4-F – The Broadcast King

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Humans were so boring.  Fortunately, Afzal wasn’t one anymore.

Afzal glanced under his desk, through the transparent floor of his airship.  The city of Elmidde spread out beneath him, faint through a thin layer of early morning fog.

This entire city, Projectors and Humdrums alike, were all so frustrating.  Their minds played out the same patterns and desires, over and over again with different coats of paint.  Their insights were unoriginal, their intuitions flat.

The poor idiotic Humdrums had spent centuries in the dark, unable to grasp that an entire world of projection was hidden under their noses.  Most projectors weren’t much better, clinging to archaic traditions and stifling progress, barely living up to a sliver of their potential.

When talking to most of them, Afzal could predict the entire arc of the conversation, anticipating every clumsy argument they would make, every social tactic.

On the plus side, it made them easier to influence.  On the minus side, they were very tedious to have lunch with.

Case in point, the man sitting across from him.  He was going over some rehearsed anecdote about how he solved a crisis in his last job with an unconventional, but brilliant solution and how that proved he was a perfect, perfect fit for this position in Oracle Media Group.  Eighty-three percent of it was fake, and the candidate had convinced himself the lie was just ‘showing his best self’.

It made Afzal want to rub Kabrian peppers into his eyes.  Thankfully, it only took a fraction of his attention to carry out the job interview.

With the rest of his mind, he projected into five typewriters in an adjacent room, typing out ad campaigns for his marketing teams and eating lunch with shaking fingers.  Since that assassin boy slit his throat with a piece of paper, Afzal’s hands had been quivering and clumsy, no matter what body he transferred into.

Afzal could have used projection to lift the food, but he was still pretending to be a Humdrum.  If he blew his cover, Paragon would watch him far more closely, and might even suss out his Vocation.

As a result, eating his lamb skewers presented a far more interesting problem than this meeting.  They came from the only restaurant in Elmidde that made good seekh kebabs, and the sharp saffron flavors reminded him of the Glass Oasis.  Of eating late-night dinners on a warm summer patio with Hira and Zahir and Abis, debating about consciousness, the Great Scholars, and whether the latest season of The Mountain Slayer was its best or worst yet.

It was a sweet memory.  Afzal would kill for an exciting, unpredictable conversation like that.  In contrast, Gregory Cotton, aspiring marketing executive, brought him only frustration.

Gregory was spinning various lies about his dreams, and how he loved the content Afzal produced.  In truth, all the man wanted was money and status. Oracle Media Group was the kind of coveted, prestigious company that would earn him bragging rights among his pseudo-friends from business school and make him feel like he’d accomplished something with his life.  That would be more than enough to please him.

Of course, Gregory thought he wanted the job to help his wife and future children, to pay a mortgage for his boring house in the suburbs and fund his kids’ disgustingly overpriced education.  But Afzal estimated at least a sixty percent chance the two would divorce in the next five years. If they had a child, the odds went over eighty. There was a margin of error, of course, but Afzal tended to be right about these things.

Afzal couldn’t blame him, of course.  He pitied him, in fact. As a Humdrum, Mr. Cotton’s mind would never get the chance to grow beyond its simple roots.  For him “strive to become an Exemplar” was just a catchphrase, not a genuine aspiration.

Afzal, on the other hand, had the privilege of being born a Projector.  A Praxis Specialist, no less.

Afzal’s projection enhanced his multitasking, working memory, and social analytics, and let him sleep only four hours a night while maintaining full functionality.  His skill-stitching made him better than most experts in statistics, sociology, economics, law, and scorpion whip kickboxing. Memory Bursts gave him perfect recollection on the fly, and Empathy let him read the emotions of others.

And, of course, his Vocation, the best of them all.  Combined with his emotional regulators, you couldn’t exactly call his mind human anymore.

Gregory Cotton was winding down.  Afzal stood up and shook his hand.  “You’re hired. Start tomorrow?”

Gregory’s eyes widened, and he blinked several times.  “Really?” His voice gave away his eagerness.

“Two hundred and ten an hour.”  It was the lowest offer Cotton would be willing to accept.  Catching the man off guard made the number lower.

“Thank you, sir.”  Cotton was shocked.

“At Oracle, you’ll move up the ladder fast if you’re competent,” lied Afzal.  Cotton would never advance, but his work would be better this way, and he would be willing to put in many hours of unpaid overtime.  Afzal shook Cotton’s hand. “Between you and me, we interviewed forty-one other people for this job. So finding someone who knows what they’re talking about is such a relief.”

Cotton grinned.  “Really?”

Afzal nodded.  In truth, he’d interviewed three, but Cotton was insecure about his intellect, and craved validation from authority.

After a few dull pleasantries, Afzal was finally free.  With a flick of his finger, he opened a radio line to the airship’s pilot.  “It’s time.” He stopped his skewer-eating and typing in the other room. He needed to concentrate for this next part.

Another flick of his finger, and a mat floated out of a cabinet, unrolling and resting itself on the glass floor.  Afzal lied down on his back, and a gold-embroidered pillow slid beneath his head.

The phone rang once, the signal that the zeppelin had begun its trip around Mount Elwar. The floor jerked underneath Afzal as it turned in midair.

Afzal inhaled, sucking in a lungful of air and closing his eyes.

He exhaled, and the city opened up before him.  His Pith exploded out of his body, stretching three point two kilometers in every direction, sweeping invisibly over houses and streets and canals.

Millions of souls lit up in his mind, a carpet of lights spread out beneath him.  He sensed the presence and general position of every one of them, shifting and swirling and changing.  For the first several seconds, it was overwhelming, a wave of information so immense it drowned out his thoughts, turning his mind into a chaotic storm of inputs.  Over the next minute, the noise softened, as his mind sorted it into reams of data.

Afzal wasn’t a mind reader, per se.  When he concentrated on a single Pith miles below, a single human, he couldn’t hear any of their thoughts.  Their desires and emotions and identity were hidden from him. On its own, it was like a droplet of paint on a canvas, simple and unreadable.

But the more droplets he saw, the more data points he added to his model, and the clearer the image became.  It was like an impressionist painting from centuries ago. Close up, it was incoherent, but the further back you stepped, the more you saw patterns, clarity, insight.


Afzal Kahlin couldn’t read a single mind.  But he could read the collective unconsciousness of a million of them.

The sensation was difficult to explain, the way most Praxis Vocations were.  It felt like swimming in a four-dimensional river, where the water was rushing through you from every direction.  There was no internal monologue he could hear, no series of images that encompassed the varying thoughts of the masses below.

But there was a presence, that could be separated and sorted into groups.  Branches and channels in the river. There were common demographics like age, race, gender, and political affiliation, but there were subtler categories, too.  Neuroticism. Openness. Social compliance.

It was the perfect poll, the perfect focus group that could be melded together and analyzed.

And it was breathtaking.  An individual human was boring, like an individual neuron that could only do one thing.  But a network of them, a tapestry was beautiful, a dynamic organism of beliefs and institutions and conflict.

The current topic of interest was the fallout of last night’s events.  Lyna Wethers had hijacked over a hundred and fifty people at her yacht party, then gotten herself killed.  They’d planned for her to cause more damage to Paragon’s reputation before dying, but someone else had gotten to her first.

Curiously enough, reports showed that two of Wethers’ own minions had taken her out.  That wasn’t Paragon’s style. A Guardian would have just killed her, they wouldn’t have fussed around with Whisper Vocations.

Which meant there was another player in the game.  A third party.

Afzal had no idea who it was, but his colleagues would find out soon enough.  If they were useful, they’d be used. If not, they’d be removed.

The public was catching wind of the incident.  Initial surface-level articles about the incident had already appeared in this morning’s papers.  By tomorrow, his newspapers, television shows, and radio hosts needed a coherent narrative to push and play with.

The initial spin tactics were simple, free of overt opinions: referring to Lyna Wethers as a ‘former Guardian’, as many times as possible, and referencing her history over and over again.  Afzal sent pings out, querying the populace on what they thought of the mass mental hijacking.

There was anger.  Collective frustration and fear born of a sense of powerlessness.  It was a similar reaction to the recent instances of Nudge terrorism – a sense that they were vulnerable and helpless, and that the only reason their minds hadn’t been shattered was luck.

On the flip side, though, Afzal sensed a thread of indifference running strong among the populace of Lowtown: the impoverished Humdrums of the city.  Afzal followed the thread, sending out further pings, prodding into the sentiment until it clicked.

The wealthy and powerful of society had been the main victims of Wethers’ attack.  Epistocrats, business executives, Paragon students. The poor resented them, and as a result, didn’t care about them being victimized.

Resentment against Epistocrats and Paragon was good, but Afzal wanted passion, not apathy.  In his head, Afzal composed a series of op-eds, think-pieces, and talking points for the radio and TV personalities working under Oracle’s umbrella.  The writers and journalists would fill in the details and give it their unique voices, and it would take some maneuvering to give it the appearance of editorial independence.  But still, the skeletal framework, the core influence was all him.

Afzal honed his focus on two victims of the incident.  Felicia Batherst, a twenty-year-old phone operator who’d won a lottery to go to the party, and Griffin Hille, a beloved singer for holiday albums in his forties.  Combined, they were relatable and attractive enough to sell their humanity to a broader audience.

In addition, they were both native to the Principality.  Like most places of the world, the people of this nation exhibited a strong undercurrent of xenophobia, a remnant of their days as a colonial power.  They’d be less likely to sympathize with an Ilaquan or a Nekean, or god forbid, a Shenti.

Afzal focused his narrative on their humanity, all their hopes and aspirations and loves that had been shattered by a wild ex-Guardian off the leash.  He tested phrases, words, and images that he drew up in his head, sending them through the subconscious network of minds to see what the response might look like.

Information streamed back into his mind, and he noted effective and ineffective elements down to the most minute detail.  Most people in Elmidde would be uninterested in Felicia’s desire to start her own graphic design company, but they were well-primed to shed tears over her shattered romance with her high school sweetheart.

Christea Ronaveda, of the radio show Verity, was another celebrity who’d been on the ship.  Though her Vocation had rendered her strangely immune to Honeypot, she’d witnessed much of the horror, and could be used to keep the incident in the headlines, even the ones he didn’t own.

The stream of information highlighted other effective talking points: Anti-elitism against Paragon Academy, disgust for an incompetent government that let Wethers escape, and the Humdrum’s natural fear of Projection.

That last one was the foundation of Commonplace’s support – a fear of a secret society of Epistocrats that had kept themselves hidden for millennia with suppression and memory wipes.  People didn’t like having their minds violated, and Humdrums had to worry about it more than most.

It was amusing.  Convince someone they’re being brainwashed by an enemy, and they’d do just about anything for you.

After a few minutes, Afzal had all the material he needed.  As an afterthought, he cooked up a couple of conspiracy theories about Honeypot’s true origins.  She was bought by the Droll Corsairs. She was working with an Ilaquan cabal of wily seductresses from the Far East.  And she was conducting secret experiments for Paragon and Headmaster Tau, who, of course, was behind it all.

These could be distributed to his grassroots channels to hopefully incite more political violence.  And were amusing to come up with.

Afzal opened his eyes.  The purple lightning of his Pith crackled around his body as he strained with his Vocation.  Then he let his soul contract back into his body. The tapestry of minds faded, and the lightning vanished.  He sagged back on the mat, exhausted.

Afzal had a simple philosophy for his work.  Deep down, the vast majority of humans had two basic desires: They wanted to feel both comfortable and important.  If they had solid livelihoods and got to feel significant, people would rationalize away all sorts of atrocities and injustices.  Rockwell Cigarettes meant status and luxury: importance. Jwala’s Orange Soda meant warm, relaxing summers with your friends and family: comfort.

In most cases, all you had to do was invent a threat to one of those, and you could create a whole new desire out of dust and soundbites.  The Shenti barbarians from across the sea are going to burn down your home, so you need to join the military. Your friends think you’re disgusting and your breath smells and nobody will ever love you, so buy our new line of mouthwash.  If you don’t buy an expensive engagement ring, you’re a penniless, insignificant loser who doesn’t love your spouse.

Plus, a classic: Everyone noteworthy and smart and authoritative is investing in this company, and if you miss out, they’re all more important than you.  Until recently, the Principality had been the richest, most powerful nation in the Eight Oceans, which made it pathetically easy to appeal to its denizens’ pride and nationalism and hunger for wealth.

Working off these fundamentals, he could transform a failing makeup company with terrible products into a multilevel marketing giant, start rumors that got people elected and misconceptions that fueled business empires.

And he could make Commonplace seem like the last bastion of hope, reason, and morality in the nation.  The tabloids spread nasty rumors about him and his foreign influence on the press, but in the end, they still used his words, even if they hated him.

The rumors were true, of course, but it wasn’t like things were better before his reign.  Until less than a decade ago, Paragon Academy had puppeted the entire country’s media.  Afzal was simply better at it.

Holding the results of his survey in his mind, Afzal put his plans on eight typewriters at once, translating the abstract ideas into a strategy that would play out in countless mediums over the next week.

Afzal pushed himself to a standing position, and strode out of his office.  Using his Vocation tired him out quickly, and he could use something to cool off.

The main chamber of his blimp was filled with people.  Typists copying his directives to be spread throughout his network of media companies, executives shouting over each other to hash out the logistical details, and Qadir, the janitor, mopping up spilled wine on the hideous carpet.  

Why did I ever tolerate that color?  The blimp and penthouse were new purchases, from another billionaire with abhorrent taste.  Afzal had interior designers coming in soon, but even after that, it would take time to safely make the modifications.

As an afterthought, Afzal extended his Pith, initiating his Empathy vocation to feel their shifting clouds of emotion.  With it, he noted their reactions to the new content, or in the janitor’s case, overwhelming boredom mixed with existential nihilism.  Rolf Wensley, Oracle’s Chief Communications Officer, was having a particularly interesting response

A brown-skinned woman in loose martial arts clothes strode up to Afzal, peeling grapes with projection and floating them into her mouth one by one.  Madha, one of the eleven members of Steel Violet. Along with Qadir, they made up the only other Ilaquans on his zeppelin. There were not many of his countrymen in the Principality.

“Morning, sir!” she said, beaming with a full mouth of grapes.  “Any new assignments?”

“Give Rolf Wensley a precision memory wipe,” said Afzal under his breath.  “Then fire him. We’ve got plenty who can take his place.”

Madha raised an eyebrow.  “May I ask why?”

Afzal had held suspicions for a while, and today had confirmed them.  Rolf had always served up quality work, but was a steadfast patriot with a strong moral compass, who quietly disapproved of Oracle’s recent practices and the nondisclosure agreement he’d signed.

Upon reading the new orders from Afzal, Mr. Wensley had felt a dangerous combination of emotions: discomfort, moral outrage, then decisiveness.

“He’s going to try and whistleblow to a competing paper.  Or maybe Paragon. And he thinks he’s smart enough to get away with it.”

Madha nodded.  “We’ll have him out within the hour.”

Afzal plucked a grape out of the air and dropped it into his mouth.  He glanced at Madha’s loose, flowing martial arts pants. “Got time for some sparring?”

________________________________________

Afzal leapt forward, lashing out with his fist.  In response, Madha’s leg pulled into her chest. It shot out in a blur, and the sole of her foot slammed into his solar plexus.

Afzal staggered back on the wooden floor, doubling over.  “Nice,” he wheezed. He thought he’d found an opening, a space where Madha had overextended, and couldn’t defend herself.  But her slip-up had been bait.

Afzal, given his position, had focused his skill-stitching on social sciences, business, and mathematics.  The only close-combat system he knew was Scorpion Whip kickboxing. On the other hand, Madha, as a dedicated bodyguard, had stitched in just about every martial art in the Eight Oceans, and could blend the styles with ease.  And she was thought-stitching with ten others just as proficient, who could help her strategize.

But on the flip side, Afzal’s body was far stronger than hers, even with her combat chassis.  It made for an interesting match.

The two of them circled each other, punctuating the silence with brief flurries of punches and kicks.  Every time Afzal tried to get in for a grapple, Madha was able to push him back or evade, bobbing and weaving like a boxer, or throwing him off balance like a Cei Ji master.

It was an adequate time-waster, but made him nostalgic for the similar bouts he’d had with his family.  Not combat, but Jao Lu, poker, games of strategy and rhetoric. Both his children had proper Praxis Vocations, and his husband’s mind was unique enough to be interesting, even as a Humdrum.

Sometimes Afzal replayed conversations with them in his mind, thought-stitching them back onto himself to experience them all over again.  It had filled him with pride to watch their minds grow and develop. He wanted to watch them peel apart the world like an onion, to grow into the brightest minds of a generation.

But he’d ruined it all.  Hira had run away from home.  Abis was in hiding. And Afzal had allowed Zahir to get under the thumb of a brilliant psychopath, one of the few people that terrified him.

Afzal had a great many acquaintances left, but no friends.  No family.

In his moment of reminiscence, one of his retreats moved slower than it should have, leaving a small opening as he pulled back from one of his jabs.

Madha sprung through the gap in his defenses and moved to sweep his legs out.  But her movement was too aggressive, too hasty to capitalize on his weakness. Afzal snapped back to reality, and in three quick movements, had her pinned on her back, her advanced technique useless against his overwhelming strength.

She tapped the ground.  “Well fought.”

Afzal let go, and nodded, his clothes soaked with sweat.  In a real fight, with projection and guns, she’d crush him, but in this ring, she wasn’t good enough.  He’d thought the battle might provide some respite, but all it did was remind him of better times, more exciting challenges like the sort he had with his family.  He was bored.

“Incoming message,” said Madha.  “Jabira just picked up a new job application with some interesting discrepancies.”

“Memory-stitch it over.”

They clasped hands, and Afzal felt a warm feeling spreading up his arm and into his skull.  Images and words streamed into his mind, as the memory copied from her Pith onto his.

It was a job application for a high-level graphic designer, complete with a portfolio, submitted with no referral.  Normally, one of his many underlings would sort it out of the slush pile, but this one was unique. It was both spectacularly good, and contained a very particular pattern of errors.

The cover letter and resume contained a combination of minor vocabulary alterations, words that didn’t quite fit their sentences, as well as a smattering of uncommon grammar errors.  And the images on the portfolio contained tiny imperfections, bits the size of a pencil dot that were painted the wrong color or missing.

To a normal person, they’d be invisible, and even to the joining-enhanced eyes of Steel Violet, it looked like an incoherent jumble of information.

But not to Afzal.  He held all the information in his memory, not forgetting a single piece, then sorted them into a mental spreadsheet, and ran it through one of the custom cryptography engines that had been installed into his Pith.

The information sifted through the engine, which gave him a light headache as they worked out the symbols.  After a few seconds, his mind spat out a sequence of numbers: 

56.98025235521883, 20.4603375000501061, 0813

Exact latitude and longitude coordinates, followed by a time.  There was no date, which meant it had to be today. At 8:13 in the morning.  Thirty-seven minutes from now. And judging by the custom-ported atlas installed in his Pith, the location was in the middle of the ocean.

“Call Rory in the cockpit,” said Afzal, scribbling down the numbers on a piece of paper.  “Tell him to take us to these coordinates as fast as he can.”

“What is it?” asked Madha.

“The Lady’s left me one of her codes.  She wants to meet me. Alone.”

________________________________________

The airship floated down and stopped sixty feet above the water.  Fog surrounded it, rendering it impossible to see more than twenty feet in any direction.

The zeppelin’s radar detected nothing in the near vicinity.  No planes. No ships. No land. This stretch of the ocean was as empty as a desert.

Afzal consulted his internal clock, another Praxis technique, accurate to the microsecond.  8:11.  Two minutes early.

Twin doors slid open on the floor, letting in a rush of cold air from the outside.  Madha scowled. “Why does the Lady want to meet you in the middle of the ocean?”

“I’m not entirely sure.”  Afzal grinned. “Thrilling, isn’t it?”

“She’s unstable.  Angry,” said Madha.  “And she doesn’t like most people like you.”

“Yes.”

“As your bodyguards, Steel Violet would like to advise you to minimize person-to-person contact.  Or at least have some of us with you. One of these meetings, she might end up killing you.”

“Yes,” said Afzal.  “She might.” He leapt off the edge and projected into his clothes, slowing his fall.

His feet touched down on the hardened surface of the water, sending ripples out.  Just on time.  There was no sign of her.  Maybe she was waiting for him to be alone.

Or maybe she’d decided Afzal had outlived his usefulness, and was setting up a Voidsteel sniper shot.

The zeppelin floated upwards, fading into the fog until Afzal was alone in the grey, empty ocean.  A frigid breeze blew across the water, and Afzal shivered. With no waves, the water was silent. Flat.

To tell the truth, Afzal found the open ocean unsettling.  It was not an irrational fear. It had swallowed the Great Scholars, and countless archaeologists eager to investigate their remains.

Afzal owned a shipping company, and this year alone, they’d lost more than three dozen cargo ships, all on the open ocean with no records to indicate what caused them.  Pirates and storm krakens accounted for some, but there was more. There had to be something more.

There were so many theories about what was below the ten thousand feet marker, where the cities of the Great Scholars had once thrived.  Tentacle demons and gateways to other worlds and secret government labs. He’d even helped invent some of them.

But the truth was, nobody knew what they were talking about.

The sea remains, thought Afzal.  And the water was rising.

He didn’t want to be here a second longer than he had to.

A female voice echoed from behind him. “You’re behind projections.”

Afzal spun around.  A woman strode towards him across the waves, scowling at him.  Tunnel Vision.  The crazy bitch who’d slaughtered, then taken over half of Elmidde’s underworld.

Damn her, thought Afzal, how did she sneak up behind me?  None of his threat tracker vocations had indicated anything nearby.

“You’re behind projections,” she said again.  Tunnel Vision’s voice was quiet, as always, but Afzal could sense the subdued rage underneath.  Talking to her was like standing in the eye of a hurricane.

And worse, most of her thoughts were closed off to him.  She’d been trained to block the common Empathy vocation he used, and his social analysis vocations threw up random results whenever exposed to her body language.  Which meant she knew how to fool them.


Manipulating her was going to be difficult.  But he was working on it.

“I – I’m sorry,” he said, letting his voice quiver.  Normally, Afzal affected a friendly air, a thick layer of warmth and precision-targeted flattery strong enough to disarm almost anyone.  But as far as he could tell, Tunnel Vision desired loyalty and fear.

So Afzal made himself look awed in her presence, and spent every iota of his mental energy trying to anticipate her thoughts, to mirror her subtle tics, gestures, and verbal patterns so she would subconsciously see him as a similar person.

Because he needed her.  Without her and Commonplace and the boss, Afzal had no chance of taking over this country.  And without the overwhelming power of this country, his children were doomed. And so was he.

Tunnel Vision strode forward.  “Come.”

Afzal followed her, hardening the water beneath him as he walked.

In truth, the mobster was scary, but far from awe-inspiring.  The woman was all rage and no charm, and had the fashion sense of a country bumpkin who’d just won the lottery.  The natural beauty of her chassis was wasted on her.

The woman’s suit jacket looked more than a decade old.  Underneath her black skirt, her calves bristled with unshaven stubble.  The carved Voidsteel tanto dagger at her waist clashed with the other colors in her ensemble.  And her light brown hair was tied back in a thin, waist-length ponytail protruding from her bowler hat, which made no sense with her outfit.

He’d laugh at her, if he thought she wouldn’t kill him for it.

The two of them strode through the thick fog.  Tunnel Vision was silent, declining to explain why she’d brought him out to the middle of nowhere.

With nothing from her, Afzal moved to fill the silence in the conversation.  “The issues with my influence campaign are in my report. There were changes and factors I didn’t anticipate.”

The truth was, Tunnel Vision’s schedule was too damn ambitious.  She wanted over sixty-five percent of the country to be on the side of Commonplace by the end of the year, which was not realistic.  Public opinion could be shaped and toyed with, but it moved slow. Men and women did not change their opinions easily, especially as they grew older.

But she hadn’t listened to any of his warnings.  The woman’s patience was shorter than her temper, and she wanted to topple the country fast.  She’d earned her nickname for a reason.

“You need to move faster,” she said.  “Not slower. I just shut down all my Nudge terrorism attacks.”  Irritation crept into her voice.

“Why?” said Afzal.  “They were working great.”  All you had to do was find a Humdrum with a gun, Nudge them, and wipe the memories.

“The boss didn’t like it.”  Tunnel Vision scowled. “I told her: you want a violent revolution, you have to get the nation primed for political violence.  You can’t overthrow a government with a bunch of peaceful protestors who whine about theory. They have to see their enemies as less than human.”

“But she insisted.”

“She said we were abusing the people we were trying to protect.  And she gets final say.”

Despite hearing a great deal about the true leader of Commonplace, Afzal had never actually met her.  Who could be dangerous enough to get final say over Tunnel Vision?

Tunnel Vision folded her arms behind her back.  “But it doesn’t matter as much now. The avalanche has started.  Copycats have begun to carry out similar attacks without any instruction.  But you need to escalate them further.”

Afzal nodded.  “You could have told me that with a coded message.  Why did you ask me to come here?”

Tunnel Vision fell silent.

That’s no fun.  He barely got to see her in person, and he wanted to spend every moment currying favor, learning new information, getting leverage.  By summer of next year, she would probably be running the country, and he needed influence over her.

If she didn’t say anything, he’d make her open up.  “You know, I’ve been following your progress since before we met,” he said.  “In under a year, you’ve single-handedly taken control of thirteen different crime families in this country.  And I’ve heard you have fingers deep into the military, too. How is it I know so little about you? And how did you manage that?”

Tunnel Vision said nothing.  The flattery wasn’t getting through.

“Even without your track record.  The way you talked, responded to questions.  I could tell you were one of the people who actually knew how to use their mind.  You’re music, not just background noise.” Afzal grinned. “Which means you’re a Praxis Specialist.  Am I wrong?”

“Your hands are shaking,” Tunnel Vision didn’t take the bait, declining the offer to gloat about her intelligence.

“I was attacked by a Projector that specialized in paper cuts,” he said.  “I took some damage to my Pith before I could transfer to another body.”

“Stupid,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You should have had spares on hand.”

“I was foolish.  I’m not used to this world,” Afzal nodded.  Let’s try a different tactic.  “It was more pain than I’ve ever felt,” he said.  “I was choking, lying in a pool of my blood. Bits of my skin were peeling off, and one of my eyes was sliced open.  But all I could think of, through it all, was: if I let go here, it will have all been for nothing. All the people we fought for, all the sacrifices we made.”

Reciprocity.  A simple psychological tactic, but effective nonetheless.  If he was vulnerable to her, it would push her to open up more in return, and build trust in the long term.

“These are not your people,” said Tunnel Vision.  “Your people are in Ilaqua, across the sea.”

Afzal pushed indignity into his voice.  “A man can love the people of a foreign country, and care about their freedom.  The people face injustice here just like they do everywhere.”

It was a lie.  Afzal hated the Principality and all the idiots in it.  They ate lard with everything, piled their trash in giant walls on the streets, and had such primitive, uptight views on gender and romance.  Then still had the nerve to think they were the superior culture.

What really kept Afzal going was the thought of his family.  To get them back, he needed to rule this nation, or get as close to ruling it as possible.  So he would keep playing Tunnel Vision, and the public, and their enigmatic boss, until both the mob and Commonplace were dancing before him. 

Because like everyone else, they wanted to feel comfortable and important too.

Tunnel Vision stopped.  What now?  What was so important about this particular patch of ocean?  Afzal projected into the water nearby, feeling a cluster of matrix fish and several other animals.  But nothing significant.

“Why did you bring me here?”

“Shh.”  Tunnel Vision held up a finger.  If she wanted to kill me, she’d have done it already.

After several minutes of agonizing silence, Afzal’s senses picked up a sound in the far distance.  A grinding or a rumbling. His noise analyzers deduced it was a diesel engine, three-quarters of a mile away and getting closer by the second.

The noise got louder and louder until it was deafening, making Afzal’s ears ache.

A giant metal hull emerged from the fog in front of Tunnel Vision.  A submarine.  Only the top third was out of the water, a massive steel tube with a fin sticking out of the top.

It bore down on the two of them, churning up the water in its wake.  There was no time to shout, or move to the side.

As it approached them, Afzal felt a tug in his pants and shirt, and an unseen force yanked him backwards and upwards, lifting him into the air and accelerating him backwards.  Tunnel Vision floated beside him, her face still deadpan. She’s projecting into our clothes.

