My estate is far too easy to break into. I clambered over the metal fence bordering my mansion’s gardens and dropped into a bed of dewy grass.
I shook my head at the negligence. Commonplace Humdrums were rioting in the streets, launching suicide attacks, and plotting with Ilaquan media moguls. Security was not something to skimp on.
Though, to be fair, only I knew about this particular flaw. David, the man who was in charge of this wing, secretly spent the first quarter of his mornings napping by the fountain where the water was loud enough to hide his snores. Lucky for me, my mother hadn’t wiped all the conversations I’d had with my servants, or the shift schedule I’d memorized a week before my Ousting.
As I darted past trimmed trees and flowerbeds, I cast my gaze upwards, watching and listening for birds in the branches. Nothing. The private guards might be careless, but my mother’s Vocation let her encode all kinds of instructions into her little creatures. If one of them saw me, it might sound an alarm.
After several minutes of careful sneaking through the foggy greenery, I crossed a trickling brook, catching a glimpse of a lawn encircled by trees. The place I’d been ousted. The wooden arena I’d fought on was gone, without having left a lasting mark on the grass. It was as if it had never happened.
I arrived at a tall hedge, shaped in a circle. I crossed to the other end, to a narrow archway, an entrance to a tiny, private enclosure surrounded by walls of foliage.
The space was sparse, almost empty. The only objects on the grass were a wooden chair and a thick folded blanket. My grandfather had commissioned it for private reading sessions, a tranquil place to sit down with a book and no distractions.
Frankly, the idea sounded mind-numbingly boring to me. But I was grateful for the spot. My father and mother had a dying newspaper and a fleet of warships to manage, respectively, and had little time for leisure. So the groundskeeper was the only one who came here anymore, on the first Sunday of each month.
Which made it the perfect location for coitus and conspiracies. Hence the blanket, neatly folded and washed by housekeeping, but left here after our business was done. I grabbed and unfurled it, spreading it onto the damp ground before spreading myself onto it. It was a whole lot more comfortable than my bed last night.
I stared up at the flat clouds overhead, massaging my temples, still nursing remnants of last night’s hangover after chugging eight glasses of water at Leo’s behest. The last time I’d been here, me and Samuel had stayed up until dawn on a warm summer night, gazing at the empty sky and wondering what the stars might have looked like, thousands of years ago in the time of the Great Scholars.
Even on a chilly, grey morning like today, there was something comforting about that pathetic, inane bit of nostalgia. I was nothing if not a dumbass romantic.
I lay there fidgeting and massaging for some time, wondering what the rest of Chimera Squad was up to. Probably sleeping, like normal people do at five AM, I thought. Or eating breakfast, like you should have done before stumbling out the door. Leizu would probably be awake, doing those meticulous Shenti joining exercises with her enhanced strength, crushing boulders with her bare hands or deadlifting motorcycles.
My ears picked up the sound of footsteps padding on the dirt nearby. I grabbed the blanket and rolling to one side of the passageway, pressing my body flat against the side of a hedge wall.
As the footsteps grew louder, a red and yellow spider crawled onto my shoulder from its web on the hedge, visible out of the corner of my eye. Slapping it is too loud. I floated a piece of paper out of my breast pocket with projection, and squeezed it with the edges from both sides, bisecting the creature. The two twitching halves of it fell to the ground, silent.
The person stepped into the circle. It was a tall male figure with dirty blonde hair and bulging muscles, wearing a navy blue sports jacket over broad shoulders and carrying a cloth bag at his side. Samuel. Wearing his bulked-up combat chassis, red-hot as always. “Oh, thank the scholars,” I said.
He jumped a little at the sound of my voice, turning towards me and revealing his face. Bright green eyes. A clean-shaven, square jawline with perfect symmetry. Not a blemish in sight. A top-shelf designer body, through and through.
After a week in the filthy unknown, it was beyond comforting to see something so familiar and gorgeous.
I ran forward, grabbing his hair and kissing him full on the lips. The sensation of his body on mine was so spectacular, so electric and joyful, that it took me several seconds to realize he wasn’t kissing me back.
As I pulled away, Samuel was frozen in place, an expression of shock and confusion etched on his face, which was turning a bright shade of red.
I realized what I looked like to him, and felt heat rush to my face. Dumbass. “Samuel, I am so sorry. I thought – “
“I know.” He rubbed his lips, his expression relaxing. “It’s nice to see you too.” He threw his arms around me in an awkward, but tight embrace. I hugged him back, letting out the breath I’d been holding. Even in a new body, it still felt as warm and cozy as always. Samuel let go, grasping my shoulders. “Have you been sleeping, and eating, and – are you safe? How are you doing?”
I gave a quick bark of laughter. “Spectacular. I’ve already adopted a quartet of lowtown rats. I’m naming them after the Great Scholars.” I spread the blanket back onto the grass and flopped back onto it. I hadn’t had enough money to buy a trolley ticket, so I’d had to trudge up the slope of Main street from the bottom to the top of Elmidde. Sweat drenched my clothes.
