7-C The Blue Charlatan

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Ana

The doorbell rang.

I tightened the scarf around my neck and pulled down my hat over my black wig, checking my long sleeves.  At longer distances, Clementine’s guards and servants wouldn’t see my hair, my grey veins, or most of my face.  And at close range, I would have my illusions.

If I didn’t talk out loud much, that would keep my identity hidden from them.  In theory.

I stretched my Pith forward, feeling another soul on the far side of the door.  I layered illusions over it, modifying my face and Hira’s, flattening our weapons under our coats.

The front door opened, revealing Beatrix, in servant’s clothes.  Her eyes flitted back and forth between us.  “Good evening,” she said.  “How may I help you?”

Hira stepped forward.  “Good evening,” she said.  “We’re representatives of Mr. Burgess.”  The Broadcast King’s codename.  “We have an urgent matter to discuss with Ms. Rawlyn in private, after encryption keys are exchanged.”

Beatrix looked between the two of us, and gulped.  “Um.  Yes, right this way.”  Kahlin was a lot higher up on the chain of command than Clementine.  “Ms. Rawlyn is out at the moment, but she’ll be back momentarily.  In the interim, may I show you to her study?”

She beckoned us, and we stepped inside, dripping water onto the doormat.

In the past months, the house hadn’t changed a bit.  The same tacky architecture with faux-marble columns, the imitation gold leaf covering everything, the classical music belching out of a gramophone in the dining room.

“May I take your coats?”

Both of us shook our heads, and we continued.

I spotted dozens of familiar faces.  Guillaume, the head chef who had carried out Clementine’s cruelty, taking all the hatred for her while leaving her hands clean.  She’d pretended she didn’t know how he treated us, but when pressed about it, she’d always brushed off our concerns.

We stepped past her mailbox, where I’d gotten three separate rejection letters from Paragon.

“Sir?” Beatrix said.  “The study is this way.”

I blinked.  On instinct, I’d walked in the direction of the basement, towards the mattress that I’d called home for almost three years.

I nodded, and we followed her up the stairs, past the bathrooms and lounges I’d had to scrub for hours on end.  After working here for so long, I knew every inch of this house, every nook and cranny where dust and filth liked to gather.

Beatrix led us into the study, a broad room with two walls covered in bookshelves.  Clementine had never read any of them, but they made her look intellectual when she met people here.

Hira and I sat down on the couch, and another servant, Daniel, set a huge plate of crackers next to us with razor-thin slices of raw beef.  He’s about to say ‘Ms. Rawlyn will be with you shortly.’

“Ms. Rawlyn will be with you shortly,” he said, following the script Guillaume had drilled into us.  Though I’d never gotten that duty, on account of my appearance.

Then they shut the door, leaving the two of us alone.  Rain pattered on the floor-to-ceiling windows behind us.  A trio of pale Ilaquan masks stared at me from the wall.

I glanced past Clementine’s desk, to the framed air force medals on the wall behind.  Did she fake those too?  It seemed likely.

We waited, leaning back on the embroidered couches, staring out at the rainstorm darkening the evening sky.  My stomach ached, no longer an unfamiliar feeling on missions, and sweat collected under my armpits.

After a few minutes, Hira made a hand motion to me.  Footsteps creaked on the wooden floor on the hallway outside.  She’s here.

In unison, the two of us stood up and strode towards the door, taking up positions on both sides.  I stretched my Pith forward, feeling three souls.  Clementine and two servants.  I threw up an illusion over all three of them, altering our faces and making us look like we were still sitting on the couch.

Then I added my new technique, modifying another sense: Projection.  I couldn’t affect touch, or make our Piths seem to disappear, but if Clementine reached out, I could make it seem like our Piths were on the couch, not by the door.

I did the same with our clothes and equipment.  Clementine would still be able to project into our Piths and clothes, they’d just feel like they were somewhere else.

This was a new facet of my Vocation, that I’d just started testing with Hira and Jun.  Let’s hope it works.

The door swung open, and Clementine strode in, addressing the two empty couches.  “Good evening sir, madame.  To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Something came up,” my illusion said to her.  Stall her, keep it simple.

I had my illusions stand up, folding their hands behind their backs so Clementine wouldn’t try to shake them.  At the same time, I layered a separate illusion over the two servants by the door, making Clementine seem to turn towards them.

Close the door,” illusion-Clementine said to her servants, “stay out of earshot.  This is private.

“Yes, ma’am.”  They swung the door shut behind Clementine, none of which she saw or heard.

“Mr. Burgess never sent anyone to my house before,” said Clementine.  Her eyes flitted back and forth between our illusions on the chairs.  “Password?”

For a second, Left-Hira stuck her hands in her pockets, using her Praxis Vocation.  Then her eyes widened.  “She knows.”

Hira sprinted forward, electricity crackling around her palms.  I reached for the knife in my coat.

Clementine sucked in a breath to scream, and Hira projected into a tiny lamp, flinging it at her solar plexus and knocking the wind out of her.

Then, Clementine lifted her palms in front of her, and my blue combat suit tightened over my body, freezing my movement.  It squeezed my injured shoulder, making it ache.  Fuck.  I should have projected into them earlier to prevent this.

Hira’s clothes tightened around her, and she jerked to a halt.  Clementine was far stronger than both of us at physical projection.  In a fair fight, she could take us both.

A wave of hunger and thirst washed over me, drowning out my other thoughts with the overwhelming desire to eat or drink something, anything.  Clementine’s Whisper Vocation.

The woman gasped for breath and snarled at us, livid.

The separated pieces of my machine pistol ripped themselves out of my coat, dropping onto the floor.  Hira’s concealed revolver yanked itself out of her holster and spun around, aiming itself at her head, too strong to be turned aside.

The hammer pulled back.

A thin metal cable shot from outside the window.  As it punched through the glass, not making a sound, I erased it from Clementine’s vision, and it wrapped around her leg.

Electricity crackled, and Clementine fell to the ground, twitching.

Right-Hira swung outside the window, holding the shocking cable in one hand.  The body hung from the roof using a second cable, protruding from below its sleeve.  Jun’s new gizmo.  A pair of wrist-mounted cable guns so Hira could shock people at range.

