3-F The Empty Book

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“I release you from all Nudges!” Wes screamed, drowning out the torturer’s voice.

I moved my arms, free again.

The torturer shouted in response, continuing to Nudge me.  “Do not listen to – “

Stabbing pain erupted inside my ears, a volcano of agony exploding on both sides of my head.  All the voices vanished, replaced by a piercing ringing noise.

I collapsed, clutching the sides of my head.  Warm liquid dripped down my jawline. I screamed, but my voice made no sound.  Deep inside my ears, something felt torn.  Burning.

Someone pulled my hand.  Wes.  Dozens of sheets of paper were flying out from his back, squeezing in the gap underneath the door.  It was hard to concentrate on anything other than my ears.

A pair of toothpicks floated into his palm, both stained red with blood.

A thought drifted towards me, faint in the background of the intense pain.  He stabbed out my eardrums.  The choking fog of Nudging was still on me, but I couldn’t hear anyone’s commands.  Whatever the torturer was shouting at me, I couldn’t hear.

Wes pulled me upright, yanking my hand.

He dragged me forward, and I went along, pushing through the haze of pain.  We sprinted to the end of the hall, sheets of paper covering our retreat. I groaned as I ran, doubling over as more warm blood trickled out of my ears.

Scholars, it hurts.  Less than Brin’s dart, but still enough to make my eyes water.

We burst through the door, sprinting up a staircase.  We turned a corner to see a pair of guards coming out of a room.  One of them drew a pistol, and Wes shot paper at them, blocking their vision with layers of sheets and slicing at their hands.

The other guard shouted something at the gunman, forcing down his hand.  Why aren’t they using guns?

The two of them drew knives.  They don’t want to make noise.  Gunshots might draw police attention, which they wanted to avoid tonight too.  They ran in our general direction, blind to our movements, swatting pieces of paper swirling in their faces.

In two turns, Wes got us to the front entrance of the building.  Most of the guards were probably converging on the basement, but now that we’d been spotted, they’d be here any moment.  Though the pain hadn’t lessened, the ringing in my ears was softer now, and I could hear Wes’s shouting if I strained my ears.

“Hey!” he shouted.  It sounded like his voice was coming from far away, or speaking through water.  “Can you hear me?”

I nodded.  “Barely!” I reached my Pith out past the door.  The armed guard we’d snuck past was still out front, probably alerted to the commotion inside.

Wes floated sheets of paper towards the gap at the bottom of the door.

I held up a hand.  “Wait.” When speaking at a normal volume, I couldn’t even hear myself as a whisper.  Am I going to go deaf?

The panic rose again, and I stuffed it down, diving into my mind’s eye.  Worry about that later.

This time, I imagined sounds.  Shotgun and automatic gunfire coming from inside.  Voices shouting. I pressed the thought into the guard’s mind, activating my Vocation, then added one man’s voice shouting above the rest.

The illusory voice cut into his senses.  “Targets headed for windows above front entrance!  Don’t let them leave! Use your guns! Clear to open fire!”

I added the sound of shattering glass, and in the split second before the guard looked up, switched my illusion to a visual one.  The image and layout of the street were still clear in my memory, sharp as a photograph. There were several cars parked on the other side of the dark street, and one in front of the Commonplace HQ.

I created an image of two Shenti men leaping out of the second-story window, then sprinting to the cars.  No need to give them an accurate description of us.  I had them open the car doors, hot-wiring the dashboards.

Low cracks rang out from behind the door, and the real-life sound of breaking glass.  The guard was emptying his clip at the vehicles, towards my illusions. And in the process, waking up all the neighbors and ensuring the police would come.

I mentally apologized to the owners of the cars.  They probably had insurance, right?

Five men with batons burst into the other side of the atrium.  “There!” one of them shouted.  

“Are those gunshots?!” another one yelled.  They sprinted towards us.

I motioned to Wes.  “Door,” I whispered.

He nodded, and pressed his palms together, flattening the deadbolt with his Physical Vocation again.  I pulled the door open, and the two of us strode out, invisible to the Green Hands opening fire on the cars.

I glanced at the keys hanging on the ring at his waist.  As we passed him, I leaned down and lifted them off their hook.

At my command, my illusory Shenti infiltrators ran back past him, smashed down the door and went back inside.  The man spun on his heels, reloading, and opened fire back at the building. Straight into the path of our five pursuers.

The five men pursuing us leapt for cover, ducking under the front door guard’s erratic fire.  The gunshots now sounded like sharp cracks in my ears, louder than they’d been only moments ago.

I held the keys in Wes’s face, and we ran to the Commonplace car.  We unlocked the front door on our fourth try, and I clambered into the passenger side, still holding up my illusion to make the guard give us covering fire.  It won’t hold them off for long.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here.”  Wes looked at where I was, and his expression soured.  “The fuck are you doing?” His normal voice was audible now, beneath the aching pain and the ringing.

“Drive!  Get us out of here!”

Wes’s face was red.  “I can’t fucking drive!  You go!”

I can’t drive!  I thought you could!”

“You’re a mercenary, and you can’t drive?!”  Wes tapped his fingers together, his fidgeting ten times as fast as normal.

“I live in the city!” I yelled, blood trickling down my neck.  “I take the tram!”

There was a moment of furious silence between us, then we both leapt out of the car, sprinting towards the alleyway we’d come in from.  As another guard tackled the one out front, Wes formed a wall of paper on another alleyway, one that went in the opposite direction as us.

A decoy.  The guards would see the barrier and burst through it, going in the wrong direction.

We kept running, Wes leading me through past storefronts and through alleyways, until it got hard to breathe, until the pain in my chest hurt as much as the pain in my ears.

We emerged on a broad street filled with people.  About half of them had handkerchiefs or shirts tied on their faces.  The rest were doubled over, coughing or throwing up.

All were running away from the smoke in the distance.  Away from the protest. It must have gotten pretty bad.

A hand grabbed my shoulder, and I turned to face the source.  Wes, wheezing for breath, his hand pressed against his broken rib.  “We,” he said, scowling at me. “Need to talk about Nudging.”

________________________________________

I slumped onto Wes’s makeshift bed, leaning back against the rusty metal wall of my storage unit in King’s Palace.  The ache in my ears swelled, feeling like corkscrews twisting into my skull. Fuck me.

The entire room was barely large enough to fit the twin mattress.  My stacks of canned lentils were leaning against the wall, precarious.  One flick and the entire thing would come crashing down on top of him.

In place of blankets, he was using stacks of newspapers, much like homeless people on the street.  The free lodging seemed to be working fine for him.

As long as he didn’t find out about my position at Paragon, I wasn’t complaining either.  Now, Kaplen lent me locker space to store my school uniform and textbooks, so I could change after arriving at the academy.

For that, at least, I was grateful.  It wouldn’t do to have a money-obsessed alcoholic thief like Wes aware of something so important, something that could so easily be used as leverage.

The steel door creaked open, and a wad of damp paper towels flew into my lap.  Wes stepped in, pointing to the sides of his neck. His voice was easy to hear, but the ringing hadn’t gone away.  “Clean up. Wounds like that invite questions.” He sat down, folding a piece of paper.

I picked up one of them, rubbing at the sticky bloodstains on my jawline and the sides of my neck.  When I scrubbed my ears, the pain flared up and I winced. I had no health insurance or access to antibiotics.  Best hope it doesn’t get infected, then.

“That paper trick,” I said, gritting my teeth.  “Shooting the sheets under the door. You could have done that instead of letting me get Nudged.  We could have saved some of those tortured people.”

Wes tore the wing of the crane he was folding.  “You can’t do the most basic, necessary mental defense in the Eight Oceans.  You almost get us killed, and you have the balls to lecture me?”

I felt my face grow hot.  “You’re saying we should have left them.  Let them get tortured to death by some freak with a hammer.”

Obviously, you naive wallflower.  You can’t rescue every poor fucker you come across, unless you want to drag yourself down with them.  You’re not strong enough to be a hero.”

Selfish prick.  I looked away from him, massaging my burning ears.

“In all the awful, ridiculous scenarios I thought up for our little endeavor, I never imagined you wouldn’t know how to block Nudging.  Gonna stab your eardrums out on every job we do? Make yourself deaf every other week?”

“We’ll figure something out.”

“And what if someone tries using block wipes on you?  Or basic sleep? Gonna make me drag your unconscious ass out of everywhere?”

No, I thought.  At that point, you’d probably just leave me to die.  Wes didn’t seem like the sort of person who would put his life on the line for others.

Still, I didn’t have anyone else, and he was a lot better than projection that I was.  “I’m going to go leave a dead drop for Brin.”  I stood up. “Should take him a day or so to pick it up.”

“You should get him to teach you Nudging defense.”

“I did.”

Wes’s crane-folding increased, and his leg started jittering.  “You ever consider going into a different line of work? Like a laundry maid.  Or a waiter at a strip club. Something that doesn’t put you anywhere near projectors.“

“Most places won’t hire a person that looks like me.”  And won’t make me forty-three thousand pounds of profit in less than twelve months.  Clementine was the exception, and she’d barely paid me enough for food and lodging.  “And nobody trusts me enough to give me a loan.”

Wes frowned.  “Sorry.”

That was probably the most sympathy I’d ever get out of him.  I stepped out, shutting the door behind me.

Wes now saw me as a liability, a potential risk to every mission he took from here on out.  If he wasn’t already, he would soon be looking to go off on his own, maybe even make his own contract with Brin.

I couldn’t say I blamed him.

________________________________________

“You took on Commonplace and the Mob without a Nudging defense?”  Brin’s voice was almost a shout.  He glared at me from across the rooftop of Nolwen’s.

My ears ached at the noise, and I winced, leaning back against a flower box.  “We didn’t come back empty-handed.”

Brin pinched the bridge of his nose.  “I already knew the Tunnel Vision and the mob were working with Commonplace.  I already knew they were planning a series of prison breaks.”

A chill breeze blew across the rooftop, and I looked up at the night sky, away from Brin.  “Will you pay us for what you didn’t already know? You said you would pay a bounty for actionable intelligence.”

“Do you know what the word actionable means?  In the time it took for you to leave your dead drop, Angela Bexley has already been moved to a safehouse for her mind-wipe.  After your little escapade, the torturer and his mind-spheres won’t be anywhere near an official Commonplace building.”

I wondered if he was lying to avoid paying us.  If he is, there’s nothing you can do.  I had no real leverage over him.

The Major fixed his withering stare at me.  “The information you gave me cannot be acted on, which makes it worthless.  And you went behind my back. How many pounds do you think that’s worth?”

I felt the blood rise to my face.  “Your allowance isn’t enough. I need to feed myself, Wes needs to feed himself.”  I stood up, clenching my fists.  “What were we supposed to do?”

I felt a familiar presence worming its way through my mind.  “Lie down,” said Brin.  “Don’t project.”

I lied down.  This time, I didn’t even bother trying to defend myself from his Nudging.  It would just end the same way it always had. The same way it always would.

“If you can’t defend your mind,” said Brin.  “You’ll lose. It doesn’t matter how strong your Vocation is.  It doesn’t matter what tactics you use. You’ll never earn a single dime from me.”  

“You know how long this body will last,”  I said. “You know I can’t make enough with another job.  This is a death sentence.”

He reached into his jacket.  For a moment, I thought he was pulling out the mission folder.

It was a rolled-up newspaper.  It floated above my head, and unfolded.  It was the Elmidde Post from this morning.  Recapping the events of the night before.  I read the headline:

Water Cannons and Riot Gas at Nonviolent Protest

Orders came from Paragon Guardians

“More than fifteen million people read that this morning.  Millions more heard similar on radio shows or other papers.”

“Is it true?”

Brin rolled his eyes.  “Afzal Kahlin owns half of them.  That enough of an answer for you? The Humdrums are just about ready to butcher us all.”

“What’s your point?”

“I told you on the night I recruited you.  Forces are gathering against us, within this country and without.“  He looked away from the city, gazing at the dark ocean on the horizon.  The water is rising.

“What kind of threats?  You mean like Commonplace?”

“For the first time since the Shenti War, for the first time in a decade, this nation may be facing an existential risk.”  Brin stepped next to my head, looking straight down at me. “Efficiency is key. I can’t spare the resources for charity. I release you from all Nudges.”

I crawled up to a sitting position.  “When will our next meeting be?” Will there be a next meeting?

“Same time next week.  We can discuss your options going forward.  Whether you’d prefer to continue as an assistant at Paragon or receive a block memory wipe of the past several weeks.”  He strode to the edge of the roof.

“Wait!”

Brin paused.

“Your friends in the Epistocracy.”  I clenched my jaw, and pain jolted through my ears.  “I’ve seen them buy bodies by the dozen, because oval-shaped faces are in season.”  I pulled back my sleeve, showing the grey veins running up and down my arm.  “Is that efficient?”

“No,” he said.  “But we can’t always choose our leaders.  If you want to forge the stars in your image, you need power.  And that means making sacrifices.” He leapt off the edge and shot into the air.

I slid back to the floor of the roof, exhaling.  My eyes fluttered shut. But for the first time since my rejection letter, I felt tired.  Not scared. Not angry or determined to become an Exemplar. Just heavy, weighed down, like I’d been carrying an immense weight on my shoulders and only just realized it.

I should have figured it out long ago.  Three years ago, I’d failed my first Paragon entrance exam by a landslide, panicking halfway through and screwing up two-thirds of the questions.  But I’d kept going, persistent to the end.

What would have happened if I gave up on my dream back then, if I accepted I wasn’t smart or powerful enough to make the cut?  I could have taken a night job instead of studying, saved up forty-three thousand pounds for a new body.

The Principality’s minimum wage was small.  It would have been difficult, maybe impossible.  But I would have had a chance. My ambitions had closed that door.

I forced my eyes open.  You can’t sleep here.  My arms pushed me upright, and I strode back to the stairwell.

________________________________________

I munched on a slice of peach crumb cake, smiling and pretending I could taste it.

Kaplen smiled at me and cut off another square piece, floating it onto my plate from across the picnic blanket.  “Tasia?”

The girl shook her head, poring through a textbook on her lap.

Normally, I wouldn’t be eating this much, but after Brin’s meeting, I’d started to ration my daily canned lentils, eating only a third of a can for every meal.

I could have told Kaplen the truth, explained my broken taste buds, but that would lead to a whole other conversation about my body that I didn’t want to have.

I stared back at my chemistry notes, my eyes aching as much as my ears now.  “The difference between aldehydes and ketones is indicated by the substituents occupying the two remaining bonds of the carbonyl functional group, which – “

My notes skipped a section.  The Obsidian Foil was a fast lecturer, when he wasn’t bragging about how beautiful his wife was.  All the Paragon teachers were fast lecturers.  I’d sampled a handful of college courses while studying for the entrance exam, and all of them went at only a fraction of the pace here.

“- Which are hydrogen, alkyl, or aryl,”  Tasia said, not looking up from her book.

“He went over that multiple times,” said Kaplen.  “It’s definitely going to be on the exam.”

And I still missed it.  “I thought you were going to a dancing party tonight,” I said, looking at Kaplen.

Kaplen shrugged, patting down a tuft of red hair sticking out.  “I was, but Tasia told me you wanted to nail down the Chem concepts a little better.”  Cardamom curled up in his lap, purring, and the boy pet him.

Tasia nodded at me.  She hadn’t asked a single chemistry question all night, and the book she was reading was some ancient tome on the history of the Great Scholars, not her notes.  Like Kaplen, she already knew most of the material, maybe all of it. She was just here to help me.

Kaplen leaned back and gazed at the Paragon lawn around him, lit up in the early evening by floating red lanterns.  Nearby, other study groups and couples studied or sipped tea on picnic blankets. “Besides,” he said, “lovely night, no?”

“I think I should stop coming to study sessions,” I said.

Kaplen’s face fell.  “Um, alright. Can I ask why?”

I stared at my notes, avoiding eye contact.  “When the professors speak, you understand them most of the time.  You can finish an essay or a physics problem set in just a few hours.  And when you study your notes, the concepts come together for you in one or two tries.”

“So?” said Kaplen.  Tasia said nothing, staring at the ground, her black hair covering her face

“You’re both so far ahead of me.  Tasia, you’re what, Platinum-Ranked?  You may need study sessions, but I don’t think you’re getting much out of these.”

“We don’t care,” said Kaplen.  “We like coming here with you.”

“And,” I continued, “you’ve got full course schedules and squad battles and Scholars know what else.  It’s only going to get harder for you. You need to be adapting, accelerating, and I’m slowing you down.”

Kaplen crossed his arms, bowing his head.

“And I’ve been lying to you.  I can’t taste any of your food.  My tastebuds are as broken as my skin.”

This is easier for both of us.  Both of them probably had wanted me gone for a while, but were too nice to say it out loud.  It had to be exhausting, explaining the obvious to some halfwit over and over again. And this was the excuse they needed to let me go.  They might feel bad for a few weeks, but they’d move past it.

Kaplen was silent for a few long moments, frowning.  Then he stood up, floating his books into his bag and putting Cardamom on top of them.  “Tasia, you don’t have anywhere to be, do you?”

Tasia shook her head.

Kaplen strode off down the lawn, and beckoned for us to follow.  “I’m gonna show you something.”

Both of us stood up and followed him across the cool grass.  The picnic blanket folded itself up neatly under Tasia’s arm.

We walked west, in the direction of the setting sun.  Kaplen led us across one wooden bridge, then another, through glimmering courtyards and above grey clouds.  We passed the pavilion where squad battles took place, the Great Library, and the banquet hall.

“Where are we going?” I asked him.

“Patience.”

We crossed one more sky bridge, and found ourselves walking up to one of the dormitories, a triangular red building covered with huge windows on the front side.

A group of girls, Leviathan Squad, were visible playing Jao Lu in the common room and sipping mulled apple cider from porcelain cups.  One of them slapped a hexagonal piece down, cackling, and everyone else at the table groaned.

Alabaster Hall.  What is he on about?

“I can’t go into the dorms, remember?”

Kaplen ignored me.  He set down Cardamom next to the front door, scratching behind her ears.  “Stay,” he said, “I’ll be back.” The cat lay down, sleeping.  

Then Kaplen veered left, heading alongside the wall of the building across the gravel.

I followed him to the edge of the floating island the dorm sat on.  A narrow rocky ledge ran along one of the walls to the back of the dorm, only a few feet thick.  With no lanterns in this part, it was getting dark. Harder to see.

Kaplen edged along it, pressing his back against the building.  Below him, thin, wispy clouds blocked out the city and setting sun.  One wrong move, and he’ll be falling for a long time.

“Come on!” he said.  “It’s easy when you can project into your clothes.”

I sucked in a deep breath and moved forward, taking tentative steps to the side.  The dark rock was uneven beneath my shoes, and sharp on occasion. Parts of it were smooth, making it hard to find purchase.

I stepped onto a slanted rock, and tipped forward, flailing my arms.  My stomach sunk, as my center of gravity leaned over the edge, falling forward.  My ears throbbed with pain, a wave of dizziness passing over me.

Before I could scream, my shirt tightened around my chest and yanked me backward, pressing me back against the wall of the dorm.

On my right, Tasia extended her palm towards me.

“Thanks,” I gasped in between rapid breaths.

It took five more minutes before we got off the ledge, which wrapped around the back of the dorm, where there were almost no windows on the ground floor.

We reached a larger ledge, a tiny flat lawn the size of a king bed.  In the dim light, I made out a pair of rusty beer cans and a cigarette butt in the overgrown grass.  The sun had set beneath the clouds, turning the sky a dark blue.

Kaplen sat down, dangling his feet over the edge.  “Come on. You won’t fall, and if you do, I’ll catch you.”  He ripped out a clod of dirt, tossing it into the distance. It fell through the light purple clouds, vanishing.

I sat down further back and inched myself forward until my legs hung over the side.  The dirt was soft, less uncomfortable than I’d expected. I glanced over the edge, and felt a jolt in my stomach.

“You can see further down on a clear night,” said Kaplen.  He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and floated them to the wall behind him, setting them down.  “I come back here sometimes and always forget to bring a smoke. This way I’ll never run out.”

“How’d you find this place?” said Tasia.  She touched the wall of the dorm. The nearest window was three floors up, high enough for this place to be hidden from it.

“Trial and error,” said Kaplen.  “Unless you’ve got a single room, it’s hard to find privacy in this place.  On nights after classes, I came here to smoke and unwind. Nobody else knew about it.”

“And why are we here?” asked Tasia.  “It’s not exactly the best place to study.”

Kaplen smiled.  “I used to be a Grey Coat here, assisting a student.”  He leaned forward, gazing over the edge. “She was less nasty than Lorne, but couldn’t care less about me.  Treated me like an accessory.“ His voice remained upbeat and bright.

“I’m sorry,” I said, staring at my feet.

“I struggled in almost every class.  Every morning, I woke up loathing myself for being so stupid, so inferior and lazy.  Every weekend, I slept in past noon and woke up exhausted. Some days, even when I was late for class, I couldn’t get out of bed.”  Kaplen laughed, a nervous, stuttering noise. “All the things I enjoyed became boring chores.”

Tasia and I both looked at him, silent, unmoving.

“On the worst nights, I came here.”  Kaplen extended his left hand in front of him, rolling up his long sleeve.  “And did my best to cope.”

His upper arm was covered thin, white lines, all bunched next to each other in parallel.  Scars.

I flinched  “What is – “

“Voidsteel knife,” said Kaplen.  “The marks carry over no matter what body you transfer to.  I started with cigarettes and matches, but there’s more risk of infection that way.”

“I’m so sorry,” I repeated, feeling like someone had just punched me in my stomach.

Kaplen stared down.  “More than once when I was sitting here, I thought about sliding forward.  One easy movement to end the burden I was putting on my parents, my student boss.”  He tossed another clod of dirt over the edge. “But then I thought about the poor guy’s house who’d I’d land on, the public workers who’d have to clean me up, the people who’d pass by my corpse and have nightmares for weeks.  How stupid and self-absorbed that would be.”

Tasia looked away from both of us, hunching over.

“How’d you become a full student?” I asked.

Kaplen lied back on the grass.  Tasia and I mirrored him, staring up at the night sky.

“Earlier this week, I heard you asking Lorne about the ways of looking at the Empty Book.”

I shrunk back.  “It’s a stupid question.  You don’t have to – “

“Here’s my take on it,” said Kaplen.  “Your brain is like an empty book, and your Pith fills it with consciousness and thought, right?  Words and sentences.” He held his scarred arm above him, looking over it. “Then that means, every day, you’re writing a new page.”

I frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“If your mind is a book, then every day, you’re writing a fresh page.  Shaping your identity, becoming more and more you, whatever that is.  You can’t change what’s already written, but no matter how old you are, there are always more empty pages you can fill.”  He rolled his sleeve back up. “Every day, you can take a tiny step forward, choose to be a kinder or smarter or more hard-working person.  To hate yourself a little less, to be less terrified of the future, learn how to talk to other people.”

A cool breeze blew across our faces.  The sun had set completely, and the sky was a dark navy blue.  The two moons shone overhead.

“Professor Hou fought against us in the Shenti War.  The Obsidian Foil failed out of medical school. And the Pyre Witch, a mass murderer, was once a noble and esteemed Guardian.”

Kaplen’s hand glowed with faint yellow light, illuminating our faces.  Light projection.

“A cruel man can become a savior,” he said.  “A fool can become a genius. And a wretch can move nations.”  He stood up, prompting me and Tasia to follow.

The clouds had drifted away.  The lights of the city spread out beneath us.  A thousand bright dots blazed in the darkness, orange and yellow and pale.  They covered the entire mountain, hightown, midtown, and lowtown. A field of stars to replace the ones long vanished from the sky.

We fell silent, gazing over them.  I’d never seen them like this before.  Not from up here.

“Every day, I write another page.  With my actions, my choices, I practice my identity, reach for the person I want to be.  Not in grand epiphanies. Just one page at a time.”

“You’re the happiest person I know,” I said.  “Guess it worked.”

“Did it?” asked Tasia.

“I’m no Exemplar,” he said.  “But the words don’t say ‘become an Exemplar’, they say ‘strive to become’.  I’m not hurting myself anymore. And I’m trying to make other people happy.” He smiled.  “I could discover my Vocation and speciality tomorrow, win Lorne’s respect, make a new friend.  All it takes is the courage to inch out of the status quo.”

The city and ocean opened up beneath us, an endless metropolis to discover.  For a moment, it seemed like the light on Kaplen’s hand was in his eyes, too.  A golden fire radiating strength and ambition in all directions, brighter than the streetlamps below.

He lifted a single glowing finger above his head and pointed it forward, as if casting a spell over the entire city, the entire world.

“You are responsible for your identity.”  His voice swelled. “You have to write the next page.  Accept what’s already there, then write the next page. Fight for it.  Forge your Pith like we imagine forging the stars. Do that every day, Ernest Chapman, and you may become a Guardian yet.”

I felt a swell of something rush over me.  Pride, or determination, or vigor.  An overwhelming itch, to move, to fight, to do something.

The light seemed to fade around Kaplen, and then he was normal again.  Back to his usual cheer. “Well, I’m parched. Ern, would love to study for that Tactics exam with you.”  He patted us both on the back. “Head in for some tea?”

________________________________________

“Lie on your back,” said Major Brin.  “Don’t speak or project.”

It felt like he was drowning my Pith in warm honey.  The itch, the need to obey was overwhelming.

I lied down on the roof of Nolwen’s Soda Fountain, gazing up at the morning sky.  The routine was familiar now, practiced. Failing to fight back was more humiliating than accepting defeat.

The instructions would last about twenty-five hours before wearing off.  I would piss my pants and let myself starve before standing up or opening my mouth.  Unless he released me, or I changed my mind to counter them.

“Given your recent performance, and similar cases I’ve seen in the past, there are several options.  You can continue as a Grey Coat, despite your low odds of going full-time.” Brin watered a box of lilies on the far side of the roof.

His words rang through my head.  The mind is an empty book.  Strive to become an Exemplar.  Forge the stars in your image.

Major Brin continued.  “Alternatively, I can give you a block wipe of the last few weeks, up to the days before your body heist.  A simple letter can inform you of vital information, and you can live out the rest of the year without working yourself to death.”

I summoned up every iota of information Major Brin had taught me about Nudging, running over it in my mind.  Then I pushed back inside my consciousness, like I had so many times before, willing my mind to right itself.

My Pith didn’t budge.  My eyes ached, and fluttered shut before I forced them to open again.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten a full night’s sleep.

Stupid, so stupid.  Everyone else understood how to do it.  I was barely better than a Humdrum. The world is made up of smart people and the ones who hold them back.  Lorne’s words.

“If you don’t wish to suffer the full effects of the decay,” said Brin.  “I can provide some medications to ensure a quick end when the time comes.”  He dispersed a stream of water over a fern.

That was the temptation of the warm light I’d felt on the night I met him.  When he’d punched a hole through my stomach. The impulse to relax, fall asleep, let go before you could cause yourself more pain.

The choice I’d made then was the choice he’d wanted me to make.  I was doing his bidding, backed into a corner. Just like with Clementine.  With Lorne. With the chiefs of Paragon who wanted more people to apply, to boost their prestige.

I remembered Kaplen’s words from the night before.  Write the next page.  Was it just a hollow platitude?  A facade for his loathing, his pity, so he could pat himself on the back?

My ears ached, a spike of pain to remind me of my failure with Wes.  I’d failed so many times. The highest I’d ever scored on the entrance exam was seventy-seven percent.  Far below the ninety-six percent minimum cutoff.

But the first score I’d gotten was thirty-one percent.

My mind is not set in stone.  I pictured my Pith as a stiff muscle, tense and inflexible, frozen in place by Brin’s nudges.  A cold, static thing.

Then I pictured relaxing it, loosening it.  Not wrenching it back into place. Not forcing Brin out with the sheer force of my willpower.  Shifting it, molding it like soft clay.

I felt something give way, align properly in my soul.  Then Brin’s control snapped back into place, like a worm wriggling its way through the folds of my brain.  My body didn’t move.

The self-loathing and disgust bubbled up again, a choking weight on my chest.  No.  I could try an alternate strategy, approach the problem with a new mindset.

My soul could transform itself.  Ten years from now, I could be an entirely different person.  I didn’t have to be a corpse.

My chest rose and fell in front of me.  Inhaling. Exhaling. My heart rate slowed to a calm, steady thump, and my skin felt cool.

I focused on the smallest part of Brin’s process.  The tiniest facet of my Pith I would be reasserting control over.  I thought of the neurology of decision-making, the mechanics of Nudging, and that night on the ledge behind Alabaster Hall with Kaplen and Tasia, overlooking the lights of Elmidde.

I imagined the person I was, and the person I could be.  Strive to become an Exemplar.

I willed myself to make a tiny edit to my mind.  To write the next page.

My finger twitched.

I pressed further, removing Brin’s edits millimeter by millimeter.  Knowing, not believing, that my Pith was flexible, plastic.  Blue lightning flickered around me.

One final push, and the itch was gone.  My mind was clear.

I put one hand on the ground, then another, and pushed myself upright.  The blood rushed from my head, and I grabbed a flower box to steady myself.  The searing pain in my ears, my eyes now felt like a fire, radiating out from my Pith.  I clenched my teeth.

Major Brin’s back was still turned to me, as he watered a cluster of Azaleas.  “You may take as long as you want to deci – “

“Major Brin!” I shouted, my voice booming around the empty rooftop.

Without turning around, Brin pressed the attack again, crashing in at the edges of my consciousness.  The warm, choking fog of Nudging enveloped me.

Write the next page.

I looked inside myself, exhaled, and sliced through his assault like a sword through rice paper.  It felt like my body was a lightning rod, and my soul was a bolt of electricity burning through it.  My lungs sucked in air, winded as if I’d exercised for hours.

Another attempt from him.  “Don’t m – “

“Major Brin,” I said through gritted teeth, extending my open hand towards him, my Pith crackling around me.  “I’d like that folder, please.”

Brin turned around to face me.  The sun rose behind him, throwing his face into shadow.

And for the first time since the night I met him, I saw the Scholar of Mass smile.

“Good,” he said.  “Now the real work begins.”

He released the sphere of water hovering next to him, and it splashed on the roof tiles.  His hand pulled open his long blue coat, and a manila folder floated out of it. It glided towards me, and I grabbed it out of the air.

“Your target is a mental projector,” he said.  “Broke out of prison two months ago. Wanted on at least twenty-three counts of mental hijacking.”

I pulled the paper clip off the folder and flipped it open.  It was a dossier, a name at the top of a long file filled with information.

Lyna Wethers
“Honeypot”

I noted a single line near the top, listing several of the target’s skills: Mental Projection, Paragon Tactics Training.  “She’s an ex-Guardian.  Or a Paragon dropout.”

“The former.  Honeypot was one of her popular codenames.”

My stomach clenched.  Brin was throwing us into the deep end.  “Why aren’t you guys dealing with this?”

Brin pursed his lips.  “That’s confidential. But it’s certainly possible for you two to take her, once you infiltrate her yacht party.”

She’s a fugitive and she’s throwing a yacht party?

“One more thing,” said Brin.  “I give code name designations to all black ops groups under my command.  I thought I’d have to toss this one aside, but now…”

He pointed at the folder, and I scanned it, finding a small mark in the corner of the page.

Assignment: Queen Sulphur

“It’s a species of butterfly, most commonly found in the Neke islands around the Floating City.  Colored blue and bright red.” He smiled. “At full maturity, they can grow a wingspan of up to two meters.  I thought it apt, given your circumstances, and the story about dead caterpillars you told me before.”

Very amusing.  I turned to walk back to the door, and felt another wave of mental projection slam into me.  Another attempt at Nudging from the major.

This time, it was easy to fight him off.  The mental motions were familiar. It only took me four seconds to regain control and realign my Pith.

Brin grinned again at me, but this time I saw something else in his eyes, something I’d never seen before, and couldn’t identify.  Was it pride?

“All the remaining details are in the folder.  You know how to contact me. Keep practicing. Now that you know the basics, you can train yourself to defend against Basic Sleep, Memory Wipes, and all the common Whisper vocations.”

“Except the ones that are impossible to block.”  Like mine.  Like most of them.

Brin’s face darkened.  “One final lesson for the day.”

He floated up off the rooftop, lifting himself above me.  The rising sun was like a spotlight behind him.

“Fight for your autonomy, Anabelle Gage.  Defend it with all the fire in your intellect and spirit.”  The wind blew through his blue cloak, flapping it around him.  “Because when it truly matters, nobody else can.”

Nobody else can fight for my autonomy.  I watched him soar into the sky and shrink into the distance.  But that’s not always true, is it?  Kaplen’s face flashed through my head.  Thank you.

His voice echoed at the back of my mind, an eternal reminder of the lesson he’d taught me.  Write the next page.

“Okay,” I said.  That intuition had been enough to get me a working mental defense.  But what do I write next?  What kind of person did I want to be?

I flipped to the second sheet of the dossier, and began to read.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




3-E The Empty Book

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

The Commonplace building sat across the street, lit only by a dim streetlamp in the dark and the two crescent moons overhead.

“Ready?”  I asked. I spoke in my normal female pitch and resonance, rather than the masculine disguise I put on for Paragon.

“Not really,” said Wes.  “The plan is subpar. But that’s not going to change anytime soon, so we might as well go.”  He stuck a toothpick deep into his mouth, digging at his molars, visible even in the dark.

I found myself irritated.  “Do you have to do that in front of me?”

He shrugged.   “There’s no food in there, it’s just a fidget.  I like to keep my body moving.”

My partner didn’t seem well-suited for stealth missions.  But then again, I’d got spotted on my last one, so what did I know?

Wes continued, oblivious to my disinterest.  “They were free at the front of the Shenti restaurants nearby.  Just had to pretend I was making a reservation and sneak ‘em out while they were looking the other way.”  He poked his broken pinky finger with one of them, grinning. “Plus, I can use ‘em as weapons with my paper.  And I can fold the packets into origami.”

I clenched my teeth, hoping it wasn’t visible in this light.  “What exactly is your issue with the plan?”

Wes rubbed his bruised neck with his good hand.  “I’m not an expert on much of anything, planning least of all.  But even so, I have to say, how on earth are we supposed to find anything in that bloody labyrinth of a building?”

I leaned my head out of the alleyway we were perched in, looking over the headquarters.  A three-story rectangular construction on the edge of the water, flanked by waterfront cafés and docks.  A flag hung on the front wall, a green circle on a white field, Commonplace’s insignia.

I’d seen the place before while walking through town.  On most days, Commonplace members and the political candidates they backed handed out meals to the homeless in the front, always making sure to pose for pictures.  Just like Clementine.  All fakes trying to boost their public image.  “We find the records room and go through it. Shouldn’t be many people inside.”

“Yes, and how are we planning to sort through an entire building’s worth of records to find illegal evidence?”  He bit into a toothpick, splintering it. “Not just any illegal evidence, evidence Major Brin will pay for.  Evidence Commonplace has every incentive to hide or encrypt or put in code.  We’re only two people and I can’t speed-read for shit.”

I was silent.  The odds weren’t great, but this was our only workable lead.

“And if things go to shit, how are we supposed to escape?” he said.

“Once we’re off their private property, they can’t really shoot us.  We should be safe.”

Wes rolled his eyes.  “They can if they don’t get caught.  And the police will want us too. And if they follow us after we run, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to hunt down our stupid asses later.”

“We should be safe,” I repeated.  I sucked in another deep breath, feeling light-headed.  In truth, all of his points sounded reasonable to me. We knew next to nothing about our target, and our success depended on a lot of things going right.

But I didn’t have any good answers for him.  And I was already sweating, already tensed up like a taut rope.  If I acknowledged his concerns out loud, gave a voice to my whispering panic, I’d vomit, or freeze, or run home to curl up in my sleeping pod.

And I couldn’t miss this shot.  “Can you even run right now?” I looked at the bandages around his fingers and chest.

“Broken rib.  I’ll be fine.”


I glanced at my stolen watch.  “The rally started an hour ago.”  I turned to look at midtown, and a long cluster of lights threading up the mountain.  I made out a dim cloud of smoke gathering above it. Fire.  “Everyone’s attention should be there now.”

In the last sixty minutes, the three guards out front had trickled away one by one, reducing their number to just one.  A young Green Hands with a pistol holstered at his waist.

Takonara,” said Wes.  “Fine, we’ll improvise.  I’m great at it about fifty percent of the time.”

“And the other fifty percent?

 He just grinned.  “Let’s go.”

I wiped my sweaty palms on my shirt and stood up.  Did I forget anything?  I ran through the plan again, going over all the details I might have missed.

Wes pushed my back, and I stumbled forward towards the guard.  Breathe.  Look confident.  I certainly didn’t feel confident.

Just outside of my range, the guard turned to me.  His hand dropped to his side, next to his holster. Not touching it, but only a moment away from pulling it out.  I raised my arms, turning my open palms towards him.

When I felt him get inside my range, I pictured green circles tattooed on the backs of my hand, and pushed the image into his mind.  In the darkness, I changed my hair color to a bright blonde, erased the grey veins on my face, and made a handful of small alterations to the bones in my skull.  It wouldn’t do to leave such a unique description.

I flipped my hands back around, showing my illusory tattoos, pretending to be another Green Hands.

The man relaxed, lowering his gun hand.  “Hey. You been uptown? Keep hearing news on the radio.” A single key stuck out of his back pocket. Not for the front door. He wouldn’t be authorized for that.

It’s working.  I nodded, still holding up my mental projection.  “Fucking – fucking bastards.” My voice was hoarse and stuttering.

“Biggest rally we’ve ever had, and I’m guarding a door.  Just my luck. What’re you here for, anyways?”

I swallowed.  “Here to deliver a package from a Joseph Centino to Angela up top.”  Wes had given me the names. Using just first names makes you sound more familiar, he had told me, makes the lie stronger.  I reached into my bag, pulling out a manila envelope.

The guard nodded.  “No problem. Password?”

Fuck.  We didn’t have that.  This was just their public-facing office, why would they use passwords?  Think, think.

“Do you have the password?”

I froze.  What am I supposed to do?  “Um.  I, um.”

“Well?”

Stall.

I layered on a visual illusion of myself speaking to the guard, turning my real self invisible.  Then, I gestured at the alleyway, calling Wes over.

I had my illusion rifle through her pockets and wallet.  “Sorry. So sorry, one – one sec. My guy gave it to me this morning, but I uh.  One sec.” I imagined Wes vanished, turning him invisible in my illusion.

“If you want, you could just give the package to me and I could pass it on at the end of my shift.”

“I swear, I have it.”  Wes jogged towards me from the alleyway, a confused expression on his face.  I put my finger on my lips. He can still hear us.

Wes mouthed something that looked like what the fuck.  I gestured to the locked door behind the guard, miming an opening motion with my palms.  There were two deadbolts above the handle. He’ll figure something out.

“I can take it, it’s really no trouble.”

Behind the guard, Wes raised his hands toward the deadbolts, and green lightning flickered around them.

Then he pushed the door open and peeked his head in.  How did he unlock it?  Mercifully, the hinges didn’t creak.  He waved to me, beckoning me inside. I layered on an illusion of the door being shut, in case the guard looked behind him.

I had my illusion-self sigh.  “So sorry,” I said, shoulders bunched up.  “I, uh, can’t seem to find the paper on me anywhere.  Scholars, I’m such a klutz.” That part was true, at least.  “I’m going to give my boss a call and see if I can get the password again.”

The guard adopted a sympathetic expression.  “Sorry for the hassle. Best of luck.”

I nodded, bobbing my head up and down.  “Uh, thanks. Thank you. Thank you.” I had my illusion walk back down the street, and stepped around the guard with my real, invisible self, going through the door.  My illusion turned the corner, going out of sight, and I banished it.

Wes closed the door behind us, then let out a deep breath.  I heard a faint click from the two deadbolts. He walked down the wooden hallway, and I followed him.

Only a handful of dim yellow lights were on inside.  The whole place was empty. Dead silent. More green circle flags and posters were stuck to the walls, along a few job postings.  Fold-up tables leaned against the walls, and the floor was damp, probably from mopping.

In short, it seemed like an ordinary community building.  On the surface, at least.

“I thought you couldn’t project into metal,” I whispered.  “And don’t some of those locks have Voidsteel components?”

“My Physical Vocation,” he said, at a normal volume, grinning.  “Can’t move it, but can shrink it just fine. And the deadbolt part of those locks were just normal metal.”

“Lower your voice,” I whispered.  “There are probably still people here.”

He shook his head.  “Whisper and tiptoe, and they’ll be onto us the moment they see us.  Look like you belong, and they won’t give a shit.”

I straightened myself, listening to his instructions.  As if on cue, we turned the corner and passed a woman carrying a stack of folders.  My stomach clenched, and my skin felt cold.

Wes nodded at her, and she nodded back.  We passed her, stepping up a staircase. Wes flashed a knowing look at me, as if to say I told you so.

On the way to the office on the top floor, we passed a pair of janitors and a man hefting a shotgun.  The latter gave us an odd look as we went past, but as we got close, I layered an illusion of green circle tattoos on our hands, and nobody challenged us.

In a room next to the stairwell, two men huddled around a radio, listening to a newscaster’s voice.  It was too far away to make out, but I caught the phrases ‘riot gas’ and ‘fire’. Whatever was going on with the rally, it sounded bad.

The office we were looking for was Angela Bexley, Commonplace’s second-in-command.  The right hand woman of John Calpeur, who’d gone on Verity yesterday.  The door was locked from both sides, but after a few seconds of fiddling with his object-flattening Vocation, Wes had it open.

We entered, shut the door, and went straight for the file cabinets.  There were four of them, each four drawers high, plus more drawers underneath her desk.  “What do you think is the fastest way to sort through them?” I asked.

Wes shrugged.  “No fucking clue.”

I sighed.  “I’ll start on the left.”  I pulled out the top drawer of the leftmost cabinet, craning my neck to peek into the contents.  The first file was labelled AV1, the second, AV2.  Fuck me.  They were using some sort of index method to sort their files instead of labels.  That would mean we’d have to go through all of the papers one by one.

“There’s no way we’ll get through all these before morning,” said Wes, flipping through the rightmost cabinet.

“Project around.  Look for hidden compartments,” I said.  “Then we’ll get through as many as we can.  Nobody should be coming through here for the next few hours, and it might faster than we think.”

Wes nodded, grinding his teeth.

Two excruciating hours later, we’d only gone through one and a half cabinets each.

The damn things were more densely packed than I’d thought.  “When I pitched myself to you,” muttered Wes, “I expected firefights.  Projection battles. Explosions. And I’m sorting through files.”

Faint voices trailed in from outside.

“Shh,” I hissed.  Wes went silent and flicked his wrists.  The papers we’d taken out flew back into their proper folders.  The cabinets were still open.

I dragged him next to the door, projecting an auditory illusion into his ears.  “People are coming,” it said.  “Stay silent and out of their way, my illusions only work on one sense at a time.  Slide the cabinets shut in three, two, one –

I felt the minds up ahead.  Two people.  I pushed an auditory illusion onto both of them, editing out the sounds from inside the room, and waved my hand at Wes.

He shoved the cabinets shut with a metallic ring, and ran back to me.

The lock on the knob clicked, and the door swung open.  Two women stepped inside. The first one had short blonde hair and a bright green jacket, a nervous smile painted across her face.  Angela Bexley.  I’d seen her before in newspaper clippings, railing against the unregulated excesses of Paragon Academy, and the threat it posed to ‘ordinary citizens’.  She stepped to the side of her desk, leaving the chair open.

Still well within ten meters, enough to keep us invisible to both.

When the second woman strode in, the temperature of the room seemed to drop.

She was at least a head taller than Bexley, wearing a dark grey tuxedo.  Her light brown hair was tied back in a thin ponytail beneath a black bowler hat, long enough to almost reach her waist.

But when she gazed around the room, her most striking features were her eyes.  Large and bloodshot and wide, staring intently at everything they fell on. When her vision passed over us, I swore she was looking straight at us.

I hadn’t seen any pictures of her, but I saw enough details to guess her identity.

Tunnel Vision.  Clementine’s boss.  The anonymous woman who’d taken over half the Mob in Elmidde over the last six months.

According to Clementine, she’d earned the name from the single-minded focus she’d had during her rise to power, when she’d slaughtered dozens of wealthy crime families to carve her way to the top.  Casino owners and corrupt police chiefs, millionaires and projectors. All vanished, until fishermen found their bodies floating in the ocean.

“Your security is weak,” she said, her voice harsh.  Every word was like a lit fuse, as if she were suppressing immense rage.  “I noticed at least six vulnerabilities that someone with basic competence could exploit.”

