, falling out of sight, flanked by a pair of mobsters.

He did this.  He’d set off that gas bomb.  A tsunami of rage grew in my belly, running through my veins and making my hands shake.  Overwhelming the shock and horror.

I let out a roar, and sprinted through the sphere, ignoring my pain, my exhaustion.  Tasia ran after me, and we dove through the double doors, floating down to Level Four below.

Samuel lay on the floor, his chest rising and falling, and Ana had vanished.  Kahlin jumped through the hole to Level Three, and the two of us ran after him, our arms pumping.

We jumped through, gaining on him.  The world seemed to blur around me, everything except Kahlin growing distant.

I ran through the swirling letters in the air, and down the staircase to the second level.  In front of us, Kahlin ran beneath the glowing blue lanterns towards the massive hole Tunnel Vision had torn open in the wall.  He ripped off his gas mask, letting it fall onto the pile of rubble.

He jumped out of the hole, and I jumped after him.  I slammed onto the slanted, conical wall of the Great Library.  Kahlin slid down the wall ahead of us, opting to move down instead of flying.

Tasia and I slid after him.  One of the mobsters next to him raised a submachine gun, and I fanned out a wall of paper in front of us, hiding us from view.  I had a flattened parachute in my briefcase, in that backpack I’d taken from the blimp.  But that would take too long to get out.  Make us fall too slow.

Bullets zipped around us.  Tasia slid in front of me, using her ABD to shield me from the gunfire.  Why is she helping me?  She knows I’m her competition, doesn’t she?  I held my burnt briefcase in front of my face, another layer of protection.

Then we slid off the edge of the diagonal wall, and fell through the air.  My stomach wrenched, and my limbs flailed, as the two of us shot downward.

Once again, Tasia projected into our clothes, slowing our fall.  We landed on the grass, and I peeked through a gap in my paper wall.

Afzal Kahlin and his goons ran across a half-demolished bridge.  The floorboards had been destroyed, so they ran on top of the railing, the only part left intact.

“Come on!” I shouted.  Tasia ran in front of me, still using her ABD to shield me.  The enemy’s out of Voidsteel bullets, then.  Or they didn’t want to use them until they had a clear shot.

We clambered on top of the railing and ran forward, balancing on the narrow strip of wood.  My foot slipped, and I projected into my suit jacket, steadying myself as I waved my arms around me, keeping my balance and stopping myself from falling off the bridge, hundreds of feet down.

Every few seconds, I made a gap in my paper shield, and glanced where the enemies were going.

And we kept running.  We chased them through Paragon, over quiet islands and silent hallways, past lecture halls filled with bullet holes and a banquet hall that had been reduced to a pile of ashen rubble.

My lungs burned, and my legs screamed at me to stop, to slow down and give myself a breather.  But every time we passed the body of a student, I ran a little faster.

So many of them.  Girls and boys.  First-years and those on the verge of graduation.  Wearing combat armor or their blue uniforms or even just pajamas.  They didn’t even have time to get dressed.  And they’d still given their lives to slow Commonplace down, to break the enemy’s attack and protect their school.

It wasn’t for nothing.  For every dead student, I saw half a dozen Green Hands corpses, illuminated by the flickering lights overhead.

And apart from the mobsters’ gunfire ahead of us, Paragon Academy had fallen dead silent.  All the fights had ended.  The survivors had retreated to the dorms, and the rest were bleeding out onto the hardwood.  If there are survivors.  If anyone had made it out of this burning ruin.

None of this would have happened without Kahlin.  His propaganda, his vicious rhetoric had turned so much of the public against us, filled their heads with lies and conspiracies and hatred.

Maxine Clive, Tunnel Vision, and the Shenti were the key architects of this nightmare, but Afzal Kahlin had laid the foundations for them.

And he’d destroyed my family’s newspaper.  Thrown us in debt and squeezed us for every penny we had.

And now, he was about to escape.  To retire away to some faraway island and escape all the horrors he’d built.

He’d live a life of luxury, and the Principality might never find him.

I clenched my fists as I ran, my fingernails digging into my palms.  My pace quickened.  “Come on,” I growled to Tasia, panting.  “Faster.”  The bitch had taken one of my combat chassis.  She had no excuse.