Left-Hira opened the window for her other body, which pulled itself inside, dripping water and treading dirt onto Clementine’s spotless carpet.

Right-Hira strode towards Clementine and stabbed a syringe into her neck, injecting Jun’s homemade knockout drug until she went limp.

Then we all ran for the plate of food and stuffed our faces.

For three embarrassing minutes, we grabbed handfuls of artisanal crackers with slices of raw beef and shoved them into our mouths, as fast as we could chew and swallow them.  Crumbs and drops of vinegar fell onto the couches.

Then, when we’d eaten it all, we raced to Clementine’s liquor cabinet and downed a bottle of Gasten Brandy, distilled in the Agricultural Islands five miles from my home.  The kind that would have cost me a month’s salary to buy as a servant.

When we’d finished that, I made a noise to draw a servant close, and used my illusions to send all of them out of the house.  “I need total privacy for the next fifteen hours,” I said with Clementine’s voice.  “Please do not return a minute earlier.

Clementine’s servants were terrified of her.  ‘Please’ meant devastating punishment if they disobeyed.  They would obey the command.

Then, it was time for step two.  

Left-Hira tossed the empty liquor bottle over her shoulder, and Right-Hira gagged and blindfolded Clementine and bound her hands and feet, then put her in a headlock.  Left Hira knelt and held smelling salts under her nose.

After a few seconds, Clementine’s eyes snapped open.

Right-Hira’s hands crackled, as she ran current through Clementine’s body, not quite enough to completely disable her.  Clementine started twitching again, hopefully in too much pain to project, at least for the next few seconds.

I felt a twinge of guilt in my stomach.  She’d do the same to you in a heartbeat.

Right-Hira spoke into Clementine’s ear, rapidfire.  “Whatareyougoingtotonightwhatsthelocationwhenisithappeningwhatsthepassword.”  Purple lightning crackled around her palms, reading Clementine’s mind for a few split seconds while copying her skills.

Then Left-Hira injected the knockout drug again, and the woman fell unconscious.

“Got it,” said Hira.  “The password isn’t a Praxis vocation or any fancy crypto nonsense, so it must be a larger event.”

“So?”

“I’m not sure what kind of event it is,” said Hira.  “But it’s in a building complex on one of the outer islands.  From her intrusive thoughts, I think that Steel Violet will be on guard duty.”  She took a breath.  “And Tunnel Vision herself will be there.”

My stomach clenched.  “All the more reason to break in,” I said.

“Steel Violet will recognize my face in an instant.  You too, Gage, since you’re famous now.”

“We’ll make it work,” I said.  “We’ll put a plan together.”

“Well,” said Hira.  “Here’s the other thing.”  She glanced at the clock.

“What?”

“It starts in thirty-four minutes.”

The clock ticked on the wall.  The world froze for a moment, as every muscle in my body seemed to tense up, and a storm of panic grew out from my belly.

Then I exploded.  “Thirty-four minutes?

“I’d say we’re about twenty-eight minutes away from the place.  If I drive fast.  And if Jun’s literal trash car doesn’t break down.”

Scholars,” I said.  “What do we do, then?”

“We could try forced transference.”  Hira indicated both her heads towards the sleeping Clementine on the rug.

I shook my head.  “That requires brute force from our Piths, and she needs to be conscious.  Judging from our fight, Clementine is stronger than the two of us combined.  If we wake her up and try it, she’s going to tear us both in half.”

And, to be honest, our last forced transference hadn’t sat well with me.  If one more thing had gone wrong, Kahlin’s decorators could have lost their bodies forever.

Unless there was no way to avoid it, I wasn’t going to steal anyone’s chassis.

“What about a mask?” I said.

“What?”

“Did you see those traditional Ilaquan masks in Clementine’s study?” I said.

“The ones you squidfuckers stole when you colonized us?” she said.  “Yeah, I saw them.”

“I mean, she could have bought them legally.”  And I didn’t colonize anyone.

Lund pe chad,” she said.  “You can’t buy that kind legally.”

“Point is,” I said.  “We can put them on and use them to get in.  Then keep a low profile, use illusions.  If it’s a big event, it would make sense for people to hide their faces, right?”  I glanced at Clementine out of the corner of my eye.  “Her name isn’t on some list, right?  It’s just a password.”

Hira shrugged.  “I think so, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.  Which you’re suggesting we do.  And they definitely won’t allow weapons in.”

“We’ll have you,” I said.  “That’s worth more than a gun.”

“The password is for a single person,” said Hira.  “Both of us can’t go.”

I pursed my lips.  “Then who goes?”

Hira folded four arms at the same time.  “We have known faces.  You have illusions.”

Fuck,” I muttered.

“Take your time,” said Hira.  “You have a whole…four minutes to wallow in your neuroses.”

“Fuck,” I said again.  I would be going in with no plan, no allies, and almost no information.  Is this worth risking everything?

“And Praxis Specialists might be able to pick out your voice or your gait in a crowd, so you’ll have to modify those too.  Or just avoid talking.”

I’m so close.  More money, more favor with Lorne, more information, and I could be on the track to becoming a Guardian.

“Start the car,” I said.  “I’ll get the mask.”

________________________________________

Jun’s car jerked to a halt in the pouring rain.

“They’ll recognize this car,” said Hira.  “I can’t go any closer.”

I adjusted my mask and my wig.  They weren’t perfect, but they’d conceal my most obvious features from a distance.

“I’ll watch Clementine in her home,” said Hira.  “Keep any servants from wandering back in her house.  Call me on her phone when you want a pickup.”

“I can do this,” I muttered to myself.  “ I can do this, right?”

“If I don’t hear anything in the next ten hours, I’ll stop by the morgue and make sure they don’t defile your corpse.”

Thanks, Hira.

I checked my internal clock.  Ninety-one seconds.  I pulled myself out of the car and slammed the door behind me.

Then I broke into a run, splashing through puddles and streams flowing into gutters.  I turned corners past dark, abandoned buildings, past empty, pitch-black alleys and flickering streetlights.  This area’s gone to shit.

I jogged on a bridge over a rushing river, and caught a glimpse of Lowtown and Elmidde to my left, across Meteor Bay.

According to a book I’d read when I was young, the outer islands used to be a part of Mount Elwar, thousands of years ago, but had been separated when a meteor hit in the time of the Great Scholars, turning the whole area into a water-filled crater.