“I – “ Samuel stopped himself a moment. “When I saw you there, lying on the edge of that platform, staring up at me.” He knelt next to me. “I’ve had bad days in my life. Hopeless moments. But that one. That one – ” His voice trailed off. “I wanted to protect you. Leap onto that arena and be a shield for you. A real Guardian, like the one I try to be every day. But I couldn’t. I didn’t. Please forgive me.”
“You couldn’t have done anything.” I reached for his hand, then pulled back. He’s not into you when you look like this. Give him some space. “And your technique saved my ass. Would have, if I hadn’t been so careless.” I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket, folding it with a sliver of my attention. “You should compliment that shit-eating name thief. Takes a real snake to come up with a gambit like that. How is he?”
“Have you had breakfast yet?” Samuel threw open the cloth bag, pulling out a pair of éclairs and handing one to me.
“You’re deflecting, but yes, I am hungry.” I grabbed it, tearing off half of it with one bite, savoring the chocolate and cream as I chewed. “You would not believe how atrocious the food is down in Lowtown.”
“I don’t care what the records say,” said Samuel, munching on his pastry. “To me, you’ll always be [ ].” At the end of his sentence, I heard a screeching burst of static, like someone was tuning the world’s largest radio next to my ear.
On instinct, I rolled away from Samuel, covering my ears and clenching my teeth. He leapt next to me, looking concerned. “Are you alright?!”
I sat up, taking deep breaths, then looked him straight in the eye. “I’m fine.” I grit my teeth. “Spell my first name.”
Samuel spoke, his lips and vocal cords forming a number of distinct letters. In the moment of his saying them, I could grasp each individual sound, and categorize it in the alphabet. But the moment he spoke the next one, the previous one slipped out of my memory.
When he finished, I couldn’t remember a single letter he had uttered.
Samuel laid down on the mattress next to me. “A memory block?”
I nodded, clenching my teeth. “My mother once again demonstrates her boundless generosity.”
Samuel turned away from me, staring at the wall. “For…the present. Is there something I can call you?”
“Angel the Luscious,” I said, deadpan. Samuel flipped over to glare at me, not amused. “It’s been a very exciting week, alright? I don’t have one yet.” I grabbed another éclair from his bag, stuffing it in my mouth. “Wanna know the best part about being stuck in this grubby little body? Don’t have to give a shit about table manners. That and not wearing a bra.”
Samuel sighed. “I’m glad you’re finding a silver lining.”
“So,” I looked into Samuel’s eyes, both of us facing the other. “Tell me everything. How are my parents? Chimera Squad? The pimply bum who replaced me?”
“Your father has been distant all week. Locking himself in his study. The one time I had dinner with your family this week, he didn’t say a word, and drank about three times the usual amount.”
I finished the paper crane I’d been folding, flicking it to the side. Good to know at least half my family misses me. “And?”
“Your mother is…well…” Samuel glanced at the ground. “Chimera Squad’s been difficult.“ What is he not saying about mother? “Eliya won’t admit to it in front of us, but I think she’s been crying a lot. She shows up to practice and her eyelids are puffy and red.”
“What about Leizu?”
“You saw her a week ago. Girl was about ready to chop your mother in half. I’m fairly certain the only reason she hasn’t already is because she gets to smash practice dummies during training.”
I smiled at the thought of my team missing me. Even if they were practicing without me, it was nice to know I hadn’t just disappeared without a trace. “And your newest member?”
Samuel closed his eyes. “There is so much to think about. So much to talk about. Are you sure it’s the best idea to – “
“No. But I don’t much care. What is he like? Is he shy, loud, cruel? Does he prance around in my dresses like a ballerina? Did he tell you his strategy for filleting me last week?”
Samuel sighed. “Sometimes, it’s easier to not know things. Are you sure this isn’t the kind that’ll stick in your head for weeks and weeks? That you’ll lose sleep over? Because sometimes, you tend to get stuck on things.” He trailed off.
I grabbed another pastry from the bag. “This year should be rather miserable no matter what I do, so I think I can live with whatever terrible knowledge you can give me. Stop hedging. What is he like?”
Samuel took in a deep breath. “She’s…enthusiastic. Excited about getting a free ride to Paragon and all your family’s resources, but awkward. Me and the rest of the squad refused to speak to her at all, but she took it all in stride. Very demure, very apologetic. It’s still too fresh and too personal for us to acknowledge her, and…she kind of gets that.”
I broke into laughter, sitting up on the blanket. “You and Eliya took the same psych warfare class as I did, right? You can’t have forgotten all of Professor Brin’s lectures on charm offensives and personas.“
Samuel didn’t budge. “I remember. It doesn’t feel like manipulation.”