Bexley pursed her lips.  “Many of our Green Hands are at the rally.  These are abnormal circumstances.”

“The exact kind of circumstances anyone with half a brain will seize on.  Our enemies do not care about your excuses.  Only the holes they leave.”  Tunnel Vision’s expression and tone had hardly changed, but it felt like she was about to explode.

Bexley bowed her head, gritting her teeth.  “Apologies, ma’am.”

“All the same, it provided a discreet excuse for me to enter.  In my circumstances, body-swapping leaves me vulnerable.” She walked to the other end of the room, and I took a few steps to keep her within ten meters.  “Tell me about the figurehead.”

Wes looked at me in confusion.  Figurehead?

Bexley reached under her desk, pulling out a file.  “Information quarantine has been maintained at full capacity.  Calpeur suspects nothing. He still believes we’re a political group with no ties to violence.”

Tunnel Vision strode back to the open door.  Angela Bexley jogged to follow.

Now what do we do?  Listening in to their conversation got the best information we’d seen all night.  We couldn’t let more slip through our fingers.

While I projected our invisibility onto her and Bexley, I pushed another visual illusion onto Wes, scrawling letters in the air in front of him.

Follow next to them.  If others see us out of my range, they’ll think we’re part of their conversation

Wes and I followed the pair, flanking them on both sides as if we were talking to them.  My visual illusions kept us invisible. Hopefully, our footsteps weren’t loud enough to be heard by either of them.

“Calpeur will be replaced soon,” said Tunnel Vision as they descended a staircase.  “He served his purpose by going on Verity and preaching our innocence.  One of Kahlin’s ideas. If he suspects he’s being played, or that there are criminal elements under the surface, he’ll spill everything to the authorities.”

My breath caught in my throat.  John Calpeur, the so-called leader of Commonplace, was no more than a puppet.  Christea Ronaveda’s Vocation prevented him from lying on Verity, and blocked falsely implanted memories, but as far as he knew, he’d been telling the truth.

Bexley smiled at the news.  She’s next in line.

“Shred any relevant files here by tomorrow night,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We’re cutting this sector off from military operations, too.”

Bexley’s smile curdled.  “What?”

“There’s too much risk connecting our private ops so closely to your public face.  You should have done it months ago.”

We passed the two men huddled around the radio.  They took one glance at us, then looked away, avoiding our gazes.  We descended another two flights of stairs, ending up in a dimly lit basement.

Bexley clenched her teeth.  “The boss won’t like this.”

Tunnel Vision laughed.  “It was her idea.”

The boss?  That meant there was another person behind all this.  Pulling the strings of Tunnel Vision, Commonplace, and the Broadcast King all at once.

Bexley stopped, turning to the mobster to implore her.  “Large swaths of the populace still hate and fear Commonplace, or see Guardians as comforting.  The public front needs to work in tandem to – “

“Leave that to the professionals.”

“The prison breaks?”

“To restate the obvious, leave it to the professionals.”

Bexley straightened her suit.  “Where will I be reassigned? Am I being promoted to operations?  Am I taking Calpeur’s place?”

Tunnel Vision turned her burning glare on Bexley.  “You are not to be assigned to any position.”

Bexley’s mouth tightened.  “You’re firing me.”

“Yes.”

The volume of Bexley’s voice went up.  “I’ve worked here for two and a half years.  Calpeur appreciates my work. And so does the boss.  I received stunning performance evaluations from – “

“I studied you,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You’re a careerist. At this organization, you chose personal advancement over efficiency almost every time.  Public short term gains over long-term growth. The Corth Ravon project. Elizabeth Trabae’s death. The protests four months ago.  By my numbers, you’ve tanked nearly every event you’ve been in charge of. You always managed to shift the blame to someone else, when your managers were incompetent enough to believe you.”

The mobster towered over the shorter woman, who stepped back, looking at her feet.

Tunnel Vision continued.  “You leveraged the respect of others into bonuses and promotions and making your peers look worse than you, rather than meaningful change.  You are the worst kind of parasite, an incompetent beetle of the highest order.” She lifted her hand towards Bexley’s head, and a spark appeared in between her fingers.  “And you have crawled far too high into this organization.”

I froze.  Is she going to kill her?  Or worse.  Should me and Wes step in?  Could we even do anything, with our limited array of weapons?

“Please.”  Bexley’s voice was little more than a whisper.  “Please.”

Tunnel Vision flicked her forehead, and Bexley flinched.  The spark fizzled out. “Order the shredding, then report to your assigned safehouse.  You’ll be precision-wiped of everything in your security clearance by end of week.”

Bexley managed a tiny nod, inching her head down, then up.

Tunnel Vision opened the door next to her, revealing a small room.  I reached my Pith forward, adding my illusion to the dozens of minds inside.

Then I stopped.

A bed sat in the corner, covered in glass mind-spheres, each the size of a melon, flickering with branching webs of lightning within.  There were at least two dozen. Each one of those has a person’s Pith inside it.

The man touched his palm to one of them, closing his eyes.  He’s talking with it.  He took his palm off, and shrugged.  “Fine, have it your way.” He pulled a tiny rock hammer from his belt, and swung it at the sphere.

There was a hard ringing noise as it struck the globe.  Cracks spiderwebbed out through the point of impact, but the hardened glass didn’t shatter.  The lightning inside tripled its speed, bouncing off the walls and crackling in response.

The connections of a mind-sphere were as vital as the neural connections of a brain.  How much must that hurt?  I felt sick to my stomach.

The man pressed his hand to the glass again, calm.  “There, that’s better.” He smiled and set it down on the bed, picking up another one.  Glancing at Tunnel Vision out of the corner of his eye, he nodded at her.

Tunnel Vision nodded back and shut the door.  “Some people who know they’re about to get mind-wiped write things down in secret, so they can read them and pick up the memories again.”

“I – I won’t do that,” said Bexley.

“Good,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We have plenty of mind-spheres.”

Bexley nodded.  The message was more than clear enough.

The man stood up, walking to the far end of the bed, where there were more spheres.  He flitted out of my range, and my illusion dropped out of his mind.

I flattened myself against the wall, out of his sight.  Wes mirrored me. If anyone else comes by, they’ll be on to us right away.

Tunnel Vision strode back down the hallway.  After a few tense seconds, Bexley followed her, as Wes and I kept close pace behind them.  If they get more than twenty meters apart, I can only hide ourselves from one of them.

The mobster shut the door, her footsteps echoing on the wooden floor.

Bexley clenched her teeth, squeezing her eyes shut.  When the footsteps faded into silence, her face contorted, shaking.  Then she spun around and punched the wall next to her, a low thud that left a faint red mark on the plaster.

She stared at her scraped knuckles, a thin rivulet of blood running down the back of her hand.  The energy seemed to drain out of her, and she slumped over, plodding to the other end of the hallway.

Me and Wes followed her, keeping up the illusion, stopping when she opened the door and shut it behind her.

When her footsteps, too, grew dim in the distance, I exhaled, massaging my temples.  I realized how fast my heart had been beating, and that my armpits and back were soaked with sweat.  My lungs sucked in a deep breath.

“Fuck,” muttered Wes.  “Fuck.”

I didn’t want to admit how lucky we’d just gotten.  One goon getting suspicious of us, one projection scan from Tunnel Vision, and we’d be in a glass sphere in that room next to us, getting interrogated with a rock hammer.

Another tap echoed from inside the interrogation room.  I swallowed. “We should help those people.” I spoke under my breath, listening for the footsteps of anyone who might be coming back to the basement.  “They’re getting tortured.”

Wes shook his head.  “That creep communicated with a mind-sphere, which means he’s a projector.  We have no idea how strong he is, or what his specialty is. And, though I don’t like to admit it, it won’t take much to crush us.  And Tunnel Vision might come back.”

The thought of Tunnel Vision returning was enough make my chest tighten.  I ignored it. “You saw what he was doing. We can’t just leave these people.”

Frustration slipped into Wes’ voice.  “This guy is almost definitely above our level.  Let the cavalry handle this one. There’s a reason we have Guardians.”

“By the time we can leave a dead drop for Major Brin, they’ll all be gone.  The police are too busy with the riots to respond to a random tip.” I ground my teeth together, pushing down the lingering panic.  “There is no cavalry.”

Wes inched up to the door, pressing his ear up to it, then stepped away.  “There’s no paper I can use in that room, and he’s out of range for your illusions.”

“Those are people Commonplace is torturing.  Even if you don’t give a shit about them, they will absolutely have intel worth a bounty.”

Wes jogged to the other end of the hallway, listening at the door.  “Every minute we wait here is another minute a guard can come back, or for the torturer to spot us.  The mobster mentioned prison breaks. That and the rest of their conversation ought to be enough to scrape a few pennies from Brin.”  He opened the door, peeking through. “Coast is clear. Let’s go.”

I walked over to the torturer’s room.  “Get ready,” I whispered to Wes.

“No, no – “ said Wes.  “Don’t – “

My fist rapped on the door.  “Hey!” I yelled. “Boss wants to see you!”

The torturer’s voice was confused.  “Who are you guys?”

“I – “  What was a good bluff?  My mind was drawing a blank.  Fuck.  I stretched my Pith into the room, feeling the man’s consciousness just beyond my Vocation’s range.

Wes spoke up.  “John and Milton, from Angela’s office.  She said something about cleaning up.” How does he come up with these lies so fast?

I felt the man stand up.  His Pith drew closer to the door.  Thirteen meters. Twelve meters. Eleven.  I imagined me and Wes invisible again, replacing us with two Green Hands, preparing to push the illusion  into his mind.

I felt a warm, soft presence worming itself inside my mind.  Nudging.  “Hey!”  I shouted to Wes.  “He just Nud – “

“Don’t move or project.  Shut up, unless I say so.”

I froze, my Pith snapping back within the confines of my mind.

Fuck, fuck, NO.  I reached for all of Brin’s techniques, all of the study I’d done, pushing back as hard as I could.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wes running towards me, unaffected.  Unlike me, he knew how to defend himself.

Gunshots rang out from within the room, echoing throughout the hallway.  The torturer shot his gun.  “There, that ought to get the guards running over here.”

Think, think.  How could I get out of this?  I couldn’t speak, or project, or move.  Every tool in my arsenal was unavailable.  Brin was right.  Without real defenses, I was useless.

I couldn’t see Wes, or move my eyes or head to see where he went.  Had he ran for the other door? If he concluded I was a lost cause, he might have just abandoned me.

“Now,” said the torturer, footsteps getting closer to the door.  The pressing force of his mental projection was still wrapped around my mind.  “Kill the one who isn’t Nudged. You can use all projection and skills.”

My body moved of its own volition.

It turned to Wes, pushing an illusion of my invisibility onto him.  My fists clenched, preparing to strike his throat, then behind his ear.  They would hit hard enough to break the bones in my hand. Hard enough to crush his larynx, choking him to death.

Fight, my mind screamed.  Fight.  Don’t kill him.  If I couldn’t pull my brain together, both me and Wes would be tortured to death, just like the poor fuckers inside that room.

My body ignored it.

The boy was clutching something in his fists, sprinting towards me.  Fifteen feet. Ten feet. Almost within striking range.

He sucked in a deep breath, and screamed something.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




3-D The Empty Book

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

I stared at the huge clock on the wall behind the podium.

3:29.  One more minute.  I sucked in a deep breath, wiping my sweaty hands on my grey pant legs.  You can do this.

The lecture hall was shaped like an amphitheatre, a single podium surrounded by a giant semicircle of desks.  It was like the place they’d put the assistants before the feast, but bigger.

And it was packed with students, a sea of blue uniforms filling every chair, talking and laughing and poring through notes.  It seemed like half the second-year class was packed in. Lorne, Golem Squad, and I were right in the middle, two rows from the front.  I could spot several of the other squads mixed in with the crowd, including Chimera, seated at the back.


I folded open my notebook and uncapped my pen.  There was no sign of the professor yet. She hadn’t been at the feast.  Maybe she’s running late.

The minute hand inched forward.

Eleven seconds into 3:30, the doors burst open, and a figure shot through them, landing at the podium.

The room went silent.

The Scholar of Air was dressed like a pilot, complete with a light blue flight suit, a bomber jacket, and an aviator’s hat with goggles.  She floated to the ground, appearing to be weightless.

The jacket and hat flew off her, as a pair of glasses floated out of her pocket, unfolding and landing on her nose.  Beneath the jacket, I caught a glimpse of a thick purple book, sealed with a green Voidsteel lock. What’s that about?

At the same time, the piece of chalk behind her lifted itself up and began scrawling on the blackboard, and a sheaf of papers exploded from beneath the podium, shooting in every direction.  They separated, one for each student.

Through the chaos, I squinted to see her face.  In contrast to nearly everyone in the room, Florence Tuft was petite, mousy, and plain-faced.  Compared to the average Academy student, she looked downright ugly. With her short brown hair and huge, round glasses, she reminded me of a stereotypical librarian.

Both her hands were missing, her forearms ending in flat stumps.  And I thought I had it rough.  Most Guardians could transfer into a new body for injuries this serious.

But Tuft was different.  Tuft was stuck.

Of course, that hadn’t stopped her from becoming the best pilot in the Eight Oceans.  Or my idol.

“I won’t waste time with introductions,” she said, her voice booming around the auditorium.  It was loud, especially for her short frame. “You all know who I am. ‘Professor’ or ‘Major’ will do.”  She paced in front of the podium. “Of course, if you feel like failing this course, feel free to call me by my nickname.”

Harpy.  Named such for her short temper and barbed tongue.  Clearly, she hadn’t come up with that title.

“Let me address some points up front.  Yes, I look like your aunt Becky. Yes, I do have stumps for hands and asymmetrical eyes and a face that resembles a hairless gopher.  No, I will not answer questions about how I got this prison body.”

There were a few laughs, but most of the students stayed silent.

“In this classroom, you will study practical warfare.  You will learn how to fight dirty, how to come up with strategies in bouts that last seconds, and how to remain clever when you’ve been awake for seventy-two straight hours.”  She looked at a student to her left. “Brookridge. What’s the biggest tactical difference between Humdrum and projected combat?”

The girl’s voice was hesitant.  “Range?”

“No.  Daniels?”

She’s already memorized all our names.  A boy in the row in front of me coughed.  “Prevalence of cover. When you have an Autonomous Bullet Defense, you – “

“No.  The answer, Mr. Daniels, is creativity.  Most of the tactics of the common soldier have been perfected, as a result of tools that have largely stayed the same for the past several decades.  Bounding. Covering fire. Center peel. Simple, drilled over and over again so it can be repeated under stress, because everyone wields small variations on the same weapons.  But every Vocation is unique. Every projector’s abilities can vary wildly.” She stopped pacing. “Every time you battle a new projector, you’ll need a new plan.”

I thought back to my battle with Eliya and Samuel, both sitting in this very room, and how Isaac Brin had demolished me.  She’s got a point.

“You Paragon students like to jerk it about how hard your coursework is, but the truth is, you’ve had it easy up until now.  So, I’ll break it down for you.”

I looked down at the papers she’d distributed.  Syllabi.

“Every class, there will be a ten-minute quiz at a random time, on a new combat scenario with a set of Vocations and techniques you have to use.  You’ll have about twenty seconds for each question, which is approximately nineteen more seconds than you’ll get in the real world. Twice a week, you’ll turn in a two-page strategic response to a prompt I hand out.”

Most of what she was saying was mirrored on the syllabus, but I scribbled it all down anyway.  As Lorne’s assistant, it was my official duty. My fingers were slow, unresponsive, as if I’d dunked them in freezing water.  The problem got worse the faster I wrote, and my handwriting got more clumsy.

Damn this body.  This hadn’t happened before.  Why now?

Harpy – Tuft – continued.  “From now on, all your one-on-one fights, squad battles, and rankings will count towards your grade.  You got a bad leader? Bad squadmates? Suck it up and make them improve. It doesn’t get easier after this.”

Lorne grit his teeth next to me.  Still not happy about Kaplen.

“There are readings.  All Level Zero access in the library.  Skip them if you want. You’re free to skip lectures too.  I won’t take attendance. But if you do, you will fall behind.  And this class has a higher fail rate than the rest of the second-year courses combined.  You’ve all studied number theory; I trust you can put two and two together.”

I reached into my pocket, feeling the folded sheet of paper with Major Brin’s reading list.  I still need to find a way to get these.  All one level too high in the Great Library.  But necessary, if I wanted to figure out nudging defense.

“There’s a good chance you’ll hate me by the end of the year.”  She shrugged. “That’s fine, I don’t give a shit. But the next time you whine about your mean, unfair hag of a professor over your gourmet dinners, or on your plush sofas, remember this: There are Shenti Commandos out there.  There are Kuttas and War Priests and Droll Corsairs, and they’re going to be a lot meaner than me.  A lot smarter, too. The more you bleed here, the less you bleed out there.” She glanced at the clock.  “That’s all I need to say out loud. Everything else is on the syllabus. Let’s begin.”

From that point on, her lecture was a storm of terms.  Harpy would describe a hypothetical fight to us, then challenge us to describe what they’d done wrong.  To my surprise, Tasia was often one of the first to stick her hand up, followed closely by Lorne and a handful of others.  Every time the professor opened her mouth, it was a race between the top students.

My fingers ached, my handwriting getting less and less legible.  To keep up with Professor Tuft’s rapidfire lecture, I often had to skip sections.  There was so much to take in.

Always confirm the kill.  Attack from behind, above, and below.  Sharp over blunt force. Eyes-head-neck-crotch.  Conceal your Vocation and decipher your enemy’s. Simple plans usually beat complex ones.  Flexible plans beat static ones. Control the tempo. Define the battlefield. Test your power’s limitations.  Use calculated aggression.  How to work with and against all four schools of Projection.  And how to work within the constraints of Rashi’s Three Laws.

“Whisper and Praxis specialists are by far the most dangerous, whether they’re fucking with your mind or enhancing their own, respectively.”  Harpy’s chalk scribbled a list of common mental vocations on the blackboard while she munched on a fish sandwich. “But don’t discount Physical or Joining, either.  With the right application of resources, just about anyone can fuck your day up.”

I glanced at the clock.  Only a few minutes left.

This wasn’t the right class to ask, and assistants were officially forbidden from asking questions, but I needed an answer.  Brin wouldn’t give me a mission until I cracked this problem, and I was already short on money. Maybe the teacher would yell at me, maybe I’d get detention, but maybe I’d get a workable answer, too.

A boy behind me raised his hand, tentative.  I did the same, lifting my arm straight into the air.

Tuft paused in her lecture.  “Yes?” She pointed in my direction.

She was no doubt looking at him, not me.  Before the boy could speak, I blurted out my question.  “On that subject, what would you say is the best defense against Nudging, and how that relates to the concept of the Empty Book?”

The room burst into laughter.  Tuft chuckled with them. “Perhaps you’d also like to ask how to breathe?  Or how to put on your pants in the morning? Here’s a hint: Don’t do both legs at once.”

I looked down at my paper, avoiding eye contact.

Harpy’s eyes narrowed, and the laughter faded.  “Whoever coined the phrase ‘there are no stupid questions’ would absolutely fail this class.  If any one of you opens your mouth, you had better not waste my time and your classmates’.”  She turned her gaze towards me. “For those of you who need a reminder: this is why assistants are to listen, and be silent.”

I nodded, not saying anything, my face burning up.  Lorne, too, was looking at me with a murderous glare.

Harpy spent the rest of the lecture reviewing the terms she’d raised throughout the class.  I spent the rest of it wishing I could hide under my desk.

When the class ended, I followed Lorne out the door.  “Bathroom. Now,” he said, leading me into a restroom.  Once inside, he flicked his wrist, and all the faucets turned on, filling the room with white noise.  I felt a soft, choking force press down on all sides of my mind, all too familiar now. Nudging.

“Slap yourself as hard as you can.”

My left hand whipped around, slamming into my cheek.  I could feel the impact reverberate through my skull, as the pain exploded on my raw skin.

“Other side, too.”

My right hand mirrored the left, knocking my head the other way, swinging as hard as if I were punching someone.  My cheeks burned, and I doubled over, wincing.

“Tell anyone about that, and I’ll make sure you never step foot in Paragon again, Greyface.”  Lorne rolled back his sleeves.

In theory, what he’d just done was mental hijacking, a crime that could carry up to a life sentence in the Principality, depending on how serious.  In practice, his family’s paralegals would probably grind me into the dirt if I tried anything like that.

“I could make you piss your pants.  Or jump off the academy. Or try to murder Deon over there.”  Deon stood by the door, keeping watch. “Anyone in that class could.”  He ran his fingers through his hair. “Was there some mix-up with the test scores?  How in fuck’s name did you get in here?”

Illegally, I thought.  By becoming a disposable gun-for-hire who can’t even shoot a gun.  “I’m sorry, sir.”  My stomach clenched.  If he orders me to speak honestly, I’ll be exposed.  And Isaac Brin would probably murder me in prison.

“Everyone who’s ever taken a class with Brin or Hou knows the Empty Book.  And everyone else here knows how to defend against Nudging. Do you realize the blow to my social leverage you’ve just dealt?  Why am I surrounded by id – ” He rested his hands on the sink counter and leaned on them, sighing. “I suppose I shouldn’t blame you.  In truth, you’re not much better or worse than the average Humdrum.”

All I did was ask a question.  I wasn’t sure what to say to him.

“Most people going through life without ever thinking or questioning anything, blindly living out whatever label they’ve assigned themselves without any real ambition.  Right now, for example, you’re labeling me as the sadistic, spoiled bully, and yourself as the noble victim, so you can dismiss me without having to learn anything beyond your narrow worldview.  My family isn’t even in the top ten richest in this school,” he hissed, “and if I wasn’t smart enough, I would have been Ousted. I’m a platinum-ranked projector. I earned my place. Maybe you should earn yours.”

I massaged my aching cheeks.  Let him talk it out.  A lecture was better than more Nudging.

“I can’t hold you responsible for this, because you’re not intelligent enough to make real decisions.  The fault is with whoever admitted you.” He frowned. “The world is made up of smart people and the ones who hold them back.  Not everyone is worthy of the tools to forge the stars in their image.”

I closed my eyes.  In truth, his words stung more than either of the slaps, or anything else he could Nudge me to do.

Because he was right.  My scores hadn’t been even close to good enough for Paragon’s admissions standards.  I wanted this more than anything, needed this as an out from my crumbling body, but that didn’t change the facts.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, barely more than a whisper.  “I’ll do my best to not disappoint you again.” I opened my eyes and stared at his feet, hunched over in a half-bow.  “Can you please teach me to defend myself so I don’t embarrass you again?”