An apt meeting place for the people tearing this country apart.

I arrived at the near-empty entry of a stadium, screeching to a halt and wheezing for breath.

A decade ago, the building had been some big famous landmark.  George Stadium, or maybe Luther Stadium, I didn’t remember, and the letters on the sign had fallen off.

But, after enough floods and enough money draining out of the neighborhood, and one nasty terrorist attack during the Shenti war, the people here with money had given up and moved to higher ground.

Now, it looked abandoned, save for the three Steel Violet members out front, standing under floating umbrellas and hefting submachine guns under their coats.

They leveled them at me as I approached, and I raised my hands.

Then I stretched my Pith forward.  I’m in range.  I threw up an illusion, reshaping the face under my mask and the sound of my voice.  “Am I late?

“Yes,” said Rozi, the Joiner with Voidsteel gauntlets, who’d almost crushed Wes’ throat.  “White Balloon.“  The password.

Prisoner Moon,” I answered.

They lowered their guns.  “It’s already started, the doors are locked.  Sorry.”

I was told it didn’t start until nine-thirty.

“The talking starts nine-thirty.  You were supposed to get here at least fifteen minutes ago.”

Scholars.  We’d wasted too much time interrogating Clementine.

I pulled up the mask over my face, revealing the illusion I’d put over my features: John Asger, one of Clementine’s favorite cronies.  I’d served him dinner dozens of times, without so much as a glance in my direction or a thank you.

I positioned the mask so that people above me and to the sides wouldn’t be able to see my face – if other Steel Violet members were watching me through sniper scopes, they wouldn’t see any inconsistencies with their comrades’ eyes.

Clementine Rawlyn sent me in her stead,” I said with his voice, matching the disdain I was used to.  “She knows Tunnel Vision personally, and is not interested in hornets making her miss my report.

The members of Steel Violet stared at me, no doubt conversing amongst themselves using thought-stitching.  Droplets fell off the edge of their umbrella, splashing onto the ground.

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure if they were going to let me in or fill me with bullets.

Rozi stepped aside, beckoning me.  “Right this way, sir.”

I jogged into the ruined stadium, through vacant corridors lit by lightbulbs strung overhead.  I passed empty ticket booths, faded storefronts, and Green Hands with rifles, directing me through side doors and down stairwells.  A chill wind blew through the empty halls, with the muffled sound of rain.

Finally, I emerged from a dark tunnel into the stadium, back into the deluge.  A dense crowd of Green Hands and mobsters had gathered in the center of the overgrown field, lit by glaring white floodlights high above.  They stood shoulder to shoulder, silent and unmoving, staring towards a raised podium in the middle.

I stepped into a puddle, then glanced down.  What?

In the rain, the field had flooded, water rising to my ankles.  The entire stadium had become a tiny, shallow lake.

I waded forward, my feet sinking into the mud, tall grass brushing past my knees.  It took effort to move around without ripping my shoes off.  I shivered, my anemia making the cold rain even worse.

Why haven’t they canceled this?  This wasn’t an ordinary rally, though the crowd was more than large enough.  This was a secretive event that required passwords to enter, with armed guards patrolling the exterior.

Plus, all the Commonplace rallies I’d seen were loud, explosive events, full of cheering and jeering and applause.

Here, no one spoke.  The only sound here was the pouring rain.

I pushed forward through the crowd, holding my mask so it didn’t come off, and positioned myself near one of the emergency exits, with a few layers of people behind me.  This way, I wouldn’t stand out, but could still make a quick getaway.

Behind me, a few hundred Green Hands had spread out through the stands, all carrying rifles.  If I run, they’ll shoot me half a dozen times before I make it to the door.

Here, I had a solid view of the empty stage set up in the middle, too.  The stage was empty. 

It hasn’t started yet.

Then I glanced away for a second.  When I turned back, a line of people was standing on the stage.  In the lineup, I recognized Tunnel Vision on the far side, water dripping from her ragged skirt and bowler hat.

One of them stepped forward, a man with green circle tattoos, and the rain itself seemed to quiet as he approached the microphone.

Is he the leader?  No, the head of Commonplace was supposed to be a woman.  Was she here tonight?

The crowd didn’t cheer or clap, or acknowledge his presence in any way.  Are they hijacked?  Nothing about this event felt natural.

The man spoke in a calm voice.  “The median projector in the Principality has a net worth of two hundred and fourteen times that of the median Humdrum.  They own an average of four bodies apiece, while we get cancer at their factories and go into debt for our replacement bodies.  If we’re lucky enough to get a loan.”

The rhetoric of victimhood and vengeance.  They listed legitimate problems, then used them to justify an incoherent wave of violence and resentment.

We’d barely won the largest war in human history.  We’d defeated the Shenti by the narrowest margin, and these people wanted to eviscerate the heroes who’d protected us.  That wasn’t the right way to do things.

“If they could,” said the man, “they’d wipe our memories all over again.  Rip away our freedom and control us from the shadows again while they try to forge the stars in their vain image.  At best, they see us as witless dolts.  At worst, they see us as beasts, fit only for the kennel.”

While the man spewed his propaganda, I watched behind him.  A hooded figure stood next to Tunnel Vision, wearing a faded green military long coat, the kind you’d see in photos of the Shenti War, or older.

She reached up a hand to scratch her head, and I squinted through the rain.  One of her thumbs had been cut off at the first knuckle.  Of all the things broken with this body, my vision still worked fine.

Other than that, she looked identical to the others standing next to Tunnel Vision.

Except people treated her differently.  Though they tried to downplay it, the ones standing next to her on the stage gave her more space than the others, made glances in her direction, whispered amongst themselves but not to her.

The hooded woman held a certain gravity, in the very center of the stadium.

That has to be her.  The leader of Commonplace.  The woman who brought Tunnel Vision, the Broadcast King, and Shenti support all together in a singular movement.

What I’d give for a sniper rifle and a vantage point.  Not that I could fire one of those things, but one well-placed bullet and the whole country could be at peace.

