12-F The Ant and the Beetle

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Ana

I flew.

My arms and legs stretched out, forming a kite shape with my red wingsuit.  The air blew through like a sail, and I shot forward through the dark air.  The wind blasted into me, knocking my beanie off my grey hair and taking my breath away, drowning out every other noise.

I was too shocked to scream, or shout.  My mouth just hung open, until the wind forced it to clamp shut.  I passed through Paragon’s deceleration field, and the temperature dropped, making me shiver in the air.

A numbness spread over my skin and into my muscles.  Is that the cold?  Or my chassis, breaking down even more?  There’s not much time left.  Just keeping my limbs straight made my muscles shake with exertion, made my shoulder ache.  Every inch of my body felt weak, frail.

The slope of Mount Elwar rushed towards me, faster than I could have imagined.  I projected into the arms of my wobbling suit and steadied it, turning myself right, then left, steering myself towards Right-Hira’s red flare by the cable car station.  The limbs of the wingsuit squeezed my joints, at least two sizes too small for my broad shoulders.

I squinted through my flight goggles, and the city spread out beneath me.

Elmidde.  Hightown, Midtown, Lowtown.  Darkened streets from cut power lines, and bright orange fires, flickering throughout Lowtown and Gestalt Island towards the bottom.  At the same time, the city seemed to have quieted down, as the police suppressed the rest of the protests.

My gaze flitted over all the places I’d traveled over the last year, in rapid succession.  Clementine’s expensive house, by the water, shining in the moonlight.  The southeast docks, where I’d attempted my first body heist.  King’s Palace, with my sleeping pod.  Commonplace’s headquarters.  The Kesteven Building, with Kahlin’s penthouse.  Hira’s old house, on North Island.  Christea Ronaveda’s mansion, across Meteor Bay.

All that in a year.  I’d known so much pain, so much violence and decay.  I’d done so many horrible things.

But I’d met Tasia, too.  Hira and Jun.  And Wes.

I never thought I’d meet people like that.  And I never would have imagined becoming friends with them.  Playing Jao Lu and going to picnics and risking my life for them.

Nothing like that had happened to me before.  Not in my hometown, and not with Clementine.

This year had some bright spots, too.

For a moment, I let my body relax.  Forgot the cold, and the wind, and my unstable steering.  Wes is safe.  That mattered.  More than hunting Tunnel Vision.  More than this nation.

I gazed out at the spectacular vista.  And I let myself feel grateful.  A moment of sublime tranquility and peace.

I got to fly, too.

My attention snapped back to reality, and I realized I was going to overshoot Right-Hira’s flare.  By a lot.  I flattened my arms and legs to my sides, collapsing my wings and diving straight down.  I’d seen Paragon students do this before.

This time, I screamed, though the wind took the sound away.  My stomach dropped.

The dense forests at the peak of Mount Elwar shot towards me.  When they got close, I spread my arms again, and jerked the front half of my wingsuit upwards to right myself.  The chest of my red wingsuit ripped, flapping around and revealing my blue combat suit underneath.

The wind caught the suit again, and my path curved to a level one.

I skimmed over the tops of the trees, streaking towards the cable car station and Hira’s flare.  My limbs flailed for a moment, but I steadied myself, and I flew again.

Don’t you crash, I told myself.  Don’t you dare crash.  For this nation.  For Kaplen.  For me and all the other lives Tunnel Vision had destroyed.

And for Hira, too.  She couldn’t finish this mission on her own.

I projected into the front of my wingsuit and angled it upwards, using the wingsuit as a drag chute to slow myself down.  I projected into the belt, too, yanking it backwards, arresting my momentum.

I’m going to undershoot Hira.  Right-Hira floored the accelerator, driving the car up the street towards the cable car station, getting closer to me.  He jumped out of the car, stretching his arms out, as if to catch me.

As we planned, I pulled my Pith out of the wingsuit, and Right-Hira projected into it.  Purple lightning flickered around him, and my wingsuit yanked me back even further, slowing me more and more as I fell towards the street, the cobblestones rushing beneath me.

I landed on my feet, and my foot twisted to the side as I jogged forward, staggering to a stop.  Stabbing pain exploded in my ankle, and I doubled over, coughing and catching my breath.

“You alright?” said Right-Hira.

“Twisted ankle,” I wheezed.  With just the slightest impact.  Another sign of my advanced decay.

Left-Hira landed on the pavement next to me with a cloud of purple lightning, rolling to soften the impact.  She sprung to her feet, out of breath.  That fall took almost everything out of her.

I limp-jogged to the car, each footstep sending stabbing aches up my ankle.  I ignored the pain.  I will see my parents again.  I will drink that mulled cider with Wes.

“Come on,” I said, in between coughs.  “She’s getting away.”

We clambered into the car, and Left-Hira floored the gas.  The accelerator shoved me back against my seat next to her, and I strapped in my seatbelt as the car shot down the sloped pavement.  

Right-Hira stood up in the backseat, and poked his head and torso out of a hole he’d cut in the top of the car.  His black sniper rifle hung by his side, ready to aim and shoot at a moment’s notice.

We sped down Mount Elwar through the streets of Hightown.  We passed squads of riot police, closing in on sparse groups of protestors, slapping handcuffs onto them and shoving them into paddy wagons.  The arrested protestors got more common in Midtown, as we descended through the city, but most of the actual riots had ended, or looked sparse at best.

Further down, military trucks and tanks streamed over North Bridge, driving into the city.  Reinforcements from the mainland.  They would be more than enough to suppress the remaining unrest.  Another sign that the core fights had ended.

The car turned a corner, tires skidding on the pavement, and sped into the Midtown square where Tunnel Vision had been fighting the police.

Dozens of dead cops lay on the street, or inside their cars, blackened to a crisp.  The police cars and vans nearby had turned into burning wrecks.

Only one of the cars hadn’t been destroyed, driving towards the far end of the square.  It flipped its siren on and accelerated down a street, heading towards Lowtown.

“That’s her,” I said.  “Go.

Left-Hira floored the gas again, and we shot down the sloped pavement, racing after Tunnel Vision’s stolen police car.  As we closed in on her, Tunnel Vision accelerated even faster, swerving left and right, making random turns onto side streets to try and lose us.

Left-Hira tossed me her trench shotgun, and I leaned out of the right window, my aim unstable.

Gunshots rang out from above me, as Right-Hira opened fire with his sniper rifle.  With all the turns, and the bumpy cobblestone pavement, none of his shots hit.

I pulled the trigger, aiming at the cop car’s tires.  Hira’s trench shotgun thudded into my shoulder, my ears ringing, but all my shots missed, too.

Right-Hira dropped an empty clip into the backseat, and loaded another one.  Tunnel Vision made another left turn, and we went back down a steep slope, entering Lowtown.

She’s headed for the water.  All the bridges would be locked down by the military pouring into the city.  The ocean was her best chance at escaping.

Storefronts and apartment buildings raced past us in a blur.  In this part of town, the police cars and arrested protesters grew more sparse.  Despite all our gunfire, no one moved to chase us.  The streets had emptied here.  No pedestrians.  No one to see us fight.  She’s aiming for a quieter part of Lowtown.  Avoiding attention.

And most important of all, the Pyre Witch hadn’t fired a single blast of palefire at us.  Not even a single fireball, or a chunk of metal flung at our windshield.  She just drove away from us, making the occasional glance back towards us, revealing her face.

She’s really out of energy.  Her Praxis Vocation, too, would be weaker.  Less capable of adapting her to this situation.

