8-B – Florence Tuft

Previous Chapter

Florence Tuft wanted to remember this.

When she was old, she’d have a long life behind her, with a lot of happy memories competing with this one.  She wanted to hold onto this one.

Even though she was getting her ass kicked.

Rowyna moved her Dancing Painter forward on the board, knocking Florence out of a key hexagon.  A few more losses like that, and this game of Jao Lu would be over.  Their board states were even for now, but Florence could tell how outmatched she was.

On an ordinary day, she would hate losing like this.  Once, as a child, she’d headbutted a kid in the face just so she could score the winning goal in a football match.  According to the referee, that was ‘against the rules’ and ‘enough for a lifetime ban’.

She never played football again, but Paragon Academy didn’t care how competitive she was.

And yet.  She’d never had this much fun losing.

Maybe it was the quiet noise of triumph that came out of Rowyna whenever she took one of Florence’s pieces, or the focused stare in her deep green eyes as she analyzed the board.

Or the way she avoided looking at Florence’s face, like it was bright and blinding as the sun.

When Rowyna did look in her direction, she made glances at the blizzard outside the window, the crackling fireplace, her mug of mulled cider, all around the common room.  As if to prove that she wasn’t gaping at Florence.

Rowyna was setting a trap for her that would decimate her board.  If Florence avoided it, she could drag the game out longer, hold onto a small chance of winning.

But to be honest, that seemed long, and difficult. And she wanted to see the look on Rowyna’s face.

Florence reached her hand out and moved her lancer forward, swan diving into the ambush.

A beautiful light seemed to spread across Rowyna’s face, starting in her eyes, spreading to her cheeks, and bursting out around her mouth.  She laughed, unable to contain it, not a cruel or taunting gesture, but a joyous one.

“Yes!” she crowed.  “Yes!”  She moved her Chameleon Spy, setting off a chain reaction around the board.  And she smiled.

I made her smile.  Rowyna hadn’t smiled in weeks.

“I forfeit,” said Florence.  “Not gonna come back from that one.”

Rowyna was almost bouncing up and down, but hadn’t forgotten her manners.  “Good game.”

“Good game,” said Florence.

“Interesting,” said Grace, lying back on a blue couch in the common room.

“Interesting?” said Rowyna.

Grace gave them a thin smile.  “I think Florence let you win.”

Rowyna shook her head, still high off the victory.  “Whaleshit.  Why would she do that?”

Grace raised an eyebrow at Florence.  Florence felt her face grow warm, blood rushing to her cheeks.  Damn that perceptive Grace, she thought.

“Another?” said Florence.  “Let me reclaim my honor?”

Rowyna leaned back and flipped open a book.  “I have to get back to studying.”

“It’s winter break, Row,” said Florence, indignant.  “This is the one vacation the admins give us so we don’t murder our professors or drop dead.  Humdrum schmucks get summer and holidays, we get one week.”

Rowyna indicated her head to the Jao Lu set.  “I got my rest.”  She’d played a single game.

Florence refilled Rowyna’s cider mug.  “Isaac panics when you say ‘A-Minus’, and Grace doesn’t even know her Vocation is.”  She stuffed a handful of popcorn into her mouth.  “And they’re not studying.  We don’t even have homework, what are you reading?”

Rowyna held up her book, thicker than her biceps.

Naval Strategy of the Early Industrial Period, Volume 3

It looked so boring, Florence almost gagged.

“It’s not for class.  I assigned myself extra reading.“

Florence whistled.  “Look at you, Tegudar the General.  You’re going to make all of us feel very inadequate one day.”

Rowyna shrugged.

“Look, you already know naval strats better than most of our professors, but none of that’s going to matter if you don’t let yourself relax every now and then.”  She batted her lashes at Rowyna.

“I guess,” Rowyna sighed.

“Yes!” said Florence, setting up another game.  “You won’t regret this.”

“Actually,” said Grace, sitting up.  “I just remembered something.  The textbook I borrowed from you yesterday, I think I left it in Professor Thorne’s lecture hall.  Sorry.”

“Ugh,” said Florence.  “That’s a level two book.  If they find out I lost it, they’ll put a hold on my library card.”  Paragon Academy took its security very seriously.  She floated her jacket onto her back.  “I’ll go get it.”

“It’s on the other side of campus,” said Grace.  “Long walk.  You shouldn’t go alone.”

“I can go,” said Isaac.  “Nothing else to do anyway.”

He’s not getting it.  Grace shot him a look.

His eyes widened.  There it is.  “On second thought,” he said.  “It’s very warm here.  Think I’ll stay.”