“None of us have the time for that.”

“Then could you rent out books in the library for me, so that I could study them in my own time and learn the proper technique?”

His brow furrowed.  “Go rent them yourself.  Why would you ask me to, unless you – “  He clenched his teeth. “You want me to give you books above your library access?  Break federal law? Maybe the most important law in the entire Principality?” He clenched his fist, and for a moment I thought he was going to make me slap myself again, or worse.  “And here I thought you were learning.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, again, though it didn’t seem to be cooling his temper.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  I should have expected a response like this.

“Projection was kept secret from the Humdrums for a reason.  High-level Vocation Codices are hidden away for a reason.  When the professors screw up and let the wrong people read them, you get cases like the Pyre Witch.”  He flicked his wrist, and all the water faucets turned off. “Consider yourself lucky I don’t report you for this, and never mention it again.”  He nodded to Deon, and the boy opened the door.

________________________________________

The members of Golem squad spent the walk back to the dorms talking to each other.  I tuned them out, focusing instead on the scenery around us. The spires and buttresses and walkways of Paragon Academy.

After crossing several bridges, we reached a large marble building with the inscription Citrine Hall carved in large letters above the front door.

“If you’re studying now,” I said to Lorne, “could I join you?”

He rolled his eyes, stepping inside.  “Assistants aren’t allowed in dorms, idiot.”  Deon and Naru followed him. Inside, I caught a glimpse of the hall’s common room, a hexagonal chamber filled with plush couches and snack foods.  A group of students gathered around a crackling fireplace, chatting amongst themselves.

Lorne flicked his wrist, and the wooden door swung shut.  The sounds of laughter were muffled. Grey Coats are forbidden from dormitories.  Another reminder that I wasn’t a real student.

The door swung open, and Kaplen strode out, beaming, Tasia tailing behind.  “Afternoon, Ern.” A pair of bright green cat ears poked out of the top of his backpack.  Cardamom.

I forced a smile onto my face.  “What are you doing here?”

“Same class.  We were a few rows back from you, so you didn’t notice.”  He pointed back across the bridge, to the main island. “And I live here.”  He unslung his bag, reaching into it. Cardamom crawled partway out, nuzzling his ear.  How does he get into those places?  Kaplen pulled out a tray of brownies, extending it towards me.  “Want one? Fresh.”

Class only ended fifteen minutes ago.  “How?”

He winked.  “Slow baking is for Humdrums.”  He pulled out a corner piece, offering it.  “No Vocation, and my squad hates me, but, silver lining, I can make gourmet cakes really fast.”

I ate the piece to be polite.  It tasted like dust smelled, just like everything else I put in my mouth.  Tasia nibbled on another one, holding it in both hands.

“Plus, Tasia helped me finish my Physics of Matter review yesterday, so I had a spot of free time.”  He patted me on the shoulder. “We ever get access to a kitchen outside a dorm, we’ll let you know.” He and Tasia strode towards the bridge.  “Tasia and I need to go to the library. Wanna join us?”

Bt the time we reached the Great Library, the metal tray was empty.  Kaplen had eaten most of the brownies, a substantial feat, but Tasia had nibbled down a good dozen on her own.  The boy had offered seconds to me at least three separate times, until finally getting the hint.

Kaplen beckoned to the huge metal door in front of him, engraved with green Voidsteel.  “Shall we?”

The Great Library was the largest building in Paragon Academy, on the largest island.  In contrast to the more classical architecture of the rest of campus, it resembled an enormous cone made of marble and silver.  The base was a vast circle, and narrowed as it got higher. A single glittering spire stuck out from the top.

The front entrance had even more security than the rest of the academy.  The atrium floor was filled with guards. Several more wielding sniper rifles were perched on balconies above.  The only way forward was through a single hallway, where a checkpoint had been set up. All the doors and walls were lined with reinforced voidsteel.

“I hear that at least ten high-level Guardians guard this area at all times,” whispered Kaplen.  “But that they swap with the guards at random points during their shifts so nobody knows who they are.”

We approached the checkpoint.  I flashed my library card, my ID number, and gave them the answer to my subconscious key.  The moment I finished speaking, the guard passed his hand over my face, and I felt the memory of it fading again.

We passed through a long, dark marble hallway, lit only by dim lights on the ceiling.  Indoor waterfalls trickled on both our left and right, covering both walls. Tasia pushed open the door, and light flooded into my face.

The Principality’s Great Library was larger than the banquet hall.  Taller than the highest buildings I’d seen. The interior of the cone was a vast, open chamber, with circular levels extending upwards on the walls, and balconies all overlooking the central area.

Though I couldn’t see any windows, the space was filled with warm, natural sunlight, emanating from a crystal pillar extending from the floor to the ceiling, at least three hundred feet tall.  Many libraries had felt cramped, claustrophobic to me, but this felt even more open than the outside.

A mural was painted on the ceiling of the chamber, depicting great moments in the Principality’s history.  The Founding of Paragon. The Treaty of Silence. The Colonization of Ilaqua and the Neke Islands. All beneath the noble visage of Darius the Philosopher, all-knowing and kind, watching it all, and an unfurled scroll:

Forge the Stars in Your Image

Then, below it:

May You Strive to Become an Exemplar

I’d seen photos before, but none of them did this place the slightest bit of justice.

A hundred generations of Guardians had come before me, and before them, a thousand generations of Great Scholars in pursuit of enlightenment and peace.  And I was standing where they stood. A swell of pride rushed over me. For a moment, it overwhelmed the bitter fear.

Kaplen put a hand on my shoulder.  “Something, isn’t it?” He looked unfazed, but Tasia was wide-eyed with me, staring at the ceiling with fascination.  He strode towards a filigree metal staircase, and I followed him.

“That sun crystal over there,” said Tasia, her voice excited, “It’s the only one of its kind in the Eight Oceans.  A lot of historians speculate Paragon’s founders scavenged it from a Great Scholar city in the Far East.”

“You’re into history?”

She pointed to the artificial sun in the middle of the room.  “Nobody knows how that works. Nobody’s projecting into it. It doesn’t resemble any technology we’re familiar with.”  She pointed to the floor. “Nobody knows how Paragon floats, or why the grounds are always at room temperature with calm winds, even during winter, despite how high up we are.  It’s permanent, which breaks all the rules of projection we’re familiar with.”

“What are you saying?”

She smiled, an expression I hadn’t seen from her all day.  “The fundamentals aren’t as fundamental as we think. There are vast puzzles before us, everywhere we go, everywhere we see.  In the starless sky we look up at every night. Beneath the Eight Oceans that buried an entire civilization.” She leaned against a railing, staring at the vast expanse of books before her.  “And here, we can explore them all.”

I smiled back at her.  “Is that why you’re at the library today?”

Her smile curdled, and she went back to the stairwell.  “No.” Her voice was meek again.

We ascended floor by floor, passing more layers of guards, and students studying at tables, until we reached the highest one, and another security checkpoint.  The sign above the door read Level 1.

This is only Level Zero.  What kind of wonders existed on the next five?  None of the newspaper men were allowed up there, and nobody who’d been there was permitted to speak of it.  Back when they still ruled the Principality, the Conclave of the Wise had met many times on Level Five, where they decided the fate of nations.

Time to make another jump.  The thought made my stomach churn all over again.  If you play too careful, you’ll have no hopes of making it through the year.

“Kaplen.”  I indicated my head, and he stepped to the side with me.  “I want to ask you something.”

He bobbed his head up and down.  “Anything, of course!”

“You’ve been – “  I lowered my voice.  “You’ve been – you don’t have to put yourself at any risk for me.  You can say no to this, and I’ll be fine with it.”

He nodded.

“I need some books on Level 1.  No Vocation Codices, just theory books.  Defense. Stuff that should be public but hasn’t gone through all the approval red tape yet.”

He pulled away from me a hair.  “Any particular reason?”

“Lorne nudged me in the bathroom.  And he threatened me. I need – “ I closed my eyes.  “I need a way to defend myself.”

His suspicious expression softened.  “Ern, I’m so sorry.” Behind him, Tasia cleared the checkpoint, striding up the stairs.

“Where’s she going?”

He frowned.  “Studying on her own for the rest of the afternoon and evening.”

I rubbed my forehead.  “This school really is tough.”

Kaplen shook his head.  “Scholars know how, but she’s already finished her problem sets.  Girl’s trying to crack open an extracurricular. Research.”

“What, like a club or something?”

He shook his head again.  “She hasn’t told me. But something important, given the Level she’s going to.  Not my business to pry.”

Everyone’s got bloody secrets here.  I nodded.

Kaplen put a hand on my shoulder.  “I’ll do it,” he said. “I’ll help you.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“But in the meantime.”  He pointed to the checkpoint.  “Got my own studying to do for class.  Meet at the Silver Flask? Eight?”

I nodded.  He smiled, and strode off to the checkpoint.  The door shut behind him.

I strode back down the staircase, taking one more glance at Darius and his mural above me.  Forge the Stars in Your Image.  The towering ceiling of Level Zero.  The floor of Level One.

I’ll see the other side of that painting, I promised myself.  With Kaplen, and Tasia, and a plate of brownies I could taste.  One day, I’ll see it.

________________________________________

At the laundromat, I had to fold my uniform three times to get it right, after ironing it twice to force out all the wrinkles.  Access to the iron cost an extra five pounds. According to the Assistant’s Handbook, I was supposed to do this every week.

I could almost feel the difference in weight as I shelled out the bills.  I need a job.  Brin’s four hundred pounds wouldn’t last long, and I doubted he’d give me another penny until I learned how to defend my mind.

At The Silver Flask, Kaplen had passed me a bag full of books under the table, inviting me to a reasonably-priced dinner that I absolutely could not afford.  I’d refused in the politest way I knew how to, and returned to my pod for more canned lentils.

To his credit, Kaplen had procured every book I’d asked for, including Practical Pneumatology and Neurology and the Soul. Level One security was much more lax than the upper tiers, and they even let him take the books off-campus.

It only took a few days to fall into a routine.  At Paragon, I was only taking a handful more classes with Lorne.  Biology 112, with a bored-looking Guardian named Gemma, and a chemistry class with the Obsidian Foil, who began every class by showing us pictures of his wife, bragging about what a beautiful genius she was.

Even so, the homework and readings were enough to take up the remainder of my free time.  Kaplen invited me to his and Tasia’s study sessions in the library stacks, but he always seemed to go through the material faster.  Tasia always had to slow down and explain, and I got the impression she didn’t need a study group in the slightest.

And more often than not, both of them were busy, Tasia with her mysterious research, and Kaplen at his various parties.

Lorne let me copy the notes I’d taken, but refused to study with me.  Several times over the week, he’d order me to fetch him takeout meals from The Silver Flask, or iron his uniform.  It was nothing next to what Clementine had demanded, but it involved long trips on the tram, sucking up more of my time.

As a result, the vast majority of my studying was done alone.  I’d lie in my sleeping capsule at King’s Palace, flipping through the books until my eyes hurt, jotting down observations in my notebook while the hotel’s radio played in the background.

Most of it was soft swing music.  The only show I’d stop and listen to was Verity, with Christea Ronaveda.

On occasion, when I’d go to grab a meal from the storage area, I’d spot Wes Brown snoring on his mattress on the floor, underneath an indigo blanket.  On occasion, he’d manage a grunt that vaguely resembled “Hello”.

Judging by my counts, the boy was definitely stealing lentils from me, but given how desperate he was, I decided not to bring it up.

Now, in addition to a shortage of money, I was low on time, too.  Most nights, I chose to go over Brin’s anti-nudging books rather than make sense of my science courses.  I turned over the concept of the Empty Book in my head, practicing the defense technique until my head hurt.

On the last night of the week, I found myself on the roof of Nolwen’s Soda Fountain again, leaning against a flower box.  Ten minutes after our designated meeting time, Isaac Brin descended from the pitch-black sky, wearing a dark blue combat uniform.

I stood up.  “Major Brin, I just wanted to say – “

The pressure squeezed the edges of my mind again.  “Lie on your back. Don’t project or move.”

I obeyed him, the Nudging itch pressing me forward to heed his every command.  Don’t resist directly, I reminded myself, it’s not about willpower.

The tiles of the roof were cold and hard.  Now we find out whether I’m fucked or not.  I called upon the defensive technique I’d been taught, the history of Nudging I’d read about, and the concept of the Empty Book.  The tools I’d sacrificed my homework and sleep to gain.

I grouped everything into a mental spear inside my mind, and pushed, willing my mind back to its normal state.  Auditory, executive, motor control, in that order.  I focused everything into those areas, on revising my mind away from Brin’s influence.

Nothing.  I didn’t get up.  It still didn’t feel right.

This isn’t a test of strength, I reminded myself, it’s about precision.  Rashi’s First Law of Projection stated that to control something, you had to understand it first.  I pictured the precise ways in which the complex web of my Pith was being edited, every bundle of connections that Brin was shifting.  And I projected into them, willing them to shift back.

The urge to stay still remained.  My arms didn’t budge.

“Did you study?”  Brin said, in a dismissive tone.

“Yes!”  I shouted.  “I studied the Empty Book, and the Pith, and everything.  Why isn’t this working?”  My voice raised back to my normal feminine pitch and resonance.  Anabelle, not Ernest. “How is this so easy for everyone else?”

“Projection is half intuition, half knowledge,” said Brin, watering the plants with a sphere of water.  “The first half also means talent.  A full Humdrum can study theory his entire life and get nothing.”

“But I’m not a Humdrum.”  The anger slipped into my voice.

“Yes, but these things come in degrees.  You might be mostly a Humdrum.  Most students at Paragon can block Nudging with barely any training, because they have natural ability, a mind that easily grasps the intuition.”  He turned off the hose, and I felt him choke my mind again.  “I release you from all Nudges.”

My arms dropped by my sides, and I crawled up to a sitting position.  “Isn’t there anything else you can try?”

“If you can’t summon up the basics, there’s not much I can do.”  He looked up to the lights of Paragon. “We’ll meet again next week.”  He strode to the edge of the roof. “Sorry, kid.”

I stood up.  “Wait, please!  I – “

He leapt off the edge and soared into the air, a spectre in the dark sky.

As his figure shrunk in the distance, Lorne’s words echoed in my head: The world is made up of smart people and the ones who hold them back.

I strode back down the stairs, making my way back to the motel.

________________________________________

I should be studying, I thought, staring at the ceiling of my tiny pod.  Or at least sleeping.  It felt decadent to wallow in my self-loathing like this, like a waste of a valuable resource.

But if I was being honest with myself, there wasn’t much point to it.  I could redouble my efforts, review everything I’d already gone over a hundred times, but chances were, I’d get the same result.  And my odds of winning Lorne’s approval got slimmer by the day.

The look on Brin’s face was familiar.  I’d seen it before from my parents, after telling them about my dream to go to Paragon, or when I took fewer shifts at the auto factory to study for the exam.

To them, it was always a false hope.  Even when they found out my body was decaying, they thought my dreams would only cause me more pain in my final years.  And put further strain on their thin finances.

In the end, I’d stolen money from them, to buy my tickets to Elmidde and my first week of rent.  I’d pulled out cash from their savings while they slept, money they needed. All to pursue this dream, in the hopes I’d send back boatloads when I became a Guardian.

I need something to distract me.  Then I could at least go to sleep and forget about all this until morning.

I pulled myself out of bed and walked over to the radio, flipping it on to the lowest volume so it wouldn’t wake anyone else up.  I leaned against it for what felt like an hour, listening to old reruns of the same tunes from this morning.

Then Verity came on.  The host’s perky voice filtered through the radio.  “Welcome to Verity, the only radio talk show that tells you nothing but the truth, Scholars help my producers.  I’m Christea Ronaveda, and my Vocation mandates that I speak only with the purest candor.”

I sat up, listening in.  I hadn’t caught it earlier today, needing to pick up lunch for Lorne.

“I can extend my Vocation to others at the drop of a hat, but the courts banned me from using it on witnesses, so here I am!  Making dough for my rat bastard execs, especially you, Charlie, you greedy nymphomaniac.  Don’t think we don’t notice the ‘dates’ you bring on set.  We all notice. Please don’t fire me.”

Another voice from the radio.  One of her co-hosts, whose name I forgot.  “How are you doing this morning, Christea?”

Christea maintained her cheery host’s voice.  “Very bad, Billy. I drank too much last night, and ate this awful fermented cod, so I was woken up by gruesome diarrhea.  In fact, as soon as we’re done taping this, I’m going to run to the bathroom and squeeze out what remains of my colon.” She burped.  “That, and my shrink diagnosed me as manic-depressive yesterday. It sure makes sense, but fuck if I don’t resent him for it. I really hope you’re not listening to this, Jimmy.”

The show continued.  Their main guest was John Calpeur, the President of Commonplace, who explained the policies of his organization while voluntarily under the effect of Christea’s ability.  “We don’t hate Epistocrats,” he said. “To clarify, I hate Epistocrats, but Commonplace – our political organization – doesn’t officially hate them.  I was trying to mislead you with that earlier statement that was technically true.”

Christea laughed.  “Sorry, Mr. Calpeur, but you can’t deliberately misdirect anyone or leave out key details while under my Vocation.  I tried that when I first got this condition, and my husband still found out I was cheating on him.”

“The most important thing I want to say,” Mr. Calpeur said, “Is that we don’t support terrorism.  Full stop. We’re just looking for more accountability from Paragon, better democratic protections in Parliament, and justice for the victims of mental hijacking.  I have no ties to any of the disgusting acts of violence committed against innocents in the Principality, and those monsters do not have our support.”

Really?  I figured he would have at least some secret connections to Commonplace’s violent underbelly.

“We’re holding a nonviolent rally this weekend.  We’re marching down First Avenue all the way up to Paragon’s cable car station. If you believe in the future of this nation, then join us.  All are welcome.”

They’d been holding events like these regularly.  More often than not, they ended with riot police and tear gas.  This seemed like the biggest one yet.

Then it clicked for me.

I flicked off the radio, sprinting out of the room.

I pulled open the door of my cramped storage unit, flipping on the lights.  “Hey. Wes. Wake up.” I poked him on the cheek. “You ever run a heist before?”

Wes leapt upright from beneath his indigo blanket.  He banged the back of his head against the wall, adding to his numerous injuries.  “Blarghaghu shfmafwe,” he muttered, cradling the point of impact.  “Shleep Shleep want.  What this?”  He rubbed his hair, a tousled mess of light brown strands.

“That rally this weekend is going to occupy both Commonplace and the Police, especially if it gets violent.  While they’re distracted, we’re taking up the Scholar of Mass on his offer for an info bounty, and selling him some intelligence.”

Wes straightened himself, looking more lucid by the second.  “How?”

I’ll prove to Brin I can do this without Nudging defense.  That I don’t need his Empty Book.  “We’re breaking into Commonplace’s offices.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




3-C The Empty Book

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

The fog was all around the cable car, a grey barrier enclosing us on all sides.  It was impossible to see beyond, appearing to go on forever.

The first thing I heard was the music.  An orchestral arrangement, weaving together strings and horns and several instruments I had never heard before.  Echoing from every direction.

Then we passed out of the fog, and the cabin filled with warm sunlight.  The clouds had been parted above, leaving the sky a clear, bright blue.

And we could see Paragon Academy.  Seeing it from a distance was incredible enough, but up close was something else entirely.

The tall, vast chamber of the banquet hall on the main island.  The silver spires and marble battlements of the Great Library sparkled above it with a hundred glittering points, towering over everything.  All floating on massive islands of rock, suspended by some unknown projection and connected with wooden bridges.

A miniature city in the clouds, just for us.

The song was triumphant, swelling to greater and greater heights by the second without a moment’s rest, adding on one melody after another.  Entreating us to give forth our hearts for Paragon Academy, for the defense of our nation, for the tradition of so many centuries we’d become a part of.

I felt a rush of pride, swelling up inside me until it felt like I might burst.  No matter what I’d done in the past few weeks, I was here. At the crossroads of so many minds, all unified for a common goal, a common love.

Only one composer in the Eight Oceans was capable of producing such a sound.  This must be the Symphony Knight’s.  It was a new piece, something I’d never heard before.

Huge hoops floated in the air, targets for flight training.  Guardians in wingsuits flew through them, spinning in midair.  Two of them crossed each other, passing so close it seemed they’d crash, and released a cacophony of bright green fireworks, spurting multicolored smoke around them.

There were dozens more flying Guardians, flitting about in intricate patterns.  They all released fireworks of their own, explosions of blue and red and yellow, billowing into clouds of their own.

Instead of dispersing, the smoke flowed together in the air, coalescing into the shapes of four men and women, each a hundred feet tall.  Rana the Monk. Akhara the Polymath. Tegudar the General. And, of course, Darius the Philosopher. The Four Eternals.  The most famous of the Great Scholars, the ideological foundations of the world’s nation-states.

Catching a glimpse of movement, I looked straight up.  Sebastian Oakes was running on top of the cable, balancing like a tightrope walker.  He was smiling, not exerting himself at all. He did a front flip, pushing off the line with his fingers and landing without slowing down.  Joining.

In the face of such miraculous brilliance, what hope did thugs like Clementine have?

A zeppelin was parked on the opposite end of the banquet hall.  Caterers rushed to and fro, unloading boxes and carting them into the kitchens nearby.  Guess that’s another way to get up here.

The cable car slid into the upper station, passing a pair of mounted machine guns, each manned by a guard.  Another set of security procedures awaited us when we stepped off, this time from a Guardian, a tall woman in full reinforced armor, backed up by another suite of guards with rifles.

When it was my turn, I approached her, holding up my library card.

“Do you know what a subconscious key is?” she said.

I nodded.

“Do you already have one?”

I shook my head.

“I’m installing one now.  Do not get any others installed, as they will interfere with it.  If you wish to coordinate with your bank or other security organizations, we can assist.”  She touched her thumb to my forehead, closing her eyes.

I couldn’t feel anything.  “Is it done?”

She removed her thumb.  “A careful mind conquers kingdoms.  Don’t get drunk when your palms are dry.”   The trigger phrases. Two aphorisms that wouldn’t normally be spoken next to each other.

Unbidden, another sentence burst from my subconscious, something fundamentally associated with the combination of words she’d just said.  I said them out loud. “Reason through qualia tames burning hearts.”