The two of them flew above the submarine, accelerating backwards until they matched its speed.  Tunnel Vision lowered them onto the top of the fin, and dropped them down onto its smooth metal surface.  It took all of Afzal’s coordination not to fall over.

A man’s head stuck out of a hatch next to the two of them.  He stared at them, dumbfounded, and made eye contact with Afzal.

Then he grabbed the hatch and dropped down, slamming it shut with a loud clang.  The wheel turned, locking it in place.

“They’re going to dive,” said Afzal.

“They won’t,” said Tunnel Vision.  “The ballast vents are malfunctioning.”  She lifted a finger, and the hatch tore off its hinge, flying into the distance.  The mobster stepped forward and floated down into the sub. “Come.”

“They could have Voidsteel bullets.”

“They do,” she said.  “Don’t worry.”

Afzal climbed down the ladder after her, descending into a cramped hallway filled with pipes and machinery.  What did she drag me into?

Tunnel Vision strode forward, and Afzal followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting it on door frames.

“Is this a military sub?” Afzal asked.  “One of the Principality’s?”

“Do you know who The Radio Man is?” said Tunnel Vision.

The two of them entered a control room of sorts, filled with dials and buttons and switches.  It was empty. One of the chairs was knocked over, like someone had left in a hurry.

“One of your competitors,” Afzal said.  “Platinum-ranked projector. Runs a crime syndicate.”

“He’s the last of the old guard.  His family, the Whitewoods, have been running the eastern half of Low and Midtown since Elmidde was first founded.  They’ve all been projectors, but Paragon left them alone as long as they didn’t make too much trouble for the government.  There’s always bigger problems to deal with.”

“Their mistake,” said Afzal.  “Leave something like that alone, and it’ll grow like a tumor.”

Tunnel Vision nodded, examining one of the consoles.  “Indeed. The Radio Man now owns an eighth of the city council, donates heavily to Mayor Noke’s campaigns, and is good friends with General Wyard, who has great influence among the senior staff members in both the army and navy.  With their help, he’s managed to procure and operate this stealth submarine, and uses it when he’s afraid of an attempt on his life.”

When they strode into the next room, a man in a sailor’s uniform was standing at the opposite end.  His eyes widened as he saw the two of them, and he sprinted down a hallway, slamming the door at the other end.

They’re running from us.  Well, they were running from her.

“He earned his nickname because his Vocation lets him intercept and fake radio signals at a vast range.  Combined with his cryptology division, he used it to take the syndicate from his older sister.”

Why am I here?  If The Radio Man was here, then this was a hostile takeover, an assassination, or both, and Afzal was useless in all those cases.

They descended another pair of ladders.  At the bottom of the second one, two men jumped out from behind a torpedo and pointed pistols at them, pulling the triggers over and over again.

The guns clicked.  No bullets came out.  Tunnel Vision walked towards them, nonchalant, and they dropped the guns, running away.

Afzal followed the woman through more watertight doors, more steel corridors with low ceilings and empty rooms, until they stopped at a room with a ladder in the middle.  Tunnel Vision stared up at the open hatch at the top, then strode to a radio, flipping it on.

Static came out of the speakers.  She didn’t twist any of the tuning knobs.  “Mr. Whitewood.”

The static faded away, replaced by a man’s dejected voice.  “I surrender,” said the Radio Man. “You win. I did everything I could to keep my location hidden.  Almost nobody in my organization even knows this submarine exists.”

Afzal almost snorted.  How did he get this far?  Maybe he could outclass other humans, but against a determined Praxis Specialist, he was crumbling in minutes.

“If you found this place, then I have no hope of outmaneuvering you.  If you let me live and keep a portion of my wealth, I’ll give you everything.  My assets, my soldiers, my operations in the city. The rest of the organization won’t fight you.  I’ll move overseas and you’ll never see me again.” The Radio Man sighed. “I’m in the sonar room. You know where it is.”

Afzal glanced up at the hatch above the ladder.  That must be it.

“Hm,” said Tunnel Vision.  “So you got the ambush all set up, then?”

“The fuck are you talking about?” the Radio Man’s voice was annoyed.  “I’m surrendering!”

“You have nine soldiers with submachine guns in a semicircle, about thirty feet around the top of the ladder, plus you with a pistol and an explosive trap disguised as a fuel pipe.  You’re projecting into the weapons so I can’t jam them, and the bullets are Voidsteel. Then you have another four projector mercs you hired from the Droll Corsairs, because you’ve been preparing for this day since you saw me rip your other competitors to wet piles of meat.”  She tapped her foot on the floor, impatient.

Radio Man fell silent.  Nothing came out of the radio’s speakers.

“This is your only warning,” she said.  “The men with you are well-trained and principled.  They deserve to die for a better cause than yours.”

There was a long pause, when nobody said anything.  The Radio Man seemed to be deliberating.

Then the radio’s speakers flipped back to static.  He hung up.

Bootheels clanged on the metal ceiling above them.  Racing closer to the hatch and the ladder.

“He knows where we are,” said Afzal, panic slipping into his voice.  “His people are coming to – “

A grenade dropped from the hatch above them, bouncing onto the floor.  He’s projecting into it already.  That meant they wouldn’t be able to jam it.  And the shrapnel would be Voidsteel, unblockable.  Afzal stumbled back, putting himself behind a metal pipe.

Tunnel Vision didn’t move.

A storm of loud cracks rang out at the same time.  Gunshots.  All from above.

The grenade didn’t explode.  Tunnel Vision didn’t even look at it.  It just sat there, inanimate.

She floated upwards through the hatch.  “Come on.”

Afzal climbed the rungs of the ladder, staring at the grenade beneath him.

In the room above, it was exactly as Tunnel Vision had predicted, with the Radio Man’s soldiers laid out in a semicircle around the hatch.  Thirteen corpses, fitted out in a combination of military and civilian gear. Each one was shot clean through the head, lying in a puddle of blood.

Afzal repressed a wave of nausea.  Even with all his Praxis vocations, genuine violence remained the one thing he wasn’t wired for.

There were fourteen large bullet holes in the wall, letting in faint morning sunlight from the outside.  She used snipers.  But with the hull’s thickness, they’d all have to be anti-tank rifles.  

How carefully had she planned this?

Tunnel Vision poked her finger into one of the holes, scowling.  “That’s going to cost money to fix.”

A groan came from the other side of the room.  A young, broad-set man with blonde hair lay on the floor, his clothes covered in blood.  The Radio Man.  He clutched his right arm, with a mangled stump of bone and flesh in place of his hand.

A pistol sat on the floor next to him.  Whoever her snipers were, they were good enough to shoot the gun right out of his hand.

Tunnel Vision strode towards him.  He spat at her, and the saliva stopped in midair before it could touch her.  It dropped to the ground between them.

“We had a good thing going,” he said, coughing.  “The rival families were at peace. We were cooperating, conducting our business without fighting each other.”

“Don’t do it,” said Tunnel Vision.  “Don’t do it.”

“Then you killed them all.  You fucked it all up.” Loud metallic clangs echoed from behind them, the sounds of footsteps on the floor behind them.  Someone’s sprinting towards us.  Afzal spun to look behind him.  Nothing.

When Afzal turned back to the Radio Man, the pistol was in his left hand, pointing towards Tunnel Vision.  A distraction.  He – 

A flash of white light exploded over Afzal’s vision, and he felt a wave of heat on his face.  He blinked, and the room came into focus.

The Radio Man had dropped the gun.  The sleeve on his left arm was blackened, and large chunks of the fabric crumbled off.  His flesh underneath looked like white wax, steam coming off of it. His fingers curled and twitched, covered in a layer of pale crust that resembled the outside of a pastry.

That’s his skin.

The Radio Man screamed.  He fell back on the ground and shook, tears pouring down his face.

“I did warn you not to do it,” said Tunnel Vision, disgust permeating her voice.  She lifted a finger, and Radio Man floated next to her, carried by his clothes. She strode towards the intercom, flicking it on.  “To all crew. This is Tunnel Vision. Soldiers under my command will be arriving within minutes to take charge of this vessel. If you wish to leave, you will be escorted out and no harm will be done to you.  But if you continue working here, your salaries will be doubled. I take care of my workers.” Tunnel Vision walked back towards the hatch. “Come on, Broadcast King. We’ve got to interrogate this piece of shit.”

Afzal followed her.  What did I get myself into?  And he still didn’t know why she’d brought him here, though he had a theory.

“Tell me,” said Tunnel Vision, leaning down to the Radio Man’s ear.  “Have you ever heard the parable of the ant and the beetle?”

________________________________________

Tunnel Vision pressed one palm against the Radio Man’s forehead, and another against a limp, empty body lying on the mattress next to him.

Purple lightning crackled around her hands.  Her Pith, straining to force her target out of his body and into the other one.  Purple.  She’s definitely a Praxis Specialist.  In response, the unconscious Radio Man’s Pith crackled green, the color of a Physical Specialist, trying to keep itself in his chassis.

After a few seconds of struggle, the Radio Man’s eyes went blank, and the new body’s chest began to rise and fall.  Forced transference was the only Whisper technique that required brute-force strength, and it hadn’t even been a contest.

The old, bleeding body floated away into another room, and cables wrapped around the new body’s ankles and wrists, tying it up.  Their enemy’s new form was a middle-aged female chassis, and had been pre-injected with Null Venom to keep him from projecting outside his body.

Without the pain of his injuries, he’d be able to carry a conversation with them, and the gender swap would help keep him uncomfortable, off-balance.

“The ant and the beetle,” Afzal said.  “You tell that proverb to everyone you meet?  I don’t think I’ve heard it anywhere else. What’s your interpretation?”

He sat down on a plush chair and poured himself a glass.  Now that the fighting was over, he was on his feet again, trying to get information and leverage on his ally.  He glanced around the ship. This place is far too small for an operation her size.

At the far end of the hallway, a pale white light flickered around the edges of a steel door.  He glanced at it out of the corner of his eye. What’s behind that?  Tunnel Vision didn’t seem interested in sharing.

“During the flood, the Ant joins the living raft and dies for its colony,” said Tunnel Vision continuing.  “The Beetle saves itself, profiting off of their sacrifice. It’s content to only survive, even while the world crumbles around them.”  A bottle of smelling salts floated into her hand, and she unscrewed the cap. “But what happens if we build an entire society on beetles?  What happens when the majority of people care only about their own survival and comfort?”

Comfort and importance.  It always came back to those two things.

Afzal knew what she wanted to hear.  “The raft sinks,” he said. “Everyone drowns.  For a nation to function, you need to convince enough citizens to be ants.”  He clenched his teeth, making eye contact with her. “And I swear, I will do whatever it takes to make our vision a reality.”

Afzal was lying, of course.  The answer to the proverb was simple.  It wasn’t about being a lowly worker ant or a selfish beetle.

The solution, of course, was to make yourself the queen.

Tunnel Vision held the smelling salts underneath the Radio Man’s nose, and her – his eyes fluttered open.  His gaze darted around the room, passing over the other two in the room.

Tunnel Vision lifted a finger, and a large wooden crate floated into the room, slamming down at the foot of the bed.

“That a torture machine?”  His body spoke in a bright, feminine voice.  “Electric shocks? Waterboarding? Reverse hanging?”  He snorted. “You know I have pain inhibitors installed on my Pith, right?  Now that I’ve turned them on, anything goes beyond a certain threshold, and I fall right asleep.  And if making me sound like my ex-wife is your idea of mind games, then you need to take a class or – .”

“Christopher Whitewood.“ said Tunnel Vision, talking over him.  “You have tools and resources that will be needed in the coming conflict.  A Vocation that allows monitoring and control of radio waves. A criminal organization with funds and weapons.  Connections with senior staff members in the Principality’s military.”

“And you won’t get any of them,” said the Radio Man.  “People will replace me. I have redundancies.”

“Your wife and sons?” said Tunnel Vision.  “You were neglecting them at best. They had no interest in dying for you.  I offered them a comfortable life on a tropical island in the far South, and it took them less than two minutes to accept.  You will never see them again.”

“Liar,” he said.  “You’ve got me locked up.  You’ll say anything to break me.”

Tunnel Vision shrugged.  “You’ll find out soon enough.”  She sat down on the bed next to Whitewood.  “Way I see it, you have two choices. You can – ”

“My family forged this country,” hissed the Radio Man.  “Our companies paved these streets. We mined the stone for the towers of Paragon Academy.  We survived the Thought-Stitcher, the Whale’s Plague, and the Inquisitor’s Council. When the Conclave of the Wise tried to shut us down, we endured.  When the Shenti legions crushed every nation in their path, we endured.” A smile spread across his face. “We will endure you. Fuck your two choices, I’ll never bow to you.”

“That wasn’t the choice,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You can join me now. Or later.”

“Fuck you.”

“Later, then.”  The metal restraints pulled him down the bed, throwing him on top of the wooden crate.

Tunnel Vision grabbed his arm with one hand, pressing her other palm against the box beneath him.  Purple lightning crackled out from her skin, and she clenched her teeth. In response, green lightning exploded around the Radio Man’s head, fighting her.

Forced transference.  She was pushing him out of his body again.  And she was stronger.

After a few seconds, the lightning flickered out, and the female body went limp.  Tunnel Vision kicked it, and it rolled onto the floor. With a flick of her wrist, the top and sides of the crate broke off, stacking themselves onto the corner and revealing the new form Whitewood had been forced into.

When Afzal saw what was inside, he choked.

It was a naked body, but not like any body he’d seen before.  It was little more than a torso and a head. There were no arms or legs or genitals.  On its face, there were no eyes, ears, or nose. It didn’t even look like it had a jaw, or a skull, making its features look like a deflated balloon of flesh and skin.

The only discernible features it had were a small hole in its stomach, and a larger one on the front of its head.  A quiet whistling noise came out of the hole in its stomach. That’s where he’s breathing from, Afzal realized.

“He’s right,” said Tunnel Vision.  “We can’t torture him with traditional methods.  But while you can block pain in your Pith, there aren’t any vocations that can deal with mind-body dissonance.  Or sensory deprivation.“

Two men and a woman strode into the room, carting a stretcher on wheels alongside a table full of equipment.  They lifted the new body onto it, connecting thick tubes to the holes in his face and stomach and strapping it down.

Afzal retched, unable to come up with words to describe his disgust.  That kind of body should not have been created, much less inhabited by a living Pith.

“That chassis was designed by a member of the Droll Corsairs’ Executive Board,” said Tunnel Vision.  “One of the few people in the world richer than you. The only senses it’s capable of are touch, taste, and smell.  It ingests and excretes through the same hole. And it’s been injected with Null Venom to keep Whitewood from projecting.”  She patted the Radio Man’s cheek, or the skin where his cheek would have been. “We’ll keep him here for a few months, enough to break him a little without shattering him.  He’ll learn.”

The whistling grew louder.  Afzal wasn’t sure if Whitewood was screaming, crying for help, or something else.

“Why are you doing this?” said Afzal.  His voice was quiet, muted.

“Do you feel sorry for him?”  She stood up. “His organization is the biggest source of human trafficking in the country.  When he got angry, he destroyed the lives of innocent people to let off steam. And I wasn’t lying about his family.  He wasn’t doing this all for them. He ran his business out of habit, and because he wanted to feel significant.”

Comfort and importance.  Did she know about Afzal’s terminology?

“You can’t teach morality to a beetle.  You have to force it on them.”

Afzal forced down his revulsion and nodded, pretending to be satisfied by her twisted sense of morality.  “If that’s true,” he said. “He deserves far worse.”

Something clicked in his mind.  After today, he understood the core of her personality.  I know who you are.

Vicious idealism.  A righteous obsession with justice.  A probable history of trauma and betrayal. A partial savior complex.  And an addiction to power and violence that she would never admit to herself, even in her darkest moments.

Now he knew her weak spots, it would only be a matter of time before he had her under his thumb.  Then he could convert the boss, too. He would gain complete leverage over this country, and save his family from the nightmare to the south.

“By the way,” said Tunnel Vision.  “You can keep trying to manipulate me, if it makes you feel smart.  But it does anger me.”

“What?” said Afzal.

“Your dime-store mind games.  The flattery, the psychoanalysis.  The partial reinforcement and subconscious mirroring and performative morals and fake awe.  Go ahead and do them if they make you feel smart.” Her gaze bored into him. “But if you betray me, or the boss, I have plenty more bodies I can fill.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Afzal.  How the fuck does she know?  He’d been subtle and precise and deliberate.

Finally, he understood why Tunnel Vision had brought him along, despite not needing him at any step of the process.  Intimidation.  A demonstration of what she could do to him, if he crossed her.  A reminder that he was up against an unknown Praxis Vocation that was even more powerful than his.

He bowed to her.  “Thank you. Message received.”  He walked out the door, moving to exit her ship.

“You’re just a human, Afzal Kahlin.”

Afzal stopped, turning back to her.

“We’re all humans.  Guardians and Humdrums and Praxis Specialists.  No matter how clever you think you are. No matter how many people you control.  You’re still just a lonely fool without a family.” Her fists were clenched. “Forget that,” she spat, holding up her dagger, “and I’ll carve it into your brain.”

Afzal would have to think about that.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




4-E The Mortal Soul

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

I opened my eyes to a starless sky.

An endless black expanse stretched across my vision, visible through the broken ceiling of the tower.  Back when this building was whole, when the Great Scholars had walked its halls, the heavens had been a glimmering canvas, a realm of endless possibility.

But it was all dark now.  Drowned and faded away like their entire civilization.

All dark.

I coughed up a mouthful of water, gasping for air.  My throat and chest burned, and I spat it out.

A wave of nausea rushed over me, and I vomited up seawater onto the metal floor beside me.  A chill breeze passed over my wet clothes, and I shivered.

“You need to change soon,” a familiar voice said, “Or you’ll get hypothermia.”

I turned to look at it, and saw Isaac Brin, dressed in his Guardian’s cloak and armor, standing over me.  Wes sat behind him, leaning against a pedestal. His eyes stared blankly ahead. My suit jacket and weapons had been taken off, and were scattered around me, and my wig had fallen off in the water.

My lungs sucked in deep breaths.  Each one ached more than the last.  I crawled up to a sitting position, leaning against the rusty metal wall behind me.  “I’m alive.” I croaked, my voice hoarse. “How?”

Brin indicated his head to Wes.  “Mr. Brown used his physical projection to help pull you out of the water.  Consider yourself fortunate. If he hadn’t leapt in so fast, you would have been too far gone.  Past a certain point, the average success rate of CPR is less than ten percent.”

Wes saved my life.  My chest rose, sending more stabs of pain through my lungs.

“You seem to be breathing fine, but your body is at high risk of pneumonia, wet lung, and possible brain damage from your asphyxia.  It could happen in a week, or a year, and given your fragile state, any of those could be fatal.”

I pulled my knees to my chest, rubbing my shivering arms.  In a year, I’ll be dead anyway.  And it wasn’t like I had the insurance to treat any of those.

“You got my signal,” I said.

Major Brin nodded.  “It took me two minutes to discern your location, and three minutes to arrive here.  The police and coast guard showed up half an hour after.”

I glanced through the hole in the wall behind me.  Three white patrol boats flanked the Golden Moon on all sides.

Cops and soldiers swarmed over the yacht, herding dead-faced party guests into rows.  Spotlights from the coast guard boats cast glaring white beams on the main deck. Tables were overturned.  Smashed wine bottles, flipped platters, and piles of food littered the floor.

The men and women shuffled forward in unison, demure and compliant.  They’re used to following orders.  Most of them were still wearing their party masks.

Major Brin pushed my head back behind the wall.  “Stay out of sight,” he said. “Don’t let the people on the ships see you.  I kept the two of you here so you could avoid the cops questioning you. We’re not allowed to memory-wipe all the Humdrums now, so cover-ups are a bit trickier.”

I wiped a strand of wet, grey hair out of my face.  Even though I’d just woken up, it felt like I’d pulled five all-nighters in a row.  “How long was I out?”

“Few hours,” he said.  “The police took in the guards here for questioning and analysis, but they still haven’t cleaned up everything.”

I looked down.  A corpse sat several yards to the side of me.  Its head and neck were a red pulp, a misshapen pile of flesh, brain, and bone.  Blood pooled around it, most of it dripping through a hole in the metal floor.

Its features were unidentifiable, but it wore a bright green gown, and the edge of a wrinkled blue party mask stuck out of the crimson mush that had been its face.

Lyna Wethers.

Then: I did this.

“Mr. Brown told me her guards turned on her,” said Brin.  “Went from shocking him to bashing her head in a heartbeat.  She was likely unconscious in the first few seconds. No time to project or swap bodies.”  His voice turned softer for a moment. “Was this your first?”

I nodded.

I thought I’d feel disgusted at such a bloody, mangled sight, or horror at having taken a person’s life.

But I just felt vindicated.  And relieved that she wouldn’t be able to hurt any more people.

After the night’s events, I felt exhausted, hollow.  But when I looked at Honeypot’s body, I felt relaxed.

Killing her hadn’t been a calculated decision.  It had been an impulsive moment of rage. But if I went back in time, right now, would I act any differently?

I thought of the room at the bottom of the Golden Moon.  Of the pile of thralls, crawling over each other, licking up rotting garbage like pigs.  I thought of Kaplen, blinded, drained of all joy and motivation, slumped against a wall, and of Wes, twitching from a dozen electric shocks.

No, I thought.  I would break her, again and again.

Thinking of Wes reminded me of his presence.  I stared at him. He ignored me, staring into the distance, leaning back and taking shallow breaths.  He looks like – 

A twinge went through my stomach, and I recoiled.  “Major Brin,” I said. “Wes was exposed to Lyna Wethers and her Whisper Vocation for an unknown amount of time.  How can we tell if – “

Brin held up a hand.  “I scanned the Piths of the guests we confirmed as compromised by Honeypot’s Whisper Vocation.  It’s a difficult technique, but I’m chief of counterintelligence. It’s practically a requirement.  It has a hard time detecting a lot of alterations, but Wethers wasn’t subtle. After trial and error scanning people’s pleasure centers, I identified some general patterns for when people lost their full autonomy to her.”

“And?”

“Once I refined the test, over seventy percent of the people on the boat tested positive.”

“And I was negative,” said Wes.  He didn’t look offended at my suspicion.  He just kept staring forward, dripping water into a puddle underneath him.

In spite of Brin’s instructions, I peeked through the hole again, gazing at the Golden Moon.  Soldiers strode up from the stairs below, carrying men and women on stretchers onto the coast guard boats.  All of them were tied down, and many of them were writhing under the ropes.

I couldn’t see Kaplen, but I knew he was one of them.

“How the fuck did this happen,” I growled.  “Wethers was supposed to be in prison for the rest of her life.  She’s not even platinum-ranked. I thought you people were good at dealing with rogue projectors.  Why was she even left alive?”

“Lyna Wethers was a gold-ranked projector, just below the cutoff for execution in the case of criminality.”  Brin frowned, crossing his arms. “But still, projector prisons for gold ranks and under are very high-security, and tailored to each individual’s skills.  For Wethers, guards were drilled to limit their time with her, undergo routine psychological evaluations, and stay outside her range at all times. She was kept dosed on Null Venom to block her from Whisper or Physical projection, with a long overlap in between doses to account for errors.”

“It wasn’t enough,” I said.  I couldn’t keep the anger from slipping into my voice.

“That’s the thing,” said Brin.  “Someone made a mistake with the scheduling of the Null Venom.  On the same day a guard was assigned to her for hours at a time.  And both the alarms and the line to the contingency teams were malfunctioning.  All this in a prison that almost nobody knows the location of.”

“So you have a traitor inside.”

“But I did an investigation afterward.  There was no paper trail, no evidence of Whisper Vocations, no spies.  They were all total coincidences, a random series of clerical errors. Except they all happened at the same time.  I’ve been in counterintelligence for over a decade. I don’t get stumped very often.” He ground his teeth together.  “Someone broke her out. Someone smart.”

“Why?”

“Can’t be certain,” said Brin.  “But I can guess. Tomorrow, this story is going to be in every paper across the Principality.  Along with the fact that Wethers used to be a Guardian.”

I swallowed.  “They did all that, just to make Paragon look bad?”

Brin knelt down and rifled through my possessions.  The snub-nose revolver, the voidsteel push knife. He picked up the pillbox and brushed water off of it.

“Was that why you sent us instead of Guardians?”

Brin nodded.  “Since the Edwina Massacre and the foundation of Parliament, our government’s been strict about transparency.  If we sent in Guardians, they’d know, and then the Humdrum public would know. I was hoping the two of you could have been discreet.  That was clearly a mistake.”

My voice was flat.  “Are we fired?”

Brin flipped open the pillbox.  The white Kraken’s Bone tablets inside were dry, unscathed by the water.  The box was waterproof.  Though it wasn’t like they had done any good.

Brin closed it and tossed it back to me.  It bounced off my chest, and I fumbled for it.  “Keep that. Keep all your weapons.” He reached into his coat, and dropped a thick yellow envelope next to me.  It thudded as it hit the ground. “You’ll need them on your next job.”

I pulled the envelope open.  It was filled with stacks of bills, all tied together in bundles.  A quick count estimated the total as around four thousand pounds. Two thousand when counting for Wes’ share.

It was more money than I’d ever seen in one place.  Forty-one thousand to go.  But the next jobs would pay much more.

“Two thousand is my usual starting number,” said Brin.  “But this was a tough one for a newbie, so I doubled it.”

I projected into the water in my shirt and pants, squeezing it out and pushing it into a hole in the floor.  I pulled my knees closer to my chest, hunching down against the chill wind.

“Does it get easier than this?” I asked Brin, staring at my feet.

“No,” said Brin.  “But you do get used to it.”  His face was impassive.

I don’t want to get used to it.  I didn’t want to become like Brin, callous and indifferent to human suffering.  When I saw cases like this, I wanted to feel the pain, the devastation.

The alternative was apathy, nihilism.  Accepting a broken world and giving up on trying to change it.

A pair of flight harnesses floated from beneath Major Brin’s cloak.  One landed on my lap, the other on Wes’s.

“Put those on,” said Brin.  “I’m taking you back to the city.  Do you want me to drop you at King’s Palace, or somewhere else?”

Wes spoke up, looking at me.  “There’s a twenty-four-hour liquor store across the street from your place, right?”

“Yes.”

“King’s Palace,” said Wes.

“Same for you?” asked Brin.

I glanced back towards the ship, and the stretchers being carried onto it.  Kaplen’s there, somewhere.

“Where are the victims being taken?” I asked.

________________________________________

The hospital waiting room was packed.  Men and women filled every seat, biting nails and shifting back and forth, muttering to family members and arguing with nurses.

In spite of all that, it was quiet when Brin and I walked in.  Everyone whispered or stayed silent, absorbed in their thoughts.

A man talked in urgent undertones to a woman behind the front desk.  I caught the words “wife” and “son”. A doctor led a woman through the set of double doors on the far end of the room, leading into the central area of the hospital.  As soon as they shut, muffled shouting echoed from inside.

How many wives are here?  How many husbands?  How many marriages and romances did Lyna Wethers ruin tonight?  How many people would come home to their spouses, and find themselves incapable of loving them?

How many of them would be pining after a dead monster for the rest of their lives?

I shifted my button-down shirt, uncomfortable, and adjusted my dark blue pajama pants.  The dry clothes Brin had given me were several sizes too small, and felt scratchy on my skin.  But they didn’t smell like dried saltwater, and they weren’t damp.

“Here’s how it’s going to go,” said Brin under his breath.  “You, Ernest Chapman, were woken from your bed by a Paragon representative, because you are a friend of Kaplen Ingolf’s, and came here without changing.  You know nothing about Lyna Wethers, the Golden Moon, or the masquerade ball.  Speak as little as possible: you being here is a privilege.  Understand?”

I nodded.

We sat in silence for half an hour, watching doctors and nurses and concerned loved ones file in and out of the door.

I held onto the question I’d been dreading, stewing over it and rephrasing it in my mind as I folded and unfolded my legs, staring at the clock and biting my lip.

Finally, it spilled out of me.  “Can you cure them?” I asked Brin, under my breath.  “You scanned their minds. You know what the Vocation looks like, now.  That’s almost as good as having a codex.”

The major shook his head.  “Those areas have been destroyed and written over.  It would be like trying to rebuild a burnt house by gluing together its ashes.  Without a blueprint. The truth is, most new Whisper Vocations can’t be defended against, and usually can’t be undone either, when they have lasting effects.”