“That’s because it’s good manipulation.” I walked over to the chair, sitting down in it. “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Samuel sighed. “It’s not always a mind game.”
“My mother selected her. How could it be anything else?” He’s already warming up to her. By the time you make it back, it’ll be too late. “At least tell me she didn’t get the mask.”
Samuel reached into the bottom of the bag and pulled out my white-beaked masquerade mask. Relish the small victories. He turned it over in his hands, examining it, and the edges of his mouth curled up. “Remember the first night you wore this?”
I smiled with him. “Lorne Daventry’s first masquerade of the summer. I thought it was a casual event, so I came in my sweaty school uniform. Everyone was staring at me.”
Samuel chuckled. “While you were arguing with Daventry about the dress code, I ran out to buy you proper attire. But the only open store was for menswear.”
I smiled, remembering. “I looked rather dapper in that tuxedo.”
“Yes, you did.” Samuel stood up, taking his hands in mine. “And I can help you again.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“When you went in to kiss me, I could smell the liquor on your breath.”
I tensed. “And?”
“You don’t have to hide it. Your allowance is running out, isn’t it?”
“And why would you just assume that from a little booze?” I clenched my teeth. “Everyone assumes I can’t handle anything. Not school, not my mother’s test. Do you honestly think I can’t last a week on the streets with an allowance higher than most make in a month?”
Samuel gave me a pitying look. “I don’t think you’re stupid.”
“Just lazy and irresponsible.” My fists clenched, and I felt the urge to punch something wash over me. “But you’re right. I spent about half of it on bullshit I can’t even remember. And I lost the rest while blitzed out of my mind last night, and in a place I shouldn’t have been near. My noble mother has found another pet project, so I don’t have to pretend to be good anymore.” I stuffed a whole scone into my mouth, chewing it and spilling crumbs all over the chair.
Samuel frowned. “How did you lose half of it all at once?”
Shit. I couldn’t tell him the truth about my escapades with Joseph. If he found out I was charging headlong into danger, he’d chastise me, argue, try to stop me. “Pickpocket,” I lied, praying he’d accept it and move on.
Samuel looked more confused. “A pickpocket? Steal from you? You still remember how to paper project and nudge, right? And probably a little metal and wood and water projection, too. I don’t think it’s very easy to wipe away the basic stuff, or the stuff you’re really familiar with.”
Samuel reached into his bag again, pulling out a large rectangular bundle wrapped in paper. “Well, this should get you through the next few weeks at least. You need this much more than I do.”
He tossed it at me, and I projected into it midair, letting it float into my lap. The package pressed down on my thighs, heavier than expected. This must be most of his monthly allowance. A substantial amount, especially for a third child of a family.
And he’d had it all ready for me. He predicted I would have run out already. I wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or furious.
“Come to think of it,” Samuel said, “You wouldn’t mind some extra clothes too, would you?”
I nodded reluctantly.
Samuel extended his hand towards me, and I felt the raggedy shirt and pants I was wearing shift over my skin. Projection. He leaned in towards me, looking at my body from all angles. I could smell the scent of the citrus shampoo he washed his hair with. It was clean, sharp, and painfully familiar.
He lowered his hand, stepping back, and the sensation stopped. “There. Got your measurements, down to the millimeter. Gimme a place and time and I can drop off some stuff for you. Save you the trouble of buying a whole wardrobe.” He frowned. “Why are there bruises on your shoulder?”
Shit. From Joseph and his crazy fucking Green Hands. I composed myself. “Last week’s fight? I’m not sure.”
Samuel shook his head. “I was watching that whole affair. She never fell at that angle.”
I took his inquisitive glare for a few seconds before conceding. “Alright, alright, I got in a fight.”
“With who?” A look of concern came over Samuel’s face. “Are you safe? Do they know where you live? Can they project?”
I sighed. “About that.” He’s probably going to find out either way. Maybe he can help you. “I went after a Green Hands and a couple of his thugs. Trying to get a lead on the Broadcast King’s ties to Commonplace.”
Samuel’s face paled. “Commonplace? No, no, no way. Stay away from those guys.”
I shrugged. “I’ll be alright. It’s not like they can project. That’s kind of their whole thing.”
Samuel shook his head emphatically. “No, but they don’t play around. I’ve heard reports from Intelligence. They’re starting to use voidsteel bullets. Snipers inside Elmidde itself. Plus whatever elite mercs the Broadcast King may have hired. And you’re not at your best, either. Can you even summon an Autonomous Bullet Defense?”
I shook my head reluctantly. I’d learned how to create an ABD over the summer, so it hadn’t stuck enough to survive the memory wipe.
“Without one, any fool with a pistol can gun you down in the streets. They won’t even need voidsteel.”
“You’re right.” I looked him straight in the eye, staring him down. “But that doesn’t change a thing. I am not going to fade into obscurity like a common Humdrum, and I am not going to let my family collapse into bankruptcy. I’m moving forward tonight.”