She pressed her thumb against my forehead, and I felt the memory of the words I’d just heard slip away, though they were still buried somewhere in my subconscious, encrypted.  Now, even if I was captured, tortured, and had my Pith dissected, the assailants wouldn’t be able to steal my body and impersonate me.

Paragon takes security pretty seriously.  But in today’s world, it made sense.

The woman waved me through, and I stepped into the entrance atrium, into what could only be described as a circus.

The room was huge, sporting a slanted glass ceiling and spherical red lanterns floating throughout the air.  Its architecture was both classical and modern, made of wood, metal, and marble, full of giant windows and covered with filigree metal.  A fountain of Darius the Philosopher burbled in the middle of the room. The space was packed with students, shouting, chatting with each other, shoulder to shoulder, filling the space.

Booths lined the walls of the area, manned by upperclassmen handing out free items.  One boy floated a hundred champagne flutes into a hundred open hands, and flicked his wrist, shooting a hundred streams of expensive-looking grape juice into them.  A girl threw handfuls of pins into the air, tiny brass fists holding scrolls, and projected into them to attach them to students.

To my left, a boy who couldn’t have been over nineteen shouted trivia questions to a crowd of rapt students.  “What Great Scholar invented the vocation of forced transference?”

A few students shouted out names, and he shook his head.  One of them raised her hand. “Shawar Tauqi!”

He grinned.  “And why is she called the Liar’s Puppet?”

“Her…” the girl struggled for a moment.  “- uncle. Ran an attempted coup that abused her technique to steal the emperor’s body.”

The boy pulled a silver watch from his bag and tossed it to her.  She caught it, matching his grin.

Surrounded by so many stunning faces, it was hard not to feel flustered and self-conscious.  All the assistants and servants stuck out, myself included. Next to so many red-hot people, ordinary looked ugly, even repulsive.

Those who weren’t occupied with the booths were streaming forward through the halls, corralled by shouting upperclassmen.  “Alabaster hall here! Alabaster hall with me!” One of them shouted, crossing his legs and hovering five feet off the ground.  People split off into groups, each led by a single older student, headed down a different hallway.

I approached one.  “Excuse me? Where do – “

He jabbed his thumb to his right.  “Assistants with Berthel.”

A man leaned against a tiny wooden door, wearing a grey uniform of his own, slouching and stuffing a sandwich into his mouth.  In comparison to the beauty around him, he was short, middle-aged, with a huge nose and a wrinkled forehead. Berthel, no doubt.  Probably another low-level administrator.

I walked up to him.  “Um, hi. Are you Berthel?”

He stared at me, chewing a piece of his sandwich and swallowing.  ”Incredible.” His voice was a flat monotone. “With deduction like that, no wonder you got in.”  He went back to eating.

I stood next to him, waiting.  The other assistants gathered around us, all unsure what to do.  When all of them were here, Berthel pushed open the door behind him.  He strode through it, and all of us followed, hesitant. We ascended a spiral staircase, and passed through a windowless hallway that was made of dark red stone

 After several minutes of walking, Berthel pulled a key from the ring on his belt, and unlocked a door.

It was a lecture hall, shaped like an amphitheatre, with rows of wooden benches and desks in a semicircle around a podium.  Every desk had a thick hardcover book on it. The assistants poured into it, sitting down.

Berthel coughed.  All eyes turned to him.  “Listen, because I won’t repeat any of this.  You are here to assist certain students who have been selected by the Academic Committee.  You will take notes for them in specific classes, assist them in studying, and procure anything they should need for their studies.”

We’re glorified secretaries.  But we got to sit in on Paragon classes.

He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his jacket.  “Your assignments are here. But first, let me emphasize, because at least one person every year seems to forget the incredibly obvious and waste everyone’s time.  You will not access higher levels of the Great Library You will not go to office hours, or take up the professors’ time with inane questions. You will receive grades on assignments, but no comments.  Unless supervised by your assigned student, you will not enter dormitories or the banquet hall. You are not assigned squads, and you will not participate in battles.” He spoke in a flat drawl. “In short, you are not students.  At five in the afternoon, you will board the cable car and go home.”

I slouched over, sinking into the chair.  I’d expected something along these lines, but nothing this hostile.

“You will not speak of anything that happens in these halls, to anyone.  You will not project outside Paragon Academy. Violation of these rules will be met with immediate expulsion, and mental erasure of everything you’ve learned here.  Your subconscious key will be rotated every week.”

“What are the books for?”  A short boy sitting in front of me spoke up.  I looked down at it. The title read Assistant Handbook Vol 17.  

“Have all the procedures memorized by the end of the week.”  He stepped out, dropping the paper on the podium. “Wait here.  Someone will get you. Bathroom is out the door, left, and left.  Don’t wander.” The door slammed behind him.

The room went silent.  I could still hear the sounds of fireworks and the Symphony Knight’s music in the distance, but they were far away, muffled.  Everyone wants me to wait and not move.

“Whaleshit,” muttered the boy in front of me.  “At least the fuckers could pay us.”

Nobody responded to him, though I was sure that many agreed.  If we speak up, they could expel us for that, too.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said.  “I’m going to earn my spot.”  He flicked his wrist, and the assignments paper floated into his open palm.  After a second, he snorted, and handed it back to me.

I took it, scanning the page for my fake name.

Ernest Chapman | Lorne Daventry (Second Year, Golem Squad)

The Daventries were an esteemed Epistocrat family, wealthier than many of the others put together.  Several of them were war heroes, as I recalled, and one of them was married to the Symphony Knight herself.  That could be good.

I gave the page to the girl next to me, and flipped open the assistant’s handbook to the first page.  The font was tiny, with paragraphs that took up almost the entire page. I skimmed past the forward, which involved the author pontificating on previous versions of the handbook, and the prologue, which expounded on the meticulous history of assistants at Paragon Academy.  I couldn’t afford to waste time.

Chapter One: Dress Code and Uniform Maintenance.  I internally sighed.  This is going to be a long week.  But if this was necessary to become a full-time student and a Guardian, I’d grit my teeth and swallow.

By the time I got to chapter two, my eyes were sore from squinting, and my stomach was aching with hunger.  The clock on the wall read 2:00 PM. They wouldn’t eat the opening feast without us, would they?

That would hurt, more than any of the other treatment we’d gotten today.  I’d pictured myself at that banquet many times, with a fresh body, tasting food for the first time in almost a decade.  An epic return to my full sensory input, complete with platters of lamb chops and towers of custard tarts, washed down with the famous Mulled Cider and conversation with the other students, my new friends.

I wouldn’t have that today either way, thanks to my broken taste buds, but it was still an iconic moment of every year at Paragon Academy.  There would be speeches, a procession of some of the most famous and deadly people in the Eight Oceans. They were closed to journalists, but everyone always knew about them, somehow

I was halfway through chapter two when the door burst open, revealing Berthel, now wearing a suit and jacket.  The ironed fabrics looked odd on his body, and he looked uncomfortable to be wearing them. “Come,” he said. Finally.

We followed him through more corridors, down cramped staircases, passing groups of students talking and laughing amongst themselves.  “No wrinkles on your uniforms,” he said. As per the dress code. We passed through a dark hallway, lit only by a single dim lantern overhead.

He pushed open a door, and the passage flooded with light.  Before us was Paragon Academy’s Banquet Hall. I’d seen it half a hundred times in photographs and pamphlets, but as with the cable car ride, it was altogether different in person.

The glass ceiling extended at least a hundred feet above me, open to the glaring noon sun.  Circular tables filled the space, draped with deep blue tablecloths, set with sparkling silverware and white porcelain teacups.  No food, yet. My stomach churned, aching, reminding me I should have eaten a larger breakfast.

The far end of the room was raised maybe ten feet above the rest, at the top of a short staircase.  The teacher’s table sat there, empty, along with the Headmaster’s carved wooden chair.

Students flooded through the huge main doors, both first-years and older, flocking to the tables in packs and sitting down, pouring themselves tea.  The assistants, in contrast, had been shuffled through a tiny portcullis on the side of the room. We had emerged in an area cordoned off by a chest-level wooden railing, with only two rows of benches pushed up against the wall.  It reminded me of the box juries sat in during trials.

“Sit,” said Berthel.  “Do not stand up. Do not slouch or speak.  If you have to piss, project it into a vent somewhere.  You will be fed.” He went across the hall, passing through another side door.

While the hall filled up, I stared at the students.  Young boys and girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three.  College-age, somewhere in the middle of teenage years and young adulthood.  Until today, I had never seen so many beautiful faces packed together in one space.  Most of them weren’t even wearing makeup, their fabricated bodies sporting smooth skin and red lips.  It was like a fashion show, if all the red-hot models were showcasing school uniforms.

It was a reminder.  You don’t belong here, a nagging voice whispered in my head.  The students here were stunning, bright, graceful.  Natural-born winners, who could handle the intense schoolwork and pressure they were about to face.  The geniuses we entrusted to defend the Principality.

You failed the entrance exam.  Right now, there was some other kid whose rightful spot I was taking.  My stomach clenched. Don’t think about that.

One of those people was Lorne Daventry, the boy I was supposed to assist, but they hadn’t supplied us pictures to go with the names.  His family was famous, or infamous, depending on who you asked. Maybe I could find someone to point me in the right direction.

The hall had filled up, the flow of students slowing, then stopping.  The huge metal doors of the Banquet Hall had been swung shut. Everyone was talking amongst themselves, emphatic, excited.  A few of them occasionally glanced at the door, as if waiting for something.

The peal of a bell echoed around the room, loud and clear, coming from every direction at once.  The sound faded, and everyone went silent.

The doors burst open, and all hands burst into applause.  The boy in front of me was taller than I was, and I had to stretch my head around to look, squinting.  Two dozen men and women strode down the central walkway. I recognized almost all of them. The Professors.

At the front was Isaac Brin, the Scholar of Mass, looking straight forward.  He wore a long brown coat over his suit, dark brown hair combed in neat rows with his sideburns.  Dressed up and formal, he looked completely different from our meetings.

Behind him was the sole foreigner in the group, Charles Hou, a slender, pretty Shenti man with light blue hair, grinning and pointing at students around the room, shouting greetings I couldn’t hear over the clapping.  The professor flicked his wrist at a nearby teapot, and it floated above him, pouring a stream of liquid into his open mouth.

Hou was a body designer, the undisputed best in the Principality, who had designed the faces of half the Epistocrats in Hightown.  And according to the papers, he was having affairs with the other half. After seeing him in person now, I could believe it.

Isabelle Corbin came next.  The Symphony Knight.  The Scholar of Music.  A tall, slender woman with wavy maroon hair, wearing a dark purple gown with long sleeves extending up to her wrists.  She smiled and waved at the students, muttering greetings to the ones closest to her.

When the last Guardian ambled through, the applause doubled in Volume.  On the surface, there was nothing special about him, just a middle-aged man with an unkempt black beard, long hair, and a simple beige suit.  Though the man’s body was in perfect shape, he was off-balance, wobbling on his feet. Sebastian Oakes walked beside him, holding his shoulder to stabilize him.  Penny Oakes, his wife, strode next to him.

Headmaster Nicholas Tau.  The greatest projector alive.  And quite possibly the oldest.

The Symphony Knight, Oakes, The Headmaster.  And Florence Tuft, who didn’t seem to be present.  Collectively known as the Four Pillars, named because they made up the foundations of the Principality’s national defense.

These were some of the deadliest people in the Eight Oceans.  I’d read their biographies, newspaper articles, seen them performing stunts at publicity events.  And here they all were, strolling in front of me.

One by one, they ascended the stairs, taking their places at the professor’s table above us.  Headmaster Tau ignored his chair, instead leaning on a podium at the edge of the balcony. He picked up a sheaf of papers, reading from them.  “The first projectors were not warriors.” His voice was loud, echoing around the hall. “They were scholars. Scientists. Philosophers of the mind.  They cared only about unlocking the fundamental laws of creation, discovering the deepest truths of the mind and reaching the furthest point of Enlightenment.  Striving to become Exemplars. None of them could have imagined turning their powers on each other.” His voice grew heavy. “The first projector to use his power as a weapon killed all the rest in less than three hours, hoarding all their knowledge for himself.  You now know him as Ur-Nagir, the First Butcher.”

The room was dead silent, honing in on every word.

“Entire armies of Humdrums fell before his vocations.  Whole countries were culled by his monstrous whims. He ruled humanity undefeated for more than eighty years.  Old age was the only weapon that could bring him low, and bring his knowledge into the light.” He gazed over all of us, clutching the railing.  “We will not repeat our ancestors’ mistake. Whether you’re a first-year or graduating next spring, you will learn to master the natural elements, study the nuances of the Pith and the sciences.”  He paused for effect. “But above all, you will learn to fight. You will carry forth the privileged gift of knowledge and wield it as a shield for the people of this nation.”

Not assistants.  I thought of my white library card, the lowest ranking one possible.  Only full-time students, Guardians, and members of Parliament were trusted with access to higher levels of the Great Library.  Even after many of the secrets of the Projection were exposed, members of the public like me still didn’t know what kind of earth-shattering vocations were up there.

But there was speculation.  Conspiracy theories. Codices that taught one how to alter the fundamental laws of physics, turn Piths into bombs that could level cities or reshape them to unleash near-infinite intelligence.

Rumor had it, Nicholas Tau had mastered them all.

The Headmaster looked up from his sheet of paper.  “Only thirteen years ago, a Guardian, a woman who walked these same halls, fell in love with her power, just like the First Butcher.  She decided she was powerful enough to defeat friend and foe alike, and since then, has burned more than ten thousand people alive.”

The Pyre Witch.  The madwoman who had exposed the hidden world of projection to the Humdrums.  A blood-soaked hero of the Shenti war who got too good at killing.

“It is not enough to be intelligent.  Your judgement must also be. Must also be…“ he stopped, scanning the paper.  “You now know him as Ur-Nagir, the First Butcher.” His voice was hesitant, unsure.  “Entire armies of Humdrums fell before his vocations.”

There were awkward murmurs among the students.  He’s repeating himself.  Did he forget reading that section already?  Sebastian Oakes stood up, whispering into Tau’s ear and pointing at a spot on the page.

The Headmaster sagged, pressing his eyes shut.  “Apologies.” He flashed a nervous smile at the audience.  “Not to worry.” He cleared his throat. “The, um, path to Enlightenment comes from the right of wisdom to…”  He fell silent again, staring at the page. “The path to Enlightenment comes with. May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.”

He can’t read the words.

Sebastian Oakes squeezed his shoulder and guided him back to his chair.  Tau sank into his seat with a dazed look on his face. There was a moment of awkward silence.  It was heartbreaking to see the Headmaster this senile. You can replace the body, but the Pith still ages.

Then Florence Tuft started clapping, and everyone joined her in a wave of uncomfortable applause.  Sebastian Oakes stood up. “Let the feast begin!” he shouted.

More applause.  Servants poured out of side doors throughout the room, arms heavy with trays and platters.  There were swarms of them, more than I could count, all working in perfect sync.  

Before I knew it, every table was covered with all the food I’d dreamed of.  Bangers and mash. Peach cobbler. Shepherd’s pie, still steaming and hot. There was even a smattering of foreign foods.  A platter of dumplings that looked Shenti. A bowl of bubbling orange Ilaquan curry. Steaming mugs of mulled cider.

None of them came for us.  There was no assistant’s table.  Maybe they serve us next.  I waited, watching the waiters drop off dishes.  One by one, they streamed back into the tiny doors they came from, until there were only a handful left, refilling teapots and taking orders.

Were we not supposed to eat at the feast?  Were we to eat leftovers with the servants?  Or did they just forget about us? I wasn’t sure which was worse.

My stomach grumbled again.  The nearest table was only a handful of yards away, close enough that I could smell the prime rib one of the students was cutting, and the baked apples he was eating with it.

This is absurd.  Beside me, other grey coats were staring longingly at the food just out of reach, or glaring at passing servants.

A handsome, cherubic red-haired boy approached us from one of the tables in the middle, an assortment of plates floating behind him.  His round, large eyes darted to his left and right, as if he was sneaking somewhere.

A cat was draped over his shoulder, bright green and covered with thick fur.  Students in his path shifted their chairs away from him, uncomfortable. One girl stood up and walked away, covering her face with her napkin.  The boy drew disapproving glares wherever he walked. Is he sick, or something?

He leaned against the wooden railing separating us, beaming.  “Evening, chaps. Anyone hungry?”

A cake knife floated behind him, cutting slices out of a lamb and rosemary pie and scooping them onto plates.  He spread his arms wide, and the plates floated towards us. A few assistants hesitated, or pushed them away. Still afraid of breaking the rules.  If not eating was even a rule.  Or afraid that he has a disease.

“Don’t worry,” he said, scratching between the green cat’s ears.  “Cardamom isn’t that contagious. The thing you’re thinking of requires prolonged exposure to spread.”

“Um,” I said, looking down at the slice of pie in front of me.  “So, is this okay? I mean, is it allowed by the professors and everyone?”

He laughed, light and stuttered and somehow reassuring.  “They like to talk big to spook us, but they’re not going to expel anyone for eating.  Yell at us, maybe, but that’s it.” He pushed the floating plate closer to me. “Seriously, try it.  It’s the best thing here and they only serve it twice a year.”

I sliced off a piece with my fork, scooping it into my mouth.  It tasted like sawdust.

“Good, right?  One of these days, I’m going to hunt down that chef and make him teach me his recipe.”

I nodded, casting my gaze to the floor.  He was the only person here who’d shown any kindness, and I didn’t want to ruin it by being a downer.  A handful of other assistants followed my lead, but most just avoided eye contact with the boy. I ate more, softening the ache in my stomach.

“I’m Kaplen,” he said.  “Kaplen Ingolf. Anyone want to join us?  We’ve got plenty of space.” He gestured behind him.  Almost all the round tables were filled, except for one in the middle, occupied by a single black-haired girl and no one else.

Sitting with the students was almost certainly forbidden.  I should keep my head down.  It wouldn’t do to bring undue suspicion down on me.

Kaplen extended his hand, still smiling.  “In my experience, the first week is a great time to meet new friends.”

I felt a surge of warmth rush over me.  “Sure,” I found myself saying. I moved towards him, climbing over the railing and praying none of the teachers were looking my way.  It felt like I’d just gone over a ten-foot wall.

He strode back to his table, petting Cardamon.  I followed him. “Again, nothing to fear. You won’t catch Maojun that easily.”

I glanced behind me.  None of the other assistants were following my lead.  “Maojun?”

“I forget.  You’re still new here, and you clearly didn’t grow up in Hightown.”  He craned his neck to look at me. “Maojun is a neural bacteria.  It spreads through cats to humans and other mammals.  Totally harmless, but it targets your brain, makes you like cats a lot more than you would otherwise.”  The words tumbled out of his mouth, scattershot and rapid.  “Some people think it’s one of the reasons cats became so ubiquitous as pets.  That and the rat-eating.”

So that’s why they’re avoiding him.

Cardamom licked Kaplen’s ear, purring.  “It’s not as contagious as most people think, but it spreads from mother to child, so about eighty percent of humans have it now.  But new fabricated bodies don’t come with it at all.” He beckoned to the beautiful faces surrounding him. “So, Epistocrats hate cats.  Felines are for commoners, or brainwashed suckers.”

“So why do you like them?”

We reached his near-empty table.  “I liked cats when I was a kid, and I liked them after Paragon gave me this body.”  The bright green cat nuzzled his cheek. “Some other students treat me like I have the plague, but who cares?  Cardamom’s supported me for ten years, and I’m not about to send him away.” He scratched the cat behind his ears, smiling.

I mirrored him, sitting down a few seats away.  The girl at the table stole a glance at me with almond-shaped eyes, then looked back down to her food.  Like Kaplen, like almost everyone in this school, she was flawless, sporting high cheekbones and clear, unblemished skin.  She brushed a strand of black hair out of her face.

“This is – what’s your name?”

“Ernest Chapman.”  What a terrible name.

“Ernest, this is Tasia.  She’s also new here.”

She gave us a wan smile.  “I’d rather not talk about it, if that’s alright.”

We shared a look, and I nodded.  I didn’t feel like discussing my history either.  If I was being honest with myself, I was happy letting the extrovert at the table do most of the talking for both of us.

Kaplen continued, turning to me.  “Ern – Can I call you Ern?”

“Sure,” I said, hating it.  It’s still better than ‘Ernest Chapman’.

“If you want, I can give you the full tour of Paragon Academy later.  Normal students get it on their own, but from what I’ve heard grey coats are just expected to read a map or something.“

I nodded again, feeling another rush of warmth.  Does he just pity me, or does he actually want to spend time with me?

“But in the meantime, I can tell you who’s who in this place, while we enjoy this extravagant cuisine.”  He beckoned to the raised area where the teachers sat. “You’re already familiar with the celebrities among us, right?  Symphony Knight. Oakes. The Headmaster.”

I nodded.

“All rather awe-inspiring, aren’t they?  I’d say you get used to them, but every now and then one of them pulls out a flashy vocation or war story or some bit of advice, and you remember they’re on a totally different level than us.”

“How so?”  Tasia spoke up, raising an eyebrow.

“When someone enhances their mind that much, they feel different, more often than not.  It’s sort of hard to explain.  The distance between you and them feels so far.  If you ever get a chance to talk face-to-face, you’ll understand.”  He smiled. “Us students on the other hand, are relatively human. For better or worse.”

I looked around, at all the immaculate faces chatting, eating, laughing.  They’re a lot prettier than most humans.

Kaplen cleared his throat.  “Unlike normal schools, Paragon Academy’s cliques usually get formed from the four-man battle squads.  They fight together, take classes together, and generally become the best of friends. Emphasis on generally.”  He pointed to a table down the way with four broad-shouldered men.  “Cyclops squad. Led by Ralph Corbiere. Sports jocks, but don’t let that fool you into underestimating their strats.  They were ranked number two last semester in squad battles, with no remarkable vocations among any of them.”

I looked around the room from one table to the next, while Kaplen pointed out all of the high-ranking squads, the popular ones, the ones that had all the money.  Pegasus Squad. Phoenix, Centaur, Leviathan, Sphinx. One mythical creature after another.

Kaplen pointed at a group sitting with each other, two girls and one boy.  “Chimera Squad. Number One in squad battles, until Nell Ebbridge, their leader, got expelled, Ousted, and memory-wiped.”

My blood froze.  I recognized two of them.  A boy and a girl, one dirty blonde, the other platinum.  Samuel and Eliya.  The pair I’d fought last week during my body heist, who’d called me a freak, threatened to boil me alive.  As expected, they were unblemished, wearing fresh bodies with no sign of the wounds I’d dealt.