“We,” said the man.  “Are the Common Foundation.  The Principality and Paragon Academy, have done far worse things than you can imagine.  To us, and the roots of the world itself.”  The rain poured down around us, and the pitch-black sky seemed to close in from above.  “They have reached into the heavens and touched the void.  They have burrowed into the mountains and whispered to gods, shattered the keystones of the human soul.  They are planning things, and even we don’t know what they are.”

This is nonsense.  There were a great many mysteries in this world.  The stars and the water and the Great Scholars and the Four Daydreamers.  But to invoke such things in this context?  It couldn’t be anything but empty conspiracy-mongering.

And this felt strange.  It didn’t feel like a normal rally, and it wasn’t a strategy meeting.  It was happening in the pouring rain, during a miniature flood, and the speaker was spewing confusing, surreal rhetoric.

Why are these people gathered here?

Tunnel Vision strode to the mic.

“There are Guardians at Paragon Academy,” she said.  “Doing their best, as we speak, to infiltrate our movement and bring it down from within.”  Thunder boomed in the distance, and the rain came down harder.  “They are the loyal dogs of the status quo, of the corrupt House of Lords and the broken Conclave of the Wise who hoard wealth and power.  And they will defend it, even if it means hijacking thousands.”

More propaganda.  Did these people need more convincing?

“They see us as a weak threat, insignificant next to the Droll Corsairs, or the eastern dogs of Shenten.”

The Shenti monsters are funding you.  Not that they’d want the public to know that.  Their public support could sour pretty fast if the nation found out they were funded by foreign terrorists.

“But they underestimate us.  That is their mistake,” she said.  “So.  To all the Guardians who think they’re smarter than the citizens of the country.”  She leaned into the mic.  “Hello.  And goodbye.”

What?

She stomped her foot.  The sound echoed around the stadium, ringing in my ears.

Two jets of mud and water exploded upwards from the ground, shooting a man and a woman into the air, both Green Hands.

At the same time, something exploded in front of them, coating their faces with bright orange paint.

“The orange-faced ones are Guardians!” shouted Tunnel Vision.

As the man and woman spun in midair, and the Green Hands raised their weapons, I realized several things.

One: Brin was right – Paragon had been at this meeting.  Guardians had been at this meeting, in disguises.

Two: This meeting was a trap for them.

That explained all the strange conditions.  This event wasn’t held for propaganda or strategy, but to lure the undercover Guardians in with Tunnel Vision and the leader of Commonplace.  Even the rain worked in the enemy’s favor – in these conditions, it would be difficult to fly out of the stadium, and much harder to spot snipers with enhanced vision that could shoot them out of the sky.

As these thoughts ran through my head, the raindrops stopped midair, hovering in front of my face.

Then the water exploded into a wave of steam, flinging a pair of Green Hands straight at me.

They crashed into me, blasting me backward with the shockwave and flipping me over.  I splashed face-first into the muddy water, my ears ringing.

I pushed myself upright, spluttering and coughing.  My chest ached, a sharp, piercing pain on my right side.  Did I break a rib?

White steam filled the air, hot, stinging my face.  As it cleared, I saw one of the Guardians in the middle of the field, his fist slammed to the ground.

Rings of corpses surrounded him, faces and limbs sticking out of the water.  Further away from him, Green Hands lay on their backs, groaning and covered in burns.

I know this.  A Physical Vocation that superheated huge quantities of water, creating burning-hot steam explosions.

That’s Professor Stoughton.  He taught Chemistry and other natural sciences to fourth-years.  One of the deadlier Guardians at Paragon, though he wasn’t Scholar-ranked like Harpy or Brin.

The other Guardian flipped over in midair and clapped her palms together.  Green lightning crackled around her.  A Physical Specialist.  A wave of pale light expanded from her hands, washing over me and the entire stadium.

Hundreds of Green Hands and mobsters aimed their guns at her, and pulled the triggers.

Nothing happened.  None of the guns fired, from the shotguns up close to the sniper rifles in the stands.  Everyone kept pulling the triggers, to no effect.

Did she jam them all at once?

No, I knew this Vocation.  Professor Havstein.   A platinum-ranked projector, she’d studied under Headmaster Tau himself.  Her Vocation could alter the properties of physics in an area, making combustion itself impossible.  Flames vanished.  Fuses fizzled out.

And guns couldn’t fire.

In an instant, she’d crippled all the Humdrums here.

She’d been missing a lot this semester.  Probably because of this infiltration job.

I need to get out of here.  These two had the power to turn this whole building to rubble, and there was no more intel to be gained.  I’d gambled on the wrong meeting.

Another second passed, and the Guardians attacked.

More pockets of water exploded into steam, tossing aside mobsters like dry leaves in the wind.  Hundreds of knives drew from the sheathes of Green Hands and shot at the hooded woman in a blur.  I knew she was important.

On the podium, the hooded woman turned towards the storm of projectiles, impassive, not even trying to run or dodge.

The podium flipped beneath her, forming a shield between her and the knives.

The knives impacted at high speeds, thudding into the wood and creating showers of splinters.  After the second volley, the podium was a pile of loose wreckage sinking into the water.

When the smoke cleared, Tunnel Vision stood between them and the leader of Commonplace.  The water had cleared in a wide ring around them, and the raindrops hovered four stories above, preventing steam explosions from going off right next to them.

I forced my vision away from the battle and scanned the audience for an escape route.  I had no delusions of being able to help the Guardians here.  Even if I managed to get close to them, I’d just slow them down.

Explosions rang out behind me, with flashes of light, the clang of metal, and clouds of hissing steam washing over me.

Above me, the stands were half as sparse as they’d been seconds ago.  Many of the riflemen had either been cut down or were charging towards the battle in the middle of the stadium.  With the guns all broken, most of them had switched to knives or bayonets – those that still had theirs.

I picked a door that had only two men standing in front of it, and climbed into the stands, sprinting up the steps three at a time.

On instinct, the Green Hands aimed their guns at the masked figure running at them in the rain, even though they wouldn’t fire.


I waved my hands at them, and layered over my voice as I got within range.  “Don’t shoot!  Don’t shoot!”  My illusion pulled off his mask, revealing a generic face I’d come up with on the fly.  “No orange, see?  We’re on the same team.

They lowered their rifles.  “I don’t think we could shoot you anyways.  What the fuck are we supposed to do without our guns?  Even our Voidsteel bullets won’t work if the mechanisms don’t fire.”