She could be using her decoy again.  Just like she’d done to deceive Paragon earlier, to draw them away from the city.  But something told me she wasn’t doing that this time.  Hira had kept eyes on her this whole time, as she’d massacred the police with her palefire.

Of course, she could have fooled Hira too, but that would have required a lot of preparation.  She’d have to plan for her big mission’s failure.  A part of her would have to expect that, on some level.

And the witch has tunnel vision.

We sped through Lowtown, the car thudding on the potholes in the street.  This part of town was a straight shot to the water, and Tunnel Vision didn’t turn onto any of the side streets.  Dead ends, all of them.

Ahead of us, high in the sky, a massive, flat silver serpent wound back and forth in front of the moon.  An oracle snake.

Right-Hira fired, and one of the car’s rear tires popped.  Tunnel Vision’s car swerved left and right, but purple lightning flickered from inside, and it steadied itself, careening straight towards the ocean.

Right-Hira fired again, popping the car’s other rear tire.  Tunnel Vision’s steering wobbled even more, but she kept it moving forward.

A wide pier stretched ahead of us, extending into the ocean and blocked by a wooden gate and a low railing, with a ramp leading down to it.  A pedestrian walkway where people sometimes stored boats.  A line of orange lamps lit it from end to end.

Tunnel Vision’s car turned right, skidding on the pavement towards the pier.  But instead of driving down the street, Tunnel Vision flung her door open and jumped out, using the momentum of the car to shoot herself forward.

She dove off the edge of the walkway, dropping out of sight towards the water.  Her car slammed into the metal railing, making an awful screeching noise and bending it backwards.

At the same time, Hira slammed the brakes.  The tires screeched, coming to a stop just in front of the wooden gate to the pier.

I stretched my Pith forward, feeling Tunnel Vision’s Pith ahead of us and below, on the surface of the water.  I threw on an illusion, making it look and sound like our car had crashed into her car, and that both Hira and I had been knocked unconscious.  She wouldn’t have the strength to feel around with her Pith and spot the fakery.

I squinted over the railing, gazing down at the dark water below, trying to spot her.

A pitch-black submarine steamed forward across the surface of the ocean, sailing away from the shore.  Tunnel Vision stood on the top, and clambered down a ladder inside.  She glanced back at my burning-car illusion, and slammed the hatch shut behind her.

A second later, the submarine pulled her out of my range, dropping my illusions on her.

Her escape plan.  Of course she’d have a top-notch escape plan.

“A fucking submarine?” yelled Hira.  “How the fuck did she get a submarine?”

Fuck, fuck, fuck.  My stomach clenched, and my sweaty hands tightened on Hira’s shotgun.  “Commonplace controls the naval defenses right now,” I said.  “If she dives, we won’t be able to find her.”

“The hatch is shut!” shouted Hira.  “She’s about to dive!”

I glanced at the wooden gate, and the ramp leading down to the long pier.  The submarine chugged forward, parallel to the dock, only ten feet away from it.

Then I pointed.  “Can you make it?”

“Let’s find out.”  Left-Hira put the car in reverse and backed up the street.  Right-Hira sat down in the backseat and strapped himself in.  I braced myself with my hands and feet, unclenching my teeth for the impact.

Left-Hira slammed the gas, and shot across the pavement, picking up momentum.  “Fuck you!” she shouted.

The car crashed through the wooden gate with a shower of splinters, the entire inside shaking.  We landed on the ramp and drove down, onto the flimsy wooden boards of the pier.

The vehicle wobbled and bumped on the uneven wood, and an awful cracking sound rang out from below.  This isn’t designed to hold a car’s weight.  Hira swerved right, then left, her driving unstable.

“Steady!” I shouted.

“I know!”

Ahead of us, the submarine picked up speed, cutting through the water towards the open ocean, the orange light of the lamps reflecting off its dark metal hull.  The end of the pier shot towards us, getting closer by the second.

Then, our car caught up to the very end of the submarine.

“Hira?”  I said.  “Hira?”

“I’m not blind!” she snapped.  Right-Hira clambered out of his firing hole and onto the roof of the car.  I unstrapped my seatbelt and squeezed myself into his place in the backseat.

Right-Hira shot a cable out of one of his wrist launchers, wrapping it around one of the submarine’s railings on the top.  He jumped, reeling it in to pull himself forward, and slammed on the roof of the submarine.

I climbed up through the hole, onto the top of the car.  The end of the pier raced towards us, even closer, and I wobbled as the vehicle shook underneath me, dizzy.

“Come on!” shouted Left-Hira.

I inhaled, exhaled, and bent my knees, projecting into my clothes.

Then, I jumped.  My limbs flailed in the air, and I dropped towards the water, coming up short.  I yanked my clothes forward, pulling myself up and towards the submarine.  Right-Hira stretched out his hand, and I grabbed it, slamming onto the curved side of the sub.  My twisted foot landed on the metal, and I screamed, clenching my teeth.

Right-Hira pulled me up and over the railing, onto the top of the sub.

Left-Hira projected into the steering wheel, holding the car steady as she threw open the passenger door.  The car shot off the edge of the pier, and she clambered out, using the door as a foothold to push off and leap towards the submarine.

Right-Hira shot his other cable launcher at her, and she grabbed it midair.  She landed on the side of the submarine, just a few feet above the water.  The car splashed into the ocean behind her, and she pulled herself up the cable like a rope, climbing onto the top of the sub with us.

The submarine sped away from Elmidde, and rumbled beneath us.  “It’s about to dive!” Hira shouted.

We ran forward to the top hatch, and I stretched my Pith downwards, feeling two people below us.  Guards, or crew members.  I erased the sight and sound of our presence, hiding our actions from them.

The submarine began to lower itself beneath the surface, frothing up the water around it.

Hira projected into the lock inside, spinning the wheel.  No Voidsteel, thankfully.  She threw open the hatch, and slid down the ladder with both her bodies as the water rose around us.  I clambered down last, and Hira projected into the hatch above me, slamming it shut and sealing it as the submarine dove.

We landed in a narrow, squat hallway, surrounded by metal pipes and wires, lit by pale bulbs overhead.  We stood next to two crew members, chatting amongst themselves.  Neither of them armed, both of them hit with illusions.

“Alright,” one of them said.  “Back to work.”  She walked down the hallway and went through one of the doors.

Right,” I said to Hira.  “Let’s find out where Tunnel Vision is.

Hira looked at me up and down in the light, a proper look after our car chase.  I look like shit.  The sub’s hallway filled up with the stench of my body odor, mixed with a new smell, like rotten fruit.

“You sure you’re up to fighting her?” said Hira.  During our final conversation, I’d convinced her that I could fight Tunnel Vision better than Wes, since paper didn’t work so great against someone who used fire.

But I think Hira had another reason.  She didn’t care about the cause the way I did.

No, she’d grown close to Wes over the last year.  She didn’t want him to die.

I shifted my weight, putting more on my good foot, and winced.  “Don’t have to be at my best.  You’re strong enough to fight her.”  In Tunnel Vision’s current state, after fighting so many scholar-ranked projectors, Hira might be strong enough to beat her.  Unlike the rest of us, Hira had just joined the battle.  Her Pith and body would be far less exhausted.  “I’m just your illusion backup.  And a distraction, since I bet she hates me more than you.”

“Everything you learned this year,” Left-Hira grumbled.  “And your grand strategy is ‘let Hira do the work’.”

“It’s a compliment,” I said.  I threw an illusion on the remaining crew member, making it seem like his friend was walking back through the door.