I leaned forward.  “But what about Headmaster Tau?  He’s the greatest projector alive.  He made the Spirit Block. He’s bent the laws of reality.”

Brin sighed, massaging his temples.  “Do you know how many mental hijacking cases happen in the Principality every year?”

“Too many.”

“And what would happen if the headmaster tried to fix all of them?  If he spent all his time dashing from case to case, neglecting his most important duties?”

“What’s more important than this?”

“There’s no telling he’d be able to solve this anyways.  Creating whisper defenses and cures is cruel, tiring work that usually involves trial and error and access to the Vocation itself in action.”  Brin gazed towards the double doors that led into the hospital. “If they’re lucky, they’ll just lose a marriage or a girlfriend.”

In a far corner, a girl my age began to sob, one of the only noises in the room.  She wiped her nose on the long sleeve of her sweater, and gripped the armrest of her chair.  Nobody acknowledged her. None of the people next to her said anything, or so much as looked in her direction.

“And Kaplen?”

Brin fell silent.  After a long pause, he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, looking towards the main entrance of the room.

“Have you been through something like this before?” I asked.

Brin said nothing, but got a strange look in his eyes.  I wasn’t sure if he was exhausted or terrified. That means yes.

Two men and a woman strode into the room, wearing black suits.  A tall, muscular man with a thick brown beard, a blonde woman with dimples, and a lithe Shenti man with electric blue hair.

Several people in the room glanced at them, muttering.  I recognized them right away. Sebastian Oakes.  Penny Oakes. Charles Hou.  The Obsidian Foil, and the official Scholars of Synthetic Gas and Biology, respectively.

Three professors at Paragon, and all celebrities in their own right.

Professor Oakes floated a cloth-covered picnic basket beside him.  Next to him, it looked tiny. He strode in front of us, inclining his head towards Major Brin.

“Professor?” I said.  “What are you doing here?”

Professor Oakes clasped my shoulder with his hand.  “One of my students is hurt, Mr. Chapman!” He spoke at full volume, his voice filling the room.  “I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t come to see him.”

Penny Oakes hugged him, giving us a warm smile.  “My husband always knows how to care for people.”

Professor Oakes clenched his teeth, speaking under his breath.  “If I’d been there on that ship…” His voice was taut.

“You can’t be everywhere at once, love.”  Penny squeezed his hand, and his shoulders relaxed.  After this whole nightmare, it was nice to see people as kind and sincere as these two.

Tasia stepped into the waiting room.  Her long black hair was tousled, and she was wearing pajamas in lieu of real pants.  She massaged her puffy, bloodshot eyes. She’s been crying.

We made eye contact, and I stood up without thinking.  She rushed towards me and hugged me. I wrapped my arms around her, taking in deep breaths.

We held the embrace for several seconds.  There were no words exchanged between us. Just the silent understanding of each other.

We’d never been close.  Neither of us had ever opened up to each other.  But both of us cared about Kaplen. Tonight, that was enough to bring us together.

A pair of bright green cat ears poked out of the top of Tasia’s backpack.  The girl let go of me and reached behind her, pushing it down and zipping the top up most of the way.

“You brought Cardamom?” I whispered to her.

“I smuggled him out of Kaplen’s room,” she murmured.  “Don’t tell the professors.”

I glanced at Brin, Oakes, and Hou.  None of them were looking at us. “Where’s the rest of his squad?” muttered Brin.

“Lorne Daventry and the rest of Golem Squad were woken up and informed,” said Oakes.  “But they declined the offer to come.”

Of course they did.  Selfish pricks.  And if they hadn’t bullied Kaplen so much…

Brin shook Oakes’ hand.  “I have to manage the rest of the ship’s mop-up.  We’ve got hundreds of victims, who might be perps too.”

“Make us proud,” said Oakes.

Brin strode out of the room, giving me a significant look as he passed me.  A reminder to keep my mouth shut about the illegal operation I’d just conducted for him.

Professor Oakes walked up to the front desk and had a quiet, animated conversation with the woman there.  Two minutes later, a nurse opened the door for us, beckoning us into the hospital.

The corridors were painted bone-white.  The smell of antiseptic hung in the air, mixed with the fainter odor of blood and pus.

It brought back memories of the days before I’d had this body, of months stuck in a bed with scratchy sheets, covered in bedsores.  Unable to think through the constant, exploding headaches. I was alone for hours at a time, while my parents went to work and the nurses attended on other patients.  I’d stared at the bright green wall for hours, drowning in pain and wondering what I’d done to deserve this.

Well, Kaplen won’t be alone.  He would have that much, at least.

After ascending two staircases and going down a hallway, the nurse stopped us in front of a door, holding up a hand.

A conversation echoed from behind the door, just loud enough to be heard.  An older woman’s voice, crackling from a speakerphone.

The woman sounded urgent.  “- doesn’t have to be over.  So many people go blind later in life and master all the relevant skills.”

There was a brief silence.  Kaplen said nothing.

The woman’s voice grew softer.  “If you think we’re mad about the scholarship, it doesn’t matter.  We care about you. Your father and I are – we are so incredibly sorry for the pressure we’ve put you through.”  Her voice grew strained. “Whatever path you take, we’re sure you’ll make the right choice.”

Still nothing from Kaplen.

“Here’s something your father suggested.  We’ll quit the factory and the port. We’ll get on a ferry to Elmidde and find jobs here.  You can stay with us instead of those Paragon dorms. We’ll be here for you, and we can help take care of you.   Anything you need.” Her voice perked up. “And you can take us to one of those famous city bakeries you keep gushing about.  Would you like that?”

Kaplen’s voice was a flat monotone.  “I don’t care.”

“But – please, don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine. We’ll adjust.  Do you think you’ll be alright without someone to help you?”

“I don’t care.”

“Do you want to talk a little more, then?”  Desperation crept into his mother’s voice. “You could talk about something fun you’ve been doing, or your friends.  Or – or I could tell you about my new Jao Lu group. I – “

“Nurse,” said Kaplen.  “I’m done.”

“Bye, sweetie,” his mother was desperately trying to sound upbeat, and failing.

There was a click.  Then silence.

A nurse opened the door from the inside, beckoning us in.  The three professors stepped in first. Tasia and I went in after.

Kaplen was uninjured.  There wasn’t a single blemish on his body, save for dark circles under his eyes from a lack of sleep, and his red hair being tousled.

Despite that, he was probably worse off than most of the patients in this hospital.

Oakes floated his wicker basket onto the bedside table.  “Hi, Kaplen. It’s Professor Oakes, from Chemistry class.”

“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.

Oakes ignored him.  “I brought you some goodies to cheer up your visit.  The last time I ate hospital food, I wanted to throw up.“  He unwrapped the paper on top of his gift basket. “This thermos has Penny’s pumpkin soup.  She’s chemically perfected the recipe over the last decade.” He pulled out another thermos.  “And this one has some of Paragon’s mulled cider.”

“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.

“Look,” said Oakes.  “I understand if you don’t want to talk to me.  I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But happiness is a choice.  You’re young and strong. This is probably the last thing you want to hear, but you will be alright, in the long term.”

Sebastian Oakes patted Kaplen on the shoulder, and the boy clenched his fist.  Professor Oakes removed a glimmering black business card from his wallet and slid it on the table next to the basket.  “In case you ever want to talk. May you strive to become an Exemplar.”

“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.

Oakes stepped out of the room.  His wife followed him. Maybe they got the message.  

Professor Hou took one last look at Kaplen.  The man was a playboy, a foreign blue-haired diva in a professor’s uniform.  I wasn’t even sure why he came. The man wasn’t exactly known for his emotional intelligence, or his seriousness.

“It’s tough,” he said.  “No promises. Stay warm.”  And then he was out the door.  That’s unexpected.  It was just Tasia and me now.

Tasia raised her hand, and a hardcover cookbook slid out of her backpack, flipping open in front of her.  The cover read: A Moron’s Guide to Baking.

“I memory bursted a few recipes from other books too, so I know them by heart.”  She pointed behind her. “The hospital has a kitchen downstairs, and I convinced the lady in charge there to let us use it.”  She held the cookbook in front of Kaplen’s face. “Brantwick’s stopped selling their raspberry-chocolate chip scones, and think if we modified one of the recipes here, we could – “

She stopped.  Kaplen hadn’t reacted to a single thing she’d said or done.  If he wasn’t breathing and shifting his position, I’d have thought he was dead, or in a coma.

“Look,” said Tasia.  “I’m not here to pressure you with plans for the future or throw advice at you.  I just want to do something fun with you. So does Ernest.”

Cardamom crawled out of Tasia’s bag and leapt onto the floor.  The green cat ran to Kaplen’s bed, jumping up onto the mattress next to him.

He nuzzled Kaplen’s face, rubbing the top of his head over the boy’s cheek.  Kaplen recoiled, pulling away on the pillow.

The cat persisted, padding forward and curling up beside Kaplen’s neck.  He purred, swishing his tail back and forth and sinking into the sheets.

Kaplen pushed Cardamom with a hand, shoving him off the bed.  The cat dropped like a rock, and landed on its paws with a thud.

A second later, he turned around and crouched to jump back onto the bed.  Kaplen threw his water glass at Cardamom, and it shattered on the floor next to him.  Water splashed onto Cardamom’s green fur, and the cat backed away, confused.

“I know you can’t see, but that’s Cardamom.”  Tasia picked the cat up. “Kaplen, that’s Cardamom, he’s just trying to say hello.”

“Get it away,” he said.

“He’s your friend.  Don’t let the hijacking make you forget about that.”

“It was never my friend,” said Kaplen.  “A bacteria in my brain made me think I cared about it.  Now, something else took over my brain and changed that. My friendship with it was just as hollow as the platitudes Professor Oakes just dumped onto me.  People with easy lives always say it gets better, because they’re incapable of true empathy.“  He made eye contact with Tasia. “Where’s Lyna? You know, don’t you, Nell?”

Tasia bristled.  Why did he call her Nell?

“Kaplen,” she said, “I understand your frustration.  And I’ve read the same books as you on Whisper Specialists.  But mental hijacking doesn’t have to be permanent.” She grasped Kaplen’s hand.  “I’ve been studying Whisper Vocations and Null Particles all semester. If I devote myself to the task, I think I’ll be able to reverse some of the damage.”  Her eyes sparkled. Her voice was confident, upbeat. Or trying to sound that way. “We can fix this.”

There was a long pause between them.  None of us said anything.

Only a week ago, I’d imagined us all going to Paragon together.  I’d pictured our trio becoming best friends, fighting side by side, going on adventures and defending the Principality together.

“I want to talk to Ernest alone,” said Kaplen.

Tasia’s face sagged.  The enthusiasm leaked out of her like a deflating balloon.  She clenched her teeth, and rubbed her reddened eyes furiously, wiping away tears.  Her lips moved, and she muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t hear.

Without another word, she turned and stepped out of the room, carrying Cardamom in her arms.

The door clicked shut behind her.  And then we were alone.

Outside the window of the hospital room, this part of Midtown was dark, with only a few street lamps outside and a few lit-up residential areas.  The rest of the hospital had quieted down.

How late is it?  I glanced at the clock on the wall.  2:16 in the morning.  Part of me wanted to drop on a couch somewhere and nap for a week.  Another part of me was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep for a long, long time.

Kaplen broke the silence.  “Where’s Lyna?”

I couldn’t bring myself to lie to him.  He’d find out sooner or later.

“She’s dead.”  I killed her.

A small sigh escaped Kaplen’s lips, and he stared at the wall across from him.  “Ah,” he said.

There was another silence.  I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say.  I’m trying to help you.  Why can’t I help you?

“Of all the people in this building,” said Kaplen.  “You might be the only one who understands just how fucked I am.”

“You’re not in your right mind.  It’s hard to believe, but there are solutions to this stuff.  They’re going to try – “

“Antidepressants?“ he said.  “Behavior therapy? Praxis Vocations?  Psychodynamic counseling? Meditation?”  His voice tightened. “How many of those do you think I’ve tried over the last few years?  Do you think I’d be lying here if they’d worked? And that was when I had normal mental problems.“

I wanted to escape this room.  I wanted to travel back to weeks ago, when Kaplen and me and Tasia were happy together.  Was he, though?

“You helped me once,” I said.  “By teaching me the true meaning of the Empty Book.”  Let me repay the favor.  “I thought I was worthless, just like you did when you were a Grey Coat.  Remember your own advice.”

“You can try to write the next page,” said Kaplen.  “You can use projection and grit and all the inspiration in the Eight Oceans to try and become a better person.  You can strive to become an Exemplar.” He looked me in the eye. “But in this world, others can rip pages out. They can erase the identity you’ve worked for, and write their own words in the blank space.”  He clenched his teeth, the only expression I’d seen from him all night. “Our souls are just toys to the people with real power.”

Yell at him, a part of me said.  Slap some sense into that idiot.  He was wrong, he had to be wrong.

But I said nothing.

“And so,” said Kaplen.  “I have a request for you.  Go to a corner store, buy a straightedge razor, and smuggle it in here.”

I stared at my feet.  Everything felt distant again, just like on the Golden Moon.  Like I was watching some puppeteer move my arms and legs and lips, making my decisions for me.

“Security screens patients, not visitors,” said Kaplen.  “It should be easy.”

My insides felt like I was falling, a dizzying, hollow sensation growing out from my stomach to the rest of my body.

“I can’t do that,” I choked out.

“Let me tell you what my future looks like,” said Kaplen.  “My friends and family are going to make me try the things I once loved.  Baking and parties and learning and spending time with my loved ones. Over and over again, until the last drop of pleasure is squeezed out of them, and I begin to hate them.  The truth is, there was only one solution that could make me happy again.”

Lyna Wethers.  I raised my head, forcing myself to look at Kaplen.

“My reward centers were already broken.  She took what little was left and made them work for her.”  He closed his eyes and smiled. “When I think of her smile, I feel content for a moment.  More than anything I get from my professors or parents or pets or friends.  Or you.” He opened his eyes again, glancing back at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“But Lyna is dead.  And every day I spend in this hospital costs my parents more money.  Every day I spend in school, in treatment digs deeper into funds they don’t have, drowning them in debt.”

“You can get a job,” I said.

“I can’t sum up the motivation to get out of bed, much less maintain a job as a newly blind man.”

Think, idiot, think.  I could beat Paragon students and ex-Guardians with my tactics, I could come up with something here.  There had to be something that could pull Kaplen off the ledge, I just wasn’t seeing it yet.

“I care about you,” I said, letting the desperation seep into my voice.  “Tasia cares about you. So many people love you, so much. If you die. It will break everyone.”  It’ll break me.

“I’ve thought about this,” said Kaplen.  “This way, I’ll go out as a simple tragedy, a poor victim of mental hijacking.  The pain that my loved ones will feel will be brief and simple. You’ll all get over it within a few years, I’m guessing.  Maybe less for you. You only knew me for what, a month?” His voice grew quieter. “But if I drag it out, it will be a thousand times worse.  I will die resented and loathed, as the boy they couldn’t cure. As the disgusting, worthless monster who couldn’t love anymore. Who dragged everyone down with him.”

As his voice grew softer, I leaned closer to listen to him.

“Simple calculation,” he said.  “One cheap life against the happiness of many others.  Please, Ernest.”

“No,” I forced out.  “Your soul has to be worth more than that.”

I felt someone trying to Nudge me, and I edited my mind away from it, resisting the assault.  Is he – 

“Taught you too well, didn’t I?”  Kaplen sighed. “I know you’re lying to Paragon.”

Something jerked in my stomach.  I forced down the panic, compelling my body to stay calm.  “What?”

“That voice.  That desperation.  I knew it was you the moment you spoke to me on the Golden Moon.  You made it sound like a girl’s, but you’re not as subtle as you think you are.”

I shook my head.  “Kaplen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I got a full report from the nurses of all the other Academy students and assistants at that party.  Your name never came up. ‘Ernest Chapman’ never went to the masked ball.” He looked over my body. “And you show up to class with injuries all the time.  Bruises. Scrapes. Minor cuts. You try to cover them up, but I see.”

My machine pistol shifted in its concealed holster, and I grabbed it, pushing it back down.

“And,” he said.  “There’s a gun in your pocket.  With the serial number filed off.”  His face hardened. “I don’t know who you are, what your real name is, or what you intend with Paragon.  But I imagine it’s something quite illegal. Go ahead, Ernest.  Prove me wrong.”

“I live in Lowtown,” I said.  “I need to defend myself. That’s why I have the gun.  The civilian application process is too bureaucratic, so I got this one off the black market.”  It was a terrible lie, but it was the best I could come up with on the spot. “Kaplen, you’re not thinking straight.”

Kaplen shook his head.  “When I tell the people in Paragon, they’re going to investigate you.  Whatever you’re doing, they’re going to know everything. Your plans will be over.  Your life will be over.  Help me, and I won’t say a word.  Please.”

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to him.

“You don’t have the Whisper Vocations to control me,” he said.  “You have no leverage. Your only way to save your life is to give me what I want.  To help me.”

I ground my teeth, staring out the window, away from him.  “I – can’t,” I forced out. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re disgusting, you know that?” said Kaplen.  “You made me feel sick the moment I saw you. Every kid who knows you in Paragon is laughing at you.“  His voice got louder. “I should never have gotten within a hundred feet of you. I helped you because you made me feel better about myself.”  He was almost shouting now.  “Because of all the losers and freaks I knew, you were the only one worse than me.  And I would gut you a thousand times over just to spend another minute with her.”

He grabbed my hand.  His eyes weren’t mocking, or angry, or cruel.  They were pleading.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the metal pillbox.  It felt like I was deep underwater, and all my motions were slowed down.  Like I had to push past a thick, unseen pressure with every movement.

I flipped open the box, and shook seven white tablets into the gift basket on the table.

“What are those?”

“Ventrinol.  Kraken’s Bone.  Take all of them at once.  It won’t be painless, but it will be quick.  Especially on an empty stomach. The pills cause damage to your nervous system in such a way that makes it impossible for them to transfer your Pith out, so they won’t be able to force you into another body.”

The poison had been meant to knock out Lyna Wethers.  And now I was using it to kill one of her victims.

Kaplen sighed, relaxing back onto his bed.  It was the most relieved he’d looked all night.  Not happy, but relieved, like he’d just finished a long run and finally got to rest.

“I’ll take them in a few hours,” he said.  “Nobody will know where they came from.”

Brin will know, I thought.  But Brin, of all people, might understand the choice I’d made.

“You can leave now,” said Kaplen.

I’m sorry, I thought.  I wish I could have taken your place.

I closed my eyes, and pretended I was somewhere else.  I imagined flying out of the hospital room, away from the stench of rubbing alcohol and stale body odor, back into the past when none of the horrors of tonight had happened.  I pictured my voice carrying back to the night on that grassy ledge behind Alabaster Hall, where Kaplen and Tasia and I stood together, learning the true meaning of the empty book, staring over the glimmering lights of Elmidde below.

The world had seemed so full of possibility.

I imagined talking to the person who Kaplen was.  The Pith, the identity that he had before Lyna Wethers cut it into pieces.  The boy who believed in the Empty Book.

“My name is Anabelle Gage.  My real name.” I squeezed his hand.  “Thank you.”

Kaplen’s face was blank, not reacting to anything I said.


I walked to the door, and flipped off the lights.

________________________________________

When I arrived back at the storage unit, Wes was already drunk.

The boy was flopped back on his mattress, surrounded by the crumpled newspapers he was using as bed sheets, and the indigo blanket he put underneath.  In one hand, he held a large bottle in a brown paper bag. In the other, a glass. The room was filled with the stench of black licorice and sweat.

Wes laughed as I pulled open the door, lifting up a second glass.  “I bought one for you too!” he slurred, pouring cloudy white Arak into it.  “On me!”

I don’t drink.  Even when things had gotten rough with Clementine, when I’d been stressed out of my mind, unable to go to sleep, I hadn’t given in to the temptation to dull my own thoughts.  On any other night, I would have refused him.

I sat down across from him and grabbed the glass.  “Fuck it.” I tilted it back, gulping down a mouthful.

A tangy, sweet taste filled my mouth.  My throat burned, and I coughed, spitting out half of it.  “Scholars, that’s strong.”

Wes cackled, rocking back and forth.  “Slowly, slowly. That’s a hundred proof.  Not watered down.”

I took a smaller sip.  This time, the burning heat was softer, easier to manage.

“How was your trip?” asked Wes.  “Did you know one of the victims?”

I thought about lying about Paragon, of hiding my connection to Kaplen.  The fewer people knew about my double life, the better. But I didn’t find myself caring anymore.

“Kaplen Ingolf,” I said.  “I’m an assistant at Paragon.  A grey coat.” I explained my situation to Wes.  My first night with Brin, Lorne Daventry, becoming friends with Kaplen.  Everything.

As I explained, I drank, and as the conversation went on, I felt a warm, thick cloud expanding through the inside of my skull.

“He was kind and smart,” I said.  “He loved baking, and cats, and learning new things.   He helped people when he didn’t have to, without expecting anything in return.”  I took a larger sip of Arak.  “And then, he was someone else.”

Wes raised his glass.  “To Kaplen.”

“To Kaplen.”  We drank. I coughed and hacked, doubling over.  My lungs were still screwed up from almost drowning less than five hours ago, and my ears still ached from when Wes had stabbed them with toothpicks.

“Before Brin showed up on that tower,” mumbled Wes.  “I thought you were fucked for sure. Can I ask you a question?”

I shrugged.

“You get to be a Paragon assistant.  Why are you working for the Major and risking your life?  Are you really that desperate for the money?”

“My body’s going to keep decaying, piece by piece.”  I held up my arm, covered in crisscrossing grey veins.  “I’ve got maybe a year before one of my major organs crumbles to dust, and…”  I trailed off.

Wes took a swig.  “Scholars,” he said.  “How’d you end up like that?”

“Two weeks after my eighth birthday, I got a headache and stayed home from school.  My parents thought it was just a seasonal illness. Then it stayed for a week. Then a month.”  I hunched over. “The doctors determined that I had Loic’s Syndrome, a genetic disease that chokes your cerebellum and brainstem.”

“I’m sorry,” Wes said, looking away from me.

“I spent the next fourteen months in and out of the hospital, confined to my bed, unable to think of anything besides the pain, desperately hoping that the symptoms would clear.  They didn’t. And my parents had to give everything they had for this pile of junk.” I gestured to my body. “Then, turns out this thing is broken too. We couldn’t sell it, and we couldn’t afford a proper one to replace it.”

“What  – “ Wes took a gulp,  “ – the fuck kind of bastard sold that to you?”

“A company called Sapphire Industrial,” I said.  “With lower prices than everyone else. I tried hunting them down afterwards, so they couldn’t exploit other families like mine.  But they weren’t in any records. They were a shell company of a shell company, most likely, and there were hundreds just like them across the Eight Oceans, all independent, scamming gullible fucks like me.  I was so stupid.”

“You were nine,” said Wes.

“My parents spent so much on this body.  I think it broke them a little, to see it falling apart, piece by piece.”  I took a sip of Arak.  “But when I discovered I could project, and I asked if I could go to Paragon, they refused.”

Why?” Wes sounded dumbfounded.

“My mother is half Shenti,” I said.  “I don’t think she likes Guardians. But more than that, they didn’t think I could get in.”  My hands tightened around my glass. “They didn’t want my last years to be in pain, struggling to achieve something beyond my abilities.”  I let out a bitter laugh. “Maybe they were right. But I stole their money all the same. Enough for a ferry ticket and a week in Lowtown.”

Why are you telling him all this? a voice in my head reminded me, he’s not your friend.  But I kept talking.

“If I ever make it out of this body,” I said.  “I’m going to pay them back a hundred times over.  Every penny past my food and rent, I’ll be shipping back to my home in the agricultural islands.”

Wes gulped down his drink.  “That’s a good reason to fight.”  His face adopted a contemplative look.  “A person shouldn’t just fight for herself.  She shouldn’t.”

“That’s part of it,” I said.  “But there’s another reason that scares me.  Since that first trip to the hospital, for the better part of my life, I’ve felt hollowed out.  A part of me knew, deep down, that I would never make new friends or become a Guardian or live a full, happy life.  Beneath all the hopes, beneath all the dreams, I was certain that I would wither away, forgotten by everyone who mattered.  I spent so many years in desperation, rotting away in body and soul.” I took a deep breath. “But when I was floundering in that water tonight, I didn’t feel empty.  I felt righteous. I felt angry.   My mind was sharper than it had been in ten years.”

Wes said nothing.

“Do you think that’s frightening?” I said.

Wes refilled his cup.

“I don’t want to become a monster,” I said.  “I don’t want to become a brute who rationalizes her own cruelty.  I don’t want to make up ends to justify my means.” I put down my glass in the corner of the room.  “That’s why I want to ask a favor from you.”

“What favor?”

“There’s a good chance my brain may decay with the rest of my body, and damage the Pith inside as a result.”  I didn’t trust Wes, couldn’t trust him.  But there was no one else.  “If I get to a point where I can’t recognize myself.  If I can’t move, or don’t know where I am, or – 

I thought of Kaplen on the hospital bed, threatening to expose me so I’d help him take his own life.

“ – or if I lose my most fundamental moral values.  If my mind goes past the point of no return.“ I reached inside my jacket, and pulled out the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone.  “I want you to feed these to me. Seven at least.”

Wes was still for a long moment.  The room was dead silent.

Then he nodded.

The room wobbled back and forth, a thick dizzy sensation layering over my thoughts.  I put down a hand to steady myself. “But until then,” I said. “I’m going to find the people who broke Lyna Wethers out of prison and set her loose on the people of Elmidde.”

“About that,” said Wes.  “While she was with me on the roof, she mentioned something.  She told me that she would make me confess to dozens of other crimes she’d committed.  She said that thirty-four newspapers in this country would make sure everyone knew how evil and disgusting I was.”

“And?”

“Do you know who Afzal Kahlin is?”

“Some rich Ilaquan, right?”

Wes nodded.  “He’s a media billionaire from Ilaqua, but he has fingers in pies around the Eight Oceans.  Radio shows, television, magazines, and newspapers. Want to guess how many he owns in the Principality?”

“Thirty-four,” I said.  “How do you know all that?”

“My father was a journalist.  You pick up some stuff.”

“You think he broke Wethers out?”

Wes shrugged.  “Can’t say for sure.  Not unless we get more information.”

I leaned forward.  “Where does he keep his records?”

“In theory, in a corporate library, but those are all public, so we won’t find anything there.”  Wes fidgeted with a piece of newspaper. “And if he’s competent, he won’t be handling anything shady directly.  He’ll be using couriers, encrypted messages, layers of loyal underlings who won’t talk.”

“So we’ve got nothing.”

“But.”  Wes lifted a finger.  “He’s a known recluse these days.  Apparently, he spends the vast majority of his time in his luxury airship, and in his penthouse.  If he’s making secret communications there’s bound to be evidence there.”

I nodded.  “We’ve got our next mission, then.”  A job above my pay grade, as usual, but my pay grade was minimum wage, and I couldn’t live on that salary.

Wes put down the paper, glass, and bottle.  He shuffled towards me and crossed his legs under him.  “Don’t think I ever said thank you. For rescuing me. A few more minutes with her, and…”

“You too,” I blurted out.  “You didn’t have to pull me out of the water.”

“One of the big reasons I’m a mercenary,” said Wes, “is that I’m trying to get back to someone.  A person who I love more than anything. A few more minutes, I could have lost…I could have lost – ”  He gulped. “I need to be stronger, much stronger, to get them back.”

The storage unit fell silent again.  We sat next to each other, neither of us saying a word.

I extended my right arm to Wes as if to shake.  The two of us made eye contact.

“We’ll get your love back,” I said.  “We’ll get my body back. I promise.”  I’ll taste that mulled cider with a friend.  Maybe that friend was Wes.

He clasped my arm, and I mirrored him.  “I’ll fight for you, Anabelle Gage.”

“As long as our minds are free, we can still fight for each other.”

When I said this, Wes let go of my arm.

“What’s the matter,” I asked.  Did I say something wrong?

“Brin was right about his test for Lyna Wethers’ Vocation,” he said.  “I can still make the same choices. I still love the people that I love.  I’m not a brainwashed thrall. You got to me in time.” His voice was faint, tired.   He slumped back on the wall, one of his eyes half-shut. “But she still used her projection on me.  When I rest my mind. When I leave the smallest opening in my thoughts, I picture her face. Her sallow, stretched cheeks and the circles under her eyes.  The strands of loose hair over her thick forehead and her smirk as she chipped away at my mind, piece by piece.”