I forced myself to take deep breaths.  They didn’t see this body.  As long as I kept my Vocation under wraps, they wouldn’t recognize me.

Still, it might be best to keep my distance.

The three were silent, not talking to one another.  Samuel was slouched over, bags under his eyes, looking exhausted.  “What happened to their leader?” I asked.

Kaplen’s smile faltered.  “Bad grades.” He rubbed his head, breathing deeply.  “That’s all it takes here. Paragon doesn’t like teaching projection to unworthy students.”

Tasia was hunched over, shoulders tense.  She ate her food, silent, not making eye contact with either of us.

“Who’s Ebbridge’s replacement?”

Tasia inched her hand upward, lifting a single finger.  All the squads are sitting together, except her’s.  Maybe they were still mourning their old leader.  I wanted to ask, but Kaplen was saying nothing. Shut up, and don’t make them hate you.

One of the Chimeras, a muscular Shenti girl with black hair, had an unusually plain face, sporting a wide nose, lopsided cheekbones, and a square jaw.  Next to everyone at Paragon Academy, it looked downright ugly. “Who’s that?”

“Leizu Yao.  The girl who ran across the ocean. Rumor is, she was on the shortlist to be the youngest commando alive when she defected from the Shenti.  Wears her birth body so she can join.”

Crazy fucking zealots.  Not much of their beliefs were still alive, but the Shenti still hated transference.  In my hometown, many of them had bullied me after I’d swapped over.

Another Easterner approached her from behind, a tall Neke boy.  He pulled a book from his bag, opening it and waggling it in front of her.  The Ninety-Nine Precepts.  The Shenti sacred text, that had turned millions towards fanaticism.  Thankfully, nobody in the Eight Oceans was capable of reading it anymore.

Leizu said nothing, eating her food and ignoring him.  The Neke boy grinned, and said something I couldn’t hear.  The girl stopped eating. Her hand darted out behind her, grabbing his lapel in a move that should have dislocated her shoulders.

Without changing her expression or turning to face him, she whipped her arm upwards, flinging the Neke boy forty feet into the air.  The book, and the dinner roll he was holding flew with him. He shouted, arcing over everyone’s heads as all eyes turned to him.

Five feet before he would have landed in a bowl of cod soup, he froze in midair, his limbs flailing.

A boy with black hair and blue eyes stood up from a nearby table, beautiful even in comparison to those around him.  He extended his arm towards the unfortunate victim, clenching his teeth. The Neke boy floated towards him and landed at his feet with a grunt.  The handsome boy helped him upright.

“Who’s that?”  I indicated my head at the handsome boy.

Kaplen looked away from me.  “That’s the leader of Golem Squad.  Lorne Daventry.”

My stomach clenched.  So that’s him.  The boy I was to assist.  My boss for the next nine months, assuming I lasted that long.

Lorne sat back down with the Neke boy, and another boy, thick-jawed with a blonde crew cut.  There were at least three empty seats on both sides between them and the nearest student. The people here were giving them a wide berth.  “What do you know about them?”

“Erm.”  Kaplen brushed crumbs off his shirt.  “I’m their fourth member.”

So they’re both outcasts.  I decided not to ask why he wasn’t sitting with them.  “You guys good?”

“We’re smack in the middle of the rankings, but only because Lorne over there was banned from using his Vocation in war games.“

“Why?”


“Too lethal.  He risked causing serious damage to people’s bodies, or even killing them.”

Lorne caught his gaze and scowled at him.

“Are they mad at you?”  I averted my eyes from his glare.

Kaplen flashed a nervous smile.  “I’m not as proficient at combat as I’d like to be.”

“Weak Vocation?”

He chuckled.  “No Vocation. Only second-year in the entire school who hasn’t figured his out already.  Lorne’s been trying to transfer me since I got assigned, but Headmaster Tau himself personally insisted otherwise.  Said it’d be good experience for the both of us.”

So Lorne liked winning.  No surprises, coming from an Academy student.  “Has it? Been good.” I need to know what I’m getting into.

Kaplen’s smile looked forced.  “Lorne tells me to drop out about once a week.  He usually saves it for when I’m feeling the most tired or emotionally vulnerable, like right after a loss or when I’m stressed out about classwork.”

“He’s a bastard,” Tasia said quietly, not looking up.

Kaplen held up a hand.  “He’s a great chap, deep down.  He’s just been through a lot, and he doesn’t like pulling his pun – ”

“He’s a bastard,” Tasia said again.

Just my fucking luck.  Or Major Brin was always planning to throw me under the bus like this.  Lorne took a swig of cider from his tankard, wiping his mouth. The boy with the blonde crew cut said something to Lorne, and they all shook with laughter, slapping the table.

Now might be a good time to introduce yourself.  They were in a good mood again, the recent incident forgotten.  Better to go over the fundamentals of our relationship now, rather than in our first class together.

I stayed seated, frozen to my chair.  Lorne was imposing, towering over others in a way that reminded me of Clementine.  Always the loudest, always interrupting others or ordering them around. Demanding to be the center of the room with every word, every breath.

And, like every second-year and above, he’d been trained in psychological warfare and influence.  Something told me he enjoyed leveraging that training on everyone who crossed his path. Talking to him every day would be like ballet dancing through a minefield.

The pit in my stomach grew.  I closed my eyes, imagining my life with a proper chassis, if I’d grown up without being forced to transfer.  If I’d stayed in my birth body, without getting sick.

I pictured myself among the violets in my house’s backyard, whole and healthy and strong, with cascading waves of red hair.  I felt the noon sunlight, bright on my face, and visualized myself relaxing, smiling. An easy smile, the kind you could only have when your day were free of constant anxiety, when you could go to sleep every night without being terrified of the morning.

I was good at imagining things.  That’s how I had developed my Vocation in the first place.  But the only way I could bring that image into reality was by fighting every hour of every day.

“Ern?  You okay?”  Kaplen’s voice cut through my internal monologue.

My eyes fluttered open, and I stood up.  “I’m going to go talk to Lorne. Can you save my seat?”

“Um, sure.”  Kaplen looked confused.  “But, um. Why?”

“I’m his bloody assistant.”  I strode towards Golem Squad’s table, stomach aching, moving to stand behind the blonde boy.  Nobody looked at me. I took in a deep breath, and willed my muscles to relax. “Excuse me?” I said, raising my hand.

The blonde boy turned to stare at me.  “Fuck you want?”

I turned to Lorne.  “Mr. Daventry? I – ”

“- Lord Daventry,” said the blonde boy.

The knot in my stomach tightened.  “Lord Daventry, my name is Ernest Chapman.  I’m here to assist you.”

Lorne’s handkerchief floated to his mouth, dabbing the corner of it.  He glanced up at me. “Scholars, I didn’t know they made bodies that fucked up.”

The Neke boy squinted at me.  “Look at the swollen veins. Ten pounds its fabrication decay.  Shoddy craftsmanship from whatever amateur designed that.”

I looked at my feet.  My armpits were damp with sweat.  “I’m sorry. It used to look better.”

“I hope you’re not planning on forging the stars in that image.”  The boys next to him laughed.

I recited the words I’d practiced over the past few days.  “Lord Daventry,” I said, “It is an honor to have the opportunity to work for you.  I’ve always dreamed of learning here, and I will strive every day to offer you the best service I can, so you can press forward with your studies and defend our coun – “

“Save the whaleshit.”  Lorne rolled his eyes.   “This isn’t a job interview.  Nobody here cares how well you can kiss ass.  Either you can keep up, or you fall behind.” He poured himself a glass of wine, though none of the other students in the banquet hall seemed to have any.

I swallowed.  “I’m sorry, sir, I – “

“Sit down.”

I sat down.

Lorne indicated the blonde boy next to him.  “My first year at Paragon Academy, Deon here was my assistant.  Four foot eleven with a nose that practically took up half his face.  Six months later, he was a full-time student, fighting by my side in squad battles, and finally looking presentable.  I assume you are familiar with the grey coat system.”

I nodded.

“If you please me, get sufficient marks, and succeed at the entrance exam again, you will not just receive a body and the right to go here.  My family’s standard policy is to grant a full scholarship, with total library privileges and access to social gatherings. I’ll give you my business card, and if you’re lucky you might get my parents’ too.”  He leaned in. “Of course, the reverse is also true.”

He didn’t need to elaborate on that last point.  If I irritate him even a little, he can get me fired at any time.  One phone call to his parents, and I’d be thrown to the curb with everything I’d learned wiped from my head.  And if I pissed him off, the consequences could be a lot worse. I had no power here. Why had Brin assigned me such a volatile situation?

“I have one more task for you.”  He nodded his head towards Chimera Squad.  “See those pricks? Even after their leader gets Ousted, they’re still acting like they’re better than us.  Bring them down a notch.”

It was a lame excuse for bullying.  Worse, he wanted me to do the work for him.  But I wanted to make sure. “I’m sorry, what do you mean?”

“Fuck up their evening.  Don’t give them any evidence to cry to the admins, but otherwise, you have free rein.“  He sipped his wine. “Not bad.”

I stood up.  Do I have a choice?  If I didn’t do what he wanted, I’d lose my chance at getting a real spot at Paragon.  Worse, if I pissed him off, he might run a background check on me, which would get me caught for sure.

I wove through the tables, moving in the general direction of Chimera Squad.  What do I do?  Something harmless, ideally, that wouldn’t get me caught.  Lorne and Golem Squad were watching, which meant I probably couldn’t use my Vocation.

If I used my body, everyone would see me.  The only physical projection I could do was water and wood, and not a lot of force on either.  Chimera Squad’s table was covered with bowls and platters, but most of them were metal or porcelain.

There was a carved wooden bowl filled with cold stew on the far side of the table, in front of Eliya.  As I passed by their table, I projected into her glass of water, making sure to keep my eyes forward and away from my targets, and my hands by my side.

I pushed the grape juice towards her, knocking it onto her lap.  In the instant while her attention was distracted, I projected into the bowl and yanked with all my strength, launching the stew like a catapult towards her face.

I’m sorry.  On the night I’d stolen the body, she’d been vicious to me, but she didn’t deserve petty cruelty like this.

Laughter echoed from further behind me in the direction of Golem Squad.  Hopefully, this would be enough to satisfy Lorne.

There was a wet splat from behind me, followed by Eliya’s yell.  “What the fuck?”

A wave of bone-splitting fear washed over me, stopping me in my tracks.  It was worse than I’d ever felt before, more frightening than losing my body and getting rejected from Paragon and nearly getting killed by one of my idols.  My chest tightened, blood rushing in my ears. I gagged, and dropped to my hands and knees, gasping for breath.

I’m going to die.  Beyond all doubt, I knew it.  Or something even more terrible was going to happen, some fate worse than death that would leave me in constant agony.  Far in the distance, I heard a boy’s voice shouting. “Eliya! Stop it!”

In a flash, the terror vanished, and the pain with it.  My body relaxed. What did she do to me?

Eliya stood over me, extending her index finger towards me.  Her platinum blonde hair was covered with dark brown stew. Tiny chunks of lamb fell off her chin and onto her soaked uniform.

Samuel stepped between the two of us.  “Eliya, we don’t know he did it. It could have been anyone within a hundred meters!”

Eliya shook her head, clenching her teeth.  “I saw this one getting drunk with Golem Squad.  He’s just another one of Lorne’s brainless thugs.  Some pathetic wannabe who bullies others to make himself feel big.  We don’t teach them a lesson, they’re just going to keep hurting people.”  She leaned down over me. “You feel big now, grey coat? Why don’t you apologize, like a big boy?”

Students nearby were staring at me.  The professors paid me no heed. So much for staying low.  But if I apologized to her, that was a confession.  They’d bring the professors down on me, and I’d attract even more attention.

I pushed myself upright.  “Please excuse me,” I said, making sure to use my deep voice, and walked back to Golem Squad.

I thought of my square jaw, my broad shoulders, my deformed face.  If they didn’t already, everyone now saw Ernest Chapman as one of Lorne’s ugly, brutish henchmen.  Would they be wrong?  I felt nauseous as I sat down.

This is to get your body back, I reminded myself.  If you become a Guardian, you’ll be better than these people.  Though I needed to figure out the Empty Book first.  I couldn’t forget that.

Lorne nodded at me.  “You got caught. Made you look weak, but it’s a start.”

“What did she do to me?” I muttered under her breath.

“Her Whisper Vocation,” said Lorne.  “I don’t understand it completely, but it’s some kind of paralyzer.  Makes you scared, throws you into a panic and stuns you for a few seconds.”

I spend the rest of the luncheon in silence, spooning food into my mouth, listening to Golem Squad muttering about strategy and foreign politics.  Why didn’t I just stay with Kaplen and Tasia?  I could have avoided this nightmare, at least until my first class.  They probably hated me now, just like Chimera Squad.

The main doors of the hall were open now.  Some of the students strode out through them.  I stood up. “Sir, I’m not officially allowed to be here.  I should return to the designated assistant’s are – “

“Calm down,” said Lorne.  “Berthel isn’t going to do anything to my assistant.  And besides, the old bastard’s not here.  Too many toilets to scrub, no doubt.” He checked his silver watch.  “It’s time for my first class.” He stood up and strode to the door. Deon and Naru followed, and I went after.

As I left the room, I stole one last glance at Kaplen and Tasia.  Then we were going through the halls again, past stained-glass windows and training rooms filled with floating targets.

After several minutes of travel, Lorne opened a door to the outside, letting in a draft and the afternoon sunlight, and we walked across a wooden bridge between two of the floating islands in the sky.

As we crossed, I stole a glance over the railing, and felt a surge of vertigo.  The mansions of Hightown were dots below, many covered by clouds. Further below, the Telwar Ocean was a blue carpet.

“Hey!  Moron!” shouted Deon.  “Keep up!” Golem Squad was already ahead of me.  I jogged to catch up to them, shoes clunking on the wood slats.

Once we were back inside, the classroom was the second door on the left.  Lorne and the rest of Golem squad pulled the door open, striding in. I hesitated a moment on the doorstep.

My first Paragon Class.  Yet another moment I’d dreamed of, given to me in the way I least expected.  You’re not a real student, I reminded myself.  Don’t draw attention to yourself.  If I was lucky, I might find another take on the Empty Book, and get the key to protecting myself against Nudging.  But it would all be for nothing if I got exposed.

I read the paper pinned to the bulletin board.

Tactics 020
Professor Tuft

“Alright,” I said, for confidence more than anything else.  “Let’s get started.”

I stepped in.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




3-B The Empty Book

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“Weston Brown,” the boy said, smiling.  “Wes for short. I understand you’re in need of assistance.”

I looked at the card he’d given me.

Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy

A business card meant trust, usually.  And they were near-impossible to counterfeit.  Brin didn’t give me one.  I bent it back and forth, and watched it curl back into shape, the crease vanishing.

But Brin hadn’t told me to expect anything like this.  The card could be stolen, or faked by people with serious resources at their disposal.  It was unlikely, but possible. My knife was in a hidden sheath tucked beneath my coat. I had no idea how to use it properly, or if I even felt capable of using it on another human being.

And if it came to a fight, one Nudge was enough to put me out of commission.

The boy didn’t wait for a response.  “You’re Anabelle Gage, right? One of Professor Brin’s associates sent me to partner with you.”

I wasn’t sure what to say.  Was he probing for information, like that Paragon girl the night I’d stolen the body?  Would answering him play right into his hands? I settled for a question that revealed almost nothing about me.  “Do I know you?”

“Nope!”  He shook his head.  “But listen, I understand why you might be concerned or suspicious or whatever.  So here’s my offer: Give me a job interview. Public place. You can ask all the questions.  And you don’t have to trust a word I say until you verify with the big boss.”  

I was silent.  Was there any way this could be construed as a trap?  Nothing came to mind.

He pointed behind him.  “I’ll buy you a bowl of broth at the noodle bar down the street.  Crispy Kingdom, or whatever.”

“That’s a convenience store.”

“The Shenti slums are only half a mile away,” The boy – Wes – looked exasperated.  “We’ll find a noodle bar somewhere. You’re eating canned lentils, you must be fucking desperate for some real food.”

Free food was free food.  I nodded, failing to find any reasons why this was a bad idea.

Ten minutes later, we were in a private booth at a Neke-style noodle bar in the industrial district.  The place was nearly empty, and our booth had a curtain. I sipped a bowl of pork ramen, not mentioning that it tasted like cardboard to me.

Wes tilted his bowl back and poured the broth into his mouth.  He dabbed his mouth with a napkin, wrinkling his nose in distaste.  “Salty. So salty. Why did I expect better?” he muttered, and reached for his bottle of beer, downing half of it in a few gulps.

I didn’t say anything, but it was his fifth one of the night.  His face was already turning red.

“You going to say something, Illusion girl?”  He rubbed his bruised neck. “Ask me a job interview question.  Want to know my greatest weaknesses? Or where I see myself in five years?  Or we could waste a few minutes on small talk.”

He knows my Vocation?

“Stop looking so surprised,” he said with a full mouth of beer.  “Your body language is very easy to read. Bad habit. You should work on that.  Anyway, like I said, I’m with Major Brin.” He swallowed. “Go on, ask me something.  Interview me.”

I forced my hands to stop shaking.  “Um,” I said. “Who are you, exactly?”

“Oh, right,” said Wes.  “Should probably lead with that.  I’m from the Northern Colonies. Got taught projection from some Shenti ex-priests, but got rejected by Paragon.  Got by with odd jobs, that sort of thing.”

He’s like me.  How many projectors in the Principality were Paragon rejects?  Most of them were beginners, no doubt, but not all.

“Been trying to steal from the mob and Commonplace.  Worthy targets, right? Make a little dough while still performing my civic duty.  Brin’s guy – gal, actually – caught me and offered me this gig, said you were a total beginner who needed me.  Because of my veteran expertise and all.” He grabbed his soup bowl and knocked his beer over, spilling it all over his lap.

“Alright,” I said.  That was something I could ask him about.  “What expertise?”

A thick wad of napkins dislodged themselves from the table’s dispenser, soaking up the bubbly stains on Wes’ pants.  One of them floated in the air, and a second one sliced through it, cutting it in half. A dozen more napkins folded themselves into paper cranes, and flapped around my head before exploding into confetti.

Wes raised his hand, and all the remaining napkins soared in front of him, arranging themselves side by side to form a wall between us, blocking my vision.  Then, at the same time, all of them crumpled into balls, raining down on the table between us. Several of them landed on my soup, sinking in.

“Oh, sorry about that,” he said.  The dripping paper lifted out of my bowl and plopped onto the table.  “But you get the idea, right?”

“Your Vocation is paper control.  With a lot of precision control and area of effect.”

He shook his head.  “Not my Vocation. Just a technique I’m good at.  Not great at multitasking, but if there’s a unified pattern I can make them all do something at the same time.  Like crumple or fold into paper cranes or slice up some prick’s asshole. Or some asshole’s prick.”

I thought about it.  He could attack someone from all sides, block their vision and hit vulnerable areas without any opportunity to defend.  “That’s very strong.”

“Thank you!” he said, smiling.  “Most people who see it for the first time always says it’s weak, or stupid, or ridiculous.  Usually right before I give them a fuckload of paper cuts.”

“What about your Vocation?”

Wes pushed the napkin dispenser in front of him, and pressed his hands together.  The metal box flickered with green lighting. He was a Physical Specialist, then, judging by the color of his Pith.  The box squished together, flattening into two dimensions.  He pulled his hands apart, and the dispenser snapped back to its normal shape.

I leaned in.  “That’s remarkable.  You can – “

“Fold the dimensions of small objects, temporarily, with almost no expansion force.  Looks impressive, but practically it’s useless. Pretty much the opposite of my paper projection.”

“Anything else?”

He counted off items on his fingers, two of which were wrapped in makeshift splints.  “I can do mid-level physical projection, nudging, basic sleep, and martial arts.” He beamed.  “I’m also great at drinking games, and moderately subpar at tap dancing.”

“Right,” I said.  He sure talks a lot.  But it was hard to tell how much whaleshit he was throwing at me.

“What’s the issue?” he said, leaning in.  “Still don’t think I can cut it?”

“I – “

“I know,” he said, grinning.  “How about a bet? We fight, right here, right now, outside in an alley somewhere.  You use your illusions, and I’ll use my projection. If I win, then you hire me – ”

“No.”

“If you win – “  he stopped, frowning.  “Wait, why not?”

I don’t want you to know how weak I am.  “That’s not how I do things.”  Not that I’d ever given a job interview before.  Just failed at them.

“Alright, alright, fine,” he said.  “Then answer this: What do you plan on doing once your enemies get familiar with your Vocation?  When they figure out you have a range limit to your illusions, that you can’t affect a person’s sense of touch or their projection sense?”

I was silent.

“It’s a good Vocation, don’t get me wrong.  Maybe great, if you can get creative. But when you lose the element of surprise, it’s just a gimmick.  Look back to your body heist a week ago. If those two Paragon students knew about your technique, they’d have wiped the floor with you.  That trick isn’t going to work on everyone.”

Much as I hated to admit it, he had a point.

“You need variety.  Range. Offensive power.”  Wes leaned in towards me, his foot tapping against the floor.  “I can give you all that and more. Cutting your share in half won’t make much difference when we’re taking in bounties ten times as big.”

“Why are you doing this?”

He shrugged and massaged his bruised neck.  “Gotta pay rent somehow.” He stared at his soup, wrinkling his nose.  “If we beat up enough mobsters, maybe Brin’ll pay us enough for a decent fucking meal.”

“But – “ I stopped myself.  “Why work with me?”

For the first time in our entire meeting, he paused to think.  “You’re clumsy. Unrefined. And your breath smells like stale beans.  But…”

I breathed through my nose, looking away from him.  Your breath smells like beer.

“But you beat two Paragon students.  That takes a certain vicious aptitude.”  He beamed. “That, and I enjoy gambling.”

I slurped up a mouthful of noodles and chewed, using the action as an excuse to not talk.

“Well?” he said.  “Yes? No? Are we doing this?”

We’ve known each other for less than half an hour.  Not that there was any established hiring process for illegal mercenaries.  I wanted to take the time to mull over my options, weigh the pros and cons of partnering with this strange forward boy.  But time was short.

“How about this?” said Wes, no doubt sensing my hesitation.  “Check with Brin. He’ll verify everything I’ve said. Then do your first job with me.  Just one. If you like what you see, bring me on for a second one. If I fuck it up, throw me out.  I’ll find some way to get by. I’ll scam tourists at the ferry terminal, or become a high-priced escort for emotionally starved trophy wives.”