“Tonight?” Samuel paled. “No, there must be some other way. I’ll keep giving you my allowance. The rest of Chimera squad can pitch in. You can study and practice sixteen hours a day and you’ll ace the Paragon entrance exam at the end of next summer.”
I sighed. “And pay for it with what? Take out a huge loan for tuition? Even if my family accepted me back, they’ll be even poorer than me by next year.”
Samuel winced. “Is the debt that bad?”
I nodded. “And that’s assuming I’d pass the exam. They wiped or blocked almost everything. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had to re-learn the fucking times tables from scratch.”
Samuel pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “Please tell me you at least have a plan for Kahlin.”
I fidgeted, uncomfortable.
“You were going to go up against Commonplace and one of the richest men in the Eight Oceans, and improvise?“
“I know what I’m doing,” I snapped at him. “Didn’t need a plan to knock your ass out of the ring in one on one duels. I’m good at impromptu stratagems. I’ll eavesdrop, get some more evidence, figure out where all the baddies are hiding, move forward. That sort of thing.”
Samuel sighed. “When you get an idea, I can’t convince you away from anything, can I?”
I grinned. “Nothing can. Especially not my better judgement. Thought you would have figured that out after seven years.”
He bit his lip, thinking. “Let me and Chimera squad help you then, at least. You may not be able to do an ABD, but I can, and Leizu’s skin is bulletproof. If everything goes south and they notice you, we’ll keep you safe.”
“Four is a lot less conspicuous than one. If word ever gets out that you helped me, they’ll Oust you too. Probably deport Leizu back East to the Shenti. They’ll take away everything you’ve worked for so hard.“ I shook my head. “After a week shivering in a hovel with a sticky floor, I’ve decided that being poor is rather unpleasant. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst – “ I stopped myself. “Actually, I would wish it on my mother, but that’s not the point. I don’t want you to suffer too.”
“Then at least let me help you indirectly,” he said. “Right now, if you try to listen in to their conversation, you’ll have to get close. If they’re at all professional, they’ll probably notice you. I can rent audio monitoring equipment from Intelligence and lend it to you. If you set up beforehand, you can listen in and record from a safe distance.” He nodded to himself. “I can also get you some black clothes and face paint. Help you blend in at night.”
I smiled. “Now that, I could go for.”
Samuel gave me a slip of paper, and I wrote down a public park near my address and a time early this afternoon for him to drop off the goods. After some arguing, we agreed on when to meet next: The same place, same time five days from today.
Samuel stood up. “Hey. So sorry to leave you like this, but I have to get to, well….”
“Squad practice. I know,” I said, standing up with him.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as we stared at each other. Then Samuel rushed forward and gripped me in a tight hug. He kissed me on the cheek. “Don’t die. Please.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
For the first time in a week, I was taking a shower. And it felt better than sex.
There was always the possibility that I’d taken one in the last seven days and forgot, but according to Leo, I had spent almost the whole week locked up in my room or drinking, or both. And since my room didn’t include a bathroom, finding a gymnasium with a shower and an affordable day pass had been as boring as it was difficult.
But it was all worth it. The dirt caked on my skin was sliding off, pooling beneath my complimentary shower shoes in a brown puddle, and the thick stench of stale sweat and body odor was finally beginning to clear. It was hardly my preferred standard of hygiene, but after the last seven days of filth, it felt like breathing for the first time.
And once it didn’t smell like rotten onions, I could appreciate certain aspects of this body. It was muscular, square-jawed, and well-proportioned in all the right places. Occupying it felt sinful, in a way.
Once out of the shower, I stared at myself in the mirror for a good ten minutes at least, poking and prodding it and twisting it into extreme expressions. The nose was too large, the cheekbones a hair asymmetrical, but otherwise, it wasn’t bad for an organic, non-fabricated form.
I had never felt the deepest connection with any of my designer bodies before – they were pretty enough, but I’d felt like a primped-up doll more often than not. As a result, the new face was less jarring than expected. A fact I appreciated, since I’d be stuck with the damn thing for at least another year.
I had a few hours to kill before Samuel could drop off the audio bug, so I went back to the bar, intending to practice my projection, see if I could recall enough precise metallokinesis to jam a gun’s inner mechanisms. Maybe I could grab a drink to calm my jitters.
And yet, twenty minutes later, I was not practicing my projection, and was sipping cranberry juice without a drop of alcohol. Leo had cut me off, telling me that if I was going to drink myself to death, I could at least do it after the sun went down. Plus, the bar wasn’t even technically open until noon.
While I sat on a stool, he scrubbed shot glasses on the other side of the bar, a one-sided game of Jao Lu in between us on the counter. The hexagons on his half of the board were almost all empty, or occupied by my pieces.