Wes stared at me with bloodshot eyes, both horrified and resigned.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

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4-D The Mortal Soul

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Ana

Lyna Wethers was on the move.

She strode down the central staircase of the Golden Moon, going in the same direction as Kaplen.  I followed as close as I could, keeping track of her Pith’s position with my projection.

If she gets to Kaplen, she’ll – 

No, I couldn’t think about that.  If I got caught up in my anxieties, I wouldn’t be able to save him.

I descended the spiral staircase, just half a floor above her.  Stay within twenty meters.  In that range, I’d be vulnerable to her Whisper Vocation too, but I had to keep my illusions on her.  Had to stay hidden.

Below, Honeypot had stopped at the bottom of the staircase.  I cast my Pith out around her, and felt the Pith of a guard in front of her.  I added my illusion onto him as well, making myself invisible to both of them.

I continued down, hanging just a few paces behind Wethers’ back.

“Evening, ma’am,” said the guard.  “Going below?”

Honeypot sounded irritated.  “What does it look like?”

The guard bowed, and unlocked the deadbolt on the door, opening it.  “My apologies.”

I stepped close to Wethers, walking less than two feet behind her, and followed her through.   The door grazed my suit jacket as the guard pulled it shut.

Wethers strode down a carpeted hallway.  Further down, twin rows of doors extended on both sides.  The private rooms.  Wes had told me about these during our planning session.  These were our best shot at getting Honeypot alone and knocking her out.

My hand tightened around the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone in my pocket.  I’m sorry, Wes.  It was reckless to go in this early, but if I waited for the perfect moment, Kaplen’s brain would be turned to mush.  Wes couldn’t know that. Though if he did, he’d still stay back.

But there was a strategic value in going in, too: If we waited too long, Honeypot would control the entire ship, and we’d be fucked one way or the other.

Two guards approached us from the other end of the hallway, outside my Vocation’s range.  I edited my illusions on Wethers, making them walk past without saying anything.

They walked past her, and stopped at me.  My stomach clenched, and I switched my Wethers illusions to auditory, blocking out the sound of the guards’ voices.

“Who are you?”  One of the guards said.

I projected into their minds, faking Honeypot’s voice calling out from behind.  “He’s with me.

The guards nodded, and walked past me.  I ran to catch up to Wethers, maintaining my illusion on her.

The swing music from the band echoed from above, muffled by the ceiling.  The red carpet on the floors softened the sound of my footsteps.

Another guard stood at the end of the hallway, in front of a huge, round steel door, like the kind you’d see on bank vaults.  The panic room.  According to Wes, the lock on it was pure voidsteel.  If Wethers made it in here without us, our chances of capturing her went to almost zero.

The guard looked at me as I approached, suspicious.   Before he could say anything, I projected an audio illusion into his mind, of Wethers talking, letting my visual illusions on Wethers drop for a moment.  “He’s with me.  Don’t ask questions.

To the guard, it would look like Wethers was talking without moving her lips, but I hoped he would attribute that to her various projection powers.

“Let me in,” said the real Honeypot.  I resumed my illusion on her, making myself invisible to her.

“Certainly, ma’am.”  He pulled out a keyring and twisted keys in several holes on the door.  Honeypot stepped forward and tapped the steel twice with her fingernail.

Mechanisms inside the door creaked, and it opened.  A hand opened it from inside, and I projected my Pith forward, adding my invisibility to the guard inside.

The panic room wasn’t a room.  It was another staircase, descending onto a lower level of the ship.  But it looked nothing like the rest of the Golden Moon.  The stairs and walls were metal, and the ceiling was low.  Lamps hung from the ceiling, shining harsh pale light on Honeypot’s green dress.

It looked like something you’d see on a battleship, rather than a luxury yacht.

Lyna Wethers stepped in, and I followed her.  The guard shut the thick door behind her with a metallic groan, and the muffled music from the deck cut out.  The panic room was dead silent, soundproof.

Wethers strode down the staircase, her high heels clanging on the metal steps.  I slid off my shoes, grabbing them in my hands, and followed in my socks.

The lower level was a hallway, laid out the same way as the staircase, austere and cold, with no windows.  The lights got dimmer as they went further down, and the far end of the hallway was too dark for me to make out.

Honeypot opened the door to her right, stepping in.  Inside was a cramped office, complete with a desk filled with cabinets, a small machine pistol, and a radio.

There was an empty whiskey glass on the desk, next to a bottle of gin.  Perfect.

As I reached for the pillbox in my pocket, Wethers poured herself a glass and gulped half of it down.  She put it down and grabbed a folder from a cabinet, reading it.

Kaplen must be at the other end of the hallway.  I didn’t have a lot of time.  But as long as she was here, she was out of his range.

Maintaining my visual illusions, I flipped open the box and dropped a single white pill into her glass.  It dissolved into the clear gin, making a faint white cloud that faded in seconds. One would knock her out.

I’d use illusions to clear the guards and thralls on the level above, and deposit her in one of the private rooms.  Then I’d find Wes and we could make our escape.

Honeypot didn’t take a second sip.  She just pored over the documents, flipping from one page to the next.  I glanced over her shoulder, reading what she had. It looked like a list of passwords and addresses, each corresponding to one another.

Wethers reached into the cabinet, pulling out an envelope and slicing it with a letter opener.

She shook it, and ten library cards fell out.  They were blue, silver, gold, their otherworldly materials shimmering even under the dim light.  The highest one went up to Level Three in the Great Library.

Quinten Keswick.  Gillian Apworth.  I was certain I’d seen Gillian talking in Harpy’s tactics class, and Quinten had talked to us on the deck.  How many Paragon students has she taken?

With people like this, Honeypot was well-positioned to infiltrate Paragon.

I didn’t see Kaplen’s name mixed in.  But some of the cards were flipped upside-down, and I couldn’t reach for them without risking a collision with Wethers’ hand.

Wethers took out a slip of paper and copied down the serial numbers on the back of the cards.

There was a knock at the door.  Two sharp thuds. I reached my Pith forward, adding my invisibility illusion onto the new person.

Lyna Wethers opened the door, to reveal a middle-aged woman with short, ragged blonde hair and tired eyes.  She wore a bright green dress, and a blue party mask hung around her neck.

I choked on my next breath.

Another Lyna Wethers.  No, an imposter wearing a copy of her body.  Or they were both imposters.

The second Honeypot strode into the tiny room, and I backed against the wall.  My Vocation couldn’t alter touch sensations, and if one of them bumped into me, I’d be done for.

“Gods, you’re beautiful,” said the first Honeypot.

“How is the work going?” asked Honeypot number two.  “I’m Marjorie.” She was identical to the first one, but her dress was covered in dirt and stains.  Dark purple circles were etched under her eyes.

I slipped past the first Honeypot and crawled under a desk, squeezing myself into a corner and keeping myself invisible to them.

“I’m Ingrid.  Slow,” said number one.  “Where’s the real Lyna?”

“Upstairs,” said Marjorie.  They’re both imposters.  “With Jeylen.”

My stomach sank.  The real Honeypot is closer to Wes.

Ingrid rolled her eyes.  “Jeylen gets to be with the party and her, while we’re stuck down here with those.”  She indicated her head down the hallway.

Marjorie folded her arms.  “Why are we even keeping them around?  We could tie rocks to them and toss them in the sea, and they’d smile all the way down.”

“How else is Lyna going to test her limits?  Cut down your sample size, and your results curdle like milk in the desert.”  Ingrid put a hand on Marjorie’s shoulder. One twin to another. “Lyna will avenge her greatest love.  If we want the same passion from her, we have to earn it.”

They must be keeping prisoners here.  And Kaplen was one of them.

But if the real Honeypot was upstairs with Wes, he might need my backup.  He might be in trouble. And if Kaplen saw my face or heard my deeper voice, he’d connect it to ‘Ernest Chapman’ in an instant.

And there would likely be more enemies down the hallway.  I couldn’t make myself invisible to all of them.

But they were running experiments on the people here.  And Kaplen may not have figured out his Vocation yet, but he could project.  We could use his help.

Who did I care more about?  Kaplen Ingolf or Wes Brown?

Sorry, Wes.

I crawled past the two Honeypots to the door, and created an illusion of a guard leading me down the staircase.  When they looked away, I added some footsteps too.

My guard illusion walked back up the staircase.   I had the Ana-illusion move where I was, and then dropped my Vocation.  To them, it’d look like a guard had just taken me down here as a new thrall.

“Another one?” said Ingrid.

I used my illusions to make myself look awe-struck at the Lynas, adding some tears running down my face.  “E – eat anywhere nice lately?”

Marjorie looked me over.  “You don’t have to use the code, sweetie.  We’re all friends down here.”

“T – there are two of you?”  In the illusion, I made my eyes bulge, putting on my best dazed impression.

“It’s complicated,” Ingrid sighed.  “Let’s get back in.” She strode back down the hallway, fading into the darkness at the far end.

Marjorie nodded.  “I’ll take this one.”  She stepped forward and took my hand.  “Follow me.”

I blinked, gaping at her.  “Where?”

“This way.  Don’t worry, you’re safe now.”  She walked down the hallway, slow and deliberate.  Her hand was cold on mine, guiding me forward.

I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths.  If you panic now, they’ll catch onto you.

The light bulbs strung above us got darker as we went forward, step by step.  Inch by inch. The temperature dropped in the hallway, and my skin prickled.

The hallway ended, and we pushed past a curtain at the end, hung over in place of a door.

We found ourselves in a square room, made of the same metal as the rest of the panic room.  It was as wide as the ship, but the ceiling was short, just a foot taller than the top of my head.

The entire room was lit by a handful of faint orange ceiling lamps, making it hard to see.  The sound of voices filtered into my ears – many voices, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.  I squinted to see what was in the middle of the room.

When my eyes adjusted, I flinched.  My legs froze, unable to take another step.

Men and women crawled on the grey steel floor, wearing stained, wrinkled suits and gowns, their masks all taken off.  Some were on their hands and knees. Others were on their bellies, pulling themselves forward with their legs hanging limp behind them.

They were gathered in tight groups.  At the center of each one was a Lyna Wethers in a green dress, standing above them all.

Some of them were unconscious, or dead, lying flat in a ring around one of the Lynas.  The others crawled on top of them like they were part of the floor, crushing them beneath their collective weight and forming a pile of bodies.

As I got closer to a group, I saw their eyes.  Bloodshot and wide open, with dark circles underneath, and focused on the fake Wethers.  Their intent didn’t seem lustful, but reverent.

As Marjorie approached, several outliers in a group made a whining noise from their throats, and dragged themselves towards her.  Others wailed, or sobbed, or whimpered, falling at our feet and reaching towards Marjorie.

Marjorie took their hands, one at a time, and squeezed them.  “Hi,” she whispered to each one of them. “Hi. Hi.”

I tapped one of them on the shoulder.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

He responded with a whimper, opening and closing his mouth in my direction.  His face screwed up with effort, and a gurgling noise came from his throat.

I realized why I couldn’t understand the sounds they were making.  They all have aphasia.  They were mute.  Half of them felt around them with their hands, bumping into walls and each other.  Blind, too.

Forcibly making major alterations to someone’s Pith often came with side effects.  The more alterations, the more side effects. Wethers’ Vocation was no exception.

One Lyna hefted a bucket in the middle of her throng.  She dipped a wooden spoon into it, scooping out a heap of rotten, damp oatmeal.  She fed it to the men and women around her, pouring it into their mouths one by one.  Her thralls lapped it up, porridge dribbling down their chins.

They were like animals.  Livestock. And the fake Honeypots were herding them like cattle.

Soon after they ate the oatmeal, the men and women dropped to the floor, unconscious.  The Lyna in the middle of them dragged them by their feet to the corner of the room, checking their pulse.

The Lyna placed a finger on the neck of one girl, sighed, and dragged her to the end of the hallway, separate from the others.  She’s dead.

Marjorie let go of my hand.  “See? You’re safe.”

I suppressed my nausea and forced a smile onto my mouth.  “Thank you.” I climbed out of the circle of blind, mute men and women and looked back.

A thirty-year-old woman took my place, clinging to Marjorie’s leg like it was her mother’s.  She rocked back and forth, eyes wide with terror or shock or devotion.

Marjorie stroked the woman’s hair, petting her like one would a dog.

There were dozens and dozens of people packed into this room.  Maybe two hundred, if you counted the handlers, who were also under the real Lyna’s sway.

Where’s Kaplen?  I scanned the room, casting my gaze into every corner.  The dim light made it hard to make out faces.

Did they kill him?  Did they dump his body into the sea already?  My breath quickened.

A boy with red hair sat in the far corner of the room, slumped against the wall, with no mask.  He wasn’t moving.

I walked towards him, as fast as I could without looking conspicuous.  As I moved through the center of the dark room, the stench of blood, weeks-old body odor, and moldy porridge filled my nostrils, and I gagged.

As I got closer, I made out the round face, the dimples and the freckles.  That’s Kaplen.  He was sitting alone, far from any of the groups in the middle, or any of the other individuals spread along the outside of the room.

My pace quickened, and I projected towards him, and felt the network of his Pith glowing inside his mind.  His chest was rising and falling. He’s still alive.

I threw up an illusion to disguise my appearance, replacing my appearance with that of a blonde girl my age, wearing the same suit and with a similar haircut.

“Hi,” I said, kneeling in front of him.

I spoke with a higher pitch and a softer resonance, closer to the feminine voice I naturally used.  Kaplen was used to how Ernest Chapman sounded, so this way, maybe he wouldn’t recognize me.

Kaplen said nothing, ignoring me.

“Hi, I’m Clara.  Nice to meet you.”

Silence.  Is he in a coma?  I took his hand in mine, shaking it.  He yanked his arm back, recoiling from my touch.  Not in a coma.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Still nothing.

I took a deep breath, and asked the question I was most frightened to ask.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

Kaplen opened his mouth as if to speak, taking in a breath.  I froze. The air of the room felt like ice on my skin. I watched him for several long seconds, blood rushing in my chest.

“Eat anywhere nice lately?” I repeated.  Don’t give the code answer.  Please don’t give the code answer.  If he responded with that, then it would be too late for him.

“No,” mumbled Kaplen.

Thank the scholars.  Honeypot hadn’t taken control of him yet.  What’s he doing here, then?  If they were running experiments in this room, then they might have taken him here so Wethers could test her Vocation on a fresh subject.

Why is he like this, then?  Judging by his state, they might have drugged him to keep him docile.

If that was the case, I needed to suss out his mental state, find an opening, and convince him to leave with me.  If I left him, he’d be at the mercy of the fake Lyna creeps here.

I tried another series of questions.  “What are you doing here? What brought you to Bhais Baldana?  You like masquerade balls?”

“I liked parties,” he said.  His voice was a hoarse monotone.

Keep him talking.  If we talked more, I could convince him to leave with me, and I could get him to a safe place before going up to help Wes.  “Why did you like parties?”

“When you go to sleep,” said Kaplen, his speech slurred.  “You have to confront the fact that you’re going to have to wake up and confront the day.  Parties are a great way to avoid that, for a time.”

“Avoiding what?”

“Personal failure,” said Kaplen.  “Selfishness. Exhaustion.”

“You seem smart,” I said.  You got into Paragon.  “You can change your circumstances.”

“People told me that a lot when I was young,” he said.  “My parents. The fool who let me into Paragon. That I was smart and earnest.  They put their money and power and trust in the hands of a selfish deadbeat. How do you think I repaid them?”

“But you still care about them.  You still care about things.” You care about Cardamom and baking and learning.  You care about me and Tasia.  It felt like someone was twisting a corkscrew through my guts.  “You can keep fighting. You’re capable of change.” Take your own advice.  Write the next page.

“I tell people that a lot.  And believed it, at some point.”  He sucked in a deep breath. “But to be honest, there’s only one thing that’s made me feel like my old self again.”

No.  Please.

“Do you know where Lyna is?” asked Kaplen.

No, that can’t be right.  He hadn’t answered the password correctly.  He couldn’t be controlled by Honeypot.

Unless he was just taken over.  The purpose of the code was to identify other thralls on the deck of the ship.  If he was taken down here right away, there was no point in teaching it to him.

“Where’s Lyna?” he asked again.  “The ones in this room are fake. They have her voice, but lack the nuances of her personality.”

It’s alright.  I didn’t know how heavily Wethers had used the Vocation.  Kaplen could still have basic autonomy. He could go through therapy, or something.

“I want to find her,” said Kaplen.  “But it’s so dark down here.” He waved his hand around me, reaching it in my general direction.  He touched my face with it, feeling its contours, staring straight past me. “Where’s Lyna?”

The realization hit me.

He can’t see me.

He’s blind.

My vision and hearing went blurry.  I felt dizzy, lightheaded. I watched my chest rise and fall like waves on a seething ocean, up and down, taking huge, rapid breaths.  My senses were faint, quiet, like the volume on them had been turned down.

It felt like I was watching myself from a far distance.  As if my Pith were floating far, far away from my body, dissolving into nothingness, while my chassis continued to move and act on its own.

“Please,” said Kaplen, feeling for my hand and taking it in his own.  “She’s my only chance. Where’s Lyna?”

This is permanent.

He already had endogenous depression, and she broke all the reward centers of his Pith.

My body stood up, pulling his hand off of mine.  “Stay here,” it said. “I’m going to go fetch the real Lyna.”

I strode towards the curtain covering the room’s only exit.  There was a fake Honeypot leaning against the wall next to it, smoking a cigarette.

When I got within twenty-five meters, I projected into her Pith, making myself invisible to her, and made the curtain look still.

My body pushed through the curtain, speed-walking down the hallway, out of the darkness and back into the light.

My breathing was shallow, rapid.  My jaw was clenched. My feet moved of their own accord, carrying me to the office at the other end of the hallway.

The machine pistol sat on the desk, a sleek metal weapon with two blue stripes running down the sides of the barrel.  My hand stuffed it in an inner coat pocket, tight enough where it wouldn’t get jostled around easily.

My hand yanked open the cabinets on the desks, sorting through the contents inside.  They threw aside a lighter, a box of cigars, and a bottle of arakNo incriminating evidence.

Then my hand grabbed the radio, twisting the dials and tuning it to the frequency of the local police scanner.  The static crackled, fading out and becoming a muffled man’s voice ringing from the speaker. He was muttering about a seven-eight-three at some address in lowtown.

“Please help!”  I whispered as loud as I can.  “Please, scholars, help me.”

Who is this?” crackled the radio.  “Identify yourself.

“I’m on the Golden Moon yacht.  I don’t know where we are, but we left the port a few hours ago for this party.  Please, you have to help us.”

This is a channel for law enforcement communications only, if you are not a member of –

“There aren’t any phones,” I said.  “Please. I think – I think they’re killing people here.  Or worse. Some kind of Whisper Specialist. Please, you have to come, they’re going to kill everyone.”

Please stay on the line while we contact the relevant department.

“Someone’s coming,” I said.  “They’ve got guns and they’re going to kill us all.  The Golden Moon yacht.  Please.”

Sir, please stay on the –

My hand reached forward and turned off the radio.  I’d mentioned projection and violence, which should be enough for them to contact Paragon and the city’s Guardians.  And that meant Major Brin would know.

I ran out of the office and up the staircase.

My senses had returned to me, but it still felt like I was in some sort of dream.  The world around me felt unreal, almost. Like I was seeing the world through a thick haze, and my subconscious was puppeteering my body, moving my limbs and thinking all my thoughts for me.

A few auditory illusions, and I was past the guard at the top of the stairs and out the giant metal door.

I ran down the hallway, dress shoes thumping on the carpeted floor.  The gun bounced against my chest. Damn this suit.  The jacket was tight, constricting my shoulders.

A guard pulled open the door on the far side of the hallway and stared at me, a good forty meters away.

I stopped running, freezing in my tracks.  Can I lie to him?

The man glanced at the pistol at his waist.

I sprinted towards him, arms pumping.

The guard reached for his pistol, pulling it out of his holster.  Thirty meters.

He lifted it, aiming it at me.  Twenty-five meters.

I projected at his mind, layering an illusory version of myself on top of my body, and turning my real body invisible.  I dove to the floor, and he pulled the trigger.

A deafening crack rang in my ears.  I made the illusion of myself stagger back, with a bloody hole in its chest. It dropped to the ground, dead.

I stood up with my real body, maintaining the illusion.  The guard ran forward, training his gun on the fake corpse of me, and I pressed myself against the wall to avoid him, running through the door.

I clambered up the staircase four steps at a time, extending my Pith upwards and feeling a pair of glowing Piths running down just as fast.  More guards.  Investigating the gunshots.

I projected into their minds, making myself invisible to them, and flattened myself against the wall to stay out of their way.

The guards ran past me, both carrying their pistols.  One of them brushed my suit jacket. Another one bumped past my back, and glanced at me.  Seeing empty space in place of my body, he moved on, sprinting down the hallway.

I continued upward, running to the main deck.  In the main dining room, the partygoers were chatting and nibbling on appetizers like nothing had happened.  I slowed my pace to a fast walk, blending in among them.

Another two pairs of guards ran for the stairwell, drawing pistols.  I didn’t have a lot of time. Sooner or later, the guards would realize I slipped past them, and they knew my description now.

I need to find Honeypot.

Outside, on the main deck, a few dozen men and women were gathered around the starboard side of the boat, gazing over the edge at something in the ocean.

I pushed open the door to the dining room and ran towards them.  They were pressed to the railing, shoulder to shoulder, making it difficult to see what they were looking at.

I slid around the edge of the group, leaning forward.

Everyone was staring at the ruined metal tower, the Great Scholars’ skyscraper jutting out of the black water a short distance from the boat.  Something, or someone was on the third floor, their pale skin visible through a large hole in the wall. I squinted to see better, as my vision adjusted to the darker light.

When I saw what was happening, my stomach dropped.  Blood rushed through my chest and face, heating up my skin.

Honeypot stood on the third floor in her signature green dress, hands folded behind her back.

Wes was lying on his back beneath her, twitching.  A guard touched a cattle prod to his neck, and Wes’ body shook.  Another guard kicked him in the stomach, then poked his electric baton into Wes’ leg.

The boy’s suit and face were covered with red bloodstains.  He’s in too much pain to project.  And I didn’t see any paper around him.

Lyna Wethers stared down at him.  Blue lightning crackled around her hands.  She’s the real Honeypot.

She’s taking him over.

Wes would become just like Kaplen.  Or worse. Mute, crawling. A half-dead, hollow slave to Honeypot, unable to experience pleasure or joy through anything other than her.

The water lapped up against the side of the boat.  Men and women muttered to themselves, watching the action on the far side of the building.

The building was far out of my Vocation’s range.  I couldn’t aim well enough to hit anything with my new machine pistol, and if I illusioned one of the guards here to shoot at Wethers, they’d just as likely hit Wes with their bullets.

The only boat was locked up with a Voidsteel lock, and the key was nowhere to be found.  And I couldn’t swim.

I felt a sort of pressure building in my eyes, like I was about to cry.

But I didn’t cry.  I felt nauseous and hot and out of breath from my running.  But I didn’t cry. I just let the pressure build inside me, filling up every inch of my body.

The world on the other side of the tower gained a sharp sort of clarity.  The two guards with cattle prods. Wes. Lyna Wethers. Everything else to the side and behind blurred into background noise.

I slid off my jacket and shoes, ripping off my black party mask.  My belt, pants, and shirt were too tight to remove. Not with the time I had.

I leapt over the side of the Golden Moon, stretching my Pith thirty feet beneath me into the water.  Liquid-air interfaces.  Cohesion.  I willed the surface of the ocean beneath me to harden, solidify.

My feet slammed into the water, and it bent beneath me like a trampoline, absorbing my momentum.  It was like an invisible cloth had been stretched over the top.

A splitting headache exploded inside my skull, and blue lightning crackled around my legs.  I couldn’t keep this up for long. Go.

I sprinted forward across the surface, hardening and holding up the water beneath me.  It felt like my brain was bursting within my skull.

The water quivered beneath my feet, as the tower drew closer and closer.  Wind rushed in my ears, and the blue lightning spread to my chest and arms, crackling around my entire body.  The side of my stomach ached, a stabbing cramp right under my rib cage.

I stretched out with my Pith, reaching forward and upward towards Honeypot’s guards.  It came up short. I’m still out of range.  I was almost at the base of the tower.

My control of the water slipped.  As one of my feet came down, the surface turned to liquid again.  My foot sunk in, tripping me and throwing me forward.

I belly flopped onto the ocean, two feet in front of the tower, and my projection broke, crashing me into the sea.  The headache was overwhelming, like a drill being inserted into the back of my head. I reached for the water around me, but it felt so heavy, so thick.  I couldn’t summon up the energy to move it.

I kicked my feet, thrashing in the water and pulling my arms through the water.  I’d seen guidebooks on how to swim before, but scholars, it was harder than it looked.

The tips of my fingers grazed the cold metal wall of the tower.  My hand scrabbled against the steel, trying to grip onto something, but there was nothing.  The wall nearby was rusty, but unbroken, a flat surface with no handholds.

I kicked with my legs, splashing in the water to keep my head above the surface.  My shirt and pants clung to my body, heavy, weighing me down. My head dipped below the surface as I took in a breath, and my throat sucked in liquid.  I surfaced again, coughing water out of my mouth.

I stretched my Pith above me again.  This time, I felt four other Piths. One lower down, two standing above, and a third to the side.  Wes, the guards, and Lyna Wethers.

As I struggled to stay afloat, I imagined specific changes to the world, forcing them onto their sensory inputs.

I layered over Wes, replacing his body and face with Lyna Wethers’, making it look like Honeypot had been kicked into his position, and that Wes had rolled to the side, unconscious.  I made the movements look natural, realistic, transitioning smoothly from reality to illusion.

Then I replaced Honeypot’s image with another woman, a female Guardian aiming a gun at Honeypot.

In real life, Honeypot was still standing next to Wes, but to the guards, it looked like she was lying on the ground, and someone else was about to shoot her.

Above me, through holes in the wall and floor, I saw one of the guards swing his flashlight into the real Honeypot’s face, mistaking her for a threat.  Lyna Wethers dropped to her back, and the other guard jabbed her stomach with his prod, shocking her.

Lyna Wethers’ men were beating her to death, believing that they were defending her.  I could hear the dull thuds of their metal batons on flesh and bone.

My head dipped beneath the surface, cutting off my oxygen, but I was still in range.  I layered on auditory illusions, straining my tired Pith even further. The headache grew, and it felt like the insides of my skull were being scraped away with a rusty knife.

I edited out Lyna Wethers’ real voice with my Vocation, replacing it with a replica I was controlling.

Neck and face!” my illusion yelled to the guards in Honeypot’s voice.  “Hit her neck and face!  Don’t let the Guardian project!

The guards obeyed, smashing their batons into Lyna Wethers’ neck and face.  She shook, current running through every nerve in her body.

As I strained more, the blue lightning expanded, swirling around in an underwater storm.  My Pith screamed at me to stop, to withdraw my projection before it broke me, but I held onto it, reaching and reaching as I sank and sank.

Drowning wasn’t anything like it was in the movies.  There was no screaming, no splashing, or the opportunity to cry for help.  It was dead silent, as my arms and legs moved back and forth under the water, getting more and more exhausted.

Break her!” I screamed with my Lyna illusion, into the guard’s ears.  “Break her and break her and break her and break her and break her.”

My lungs burned.  The pressure inside my chest built and built, as I held in my last breath and maintained my illusion.  The world under the surface was dark, blurry. Or was my vision getting fuzzy? My body was tired, so tired, and the ocean was so cold.

I gasped, and bubbles escaped through my mouth.  My lungs sucked in an involuntary breath of water, and I choked, spasming.  I couldn’t tell whether I was breathing out, or in, but still, I held up my illusion.

Break her!” I imagined Lyna howling to her guards.  I imagined her voice cracking, the spitting rage etched onto her face.  “Break her!”  For a moment, I couldn’t tell if she was roaring, or if I was.  “BREAK HER!”

The two moons seemed to spiral around me as my body spun in the water.  I sank out of range, and my Pith snapped back into my skull.

In the far distance, I heard a boy’s voice shouting my name.  A large, dark object splashed into the water nearby, too blurry to make out.