He extended his hand towards me.  I hesitated. He’s pushing really hard.

“But I won’t fuck it up.”  He grinned.

Let’s hope I don’t regret this.  I grasped his hand and shook it.  “I’m going to check with Brin first.”

Wes stood up.  “Marvelous.” He moved towards the curtain.  “We’re going to conquer this city together, Anabelle Gage.”

“Here’s hoping.”

“Trust me.  I know what I’m doing.”  He stopped. “Unrelated question, do you know where the nearest homeless shelter is?  Or anywhere with working toilets and a bed, honestly.” He pulled wads of crumpled cash from his pockets, counting it.  “Something I can afford on one, ten, thirty – fifty-seven pounds.”

“You said you’d pay for lunch.”

Wes glanced at the bill at the edge of the table.  “Something I can afford on thirty-four pounds. Some lowtown motel, perhaps, for a few weeks.”

He thinks thirty-four pounds will last him a few weeks.  Clearly, he wasn’t from around here.  “Homeless shelter is on…Cadwell Street and Silver, I think.  Northeastish.” Months ago, after Clementine threatened to fire me for the third time in a week, I’d stayed up all night and researched all of the shelters in lowtown.

“And motels?”

“You could get one night at a cheap capsule hotel with that.  That’s about it.”

Wes paced back and forth, muttering to himself under his breath.  “Get extra funds? No, no time. Shelters full of disease, violence, poor hygiene.  Public parks? No, police kick homeless out by nightfall. Perhaps – “

I sighed.  “If you want to stay a few nights in my storage unit, you can.”

His eyes lit up.  “Really?”

He already knows where I live.  And I wasn’t storing anything in there besides my toiletries and canned beans.  “It’s not big. And you’ll have to get your own bedding. But yes. It’ll be warmer than the streets.”

Wes nodded, his chin bobbing up and down as he slapped a pair of ten-pound bills on the check.  “Yes, yes, that should work. I suppose I’ll have to stage a heist on a mattress store. Or pick some newspapers off the street.  Whichever is easier.” He leaned out of the booth, looking at a clock on the wall. “Well, I must be off. Time is an impatient little shit.  You’ll be at the place this evening, right?”

I nodded.  Not like I have anywhere else to go.

“Buzz me in.”  He pushed through the curtains.

“Wait.”

He stopped.

“One more question,” I said.  “Are you familiar with the concept of The Empty Book?”  Maybe if someone else explained it, I could unlock whatever was missing in my projection.

Wes raised an eyebrow, confused.  “What, is that some sort of riddle?  No, never heard of it.”

“Never mind.  See you tonight.”

He gave me a thumbs up.  “You won’t regret this. I know what I’m doing.”  And then he was gone, speed-walking to the front door.

The more he says that, the less I believe him.

________________________________________

Later that evening, I went to one of the local libraries.  I had already studied the Major’s materials until my head hurt.  I needed something new, and had different problems now. 

The card Brin had given me would work on any branch in the Principality, all of which were ranked below Paragon’s.  Low-level branches wouldn’t have any Vocation codices, but since the public exposure of projection, they carried plenty of useful texts.

I grabbed every book I could find on mental projection, nudging, and pneumatology, adding in the suite of guides I’d used to study for Paragon’s entrance exam.  When I left, my arms were straining under the weight of a tall stack of hardcovers.

It was a lot to go through, but as an assistant, I was only at Paragon three days a week.  Until I got my first mission, I’d have a lot of free time on my hands.

I spent the rest of the evening devouring a tome on the history of mental projection.  When Wes rang the buzzer, I handed him the key to my storage unit. Somehow, the boy had procured a huge pile of blankets, which he lugged into his tiny room, draping it across the concrete floors.  He’d wrinkled his nose and called the place “hideous”, but had also muttered some words of gratitude.

I still wasn’t sure what to make of him.

I went to sleep early, folding my school uniform tomorrow and taking it into my pod.  With no alarm clock, I couldn’t risk being late to the first day of classes.

The next morning, I leapt out of bed with more than two hours to spare, wide awake and light on my toes.  Despite everything that had happened this week, I was going to Paragon Academy.  Training at the foot of the best Guardians in the Principality, experiencing the vivid wonders of projection, meeting interesting and brilliant minds.  Learning how to defend the people of my nation.

Being a Grey Coat was only a fraction of my dream, but even a fraction was enough to send shivers down my spine.

And if I did things right, I wouldn’t need to fight for Brin anymore.  I could be a real student. A real Guardian in training.

I poured half a can of lentils into my mouth and slid on my uniform, careful to not crease or wrinkle it.  The grey pants and button-up tunic reminded me of my hair and the bulging veins crisscrossing my skin, but still looked more expensive than anything I’d ever worn.

In the bathroom, I ran my fingers through my hair, combing the bird’s nest of grey strands.  It was still a mess, but it was the best I could do on my budget. Clementine hadn’t exactly given me a clean haircut, and I wasn’t about to dig into my savings to pay for a visit to the barber.

And then I was out of the door, headed for the tram that would take me up the mountain.  When I stepped into the vehicle, I made my way to the front balcony, leaning over the edge as the machine climbed uphill on its metal rail.  The morning air was sharp, brisk, turning my breath to fog in front of me.

High above the peak of Mount Elwar, a thick cloud of fog was gathered around Paragon, blocking it from view.  Whether it was natural, or from projection, I couldn’t tell. The line on the cable car extended into it, the upper half hidden behind the mist.

The sky itself was grey, overcast, blocking out the sun.  As the tram entered Hightown, the sloped roads got smoother, and the houses got larger, until we were passing entire mansions, walled off by tall iron fences and surrounded by lush gardens.  The Kesteven Building, the tallest structure in the Principality, rose above the rest, a skyscraper of glass and steel.

As we grew closer to the cable car station, boys and girls walked past us on the street, wearing Paragon’s navy blue uniform.  There were just one or two at first, but they became more frequent as we got closer, clogging up the streets. Brilliant minds hailing from dozens of different neighborhoods around Elmidde.  All going in the same direction.

Finally, two blocks away, the tram stopped, at the end of the line.  The road continued past the buildings, winding into a dense green forest surrounding the peak of Mount Elwar.

I stepped off and joined the river of people, striding into the trees.

At the end of the road, a vast crowd of students had gathered in front of the station, packed shoulder to shoulder in an ocean of dark blue, surrounded by a wall of green.  Among them were a gaggle of reporters, stretching cameras over the throng to take photos and scribbling on notepads, pulling random people aside to ask questions.

At the edge of the mob, even more people were gathered, not dressed in any sort of uniform.  Men, women, and older teenagers, all staring at the huge oak doors of the building, each at least thirty feet tall.  Paragon fans.  Here to watch the festivities, or catch a glimpse of projection in action.  I had done the same thing after failing the entrance exam two years ago, as a motivator.

The building itself was massive, surrounded by pale marble columns.  The Principality’s flag was painted across the front wall: a white fist clutching a scroll on a dark blue field.

Guards were everywhere.  At the edge of the crowd in suits, perched on rooftops with scoped rifles, packed into police vans in alleyways.  Many more than previous years. Commonplace is stepping up their attacks.

They weren’t letting anyone on yet, but the throng was still gathering out there.  No sense in waiting here.  I stepped off the trolley, walking towards the crowd of students.

Almost everyone was already in tight circles, chatting with each other.  It was hard to make out any individual voice, but they all were fast. Excited.  All making new friends. About to embark on a great adventure, the experience they’d spent years striving for.

It wasn’t until then that I realized my uniform was a different color than theirs.  An assistant, not a student.  I was a grey spot on an endless plain of navy blue.  A silent figure surrounded by noise. So far, at least, I was the only assistant there.

Stop brooding and talk to someone, idiot.

But I couldn’t exactly force my way into a conversation.  It seemed everyone had already formed groups. I could be using this time better.  Reviewing the fake ID papers Brin had given me. And cracking open his damn lesson, so I could figure out how to un-Nudge myself.

I needed to remember my deeper pitch and altered resonance, too, working against the voice training I’d put myself through the past few years.  The more masculine I sounded, the less questions I’d have to face.

I waited for what felt like hours, as the crowd of students, fans, and journalists grew behind me, more than I could count.  While I was muttering a bit of fake backstory under my breath, a deep boom echoed from within the building, and the giant wood doors cracked open.  Students and bystanders backed up to make room.

A single man stood in the antechamber, tall and broad-shouldered, sporting a thick brown beard and thicker biceps that were barely contained by his suit jacket.  Though he looked not a second older than thirty-five, I knew he had just turned ninety-two.

It was easy to recognize him from the papers.  Brigadier General Sebastian Oakes.  The Obsidian Foil.  The Scholar of Strength.  One of the greatest Guardians alive.  His signature weapons were slung across his back: two rapiers, razor-thin and pitch-black, hardened and made flexible by his Vocation.  He’s ready for a fight too.

His perfect face broke out into a wide smile, and all of us burst into applause.

He spread his arms wide.  His words boomed throughout the entire street, louder than any natural human voice.  “Welcome, first-years! Today, your conquest begins!” Behind him, a series of walkways and stairs extended to higher floors, all bristling with soldiers.  “Upperclassmen are moved in already. Today, you will join them!”

Between platforms, over two dozen cable cars were sitting in the station at once, all at the ready.  Among them, I caught a glimpse of several Guardian uniforms, but no faces I recognized.

“Students may enter!  Travel within the green sections painted on the floor, and form lines once you have entered the building!  All twenty-three cable cars will be leaving the station within the hour! May you strive to become an Exemplar!”

The crowd of students pressed forward through the doors, flowing around Oakes, organizing into a line.  The Obsidian Foil rose into the air, floating above the mass of people. I followed the others, pressing forward in the packed crowd towards the vast doors of the station.

I stepped inside, underneath Oakes, making my way along the painted green pathway to the nearest metal staircase.

“Grey coat!  Boy! Stop!” A guard shouted at me from my right.  I stopped. “Over here!”

I pushed away from the current, out of the line.  The guard glared at me, hefting a submachine gun. “Students first, idiot.  Assistants and other support staff board afterwards.”

Nobody told me.  When I’d spectated previous opening days, I’d never paid attention to the people in grey.  I looked at my feet, my voice quiet. “I’m sorry, sir.”

He rolled his eyes and pointed to an open space next to the door, taking a puff of a cigarette.  “Wait there.” His voice was impatient. “Don’t move.”

I plodded to his designated spot, slouching.  It seemed Grey Coats really were second class here.  I could be here for a while.  Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to use the bathroom before leaving.

Students in dark blue uniforms streamed through the doors, filling the walkways and stepping onto cable cars.  One after another, they ascended up the diagonal cable into the fog surrounding Paragon, until there were only a handful left.

I passed the time in my imagination, picturing myself in Paragon, as a full student, in one of the common rooms.  Sipping that mulled cider with a friend and protecting the people of this nation. You’ll get there.

It felt like another hour before a guard strode to the doorstep, shouting out to the crowds.  “Assistants and licensed support staff may now board! Everyone else, go home.”

An assortment of people came through the doors.  A handful of maids, servants, and a trio of men in hard hats.  And maybe four dozen assistants, all dressed in grey coats like me.  I joined them, stepping back on the pathway and clanging up two flights of metal stairs.

We boarded the last cable car on the platform, a huge metal box encircled by four transparent walls.  A guard lined us up on the platform, carrying a clipboard. For every assistant or servant, he had a short conversation with them under his breath, consulted his clipboard, and waved them on.

I was one of the last ones.  When he got to me, he looked at me with disapproval, no doubt uncomfortable from my veins and discolored hair.  “Name?”

Anabelle Gage.  “Ernest Chapman.”  I showed him my library card, putting on my best masculine voice.  “ID 768277315K.” My ID number, another tool to ward off imposters.

“What was your favorite food when you were a kid?”  His voice was soft, so the others couldn’t hear.

“Bread pudding.”  An outright lie from Brin’s fake papers.  I hated the doughy stuff.

The security guard passed his hand over my face.  “Brace for micro memory-wipe.”

I felt my recollection of the last ten seconds slip, then fade away in a burst of light-headedness.  I knew he had asked me a security question about my fabricated past, but couldn’t picture exactly what it was.  Another tool to protect me from identity theft.  Banks in Elmidde used the same procedure, along with a subconscious key.

He checked off a box on his clipboard.  “Welcome to Paragon Academy, Mr. Chapman.”

I stepped into the cable car, sitting on a chair and pressing my face against the glass wall at the front.  Minutes later, the door shut, and the floor jerked below me. We were moving.

This was my dream, the vision I’d strived after the past eight years of my life.  But how watered-down?  How twisted?

Time to find out.

Smooth as silk, the cable car glided up into the clouds.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




3-A The Empty Book

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

When I was nine, we buried my body in our backyard.  

With a terminal illness in its skull, no one in our town wanted to buy it, and my parents didn’t have the money for any kind of service.  I was in a strange new body, a thick-nosed, gangly boy I already hated looking at in the mirror.

It was a chill, foggy morning.  I had already cried for hours, until my eyes ached and I felt hollowed out inside, unable to summon any more tears.  As my father lowered the corpse into the grave, I knelt beside it, and my mother covered my face. I pushed away her hand, unable to look away.

It wasn’t just any little girl he was cradling in his arms.  It was me. The brown eyes I’d seen in the mirror every morning.  The bright red hair my mother had combed every day before school. Its limbs were wrapped up in a thick blanket, like an insect’s cocoon.  It might as well have been a carpet.

The doctor had told us we were lucky to have found an affordable replacement body in such a short timespan, that we had caught my Loic’s Syndrome before I suffered any permanent brain damage.  I didn’t feel lucky. Every adult in my life was trying to make the situation look bright, optimistic, not as bad as it could be.

I wanted to scream at them.  But all I did was nod along.

My father threw my old clothes into the hole and shoveled dirt over them, and my mother rubbed my shoulders, murmuring that my new body would be just as good, that nothing else would have to change.

Even then, I knew she was lying.

This was like going through that all over again.

I pressed a bloodstained hand against the dying man’s forehead, and reached away from the light.  Blue lightning crackled around my arm, the color of my Pith as it streamed out of my body. For the second time that night, the strange, floating feeling came over me, like my essence was flowing through a river, fluid and ethereal.

As my Pith flowed back into my old body, I once again saw myself from two perspectives, two sets of eyes.  A grey-haired boy and an auburn-haired girl locking each other’s gazes. The stabbing pain in my stomach faded as my sensations transferred out of the new form, and into the dull familiarity of the old.

I gasped for breath in two bodies.  Then one body.

And then it was done.

The young woman with her hand on my forehead was empty.  Dead. Blood poured from the torn hole in her stomach, into the puddle beneath me.  The spectacular world of clarity and strength had vanished, replaced by the same numbness as usual, the same bland taste in my mouth.

It was repulsive.  But there was still a chance to get everything back.  To buy a new body and leave it all behind.

I stood up, my dark clothes soaked with water and my pants stained with blood.  Major Brin reached down to me with a key, unlocking my Voidsteel cuffs.

Then he pulled a dart out from his belt and flung it into the woman’s forehead.  It impacted with a dull thud, its mass increased, and blew out of her scalp with an explosion of gore, splattering the wall behind her.  The beautiful face was now caved in, a gaping hole of blood and bone.

I recoiled, gagging.  “What are you doing?”

Brin floated the dart back to his hand, and rinsed it with a handful of projected water, sliding it back to his belt.  “The perp was killed in combat while wearing the stolen chassis, with one strike each to her stomach and head. Her original body was never found, and with her brain and Pith destroyed, her identity remains unknown.”

I nodded, understanding.  He’s faking my death.  It was still unsettling.

His face blank, the Scholar of Mass pulled a torn piece of paper from a bag, scribbling on it with a pen.  He handed it to me. When I squinted, I could make out the words in the light from the two moons overhead.

King’s Palace Sleepbox & Depot
178 West Vanora Street, Unit 27, Pod 151

Nolwen’s Soda Fountain
13 Tunvez Street
Staircase above the bathroom, Combination 84291

Major Brin waved his hand, and the steering wheel on the boat turned, guiding it to a small dock on the side of the river.  He tossed me a ring full of keys. “The first one is a capsule hotel where you’ll be staying. The second one is where you’ll meet me tomorrow at 9:30 AM.  I’ll explain everything you need to know. Don’t be late.” He beckoned his hand.

Everything was happening so fast.  “You’re not afraid I’ll run away?” I asked.

Brin shook his head.  One conversation, and he already knows how to read me.  The fact of the matter was, working with him was the best chance I had at survival.  Both of us knew that.

I stepped onto the dock, the wood creaking beneath my waterlogged shoes.  Brin flicked his wrist, and the boat’s engine kicked into full gear, driving off into the night.

A breeze blew across the pier, and I shivered.  It was a cool summer night, but my clothes were still soaked through from that Paragon girl’s water attack.  Eliya, her name was.

I splashed some water on my forehead to wash off the blood, then climbed the stairs next to the pier and headed for southern Lowtown.

The address Brin gave me was deep in the industrial district, a neighborhood I’d barely spent any time in.  By the time I got to the address, I was shaking from the cold, my arms wrapped around each other.

The building he’d sent me to was imposing, a giant block of concrete three stories tall with no windows.  Its front door was made of steel, and boasted three thick deadbolts on it. There’s nothing kingly about this damn place, and it’s definitely no palace.

My shoes squelched on the pavement as I approached it.  It took me eight tries on the massive keyring to find the right ones for the front door.  I pulled it open with a metallic screech, the only sound on the entire street.

The interior was all concrete and metal, a narrow corridor covered with cigarette butts and lit by pale exposed light bulbs hanging from wires on the ceiling.  To the left was a wooden desk, with a wooden lamp. A clerk of some sort was leaning on it, asleep. His hand clutched a bottle of Shenti rice wine, half-wrapped in a paper bag.  I decided not to wake him up. If I already have the key, Brin probably handled the money already.

Unit 27 was on the first floor, an empty mid-sized storage unit with a sticky concrete floor.  He couldn’t have even left me a spare set of clothes?

The capsule hotel was in the upper two levels, and was at least marginally cleaner.  Mats covered the floor, and the walls of the rooms were lined with pods. Each one looked like a human-sized oven embedded in the wall, a narrow rectangular box covered by a sliding glass window and a wooden curtain you could pull down.  People were sleeping in maybe a quarter of them.

The numbers were printed on the floor.  In the dim lighting of the hallways, it took me several minutes to find Pod 151 in the middle of the second floor.  I had to get on my hands and knees to unlock it. Inside were a single mattress, a pillow, and a thin blanket.

I shivered again.  If I keep my clothes on through the night, it’s going to be freezing.  But I didn’t have anything else to change into.  I looked around. Everyone else in the room was fast asleep.  

“Fuck me,” I muttered under my breath, and pulled off my waterlogged clothes, stripping nude.  I crawled into the pod feet-first, stuffing the clothes in a damp pile next to my feet and trying not to look at myself.

Since I transferred bodies, I hated being naked.  It was a disgusting, uncomfortable sight, one that grew uglier as my body decayed and the veins on my skin grew swollen and grey.  And I hated feeling all the sensations on my bare skin.

I pulled the blanket over me, covering my shame, dropped the keys next to me, and pulled the window shut, flicking off the overhead light and pulling down the curtain.  My stomach rumbled, aching. I hadn’t eaten anything since the bread at that diner in the afternoon.

My skin prickled.  It was still cold, but was better without wet clothes.

I stared at the ceiling, barely a foot away from my face.  Just this morning, I’d woken up on a dirt-stained mattress in Clementine’s basement and scrubbed dishes for hours.  I’d been ignored by the other servants, shouted at by the cooks. Praying to escape. Praying to get into Paragon Academy, a world of miracles and light, where I’d get a working body and meet lifelong friends, strive to become an Exemplar who could help others.

Part of my wish had come true, in a sense.  Just not in any way I was satisfied with. I’d gotten a taste of a coherent body, only to have it torn away by a projected dart as heavy as a car.

I forced my eyes shut, willing myself to go to sleep.  Nothing. I tried imagining myself in a warmer place, a more comfortable place.

Home.  My bedroom in my house.  Painted a light pastel yellow, with bright red sheets on my bed.  Right next to a window I could stare out, seeing the wind blow through the wheatfields of the farmers to the west.  When I focused on that image, the world outside felt a little less real, a little less terrifying.

As I escaped into my imagination, an image of my parents flashed through my head.  My mother, shouting at me, her eyes red from crying. My father clenching his teeth, his face hard.

I opened my eyes, ending the fantasy.  After what I’d done, was it selfish to be saving up money for a body, to still dream of becoming a Guardian?  Spend your last year sending back money to your family, a voice in my head said.  Just accept your fate.

I fell asleep thinking of doubts, and all the things that could go wrong.

________________________________________

With no alarm clock, I woke up at 9 AM, nearly an hour later than I wanted to.  Fortunately, the second address Brin had given me was only eight blocks away from King’s Palace, at the edge of southern Lowtown.  Nolwen’s Soda Fountain.  My clothes were the worst part.  They hadn’t dried much overnight, and were bitter cold as I slid them on.

The ice cream parlor was small and near-empty for the morning.  The only person inside was an employee swabbing a mop on the grimy tiled floor.  The bell rung as I swung the door open, and he turned to look at me. “Morning. All floats and cream sodas are fifty percent off until noon.”

The menu was written on a blackboard above the counter, with colored illustrations that looked delicious.  “Where’s your bathroom?” I asked. The prices were disgustingly cheap, but I was dead broke, and couldn’t taste anything anyway.  It felt a little guilty to not buy anything, though.

The man pointed to the doorway behind him.  “Hallway on the right.” Is he on Brin’s payroll, or just another employee?

I went through the door, shutting it behind me.  The hallway to the bathroom was on the right. To the left, a cramped wooden staircase spiraled upwards.  As I walked up, I grabbed the railing, and dust coated my hand.

The door on the second floor was ajar.  No combination lock.  Further up at the top of the staircase was another door, with a combination lock attached to a deadbolt.  I consulted the paper in my pocket, and twisted the metal dials, entering 8-4-2-9-1.

The lock clicked, and I swung the door open, flooding in sunlight and revealing a rooftop garden that looked nothing like the shop below.

The pale white tiles on the ground were so clean they sparkled.  A square of planter boxes surrounded the edges of the roof, filled with neat rows of blooming goldenrods and lilacs.  Even the hose had a snarling lion carved on the faucet in gleaming bronze.