Hey,” my illusion said.  “I forgot again.  Where did the boss go?

The man rolled his eyes.  “We’ve been over this.  She’s in her magic door thing.”

Magic door?  Hira and I looked at each other.  What?

Her magic door?” my illusion said, in a tone that could be ignorant, or irritated.  As if to say, that’s what you’re calling it?

“The something gate, or whatever,” the man said.  “She got it moved down to the far end of C deck a while ago.  I don’t know how it works.  But don’t go in there.  She said no disturbances until we get out on the open sea.”

Got it,” my illusion said. “I can wait, I guess.

“Right,” said Hira.  “What if we took one of the crew’s bodies?  Used that as a disguise?”

“Wouldn’t work for you,” I said.  In your prison bodies.  “And we don’t have any tranquilizer left to knock the person out.  A chokehold won’t last.”

“Your illusions, then,” said Hira.  “Use them on the crew.  Make them turn on the radio so we can contact Paragon or the military and let them know our location.”

What about the radio?” I said to the man, with my illusions.  “Is that working?

“Radio?”  The crew member gave me a confused look.  “We don’t have a radio, remember?  We use some fancy encrypted telegraph system.  And no, it doesn’t work.  Not unless the boss activates it with her codes.”

Exclusive codes from Tunnel Vision.

“We need Tunnel Vision, then,” I said.

Hira nodded.  She stuck her hands in her pockets, stitching skills from the crew member.

“If we kill her, the crew probably won’t be much of an issue.  And while she’s dying, you can use your Vocation to stitch her codes from her.  Then we can use the radio to contact our allies.”

“Wes is getting the pardon, remember?” said Hira.  “Who the fuck are our allies?”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said.

I made my illusion walk away from the crew member.  Hira and I followed it, stepping through a door and swinging it shut behind us.

The two of us stalked through the submarine, down claustrophobic hallways filled with pipes and levers and buttons.  A low chugging noise rang in the distance, the sound of the sub’s inner mechanisms.  I cast my Pith ahead and behind us, throwing illusions on anyone who came close enough to see us.

Many times, we had to back up, or squeeze ourselves against a wall to prevent ourselves from bumping into a crew member.  We passed many of them, turning wheels, checking equipment, and staring at gauges on the walls.  None of them carried guns, however, or showed obvious projection skills.

But the operations they carried out looked arcane, beyond complex.  If we fight and kill them, there’s no way we can pilot this submarine.  Even with stitched skills from Hira, their tasks would be impossible to coordinate.

With my twisted ankle, every step made the pain worse, but I could still walk.  So I pushed myself forward, ducking my head to avoid obstacles above us, flinching every time a pipe clanged or a crew member shouted.

In this submarine, there was no night, no day, no seasons.  The lights glared down from above, and the cold bit into my skin, making me shiver as I walked.  Every corridor looked the same, an endless labyrinth of tunnels turning in on each other.  If it weren’t for Hira skill-stitching the crew member, I would have gotten lost in minutes.

We descended a staircase, and I stepped on my foot wrong, sending stabbing pain through my ankle.  A wave of dizziness crashed over me.  The grey walls of the submarine spun around me, and a pair of hands grabbed me, stopping my fall.  A burly Ilaquan boy.  Right-Hira.

“Bitch,” said Left-Hira.  “You are falling apart like an arranged marriage.  I’m thinking you should take a nap with Wes.  Like you said, I’m strong enough to take on Tunnel Vision without you.”

I blinked, my eyes aching, a numbness spreading inside my muscles.  My chest rose and fell, taking rapid, shallow inhales.  I made sure to maintain my illusions, to keep any crew members from bumping into us.  “No,” I wheezed, catching my breath.  I grabbed a pipe and yanked myself upright, still wobbling.  “I can rest when it’s over.  Long rest.”  I sighed.  “I’m done with butcher work.  Fighting.  Illusions.  All of it.”

“Settling down at age twenty.”  Hira snorted.  “I’ve seen worse burnouts.  But I guess you’ve earned a break.”  And some bloody mulled cider.  The water was rising, but I was tired.  So bloody tired.

“I need to make honest money,” I said, doubling over.  “Send it back to my parents.”

“And then?” said Right-Hira.

“Go home,” I said.  “Apologize to them.  For failing.”

“Loads of kids fail Paragon admissions,” said Hira.  “And I’m sure you didn’t steal that much when you left.”

I shook my head, the dizziness draining out of it.  “Not that,” I said.  “They spent their life savings on this body.  My future.  And I became a violent, rotting killer.”  Even if my enemies are evil.  I stared at a smooth metal plate on the wall, at my distorted, grey face, gazing back at me.  “For a decade after the transfer, I never recognized myself in the mirror.  This body looked so foreign, so different.  From the first day, I knew it wasn’t mine, that I had to escape and make something better for myself.  But now?”  I closed my eyes.  “I look at my reflection, and that disgusting thing I notice?  It’s me.

Hira hugged me.  Both her bodies stepped forward and wrapped their arms around me.

I hugged her back.  Neither of us said anything for a few long moments.

Then we broke off and Left-Hira gripped my shoulders.  “Shut the fuck up,” she said.  “And focus.  We’re not out of this yet.”

We descended a staircase, walked past the crew quarters, and flung open the door to a room.  I stepped in, and Left-Hira shut the door behind me, flipping on the lights.

This is Tunnel Vision’s magic door?” I said.

The room was empty.  No door.  Not even a single piece of furniture.  Just a metal box, barely five feet across.

“Calm the fuck down, you neurotic bunny rabbit,” said Left-Hira.  “This is why we have skill-stitching.”  She strode over to the wall, dug her fingernails under a metal panel, and pulled it up, revealing a series of number wheels, like a safe.  Hira turned the dials, entering the right combination, and pressed the button on the bottom.

The numbers spun, resetting back to zero, and a hidden safe door opened on the far wall, revealing a small closet space.

I gaped, staring at the contents inside.  That doesn’t seem possible.

A glowing hole seemed to have been cut in the back of the wall, shining a bright purple light into the room.  Its border flickered and vibrated, looking like the shadow of a heat wave, or a curved lightning bolt.

And the hole didn’t lead to some other room in the submarine.  It led to another world.

A massive factory sat in the middle of a frozen lake, standing on a rocky island.  Cliffs and mountain peaks encircled the lake, covered with snow.  An electric fence surrounded the island, blocking it off from the lake.  A thick fog covered the icy surface of the water, and searchlights cast an eerie glow into them, aimed by guard towers along the edge of the factory.  Voices whispered from the mist, echoing throughout the lake.  Or was that just my imagination?

But everything looked wrong.  Overhead, the sun had turned an eerie shade of dark purple, casting the whole lake in an unnatural glow.  A surreal, eternal eclipse.  The factory’s smokestacks sat inert, along with its conveyor belts.  And the factory itself was collapsing.  The entire outside had rusted, missing chunks of wall.  A tower tipped over and crashed into the fog, cracking the ice beneath it.

And the concrete bridge to the island had collapsed, leaving no clear pathway from the door to the island.

Hira gaped at it too.  “That’s not – “ she said.  “The laws of Projection don’t – “

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about the Pyre Witch.”  I wiped my sweaty hands on my shirt, gripped my machine pistol, and stepped forward.  Hira grabbed my shoulder, stopping me from entering.

“Wait,” she said.  She drew a pair of wire cutters from her backpack and tossed them underhand into the portal.

They landed on a snowbank on the lake’s shore, unharmed.

“The door might still kill us,” said Hira.  “But at least we tried.”  She let go of my shoulder.