I’m sorry, Kaplen.

The world faded away, and my eyelids fluttered shut.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




4-C The Mortal Soul

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



[    ]

“I think [    ] should lead Chimera,” said Samuel.

I shifted my position on his lap, stretching my head closer to the fireplace in Alabaster Hall’s common room.  Samuel poked the tip of my nose with his finger, and I beamed at him. “Why?” I chuckled. “I’m a fucking idiot.”

Eliya Brin, the platinum blonde, placed her Fortress on the middle hex of the Jao Lu board, cutting my Lancers off from a key resource.  “Yes, why her?” As always, she sounded irritated.

Samuel stroked my hair.  “Did you see her one-on-one with Ralph Corbiere last week?  The boy has a Praxis Vocation to enhance his combat analysis, and she wiped the floor with him.  I’ve known her long enough to trust her tactics.”

I sat up and played my Monk behind Eliya’s Fortress, denying the resource and trapping it away from the rest of her army.  The game would be over in a handful of turns.

Eliya lifted her finger, and a stream of mulled cider flowed from her mug into her mouth.  “Because, as we all know, if you’re good at board games, you must be a genius at everything else.”  She scowled.

I projected into a square of paper and folded it into a crane, fidgeting with my Pith.  “Have I done something to offend you, Eliya?”

“I forfeit.”  Eliya picked her pieces up off the board.  “Here’s the ugly truth, [ ]: A squad leader doesn’t just develop strats.  They manage paperwork, analyze other squads, and have to lead under pressure.  You and Samuel have been engaged for who knows how long, but me and Leizu just met you two weeks ago.”

Leizu nodded, doing a headstand on the floor next to the fire.  “Blondie has a point. Once we make this choice, we’re locked in for the rest of the semester.”  The Shenti girl kicked her legs back and forth in the air, juggling a trio of steel dumbbells on the soles of her feet.  With her bulging leg muscles and Joining specialization, she made them look as light as rubber balls.

“I have a name,” said Eliya.

“I use nicknames,” said Leizu.  She pointed to me and Samuel. “Jitterbird.  Razor Bull. Get used to it, Blondie.”

“I’m a drunk, irresponsible little shit,” I said, lying back down on Samuel’s lap.  “But if you want me to lead, I’ll give it my all.” As soon as I finish that bloody Chem p-set for Oakes.  I’d known Paragon was competitive, but a ten-page problem set in the first two weeks was brutal.

“Listen,” said Eliya.  “I don’t know what you’re going through, and your mother’s achievements speak for themselves, but your resumé is – “

“Lukewarm whaleshit?” I said.

Thin.  And much as I’d hate to admit it, Samuel has better grades than me.  At the same time, he’s won an Akhara Scholarship, manages a relief charity, and speaks every major language on the Eight Oceans.”

Samuel looked at his feet, uncomfortable.  “I’m really not that special.”

And, he’s great at false modesty,” said Eliya.  Eliya looked at Leizu, who was now balancing herself on one finger.  “As a bonus, he’s never fought for the enemy.”

Leizu pushed off with her finger and flipped forward, landing on her feet.  She caught the dumbbells in her hands. She was one of two Shenti defectors in the academy, and didn’t like being reminded of it.

“I’ve met your kind before.” Leizu spoke in a light accent, betraying her eastern heritage.  “Spoiled fucks who think they’re clever enough to get away with it. But you’re still a spoiled fuck, whose bones are very fragile.”

“Violent threats from a Shenti grunt,” said Eliya, rolling her eyes.  “How surprising. Next thing you’re going to tell me you shower less than once a month.”

“My point is,” said Samuel.  “[ ] is smart.”

“We’re all bloody smart,” said Eliya.  “Chimera needs someone responsible. Someone who truly strives to become an Exemplar.”  Her fingers tapped on her cider mug. “Someone who shows up to class on time, and turns in assignments within a week of their due date.”

My face grew hot, and I felt a growing desire to give Eliya a paper cut.  I pushed myself up to a sitting position.

“I agree with Blondie,” said Leizu.

They all look down on me.  They all thought I was weak, lazy, stupid.

Samuel stood up.  “I refuse. Nominate one of yourselves if you want to, but I won’t be your leader.”  He put a hand on my shoulder. “If you want proof of [ ]’s competence, you can both fight her one-on-one.  If one of you wins, I’ll consider your proposal.“

Eliya froze a mouthful of cider into a long needle, pondering it.  “Can’t hurt.”

Leizu rolled back into a headstand and squeezed a dumbbell between the heels of her feet.  The metal groaned, flattening into a mangled ball. Showoff.  “Alright,” she said.

They both think they’ll crush me.

I flicked my paper crane at Samuel, and he snatched it, smiling at me.

Nobody saw me like that.  Not my new classmates, not my professors, and certainly not my mother.  To almost everyone, I was a liability, something to be pitied or ignored.

But not to him.

To him, I was still breathtaking.

“Well.”  I smiled back.  “Let’s get started.”

________________________________________

Wes

I glanced at the white crane mask in my bag.  Let’s get started.  

My palm rubbed a dollop of concealer over a vein on Gage’s neck, masking the dark grey with her skin tone.  “That suit looks great on you,” I said.

“You’re lying,” said Gage.  She looked miserable in her stolen tuxedo, squirming underneath my gaze.  “And Scholars, it’s tight. It’s going to take an hour to get off.”

Well, the suit looks great.  But she had no appreciation for its refinement.  “How can it look good on you?” I snapped.  “You look like you want to burn the damn thing off.  Do you ever wear anything besides baggy pants and oversized coats?”

Gage slumped over.  “I’m going to die in a suit.”  She leaned back against the wall of her storage unit, bathed in harsh white light.

“We might not die,” I said.  “We could become slobbering lovesick slaves to a red-hot mental hijacker.”  I pulled a brown wig over her scalp, concealing her tangled grey hair. One of the other items I’d stolen.

“We need a better plan,” she said, biting her lip.  “How do we deal with Honeypot’s Vocation?”

“We don’t.”

“No, no, we can do more planning than that.”  She paced back and forth, muttering. “We don’t split up, no matter what.  We check each other every five minutes. If we notice suspicious behavior, we try to help – “

“If I get hijacked,” I said.  “Don’t waste time on dramatic speeches appealing to my humanity and willpower.  That shit never works on anyone. Just take me out of the action as quick as you can.”

I flipped up Ana’s collar to hide the thick veins on her neck.  Without them and the grey hair, she almost looked like a normal, somewhat ugly boy.  Almost.

“What about the people on the ship?” she said.

“Can’t trust any of them.  For all we know, they could all be puppets.”

“And what if they are?” asked Gage, pacing faster and faster.  “If she corners us, there’s no radio, no flare gun, nothing to signal Major Brin.  We’re on our own.”

I put a hand on her shoulder, halting her in her tracks.  “Gage. Calm the fuck down.”

Gage’s chest rose and fell.  “Do you think these aren’t problems?”

“We’re here,” I said.  “We’re doing this job. Panic won’t help either of us, no matter what we’re dealing with.”

There is no fucking way I’m telling her about Copycat.  The grey bitch was wound up tighter than a steel cable.  If I told her I’d promised to kill Honeypot, she’d snap for sure.  We could talk about it afterward, when Lyna Wethers was no longer a threat to anyone and Gage’s moralizing wouldn’t hinder us in the field.

That reminds me.  I extended my open palm towards Gage.  “Can I have the Ventrinol? The Kraken’s Bone?  The pills.”

Gage’s brow furrowed.  “Why?”

I held up the briefcase I’d stolen from the yacht.  “I’ve got a place to hide it, I’m better at lying than you, and I can spike drinks at range with my paper projection.”

Ana frowned for a minute, then reached into her bag, handing me the small metal pillbox.  I flipped it open, careful to not touch any of the contents inside. Twenty-five tablets.  Enough to knock out a small crowd, or kill a handful of people.  Eight in a drink should be more than enough.  Unless Honeypot was a Joiner who could nullify the poison, she wouldn’t be able to survive that.

“Can we run the test?” she asked.

I nodded, and we stepped out into the hallway.  I projected into sheets of standard office paper and flattened them edge to edge on the floor.  Counting them, I measured out twenty meters from Gage and positioned myself there. “Ready.”

Gage closed her eyes, and a dark brown sparrow materialized on her finger.  Her Vocation.  The illusion cocked its head to the side, indistinguishable from the real thing.  How does it look so good?  Every motion it made, every feather on its wings was perfect.

“I see it,” I said.

Gage inched backwards, stepping further away from me.  At twenty-four meters, the bird flickered. Blue lightning crackled around her head, and she clenched her teeth from the strain.  The lightning got brighter and brighter, becoming a tiny storm around her skull, until the bird vanished at thirty meters.

“Thirty max, twenty-two reasonable with one sense,” I said.  “That’s half a meter more than yesterday.” Her range is improving.

Gage bent over, out of breath.  “Where does the lightning come from, exactly?“

“That’s your Pith,” I said.  “That’s what it looks like, inside.  The blue is ‘cause you’re a Whisper Specialist.  It gets exposed outside your body when you work hard with it.  It’s harmless, but if you see it a lot, you should ease up.”

A dark look came over Gage.  “Lyna Wethers’ range is almost as good as mine.  I won’t be able to put illusions on her without risking myself.”

“Then we’d better keep our distance.”  And kill the bitch.  “Soon as we locate her, one of us should keep an eye on her at all times, to make sure we’re far away.”

“We watch each other’s backs.  Protect each other,” said Gage.  She slid on a black lace mask, completing her outfit.

I thought about her cutting off Eliya’s hands.  Blowing off Samuel’s leg with a shotgun, just so she could get a more cushy body.

I glanced at the white crane mask in my hands.  Samuel was the only one at Paragon who’d respected me, loved me without condition.  I pictured resting my head in his lap, back in the Alabaster Common Room.

I’ll protect her as long as I have to.

________________________________________

“Scholars,” said Gage, affecting a more masculine voice.  “How rich are these people?”

A line of gorgeous men and women extended behind us on the pier, all wearing the latest suits and dresses.  Even under their masks, you could see their effortless beauty. The sculpted cheekbones, the deep red lips, the flawless, smooth skin.  And the hair in every color of the rainbow.

As I recalled, dimples were in this season, which meant every woman’s face seemed to have a friendly smile plastered on it.  They looked like dolls, primped-up, polished, and fragile like porcelain. Scholars, I do not miss that.

“Rich enough to buy tacky fucking bodies,” I muttered.  One of them had a green-haired Maxine Clive, which reminded me of my mother.  I wrinkled my nose.

“I’ve been in Lowtown hospitals filled with cancer patients,” said Gage.  “And these people buy new chassis for fashion.”

A woman two spots ahead glanced behind at us, then whispered something in her date’s ear.  They sniggered. I could guess what the joke was. Others stared at us, giving looks of confusion or distaste.

Gage stared at her feet, uncomfortable.  We stand out.  I didn’t imagine these people had seen a pimple in their lives, and I had two, though my face was handsome enough otherwise.

Gage, on the other hand, looked a swollen blister next to these people.  The grey hair and veins were hidden, thank the scholars, but her jaw and forehead were too big, even for a male body, and the proportions of her figure were all wrong, somehow bone-thin and blocky at the same time.

It could be a problem.  “Act like you belong,” I hissed at her.  “Don’t draw attention to yourself.”

After more agonizing waiting, we reached the front of the line, and I figured out why it was moving so slow.

Two guards stood by the staircase up to the Golden Moon.  Before any guest went on the yacht, they patted them down from head to toe and searched all their bags.

One of the guards extended his hand to me.  “Bag and briefcase, please.” Gage slung her bag off her shoulder and handed it to him.  Hope Gage didn’t pack any weapons.  I gave him my briefcase, and our two invitations.

He flipped it open while the other guard patted us down.  The only things in my briefcase were a few bills, a stack of letter paper, and the Kraken’s Bone.  The man flipped through my paper. “They’re all blank. What are these for?”

“Contracts,” I said, hoping that didn’t sound like whaleshit.

The man scowled and flipped open the pillbox.  “What are these?”

“Anxiety meds,” I lied.  “For my panic attacks.”

“Are you expecting to have a panic attack here?”  The man had a pistol and a baton holstered at his waist.  And I still didn’t have an autonomous bullet defense.

I shrugged.  “You never know.”

Gage bit her lip, shifting from foot to foot.  Could she be any more obvious?  The guard stared at me for a long second, then snapped the box and my briefcase shut.  “Welcome to Bhais Baldana, gentlemen,” he said. “Please enjoy yourself.”

The two of us took our belongings back and ascended the staircase to the deck.  I glanced behind me. One of the guards muttered something in the other’s ear. The man he’d spoken to walked off with purpose.

Attractive people filled up the deck, clumped up in circles and chatting amongst themselves.  There was no food, no drinks. Just conversation and anticipation. The party hadn’t started yet, but the deck was packed full of the rich and famous.  For the ones who weren’t wearing fresh bodies, the masks did little to hide their identities.

My mother had trained me religiously on the names and faces of the powerful.  I noted Jance Sitani, one of the few private investors in the Droll Corsairs. Next to her, I saw the best friend of a Shenti warlord, and the son of the Neke Prime Minister.

“This way.”  I led Ana inside the ship, through the rooms on the various levels, testing which areas were open and which ones were locked.  Almost everything was open and decorated to the gills, though no appetizers had been served yet. Four bartenders were crammed behind the counter on the top level, waiting for the party to begin.

The only real exceptions were the bridge, the private rooms, and, of course, the panic room.  We could scout out the lower rooms when the party started, since that was our best bet for hiding Honeypot’s body.  The panic room was out of the question – our best bet was to take Wethers out before she could get there.

Much worse was the guard presence.  There were too many to count, filling the edges of rooms and blocking doorways, wearing cheap suits and no masks.  Every single one of them was armed with a pistol, which was more than enough to kill both me and Gage.

Even with Gage’s Vocation and my paper storms, we’d have trouble dealing with this many.  I was shit at multitasking, and Gage had some hard range limitations.

We climbed from a lower deck back onto the main one.  A voice talked in my ear. Gage’s voice. It sounded like it was coming from all directions.  “Did you see Honeypot?

“Are you speaking to me with your Vocation?” I muttered under my breath.

Gage nodded.  “Less prying ears.”  Her voice echoed in my ear without her lips moving, sounding softer, closer to her normal pitch and resonance.

Where was Lyna Wethers?  All we had was an old photo of what she looked like, but nobody we’d seen had matched her description.  The masks made it even harder.

We stepped out of a door.  The main deck was filled with people, now, all looking at an attractive brown-haired man in a dinner jacket and bowtie.  Roscoe Belville.  A shipping executive who’d made hundreds of millions developing ports in Ilaqua and the Floating City.

Since the Broadcast King was a secret Praxis Specialist, that made this man the richest Humdrum in the Principality.

Waiters handed out narrow flutes filled with white wine, but nobody drank yet.  I grabbed one. Gage held up a hand to refuse the waiter.

What are you doing?” she hissed with her illusions.  “They could be spiked.

“Love potions don’t exist, remember?” I mumbled under my breath.  “She’s not going to drug her entire party.”

“But you’re drinking on a job.”

I shrugged.  You could use one.

A waiter handed Roscoe Belville a fork, and he tapped his wine glass with it, climbing up on the dais in front of the band.  The lights of Elmidde and Paragon were framed behind him. The partygoers fell silent.

“I look at you all,” he said, beaming.  “And I see some of the brightest minds in the Eight Oceans.  From Ilaqua to the Floating City to Elmidde. Gathered here to celebrate the world we have built.  The peace we’ve kept for nearly a decade. The breathtaking culture and art we’ve created. All thanks to a handful of remarkable individuals, striving to become Exemplars, who can’t get enough thanks.”

All in all, I thought it was a pretty shit speech, but rich people loved flattery.

The crowd burst into applause, and Belville continued.  “But I just provided the boat.” He gestured with his hands, his smile widening beneath his mask.  “I can’t wait to introduce you to the woman behind it all.

Me and Gage shared a look.  He knows Wethers.  Was she going to show her face?

“In my life, I’ve met some incredible people.  Guardians. Businessmen. Visionaries. I’ve been to the Locus’s summer solstice party, and I’ve witnessed the Four Daydreamers play a game of Jao Lu.  But the woman who’s brought you here tonight,” he chuckled. Then laughed.

Then he kept laughing.  I thought it would stop after a second or two, but he just kept going, doubling over, shoulders shaking, a stupid grin frozen onto his face.

Nobody else talked.  The rest of the Golden Moon was dead silent, except for him.

Finally, his laughter trailed off.  “Well, I just hope she decides to show herself tonight.”

Scholars,” Gage illusioned in my ear.  “She already got to him.”

“No shit,” I muttered.  Poor man.  I felt almost as bad for his wife.

“To borrow a phrase from Paragon Academy,” he said.  “May we all forge the stars in our image.” Everyone drank.

Cheers exploded from the audience again, shattering the awkward silence.  Belville clapped his hands, and the band started to play. The propeller churned up the water below, and the yacht took off from the pier, gliding out onto the dark Eloane Ocean.

Light, fast swing music filled the air.  Waiters poured out of doors, carrying wine bottles and trays covered in neat rows of nigiri sushi.  Others offered us garlic lamb skewers, tiny porcelain bowls filled with pudding, or tiny chocolate wafer cookies smaller than my thumb.

A pair of women slid into the hot tub, still wearing their satin gowns.  It was bubbling and frothing, some new Ilaquan invention I’d seen before at Lorne Daventry’s mansion.  The crowd closest to the band began to dance.

Stick to the plan,” said Gage in my ear.  “Track her down together, then use my illusions to lure her into a private room.

But how do we track Wethers down?  I glanced at Roscoe Belville.  He leaned against the fondue table, in conversation with a man and a woman.  Three guards surrounded him, each of them scanning the crowd and the people near him.  “Let’s try to probe other guests. If the guards loosen up on Belville, we can move on him.”

Gage nodded.  The orange and yellow lights of Elmidde and Paragon shrunk in the distance, going from a towering mountain of lights to a bright dot in the distance.  There were no other boats within sight.

I looked around the bustling deck.  Who would Lyna Wethers target?  I zeroed in on someone I thought I recognized.  A wealthy heiress of the Coomes family who had just filed for divorce with her husband.  Money, power, lonely.  A perfect victim.

I strode towards her, Gage close behind, and listened in on the heiress’s conversation with a blonde woman in a pink flapper dress.  “What brings you here?” asked Lady Coombes. “I’m here for investment. I hear private militaries are making mountains on the Shenti continent.  Constant fighting and all.”

“I’m here because I was insecure about my friends having fun without me,” said the blonde flapper.  “If they have a great time and I’m not there, I think they’re going to abandon me. And I get lonely on weekends.”  I recognized her cheery voice in a heartbeat. Christea Ronaveda. The host of Verity, incapable of saying anything but the truth.  “But I’m regretting that now, because my friends are scattered to the winds and all I’ve had are boring conversations with self-centered Epistocrats.”

I’m the only person you’ve been talking to,” said Coombes, glaring at her.

“But I paid for a ticket,” said Ronaveda, “So I’m going to stay, get blackout drunk, and eat an entire cheese platter.”  She patted Coombes on the shoulder. “The sunk costs fallacy is a bitch, isn’t it? Enjoy the party.” She grabbed a whisky glass in each hand and staggered off.

I approached Coombes, grabbing a tiny plate and filling it with sushi.  Gage followed me. “Fine evening,” I said.

“Hi,” said Gage.

“Eat anywhere nice lately?” said Coombes.  It was an odd opener.

“I went to this Neke gourmet ramen bar,” I lied.  “Fantastic shoyu.” I used a tiny fork to shovel pieces of fatty tuna into my mouth.  Fuck, that’s delicious.

Lady Coombes gave me a thin smile  “I know a woman here who lived in the Floating City for a decade.  Knows all the best ramen places around the Eight Oceans. I simply must introduce the two of you.”

I felt a twinge in my stomach.  Something’s not right.  “Wonderful,” I said, beaming.  “Do you know where she is?”

“Don’t know.” Her smile widened.  “I’m sure you’ll run into her at some point.”

“Please excuse us,” said Gage, pulling me away.  As we walked, she whispered into my ear with an illusion.  “Is she – did Honeypot –

“Maybe,” I said.  “Let’s try someone else.”

I recognized someone else in the dining room.  Brown hair. Square jaw. Quinten Keswick. The young Epistocrat at Paragon who I’d deliberately lost a game of Jao Lu to.  He’d bragged about having tickets to Bhais Baldana, so it wasn’t surprising to see him here.

I nodded in his direction, muttering to Gage.  “I know that one. Let’s try him.”

Gage bit her lip, looking more wound-up and uncomfortable than ever.  “I think people are more defensive when it’s two of us and just one of them.  And I’m a bit uncomfortable to look at. I’ll stay close and keep an eye out for Wethers.”

I nodded.  How anxious can this girl get?  Though she wasn’t wrong.  I approached Quinten, smiling and waving at him.  “Evening, mysterious stranger.”

“Alastor!” he said, grinning.  “Sorry, masquerade, no names. You got tickets!”

I grinned back.  “Worth every penny.”  My teeth bit into a chocolate wafer.  “The food is incredible here. Have you tried the sea urchin?”

“Try it?  I ate half their stock?”  The two of us laughed at his terrible joke.  He held up a piece of sushi with his chopsticks.  “You have excellent taste. Eat anywhere nice lately?”

Is everyone at this party a foodie?  How common can that exact phrasing be?  I made something up on the spot.  “Went to a magnificent Ilaquan Biryani house in East Hightown lately.  Takes forever to get a table, but so worth it.”

“Marvelous.”  Quinten gave me a knowing smile.  “Though, to be honest, I care a lot less about those kinds of prestigious status symbols than I used to.”

Sure you do.  He’d spent our entire Jao Lu game trying to look wealthy and smart in front of his friends.  “What do you mean?” I asked.

Quinten bounced up and down, his eyes wide open under his dark blue mask.  “Paragon students can be so strange, don’t you think?  Epistocrats too. We’re constantly one-upping and putting each other down, maneuvering around each other’s social circles like stealth submarines and thinking that’ll make us happy.”  He laughed.

I kept smiling and nodding.  I barely know him, why is he sharing all this?

Quinten kept laughing, a light, jovial sound, and poked my chest.  “I’ve realized that the real happiness, the real satisfaction comes from somewhere deeper than that.  Somewhere primal.”

I laughed with him, though mine sounded more nervous than light.  “Wow,” I said. “Why the big change of heart?”

“I must be having a great week, is all.”  Quinten grabbed both my shoulders, squeezing them.  His smile widened. “I’ve really got to introduce you two to someone.”

 “That’s great,” I said.  “I’m going to go to the bathroom.  You can find me later, but I might be a while.”

I walked towards the restrooms, glancing behind me.  Gage tailed me. “What happened?” she asked with her Vocation.  “Did Wethers get him too?”  I saw Quinten look away from me, and I turned left out the door, striding to the railing at the edge of the ship.

The city of Elmidde was barely a faint glimmer in the distance now.  The dark ocean surrounded us, calm and quiet. Two thin crescent moons hung in the starless sky, the only light source outside the boat.

The moonlight illuminated faint shapes near the ship.  Dark, triangular constructions made of metal, sticking out of the ocean.  Most of their walls had been stripped away, leaving only the rusty frames inside.  What floors remained were filled with holes and gaps.

“Are those shipwrecks?” I asked Gage.

“They’re skyscrapers,” A female voice spoke from behind me.   A lithe, heart-faced woman sidled up to me and Gage, leaning against the railing.  “The legacy of the Great Scholars.”

I stared over the edge, into the endless black ocean.  The Shenti had a saying they used when bad things happened: The Sea Remains.  Their unofficial motto.  No matter what victories you had, no matter who you loved or what you built, it would all slide back under the waves in the end.  All forgotten.

I was out here in the ocean, alone, with no friends, no fiancée, and no future.  The saying was starting to make sense. “I suppose our host has an appreciation for history, taking us here,” I said.  Now, time to try something out.  “Food, too.  How about you?  Eat anywhere nice lately?”

It was the conversation starter both Lady Coombes and Quinten had used, word for word, and my answers had provoked strange responses from both of them.  Let’s see what she says.

“Imagawa House,” she said.  “Excellent Yakitori skewers.”  She grabbed my hand, squeezing it tight.  Her eyes widened, and she looked at Gage. “Him too?”

This is bad.  My heart thumped in my ears.  I nodded. “Him too.”

She grabbed me and Gage by our shoulders, grinning.  “Congratulations,” the woman said. “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”  Oh fuck.  Oh fuck.

Scholars,” said Gage with her illusions.  “It’s a password.  Asking about restaurants.  Responding with that phrase about Yakitori.  They’re testing to see if other people are controlled by Wethers.

She figured it out just after I did.

Takonara,” I muttered under my breath.

“She’s such a joy to be around,” said the woman.  “Life can be so difficult, it’s not often you find people so naturally bright and positive.  I’ve been introducing people to her all night. Just like you two have, I’m sure. A few more hours, and we’ll have everyone.”

A chill breeze blew over the deck.  For a long moment, none of us moved or said anything, as the implications of this sank in.  Gage gripped the railing, her hand shaking.

Lyna Wethers is trying to get everyone on this ship,” said Gage with her Vocation.  “They’re feeding us to her one by one.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked the woman.  Don’t think about the victims.  Don’t think about the fact that Wethers’ Vocation was permanent, with no cure.  “I’d love to introduce more people to her.

She shrugged.  “Can’t remember.  If I spot her outfit anywhere, I’ll let you know.”

“Remind me, what was she wearing tonight?  I met her last week.”

“Green dress, blue mask.  Very distinct.”

“Well, it was nice meeting you.”  I turned away.

She beamed at us.  “Have a lovely evening.”  She strode away, calling out to another person nearby.  “How are you? Eat anywhere nice lately?”

I muttered under my breath to Gage.  “We know what her code is, now. We can impersonate one of her thralls.  We sweep each deck for her. Then we use your Vocation to get her alone. Gage?”

Gage didn’t respond.  She wasn’t even looking at me.  She was staring at something in the middle of the deck, in the main dining area.

I followed her gaze, to the appetizer table.  Two young men in masks sat around one of them, sipping from martini glasses, one with red hair, one with brown.  I had to look at them for a few seconds before I recognized the first one’s pale skin and cherubic face. Another Paragon student, like Quinten.

Why is Kaplen Ingolf at this party?

The brown-haired man grabbed Ingolf by the wrist, leading him downstairs to the lower decks.  Ingolf stumbled, bumping into people and tables.

Gage stepped forward, panic in her eyes.  Does she know him?

A tall female figure emerged from upstairs, blocked from my vision by a crowd of people.  She strode downstairs, following Kaplen. Though most of her face was hidden, I could make out parts of her body and outfit.

A woman wearing a bright green evening gown, with a blue mask over her eyes.

My grip tightened on the handle of my briefcase.  That’s her.  And she was about to use her Vocation on another Paragon student.

“Gage,” I said.  “Do you see – “

She unclasped my briefcase and pulled out the metal pillbox, stuffing it into her pocket.  “I’m going after Wethers,” she said. Her chest rose and fell in shallow, rapid breaths. “Before she can destroy anyone else’s mind.”  She spoke out loud, not bothering to use her Vocation.

She wants to protect Ingolf.  “Gage, I know how fucked up this is, but we have a plan.  We can’t rush in like this, or we’ll just get hijacked too.“

“Every moment we wait is another Pith she gets to burn.“  She walked forward, jaw clenched. “You can come with me or not.”

“Gage, you were just talking about how careful we need to be around her.  We can’t split up.”

“I’ve got an idea.”  The girl quickened her pace, ignoring me.  “She’s not invincible.”

“Gage!” I shouted.  Scholars damn her.  The bitch was going to get us both killed or worse.  Normally, I was the one coming up with stupid, reckless improvisations.

Think, think.  What were my options?  What would Samuel do? Or Harpy, my old tactics professor.  If I followed her, I could hide my paper somewhere and use it to attack Wethers without drawing attention, outside of her range.

But Wethers might have the tools to block it, and the corridors were tight down there.  She could set her guards and her mob of brainwashed thugs on me in a heartbeat, and then it’d be over.

I had no way to contact Isaac Brin for backup, but I could steal a radio and use it to ring up the police.  But who knew how long that would take? And if Gage got turned and spilled the beans on me, there was nowhere for me to hide on this ship.

I need an escape.

If Gage wanted to charge in and get hijacked, that was her choice.  But in the meantime, I was going to secure our escape route.

Using my Vocation, I could break into the lifeboat room with ease, but the boats themselves were still locked with Voidsteel chains.  I need the key.

The most likely people to have it were Honeypot herself and Roscoe Belville, the owner of the Golden Moon.  They wouldn’t have it in a safe, where it could be slow to access in an emergency.  No, they’d have it on their person, or somewhere they could get to in a heartbeat.

I wasn’t going to ever get that close to Lyna Wethers, so I’d just have to hope it was with Belville.

After a few minutes of looking around, I found him: The upper deck, sitting at a window table in front of the bar.  With the party in full swing, his guards seemed to have left.

I moved towards him, keeping an eye below me to make sure Wethers was still belowdecks with my neurotic, psychotic partner.  Don’t think about Gage.

I leaned on the chest-high table Belville was sitting at and set down my briefcase next to me.  “Evening.”

He smiled.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

“Imagawa House,” I said, following the password.  “Excellent yakitori skewers.”

I projected towards the CEO, feeling around his body for metal.  A silver ring on his finger. A steel watch around his wrist. And a key-shaped hunk of brass pressed against his collarbone.  He has the boat key.

But it was hanging around his neck.  And touching his skin. If I took it now, he’d notice right away.

I had to lull him, distract him, then take it without the other guests noticing.

“‘18 Arak,” I said to the bartender.  “Neat.”

What would distract him enough?  Something he was so obsessed about, it’d keep his head in the clouds while I stole the key to his lifeboats?

Belville chuckled.  “She’s marvelous, isn’t she?”

And there it is.  “Tell me more about Lyna,” I said.  “I’m dying to know her better.”

Belville took my hand in his.  “You know her name. She must trust you a great deal, then.”

The bartender handed me my drink, and I took it in my hand, watching at all times.  Don’t let anyone drug it.  The bartender began to shuck oysters with a thin knife, placing them on a bed of ice in front of Belville.

“Well,” said Belville.  “She’s an ex-Guardian, who specializes in the Whisper school of projection.  Two months after we met, she used her Vocation on me.”

I choked on my drink, coughing.  Why would he tell me that?  “A Whisper Vocation?”  I tried to sound surprised.  “What did she do to you?”

“It took hours to go into effect,” he said.  “But by the time she was done, I belonged to her.  And she belonged to me.”

I gaped at him.  “You mean – you – we only love her because of mental projection?  And you know? You don’t care about that?”

“Imagine if you realized, today, that every value you ever held, every love, every passion, was constructed by someone else.  Would you reject it? For what? It’s everything you are.  It’s permanent, unchangeable.  You can hate yourself, or you can embrace it.”

I thought of Kaplen’s fluffy green cat, what-its-face.  The main reason that boy found it adorable was likely a benign bacteria the animal had spread to his brain, Maojun.  But he knew that, and no matter how many times other students reminded him, he still loved it.  Still brought it everywhere.

The bartender placed another shucked oyster next to him.  “But I loved her before any Vocations.”

“Why?” I asked.

Belville leaned forward.  “Because she’s innocent. All the mental hijacking cases Paragon brought against her – they’re all whaleshit.”

I faked a sigh of relief.  “That makes so much sense. Why?”  I reached my hand into my pocket, and projected the thin slip of paper inside it up the long sleeve of my jacket.

“Paragon has no right to accuse her.  They ordered her to do all of those hijackings, and many more.”

The bartender rammed his knife into an oyster, forcing it open.

“What?”

“She was a tool for Paragon to use – not just on their enemies, but themselves.  How do you think Epistocrat arranged marriages stay together?  Lyna was paid to use it on Danae Corbiere, Jonathan Nevitt, Rowyna Ebbridge – “

I froze.  The world faded into a dull buzz in the background.  My mother used it on herself?  I hated the bitch, but her love for my father was one of her few redeeming qualities. Did she make that up too?

“- Maelor Tanwen was only interested in men.  And Gwaun Breyel wasn’t interested in anyone at all.  And after they were done, they paid even more to have their memories of Lyna erased, so they could pretend they’d loved their spouse all along.  Lyna didn’t have a choice. She owed everything to those people in power, and knew they could take it away in a heartbeat.”

He has to be lying.  She could have fed him whaleshit and he could be spouting it without question.  That seemed like the simplest explanation.

As he talked, I dropped my hand to my side, and let the slip of paper fall under my chair.  Projecting into it, I slid it along the floor, beneath his chair, and lifted it behind him.  I slotted it in the collar of his shirt, right on top of the tag, where he wouldn’t notice it.

“Lyna knew the consequences for disobeying.  So when her superiors asked her to use it on the love of her life, she complied.”

She hijacked her own lover?

“Another woman’s family wanted an alliance with him, you see, and his thoughts didn’t factor into the equation.”  His voice went quiet, full of regret. “She did it while he was asleep. Their relationship ended in tears, and he never found out why.”  He flashed a wan smile at me. “When the other woman courted him, it was love at first sight. Who knew?”

My paper was ready to cut Belville’s necklace.  I needed to distract the many others in the room, something that would get them to look away.

“Who was the love of her life?” I asked.

“Professor Sebastian Oakes,” said Belville.  “The Obsidian Foil. He married a woman named Penny Alden, and they’re still happy together.  After that, she refused to sell her Vocation to Paragon anymore. And that was when the criminal charges appeared.”

Professor Oakes?  No, no way.  Him and his wife were the cutest couple in Paragon.  They loved all the same things, loved spending time with one another.  Their personalities were compatible.

“Does she want him back?”

Belville shook his head.  “The Vocation can only work once, and even she can’t undo it.  She’s experimented for years, on hundreds to try and find a cure.  To no avail. We must live with the consequences of our actions.”

The bartender forced open another oyster, placing it next to him.

“What Lyna is going to do,” he said, his voice growing soft.  “Is find the people who hurt her. Find their families, their friends, everyone who loves them.  And use her Vocation to take them all away.”

“I love her so much,” I lied.  “Why would she do this? And why are you telling me all this?” I asked.  Does he vent like this to every person she’s controlled?

“Because,” said Belville, “Lyna’s Whisper Vocation works two ways.  The first is shallow. Physical attraction, obsession, raw infatuation for personality quirks.  But the second requires further conditions. If you want to make someone truly fall in love, you have to harness something deeper.  The comfort of being tucked into bed by your mother. The trust, when you open up to your best friend with your most painful weakness.  The satisfaction, when you lie down next to your wife of five years, and know that you’ve connected with someone who cherishes your every facet and flaw.”

This is it.  I prepared to slice the string around the back of his neck.

Belville leaned close to me, intent.  “If you want to make someone love your mind, you share your perspective with them, mercenary.”

The bustling room went silent.  Every man and woman on the deck stared at me.  Under their party masks, their eyes were wide open, unblinking.

In the next second, three things happened.  Belville snatched my piece of paper off his collar, crumpling it in his fist.  I leapt out of my chair, reaching for my briefcase with my Pith. And a muscular arm hooked my neck from behind, yanking me back.

The guard behind me tightened his forearm around my windpipe, and I choked, gasping for air.

Get the paper.

I projected into the metal latches of my briefcase, lifting them up to unlock it.  Another guard slammed his palms on top of them, forcing them shut. I pushed upwards with my Pith, to no avail.  My metal projection is still weak.

“Let me guess,” said Belville, staring at the paper in his clenched fist.  “That briefcase is where you’re keeping your projection materials. More paper?”  He shook his head, tutting. “So predictable.”

I projected around the room, looking for more paper in every nook and cranny.  Green lightning crackled around my arms and chest from the strain on my Pith.

“Everyone!” yelled Belville.  “Hold your wallets shut! Don’t let the paper out!”  Every person in the room took out their wallets, clamping down on them and the paper bills inside.  I couldn’t apply enough force to pry them open.

There were napkins under the bar, but they didn’t have sharp edges.  Nothing that could give anyone a paper cut.

I felt something at the back of my mind.  A slight sensation that had been there this entire conversation that had escaped my attention.  A soft itch inside my skull, like a fingernail was scratching the wrinkles of my brain.

A woman in a green evening gown strode up the staircase, entering the room.  Honeypot.  Her hands lifted to the dark blue mask covering her eyes, sliding it off.  All eyes in the room turned to her.

Lyna Wethers’ body looked a good three decades older than everyone at this party.  At least fifty or older. Her blonde hair was styled in a ragged, crew cut, even more clumsy than Ana’s hair.  She gazed over me with narrow eyes.

She was far from conventionally attractive, and was evidently wearing a natural-born body.  But all the same, there was something magnetic about her.  Something about the way her face came together, the smirk played around the edges of her lips, or how she seemed to draw all the attention to herself like a whirlpool.

Honeypot looked pretty.

Blood rushed in my ears, and I felt my stomach drop.  Fuck me.  Fuck, fuck, FUCK.  I thought of Samuel’s face in my head, trying to focus on it, but all I could picture were Lyna’s sagging eyelids, her chapped, cracking lips spread back in a smile.

But that didn’t make any bloody sense.  Her range was less than twenty meters, and she’d been many decks below.

She wasn’t even in range now, and she was looking more gorgeous by the second.

Lyna Wethers bowed to Roscoe Belville, kneeling on the floor.  “Excellent work, ma’am.”

The realization washed over me with a wave of dizziness.  That’s not the real Lyna Wethers.  The woman knew she was wanted by Guardians.  She knew there could be enemies at this party.

So she transferred her thrall into a decoy chassis, and hid her real self in a body she could meet lots of people with.

A body like, say, the host of a masquerade ball.

I looked towards Roscoe Belville – no, not Belville.  “Hello, Lyna Wethers,” I choked out.

Lyna Wethers smiled at me through Roscoe Belville’s body.  “Took you long enough.”

“Where’s the real Belville?” I wheezed.

“At home,” she said.  “He kindly lent me this body, in the meantime.”

She grabbed an oyster off the plate and slurped it down, licking her lips.  “Easy on the arteries, Danny. I lied about my Vocation. He needs to be awake for it to work and he’s on some light sedatives.”

Sedatives?  I did feel tired and dizzy, and far more drunk than I should off one drink.  The room was wobbling back and forth in front of my eyes.  

The bartender set down his oyster knife, staring at me.  He spiked my drink.

Lyna rolled up the sleeves of her suit – Roscoe Belville’s suit.  Blue lightning crackled up and down her arms, the telltale sign of a Whisper Specialist.  She’s using her Vocation on me.

My heart thumped in my chest.  Panic surged through my veins, cutting through the fog of the sedative she’d dosed me with.  Think, idiot, think.  How could I get out of this?

I glanced around the room, which was starting to get blurry.  I saw the bartender’s oyster knife on the counter, and the guard forcing down the latch on my briefcase.

The beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind.

“Let me tell you a secret,” said Wethers.  “If my Vocation is used on a person too long, it begins to reshape other parts of their Pith.  Their pleasure centers. Their language processing. Their vision.” She tilted an oyster back into her mouth.  “Tell me who you’re working for, and I won’t make you a blind, hollow mute.”

I said nothing, focusing on the briefcase, and the latch which was being held shut.

“Who is it?  Ilaqua? The Droll Corsairs?  Paragon?”

I used my Physical Vocation on the shut latch, flattening it lengthwise.

The briefcase fell open, and sheaves of paper spilled onto the floor.

I projected into all of them, shooting them at the real Wethers and the guards in the room.  I sliced the arms and face of the guard holding me, focusing on his eyes and joints. He staggered back, crying out in pain.

At the same time, I swarmed the other two guards in the room, giving them paper cuts up and down their bodies, and I swirled a storm of flattened sheets around me, making it hard for the brainwashed mob to track my movements.

Through the storm, I slid a piece of paper towards Lyna Wethers’ throat, and slashed her carotid artery.  Blood poured out, and she collapsed from her chair onto the floor, clutching her neck.  

It wouldn’t kill her, but it would force her to waste precious time transferring into a new body.

One more slash freed the key from the string around her neck.  While her thralls were still distracted, I projected into both the key and the bartender’s oyster knife, pulling them towards me.

Grabbing the knife, I stabbed the bottom corner of the window next to me.  It shattered, shards of glass falling onto the deck below.

Dozens of men and women in masks ran towards me, hands outstretched, ready to defend their mistress.

Before they could reach me, I clambered forward and leapt out of the window.

The wooden deck hit me like a freight train.  I slammed into it feet-first, rolling forward to soften the impact.  As I rolled, the fragmented glass dug into my back and forearms, cracking beneath me.

The chattering on the main deck fell silent.  The band stopped playing. Half the masked partygoers backed away from me.  The other half stepped closer, fists clenched.

I wobbled, staggering back and forth.  The stabbing pain on the top half of my body felt numb, distant.  That sedative is still doing a number on me.  The fog rolled over my mind, blanketing my thoughts.

“He has the key!”  A guard from above snapped me out of my stupor.  “Keep him away from the boats! Block the doors!”

The mob rushed to all the doors nearby, pressing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of them.  I gathered my paper around me from the upper levels, just one briefcase’s worth.

It’s not enough.  I would have to kill them to move them.  And I couldn’t do that. The sheer terror kept a sliver of my mind clear through the haze.  What do I do, what do I do?  The mob had blocked my only escape route.

The guard on the second floor drew his pistol.

I sprinted to the edge of the yacht and vaulted over the railing, diving into the water.

I crashed into the cold, dark ocean, feeling another sting of pain from the skin on my back.  My head breached the surface, and I swam for the ruined skyscrapers of the Great Scholars.

I drew my paper around me, flattening them into a vast curtain above and behind, blocking the guards’ vision.  Gunshots rang out behind me, but none of them hit me. I projected into the water around me, using it to accelerate myself faster.

The metal tower jutted out of the waves, covered in rust.  It was missing many of its walls and floors, but everything at sea level was a smooth, flat wall.  I couldn’t see anywhere I could get up on it.

Bullets whizzed around me, and I swam around the edge of the tower, to the far side.  My arms and chest felt heavier with every stroke I took. The world spun back and forth around me, and I bumped my head into the tower several times, having a hard time keeping direction.

On the far side of the tower, the wall had fallen away, exposing a staircase on the inside of the structure.  I swam towards it, and climbed onto it, wheezing for breath.

I staggered up the metal staircase.  Water dripped from my suit and my white crane mask.  My clothes were damp all over, sticking to my skin.

The gunshots had stopped.  The ruined tower fell quiet.  The only sounds were the soft lapping of the water against the corroded metal, and the creak of the metal stairs beneath my waterlogged dress shoes.

I emerged into a vast, empty room.  The three walls of the structure towered stories above me, missing huge chunks all over.  Strange structures hung from scaffolding above me, framing the empty night sky. From the floor, they looked like clusters of small dots connected by lines.

A metal globe hung in the middle of them, flanked by two smaller spheres.  The sun and the moon.  Were the dots stars, then?

Even in ruins, decaying away, it was hard not to feel awe at the craft of the Great Scholars.  How tall had this tower been, before the oceans had risen to drown their civilization?

My feet carried me to the wall facing the Golden Moon.  Half of it was missing, and I peeked out of it, scanning over the yacht.  A pack of guards stood at the edge of the ship, facing towards the tower, but none of them seemed to be looking at me.

Now, what’s the next step?  They would be coming for me soon.  If I forced Wethers out, I could ambush her and hold her hostage.  Or I could take her decoy body and use it to command all the thralls.

Something poked me in the back, and cold shocks ran up and down my body.  For the second time this week, I collapsed to the ground, twitching on my belly.

A boot kicked me, rolling me onto my back and sending screams of pain from the glass shards poking into it.  A guard stood over me, hefting a cattle prod. He stabbed it into my stomach, and ice ran through my veins, sending me into convulsions.  How did he get here?

Lyna Wethers floated from the sky, wearing her normal body again, dressed in her green dress and blue mask.  A second guard floated down next to her, lifted by his projected clothes.

She could fly.  Of course she could.

In my mind, Samuel’s smile faded into the distance.

“Evening,” said Honeypot.  “Eat anywhere nice lately?”

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4-B The Mortal Soul

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Wes

Anabelle Gage was a pain in the ass.

Some people just had the perfect combination of traits: Clever enough to be a threat, and stupid enough to fall face-first into trouble.

Leizu, back in Chimera Squad, was one of those people.  But she was a Joiner with bulletproof skin and kicks that could flip cars.  Gage’s skin, on the other hand, looked like it was about to fall off. Those bulging grey veins certainly didn’t offer any protection.  And worse, she insisted on playing the hero at the most idiotic times.

And what did we have to show for it?  Those poor mind-spheres in Commonplace HQ were out of our reach for good, still being tortured by a freak with a rock hammer.  And the Green Hands now knew what we were capable of. If they were clever, they might have even figured out Gage’s range limitation.

After all the nonsense she’d pulled, it had almost been satisfying to stab her eardrums out with toothpicks.  Almost.

Fortunately, the psychotic little body thief hadn’t caught onto my plans to use her against the Broadcast King.  But given what I’d seen, if she found out, she might react with violence. In a fair fight, I could crush her, but not if she got the jump on me.

I’d have to be careful.  Turn her against Kahlin without setting off any alarms.

An automobile rushed by my face, shocking me back to reality.  I staggered back, off the street and out of the path of the cars.  In the middle of the sloped road, a trolley on a rail climbed the slopes of Lowtown, ascending towards Hightown.

And above them, connected by a cable car, Paragon Academy, its floating islands hanging beneath a carpet of grey clouds.  Taunting me.

Gage had learned Nudging defense, but that was the most basic of basic techniques.  Now we were up against a real projector, an Ex-Guardian who’d gone through six years of Paragon training.

If I didn’t feel prepared, Gage sure as fuck wasn’t.

And the girl was hiding something.  Other than her body, underneath her ridiculous baggy clothes.  How had Professor Brin tracked her down? What deal had she struck with the uptight bastard?  I’d have to investigate, when I had the time.

To top it off, she had awful taste in food, even for the average poor person.  All she had to eat were these disgusting canned lentils. I’d felt guilty when I stole a few cans from her storage unit.

But then I remembered that she’d almost gotten me killed, and I was fine about it.

Now, she wanted me to smuggle the two of us onto an exclusive yacht party while she read comic books or whatever in her little capsule.  In four days.

Did she know how hard those sorts of invites were to secure?  Elitist assholes like Lorne Daventry built their identities on excluding as many people as they could from their social circles.  I doubted our target would be any different.

Odds were, it wouldn’t be as simple as summoning up an illusion for the doorman at the pier.  If my experience was anything to go by, there would be a unique serial number on each invitation, which meant we’d have to steal one, or get invited.

My plate was already full with whaleshit to manage.  I had to study for the Ousting exams in a year. I had to study the Broadcast King so I could bring him down and erase my family’s debt.  And I had to study Ms. No-Name’s tactics so I could counter-Oust her the next time my mother pitted us against each other.

The thoughts churned up my stomach again, a storm of vague, long-term tasks I had to juggle and allott time to.  This type of shit, I hate the most.

I couldn’t even do my own laundry.  How was I supposed to manage something as complicated as revenge?

I sat down on a bar stool, and blinked.  After saying the word “study” in my head three times, I’d directed myself to the nearest bar, almost on pure instinct.

A Steel Violet tune played in the background, and I nodded my head along to it.  The group had attacked me and almost killed me, but damn if their music wasn’t catchy.  “Can I get you anything?” said a bored-looking man behind the counter.

Well, if I’m already here.   “Western Gin.”

“And tonic?”

“No.”

He poured a glass, which took two gulps to swallow.  “One more.” I needed something to calm me down and clear my head.  This was already helping.

How was I supposed to beat my replacement?  Strangling her with those ropes was a one-time trick.  It wouldn’t work now that she knew about it. And now, while I drank this body into oblivion, she’d be getting top-notch training in tactics and projection at Paragon.

The bitch would even learn how to fly.  If we fought again, she’d have a much larger toolkit and know all my abilities.

If I wanted to beat her, I’d need to come up with something new.  Some unexpected strategy she wouldn’t see coming. Pure technique wouldn’t cut it.

Then I could get my name back, get back Chimera Squad and Samuel and a room with more than three square feet.

Samuel.  I downed another cup of gin.  Some of it splashed, and I wiped my chin with a napkin.  Would he even want me, given enough time with his new toy?

And would I even want him?  The prick had abandoned me, afraid of even the possibility that he’d lose his cushy Epistocrat life and break the rules.  All he’d left me was a crane mask. No matter how much I hated myself, that would always be true.  And in a world of fabricated bodies, there were thousands just as pretty as him, or prettier, as long as they had the money to pay for it.

But all the same, when I thought of his dirty blonde hair, or his knowing smile, or his calm, but righteous speeches, I couldn’t help but feel something.  A faint reminder of what it was like to feel comfortable, not just with a bed and food and clothes, but with a person who understood the depths of your flaws, and cared about you anyways.

Love is a privilege.  One that I’d taken for granted.  I’d have to earn that comfort and beauty back.  If he could admire me the same way I admired him.  And if I was back in my weird, dolled-up, black-haired sexpot of a body, maybe we could build something again.

A cat padded down the counter, leaning down to nuzzle my hand.  Disgusting.  Cats were for the poor and filthy, not something I wanted to associate with.

But for the first time in my life, when I looked at this hairy creature, I felt something other than pure revulsion.

It’s cute.  Scholars damn me, this body’s brain was infected with Maojun.  Now I would find all cats adorable, even if it made no rational sense and I hated myself for it.  Another annoyance at the life I’d been saddled with.

The bartender slapped the bill in front of me.  Twenty-three pounds.  My head felt light as a balloon, and the warm, tingly feeling had spread from my chest to the rest of my body, which meant I was just the right amount of drunk for two in the afternoon.  Time to head out.

I reached into my pocket for my bills, and pulled out a paper clip, two pencils, a coupon for a swap brothel, and the ad card for Honeypot’s ‘Dusk Masquerade’.  Digging to the bottom, I pulled up two quarter-pound coins. One forty-sixth of what I needed.

Scholars, not again.

“Actually,” I said.  “I don’t think I’m quite done.  I’ll have a – ” I glanced at the rows of bottles behind him, finding the liquor on the highest shelf, further from the door.  “I’ll take the ‘27 Celetrian Barrel-Aged Malt Whiskey.” I slipped off my shoes with my heels.

“It’s eight hundred a bottle, are you sure?”

I nodded, and reached down to pick up my shoes.  The bartender fetched a stool and climbed it. While he stretched up to reach the highest shelf, I slid off my chair, silent, and ran for the door.

In ten rapid steps and one grab of the handle, I was out.  Two more quick motions, and I was jogging forward with my shoes on, blending in with the dense crowd on the far side of the street.

Good to see that stealth training come in handy.  I felt a twinge of guilt at stealing twenty-two and a half dollars from the man, a sinking feeling in my stomach that fought against the soft embrace of the gin.

I glanced down at the piece of paper.  Bhais Baldana: A Dusk Masquerade.  On the Golden Moon Yacht.  Leaving from Pier 52 at nightfall.

Well, I thought, let’s check out Pier 52.

________________________________________

Even for me, the Golden Moon yacht was huge, a giant white vessel at least five hundred feet long, with five distinct decks tapering up to the top.  Whoever owned it was rich enough to store it in Pier 52, smack in the middle of Elmidde’s port.

Whether Honeypot or some billionaire she’d seduced was floating the bill, that couldn’t have been cheap.  And you could practically smell the money dripping off every inch of the ship, from the smooth modern architecture to the ornate furniture inside the windows.

And, most importantly, nobody was watching it.  The pier was as empty and dead as my elementary school talent show.  The only two guards nearby were a good two hundred feet away, smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio.  Both looking in the opposite direction.

The lock on the gate to the pier wasn’t even Voidsteel.  It had taken two and a half seconds to shrink it with my Vocation.

To a certain extent, it made sense.  The controls on the boat were locked down, and if anyone somehow stole it, it’d be noticed and chased down in minutes.  All the valuables inside were furniture, as far as I could tell, all far too heavy to smuggle away.

In three days, this vessel would be miles into the Eloane Ocean, filled with wine, wealth, and Lyna Wethers, the Honeypot, who could reduce both of us into limp piles of adoration with a flick of her wrist.  And for all we knew, she could hire private security too.

We needed to know the interior of that ship.  We needed an exit plan for when our plan inevitably collapsed.  And if Wethers left a few extra invitations lying around on her yacht, that was just a bonus.

I glanced over to make sure the guards were looking the other way, then slid the heavy bag off my shoulder.  My hands pulled open the drawstring on the top, and I projected inside, lifting.

Three hundred pieces of damp newspaper flew into the air, flapping like birds and soaring over the yacht’s balcony.  They made almost no sound, softened by a quick dip in the harbor twenty minutes ago.

I spread out my flock, setting them down on the outermost deck, thirty feet above my head.  My Pith saturated every sheet, crackling, coursing through their fibers. Though I couldn’t see them, I could feel every movement they made, their position in space, the shape they took.

I felt the surface of the deck, noting couches, smooth tables, and what I guessed was a hot tub.  

Two of the sheets slid around the edge of the railing, until they hit a long, coiled object.  Rope.  Just what I was looking for.

My sheets of paper tied the rope around the railing.  I didn’t know any sailors knots, so I just looped it back and forth and around until it was too tangled for me to make any sense of.

I sent the other end flying over the edge, and caught it with one hand.

As I climbed up the side of the yacht, I gazed over at the two guards in front of the dock warehouse.  Their backs were still turned to me, as they bent over their radio, intent. Must be a good show.  Or a strong cigarette.

The climb was easy, fast – far smoother than I’d expected, even with two broken fingers and snapped ribs.  This body’s forearms had bigger muscles than I’d ever handled, even in my combat chassis. Testosterone is one powerful drug.

I bent over and scurried across the deck, staying below the guards’ eyelines.  The newspapers swirled beneath me, and I pulled with my Pith, drawing them back into my bag.

I used my Vocation on the first door I found, folding both the deadbolt and latch into two dimensions.  This lock wasn’t Voidsteel either. Green lightning crackled around the knob, and I pulled it open. My Pith drained out of them, and they snapped back to three dimensions.  I repeated the process on the other side to close it.

I was in what looked like the main dining area, a long, carpeted room with three separate chandeliers.  Rows of high tables extended from wall to wall, the perfect height to serve appetizers and drinks.

The space was dark.  The red curtains on the windows were drawn shut, letting in only slivers of afternoon light.

I committed the layout to memory, and set to exploring the other floors of the ship.

Above the deck, the furniture and rooms grew more and more opulent, even for my tastes.  Chairs coated with gold leaf shaped into flowers. A stocked bar filled with bottles older than my mother, from all four Domains and all Eight Oceans.  And a walk-in wardrobe with suits, dresses, shoes, and hats in every style and color imaginable.

The lower floors grew darker, with fewer windows and portholes in each of the rooms.  I tried flipping one of the light switches, to no avail. Maybe the electricity is on lockdown too.

On a side room in the first deck, I found the lifeboats.  There were just two of them, barely large enough to fit ten people each.  If the Golden Moon sunk, they wouldn’t even hold a fraction of the guests that would be aboard.  Just enough for one private security team, and one massive asshole.

In this vein, both lifeboats were secured to the room with chains, running through metal loops the side of each one, and fastened with bright green metal locks.  Voidsteel.  My Vocation would be useless on it.  If I had to bet, the owner would have the only key, so that his own security wouldn’t abandon him.

Neither Gage nor I had the metal projection to break the chains.  If we got discovered by Wethers, we wouldn’t have the time to track down the owner and grab his key.  Then we’d have to drag it from here onto the water, which neither of us were strong enough to do.

All while under attack by an unblockable Whisper Specialist, and scholars knew what else.

Privately, I made a decision in advance.  If things went bad, I’d jump into the water, use my dark clothes to stay hidden, and make my way back to the harbor.  Even if Gage couldn’t swim. It wasn’t the honorable thing to do, but if we went for the lifeboats, we were fucked.

And besides, the grey-haired fuck had blown off my fiancée’s leg with a shotgun.  And sliced off the hands of one of my best friends. If she wanted to escape, she could find her own way.

The lowest floor was dead silent.  The only noises were the soft thumps my shoes made on the wooden floors, and the green lightning when I used my Vocation on locks.

I was in a dark hallway flanked by bedrooms and small lounges.  There were enough of them for dozens of people to live on the ship at a time.