And in the middle, Isaac Brin floated three feet in the air, wearing a navy blue tuxedo that looked like it cost more than my last year’s salary, short brown crew cut hanging beneath.  He was on his back, staring up at a book floating above his eyes. He can use his Vocation to make himself lighter.

“Don’t just stand there,” he said.  “Sit down, let’s get started.”

A large pillow sat in the middle across from another one.  I sat down on it, leaning back on my arms and crossing my legs.  A breeze came across the roof, and I shivered.

Major Brin glanced at me out of the corner of his eye.  Moisture seeped out of my damp clothes, coalescing into a floating sphere of water in front of me.  He flicked his wrist, and it dispersed over the flowers, raining down on top of them. My clothes heated up, now dry, as warm as if they’d just been ironed.

He rotated himself to a standing position.  “As described last night, your initial mission will pay out two thousand pounds.  Further missions will be more difficult and entail higher sums.” He spoke with the measured tone of someone who had practiced this before.

How many other mercs has he hired before?  I nodded.

Major Brin continued.  “If you bring me relevant information on your own, I will award bounties depending on how useful I deem it.  If you hire subordinates, you are responsible for vetting and paying them from your shares.”

I nodded again.

“You will not tell anyone about my involvement, including your subordinate.  If you are caught, you will tell them you’re acting on your own. Make up whatever stories you need to, but do not talk about me.  There will not be a second warning.”  He flicked his wrist, and the hose turned on.  “I am Paragon’s chief of internal affairs and counterintelligence.  Leak my name, and I will know exactly where to find you.” He floated a sphere of water into a planter box.   “Questions?”

“What kind of jobs will I be doing?”

Brin counted off on his fingers.  “Delivery, acquisition, target removal.  Along those lines. It won’t be easy. Real Guardians can handle easy tasks.  It’ll be matters I can’t deal with openly.”

In the early weeks, I can supplement my income with theft.  It was distasteful, but my Vocation was perfectly designed for it, and I was sure I could find a way to only hit targets with insurance.  Even if the rewards grew fast, two thousand pounds was barely anything. Certified bodies cost far more than that.

“I’ll give you an initial allowance to buy necessities until your first job.  I’d avoid doing petty crime to make extra money.” It was like he was reading my mind, which, as far as I knew, might actually be the case.  “When enough strange crimes get reported in an area, Paragon takes notice, and will cause all sorts of trouble.”

I looked at the ground, avoiding his gaze.  His logic made sense, but it would make saving up much harder.

Major Brin lifted a finger, and a cloth bag flew out from behind a planter box, setting down in front of me.

I opened it.  Inside were a stapled set of papers, a folded grey uniform, and a rigid white library card.  I read it.

Ernest Chapman
Level 0 Access

“You are now Ernest Chapman, Paragon grey coat assistant.  All the relevant identification documents are in the bag, in addition to your ID number and class schedule.  The card will also give you access to the cable car.”

“Why am I using a fake name?  Isn’t that more dangerous if my documents look suspicious?”

Brin shook his head.  “Not when I’m faking your documents.  People know the name Anabelle Gage. Your old employer, among others.  If they discover you are attending Paragon, that will raise questions.”

I frowned.  “And if people at Paragon ask me about my history?”

“Minimize social contact.  Talk as little as possible about your past, but when you have to talk, tell the truth.  Making up elaborate lies will trap you with inconsistencies. Just say nothing of your Vocation, or your body’s expiration date.”

“I’m not supposed to talk to other students?”

“You’re not a student,” said Major Brin.  “You’ll hear all the details on the first day, but you’re not a student.  You can talk, but avoid making too many friends or acquaintances.” He folded his hands in front of him.  “But before any of that, I need to protect my investment.”

What?  I stared at him blankly.

“I’m going to train you.  I’d rather you didn’t die on your first day.”

In spite of everything, in spite of knowing how dangerous he was, I felt a thrill run through me.  I got to take private lessons from the Scholar of Mass, one of the best Guardians in the Eight Oceans.  I’d seen his face in the papers, and now he was teaching me how to fight.

Brin stood above me, staring down.  “The first thing you need, before everything, is a mental defense.  Almost every projector in the world knows how to Nudge. If you can’t protect your mind, you’ll be enslaved by anyone with half a Pith.”  He floated a manila folder in front of me, bound shut by a paperclip.

My first mission.  I reached for it, and it darted out of my reach.

“For obvious reasons, I can’t give you this until you master the technique.”

I felt my stomach sink.  “How long does that usually take?”

“That depends on your talent and intellect.  Most projectors master it in under an hour. Others take more time, or never do.”

I don’t have the time to learn.  Brin might be right about the risks, but especially if the payments started small, I needed every week I could get.  A year wasn’t very much time. “I beat two second-year Academy students with the element of surprise.” I looked at my feet.  “Would it be possible to learn as I go?”

A warm, thick presence wrapped around my consciousness, choking my mind.

“Lie on your back!” barked Major Brin.

I lied down on my back, staring up at the sky.  The tile beneath me was cold and hard.

“Hold your arms straight up.  Don’t move or project, except to talk.”  His voice was cold and forceful.

I lifted my arms above my head, straightening my elbows.  No matter what I thought in my rational mind, it just felt important to do, an overwhelming mental itch that I couldn’t scratch until I obeyed his every command.

A wave of panic surged over me, and I felt myself short of breath, hyperventilating.  The last time I’d been Nudged, I’d lost everything.

Technically, controlling me like this was considered Mental Hijacking, a federal crime on par with sexual assault or manslaughter.  And Brin, a Guardian, did it as casually as turning the page of a book.

The pressure abated, but the compulsion stayed.  He was no longer giving me orders, but his previous commands were still binding me.

“Do you think you can fight back like this?” he said.

I tried shaking my head, but couldn’t bring myself to move any of my muscles without that itch stopping me.

Major Brin knelt next to me.  “The people you fight won’t be as clumsy as my first-years.  In every battle, they will nudge you right away, on the off chance it could work.  If you can’t block the vocation, you’ll be as helpless as a Humdrum.  They can make you torture your friends, kill your family.”

No worries on the first of those two.

“Every politician, every guard for every important location, is required to learn this protection technique.  With enough time and training, even a Humdrum can figure it out.” He stood up. “The Eight Oceans are full of Whisper Vocations that can crack your mind open like an egg.  A great many can’t be defended against at all, but the ones that can be blocked are common.  Many, many people have studied them.  This training is not optional.”

I thought of Clementine nudging me, enslaving my mind, even briefly.  After almost two years of withholding paychecks, ignoring my concerns, and upping my hours, it was the ultimate form of her control over me.  If I hadn’t convinced her, she would have made me slice my own throat without hesitation.

I had the chance to be safe from all that.  To be free.

“Alright,” I said.  “Teach me.”

Brin nodded.  “You want me to release you, say the word.  But this is the fastest way to learn.”

My arm muscles were starting to get sore, and I felt ridiculous sticking them in the air light that.

I said nothing.

“Let’s begin with the basics,” he said, pacing back and forth.  “Like all widely used projection techniques, Nudging is descended from someone’s unique personal Vocation that they mastered, wrote in a codex, and taught to others as a general technique.  From a capital V Vocation to a lowercase vocation, that can be studied and practiced by any projector. Are you aware of its origins?”

“No,” I said, unable to shake my head.  Paragon’s entrance exam didn’t include any history, so I hadn’t studied it at all.

“It was developed by the Great Scholar Tolwar.  Not one of the Four Eternals, but special in his own right.  He discovered it when he was twenty, and spent the next forty years of his life designing and sharing the blocking technique before he revealed Nudging to the world.  He knew that if his codex ever went public without a countermeasure, the vocation was powerful enough to bring down his entire society.”

I said nothing, listening.

“The lesson is: Until the defensive technique against a Whisper Vocation is discovered, attacking is always easier than defense.”  He folded his hands in front of him, continuing. “Nudging targets the auditory, decision-making, and motor control centers of the Pith.  Since I don’t have a textbook, I will explain the specifics to you verbally.”

It took him what felt like fifteen minutes to explain the finer mechanics of Nudging, and the scientific details of the defensive technique as I stared up at the sky, paralyzed.  My arms were aching now, and the pain kept growing.

All the while, I summoned all my willpower, letting the rage and humiliation at my powerlessness flow through me, fueling my determination, willing my arms to go down.  If you don’t learn this, you won’t get a mission, I told myself.  You won’t make it in time.  You’ll wither and die.  I concentrated my entire mind, focusing it into a single point of intent.

My arms didn’t budge.

“This is not about willpower!” said Major Brin.  “You won’t solve this with brute force and determination!  Nudging targets the part of your Pith that uses those feelings, those motivations, and twists them to its own ends.  You need to shift your mind, modify it in response to the Nudge.  Rewrite the areas that I’m affecting.”

I focused on his recent lecture, delving into the precise sections of my Pith that were being altered.  Auditory, executive, motor control, in that order.  And then the subsections within those areas, the mental systems Brin was disrupting.  And I reached my soul into itself, attempting to twist those areas back to normal function, to shove my mind into order.

Nothing.

“Your projection is too strong,” I said, breathing heavily.  “I can’t kick you out.”

Brin shook his head.  “This is not a contest of strength either.  Whisper vocations are about subtle alterations, and they always operate with a light touch.  I can’t force my way into your mind, I can just make little edits around the edges that ripple out and cause deeper effects on your Pith.  If you knew the defensive technique, Headmaster Tau himself could try to Nudge you and he wouldn’t gain an inch. You need to change your mind.”

I visualized all the elements as clearly as I could, taking deep, slow breaths and ignoring the pain in my arms.  I willed my Pith to be flexible, malleable, something I could easily alter. Then I hammered at the rogue elements, willing them to realign.

Still nothing.  The pain in my arms got stronger and stronger, making it hard to concentrate.  Is this really the best way to teach this?

Brin scowled.   “Keep trying.”

I tried the technique over and over again, as precise as I could manage, as fluid as I could think of.  Every time, my Pith refused to shift, and my bone-thin arms shook from the strain.  

And every minute of my failure that passed, Brin’s frown get deeper.  Does he regret hiring me?

What was it he had said last night?  His five-year-old son knew how to defend against Nudging.  And most projectors figured it out almost instantly. What’s wrong with me?

I had no idea what I was doing.  How could I have ever imagined I was good enough for Paragon?

Brin sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.  “I expected this to go more quickly. Very well.”  I felt the presence of his Pith pressing up against mine, Nudging me again.  “I release you from all commands.”

My arms flopped to my sides, sore from wrist to shoulder.  I winced, letting out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.  “I’m sorry for wasting your time,” I said.

Brin paced back and forth.  “You’ve studied a few physical vocations, correct?”

“The basics of wood projection, about five pounds of force maximum,” I said.  “Water, too, enough to do a water walk on top of the surface for a few seconds.”

“We need to go back to the fundamentals,” said Brin.  “You can project outside of yourself, but you have no command over your own Pith.  Explain, what’s your process for using your Whisper Vocation?”

I thought about it.  “I guess I just think of something and focus on it really hard.  Some alteration to reality. Adding an object or removing one or picturing a whole new setting.  And then I just grab onto it, and push it into other people’s minds.” In the last ten years, it had gotten easier and easier to escape into my imagination.

“Your Vocation works off of pure intuition,” said Brin, frowning.  “So you haven’t studied pneumatology at all.”

“There isn’t much of it on the entrance exam,” I said.  And most of the books on it are locked in the higher levels of the Great Library.

Brin sat down across from me, folding his legs.  He lifted his hand, and the faucet handle twisted, turning the hose on.  A stream of water floated out of the nozzle, streaming through the air to form a smooth, translucent sphere hovering above our heads, twice as wide as my chest.  The faucet turned off.

I sat upright, facing him.

Brin set the thick red book he was reading on the ground between us.  He opened the cover to a blank title page. “The brain is like an empty book,” he said.  “On its own, it is a hollow shell, neurons and synapses that don’t fire. The Pith is like the words filling the book, writing over the white spaces, giving it meaning.”

I nodded.  Should I be taking notes?

“Every Soul Particle is like a letter, connected to form words and paragraphs and ideas in innumerably complex ways, organized into hierarchies and layers with language.  A web with trillions of connections.”

He pulled out a loose page from my bag, with instructions typed all over it.  The letters peeled off the white paper, soaring through the air and landing on the blank title page.  “The Pith can be transferred from one brain to another, one vessel to the next.”

“Major,” I said.  “Erm, sir. This is wonderful and all, but can I ask how this is relevant to Nudging defense?”

“Rashi’s First Law of Projection,” he said.  “To control something, you must understand it.  Why do you think projectors study so much natural science?  So they can control the physical world around them. The same goes for the mental.  To best protect your mind, you must know its design.”

I nodded again, rubbing my aching biceps.

“On its own, an empty book means nothing.  Anything can be written into it, assuming there’s enough space.  But without the book, without the vessel, the words fall apart.” Sentences and paragraphs of ink floated off the pages of the book.

They slid into the sphere of water above us, billowing and dissolving in clouds of black liquid.

As the morning sun rose, its light reflected off the liquid’s surface, and the object shone with golden radiance.

“Without a brain or mind-sphere to hold its contents, the connections in the Pith break down.  Your mind disintegrates.” The ink emerged from the sphere, now a shapeless mass of dark liquid.  “And you can never put it back together.”

Whether it was intended or not, the implication was clear.  That’s what’s going to happen in a year.  My stomach clenched up.  The ink splashed back onto the book, a black stain on the white page.

“Understand the empty book, and you will have the stepping stone to all mental projection, Praxis, Whisper, and the defensive techniques against the latter.  You may even improve your illusions.” Brin stood up. The sphere of water streamed into a drainage grate in the corner.

I looked down.  The blotch of ink was warping and shifting on the title page of the book, forming neat rows of printed letters.  Brin flicked his wrist, and it tore out, drifting into my hand. It was a list. Practical Pneumatology, 8th Ed: Level 1. An Introduction to Mental Projection, 9th Ed: Level 1.  Neurology and the Soul, 3rd Ed: Level 1.  The list went on.  “What is this?”

“A library list,” said Brin.  “Pick them up on your first day at Paragon.  While you read them, think about what I taught you today.”

“But these are marked Level 1.  I only have Public Access. Level 0,”  And the levels of the Great Library were patrolled by armed guards.

Brin picked up the bag beside him, putting on a wide-brimmed pork pie hat that cast his face in shadows.  “Figure it out. Finish them by the same time next week, practice the technique, and meet me back here in a week.  Same time. If you master the technique, you’ll get your first assignment.”

He didn’t need to say the consequences if I failed.

Without another word, Brin strode to the stairway and descended it, shutting the door behind him.

________________________________________

I scanned a shelf of fresh strawberries.  Too expensive.

Brin had only given me four hundred pounds to hold over until my first job.  With that, I needed to feed myself, clothe myself, and keep myself presentable for Paragon for at least a week, maybe more.

I needed to stretch it as far as possible.  And a grocery store in Lowtown was good practice.  I needed to save every penny I could for my replacement body, which meant only going with the  barest of necessities.

The cheapest item I could find here was Maldano’s Canned Lentils.  Bulk raw lentils were cheaper, but I didn’t have the means to cook them in my pod.  The normal price was two for a pound, and when you bought them by the dozen, you could save up to forty percent per unit.  Plus, a sign said there were sales on the last day of every month. If I bought my whole supply on that day, I could get by.

I was familiar with the brand – they were grown only a few miles from my family’s house on the Agricultural Islands.  They looked bland at best, and repulsive at worst.

I bought a cardboard tray full of them and a can opener.  It wasn’t like I could taste them anyways. As I paid for them at the counter, I stared at a chilled rack of Jwala’s Orange Sodas, mouth watering.  They looked so sweet and fresh.

It had been six years since I’d drank one.  I wasn’t even sure if I remembered what it tasted like.

At another grocery store nearby, I picked up a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and a tiny cake of soap.  At a used goods shop, I bought myself a set of cheap black pants, a black shirt, and a dark brown coat with holes in it.  Brin’s bag was sufficient to carry it all back to my storage unit. Without a car, I had to make multiple trips.

Then I took the tram up the mountain to the Hightown markets on Third Street.

In comparison to the dusty shelves and cramped interiors of Lowtown stores, Eminent Forms looked like a painting come to life.  The entire storefront was a huge glass window, two stories tall, and wide enough to take up half the block.  Half-naked models stood on pedestals, showing off the latest designs, all elegant symmetry and flawless skin.

When I opened the door and stepped in, the people inside were no different.  The men were tall, square-jawed, lean but muscular. The women were slender, wide-hipped, with bright red lips and almond-shaped eyes.  All the skin was clear, all the faces boasting perfect symmetry. Apart from a handful of ordinary-looking people scattered around, everyone was a rare beauty, looking barely over the age of twenty.

They already had fabricated bodies, and were simply shopping for more.  For them, it was an aesthetic choice, rather than a matter of life or death.

People gave me odd glances as I walked through, looking over my body with disapproval.  One girl backed away as I passed, as if I had some sort of contagious disease.

In the middle of the store, several dozen women were gathered around a pedestal, with a Maxine Clive perched on the top, sporting a black cocktail dress and bright red hair instead of the usual blonde.  I couldn’t even begin to imagine how expensive her jade earrings or shoes were. The men in the store were stealing glances at her too.

The model smiled, and the whole crowd seemed to melt in awe.  It was as if that single expression on her face contained the entirety of human kindness, grace, and dignity.

My hair had looked like that.  I was never that beautiful, of course, but people had always said nice things about my scarlet hair.

Stop wallowing in nostalgia, I told myself.  My birth body was long gone.  It was nothing more than a skeleton in my parents’ backyard.

But I wasn’t here to envy the rich.  I sidled over to the cheap section of the superstore, glancing at price tags.  This was the only real option I had. Black market prices were lower, but came without any sort of regulation or certification.  Some of them even were prison bodies, impossible to transfer out of.

My parents had made that mistake once.  I wasn’t going down that road again.

A girl a few years older than me approached, beaming.  “Can I help you, sir? Are you interested in making a purchase today?  If you let me know what you’re looking for, I can help make a recommendation.”

“What’s the cheapest female body you have in stock?  Between eighteen to thirty on age, preferably. Used is fine.”

Her tone became more curt.  “Aisle seventeen, left side.”  She walked away, smiling and greeting another customer.

The design on display in aisle seventeen was short, with dark brown hair and thin lips.  It had already been inhabited once, transformed from cloth and wood into flesh and bone. The body hung off a hook attached to its clothing, with no model inhabiting it or showing it off.  The faint whiff of bug repellant came off its skin, designed to keep mosquitoes from sucking on its blood.

It was pretty, but generic, looking like an amalgam of the popular bodies from five years ago.  Still, it’d do.

I looked at the price tag.  Forty-three thousand pounds.

It was so much, more than ten thousand above what I’d expected.  A glance at the other ones in the aisle confirmed that this was the cheapest one available.  I flipped through the stapled papers in my bag, wondering if Brin might have told me how fast my salary could increase.


At the top, I saw a pair of papers with the payment information for Silver Palace’s Pod 151 and Storage Unit 27.  Twenty pounds and ninety-nine cents a night.

A bill.  I was responsible for paying my rent.

I found myself walking, then half-running out of the store, away from third street with all its gourmet restaurants and beautiful people, until I was on a cable car back down the mountain, out of breath, armpits soaked with sweat.

The numbers ran through my head, over and over.  Minus twenty-one pounds a night, that’s minus a hundred fifty per week.  Minus maybe ten a week for food, being generous. Another twenty to thirty for transportation fees.  Another twenty for laundry and ironing on my academy clothes.

And I had to save my way to forty-three thousand pounds.  In one year.

I wouldn’t be able to afford any medical bills, which meant I couldn’t address any serious issues when my body got worse, and I couldn’t get injured in the field.  If I stole to survive, I’d attract attention with my Vocation. If I didn’t excel at Paragon, I wouldn’t learn enough to win my missions, or I’d lose my only other shot at getting a new body.  If I didn’t succeed at Brin’s missions, I wouldn’t even make enough to pay my necessities.

In short, I couldn’t make any mistakes.  One mistake was more than enough to tank me.  And here I was, failing to learn a technique Brin’s five-year-old had already mastered.

At a store on the way back to King’s Palace, I bought a pencil for fifty cents.  The capsule hotel had no common room to speak of, so I lied down in my pod, on my stomach.

After all was said and done from the day’s expenses, I was at three hundred and sixty-three pounds.  I wrote that number on the back of one of Brin’s papers, at the very top. At the bottom, I wrote forty-three thousand, with a vast blank space in between.

If I didn’t fuck this up, the entire page would be full by the end of the year, and I would reach the end.  When my expenses solidified, I could add more details.

With my budget written down like this, the problem seemed less vague, less impossible.  Just a little. My stomach still clenched at the thought of what the next year would look like, but at least I knew what I was up against.

I spent the next week going over Brin’s sheets, memorizing my new identification documents as Ernest Chapman, and reviewing my class schedule.  I wasn’t a full student, but as an assistant, I was still expected to complete coursework for certain classes and take exams.

I’d probably want to use a lower pitch and darker resonance in my voice at Paragon, too.  Since my voice started dropping in puberty, I’d been training it to get it to a vaguely female pitch and resonance.  When I strained, I could get something resembling that, but most of the time, it was in an ambiguous range.

My disguise for Paragon was male.  If I did jobs sounding like a woman, that might help hide my identity.

I spent most of my time in my pod, thinking of what skills I’d need for my job.  More projection was a given, of course. It wasn’t a beginner technique, but an autonomous bullet defense would do wonders for me, if I couldn’t get bulletproof armor.

Firearm training could be useful too, but I’d need to find a gun somewhere, which I had no idea.  Until then, I settled for the sharpest kitchen knife I could buy cheap at a grocery store. With my illusions, I could make good use of it.

Two days before the school year started, I started brainstorming how I might get access to Brin’s Level 1 library books.  In the evening, as I twisted the can opener on the top, the buzzer rang.

________________________________________

I opened the front door.  The first thing I noticed was the boy’s injuries.  A bandage wrapped around two fingers on his hand, with fresh scabs on his palms.  Bruises on his neck, along with a pimple or two. And a slight limp as he walked.

In spite of that, he was grinning ear to ear.  He handed me a silver business card. “Weston Brown,” he said.  “Wes for short. I understand you’re in need of assistance.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter