3-F The Empty Book

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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.

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