Kahlin turned a corner, and two of his Green Hands set off smoke bombs at a crossroads between hallways, filling the air with white fog.  The gunfire stopped.  Trying to hide their movements.

But even after a year away, I knew Paragon like the back of my hand.  I knew where they were going.

Through the smoke, I overtook Tasia and turned right, then left, sprinting down a flight of stairs.  Guiding her to the cable car station.

Even if Isaac Brin had broken the cars themselves, the cables could still be used to escape Paragon.

We emerged into Paragon’s front atrium, into another cloud of smoke.  The skylight overhead had been shattered, letting in the faint moonlight, and glass shards crunched beneath our feet as we ran.

We passed the crystal fountain of Darius the Philosopher, its head knocked off.  The place where I’d sat with Samuel, almost a year ago on the day of my Ousting.

And then, we arrived at the cable car station, still surrounded by smoke.  I waved sheets of paper in front of us, blowing the smoke away and feeling my way around.  I felt the wall of the cable car station, and the open door leading to the platform.

My sheets of paper shot inside, ready to slice up everyone there.

They felt nothing.  No one’s inside the station.  No Green Hands, no mobsters, no Kahlin.  I fanned my paper behind us and to the sides, casting a wide search for the enemy, looking for an ambush.

Still nothing.  Did I guess wrong?  Did the enemy not want to escape this way?

A figure emerged from the pool of the fountain, surrounded by a suit of water.

Before I could shout, or attack, or even react, the figure shot through the smoke and punched me in the neck.  As Tasia turned to look at it, the figure’s leg whipped around in a roundhouse kick and slammed her face, knocking on her back with a thud.

I doubled over, coughing, gasping for air.  I shot sheets of paper at the figure, but they went limp when they touched its liquid armor.

Then I fell on my back, dropping my briefcase.  A sheath of water wrapped around the openings of my briefcase, locking my paper and flattened objects in.

Then, I saw the figure’s face.

Afzal Kahlin.  A skill-stitched master of martial arts, aware of my weaknesses.  He used the fountain to hide from my paper.  To ambush us.

Green Hands and mobsters emerged from the fountain behind him, a dozen in total, all clad in liquid.  As the smoke cleared, I got a look at one of their faces for the first time.

Joseph.  The Green Hands from the beginning of my journey.  The man who’d chased me through the streets of Lowtown.

They raised their weapons in unison, loading Voidsteel rounds.  Aiming them at me and Tasia.  My paper wouldn’t go through the water.  My last flattened grenade sat at the bottom of my briefcase, and I couldn’t push it through the sheath of water locking it in.

I closed my eyes.  I’m sorry, Samuel.

A loud crack rang through the air, and my eyes snapped open.  One of the mobster’s heads exploded, and a window shattered.  Two more cracks rang out, and two more bullets blew through people’s heads, making spurts of red mist.  Joseph tackled Kahlin to the ground, and another gunshot rang out.  The bullet zipped through Joseph’s neck, and he collapsed, clutching his neck.

What?  My throat clenched.  What’s happening?

Kahlin rolled backwards, taking cover behind the crystal fountain, putting it between him and the station.  The others did the same, crouching behind the fountain, ignoring me.  I stood up, running towards the platform, and gazed out the broken windows.

A young Ilaquan man lay flat on the cable car’s taut wire, aiming a sniper rifle up at the academy from just inside the deceleration field.

Even with a faint sliver of moonlight, I could recognize his face.

Right-Hira.

At the same time, Left-Hira sprinted up the cable, balancing like a tightrope walker with her trench shotgun slung across her back.  Providing eyes for Right-Hira to aim.  Her bright yellow blouse stood out from the darkness surrounding her.

Out of the corner of my eye, Kahlin stood up and ran forward, stretching two clawed hands in front of him.

The cable shook.  Then at the very top, it snapped, sending the whole wire careening down towards the city.  Kahlin broke it.

As it broke, Right-Hira reached behind him and opened a parachute.  Left-Hira bent her knees and leapt forward, half a baseball field away from the cable car station.  An impossible jump.

But she kept soaring forward, lifted by her projection, her legs flailing beneath her.  The remaining enemies peeked out of cover and fired at her.  But none of the bullets hit her.

As she flew through the night, she drew her shotgun and aimed it at her father.  At the man who had experimented on her.