I inhaled, exhaled, and ran through the portal.

As I did, I felt something pass over my Pith.  A sort of presence, like when another person’s soul touched mine during an enemy projector’s scan.

I jogged forward into the snow, my ankle throbbing, and I understood in an instant.  Something just detected my mind.  Tunnel Vision knew an intruder was here.

“Hira!”  I spun around as Left-Hira started running through the portal, pushing off with her legs, her tangled brown hair swirling around her.

Before she could pass through, a translucent purple barrier flickered into existence over the door.  It sliced off tufts of her hair, and she slammed into it face-first, bouncing off.

“Fuck!” Her voice sounded muffled through the barrier.  Right-Hira stepped up to it and slammed it with his fist, looking at it up and down.  Dark purple electricity crackled over the wall, the same shade as the sun shining above me.

“She felt my soul go through the door,” I said.  “She knows an intruder’s in here.”

I glanced behind me.  Nothing moved in the factory.  No lights flickered on.  It looked just as dead and inert as before.

“You could try shooting it,” I said, my voice echoing through the barrier.

Hira shook her head.  “I don’t want to alert the crew.  And I doubt it would do anything to something like this.”

I raised my machine pistol, and flipped the internal switch to load my one Voidsteel bullet into the chamber.

“No,” said Hira.  “A Voidsteel round might go through, but I doubt it’d break the barrier itself.”

“Only one way to find out.”

“Save it,” said Hira.  “Tunnel Vision is regaining her strength.  She’ll have her ABD back up, in all probability.  You only get one shot, so use it well.”

An icy wind blew around me, far colder than the inside of the sub.  I shivered, clenching my teeth.  This is bad.  Hira was our best chance of taking out the Pyre Witch, not me.  We couldn’t send out signals without Tunnel Vision’s codes.  And now, I’d have to face her alone.  Exhausted.  Half-dead.

“I’ll hide here,” said Hira.  “Don’t think I can commandeer the ship on my own.  The moment that wall disappears, I’ll step inside and meet you.”

I wrapped my arms around my chest, warming myself.  “If I’m not back in half an hour,” I said.  “Blow up the submarine.”

“With what explosives?”

“This sub runs on gasoline,” I said.  “You’re creative.  I don’t know if it’ll kill her, but it might keep her from escaping.  Force the sub to surface, and you can get out before it blows.”  I leaned down towards the closest snowbank and pulled out Hira’s wire cutters.  My shaking hands brushed snow off them, and stuffed them into my belt.

Left-Hira nodded, gritting her teeth.  She looked conflicted, but we had no time to argue.

“Don’t die,” she said.  “Please.”

“I promise,” I said, putting every ounce of determination that I had into the words.  “I’ll see you in less than half an hour.”

I turned around, and ran into the Pyre Witch’s domain.

My pained breaths turned to fog in front of me.  My shoes sank into the snow, getting my socks wet.  I’m not dressed for this.  Why would I have?  It was summer in the outside world.

A chunk of wall collapsed from the factory, crashing into the fog and ice below.  Other than that, nothing moved.  If Tunnel Vision hasn’t attacked me already, then she’s probably waiting for me somewhere.  Tired, but ready to ambush me.

But I didn’t feel the same sensing presence that I had when I went through the portal.  That feature only worked on the door, and the Pyre Witch would be too tired for wide-area scans with her Pith.

So, for once, I had a chance to ambush her, too.  Advanced projectors had Voidsteel sense, which meant I couldn’t just walk behind her with illusions and shoot her point-blank.  But I had other tactics.

I walked around the collapsed bridge, down the snow-covered shore, and stepped onto the frozen lake.

The ice creaked beneath me, but it didn’t crack.  I raised my machine pistol, aiming ahead of me, and took slow, tentative steps into the fog, testing the ice ahead of me.  More creaks, but it didn’t break.

Unsteady.  It could collapse under me at any second.  I’d read somewhere that going on your belly was safer – spreading out your weight.  But that would be slow, and even colder.  And with the state of this miniature world, the ice might get more unstable if I took too long.

So I moved forward, one step at a time, my breath fogging up before me.  The mist gathered around me, making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead.  The purple sun shone through from above, lighting my way forward.

I perked up my ears and made my footsteps as quiet as possible.  If she comes down here, I might be able to hear her.

But no one came.  I heard no footsteps, no telltale signs of a person approaching.  Just the whispering voices in the mist.  No sound came from the factory or island.  The guard towers’ searchlights pointed into the fog, static, and I avoided them with ease.

I just moved forward over the lake, through the cloud, shivering, each step making my sprained ankle scream in pain.  If it weren’t for the regular agony, I’d think this was a dream.  The purple sun.  The mist.  The surreal, collapsing world and the portal.  None of them seemed real.

Minutes passed.  I focused on my orientation, making sure I was headed towards the island, since I couldn’t see anything in the fog.  But without the bridge, the walk went slow, and the distance was long.  My shoulders grew heavier, and the chill spread inside my fingers, my muscles, my bones, painful at first, then numb.

I need to get inside, before I keel over and freeze to death.  Or maybe this was just my decay, in its final stages.

Then the whispering voices grew around me.  I’d heard them from outside the door, but they’d stopped for a moment.  Men and women, young and old, in Common and other languages.  They started quiet, so soft you could mistake them for hallucinations and the wind.

But then they grew louder, more coherent, forming words and sentences.

“There are no ants.  You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.”

“Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.”

“If peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it.”

“Please.  Remember this.”

“Do to yourself.  What you did to the prisoners.”

“The world was never simple.  You just thought it was.”

I recoiled, bending my knees and leveling my pistol around me.  Is this some sort of attack?  But Tunnel Vision didn’t have the strength for this kind of air projection.  And she wasn’t supposed to have that level of refined control anyway.

Maybe it’s some tool of the world she’s using for defense.  Like the initial scan, or the barrier she’d put up.  But the voices had been echoing here before I entered.  Before Tunnel Vision knew an intruder had come.

Perhaps it wasn’t intentional then.  Maybe it was just another strange feature of the decaying world that the Pyre Witch commanded, alongside the sun and the electrical wire and the collapsing factory.

The voices got louder, more coherent, forming exchanges of dialogue, not just random phrases.  The fog swirled around me, changing colors and forming shapes.  Cars.  Buildings.  Cobblestone streets.

And two people.  A girl, my age, and a boy, on both sides of me.  The boy held a green dagger in his hand, stained with blood.

I drew my cattle prod and stabbed at the boy.  The weapon passed through his body, and his torso exploded into loose mist.  I pulled the cattle prod out, and the boy’s chest gathered itself back together, the same as before.

“So, Acworth,” the boy said, talking past me to the girl.  The dagger’s blade slid back into the hilt, and he tucked it in a pocket of his shirt.  “What brings you to this part of town?”

“I – “ said the girl, wearing a grey Paragon uniform.  “You wanted me to pick up a package from a storage unit.  Sir.”  She also ignored me.

Acworth.  A Paragon uniform.  Are these Tunnel Vision’s memories?

Two more figures coalesced from the fog.  A girl, being stabbed by a Nudged boy, standing next to Tunnel Vision and her student boss.  The Pyre Witch was a grey coat?

Tunnel Vision talked with her boss.  Not just any boss: Tybalt Keswick.  The younger version of the kindly professor she’d murdered.

As the conversation went on, he didn’t seem so kindly.  It became clear that he’d Nudged the boy here to stab the girl, for some petty reason.  And now, he was trying to use his Epistocrat family’s clout to blackmail Tunnel Vision into staying silent.  If she helped him cover up his crime, she’d get free admission to Paragon.