“Takonara,” he growled, as he pondered his next move. He twisted the knob on the wooden radio next to him, changing the station to some upbeat swing music.
“What’s that mean?” I smiled.
“I grew up in the Floating City. Picked up some Neke slang,” he said, chuckling. “It means octopus cunt. And that you’re kicking my ass. I thought I was good at this game. Where’d you learn to play like that, Mr. Tactician?”
Procrastinating assignments at Paragon. I shrugged, folding a bar napkin into a swan. Playing Jao Lu reminded me of Alabaster Hall’s common room, and lounging on the plush couches with Chimera Squad. The memory was both sweet and painful.
But regardless, it was nice to take a breath before jumping deep into the shit.
Leo picked up one of my swans, examining it. “Back east, I used to see street artists fold origami all the time. You’re not half bad, for a Principality native.”
“A classmate from the Neke taught me,” I said. Not that I’d ever be caught admitting that out loud. “Relatively affordable distraction.” A useful quality for when your family was deep in debt.
“Speaking of that,” said Leo. “I waived this week’s rent fee. I know you’re short on cash, but nobody else is using that room anyway. Nobody wants to live in this neighborhood anyway.”
“I – “
“- And if you feel like going and giving some polite little refusal like a good little Epistocrat – “
He thinks I was a good Epistocrat. Cute.
“- then help around a bit. Wash some dishes. Swab a table here or there. I’ve been looking for a good bus boy around here for a while. I can pay you triple minimum wage, plus the room.”
“Well, that is a very generous offer – “ But I have Samuel’s allowance already. “But – “
“Think of all the free drinks you could snatch under the counter while I’m looking the other way.”
“Leo – “
“If you listen once in a while, you might even learn how to make one.” He grinned.
“Leo,” I said. “I can’t.” Why is he being so nice? This would be so much easier if he was a prick.
“Oh,” his face fell. “Sorry. I just thought, since you – that you might enjoy – “ He stopped himself. “Can I ask why?”
I projected upstairs with my Pith, into the stack of bills in the bag under the bed in my room. After pulling out a handful, I floated them underneath the door, down the steps, and onto the counter. They did the talking for me.
Leo sighed. “You already got a job, didn’t you?”
I didn’t respond.
“No? That stash of money going to last forever, then?”
That depends. How long can my ex-fiancé keep up his pity hard-on? My money’s on six months. I was being too harsh on Samuel. But even at Paragon, it had been difficult to shake the feeling that everyone would eventually leave me behind.
“Not to be presumptuous, but when you run out, you might appreciate having a steady position. Something you can put on a resumé.” He poured glasses of water for both of us. “Everyone needs a start.“
Resumés. Job applications. Scholars, is this my life now? Was I going to work at a fast food joint and live in some dingy rowhouse, paying mountains of bills while dreaming about a pension?
On the Jao Lu board, I slid my Golden Lancer onto the hexagon with his Empress. “I think that’s the game.”
“Takonara.” Leo didn’t say anything more on his offer. He grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled LEO on one side with a pencil, with a large zero underneath. Keeping score. Drawing a vertical line through, he paused on the other side of the paper. “Decide on a name yet? There is no way I can remember that serial number, and I gotta write something.”
“Been busy,” I said.
“Any ideas?” He flipped the paper over and started scribbling on the back of it. “Did your parents ever tell you what other names they were considering before you were born? Mine almost named me ‘Buddy’. Narrow escape on that one. Buddy is a dog’s name. Not even a good dog’s name.”
I thought back to conversations with my parents. What-ifs. Most of the ones they’d talked about were girl names. Julia. Elizabeth. Dorothy. Useless in this scenario. But I remembered, once, on my ninth birthday, I’d asked my father what they’d have named me if I were a boy. Before the doctors projected into the surrogate’s uterus and found out my gender.
Weston, they’d said. After the Great Scholar, the trusted companion of Darius the Philosopher. As Epistocrat names went, it wasn’t bad.
But I still couldn’t bring myself to choose it, to say it out loud. Names were significant. And no matter how I tried to spin it to myself, picking a new one felt like leaving something precious behind. It wasn’t that I’d loved my old name. In fact, I’d had a notable distaste for it.
But that name, whatever it was, had meant I was an Ebbridge. A Guardian in training. Someone valued and important and going somewhere with their life.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Whatever I pick, I don’t intend to keep.” I hope.
“All I’m saying is,” he said. “Were you happy, back then?”
“Well,” I said. “It may not be the highest bar to clear, but I think I was happier than I am now.”
He shrugged. “Maybe you just need to settle. Accept where you are. Picking a name could be a good start.”
Settle. Admit defeat. Become a functional humdrum for all eternity.
I felt a pit in my stomach, a sharp aching sensation that reminded me of nights before exams. I stood up. “Lovely game,” I said. “Let’s do it again sometime.” I strode towards the door. It was more than two hours before Samuel’s drop.
Leo gave a strained smile. He sees right through me. “I’ll beat you one of these days, I’m sure.” He called out to me as I left. “Stay safe.”
I was at Darius Park by 1:58 in the afternoon, two minutes before Samuel was scheduled to deliver the goods, sitting on a bench and staring at yet another statue of the eponymous Philosopher, just like the fountain in Paragon’s atrium. The stone Darius stared towards the heavens, turning its nose up at those on the ground. “Smug squidfucker,” I mumbled under my breath.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Samuel walking in my direction from the right, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying a paper grocery bag over his shoulder. As he passed by, I reached my Pith towards the bag, feeling the presence of hundreds of sheets of paper placed at various points inside. I projected into all of them, and the bag itself
Samuel passed by, ignoring me, and casually tossed the bag into a trash can next to me. Before it could hit the garbage below, I yanked upwards with my Pith, freezing them in midair, out of sight.
When Samuel passed out of my vision and I determined nobody was watching me, I stood up and increased the upward force on the bag.
I walked past the can, and the bag flew into my outstretched hand.
An hour later, I was on the other side of Lowtown, scoping out the location of the meeting. Joseph and the Broadcast King were scheduled to convene in an empty Shenti temple on Gestalt Island, a newly abandoned slum mostly inhabited by squatters and petty criminals.
As I walked through the filthy streets, I passed drunks stinking of rice wine, dead-eyed families in shabby clothes, and a homeless woman from the Neke lying in the street. She must have been at least eighty years old, judging by the two maroon stripes tattooed on her light brown forehead, though her body looked about half that age. All poor, all foreigners, many of them Shenti.
I circled the building from the back, scanning it for signs of Joseph’s men or a good hiding place. All I could find were piles of stinking trash – rotting food, paper, and books stacked up together. Nothing I could use.
As for exit routes, there was a side alley that led straight to a more populated street. If the local police heard gunshots near there, I could use their response as a distraction. Most projectors could just project into their uniform and fly away, but Flight was a second-year class at Paragon, and in this state, I could barely lift myself a foot off the ground.
The central chamber of the temple had floor-to-ceiling windows on almost every side. That’ll make hiding a bitch.
A decade ago, before the war, the building had been inhabited by Shenti monks like the rest of the island. Today, it was deserted and decaying, thrown aside by its followers like every other Shenti temple in the world. Filled with shelves of books no human could read ever again, that described a philosophy no one could remember anymore.
Now that I knew what memory blocks felt like, I could almost feel sorry for the Shenti, who were permanently locked out of the religion that governed their whole society. One Whisper projection from Headmaster Tau, and their entire philosophy was erased from reality.
No. Remember the war. Remember the camps they set up, and the innocents they butchered. The world was a safer place without the Shenti’s vicious theocracy.
When I reached the Eastern side of the building, I knew where the meeting was going to happen, and where I could set up my equipment.
There was a side room in the temple, with only a single tiny window to the outside. Everywhere else in the building was visible from the outside.
If I was Joseph, I’d want to meet somewhere I couldn’t be seen easily. I’d want cover and concealment. The side room was ideal for that.
Making my way inside, I gathered a small cloud of newspaper scraps and burnt pages from books, sending them throughout the room into every nook and cranny I could find, and scattering them across the floor.
If I needed to fight, I’d have no shortage of ammunition.
It took me twenty seconds to find a rusty air duct in the corner of the side room, too small to crawl through, but more than large enough to fit a cable.
I removed the grate on the outside, wrapped Samuel’s mic with an old magazine, and fed it through the ducts, using projection to float it up, down, and sideways until it was close enough to hear the interior. The long, thin wire it was attached to unspooled, connected to a pair of headphones and a tape recorder on the outside.
Then I projected into a nearby pile of trash, pulling it towards me and dumping it on top of the headphones and recorder next to the open grate. I shifted bits of filth around, until my pile was identical to the other heaps of trash in the area.
Time to repress my gag instinct. And prepare my brain for hours of boredom.
I knelt, and climbed into the trash pile I’d made. Pieces of damp paper crowded around my head, getting my hair wet. A piece of rusty scrap metal poked my right calf, and I winced from the pain. Hope this asshole had his tetanus shots.
I settled into a position on my back, with enough trash on top to completely conceal me, but little enough that I could push it aside in a crisis. A pair of headphones rested on my head, connected to the tape recorder on my side beside the grate. I could hear and record everything that was going on in the temple’s side room.
And I was already bored.
This was even worse than the stakeouts I’d done at Paragon. You could at least read a book or pace around the van or fold origami in those. Here, every move or attempt at a stretch caused a rustling cascade of paper and metal all around me. The only thing I could do was stare up at the two moons, and run over my thoughts over and over.
It was not unlike those endless hours at lectures, eyes aching while Professor Oakes droned on about the chemical properties of steel. Watching the other students projecting into their pens, diligently scribbling in their notebooks at the speed of sound. How could they concentrate in a situation like this? And for this long?
Unfortunately, I had never found the answer to that question, and as a result was now lying for hours in a mountain of garbage, smelling like moldy oranges and rust and a third smell I desperately hoped was not some form of bodily fluid, but probably was now that I was thinking about it.
I thought about Samuel. Eliya and Leizu. My parents. My replacement, winning over my friends and family with calculated charm.
Even if I excelled on tests, my mother would use every possible excuse to reject me, to deny my chance to oust the new Me and take back my name. If I wanted to go home, I had to go big, demonstrate my worth in the most overwhelming, undeniable way possible.
Like rescuing my family from over two million pounds of debt.
As my mind drifted, I thought back to the homeless people I’d seen on the way in. The filthy Neke woman, shivering under a pair of thin blankets, clutching a brown paper bag of booze like a lifeline. If things didn’t pan out, the line between me and her would be pretty thin.
Now that I was no longer red-hot and rich, my alcoholism was no longer a fashionable quirk. It was just sad.
I went through loops of thought like this for what felt like hours upon hours, twitching and squirming and sweating like a pig in the trash heap. My mental tangents got stranger and stranger, until finally, in the midst of imagining a night of wild abandon with Samuel, I heard voices in the distance.
I stopped fidgeting, straining my ears. The voice got louder, and more familiar. “Check for squatters, then stay inside the church. Kahlin’s people are covering perimeter guard.” Joseph’s voice.
A woman in civilian clothes stepped into my alleyway, and I slowed my breathing. Her hand, tattooed with a green circle on the back, patted a rhythm against the pistol at her waist. She’s a Green Hands. A Commonplace thug.
She glanced in my direction for a moment, scanning the area, then turned back inside the church. “North alleyway clear,” she called out.
After a few more reports, the voices quieted down. Several minutes later, they started up again, this time from my headset, unintelligible, but getting louder until I could make out what they were saying. They’re gathering in the side room. My guess had paid off.
“He’s outside. On his way in. Surrounded by Ex-Kutta nutters with sniper rifles, from the looks of it.” A female voice, probably one of his henchmen.
An Ilaquan man with light brown skin walked into the alleyway, wearing thin, pitch-black body armor and combat boots and hefting a submachine gun.
Ex-Kutta. Fuck me. If Joseph’s underling was right, the Broadcast King had hired former members of the Harmonious Flock’s special forces. Battle-hardened southern fuckers from Ilaqua who could perform spycraft, assassinations, and just about every military maneuver known to man, depending on what they’d skill-stitched in.
The man stopped less than ten feet away from me, nodding to himself as if listening to someone talking. Experience-stitching. His Pith was linked to the rest of his team, letting them communicate with the speed of thought. Even if I took him out silently, they’d still be onto me in an instant.
I slowed my breath further, my sweaty shirt clinging to my chest as it rose and fell. Then the voices started up again in my headphones, this time including a familiar patient drawl: Afzal Kahlin, the Broadcast King. “Why must we meet among this dross? My apartment is more than suitable.”
“Your apartment isn’t secure anymore. I was followed from there yesterday.”
“Followed? Did your tail do that to you? You currently have more bandages than a small hospital. Or did you run into some other trouble? On the way over, I passed a Neke woman who looked positively feral.”
An irritated grunt from Joseph. Must be from my paper cuts. “Small trouble. Nothing we can’t deal with.”
“You know, you don’t have to deal with those irritations. I can recommend some wonderful emergency swap services. Call them up and five minutes later, they speed in with a new, shiny duplicate chassis for you to jump into before your Pith flickers out. You look like you could use one.”
I projected towards both of them, feeling a stack of papers in a briefcase and several bandages floating in space in a vaguely human shape. Kahlin and Joseph, respectively. Now I had a general sense of their positions. Joseph made another frustrated noise. “I was told you were charming.”
A warm, deep chuckle from Kahlin. “When I need to be. Our intermediary notified me of our mutual interest. She told me you and your boss were desperate for my Vocation, so I didn’t need to pitch myself.”
Kahlin moved a small, rectangular piece of paper from his belt to Joseph’s hand. His business card.
He has a Vocation? The Broadcast King was supposed to be a Humdrum. This is huge. As far as I knew, even Paragon’s Intelligence Bureau didn’t know he could project. Combined with his fortune in newspapers, a large-scale Vocation could shoot him to the top of the Principality’s threat rankings, right next to the Black Tortoise and the Droll Corsairs.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to rob you blind. Money is of no concern to me. I’m interested in what comes after your little coup.”
“It’s not a coup.” Joseph, not bothering to hide his irritation. “It’s a – “
“Right, right. Your revolution. Apologies. When your boss and her horde of bitter Humdrums find themselves running this foggy trash heap of a country, I will expect your wholesale assistance overseas. Military and political.” I felt the blood drain from my face. Commonplace is planning a takeover. It was everything we had feared since the Humdrums found out about projection.
“Assistance with what?” Joseph sounded more frustrated by the moment. Why is he Commonplace’s negotiator?
“Saving at least half a million innocents. And killing the smartest woman in the world.”
“I see.” Who could he be referencing? The Locus? One of the Four Daydreamers? Someone else I didn’t know about? “What’s your range?” Joseph asked.
“My Vocation? Three point two kilometers, give or take,” said Kahlin, nonchalant. “But with a plane and the right positioning, I can cover a whole city in an hour or so. No limit on population size.” Three kilometers? The pit in my stomach grew. Even Headmaster Tau didn’t have that kind of range on his projection. That could put his projection at Scholar-rank, at least.
Joseph was silent for a moment, no doubt processing this. “And your time frame?”
A soft chuckle from the Broadcast King. “By the time you move, you’ll have all the popular support you need. I suppose you’ll want a demonstration.”
“I can give you a glimpse. It takes quite a bit of energy from my Pith, so I usually only do it about once a week. It’s like running a marathon inside my head.”
There was a long silence, and the sound of deep breathing, probably Kahlin’s. Then I felt a faint twinge at the back of my head, like an itch inside my skull. It vanished in an instant, so soft I wouldn’t have noticed it in any other circumstances. This must be his Vocation.
“Done,” said Kahlin. With my Pith, I felt the stack of papers in the briefcase go flat on the ground. A single sheet was taken out, and scribbled on with a pen. “This is a brief description of the effects and results. I think you’ll find them self-explanatory.”
I focused my attention on Kahlin’s writing, noting where his pen had made an indentation on the paper, and analyzing the shapes to come up with the letters and words he was inscribing. It took me a few seconds to deduce his message, as he held it up towards Joseph.
Unknwn prsn listening withn 50m. Act nrml. Blk exits. Will ambush.
My skin turned cold. “I see,” said Joseph, with no change in his tone. “Very interesting.”
Nonchalant, the mercenary standing nearby walked past me, and entered the side alleyway to the East, striding out of sight.
My only escape route.
They’re blocking the exits. Projecting into the papers in the church, I felt boot prints crunch against them, moving outside the side room and throughout the church.
And they’re searching for me. It’d only be a matter of time before they found my hiding place. Get out now, idiot. But how? I couldn’t run anywhere without a confrontation, and I didn’t like my odds in a fight against those ex-Kutta hired guns, especially without an Autonomous Bullet Defense.
Joseph and the Broadcast King were still in the side room. Time to do what I do best. Improvise last-minute, and then probably crash and burn.
I reached into every sheet of paper in Kahlin’s briefcase, every newspaper scrap I’d hid in the side room, everything I could find all at once, and shot them all towards him. I rested them on his neck, his face, his wrists and the inside of his thighs. Every exposed blood vessel I could find. Other bits of paper snaked underneath his clothes, settling on his crotch, armpits, and abdomen.
I pushed myself upright in the trash heap, my headphones sliding off, and screamed at the top of my lungs. “Don’t move!” I took a deep breath, then launched into a rapid-fire speech. “We have eyes on all your mercs and Green Hands,” I lied. “If you or any of them move a muscle, we will slice open every vein and artery on this hornet’s body!”
I ran around to the window, looking in on my two targets. Joseph stared straight at me, the sawed-off shotgun at his waist still holstered. “This squidfucker,” he growled. “Not again.”
“Hey, Jo.” I beamed, waving at him. “Now, this is how things are going to go. Your men are going to rotate out of the – “
“Kahlin,” called out Joseph, speaking over me.
The Broadcast King breathed heavily, tears at the edges of his eyes, unmoving and covered in paper. “Yes,” his voice was half a whisper, his confident mask shattered. He’d clearly never had his life threatened like this before.
“Just listen to my voice and breathe slowly. Breathe.” Joseph said, eyes still trained on me. “You’re gonna be alright. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Kahlin whispered, his voice wavering.
“I’m going to ask you a simple question, and I need you to answer it so I can help you, alright? Can you do that for me? Nod if you can.”
Kahlin nodded slowly.
“Hey!” I shouted, hardening the edges of my thin, pale weapons. “Shut the fuck up and follow my instructions, unless you wanna choke on your own blood!”
Joseph ignored me. “Kahlin, that body replacement service you mentioned to me. The one with the emergency ambulances. How long do they take to get to a location in Elmidde?”
“A few – ” Kahlin closed his eyes. “A few minutes, tops. They promise.”
“Call them,” said Joseph. “East Alleyway!” he bellowed. “Paper projector!” He reached for the sawed-off shotgun at his waist.
“Takonara,” I said, to no one in particular. Pressing down with thirty-seven pieces of paper on the Broadcast King, I sliced.