At the end of the hallway was a steel door with rounded edges.  It looked out of place, something you’d see on a battleship rather than a luxury yacht.

I extended my Pith towards the lock mechanisms, and met a solid wall of empty space, material I couldn’t project into.  Voidsteel.  The entire mechanism was made of it, even the bolt.  Voidsteel, by the pound, was more expensive than diamonds.  How much did this cost?

And what was inside?

Without going in myself, it was impossible to tell.  None of my papers could wriggle into any of the gaps, and none of the ship’s air ducts went into it.  The whole room was airtight, with its own ventilation system.

My best guess was that it was some sort of panic room.  A reinforced place where the ship’s owner could bunker down, shut down the engine, and alert law enforcement.  The owner of the Golden Moon was one paranoid squidfucker.

If Lyna Wethers ran or was taken here, it was all over for us.  So no prolonged fights. We’d have to knock her out fast.

Then we just had to steal a lifeboat without alerting anyone or dropping our disguises.

Speaking of our disguises.  I was still wearing the ratty brown coat and pants I’d had for weeks.  The stitches were coming undone, it was covered in stains I couldn’t wash out, and the entire garment reeked of dust, even after I’d washed it twice.

Looking like this, I wouldn’t make it within a hundred feet of this party.  And neither would Gage, with her oversized, baggy coats and wrinkled pants.

An idea came to me, and I ran back through the ship, bursting through doors until I found myself back in the yacht’s walk-in wardrobe.

I grinned.  I may have had no idea how to clean my room, buy groceries, wash dishes, sort through mail, register to vote, fix a car, drive a car, buy a car, apply for welfare, or find a doctor.  But this world, I understood.

After trying on dozens of dinner jackets, black ties, and lounge suits in front of the mirror, I settled on one.  A pitch black single vest tuxedo with a white waistcoat and dress shirt underneath, paired with a pair of dark brown shoes.  Beautiful craftsmanship, that would go well with my white crane mask.

I guessed Gage’s sizes from memory, and grabbed a few outfits and shoes that should be vaguely her size, along with a mask.  I grabbed a briefcase, too. A polished, black fish leather beauty that balanced just right in my hands.

I also took a pair of whiskey bottles as tall as my forearm, because cheap liquor tasted like piss, and scholars knew I’d need some of the good stuff sooner or later.

I had our outfits, I knew the ship.  Now I just had to get our tickets.

________________________________________

The tailor measured my waist with a tape, nodding to himself.  I gazed at myself in the mirror, admiring my newly fitted tuxedo.

It was just the right amount of tight on my shoulders and chest, both comfortable and stylish.  With this, I could blend in with Epistocrats and run with a full range of movement.

Stealing this had been the best decision I’d made all week.

I strode out of the tailor wearing a delightful fitted suit, with three more in my bag.  Gage would have to do with an untailored outfit. The service had cost almost all of the money I’d pickpocketed yesterday, so I’d have to eat Gage’s nightmarish canned lentils for dinner instead of something reasonable.  I felt nauseous at the mere thought.

But at least I wouldn’t look poor, which was critical for the next step.  And even if I was scrabbling in the dirt for coins, it felt nice to at least own some proper clothes.

The next morning, I went to the midtown train station again and used my projection to slide paper cash out of people’s wallets.

People squeezed into the packed corridors shoulder to shoulder, pushing past one another to get to their platforms on time.  Humdrum pickpockets already frequented this part of town, but projection made it a hundred times easier.

I tried to steal from people wearing nice clothes, but I still felt guilty at taking people’s hard earned cash.  This sort of thing was also risky – if I got discovered as a projection criminal, the Guardians would surround me like wolves.  Still, I needed it for the next phase.

It took me all of the morning rush hour and the first half of the afternoon to gather a few hundred pounds.  After about thirty minutes, the initial thrill of danger faded away, replaced with crushing boredom at repeating the same routine over and over again.

Once I’d collected enough money, I took a tram up to Hightown, to the Petal Tea Lounge.  The entry fee at the front door was fifty pounds, not counting the pastries and drinks inside.

In spite of our debts, my mother had taken me here many afternoons, to sit in on her many afternoon teas with other Epistocrats.  The scones and cakes weren’t even good, but she’d reminded me that the point was exclusivity, and its long history of serving people who Mattered.

In short, this was exactly where I could get tickets to a yacht party.

After paying the entry fee, I strode past the atrium and into the parlor section.  A thin cloud of tobacco smoke permeated the room, filling my nostrils. Women in shimmering cocktail dresses flirted at the bar with men in lounge suits.  Businessmen sat back on couches and puffed cigars.

Not one looked a day over thirty.  And every one of them more beautiful than magazine models.  I spotted Tabitha Blues, Louis Maughams, and of course, blonde vintage Maxine Clives, which still bore an unsettling resemblance to my mother’s chassis.

A trio of Epistocrats I recognized played Jao Lu with a pile of money on the table.  Two boys and a girl from a year ahead of me. More watched from the sidelines, adding to the jackpot and shouting bets at each other.

There’s my in.  Serial procrastination had made me a bloody virtuoso at the Shenti-imported board game.  I approached them, leaning over the back of the couch to observe the game.

Lucky for me, none of them were any good.  They all followed common strategies they’d no doubt picked up from books, but it was clear they didn’t understand any of them.  When their plans failed, they kept charging forward without a single drop of improvisation or adaptation.

After fifteen agonizing minutes staring at their clumsy tactics, I watched the least incompetent one win the war of attrition.  He cheered, sweeping a pile of money towards him.

A girl he’d beat slammed the table.  Patricia, I think her name was.  As I recalled, she was one of the least popular girls in her class.  She was both belligerent and dishonest, and didn’t have the social skills or money to get away with it.  I expected the same was true here.

“Another!” Patricia growled.  “You had lucky draws.”

I leaned in.  “And you played your Blue Charlatan too early.”

Her glare could have cut Voidsteel.  “What?”

“Scorpion Prison, the strategy you followed, tells you to play it early, but you couldn’t make any space for it.  The other guy’s Lancers were ass-fucking the center in the midgame. If you’d just waited, you’d have slaughtered them both.”

Then, she said exactly what I hoped she would.  “You think you can do better?”

I beamed.  “Oh, absolutely.  Can I tag in as player number four?”

Ten minutes into the next game, I knocked her out, causing her to storm out of the parlor in a huff.  Another eleven minutes after that, I’d lost on purpose to the other two at the table, ignoring three separate times I could have cut their formation to pieces, and losing myself a hundred pounds.

I’d beaten the unpopular kid, and lost to the popular ones.

“Yes!” crowed the winner, scooping up my money.  “Scholars, that was a close one.” His friends cheered behind him, clapping him on the back.

I extended my hand to him.  “Fantastic game, chaps,” I lied.  “Best I’ve had in a long time.” You are terrible at this game.

The boy shook it, grinning.  “You too.”

“Is she always that…”

“Pissy?  A poor loser?  Yes.” The boy nodded, grimacing.  “Jon thought we’d invite her for a change, try to be inclusive.”  He chuckled. “Not making that mistake again.”

Shared hatred of a third party was one of the fastest ways to earn people’s trust.  I felt guilty at manipulating them like this. But then again, these were the same groups of people who’d made fun of my low grades for years.

“I’m Quinten,” said the winner.  “Of the Keswick Family. I captain Leviathan Squad at Paragon.”  He slid a smooth navy blue business card into my hand, with the bright yellow Keswick insignia on it.  Not badBit tacky.

“Lokridge,” I said.  “Alastor Lokridge. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.  Graduated two years ago on the research track. I’d give you my card, but they’re still at the printers.”  I smiled, hoping it looked easy and not forced. “Can I buy you all a drink?”

And then I was in.  Even if I hated people like this, Epistocrat small talk was easy for me.  Forty minutes and three drinks later, we were discussing our various theories on Commonplace’s financiers, surrounded by a thick cloud of second-hand smoke.

“I think they’re funded by a foreign spy agency,” said Jon, confident.  “The Harmonious Flock’s my guess. Ilaqua. Same thing. The desert rats are excellent at moving money around.  ”

I thought of the Broadcast King, and his vast sums of wealth wielded in backroom deals with Joseph.  Perhaps.

“Not one of the Four Domains,” said Quinten.  “I’ll bet it’s the Droll Corsairs. They’ve wanted us gone for years.”

Jon snorted.  “They’re hired guns.”

“Hired guns who make up the largest private military in the world, beat our best Guardians, and took over an entire country.  My guess, they’re using Whisper vocations on the public to make them angry and pliable.”

No need, the public does that all on their own.  “Either way, they’ll have us all on stakes if someone doesn’t deal with them.”

There were nods all around.

“I’m just grateful we still have places like this.  Experiences like this.”  I steered the conversation towards my real goal.  “Speaking of that, have any of you heard of that masquerade ball in a few days?  Bhais Baldana, I think it was called.”

“Oh yes,” said Jon.  “Sounds wonderful. I have a dinner scheduled for that night, unfortunately.”  He couldn’t get a ticket.

“I have three tickets,” said Quinten, failing to contain his smugness.  “For myself and my squadmates.”

“You wouldn’t be willing to sell any of those, would you?”

He laughed.  “Christea Ronaveda, the host of Verity is going to be there, and they’ve hired a sushi chef from the Floating City’s Endless Bathhouse.  I hear his Uni is legendary.”  He flashed a thin smile at me.  “Those tickets are in our family safe until the event.  I wouldn’t give them up if you offered me a billion pounds and the Headmaster’s Vocation codex.”

His safe.  Shit.  So much for stealing them.  I looked around the table, at the various Epistocrats and rich kids gathered around me.  “Any of you happen to know where I could find some? I just need a couple.”

“Tunnel Vision,” said Quinten.

I choked on my whiskey, coughing it back into the glass.  Scholars, not her.  “What?”

“She’s a mobster.  Owns and moves around Nudge powder, loans, casinos.”

And works with Commonplace.  “She scalp tickets too?”

“Pay enough money, and she’ll get you anything.  She got my cousin into Lorne Daventry’s winter solstice party, and box seats at the Lightning Hawks’ latest home game.”

“Know where I can find her?”

Ever dramatic, Quinten wrote down an address and price on a napkin and slid it across the table.  I read it.

I was going to ask a heartless criminal to sell me a ticket, in disguise, and I’d just spent the last of my cash.  I wouldn’t be able to scrounge up enough with a month of pickpocketing. I wouldn’t have enough money.

The enemy’s Lancers held the middle, and I was about to play my Blue Charlatan.

I pictured Samuel’s face and steeled myself.  I held up my half-empty glass to the bartender.  “Excuse me, sir? Can I take this to go?”

________________________________________

The Neke man darted forward, a long thin knife glinting in his hand.  At the last second, he ducked down and sliced his opponent’s upper thigh, rolling past.  Blood sprayed onto the pale sand of the fighting pit, and the crowd cheered.

His enemy, a muscular, clean-shaven Ilaquan boy, or man, staggered backwards, clutching his leg.  Did he cut the femoral artery?  No, there would have been much more blood, and he would have collapsed in seconds.  The Ilaquan had escaped a messy death by a handful of inches.

A woman shoved past me in the stands, startling me out of my concentration.  Something damp splashed on the shoulder of my suit, and I glanced behind me.

The man on the seat above me shook his glass as he cheered, spraying beer everywhere.  Takonara.  This jacket was brand new.  If the stain didn’t come out, what was I going to do, steal another one?

I needed to find Tunnel Vision somewhere in this chaos.  The fighting pit had been converted from a large auditorium, and it was filled to the brim with screaming Humdrums.  Is this what passes for entertainment in Lowtown?  Though, to be fair, I’d been dragged to the opera once or twice, and this was much less excruciating to watch.

I scanned the top of the room, and my eyes landed on a squat, balding man in a corner.  He sat in a roped-off area with empty seats on all sides and a microphone in his hand. He must be the one who announces the fights.  The Pit Master, or whatever the official title was.  He wasn’t Tunnel Vision, but he’d know where she was.

As I pressed through the bloodthirsty crowd, the agile Neke man cut his enemy two more times.  Instead of a knife, the Ilaquan wielded a heavy electric cattle prod, and swung it like a club, clumsy and slow.  The Neke man danced and weaved around his attacks with ease, looking almost bored.

Poor fucker.  The Ilaquan was going to get bled like a pig, and the crowd would keep on cheering.  There was no way this seedy fucking place sponsored replacement bodies.

The men and women in the dark stands around me chugged beers, smoked cigarettes, and shouted numbers at each other while handing fistfuls of cash to bookies running to and fro.

How much money is in the pot tonight?  It was a miracle places this huge managed to operate without the cops finding out.  It was either a testament to the cop’s incompetence, or Tunnel Vision’s genius.

A pack of gamblers surrounded a giggling woman in a bright pink dress.  An Ilaquan, with light brown skin and narrow eyes. She had reserved her very own table, which was covered with seven empty shot glasses and a miniature hookah, and her brown hair was a tangled mess.

“Twenty to one on the Neke!” shouted one of them, shaking a slip of paper in her face

“Yes!” she bellowed.  She scrawled her signature on the paper, rocking back and forth.  “My countrymen are strong and hardy!”

“Fifteen to one!” another one, eager to exploit the drunk idiot.

In the pit, the Ilaquan man swung his prod down two-handed.  His opponent spun around, and sliced his shoulder before he could dodge.

The woman took a hookah puff, downed another shot, and burped.  “Fuck yes, fifteen to one! I’ll fifteen-tuple my money! Lund pe chad!”

I found myself judging her.  Not even I was stupid enough to gamble when I was drunk.  Watch yourself.  These greedy squidfuckers would slit my throat if it meant making an extra pound or two.

I pressed forward, and reached the Pit Master.  “Excuse me, sir.” He ignored me, staring down at the fight.  “Hey!”

The Pit Master spat out a ball of chewing tobacco and stuffed another one into his mouth.  “Fuck you want?” he mumbled.

“I need to talk to Tunnel Vision.”

He raised an eyebrow, looking down at the fight.  “Need?”

“Want – want to talk to Tunnel Vision.”  I blurted out my prepared lines, putting on my best haughty Epistocrat airs.  “My name is Alastor Lokridge. I desire tickets to Bhais Baldana, the masquerade being thrown this week on the Golden Moon yacht.  I was told your superior was the one to ask.”

The pit master turned his gaze towards me.  Somewhere beneath the thick eyebrows and layers of stubble, tiny, calculating eyes flitted over me.  He’s analyzing me.  “And why, Mr… Lokridge, would you want this?”

My heart thumped in my ears.  Play up the vanity.  “I was told Christea Ronaveda of Verity would be there.”  I examined my nails, and brushed a bit of lint off my sleeve.  “As well as prominent executives in numerous industries, and a sushi chef from the Endless Bathhouse.”

The man leaned forward, scratching his chin.  He stared at me without a word. “Lokridge. The name sounds familiar, are you an Epistocrat?  Your father’s in parliament, isn’t he?”

He’s baiting you.  Don’t get trapped in a lie.  “I’m afraid not.  I’m just a Paragon student who values comfort and conversation.  I do play Jao Lu with a great many Epistocrats, though. Can you help me?”

The man broke into a wide, easy smile, showing off his pale white teeth.  He leaned back, relaxed, and tapped his fingers against the edge of his chair.  “I’m so glad you came.”

Why does this feel worse?  Was he toying with me?  “What does that mean?”

The pit master’s jaw worked up and down, chewing his tobacco.  “Have you ever heard of the Ant and the Beetle? It’s an old Neke riddle.  More of a parable, really.”

Scholars, please, not a parable.  My father had been full of those, and they always ended with me wanting to chop my ears off.  “No, go ahead.” I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes.

“Long ago, an Ant and a Dung Beetle were close friends in the forest.  They believed in each other, and enjoyed the prosperity of their world together.”

Beneath us, the Ilaquan had gotten cut three more times.  His blood-soaked clothes clung to his body as he stumbled around, flailing at the Neke man with his cattle prod.

“One day, a great storm came to their home.  The rain fell in a deluge, flooding the forest.  The ant locked jaws and legs with members of its colony, forming a raft that would protect the larvae and queen.  The ant was at the very bottom, with its head below the surface.”

The Neke man whipped his arm around, and the Ilaquan man dodged too late, taking a cut to the forehead.  Blood poured down his face and into his eyes, blinding him.

“The ant begged its friend to join it.  But the beetle climbed on top, weighing the others down.  The colony was too occupied to fight it off.” The pit master got a faraway look in his eyes, gazing down at the fight.  “The ant drowned. Its corpse, with thousands of others, gave life for the rest of its colony, for the greater good. When the raft reached dry land, it started anew.  And the beetle fled, to burrow back into the dung and filth.”

The Ilaquan staggered back to the edge of the ring, wiping blood out of his eyes.  “Please, sir,” he said. “Please.” The Neke man circled him, bounding on the balls of his feet, spinning his knife between his fingers.  Are there no tap-outs?

“The ant died for the sake of others.  The beetle lived off the backs of others, from its selfishness.  But in the end, its only friend was dead. It was alone.” The pit master looked me in the eye.  “Here’s the dilemma: Is it better to be the beetle, or the ant?”

I thought of the people I knew who saw themselves as ant queens.  Lorne. The Broadcast King. My mother. None of them would think twice of using me, of pushing me underwater for their ‘greater good’.

The beetle, I thought.  “The ant,” I said.

The man’s mouth curled back in a wolfish grin.  He pointed down, at the drunk Ilaquan woman surrounded by gamblers.  “Her name is Copycat. She’s a mercenary.“

The idiot who’s about to lose all her money?  I nodded at the pit master, and made my way back through the crowd.

In the sand pit, the Ilaquan man was still bleeding from his forehead, holding his cattle prod in front of him like a shield.  He closed his eyes and ripped a piece of his shirt off, holding it to his head to stop the bleeding.

While his opponent’s eyes were shut, the Neke man knelt down and picked up a fistful of sand.  He held it behind him, concealed. The knife darted forward, and the Ilaquan man dropped the cattle prod, clutching his hand.

As the Ilaquan looked down, the Nekean spun around, flinging the sand into his target’s face.  The Ilaquan clutched his bloody eyes and doubled over, groaning in pain.

The Nekean went in for the kill, feinting down the knife, then going up.  The blade flashed forward, slicing at his blinded opponent’s throat.

With his eyes still coated with sand, the Ilaquan man grabbed the Neke man’s wrist.  His arms and legs moved in a blur. In three fluid movements, he snapped the Nekean’s fingers, kicked in the side of his knee, and smashed a fist into the base of his throat.

The Neke man staggered back, choking.  In the split second while he regained his bearings, the Ilaquan slid to his left and roundhouse kicked the back of his head.

The Neke man dropped to the ground, unconscious.  His left knee and fingers were bent sideways at a sickening angle.

In less than two seconds, the fight was over.

Groans erupted among the stands.

In the blink of an eye, the Ilaquan had gone from a clumsy amateur to a nimble expert who could fight blind.  An act.

Angry men and women surrounded Copycat, shouting at her.  She giggled at the gamblers around her, slurring her words.  “Ilaquan strong! I’m a lucky! Go to – go to pit mathter to depothit my winningth.”  She slammed her tenth shot glass on the table so hard it cracked, and cackled. The bookies inched away, muttering under their breath.

I approached her.  The closer I got, the more unkempt she looked, even for the average person here.  Her brown hair was a tangled, uncombed mess. Her pink cocktail dress was wrinkled, a size too small, and torn all over.  And she stank of alcohol and tobacco from head to toe.

“Hi.”  She wobbled back and forth, flashing me a sultry look.  “Whatth your rate, angel? If it’s under five hundred a night, I’m game.  Jutht made a mountain of dough.”

My face grew hot.  “I’m not an escort.”

“Then why do you dreth like one?” asked Copycat.  She rested her head on the table, her miniature hookah.  “And why are you talking to me?”

“I need tickets to an event, and I was told you’re the woman to ask.  But I require discretion. Is there somewhere we could talk in private?”

“The north alleyway,” she said.  Her finger wiggled in the direction of a side door.  “Wait there. I mutht collect my prithe money.” She threw on a coat, collapsed her hookah into a pocket, and staggered towards the pit master.  “I shall bring all my ticketth.”

I waded through the crowds and out the door.  The alleyway was dark and deserted, and the view to the nearest street was blocked by a chain-link fence and a pair of dumpsters.  Perfect.

A mercenary like this would never sell Bhais Baldana tickets to me at prices I could afford.  It was unpleasant, but if I got Copycat alone, I could overpower her and force her to give them up.  My testosterone-fueled muscles would give me the edge in hand-to-hand combat, and my martial arts training hadn’t been taken by my mother’s memory wipe.

Plus, she was half-comatose already.  With luck, she would be drunk enough to black out, and she wouldn’t even remember any of this by morning.

I stared at the door, waiting for Copycat to come out.

Cramps washed over my torso, spreading to my arms and legs.  Cold, stinging pain rushed up my skin. The muscles in my body clenched up, and I fell to the ground, twitching.  What the fuck?

I reached for the paper in the alleyway, discarded newspapers and food wrappers in the dumpster.  Pushing through the pain, I projected into them.

As I slid my weapons through the narrow gap in the lid, someone pulled me onto my back.  They wrapped their arms around my neck from behind, putting me in a chokehold. Another shock ran through my body, and I shivered.

I reached my Pith out behind me, trying to Nudge the person attacking me.  Nothing.

“Drop the projection, you smug cunt.”  It was Copycat’s voice.  Sober, without a trace of a slur.  “Or I’ll light you up with enough volts to power a city.”  She’s not drunk.

I relaxed my projection, letting the paper drift to the ground.  “What are you doing?” I hissed.  “Is this how you treat all your customers?”

“Just the greasy little shits planning to double-cross me.”  Her arm tightened on my windpipe. “What does the Scholar of Mass want with Lyna Wethers?”

She knows about Brin and the mission.  How the fuck did she know?  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You must have mistaken me for someone else.”

“I don’t think I have.”

A pit opened in my stomach.  Can she read my memories?  Some Praxis or Whisper Vocation, no doubt.  This was bad. She had me cornered, and once she’d pulled all the information out of me, she could kill me at a whim.

“How the fuck do you know that?” I said.  Probe for her abilities.  If I knew that, I could counterattack.  “Is that how you rigged the match, too? You did rig the match, didn’t you?”

She waggled her finger in front of my face.  “Naughty naughty. Answer the questions, no misdirection.  I’ll know if you lie.”

I slumped over.  “Isaac Brin wants Honeypot – Lyna Wethers – out of the picture.  Dead or alive, I think.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” I growled.  “He spies on me, judges my career, and never tells me anything.  He’s like my aunt.”

“Yeah, my aunt’s a real bhenchod too.”

I shifted my weight on top of her to be more comfortable.  My back was pressed into her front in an awkward position. “Point is, I need two tickets to the masquerade on that yacht.  I wasn’t lying about that.”

I heard her spit behind me.  “But you’re poorer than a Shenti monk.”

“Look who’s talking,” I said.  “Did you run that dress through a shredder before putting it on?  Same machine you used for your hair?”

“Fucking Epistocrats,” muttered Copycat.  “You take one little test, and you think you’re better than everyone else.  And you didn’t even pass that test. What are you to Brin, anyway?”

So she doesn’t know everything.  “I’m an under-the-table mercenary for his dirty work.  It’s a lot less glamorous than it sounds.”

“It doesn’t sound all that glamorous.”

“Exactly.”

“And you were ready to kill for him.”

I sighed.  “I wasn’t going to kill you.  I just really, really need those tickets.  Why do you care about Honeypot, even?  I thought you Ilaquans lived for knocking boots.  Isn’t that what the Harmonious Flock is all about, anyways?”

Copycat spoke with a clipped voice.  “Not all Ilaquans are in the Harmonious Flock.  And the Flock isn’t all about orgies.”

“But it is the only religion that includes them.”

“Honeypot got to someone I cared about.  My underworld contact. He’d never fallen for a man, woman, or otherwise in his life.  Not a speck of interest in any of them.”

“And then she found him.”

“I’d worked with him for three years.”  Copycat’s voice fell. “And he tried to shoot me in the back.  I took him to five pneumatologists to try and fix him. Nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  She wants revenge on Wethers.  “Is that why you have the tickets?”

“They were his.  He was going to take me to the party, no doubt to bring me under her control too.  Lyna Wethers is gathering people.  Business leaders.  Politicians. Mercenaries.  And she’s doing it with Guardian-level opsec, which means she hasn’t caught too much attention.”

Enough attention for Brin to notice.

“I’ll give you the tickets.  For free.” Copycat fell silent for a moment.  After several long seconds, she spoke again. “On one condition.  No ‘dead or alive’ whaleshit. You kill her.”

“My partner won’t like that.”  Bloody Gage.  “She gets off on having the moral high ground.”

“Change her mind, lie to her, I don’t care.  But don’t let Wethers live.  Her Vocation is too strong to leave her alive in a prison.”  She loosened her grip on me. “I’m going to let you go now. If you try to fight back, I will win, I will pump bullets into your skull, and I will enjoy it.”

I nodded.  She released me, and I rolled off of her, still aching from her electric attack.

Copycat leapt to her feet, pulling back her shaggy brown hair in a ponytail.  Her pink dress was stained with dirt and sweat. My sweat.

I massaged my arms and legs, shaking them to get rid of the pain.  “If it’s so important to you,” I said. “Why do you even trust my word?  We just met five minutes ago.” And she’s not stupid.

Copycat flicked her wrist, and a bag flew out of a third-story window in the arena, landing next to her.  She pulled it open, glancing at the stacks of bills inside. “Because if you don’t kill her, she will kill you.  Or worse.”

“And why not do it yourself?”

“It’s simple,” she said.  Her smile faded. “My life is as cheap as they come.”  Her fist tightened around the bag. “But I’d chug arsenic before taking a sip of a love potion.  I care too much about my mind.”  She reached into her bag. “Lucky for this country, some of you don’t.”

Does that make me a fool?  I pictured Samuel’s smile, his patient embrace.  Reuniting with Leizu and Eliya. My friends. Returning to Paragon, and reclaiming my family’s glory for the children I might have one day.

Proving I was worthy of all of them.  For any of them.

Copycat pulled a pair of dark purple tickets out of her bag and extended them towards me.  I projected into them, floating them into my hand.

“I’ll do it,” I said.  “I’ll kill Honeypot.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




4-A The Mortal Soul

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

“Queen Sulphur?” Wes asked.

I paced on the grass around him.  “Apparently, it’s some red and blue butterfly species that can grow really big.”

Wes did a sit-up, pulling his torso up to his knees.  He winced, touching his broken rib, then lied back down and did it again.  “Seems a bit silly.” Sweat soaked into his tank top, darkening the white fabric.

I frowned.  Is he ever not dismissive?  “It’s mostly symbolic.  We won’t be saying our secret codename in front of everyone we meet.”

I glanced around Darius Park.  Joggers ran across footpaths through the trees nearby, and a pair of women sat on a blanket nearby, bathing in the afternoon sun.

“We should probably lower our voices,” I said.

Wes shrugged.  “Calm down, Gage.  We’re not important enough for anyone to spy on us.  I guarantee you, none of these people give the slightest shit about us.”

A presence wormed its way into the edge of my Pith, pressing on my executive functions.  Wes’s Nudging.  I pushed it off in tiny pieces, holding the concept of the Empty Book in my mind.

“You’re getting faster,” said Wes, with a note of approval.  “The Major finally drilled the proper defense into that thick skull, did he?”

Not exactly.

Wes flopped back on the grass, his chest rising and falling.  He reached next to him and cracked open a cold beer bottle from a case.  “Thank the Scholars, I remembered how to do temperature projection.” He tilted it back, pouring it into his mouth.  “Thirsty?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t drink.”

“Your loss.”  Wes tossed aside the glass bottle, cracking open another one.  “So. We’re going after a Guardian.”

“Ex-Guardian.  Gold-ranked.” I flipped open Brin’s dossier on Lyna Wethers.  No photos.  “More foreign intelligence and espionage than direct combat.  Her co-workers called her ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’.”

Wes folded a sheet of newspaper into a square.  Sunlight passed over his eyes, and he squinted. “Hard label to earn at Paragon.”

“Her expertise was love potions.”

Wes snickered.  “Love potions don’t exist.  No projector with half a Pith believes that sort of nonsense.”

I nodded.  “It was part of her act.  A cover for her Vocation, which she used to enthrall her assets in the Floating City and Shenten.  She’s a Whisper specialist.” I flipped the page. “A honeypot is an op that involves sex or romance and blackmail.  It’s how she got her nickname.”

“I see.  So she’s a seductress type.”  Wes finished his newspaper crane, and balanced it on his nose.  “The most fun kind of villain to fight.” He smiled.

I scowled.  Is everything a joke to you?  “Wethers was imprisoned on thirteen counts of first-degree mental hijacking.  Her Vocation is permanent.”

Wes stopped smiling.

“The first cases were almost a decade ago, and they still haven’t found a cure for it.  Once she’s put her effect on someone, even she can’t undo it. And from the reports, it’s more about emotions than sex.”

“Alright,” said Wes.  “So we keep our distance.  Make sure we don’t turn into drooling slaves.”

I nodded.  “Like many Whisper specialists, Wethers’s Vocation has a hard range limit.  About twenty meters when they threw her in prison. It may have changed since she broke out.  Since her escape, she’s been going to expensive events and hosting parties under fake identities.  Major Brin tracked her to this one.” I tossed a folded paper card at him, and he caught it.

Wes opened it, staring at the silver and green embossed letters on the cardstock.  “Bhais Baldana: A Dusk Masquerade.  On the Golden Moon yacht, leaving from Pier 52 at nightfall.  In four days.”

“Word is, several members of parliament will be attending, along with Tallis Breck, the executive of Principality Steel, and Christea Ronaveda, host of the radio show Verity.  Roscoe Belville, a shipping executive, is the official host.”

“About as elite as you can get without bringing Epistocrats into the mix,” muttered Wes.  “Wonder why Paragon didn’t shut it down.”

“Same reason they’re not bringing her in themselves, whatever that is.  Regardless, Honeypot is said to be either hosting or attending, though Brin didn’t give any more details.”

“I swear to the Scholars,” grumbled Wes.  “If this is all some elaborate test, I am going to chop Brin’s balls into ground meat.”

I wrinkled my nose.  Thanks for that image.

“So what do we do when we find her?” he said.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out a metal pillbox, and tossed it to Wes.  “Brin gave us a choice.”

He opened it.  Around forty small, white tablets sat inside.  “What are these?”

“Ventrinol,” I said.  “More commonly known as Kraken’s Bone.   A drug distilled from chemicals found in the skeletons of Storm Krakens and other deep-sea animals.  Half a tablet crushed in a drink will knock out a woman of average weight for twelve hours or so.”

“And more than that?”

I took the pill box from his hands, closing it.  “The primary plan is to knock her out and get her to the rendezvous point with Brin.  Once we deliver her, he’ll give us the reward. He has a safehouse set up on the western docks.”

“And the other option?”

I pursed my lips.  “We’re not entertaining the other option.”

Wes sat up, his tank top soaked with sweat.  “We’re mercenaries.  I’m not advocating for it, just saying we should be aware of our options.”

“It’s not happening.”  I’m not taking a life just to save my own skin.  Not for money.  No matter who that person was.  I already stole plenty from my parents.  “Apparently, it kicks in fast, especially if the person hasn’t eaten recently.  So once we dose Wethers, we’ll have to move fast.”

“What’s the rest of the plan?” said Wes, handing back the embossed card.

“Keep that,” I said.  “That’s an advertisement, not an invitation.  You’re getting us in.”

“Brin didn’t get us an invite?”  His nose wrinkled. “Lazy bastard.”

“It’s possible he doesn’t want to leave an obvious paper trail.”  I sat down on the grass next to Wes. Or, more likely, this is some kind of test.  Like Wes feared.

Wes grimaced.  “Then why am I doing it?  This Queen Sulphur secret mercenary group whaleshit is a partnership, right?“

I have an exam and two papers this week.  But he couldn’t know I was at Paragon.  “I have other business to attend to this week.  And you’re more familiar with this sort of discreet, illicit business.  Given your past merc experience.”

“Right, right,” said Wes.  “Yes.” He glanced at the card.  “How are we supposed to smuggle someone off an entire boat?”

“Illusions, probably.  I’m working on the plan.”

Wes stood up, fidgeting with the strap of his tank top.  “And how are we supposed to defend against a Vocation that could turn us into slobbering love-slaves?”

“We can’t.”

The words sank into Wes.  He had no response.

“In the years Honeypot was a Guardian, neither she nor her comrades developed a block for her Vocation.”  The reality was, most Whisper Vocations were unblockable. Usually, it took decades of poring over Vocation Codices before people could figure out how to defend against them.

“And if things go bad on her ship, that will probably be filled with guards and projectors, what are we going to do?  Jump out and swim?”

“Oh, um.”  I bit my lip.  “I can’t swim.”

Wes pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Gage. What the fuck.”  He closed his eyes.  “I thought you were from the damn Agricultural Islands.”

“Yes, but they’re big islands.  We produce more than eighty percent of the Principality’s food.  Where I grew up, it was wheat and cows and mud as far as the eyes could see.”

“You’ve lived in Elmidde for years.”

I haven’t exactly had a lot of free time.  What did he want me to say?

“Have you considered,” said Wes, “Other ways of earning money for a new body.”

You think I haven’t thought of everything?  “Told you already.  Anywhere that pays enough won’t hire a freak.  And with my credit history, nobody is willing to give me a serious loan, even the predatory ones.”

Wes looked confused.  “But you’ve got a great Vocation for theft.  You could take someone’s wallet right from under their nose.  Paragon wouldn’t even notice, as long as you only targeted low-value marks.”

Low value marks?  My irritation boiled over.  “I’m not going to steal from ordinary people.  They’re struggling just like we are.” He thinks I’m like Clementine.  Another thug out for easy cash, putting on an act of kindness.

“Then why not stay in your body?”  Wes looked at his thick biceps, stretching his arms.  “Being a boy isn’t so bad. You get to wear tuxedos, you can grow facial hair, and you don’t feel bloody cold all the time.”

Because I’ll be dead in a year.  “Have you had experience as a girl?”

Wes grimaced.  “I, uh, used to live with an ex who liked swap-screwing.  Scholars, what a nightmare. But you didn’t answer my question.”

I looked at the statue of Darius the Philosopher in the middle of the park.  “I just don’t like it, alright? It’s grey and ugly and fucked-up.” I neglected to mention that my body was still decaying, or my one-year deadline.  I didn’t need his incessant questions or suggestions or pity. And if I didn’t trust Kaplen or Tasia with that information, I certainly wouldn’t trust this boy.

“Have it your way.”  Wes shrugged.

“Get us into that party,” I told him.  “I’ll do the rest.”

________________________________________

Professor Oakes flicked his wrist, and the machine projector flipped to the next slide.  It shone the image of a chemical formula on the white screen at the front of the classroom.

“Corbiere, what is this?”

The captain of Cyclops Squad spoke up.  “Pyruvate Kinase. An enzyme that catalyzes the final step of glycolysis regulated by a variety of factors in the human body, including allosteric effectors and covalent modifiers.”

He flicked to the next slide.  Another diagram of molecules. “And this?”

“Adenosine diphosphate.  The product of Pyruvate Kinase catalyzing phosphoenolpyruvic acid.”

The machine clicked, projecting another image.  “And this?”

“That’s your wife, Penny Oakes, in pajama pants.”

The blonde woman on the screen beamed at the camera underneath a small mountain of pink blankets.  A green ice cream soda floated in front of her mouth, overflowing. Sure enough, it was the other Professor Oakes.

“Exactly!” boomed Oakes.  The loudness of his voice made my ears ache.  They were still sensitive after Wes’ excruciating gambit with the toothpicks, causing flare-ups of pain with loud noises and not hearing quiet ones at all.  “And if any of you have high-level questions about chemistry, go to her, because she wrote the book on the subject. Literally.”

I looked down at the class textbook: Advanced Principles of Chemistry, by Penny Oakes.  Does this count as nepotism?

The Obsidian Foil continued.  “The only reason I’m teaching this class instead of her is that she’s doing R&D with the navy, and I wanted a break from field work!  She’s a great chemist, an incredible guardian, and just…so, so red-hot.”  He gazed at the image with a sparkle in his eye.

About half the class stared at the professor, confused.  The other half scribbled on their notebooks, writing down every word.  Next to me, Lorne sat back in his chair, picking his nails. The rest of Golem Squad coalesced around him with the exception of Kaplen, who was nowhere to be seen.

“I mean, look at those eyes.  You just want to stare into them all night long as you have an intense debate about the implications of Rashi’s Third Law on the neurochemistry of Praxis Specialists, all while – “  He stopped, and cleared his throat. “Anyway, this week’s exam. Make sure to cover both chapters twelve and fourteen, in addition to one through eleven. Live and breathe the concepts on your handout for the next two days, and you’ll be fine.”

Despite his cheery demeanor, Professor Oakes was known for giving brutal tests.  Though, to be fair, everyone does here.

He spent the rest of the class rushing through the chemistry concepts from chapter fourteen, with barely enough time for me to write down half of it.  I wouldn’t mind the screeds about his wife if he took the rest of the lecture at a normal pace.

When he finished, I gathered up my books and handed my notebook to Lorne.  I’d learned to use Tasia or Kaplen’s notes to study, since Lorne was always hogging them to himself.

As I stood up, I felt the worm of Nudging wriggling into the edges of my consciousness.  I held the maxim of the Empty Book in my head. Write the next page.  I molded my mind back to normal, forcing out the invader.

Lorne nodded at me.  He was testing me.  “Glad to see you’re capable of the basics now, at least.  You’re learning, which is more than I can say about half the preening idiots at this school.”

I felt my chest swell with pride, in spite of myself.  That was the nicest thing he’d ever said to me. “Thank you, sir.”  I handed him his pressed uniform for the next two days, and a brown paper bag with The Silver Flask’s iconic cherry scones.  “I won’t let you down.”

Deon snorted, standing behind Lorne.  Naruhiko rolled his eyes. With the exception of Kaplen, the rest of Golem Squad hadn’t warmed up to me.

“Work hard,” said Lorne.  “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”  He strode off, flanked by his two squadmates.

Up until today, it had just been insults and dismissal.  Is he warming up to me?

Oakes strode out of the lecture hall.  As he turned down the hallway, he threw off his professor’s jacket and pulled off his button-down.  He wore a short-sleeve combat suit underneath, hugging his body and showing off his bulging arm muscles.

As he folded up his clothes, I spotted the purple book again, tucked into an inside pocket.  It was the same one I’d seen with Harpy the other day, without a doubt, or at least a copy. The cover was sealed shut with a Voidsteel lock.

By the pound, Voidsteel was more expensive than diamonds.  What is it guarding?  And if it was so important, why was it here and not the highest levels of the Great Library?

In a place like this, maybe it was best to not ask questions.  But then again, maybe Tasia would know.

________________________________________

“Ernest?  Ernest, wake up.”  A hand pushed my shoulder, stirring me from my sleep.

My eyes snapped open to a glaring noon sky.  I squinted, covering my face with a hand. “Damn it,” I muttered.

“Next time,” said Tasia, tucking a strand of black hair behind her ear.  “You’re up to about a fifty percent success rate.”

My head rested on a pillow on the academy’s pavilion, on a seat of the bleachers.  I pushed myself into a sitting position. Ahead of me on the arena, Phoenix and Talos squad were engaged in a squad battle, exchanging volleys of projected material.  “Alright,” I said. “Again.”

Tasia’s Pith pressed in at the center of my soul, as soft as a finger tapping against my forehead.  It targeted a different place than Nudging: my consciousness itself, and my mind’s internal clock.

A thick cloud of drowsiness filled my mind, and my eyes fluttered shut.  I sliced through the fog, molding my Pith back to its normal clarity. My arms flailed as I fell backwards, and caught me before I landed on the pillow.

Tasia smiled.  “Nice. Now you just need to work on your speed and reactions.  Soon enough it’ll be like an instinct.”

Basic Sleep.  A common Whisper vocation designed to knock people out.  The technique was nearly as common as nudging, which meant I also had to learn it for my own safety in the field.  

I was improving in my mental defenses, and my physical projection as well, though even simple things like a water walk still put an enormous strain on my Pith.

I fended off another mental assault, wobbling before righting myself.  “I have a question.”

“Go ahead,” said Tasia.

“The purple book that the professors sometimes carry.  I can’t be the only one who sees it. Do you know what it is?”  I felt bad asking the girl so many questions, but I needed to know everything I could to survive here.  If she told me some crucial tidbit and I communicated it to Lorne, I could gain more of his favor.

Tasia put down the parchment notes she was studying.  Her eyes lit up, and excitement crept into her voice. “It’s called the Lavender Book.  Nobody knows much about it. But word is, it’s a Vocation Codex. Maybe the strongest one ever written.  They pass it between high-level Guardians because even the library isn’t safe enough.“

My breath caught in my throat.  “A codex for what?”

“Some people think the Lavender Book is how Headmaster Tau won the Shenti War.  Something that could eradicate an entire culture in a single night.” Her voice lowered to a hush.  “An old vocation from the Great Scholars, powerful enough to crack open reality like an egg. Something that would make the Droll Corsairs look like five-year olds with sticks.”

Stay far away from that, I told myself.  You’re not equipped to handle something of that magnitude.

“You’re a real history buff, aren’t you?” I said.

Tasia’s head bobbed up and down.  “I’d kill to know what’s inside that book.    Not actually kill, but – you get my meaning.”  Her hand ran over the parchment diagram she was examining.  “This school is full of mysteries like this.” She looked up at the conical tower of the Great Library.  “Sad thing is, the Headmaster has probably forgotten its contents by now.”

I raised an eyebrow.  “What do you mean? He’s a little out of it sometimes, but the Headmaster is the greatest projector alive.  And he’s in the best bodies money can buy, he doesn’t have any diseases.”

Tasia’s face fell.  “Do you know how old he is?”

I shook my head.  “Nineties, I thought?”

“A hundred and fifty-seven,” said Tasia.  “The body can be replaced, but the soul is mortal.  Doesn’t matter how smart or powerful you are, you’ll decay over time until you fade away completely.”

I looked away from her.  “You don’t believe in an afterlife?  In a world where the soul has been proven to exist?”

“How much Pneumatology have you studied?”

I shrugged.  “Not much.”

As she talked, Tasia’s expression got harder.  “The Pith is made up of soul particles, all linked in a network of signals.  One by one, over time, they transform into null particles. Dead, colorless, not communicating with each other.  Until eventually, the Pith runs out of room to grow new soul particles. New connections.”

“But how do you know they’re really dead?”

“There have been studies conducted on men and women over the age of a hundred and sixty.  If you study the right vocations, you can watch someone’s consciousness fade out, piece by piece.  It’s the cruelest possible thing you can witness.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, on reflex.  Has she seen that happen before?  “People haven’t tried to fix that?”

“Of course they’ve tried to fix that,” snapped Tasia.  “Epistocrats have been studying Pneumatology since this country’s inception.  They’re no closer than they were centuries ago. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if a Pith is broken, there’s no way to put it back together again.”

I shrunk back away from her.  Is she mad at me?  “I’m sorry, I don’t know much about this subject.”

Her fists clenched.  “The truth that nobody wants to think about, is that our souls are not made of steel.  They’re made of glass, and they’re easy to shatter.”

I don’t think I’d ever seen Tasia this upset, including before exams and after losing squad battles.  Some people don’t like thinking about their own mortality.  I couldn’t blame her.  Every time I imagined what would happen a year from now, I felt like throwing up.

In moments, it could become an all-consuming mental void, sucking up my attention with how unfair it all was.  What it would feel like to have my consciousness snuffed out like a candle. How terrible my odds were. I could pace back and forth for hours, heart thumping while I imagined every possibility.

So far, the only thing that could reliably distract me was my work.  I could bury my head in it, invest every ounce of my energy until I was too numb and exhausted for anything but sleep.

Maybe we should talk about something else.  “Have you seen Kaplen today?” I asked.  “He wasn’t in chem with Oakes.”

Tasia shook her head.  “He was supposed to be in my morning pneumatology course.”

“Could he have caught something?”  Every fall, some new variety of coughing sickness made its way through Lowtown.  Perhaps it was the same up here.

“Modern designer bodies are created with top-notch immune systems.”  Tasia stood up, sliding the parchment into her bag. “Even without joining, they don’t get affected by common ailments like that.  And if they do, they get better in a flash.”

Concern slipped into my voice, and I stood up with her.  “He lives in Amethyst Hall now, right?”

________________________________________

I knocked on Kaplen’s door.  “I shouldn’t be here,” I muttered under my breath.  I glanced down the corridor of Amethyst Hall, my heartbeat thumping in my ears.  Empty, except for me and Tasia.

Still, if I got caught here with my grey uniform, I could be suspended or expelled.

“Everyone’s out at classes during this hour,” said Tasia, tapping her foot.  “I’ll float you out of a window if I hear someone coming.”

More importantly, Kaplen could be in trouble.

I knocked on the door again.  Silence. “Kaplen?” I called out.  “We brought you sweets. Tasia tried using your fast bake technique.”

Tasia held up a tin of blackened brownies, burnt to a crisp on all sides.  Turns out she’s not a damn prodigy at everything.

A phone rang from inside, startling me.  The loud, piercing bell sound went for almost a full minute, until it went silent.  Unanswered.

Tasia indicated her head, and my hand reached for the doorknob.  It wasn’t locked. I eased the door open.

The lights had been switched off.  Faint afternoon light filtered through the shades on the windows, which had been pulled down all the way.

Through the dim light, I made out a figure on the bed, its chest rising and falling.  I inched forward.


“Kaplen?” said Tasia.

No response from the figure.  I stepped forward, taking a look at its face.  Kaplen.  The messy red hair and round face were unmistakable.  His eyes were wide open, staring at the phone on his bedside table with a mixture of fear and apathy.

His arms were wrapped around Cardamom, a green ball of fluff curled up next to his chest, asleep.

This wasn’t anything like the Kaplen I’d grown used to.  There was no hint of cheer or pluck. No patient inspiration or unfettered joy.

This was more like the Kaplen he’d told us about before, on the grassy ledge behind Opal Hall.  The lethargic, self-loathing Grey Coat, afraid of falling asleep because he didn’t want to think about tomorrow.

The phone rang again, and he closed his eyes, pulling the blankets up to his chin.

“Are you going to answer that?” asked Tasia.

The only sound was the phone, ringing and ringing.  Kaplen lifted a finger at it, and its plug pulled itself out of the wall socket.  When it stopped, the whole room fell silent.

I stepped closer, and Kaplen avoided eye contact with me.  He looked shameful, like he’d been caught doing something embarrassing.

“Are you sick?” Tasia said.  “Do we need to fetch a doctor?”

“No,” said Kaplen.  Then nothing else.

“I’m sorry,” I said, staring at my feet.  I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Tasia stretched out the tray of brownies to him, and he didn’t respond.  I took it from her and placed it on the bed right in front of him.

After a moment’s hesitation, his hand reached out and took one.  He stuffed it into his mouth and chewed, silent.

“Sorry for burning them,” Tasia gave a nervous chuckle.

“They’re delicious,” said Kaplen.  He’s lying.  I could see those brownies were burnt almost all the way through.  To anyone with working taste buds, they’d taste like charcoal coated in sugar.

Kaplen was lying to make us feel better.  How many times has he done that before?

“Sorry,” said Tasia, for the second time.  “Next time, you can teach me how to do them right.”

“No, I’m sorry you have to see me like this.”  Kaplen smiled, still avoiding eye contact with us.  “It’s shameful.” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye.  “And I made you come in here too, Ern. You could get caught, because of my stupidity.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Kaplen lay back on his pillow, rubbing his bleary eyes.  “It’s just exhausting, sometimes.”

“What’s exhausting?”

Kaplen laughed.  Cardamom crawled up next to his head, nuzzling his cheek.  Kaplen scratched the cat behind his bright green ears, smiling.  “Thanks, buddy.” He drew Cardamom into his arms, cuddling him. “No matter how grim things get, he always cheers me up.”

I looked at the unplugged phone on the table.  “What were the calls about?”

Kaplen forced his eyes shut, grimacing.  “It’s stupid. You don’t want to hear about it.”

“Tell us,” said Tasia.  “We can help you. That’s what Guardians do.  If it’s a problem we can’t fix, then explain it to us and we’ll leave.  But otherwise, we’re going to do everything we can, right Ernest?“

Scholars, I hate that name.  I nodded.

“And we won’t leave this room until you tell us.  What was the call about?”

Kaplen sighed.  “It rang three more times this morning already.  I can guess.” He petted Cardamom. “My father works in a ship factory in the Southern colonies.  My mother’s an accountant at the port. They both work over ninety hours a week to pay my tuition here.  And that’s with the debt I’ve already taken on.”

I clenched my teeth, and a chill crept over my skin.  Paragon’s tuition had always been enormous, but while I was studying for the exam, I’d just imagined paying back the debt after graduation, or passing some test to qualify for financial aid.

In truth, I hadn’t even gotten in.  If Lorne did give me a spot here, could I even afford it?

Kaplen glanced at Tasia.  “I’m not strong enough to Oust anyone from the major Epistocrat families, and I don’t think I could bring myself to do it, anyway.  So my only option is to get a high-paying scholarship by next semester. Or drop out.” He looked almost bored. Uninterested in his own crisis.

“And the phone call?” Tasia asked.

“Last night, I was scheduled to meet with a naval officer who handles the sort of financial aid packages I’d use.  Vice Admiral Rentis. I spent the better part of a year working every connection I had to secure thirty minutes in his schedule.”  His voice grew soft. “They’re calling to see how it went.” A tone of loathing and disgust crept into his speech. “They’re invested in my future.  They believe in me, and can’t wait to see the wonderful things I’ll accomplish.”

“How did the meeting go?” asked Tasia, even though we both knew the answer.

“I didn’t go,” he said.  “I went to a dancing party, and spent fifty pounds on cocktails.”  I didn’t think I’d ever heard that much raw loathing in his voice. “I was tired in the morning when I had to go to class, so I slept in.  But when I woke up at noon, I didn’t feel rested. I felt even more exhausted.”

Neither me or Tasia said anything.  It was starting to dawn on me how big of a problem this was.

“And do you know what the worst part is?” He laughed again.  “During that entire party, I wanted to carve my eyes out. I used to love going out on the town, experiencing Elmidde’s nightlife, but now it’s a crutch.  I use it to hide whenever I feel sad, and when I’m done, I feel worse. Something I enjoyed, something fun, and I made it bitter.”

I stepped forward.  “You taught us to fight for ourselves.  To take our identities into our own hands.  You can still – 

“I said to take responsibility for your identity,” Kaplen petted Cardamom.  “All this. Everything that’s happened is my fault.  I keep trying to improve myself, doing everything right, being a positive influence, but it’s never enough.  I’m a second-year, and I haven’t even found my Vocation yet.”

I slammed my palm on his bedside table.  “The Empty Book isn’t about blaming yourself for everything.”  I raised my voice. “Maybe you don’t fix everything.  Maybe you don’t become the perfect successful Exemplar like the Paragon pamphlets promised.  But you’re better. You gained a little ground. And that’s worth fighting for. Your soul is worth fighting for.”

Kaplen didn’t speak.  Cardamom nuzzled his head against Kaplen’s hand.  The room was quiet. The smooth floorboards creaked underneath my feet.  Tasia bit her lip, twisting a strand of black hair around her finger.

“Do you enjoy spending time with me?” Kaplen’s voice was soft.  “Do you think I’m annoying? Lorne does. I think most people here do.”

I opened my mouth.  “Ye – “

“Be honest,” said Kaplen.  “Please, no matter how much you think it’ll hurt me, be honest.”

I clenched my fists.  “Kaplen, you’re the only reason I made it this far.  I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t met you.” Floundering, failing, and without a single mission.  Without Kaplen, people like Clementine and Lorne would still be able to nudge me.

Yes,” Tasia whispered, just loud enough for me to hear.  “I don’t have anyone else.  But if I did, I’d choose you anyway.

Kaplen pushed himself upright and put Cardamom onto his lap.  He beamed. “If I can make the lives of my friends a little happier, then maybe mine has some worth, too.”  He lifted his index finger, and the blinds rolled up on the windows. Golden light streamed into the dark room.

I ran forward and wrapped my arms around him, squeezing him in a tight hug.  “Sorry. Are you okay to hug right now?” I loosened my grip.

To answer, Kaplen embraced me, smiling.  “Thanks, Ern. I’ll cut it out with the whining.”

Another set of arms wrapped around me, and several strands of black hair draped over my face.  Tasia, hugging both of us.

“I screwed up the brownies, didn’t I?” said Tasia.  “I’m looking at them now, and they’re basically burnt all the way through.”

Kaplen laughed, a warm, breezy sound that couldn’t help but lift your spirits.  “These are a good effort. I’ll teach you how to balance the temperatures in the vocation.  I got the technique from a level 1 book, it’s very simple.”

I felt Tasia let out a sigh of relief.  “I’d like that.” She let go of both of us, and I followed her.

Kaplen scooted himself to the side of his bed.  He lifted the droopy Cardamom off his lap, and draped him over his shoulder.  Somehow, the green cat managed to cling to his shirt, balance perfectly, and stay fast asleep at the same time.

“Want to study?” I asked.  “We can help you figure out how to navigate your scholarship stuff.  And Oakes’ class is killing me.”

Kaplen nodded, sympathetic.  “He spend half the lecture showing you pictures of his wife?”  He stood up, walking to the door. A comb floated above him, running through his wild red hair.

I chuckled.  “Pretty much.”  Me and Tasia walked after him.

He laughed, a bright, warm sound.  In an instant, the boy was back to his usual cheer.  It was as if the last twenty-four hours had never happened, and he’d always been this happy.  The upbeat, sunny baker who believed in you and himself, no matter what.

His optimism was infectious, irresistible.  It made you want to fight and struggle alongside him, to improve yourself and write that next page with a smile on your face.

But as he strode out of the room, laughing, a sobering thought sat at the back of my mind, nagging me.

How much of it is real?

________________________________________

I shifted underneath the blanket in my sleeping capsule, scanning the chemistry textbook for Oakes’ class.  My eyes ached, and fluttered shut for a moment, before I forced them back open, squinting under the exposed lightbulb above my head.

Even after studying with Kaplen and Tasia, many of the concepts still trickled out of my mind like water through my fingers.  The Obsidian Foil might be nicer than Harpy, but his tests weren’t any easier.

You can do this, I reminded myself.  Write the next page.

But it wasn’t even four in the afternoon, and I was already falling asleep.  Last night, I’d only gotten two hours of sleep, deciding to study instead of rest.

And Lyna Wethers’ party – Honeypot’s party – was tonight.  It started in less than six hours, and I hadn’t heard a peep from Weston Brown.  Every time I’d been home, he’d been out of his storage unit. He hadn’t responded to any of the messages I’d left on his mattress.

Had he jumped ship?  Even after I figured out my Nudging block?  If I didn’t succeed at this job, I’d be dead broke in less than two weeks.

Footsteps approached, and I snapped the book shut, stuffing it under the covers.  The less people knew I was at Paragon, the better. Wes included.

Wes’ grinning face came into view.  Somehow, despite his complete lack of funds, his light brown hair was washed and styled, brushed into neat, smooth waves that stood up on their own.

I pulled the sliding door open.

“Evening, Gage.”  Wes straightened his black tuxedo vest and adjusted the cuffs of his white dress shirt.  The boy was living in a pigsty of a storage unit, using newspapers as blankets, and yet somehow, he looked like a wealthy businessman or Epistocrat.

I sighed.  “Did you get any of my notes?  I left them on your mattress.”

Wes shrugged.  “Don’t think I noticed.  Probably got lost in all the newspaper.”  He lifted a finger. “Oh, no, wait, I think I read one of them a few days ago.  I was going to respond, but I forgot to. I was, uh, intoxicated at the time. And very badly bruised.”

I ground my teeth together.  This boy is insufferable.  How did someone as irresponsible and absent-minded as him survive this long as a mercenary?

“What’s your status?” I asked.  “What’d you find out?”

Wes tossed a paper bag into my capsule.  “Your outfit’s in there.” He held up a large mug.  “You look tired. You like coffee?”

“No.”

He extended it towards me.  “Too bad. Drink up. You need to be alert tonight.”  He reached into his pocket with his other hand and pulled out a narrow white party mask, waggling it in front of his face.  “We’ve just been invited to a masquerade.

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