The ends justify the means, right, witch?  Of course she’d take the deal.

Isaac Brin’s face popped into my mind.  The look he’d given me while I bled out on that boat, and he’d offered a grey coat position in exchange for my mercenary work.

Tybalt Keswick told Tunnel Vision a story.  The parable of the Ant and the Beetle.  The selfless ant, who made itself part of a living raft during a flood so the colony would survive.  And the selfish beetle, who stood over the sacrifices of others, surviving without helping.

“There are no ants,” said Tybalt.  “You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.  Survival takes priority over everything.”

Tunnel Vision took the deal, and I found myself disgusted at her.  But a part of me knew, deep down, that I would have done the same.

The memories didn’t seem threatening.  They served as diversions, at worst, loose scraps of Tunnel Vision’s mind spilling out into her world.

Perhaps it’s a trick.  Some fake memory she’d created to try and convert me to her cause.  But Tunnel Vision probably knows it’s me.  And I’d already turned down her offers.  Why bother convincing me now?  And the voices started before I entered.  They were already here.

Don’t get distracted.  I kept moving forward over the frozen lake, shivering, watching for the real Tunnel Vision and testing the ice to make sure it didn’t break.

As I did, I watched Edric, one of the victims, get sentenced to life in prison.  And I watched Tybalt Keswick walk free without even a slap on the wrist.

Next, I watched Tunnel Vision in a Shenti redemption camp.  I watched her starve alongside Professor Tuft, get beaten by guards, fight with other prisoners over scraps of food.  I watched the pathetic state that hunger reduced her to.  The chants she obediently joined, the clods of mud she threw at her squadmate.

The Pyre Witch is so prideful.  She’d never show me something like this willingly.  Could this be real?  Could all of this be real?

I watched Tunnel Vision befriend Sun Bi, another prisoner.  I watched the agony she went through, as Sun Bi attempted an escape, failed, and got executed before her eyes.  Even though Tunnel Vision had refused to report her.

Focus.  Stay focused on the target.  I found myself feeling bad for Tunnel Vision, despite knowing everything she’d done.  This is it.  This where she’d gone mad, decided to massacre innocents.  This was the moment she’d developed her Praxis Vocation, and become the Pyre Witch.

Later, after Tunnel Vision escaped, I watched her take evidence of the camps to Headmaster Tau, giving him a full presentation on the details of the Shenti’s horrors.

I stopped walking.  No.  That couldn’t be right.  Paragon hadn’t found out about the redemption camps until near the end of the Shenti War.  Not during the middle.

And then, Nicholas Tau refused to act.  Refused to help the thousands of people dying every day in the enemy’s camps.

“The population of these camps are almost entirely composed of Humdrums, yes?” he said.  “And the perpetrators are Humdrums, yes?”

Tunnel Vision said yes.

“The Treaty of Silence is rather strict,” said Headmaster Tau.  “Our own world must be kept separate from the Humdrums, for their safety and our own.  Every civilization, back to the Great Scholars, has understood this.  Acting against the camps would threaten to expose us.  There is a natural balance, that should not be upset.”

A wave of nausea bubbled up in my stomach.  They knew.  My mother was half-Shenti.  She’d had friends who’d suffered under that regime, who disappeared and never came back.

They knew, and they did nothing.  Because the victims were Humdrums.  Because they wanted to stay hidden.

Then, the mist shifted again, forming another scene.  I watched Tunnel Vision lead her squadmates, Florence and Isaac, towards Jiachong, the edge of the redemption camp where she’d been imprisoned years ago.  I watched her hug both of them, bidding them farewell.

This is the moment.  When she’d lost herself and gone on a massacre of the Shenti, soldiers and civilians alike.  When she’d let herself become a monster.

Tunnel Vision leapt off the mountain, unfurling her wingsuit, wind whipping her hair behind her.

She landed on the snow, and she incinerated the guards, blasting them with spears of palefire.

What?

Then, she flew throughout the camp, disabled the radios, and killed the rest of the guards.  Without slaying a single prisoner.  Then, she told the camp’s survivors how to escape back to the Principality.

My throat clenched, and my hands shook as they gripped my machine pistol.  No.  That couldn’t be possible.  This had to be fake.

Tunnel Vision went to another redemption camp, and freed the prisoners there.  Then she liberated another camp.  And another.  And another.

Nausea swelled up in my stomach, and I doubled over, clenching my teeth, hyperventilating.  She didn’t kill any civilians.  She hadn’t massacred anyone except camp guards.

Then, three elite squads of Guardians ambushed her at another camp.  They hunted her through the mountains, and cornered her in a frozen lake.  One that looked identical to the lake here.

Professor Tybalt Keswick stood among them, and he smirked at Tunnel Vision.  Knowing the truth.  Reveling in the lie and his power.

Tunnel Vision massacred all twelve Guardians, drawing them into a trap and shooting them from beneath the ice.

And for once, I didn’t hate her for it.

I squeezed my eyes shut, shivering, and stopped walking over the ice.  Everyone lied to me.  I’d lied to myself.  My breaths grew faster, more panicked.  Blood rushed in my ears, and my chest ached.

My mind flashed back to Hira’s apartment.  Getting attacked by the Guardians, branded as a criminal.  Wes’ mother, arguing that I should have let her son die.  The Symphony Knight, ready to sacrifice my friend for the sake of defeating her enemies.

And Isaac Brin, flinging a dart through my stomach under a dark sky, almost murdering me for the crime of trying to survive.

My head throbbed.  Sweat collected under my armpits, even in this bitter cold.  I staggered backwards, dizzy.

My mind jumped to all the people I’d hurt.  So many, I’d lost count.  The mobsters I’d tricked into killing their friends.  The Green Hands I’d shot in the back.  The Shenti-born citizens who’d lost their businesses, their homes after my speech on Verity.

I fell backwards, landing on the ice with a thud.  What have I been fighting for?  What had I been killing for?

What have I been breaking myself for?

The fog shifted around me again, becoming a hill, overlooking a burning prison on a moonless night.  Guards raced around the perimeter, aiming flashlights into the darkness, looking for someone.  But none of them got even close to this hill.

Tunnel Vision stood behind me, in a new body, wearing her usual long ponytail with her skirt and suit jacket.  A mobster dragged a woman up the hill and dropped her in front of Tunnel Vision.  She looked up, and I saw her sallow eyes, her blonde hair cut short.

Lyna Wethers.  Honeypot, wearing the dark orange uniform of a prisoner with dark circles under her eyes.  This is when Tunnel Vision broke her out of prison.  She wheezed, out of breath.

“Use your Vocation on me,” said Tunnel Vision.  “And I’ll peel your skin off, starting with your eyes.  Understand?”

Lyna Wethers nodded.  “Who the hell are you, lady?”

“You have hijacked people’s minds,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You wiped away their identities and their love, and replaced it with hollow, mindless infatuation.  And you helped my friend destroy herself.”  She knelt next to Lyna Wethers, holding a ball of electricity in her palm, next to the woman’s cheek.  “You are a leech, a disgusting creature.”

Lyna Wethers smirked.  Scholars, I’d forgotten how much I loathed her face.  “But you freed me, didn’t you?  Which means you need me for something.  All your power, and I’m still in control.”

Tunnel Vision moved her hand next to Lyna Wethers’ cheek, singing it with the electricity.  Honeypot dropped onto her back, hissing and clutching her face.