Kahlin ducked down, and Hira pulled the trigger.  The round hit one of the Green Hands behind him, knocking him over.

Then Hira landed on the platform with a roll, firing his shotgun as he went.

He grinned at me.  “What’s up, pretty boy?” he said.  “I show up in time?”

I just gaped at him.

Then he darted forward, firing his shotgun.  Engaging the rest of the enemies.

As he did, Afzal Kahlin sprinted around his son, towards one of the broken windows.

The rage bubbled up inside me again.  You’re not getting away.  I flipped open my briefcase and shot every piece of paper that I had.  I shot a flattened grenade, too, pressed between two sheets.

The paper dug into his flesh.  Darting, slicing, drawing up blood.

As he ran past me, I pressed the flattened grenade against his neck.

Then, he dove out of the window, sailing into the air.

I ran to the edge, staring down.  Kahlin fell towards the peak of Mount Elwar, and gazed back up at the floating islands.  Making eye contact with me.

The flattened grenade still pressed against his neck, the pin already pulled.  I just had to move the sheets of paper pressing it together, and it would pop back into three dimensions and explode his head from the neck up.  An ABD wouldn’t help him at this range.  He would die in an instant.  And my family would be avenged.

His debt is the reason your mother Ousted you.  Why my family had been so desperate for a strong heir.  He’d done vile experiments on Hira, my friend.  And he’d orchestrated so much destruction, so much death.  Paragon Academy was a burning ruin, thanks to him.  How many of my classmates has he gotten killed?  How many of my friends?

And he’d tried to kill me, multiple times.

And if he gets away, he’ll do it all over again.  Or worse, now that his first attempt had failed.

Kahlin fell further away, blending in with the darkness.  I had to squint to see his outline.

Ana would already have killed him.  Hira, too.  And my mother wouldn’t have hesitated.  In the first few months after I’d been Ousted, I would have killed him and felt good about it.

I closed my eyes and saw Jun’s wrinkled smile.  Samuel’s patient eyes.

If I killed him, I would almost definitely be selected instead of Ana for my mother’s competition.

I’d be Lady Ebbridge once again.  All the unfettered decadence of my childhood would be mine.  And I’d get to see my friends.

I didn’t move the sheets of paper.  The grenade sat on Kahlin’s neck, flat, not detonated.

He grabbed it, tearing it away from his neck, and threw it into the air.

Then he fell out of sight, vanishing into the night.

I could pursue him.  But that drop looked far more than I could handle.

And even if I could, that would mean abandoning Hira.  Abandoning Ana, wherever she was.  The fight hadn’t ended yet.  And my friends needed help.

I turned back to the cable car station and ran back to the atrium, shooting paper in front of me.  Two of the Green Hands fired at Left-Hira, pinning her behind a piece of cover in the corner of the room.  The last two.

I charged at them from behind and slashed up the webbing on their hands, making them drop their submachine guns, crying out in pain.

Hira jumped out of cover and shot his cables at the two Green Hands.  They jabbed into their legs, and both of them fell over, twitching from the electricity.

I unflattened two syringes of tranquilizer from my briefcase and jabbed them into their necks.  A few seconds later, they went limp.

Hira sprinted to one of the broken windows, staring down into the night air.

“He’s gone,” I said.  “He got away.”

Hira gave me a sideways glance.  “You couldn’t kill him.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I sat down at the edge of the fountain, catching my breath.  “You came back to fight your father, but I couldn’t help you.  I guess I’m pretty useless after all.”

Left-Hira punched my shoulder, hard enough to ache.  “I didn’t come back for Dad, dumbass.  I came back for you.  You’re alive, aren’t you?“

I nodded.  “Thanks, Hira.”

This time, I meant it.

“Good,” she said.  “Then stop whining and tell me where Jun and Ana are.  We’ve got a team to save.”

“She went searching for – “

An explosion rang out in the distance, and the floor shook.  I ran towards another shattered window in the atrium, following the source of the noise.

A cloud of smoke and fire ballooned out from one of the outer islands.  Opal Hall.  A dormitory.  Hira grabbed a sniper rifle off of a corpse, and tossed another one to me.

She crouched by the window, aiming it, and I squinted through the scope on mine, using it to see the island, even if I couldn’t shoot with it.  My aim wobbled, unsteady, and I squinted, adjusting my eye to get a better view.

The smoke cleared in front of Opal Hall, and a muscular Shenti man staggered out, covered in blood.  Pictogram.  His right leg had been blown off below the knee, and he used a projected crutch to help him walk.  The fires from the front of the building lit up his face in a flickering orange glow.

Pictogram held a pistol in one hand.  With the other, he dragged another man in front of him, using him as a human shield.

The smoke cleared, and I made out the features of the human shield.  An old Shenti man, with a long white beard and tangled hair.

Jun.  Pictogram was taking Jun as a hostage.  He must have kidnapped him while he was tending to Samuel’s wounds.  While the rest of us were preoccupied with Tunnel Vision and Maxine Clive at the top of the Great Library.

Then Ana emerged from the cloud of smoke, limping.  Her helmet had fallen off, revealing her withered grey hair, covered in bald spots.  She took cover behind a rock, aiming her machine pistol at Pictogram, hands shaking.

Even from this distance, I could see the fury in her eyes.  But she couldn’t fire.  Not without hitting Jun.  At this point in her decay, her aim was probably the worst it had ever been.

“They’re retaking the bombmaker,” I said.  The Shenti want their man back.  Even if their mission here had failed.

They were going to enslave my friend again.  Beat him and break him like when we’d found him, half a year ago back on Attlelan Island.

My hands tightened on the grip of the rifle.  “Shoot him,” I said to Hira.  “Shoot him!  Shoot him!

Pictogram would have an ABD, but Hira could use Jun’s own body and Pith to nullify it, like we’d done when Paragon attacked our house.  He just had to shoot through Jun in a non-vital location.  Then Ana could finish Pictogram off with the Voidsteel bullet in her pistol.

Gunshots rang out next to me, painful in my ears, as Hira opened fire with his stolen sniper rifle.

Without even looking, Pictogram raised his pistol and fired half a dozen shots in our direction.

I ducked down, but none of his rounds went anywhere near us.  Did he just – 

“He knocked away my bullets,” said Hira, breathless.  “He knocked away my bullets, with a fucking pistol.”

Hira reloaded and fired another clip at Pictogram, the rifle thudding into her shoulder with every pull of the trigger.  “Fuck,” she muttered.  “Fuck.”  It wasn’t doing anything.  For every bullet she fired, Pictogram could knock it away midair.

I peered back through my scope.  Ana kept aiming her pistol at Pictogram, but didn’t fire.  Her eyes widened, the horror on her face growing.

Pictogram looked at her, at Hira, then at me, staring into my scope, with a pained expression.

I’m sorry,” he mouthed.

He leaned off the edge of the island, and soared down into the darkness.  Ana leaped out of cover and limped forward, aiming her gun down.  But Pictogram had already fallen out of sight.

“No!” I shouted.  Eastern dog.

I have a flattened parachute.  But I couldn’t teleport it to Ana.  And even if I could, Pictogram could just shoot her out of the air as she fell.

I let go of the rifle and slumped back, dizzy.  They took Jun.  They’d taken Jun, and we couldn’t do a thing to stop them.  He was going back to the people who’d tortured him, thrown him in a camp.  Some Shenti Warlord.

What are they going to do to him?  And how much would they hurt him this time?

“She’s coming,” said Hira.  “Ana’s limping back here.”

While we waited for her to get here, I walked over to the fountain, glancing down at Tasia, who’d been knocked unconscious by one of Kahlin’s roundhouse kicks.

I stared down at my old body.  A bruise ran up the side of its cheek, half-covered by its long black hair.  But other than that, she looked fine.  No serious bleeding, and her chest rose and fell at a regular pace.

She lucked out.  A kick like that could do much worse.

A few minutes later, Ana burst through the doors of the atrium, out of breath.  Blood stained the side of her blue combat armor, and her eyes fluttered, half-shut.  The grey veins on her neck looked even more swollen than usual, and her entire body shivered.

Her body’s about to fall apart.  ‘Last legs’ was an understatement.

I rushed over to her.  “You’re hurt.”

“Shrapnel by my ribcage,” she said, coughing.  “Not as bad as it looks.”