I had my illusion beckon the guards closer, and they stepped forward, leaving an open path to the door.  “Do we have any other projectors?

“Mob people,” said the other guard.  “Cutthroats for hire.  They died in the first ten seconds.”

As their conversation continued, I slipped past them, pulling open the door and sliding in.

I’m going to get John,” my illusion said.

“Who?”

My illusion ran away down the stands, ducking out of sight before vanishing.

I jogged through the halls, past groups of Green Hands and pairs of mobsters.  All the exit doors had been locked shut.  When I projected towards them, the locks had been jammed.  My weak metal projection wasn’t enough to force them open.

So I kept running, passing through hallways, clambering up stairs.

The rain pounded down outside.  Sweat collected in my armpits, and my lungs burned from the exertion.  Finally, after making several wrong turns, I found a door near the top of the stands that opened to a ladder going down to the ground.  Probably something for maintenance.

The door to the top of the stands was open.  Outside, a thick cloud of steam had gathered in the center of the field.  Explosions and shouts rang from within.

As the cloud cleared, I stopped for a moment to observe the fight.  No one else was nearby.  Maybe I can get a sense of Tunnel Vision’s abilities.  Or even her Vocation.

The steam blew away in the wind.  A whole fifth of the stadium on the far side had been demolished, like cutting a slice out of a pie.  I could see the lowtown buildings outside, the path cleared for an escape.  Several of the floodlights flickered, damaged.

Tunnel Vision stood in the center, her black coat and skirt covered in blood.  Miraculously, she hadn’t lost her bowler hat or messed up her long ponytail.

She held the top half of a severed head in her fist, clenching its long blonde hair.  Professor Havstein.  I felt like throwing up.  So guns work again now.  Though everyone else in the stadium seemed to have fled or died.

The hooded leader of Commonplace still stood behind her, unharmed.

In front of the rubble, Professor Stoughton had gathered a tidal wave of water around him.  It formed the shape of a many-headed hydra, long snakelike necks ready to strike and explode at a moment’s notice.  It stood at least fifty feet tall, as wide as a third of the field.

Stoughton stood in the center, catching his breath, a storm of green lightning crackling around him.  As I recalled, he and Professor Havstein had been close friends at Paragon, partners together for over a decade.  He must be furious.

Tunnel Vision cocked her head to the side, watching the professor as if he were some sort of curiosity.  Beneath his giant water monster, she looked insignificant, wielding nothing other than the severed head.

The two stared each other down, neither making a move.  Tunnel Vision folded her hands behind her back.

He’s afraid of her.

The professor spun his arms in a circular motion, and his water monster split in two.  The front half blasted forward, charging at Tunnel Vision and Commonplace’s leader.

At the same time, the other half formed a dense sphere around Stoughton.  It shot him away, rocketing him down the street.

The front part exploded into steam with an ear-splitting crack, covering half of the stadium in an instant.  I could feel the heat on my face, and my ears rang.

A flash of white light lit up the inside of the cloud, followed by another deafening boom.

The smoke cleared.  Outside the stadium, Professor Stoughton lay on the cobblestone, steam rising off his body.  Burns.  His thick shield of water had vanished.

When I squinted through the rain, I saw him move, crawling forward at a sloth’s pace.  Scholars, he’s still alive.

Tunnel Vision swung the severed half-head like a sling, tossing it to the side.  She strode towards the professor over the piles of rubble, slow and inexorable.  Sparks flickered around her, and blood coated her face and skirt.  A spirit of fire wreathed in rain and smoke, a dark silhouette in the storm.

Two top-notch Guardians with decades of experience, and she’d crushed them in seconds.

As she approached her victim, she glanced back at the stands, in my direction.

Is she looking at – 

Nobody else was nearby.  She was looking at me.

For several seconds, we made eye contact across the expanse of the field, through the pouring rain.  The panic rose in my stomach, spreading through my chest and washing over my entire body until my hands shook.

Then I tore my gaze away, walking as calmly as I could to the door.  Don’t look panicked or running.  I pulled it open and climbed down the ladder, hyperventilating.

After what felt like a lifetime, I slid to the bottom, making my palms burn.  Is she following me?  Did she recognize me?

I kept running down the hallway, even though I was already out of breath.  Beneath my coat, I projected into the three pieces of my suppressed machine pistol, sliding them together and holding it with two hands so I could shoot.

The lower halls of the building were empty, as far as I could see.  Most of the Green Hands and mobsters must be focused on the field.  I jogged through another set of corridors and stairwells without trouble, finally reaching a set of double doors to the outside.  My projection indicated they hadn’t sealed this one yet.

I walked towards them and reached for the handle.

“Stop!”

I spun around, raising my machine pistol.

A man stood across the hall from me, leveling a shaking rifle at me.  No – a boy.  About my age.

He’s out of range of my Vocation.  And I didn’t know how to jam a gun with projection, other than holding the trigger in place with brute force.  And besides, I was already exhausted.

And that’s a heavy rifle.  The combat suit under my clothes could stop light gunfire, but a shot from that would punch straight through.

“No one’s supposed to leave until we finish a full sweep,” the boy said.  No Green Hands tattoos.  He’s with the mob.  “That’s the order.  Anyone leaving could be an undercover enemy.”

“Relax,” I said.  “I didn’t get the order yet.  But I am going to need to see some identity confirmation.”  I layered as much calm and patience as I could into my voice, pushing down the panic.  “We’re not enemies.  We don’t have to point guns in each other’s faces.”

I took a hesitant step forward.  Get him in range.

“Don’t come any closer!”  The boy’s eyes widened.  “Take off your mask!”

Nausea bubbled up inside my stomach.  I felt like I was going to be sick.  I reached up with my other hand and pulled off my mask, revealing my face.  My real face.

“Sorry.”  I kept my voice calm.  “Sorry.  I’m going to lower my gun.  You lower yours, okay?  Then – then you can call your CO on the radio so we can, um, confirm the order and our identities.  Please, don’t do something you’re going to regret.”

The boy said nothing, taking sharp, rapid breaths.

“I’m – I’m lowering my gun.”  I inched the barrel of my machine pistol down, until it was pointing at my feet.  Then I took my finger off the trigger.