“You’re Paragon’s monster,” Tunnel Vision said.  “They created you, and then they threw you in prison.  So go back, and unleash nightmares on them.  Give them the agony they deserve.”

This is how Kaplen got hijacked.  This was how he died.

I pushed myself up from the ice, to a standing position.  And I remembered why I loathed Tunnel Vision.  A wave of anger crashed over me, mixing with the panic and confusion and everything else, adding to the pain.

She can’t be forgiven for this.  But Tunnel Vision had a point.  Lyna Wethers had told Wes herself: Paragon created her.  They’d nurtured and fostered her mental hijacking, until it no longer benefited them.

The cold bit into me again, and I remembered where I was.  Keep moving.  I started forward again, and the scene shifted around me again, becoming the cabin of a zeppelin, flying high above the water.  The door had been flung open, and wind blew through the room, deafening.

Tunnel Vision stepped forward and kicked a man out of the door.  He screamed, falling through the air, and she shot a rope downward with one of her hands.  It wrapped around his ankle and jerked him to a stop, holding him in place, upside down, thousands of feet above the water.

“You’ve been injected with Null Venom!” shouted Tunnel Vision, leaning out of the door.  “Your projection won’t save you here!  So let’s talk shop!”

The man nodded, frantic

“You are Cuthbert Benthey, Lord of Carlyn, Third Scion of the North.  And Second Chief Sculptor of Chassis.”

“Yes!” Lord Benthey shouted.  “Yes!”

My breath fogged up ahead of me.  I stepped forward on the ice, and it cracked under my foot.  I pulled back and walked to the side, circling around to find a thicker part of the lake.

The Elmidde Chronicle’s Projector edition calls you a man of ‘limitless imagination’.”  Tunnel Vision read from a newspaper.  “It says your genius with face construction is ‘unrivaled’.”  She glanced down at the man swinging from the rope.  “So tell me.  Are you genius enough to make a chassis from scratch?  Entirely on your own?”

Lord Benthey shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “We spread out critical knowledge.  To construct a functioning, high-quality chassis from scratch, you’d have to kidnap at least a dozen of our highest-level craftsmen.  I know the basics, but if I tried to make a chassis on my own, there would be problems.”

“Problems?” said Tunnel Vision.

“The bodies would appear fine for a while,” he said, his voice just barely discernible over the wind.  “But the underlying structures holding them and the Pith together would begin to fray over time.  The inhabitants would experience significant decay after several years, and some accelerated symptoms of aging.  The bodies would become worthless, pretty fast.”

“By worthless,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You mean dead.”

Lord Benthey nodded.  “If you want to set up a black market for chassis, you won’t be helping those people.  You’ll be turning them into time bombs.”

Tunnel Vision stared off into the distance.  “But demand is beyond high,” she said.  “Such an operation could net a small fortune, while Paragon reels from the war and their exposure to the public.  Especially if the chassis is mass-produced.”

Another wave of disgust crashed into me.  This was when she created me.  The moment she had decided to crush countless people like me underfoot.  She kidnapped a significant designer, faked his death, then used him to start up the entire chassis black market.

“You can’t mass-produce chassis!” shouted Lord Benthey, swinging back and forth on the rope.  “It’s impossible!”

Tunnel Vision put more slack on the rope, making Benthey free fall for a second.  He screamed again, and the rope yanked him up, making him float in the air, level with her.

“A lie,” she said.  “Try again.”

“Fabricated bodies can’t be industrialized!” he gasped, out of breath.

Tunnel Vision grabbed his index finger and bent it back, snapping it.  He screamed again.  “Why can’t you mass-produce bodies?  Why are they so expensive?”

“You need precision!” he shouted.  Tears ran down his forehead, dripping off into the air.  “Artistry, the talents of many projectors working in unison with advanced techn – “

She broke two more fingers.  “Another lie!” she shouted  “One more, and I’ll start sculpting your face!  Why can’t you mass-produce bodies?

We can!” he screamed.

This time, Tunnel Vision didn’t break anything.  “What?” she said.

“We could mass-produce bodies,” Lord Benthey choked out.  “We could have done it decades ago, and Ilaqua could do it too, now, I’m sure.  Maybe even Neke, and a few of the richer islands.”

Why?” hissed Tunnel Vision.  “Every year, hundreds of thousands of people die of cancer, of heart disease, of genetic defects like Loic’s Syndrome.  So why don’t you save them?”

Loic’s Syndrome.  Like me.

“Because we’re special!” Lord Benthey shouted.

The wind whistled through the air.  Tunnel Vision stared at him, her eyes wide.  “What?”

“If the world knew our secrets, in months, there would be tens of thousands who could do everything we could.  The beauty and majesty of our art would be reduced to fodder.  We wouldn’t be the greatest craftsmen in the world, we would be relics.”  He talked faster and faster.  “And if that many Humdrums get a taste of projection like that, they’ll start asking for more magic, more invitations to our world.  More power.  Just like they already have been doing since the Pyre Witch’s massacre.”

Tunnel Vision grabbed the rope, her knuckles turning pale.  He doesn’t know she’s the Pyre Witch.

“Paragon is safe and noble and good, because we’re exclusive.  Because only a few people have overwhelming power.  When we lose that, our world shatters.  Everything shatters.  We need to be special.  We need to be.”

Something shifted in Tunnel Vision’s eyes as he said those words.  “I understand,” she said, her voice soft.  “Thank you.”

Lord Benthey held up his hands.  “Wait!” he shouted.  “Wait.  I can help you mass-produce your decaying chassis and make money.  That’s what you want, right?  You need my expertise to school you in the techniques!  You need me!”

Tunnel Vision cocked her head to the side, thinking over his words for a moment.  “Yeah,” she sighed.  “You’re probably right.”

Lord Benthey relaxed.

Then the rope let go of his ankle, and he dropped through the sky.  He screamed, his arms and legs flailing.

He shrunk out of sight, and the wind drowned out his shouts.

Tunnel Vision coiled the rope next to her, and pulled the door shut, exhaling.  A mobster stood behind her, pursing his lips.  “He had a point, ma’am,” he said.  “We could have used his skills for the operation.  How are we going to start our chassis markets now?”

“We stole some notebooks when we kidnapped him,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We’ll figure it out.”

Maxine Clive stepped next to her in her original body, her face deformed and covered in scars.  “Are you sure about this?” she said.  “Selling defective bodies to people.”

“I didn’t want them to be defective,” said Tunnel Vision.  “I wanted them to work.  But I guess that option’s off the table.”

“Sick people are going to buy those bodies,” said Clive.  “And they’re going to be horrified in the years afterwards.”

“If we sell them nothing,” said Tunnel Vision.  “They’ll be dead.  These people are too poor to buy real chassis.  A few years is better than what Paragon’s given them.  And we need the money.  But it’s your call.”

Maxine Clive thought for a moment.  “The price of chassis,” she breathed.  “The desperation.  The low supply of bodies.  It’s all on purpose.  It’s all part of their plan.  I always suspected, but I never knew – “

“It’s their sin.  Their lie,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We’re just using it to fund a revolution.  So we can bring down this entire rotting system and build something new in its place.”

Maxine Clive leaned back against the wall, closed her eyes, and sighed, looking older than ever before.  “Do it,” she said.  “Sell the defective chassis.  Drag us beneath the point of forgiveness.  Generations of the future will piss on our graves, but they will live in peace and safety thanks to our sins.”

The two women dissolved, along with the blimp and the sky and the entire scene.  The fog closed in around me again, and I found my hands dripping with sweat again.