“Sure,” said Rowyna.  “Could use a walk.”  They strode to the front door and stepped out into the snow, crossing a bridge from their dormitory to the main islands.

In Paragon Academy, the atmosphere controls made snow act weird.  The air stayed at room temperature on campus, and the deceleration field dampened high winds, so you couldn’t feel the real effects of a blizzard, and all the snow melted into slush.

The effect turned the grassy pavilion into a cold pile of mud, filled with icy puddles, lit by dim orange lamps around the edge.

“Why are we here?” said Rowyna.  “Thorne’s lecture hall is east.”

“Thought this could be the scenic route.”

They stepped onto a dry patch on higher ground, where the dirt was still solid beneath their feet.  Before Florence could come up with a witty retort, Rowyna stepped forward, glaring at her.

“Be honest,” she said.  “Do you like me?”

Florence blinked at her.  “What?”

“I’m bad at picking up signals,” Rowyna said.  “But sometimes, when I see the way you looking at me – I don’t know.  And if this is some sort of prank, or joke, I do not have the time.

“You seem testy about this.”

“People don’t like me,” she snapped.  “Grace respects me, Isaac envies me, and a few classmates in our year fear me, or lust after me, but none of them like me.  When I become an admiral, that won’t change either.”

When?  “Getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?”

“It’s not a boast, it’s a fact.  I’m determined and my family has resources.  I will forge the stars in my image, and strive to become an Exemplar.  But I’m also probably going to die alone, and I’ve grown to accept that.”

“Epistocrats have arranged marriages,” said Florence.  “I’m sure your family will set you up with a nice young man.”

“I won’t like him, and he definitely won’t like me.”  She pursed her lips.  “Being locked in the same house for years is not going to change that.  But you’re dodging the question.  Do you like me, and if so, why?”  She said the last word with disgust and confusion, like she’d just heard about someone who liked the taste of sawdust.

“Look down,” said Florence.

A layer of snow coated the ground around them, a white circle ten meters wide, surrounded by the mud and slush.

Rowyna’s eyes widened.  “How – “

“My Vocation,” Florence said.  “With nitrogen gas projection, I can make force fields, blow things around, mess with sound, and….cool the air.”  She flopped on her back, making an indent in the fresh powder and spreading her arms.

Rowyna looked confused.  “What are you doing?”

“Oh.”  Florence stopped.  “I forgot, you’re from the South.  You’ve never spent time around snow before.  Check this out:”  She fanned her arms and legs back and forth, making a shape in the fresh snow.

Rowyna snorted.  “You look like an idiot.”

“It’s called a snow falcon!”  Florence ran her fingers through the cool snow.  “Try it!”

“But what’s the point?” Rowyna said.  “Is it some sort of game?  Do I get something from doing it?”

“It looks neat,” said Florence.  “And it’s fun.”

Still confused, Rowyna lay down on the snow and copied Florence’s movements, making her own snow falcon.  She exhaled, her breath fogging in the chill air.  “This is nice, I guess,” she said.  “Snow is nice.”

They stared at the crescent moons overhead.

“That’s a good question, what you said earlier,” Florence said.  “Why would anyone like you?  Maybe it’s because you’re courageous.  You speak up to the professors and disagree when no one else will.  Or because you set absurd, high standards for yourself and then meet them.  Or because even though you’re cold and blunt with everyone, you actually care about them.”

“I don’t care about all of them.”

Florence gazed at her, snow falling on her face.  “Remember when you found out Tamar Belson and his clique were cheating on the midterms?  All on your own, when they were fucking up the grading curve for the rest of us and even the professors had no idea.  And then you exposed them in front of the entire class.  That was incredible.”  She clasping Rowyna’s hand, the girl’s palm warm against her’s.

“Most people hated me for that.  I don’t think I should expect anyone to – “

Florence kissed her.

The snowflakes on Rowyna were cold, but her cheek was warm.

Rowyna kissed her back.

“I like you, Row,” said Florence.  “And if you start second-guessing why, I’m going to pinch you.”

“I think I like you too.”

________________________________________

“You kissed her in the snow?” said Grace, grinning.

“I’m nothing if not a romantic,” said Florence, resting her head on Rowyna’s lap, holding her hand.  She used her Vocation, blowing a pile of rocks through the cold tent and forming animal shapes with them.

“You know,” said Isaac.  “I never asked you what your parents thought of all that.”

Rowyna shrugged.  “My parents are practical.  As long as they secure a strong marriage alliance with a good family, they couldn’t care less who I see with the rest of my time.”