The boy lowered his rifle, slowly but surely.  For a few seconds, we caught our breaths.

He reached for the radio at his shoulder and pressed the talk button, glancing at it.  “Talon Five to Central – “

I shot him.

It happened so fast that, for a moment, I thought someone else had pulled the trigger.  A series of muffled cracks rang out, drowned out by the sound of the rain outside.  The machine pistol pushed back against my hand.

And the boy fell, a series of red holes punched in his chest.  The gun slid out of his hands, and he coughed, spitting up blood.  He twitched, and a wet gurgling noise came out of his throat.

Professor Tuft’s advice ran through my head.  Always confirm the kill.  Only an idiot would stand around when her target was downed and vulnerable.  If you monologued, or ignored them, or hesitated, that could be deadly.

If I left him here, he might get a replacement body in time.  Report my face to Tunnel Vision.

I pushed open the door and ran out, fleeing into the storm.

________________________________________

The sea swirled beneath Clementine’s house, aggravated by the rain.

Behind her house, the highest waves swept over the balcony, washing it with a thin layer of saltwater.  The same one I’d jumped off months ago.


I rang the doorbell, drenched from head to toe, not bothering to dry myself.

Left-Hira opened the door, a bottle of arak in her hand.  “You’re alive.”  She looked surprised.  “How did it go?”

I caught my breath, leaning against my knees for support.  When I pushed myself upright, I avoided eye contact, gazing down the street into the rain.

“Staring into the middle distance isn’t an answer, you know.  The least you could do is tell me if you – “

I looked at her.

“Hey, um.”  For the first time since I met her, she looked uncertain about what to say.  “Are you.  Are you alright?”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“So,” said Hira.  “I read her pocketbook.  No one’s coming here to check on her for another few hours.”

“And her files?  Anything interesting?”

“Nothing on whatever ‘Buttercup Lodge’ is,” said Hira.  “But it did include a bunch of operations Clementine took part in for Tunnel Vision.  And some codes.  ‘Feather 910’, ‘Snake 171’, that sort of thing.  I woke her up and tried interrogating her with them, but only got a bunch of vague details.  Some voices, some smells, just a few associations.  And apparently, she helped develop some technique to avoid phones being traced.  That’s all I got.”

I scowled, and plugged those details into my new pattern-matching vocation.  I could read the files later and add those details too.  If anything matched in the future, I’d get notified.

“There’s got to be more,” I said.

She grinned at me.  Is she trying to cheer me up?  “Let’s strip this house for fucking parts.”

I nodded, and stepped forward.

Inside, Hira had stacked duffel bags in the middle of Clementine’s dining table, filling them with silverware, all three chandeliers from the house, and a handful of loose bills.

“Careful,” I said.  “Those are worth a lot less than they look.”

“Clementine’s still up in her study,” she said.  “I’m watching her with my other body.  It’ll be hard to find a fence for this stuff when Tunnel Vision controls most of the underworld.  This was all I could find.  No stacks of cash, jewelry, or Vocation Codices.”  She looked at me.  “But you worked here for years.  You know where the good stuff is, right?”

“This way,” I said, my voice flat.

I led Hira down to Clementine’s basement.  The wooden steps creaked as we descended.

Two-thirds of the floor was taken up by dirt-stained mattresses lined up against each other.  The servant’s quarters.

The mattress that had been my home had a different ratty blanket on top of it, messed up and unmade.  Someone had slept in it recently.  My replacement.  I felt for them, whoever they were.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “If my boss made me sleep somewhere like this, I’d blow out his kidneys with buckshot.”

We strode to the far side of the room, to a locked door.  “You got her keys, right?”

Hira knelt by the door and jammed a bobby pin into the lock.  After a few seconds of jiggling, the door swung open.  “A thief named Pamello shops at the same grocery store as me.  I copied his skills this morning.”

I flipped on a light, revealing shelves and shelves of horizontal wine bottles lining the walls.

“Ah,” said Hira.  “Now I know why she kept this locked from all of you.  I’d have been in here twenty-four seven.  Where is it?”

I pointed at a tapestry, hanging on the wall behind the shelves.  On it, a trio of fighter planes flew above the ocean, the pilots etched in exquisite detail.

“There.  Behind that.”  Clementine had thought herself subtle, hiding her safe here, but after she’d visited it a few times, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

Hira stretched her hand forward, projecting into the shelf.  Then she yanked it back, tipping it over and smashing hundreds of bottles on the ground.  A purple-red puddle spread on the wooden floor, mixed with glass shards.

Then, she strode over it and ripped off the wall tapestry, tearing it in the middle to reveal a wall safe sitting behind it.  “You know the code?”

I shook my head.

“Not a problem.”  Hira pulled a stethoscope out of her coat, cleared a spot to kneel next to the safe, and began spinning the dial.

As she worked, I turned around, looking back at the basement.  Right now, in the middle of a winter night, it was bitter cold, making me rub my arms under the sleeves of my jacket.

And yet somehow, this same basement would turn into an underground oven during spring and summer, turning the nights here into hours of tossing and turning under sweaty covers.

Whoever my replacement was, they were stuck here now, for a lot longer than they were expecting.

A terrible thought ran through my mind.  What if the boy I killed – the boy back at the stadium – had been hired through someone like Clementine?  A servant working for some mid-level mobster, desperate for anything that would let him crawl out of this basement and get some financial security.

What would have happened if I didn’t find Clementine’s blue folder?  If I hadn’t done my body heist and gotten that job offer from Isaac Brin, while I bled out on that boat.

If I’d been pushed enough, could I have been at that stadium, in his position?

Thinking about it like that made me want to reassemble my machine pistol and point it at my skull.

I shoved the feeling down.  It’s not your fault.  It was the fault of monsters like Clementine, who forced vulnerable people into service for them.  Liars who’d never put themselves at risk for a cause, who’d never had to struggle just to live.

Hira pulled open the safe.  “Done.  Guess this bitch paid her safe manufacturer as much as her maids.”

I walked back to her, and we leaned forward, seeing what was inside.

“What?” said Hira.

No cash.  No jewelry or gold or gems.  Just a stack of three small books.  This was what Clementine checked every other week?

Hira pulled open one, flipping through it.  Then the next two.  “They’re not Vocation codices.  No obvious critical information.  Are they in code?”