Tunnel Vision did do all this to me.  My initial guess had been right.

She did steal my future.

But the Principality – Paragon Academy – had stolen it first.  They’d hoarded their miracle for themselves, restricted the supply and let the underclasses wither.

Why?  Why is this happening?  Why am I cursed with these visions?

The fog swirled around me again, and I found myself in a room by a radio, standing next to Tunnel Vision.

My voice echoed from the radio.  “So, to the citizens of the Principality,” I said.  If you believe in order.  If you still love this nation, despite its flaws.  If you still believe in magic.  I ask you to fight.  Beat back the Shenti, and their puppets.  Take back the Principality.

My truth-compelled speech with Christea Ronaveda.  A memory from not too long ago.

Tunnel Vision stood up from her chair, knocking it over.  She threw on a wingsuit and jumped out of the window.  It unfurled in midair, and she shot across the waters of Meteor Bay, towards Gestalt Island.

An hour later, she stood in front of a row of apartment buildings and restaurants, wearing a cloak and hood to hide her identity.  The buildings and restaurants had signs in Shenti characters, not a letter of Common in sight.  The Shenti slums.

A mob stood across the street from her.  Men and women.  All native to the Principality, many of them wearing blue.  Loyalists.  They screamed at her, shaking baseball bats and kitchen knives and fists.  Eastern Dog was a frequent term.  Traitor, was another.

One of them charged towards her, and the rest followed.  Tunnel Vision projected into bricks in the pavement, and slammed them into the Loyalist’s chests, knocking the wind out of them one at a time before they reached her.

A loyalist woman lit a fire cocktail, and tossed it at the restaurant.  Tunnel Vision projected into it, stopping it midair, and threw it back at the charging mob.  It exploded at their feet, and they screamed, fire licking their bodies.

She’s defending the people there.  Even if it had nothing to do with her plan.  When the police were nowhere to be seen – when the Guardians decided to ignore Gestalt Island.

She still defended them.  From the violence I caused.

This is your fault.  I had no idea there would be this much violence.  This much horror inflicted on the people here.

But my good intentions hadn’t mattered.  I still broke into Christea Ronaveda’s mansion, still recorded that segment, still used fear of the Shenti as a cudgel against Commonplace.

You did this.  And the effects of my speech were still rippling throughout the Principality, sparking fear and cruelty.  I couldn’t justify any of what I’d just seen, couldn’t explain it away.

The scene collapsed around me, turning back into fog.  The weak purple sunlight shone overhead, and the chill closed in on me.  My footsteps slowed on the frozen lake.  My arms fell to my sides, weak.  Limp.  My head throbbed, feeling like a swelling balloon about to pop.

I couldn’t forgive Tunnel Vision.  But I couldn’t forgive Paragon Academy, either.

I couldn’t forgive myself.

Maybe we all deserve to die.  Maybe the whole world was hopeless, its moral compass rotting away just like the chassis Tunnel Vision had sold me.  Burning, just like the fires I’d started all over this nation.  Drowning, just like the Great Scholars, cruel and inevitable beneath an empty sky.  Maybe no one was an Exemplar.

Most caterpillars die in the cocoon, my voice echoed in my head.  The vast majority of them never make it to adulthood. They’re not inspirational stories, they’re victims.  This whole world was a caterpillar too.

No matter how bad it gets, said Isaac Brin, do you think your soul is worth fighting for?

I don’t know,” I whispered.  I’m sorry Kaplen, I don’t know.

I stepped onto the shore of the lake, and found myself facing the electric fence.  The factory towered above me on the island, stretching towards the purple sky.

Focus on the mission.  Focus on the mission.  I pulled Hira’s wire cutters out and floated them forward, cutting the charged wires from a distance, preventing myself from getting shocked.

I stepped through the gap, and climbed into a hole in the crumbling metal building.

Inside, silence hung over the factory.  Conveyor belts and metal arms and buzz saws stayed inert, an intricate machine turned into a hunk of scrap.  Now and then, a loose chunk of metal would fall somewhere, and a deafening clang would echo through the building.

The narrow hallways and short ceilings closed in on me, forcing me to duck my head.  I leveled my pistol ahead of me.  Like Tunnel Vision, my Pith had grown far too tired for wide-area scans, so I had to rely on my eyes and ears, despite their decay.

And as I stalked through the metal monstrosity, up staircases and through doorways, I thought.  Monster, a voice rang in my head.  You deserve to burn.

Not until she does, another voice said.  Not until Kaplen is avenged.

My stomach ached, and the cold kept biting into me, draining my energy.  I don’t know anything anymore.  I don’t know, I don’t know.

A gramophone crackled from the levels above, and a woman’s voice rang throughout the factory.

My name is Christea Ronaveda.”  A recording.  One that Commonplace would be broadcasting everywhere they could.

The noise made it hard to hear anything from the upper levels.  Tunnel Vision is disguising her movements.

I’m sitting in the top level of the Principality’s Great Library,” said Ronaveda.  “My boss, Afzal Kahlin, is holding a gun to my forehead, which is – “  She chuckled.  “Not how I expected our professional relationship to end.

I reached a staircase to the highest room in the building, leveling my pistol around me.  The music rang out from above, warm and nostalgic.

The recording of Verity’s radio host continued.  “I’m being coerced, but my Vocation prevents me from telling a lie.  They’re telling me that they’ll set me free, to verify that this speech isn’t from an imposter.  But, I can’t imagine I’ll last long after that.  I’m a liability for too many people.

Tunnel Vision’s in that room.  And she’d be watching these stairs, ready to ambush me.

I stretched my Pith upward, blue lightning flickering around me, trying to scan for Tunnel Vision’s Pith.  But something strange had happened in this place.

Everywhere felt like someone’s Pith.  I could feel it in the air, in veins running through the walls, branching and connecting all over.  It was like the same Pith had been reflected on itself over and over again – a hall of mirrors with a single soul inside.  The reflections got denser and denser further up the factory, coalescing somewhere in the room above.

Maybe I could throw an illusion on this strange monstrosity if I got closer to her, maybe.  But I couldn’t see where Tunnel Vision was hiding.  Is this entire world inside Tunnel Vision’s mind?  It would explain the purple sun, the memories leaking out, the frozen lake and the electric fence.

The recording of Christea Ronaveda laughed.  “So much for Ilaquan karaoke and a beach house.”  She snorted.  “The water is rising, anyway.  Beaches are gonna be shit.  So this recording is probably the last you’ll all hear of me.  Here goes:

I can’t sense Tunnel Vision’s location, and I can’t put an illusion on her at this range.  How was I going to beat her?

Maybe you shouldn’t.

But she wouldn’t forgive me.  Not after everything I’d done.  And I couldn’t forgive her, either.

When I use my truth aura Vocation on people who’ve been hijacked, they go haywire.  Get paralyzed, for a time.  So you can’t implant lies in someone’s mind to fool my abilities.

I glanced behind me.  A maintenance hatch sat on the wall with the hinge half-broken.  The top half leaned outwards, letting in purple sunlight.

That’s something.  I walked over and projected into it, muffling the vibrations within to dampen its sounds.

Then I shoved it.  The rusted hinge broke off, and the hatch door dropped into the fog below.  It cracked on the ice below.

With luck, she’ll think it’s just another piece of her factory breaking.  I leaned out of the opening and glanced up, towards the dim purple sun overhead.  A ladder ran along the vertical wall of the factory, several stories up towards the slanted roof at the top of the building.  There we go.