“Too late,” growled Hira.  “That Shenti fucker got away with Jun.”

Ana walked to one of the broken windows.  “We have to go after them,” she said, glancing at the broken cable.  “There has to be something.  Look through your scope, can you see them down in the city?”

I shook my head.  “It’s Pictogram.  He’ll know how to stay out of sight.”

Left-Hira aimed down her scope anyway.  After a few seconds, she shook her head.

Ana slumped down, falling to her knees.  She leaned back against a wall, the light draining out of her face.

“Hi, Ana,” said Left-Hira.  “You look like shit.”

“Thanks, Hira,” she said.  “For coming back.

Hira nodded.  Then her eyes widened.  “Hey,” She adjusted her sniper rifle.  “Look at this.”

I picked my sniper rifle back up and peered through the scope.  Ana did the same.

“Up and left of the big fire.  See the police sirens?” Hira said.

I adjusted my wobbling aim, casting my vision around and finding the spot Hira referred to.

A semicircle of cop cars sat in the center of a city square, blocking off one end with their sirens on.  In the middle of the circle, a woman crouched behind a garbage can, her long brown hair tangled and matted, her black skirt stained with blood.

Tunnel Vision.  The cops opened fire on her, bullets pinging off the metal trash can.  They can’t have Voidsteel bullets.  Which meant her Pith had grown too tired to maintain an ABD.  Another good sign.

Tunnel Vision lifted a hand, purple lightning crackling around it, and a blast of palefire shot out.  It moved slow, slow enough to see, but too fast for the cops to dodge.  The flames washed over three of the cars, and they exploded, sending police officers flying.

The other cops kept shooting, but nobody else seemed nearby to back them up.  Most of them have scattered.  Occupied with fighting the protestors, or the military’s infighting.

A blast of palefire wiped out another dozen cops, with another storm of purple lightning.

I clenched my teeth.  Scholars.  Even in the Pyre Witch’s weakened state, Humdrums were no match for her.

A gunshot rang out next to me, deafening, and I winced.  Another two rang out, and Tunnel Vision’s gaze flicked towards us.  Two car hoods ripped off, forming a shield for the Pyre Witch, and Hira’s sniper bullets bounced off.

And Jun.  Jun was nowhere to be seen.  He’s gone.  He was really gone.  My stomach ache doubled.

“Clive,” said Ana.  “Do you see Maxine Clive anywhere?”

“Nothing,” said Hira.  I couldn’t spot her either.  Did she get killed?  Had Tunnel Vision transferred her to another body and hidden her somewhere?

“That’s fine,” said Ana, her voice flat.  “Maxine Clive didn’t kill Kaplen.  She didn’t sell counterfeit bodies or set hundreds of students on fire.”  She’s still focused on The Pyre Witch.

I looked up from my sniper rifle, at both Ana and Left-Hira.  “We’ve both been instrumental,” I said.  “In the defense of Paragon.  The main battle’s over, and we’ve earned more than enough for my mother’s offer.  We don’t have to chase after Tunnel Vision.”

“You’re wrong,” said Ana.  “We have to.  Not for us, but for Paragon.  For the nation.”  She looked at me, making eye contact.  “The Pyre Witch still has the Lavender Book.  And she massacred Parliament and all those students.  No matter what her ideals were, or are, she’s dangerous now.”

The Lavender Book was serious.  Who knew what kind of earth-shattering Vocations were hidden in those pages?

“It doesn’t matter that her revolution failed,” Ana said.  “If she gets away with those techniques, she’ll return with powers that will make Palefire look like a birthday candle.  And she’ll be even further bent on revenge.”  Ana gazed down at the burning city.  “It might not give her the power to remake this country.  But it could give her the power to wipe it off the map.  Given the opportunity, what do you think she’d do with that?”

I had nothing to say.  Ana had a point, but I knew what this was building up to.

“Look at the lightning,” said Ana.  “Her broken ABD.  She’s exhausted, and that includes her Praxis Vocation, too.  We’ll never have another chance like this.  All the other Guardians are either dead, unconscious, or half a continent away.”  She grimaced.  “It’s up to us.”

“But,” I said.  “How are we supposed to get off Paragon?  Neither of us is strong enough to lower ourselves to the ground.  Not at this height.”  If either of us tried that, we’d run out of energy halfway down and turn into a red puddle on the street.