“But if they’re code, why store them in a safe?  Why telegraph that these are important?”  I picked up the first book and flipped to a random page.

They’re journal entries.  And though it was impossible to tell at a glance, my intuition told me they weren’t in code.

I flipped to another random spot, revealing a photograph wedged in between pages.  In it, a smiling woman in a flight suit stood next to a bomber on an aircraft carrier, flanked by half a dozen pilots on each side.  All of them had their fists raised, and two of them near the middle held the Principality’s flag in front of them.  A war photograph.

The scrawled caption on the bottom read: The nation, the people, the light.  You’re still our ace, Captain Rawlyn.

“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath.  I read through the entry beneath it.  Then the next one.  Then the next.

“Ana?  Anything valuable?”

“It’s true,” I said.

“You’ve got to be more specific than that.”

“Clementine’s medals, her military history, all of it,” I said.  “She was a pilot in the air force.  She fought in the Shenti War.  I thought she was lying about all of it, but she wasn’t just some con woman.  She was a hero.”

At the back of one, I saw a folded-up letter, and read it:

Paragon Academy

717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

Dear Ms. Rawlyn,

Thank you for your interest in Paragon Academy.

I am sorry to inform you that we cannot offer you a place in the class of 510.  Our admissions committee evaluated a record number of passionate applicants this year, from all over the Principality.  Unfortunately, they could only accept a limited number with the greatest proficiency, intellect, and projection potential.

Your scores on the entrance exam are enclosed.  Your projection ranking estimate was: Bronze.

We wish you well in your future endeavors to serve this country with pride and distinction.  May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Tau

Headmaster

I folded the letter back up.  Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I kept reading through the journal, losing track of time.  I pored over entry after entry, until I was finished with this book and moved onto the next one.

The truth was, I’d wanted to dismiss Clementine’s history.  I wanted to believe that she was propping her image up with a story of service and duty.  That would have been simpler, easier.  But I wasn’t sure what to make of this.

“There are plenty of asshole soldiers,” said Hira.  “Fuckers looking for an acceptable way to shoot people.”

“But that’s not how she comes across in these journals,” I said.  “And she can’t have been expecting anyone else to read these.”

“Why not?”

“Because these aren’t glamorous.”  I knew Clementine.  If she was making up a fake military backstory for herself, she wouldn’t have talked about getting dysentery for half a month, or failing her pilot’s certification twice, or making mistakes that got her subordinates maimed for life.  And she definitely wouldn’t have included a Paragon rejection letter.

“Some lunatic nationalist, then, drunk on the flag.”

Nationalists aren’t lunatics.  To Hira, anything she didn’t personally believe in was somehow corrupt or hollow.  “The woman I knew wasn’t a patriot.  Wouldn’t risk her life for anyone else, much less her country or her fellow soldiers.”  The Clementine in these notebooks was a stranger.

“Then why the fuck is she here?” said Hira.  “Why isn’t she in some naval base, trying to kiss up to Florence Tuft?”

“The Edwina Massacre,” I said.  The first time projection had been shown to the Principality at large.  After the Pyre Witch set Shenti civilians on fire, they’d retaliated by sending the most skilled Joiner in the world after our fleet.  All Humdrums, no Voidsteel.  The woman had ripped them apart with her bare hands.  We’d sent our own Guardians after her, including the warm-hearted Professor Keswick, but she’d burnt them too, and the Shenti didn’t care.

“What about it?”

I held up the journal.  “She fought in it, when she still thought she was a Humdrum.  Got her hands torn up from the battle, couldn’t fly anymore, or even work a desk job.  The one thing in her life that defined her, gave her meaning, and she failed at it.  All her friends were either dead or overseas.  And in her desperation and loneliness, she forgot who she was, and latched onto the first thing that made her feel powerful.”

“She became a selfish piece of shit.”

“There were justifications, ends and means and necessary sacrifices, but over time, they became sacrifices other people made.”

“Like I said, a selfish piece of shit.  And she’s still up there.”  We can still kill her, she implied.

I stuffed the books into my bag.  “Come on, let’s take her stuff and get the fuck out of here.”

Hira looked at me.  “Are you concerned that you’ll become like her?  Is that what this is all about?”  She shook her head.  “Fuck that.  Stop tying your brain into knots.  You’re nothing like that bitch.”

I strode out of the wine cellar, glass shards crunching beneath my feet, and shrugged.  “Neither was she.”

________________________________________

I lied back in my sleeping pod, flipping through Clementine’s journals for the third time.

I had a tactics exam the day after tomorrow.  I was supposed to be studying for it, but I kept getting pulled back by the books I’d taken from her safe.  One passage sat in the center of my mind, a mental knot I’d been failing to untangle for hours.  A more recent segment, taking place after I’d started working for her.

I read it again:

It’s strange.  In the rare moments when I’m not planning a job, or plying my bosses at parties, or preparing for the next step in my career, I just sit here in my room.  I don’t read books.  I don’t watch movies.  My servants do all the housework.  I just lie on my twenty-thousand-pound mattress and stare at the ceiling.  Sometimes, I put the radio on in the background.  Sometimes, I have a smoke.

I have no one to call.  No one to go out with.  The people I call my friends only want to use me, like I want to use them.

Is this going to be the rest of my life?

I have to get back to work.

I snapped the book shut and let my arms fall to my sides, staring at the ceiling of the pod.  You’re not like Clementine.  You’re not.  She hurts people, and you want to become a Guardian.  She’s helping to break this country, and you’re defending it.

What had I done during my last spurt of free time?  I kept myself so busy these days.

But if I had free time, right now, and no obligations, what would I do?  Hira, Wes, and Jun were all living together now, and I didn’t want to see any of them if it meant spending more time with Wes.  Tasia was always busy, and just the sound of Lorne’s voice made me tense up.

And if I dropped dead, right now, how many of them would really miss me?

Then, I remembered.  My birthday was a few days ago.  I’d been so busy that I’d forgotten it.  In recent years, I’d never done anything fancy for the occasion, but I’d often buy myself something nice, like a Nekean action manga or a box of macaroons, back when I still had my taste buds.

I’m twenty years old, and I spent my birthday alone.

I wasn’t a traitor to our country.  But in my loneliness, I was like Clementine.