I used my Vocation on the parliament of this nation,” said Ronaveda.  And all of them were hijacked.  Our seat government is being puppeteered by someone.  And while I don’t know for sure, I believe that someone is Paragon Academy, the people in charge of their Whisper security.

I froze.  No.  That couldn’t be right.  Maybe Commonplace faked her voice, or something.  And now that they’d killed all of Parliament, nobody could prove their outlandish theory wrong.

This nation,” said Ronaveda.  “Has never been a democracy.

It didn’t feel like a fake.

Gunshots rang out in the distance, filled with static.  They’re coming from the recording.

Whoops.  Time’s up,” said Ronaveda.  “Weird fucking country you’ve got there, Principality.  Good luck with that.”  The gunshots got louder on the recording.  “See you in paradise, squidfuckers.

The recording cut off, leaving only silence.

No.  No, focus.  Don’t think about that.  I had to keep moving.

I picked up a tall piece of scrap metal – a short metal beam, projecting into it to keep it from making noise.  Then I balanced it on a flat portion of the floor, on top of a staircase.  The effort made my whole body shake, took the breath out of me.

At some point, the unstable chunk of metal would fall over and roll down the stairs, making noises to distract Tunnel Vision.

I broke my machine pistol up again and stuffed the parts into my pockets.  Then I reached up and grabbed the bottom rung of the ladder.  Two of my fingers had withered, and the rest felt cold, but I clung on anyways, clenching until my hand shook.  I grabbed on with the other hand, and climbed out of the hole.

The wind howled around me.  The purple sun grew dimmer overhead.  A chunk of metal came loose from above me and tumbled through the icy air.  I pressed myself against the building to avoid getting hit.  This ladder could come loose at any second.

Every breath made my lungs burn, made the air fog up in front of me.  Every rung made my arms and legs ache, made my twisted ankle explode with pain.  My sweaty fingers slipped on the cold metal ladder, and I had to grip even tighter to keep myself from falling off.

I felt heavier by the minute.  The chill closed in around me.  Another wave of dizziness rose in the back of my mind, threatening to wash over me any second.  I need to get inside.

Two-thirds of the way up, the right half of the ladder screeched, and detached from the building.  The ladder swung on its left half, like a tall door on a hinge, unstable.  I wobbled, leaning back and clutching onto the ladder as it moved.  If the rest of it detaches, it’s over.

As I climbed onto the slanted roof, the other half of the ladder screeched and detached itself.  It flipped over and vanished into the fog below.  No going back down now.  Not that way, at least.

The dizziness hit me, and I slumped down on the roof for a moment, catching my breath, my arms and legs and fingers aching and burning and shivering all at once.  

A minute later, I stirred myself again, and pushed myself to a standing position.  It felt like lifting a semi-truck on my shoulders.  My body is spent.  This couldn’t be a prolonged fight.

I staggered forward.  As I’d expected, the factory’s metal roof had broken in places with the rest of the building.  A large chunk had fallen away from a corner, and Tunnel Vision’s music drifted out of it.

I projected into the roof to silence my footsteps, reassembled my machine pistol, and crawled to the edge of the hole, glancing through.

Tunnel Vision stood below with her back to me, holding a weak flame in her palm and aiming it at the staircase, faint purple lightning flickering around her wrist.  Waiting to ambush me.  The flame didn’t even look white – another sign of her weakness.

It could all be an act, of course, but I had to take that chance.

This room looked like some kind of office.  ‘Barebones’ didn’t do it justice.  Two metal chairs sat in the center of the room, with no other furniture or decoration.  A pitch-black book sat on a shelf on the far wall, and a huge duffel bag sat on the floor, but that was it.  Otherwise, the room was dark, bare metal, purple light flooding in through chunks torn out of the walls.

Tunnel Vision clutched a light purple tome in her off hand.  The Lavender Book.  She hadn’t hidden it anywhere or passed it off to a subordinate.  A day ago, I’d have taken that as a sign, that the Principality was counting on me, to save it from the monstrous Pyre Witch.

Now, wasn’t sure.  I don’t know, I don’t know.  But either way, she was still my enemy.  She was still here to kill me.  I had to focus.

I waited here for several minutes.  I checked all my equipment, then checked it again, loading my single Voidsteel bullet into the chamber.  And then, my distraction went off downstairs, a loud bang followed by a quieter series of clangs.  Now.

My Pith stretched into the floor, silencing it.  I jumped through the hole into Tunnel Vision’s office and landed on my good foot, the impact thudding throughout my body.

I aimed down the iron sights of my machine pistol, pointed it at Tunnel Vision, and pulled the trigger.

The gun kicked back in my hands, deafening in my ears.  Tunnel Vision fell over, limp, blood pouring into her shirt.  I hit her in the back.

I trained my pistol on her, staying focused on her.  I didn’t hit her in the head.  She could be playing possum, even if I’d hit her somewhere important.

A hand whipped through the air behind me and slammed into the side of my neck, just below my ear.  My ears rang, and my body shook, numbness flowing through my veins.

Even as my muscles went limp, I spun around and raised my hands to defend my head, dropping my machine pistol.  As I did, a palm shot through a gap in my defenses and smashed my nose.

My vision went blurry, and my head ached.  I staggered back, and the woman in front of me punched my solar plexus, knocking the wind out of me.

I reeled, wheezing and doubling over.  A steel cable shot out of the duffel bag and pushed me backwards.  It forced me into a sitting position on the metal chair and wrapped around me, binding my arms and legs, tying me down.

Tunnel Vision stood in front of me, her fist extended towards me, legs bent in a fighting stance.

A spare chassis.  Tunnel Vision had animated a spare chassis as a decoy, and hidden somewhere where I couldn’t see her.  Always five steps ahead of me.  My Pith moved in a rapidfire storm.

I swallowed several times, coughing and gagging, and stretched my Pith forward and imagined myself invisible and silent, close enough now to use illusions on her and erase myself.

But it was too late.  My clothes tightened over my skin, Tunnel Vision projecting into them.  She can feel me.  I threw on another illusion, trying to modify the positioning sense of her projection, but the headache tripled, making blue lightning crackle around me.  I slumped back.  Too much energy.  The newer technique would drain me more.

I coughed, gasping for breath.  She used martial arts on me.  Her body had strength, but her Pith was still low on energy.

I exhaled, slumping over.  And I made myself visible to Tunnel Vision again.  No point in hiding now.

The Pyre Witch looked over me for a second, then projected into the hidden pouches in my combat suit.  She ripped out my spare ammunition, my explosives, Wes’ flattened objects, that popped into three dimensions as grenades.  Everything.

She floated my gear in front of her for a second, then stuffed them all into the duffel bag, except for the grenades, which she flung out of a hole in the wall.  She broke down my machine pistol, threw the firing pin out of the room, stuffed the pieces in, and sealed the bag at the top, locking everything in.  Preventing me from projecting into it for a surprise attack.

I saw nothing else in the room I could use as a weapon.  All of my hidden tricks, my backup plans had been ripped from me and stuffed into that bag.  Now, she didn’t have to watch my every move, or scan to the room in case I was throwing illusions on her.

I pushed against the metal cables with my bound arms and legs, using what little strength I had left.  They didn’t budge.

Tunnel Vision had me cornered.

Sweat soaked my blue combat suit from head to toe.  My stomach ached, and I slumped back.  I looked up at her, catching my breath.  Really looked at her, for the first time in my life.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.  “I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” said Grace.  She unsheathed her Voidsteel dagger.  The purple sunlight shone down, casting her bloodstained face in a lavender glow.  “Me too.”

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