We both looked at Left-Hira.  She shook her head.  “I’m exhausted, too.  I can lower myself, maybe.  But that’ll take everything I have.  No strength for passengers.”  Her male body had already descended into the city below.  “My other body’s getting a car, though,” she said.  “If we get down there, we can use it to catch up to her.”

“Jun could have made something,” said Ana, her voice pained.  “But I’m drawing a blank here.”  She looked around the cable car station and the atrium.  “We don’t have time to look through the academy.  I don’t see a parachute or anything on these fuckers.”

I flipped open my briefcase, and removed the bottom of it.  A dark green backpack popped back into three dimensions, and I pulled it open.

“What’s that?” said Ana.

“I took this from the zeppelin on the way in here and flattened it,” I said.  “I thought a parachute or two might come in handy.”

I pulled out a pair of flight goggles, a pistol, a sheaf of papers, and a water flask.  “No,” I said.  “No.  There was supposed to be a parachute in here.”  My stomach sank, and I flipped the bag over, shaking out the remaining contents.

A combat knife and a pair of binoculars fell out.  No parachute.

Then a pile of dark red cloth fell out, buried at the bottom of the bag.  This is what I thought was the parachute.  “There we go,” I said.

“That’s not a parachute, dumbass.”  Hira picked it up, and it hung limp in her hands, forming the outline of a person.  “That’s – “

“A wingsuit,” I said.  “That’s a wingsuit.”  A Shenti model, judging by the color, designed for projectors.

That’s all we have.  One wingsuit.  One wingsuit, and almost no time.

A cool summer wind blew through the shattered windows.  Ana and I stared at each other.

“You don’t know how to fly,” said Ana.

“Neither do you,” I said.  “But if it’s just a short flight – a fall, really.  Then maybe.”  I’ll do my best.

We both looked at the red wingsuit again.

“So,” I said.

“It has to be one of us.”

One person to chase after Tunnel Vision.  One person to stay here at Paragon.  Left-Hira could lower herself, so either Ana or I would use the wingsuit.

“Hira and one of us,” said Ana.  “Probably won’t be enough to beat Tunnel Vision.”

“No,” said Hira.  “It won’t be.”

“Will you fight with us?” said Ana.  “Given those odds.”

“Finish your bickering,” she said.  “We’re leaving in ninety seconds.”

Whoever goes with her is probably going to die.  And whoever stayed was going to accept my mother’s offer.

Ana turned back to me.  “Let me go,” she said.  “You’re exhausted.  And the Pyre Witch is my target.”  This is personal for her.

“You’re just as tired as I am,” I said.  “I don’t even know if I want my old body anymore.”  I gestured to her.  “And look at you.  You look like you can barely stand.  Your fingers are screwed up, and you’re shivering.  My chassis isn’t about to drop dead.  I can survive like this.  You can’t.”  I glanced back at Tasia.  “If I Oust your friend, I have no idea if I’ll be able to get you my spare chassis from my body double.  And that’s if you survive the Pyre Witch.”

Is Ana okay with me Ousting her friend?  Maybe she really thought Tasia would be fine, that she’d done enough research and stored enough backups to carry on her work.

Far down, in the dark city, a red light flickered near the top of Mount Elwar, next to the cable car station.  A flare.  “That’s Right-Hira and the car,” said Left-Hira.  “That’s where you need to land.”

I stared at the wingsuit.  “You’ve been through so much pain this year,” I said.  “Your body heist.  Kaplen.  Me.  Working yourself half to death, then getting expelled and chased down by Paragon.  And then being pitted against your friend, all while your body decayed.”  I thought for a moment.  “Yeah, wow, all that happened in a year, didn’t it?”

Ana nodded, reluctant.

“And what have I done?”  I said.  “I lied to you.  Used you against the Broadcast King.  I’m an elitist, self-centered prick who never deserved to fight alongside you.”  I laughed.  “When I met you, I thought you were just some psychotic body thief who shot my fiance.”  I shook my head.  “I was the unworthy one.”

“Maybe at the beginning,” Ana said.  “But you’ve earned my trust.  You’ve earned this.”

We’re out of time.  I could unflatten a syringe of tranquilizer from my suitcase and use it to knock her out.  The enemies had cleared out of Paragon, so she’d be safe here.