Before I knew it, my hands were pulling me out of my pod, and my feet were carrying me out of the building, through the rainstorm in the streets, and to the liquor store on the corner of my block.  Then back to my storage unit, to the stained mattress where Wes had slept before moving in with Hira.

I poured myself a glass of Shenti Baijiu and drank it.  It tasted like stale tap water, but it burned as it went down my throat.  Then I drank another one, and another one, until the buzz in my mind was loud enough to drown out the noise in my head and the thick, heavy disgust I felt when looking at my skin, or smelling my body odor.

Then I closed my eyes, and imagined being somewhere else.  The dining hall of Paragon Academy drifted into my mind, the one all Grey Coats were banned from.  I imagined what the mulled cider there would taste like, the beef turnovers and chocolate scones that Lorne gushed about.

In the vision, I was sitting with friends.  Tasia, and Hira and Jun and Kaplen.  Wes’ face flickered into being around them, and I pushed it out.

A snowstorm blew outside the windows, but inside, it was warm and safe.  Later, we could retire back to one of the dormitories and play Jao Lu until two in the morning.

Jao Lu made me think of Wes again.  No.  I pushed it out again.

I sunk deeper into the image, sketching out every detail in my mind.

Shouts rang out in the distance, in the real world.  I diverted a sliver of my attention to staggering out the door and finding the source of the disturbance, holding my focus on the daydream.

Men and women stumbled around the halls, bumping into walls.  Some of them shouted, or made other noises of confusion as they felt their way around.

On a hunch, I pulled myself out of the daydream, bringing my full attention back to reality.

Everyone stopped, looking around them.  “The fuck?” muttered one man.  After a few seconds, all of them walked back to their storage units or sleeping pods, everything back to normal.

It dawned on me.  My Vocation.  I must have been using it on instinct, drawing other people into my escapist fantasy, making it look like they were in Paragon’s dining hall.  Something like this had never happened before, and the sounds had been coming from all over the building.  My range has improved again.

After banishing the illusions, I drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to fall asleep or wake up.  Over time, a growing stomachache built inside me, until the pain was too strong to ignore.

I curled up, twisting and turning to alleviate the pain.  Nothing.  Though it wasn’t as painful as Isaac Brin’s dart, it was close.  It felt like someone was swinging a spiked hammer into my intestines, over and over.  I didn’t swallow my Kraken’s Bone by mistake, did?

So I reached for the baijiu bottle.  It wasn’t as good as painkillers, or a cure for whatever was happening down there, but it would dull the pain.

I swallowed a mouthful, and the pain tripled.  The ache exploded into a burning heat, a pressure boiling over into my throat.

I doubled over and threw up, the familiar sting of stomach acid on my tongue, even though I couldn’t taste it.  This time, it was accompanied by a metallic stench, filling up the storage unit and making me gag.

Projecting into the wall switch, I flipped on the lights.  A splash of red stained the mattress where I had vomited.  Blood.  I threw up again, spitting more out of my mouth, the pain growing and growing.

I need help.  I pushed myself upright, and a wave of dizziness washed over me.  I grabbed the wall for support and stumbled out the door.  What do I do?  Calling an ambulance would bankrupt me, sealing my body’s fate.  Call Jun.  Phone.  Jun had training as a doctor, he could help me.  And Hira could copy the right skills.

I vomited again, splattering blood onto the concrete floor.

There was no phone in King’s Palace Sleepbox and Storage.  The closest payphone I knew was across the street, on the corner.

So I staggered out the front door, into the pouring rain, ears rushing, coughing, on the verge of throwing up or collapsing, and jogged through the puddles to the payphone.  I leaned on it, gasping for breath.

I forgot the coins.  All the willpower to drag myself out here, and I’d screwed up the most basic element.


Of all the ways to die, this had to be one of the dumbest.

Shut the fuck up and think, idiot.  I projected into the machine’s mechanism, feeling around for where it felt the coin drop in.  A few fiddles with metal projection, and I was set.  I dialed Hira’s number, my fingers slipping on the keys, and put the receiver to my ear.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.  I heaved again, spitting up a smaller amount of blood this time.

Then the sky spun around me, and the world faded out.

________________________________________

My eyes snapped open and I coughed, spraying blood onto the bedsheets.

“Damn it,” said Hira.  “I’m going to have to clean those.”

My blurry vision cleared, and I blinked.  I was lying on the guest bed in Hira’s house, flanked by her female body and Jun, sitting at my bedside next to an IV attached to my arm.  Cardamom curled up on the bed by my side, purring.  My blue combat suit had been draped over a chair, pulled off my body.

“You better not die,” said Left-Hira.  “Stealing that from the hospital was a pain in the ass.”

A quiet, lingering ache sat in my stomach and head, but only a fraction of what I’d been feeling earlier.  The agony had subsided, and I could think.

I glanced down at the rest of my body.  Bandages covered small patches of my skin on my arms, my legs, and the side of my stomach.

Jun saw me looking at them.  “Your skin was cracking there.  Keep the bandages on, and clean with alcohol at least once a week.  Don’t want you to get infected.  Your immune system might not be able to fight it off in this body.”

I shivered under the covers, and coughed.  My other decay symptoms feel worse too.  And they weren’t about to get better.

“What happened to me?” I croaked, my lips chapped.

“After the phone rang and no one picked up, we drove to your place on a hunch and found you lying by the phone booth.  Hira stole the IV and copied a few of the specialists at the hospital.  Far as we can tell, something’s messed up with your liver.  Made your body react to the alcohol all weird.”

I pushed myself to a sitting position in the bed, groaning.  “So I should stay dry for the foreseeable future?”

Jun nodded.  “It is as you say.”

“And if you have nausea, yellow skin, weight loss, or perpetual drowsiness,” said Hira.  “Your liver could be failing.  I’d recommend prayer.”

“I’m not religious.”

“I’d recommend booze or drugs, but that’d probably kill you.”

“Thanks, Hira.”

“And now that you’re awake,” said Jun.  “If you don’t mind, there’s someone here to see you.”


He knocked on the door, and it swung open, revealing a rain-soaked Weston Ebbridge on the other side.

“Hey Ana,” he said.  “Let’s talk about Tasia.”

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