But the needle wouldn’t go through her blue combat armor, thin though it was.  And I couldn’t do that without her seeing.

Ana has a pillbox of Kraken’s Bone in her pocket.  The drug Ventrinol.  I could offer her water from Hira’s canteen.  Then slip one of her own tablets in.  She wouldn’t be expecting that.

But if I got the dosage wrong, Ana wouldn’t fall asleep.  She’d vomit up blood, and die a rapid, excruciating death.  No antidote.  After a few minutes, she wouldn’t even be able to transfer her Pith out.

Just like her old friend, Kaplen Ingolf.

I can’t risk that.

“Go.”  I stepped towards the wingsuit.  “Drink that mulled cider in Paragon.”  What’s left of it.  “You’ll find new friends to drink it with.”

Ana stepped in front of me, blocking my path.  And she hugged me.

Her body pressed against mine, warm.  I wrapped my arms around her, hugging her back.

“Alright,” she said.  “Alright.”

Ana conceding a point.  That’s a first.  I let out a sigh of relief.  She’s going to be alright.  Even if I was swan diving into a river of fire, Ana would make it out okay.  She couldn’t fake the sense of touch with her Vocation, so I knew this hug was really her – she wasn’t using her illusions on me.

“I’m going to miss you, dummy,” I mumbled.

“Same to you, rich boy,” she said.  “Say hi to Tasia for me.  Hug Eliya and Leizu.  Kiss Samuel.  They’ve been missing you for so long.”

What?  Ana had just agreed to let me chase after Tunnel Vision.  She was talking like I was the one staying, not her.  Like I would be Ousting Tasia, not her.  My throat clenched.  Something’s not right.

“Fail,” she said.  “And try again.  Break.  And put yourself back together.  Get bored and tired and frustrated.  Cry.  Lose sleep.  But crawl forward, if you have to.  And find a thousand reasons to keep crawling.”  She squeezed me tighter.  “Write the next page.  Strive to become an Exemplar.  Make something beautiful out of your soul.”

And then I noticed.

Her body is warm.  I could feel the heat as she pressed her body against mine.  Ana’s body is cold.  And these proportions felt all wrong.

“I promise,” said Ana.  “I will see you again.”

I pushed away from her, staggering back.

Anabelle Gage morphed into Left-Hira, the illusion falling away.

I’d been hugging Hira, not Ana.  Which means Ana is – 

I looked at my overturned backpack.  The red wingsuit had vanished from the pile of clutter.  I sprinted to the edge of the cable car station and gazed down into the darkness.

Anabelle Gage fell through the sky, her arms flattened to her sides, wearing a pair of flight goggles and the red wingsuit over her clothes.

For a moment, the two of us made eye contact.

Then, she flipped onto her stomach and extended her arms, opening the wings of her suit, stretching the thin material between her legs and beneath her arms.  The wind caught her like a kite.

And Anabelle Gage flew.

She used Hira.  Convinced her behind the scenes to hug me so I’d be distracted while Ana put on the wingsuit.  So I would think I was safe from her illusions.

So she could sacrifice herself, instead of me.

“Ana!” I shouted.  “Ana!”  I clenched my fists, blood rushing in my ears.  Damn you, Ana.

Something jabbed into my neck, and an icy sensation spread throughout my body.

“Sorry,” said Left-Hira.

I turned around, and she stepped back, holding a depressed syringe.  Jun’s knockout drug.  Stolen and unflattened from my briefcase.

A wave of dizziness crashed over me, and I staggered forward into the atrium, away from the edge of the academy.  “N – No,” I mumbled, slurring my words.  “No.”

She’s gone.  She’s leaving.  Everything she’d been through, and she still chose to sacrifice herself.

Not for her nation this time.  For me.

“Your battle’s over,” said Left-Hira.  “You’ll be safe here.  This is just so you don’t follow us.”

I mustered together all my willpower, all my coordination, and forced my mouth into a coherent shape, making the outline of a single phrase.  “Keep…” I slurred.  “Keep her safe.

Hira nodded.  “See you around, pretty boy.”  She jumped off the edge of the platform, and dropped into the night.

My eyes fluttered shut.  See you around, Queen Sulphur.

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