“And Paragon?” said Grace.

“They don’t know, obviously, and I see no reason to change that.”  If they found out, there could be problems with their careers.

Florence clenched her fist and squeezed her rocks together with her Vocation, compressing the air into a hyper-dense sphere.  The rocks broke into pebbles, and green lightning crackled around her.

“Careful,” said Isaac, glancing at her projection.  “We’re surrounded by Humdrums.”

“What else am I supposed to do to pass the time?” she said, shivering.  They were in command of this brigade, but there was nothing to do right now but wait.  “Row said I couldn’t heat myself with projection.”

“We could be fighting the enemy at a moment’s notice,” said Rowyna.  “We need you at full strength.”

Florence pulled her knees to her chest under her blanket.  Damn these Shenten mountains.  Why couldn’t Paragon have given them an assignment in the southern theater?  The Shenti would still be shooting at them, but at least it’d be warm.  “It’s not conserving energy if my asscheeks freeze off,” she grumbled.

“The food isn’t helping either,” said Isaac, staring at Florence’s bowl of cold porridge.  Almost empty, thanks to their rationing.

“Maybe the Shenti can spare a dumpling or two,” said Florence.  “Want to head over to their lines and ask?”  She floated the porridge up to her face and prodded it with her fingers.  “Two more bowls of this glop, and I’ll chop off my arm and spit-roast it with onions.”

“We don’t have onions,” said Isaac.

“Then I’ll just pan-fry it,” said Florence.  “I’ll get the skin all crispy, you guys’ll love it.”

Rowyna clasped a palm over Florence’s mouth, playful, stroking her blonde hair with the other hand.  “That’s enough.  We’ll break through to our supply lines soon enough.  Until then, let’s be grateful we’re not eating snow and stay strong.”

Florence nodded.  Rowyna always knew what to say.

“And,” said Rowyna.  “I prepared for this.”  She pulled a thermos out of a bag and unscrewed it.

An incredible, familiar scent wafted off of it.  The smell of apples and cinnamon and nutmeg, of hot comfort and allspice and Opal Hall’s common room.

Paragon’s Mulled Cider.  Florence had no idea how Rowyna had dragged it across half of Shenten through mud and ice and artillery, but somehow, the genius bitch had managed it.

And now, at the edge of the world, stuck in a mountain pass between two Shenti divisions, they were getting a taste of home.

“Oh, Scholars,” said Isaac.

“Oh, Scholars,” breathed Grace, her mouth hanging half-open.

Florence kissed Rowyna.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you.”

Everyone drank.  Isaac took little sips, as if each one would be his last.  Grace swallowed her portion in two gulps.  And Florence held onto her mug, savoring the warmth in her palms and breathing in the smell.

Florence went back to crushing rocks with her air projection, green lightning flickering around her.

“Florence,” said Isaac.  He looked past her.

A man stood at the door of their command tent.  Rory Yarwell, the vice chief engineer for the tanks.

And a Humdrum.  Staring at Florence’s projection.

She let the rocks drop, staring back at him.  Shit.

“I – I’m sorry, sir,” he said.  “I should have knocked.  Sir, that was – that was incr – “

“Stop,” said Rowyna.  “Don’t move or speak or make noise unless I say so.”

Yarwell froze.  She’s Nudging him.

“You do the wipe, Florence,” said Rowyna.  “That was your projection he saw.”

“None of us can do a precision job,” said Grace, hunching over.  “If we screw up the block wipe, he might lose a week, or a month’s worth of memories.”  She made eye contact with the shaking Yarwell.  “He’s a good soldier, he didn’t do anything wrong.”

“If we don’t,” said Rowyna.  “He could tell everyone.”

Most of the Principality’s Guardians were completely separate from the Humdrum military.  They fought battles miles and miles away from any ordinary soldier.  But their unit was integrated for this mission, which made secrecy bloody difficult.

The wind blew outside, knocking the tent flaps back and forth.  Florence stood up, stepping behind Yarwell and zipping it shut.

Yarwell stared at her, making shapes with his mouth, trying to speak but unable to.

“Speak honestly,” said Isaac, Nudging out part of a command.  “Why did you come into our tent?”

Little paranoid, aren’t we?  He probably thought Yarwell was a spy or something.

“New forecast,” Yarwell said.  “There’s a blizzard headed straight for us tonight.  A big one.  Winds forty to sixty.”

Fuck, that’ll be a pain.

“And something else.”

“Go on,” said Rowyna.

“Scouts caught a new group of Shenti arriving at the enemy’s camp.”

“How many?”

“Just four, sir,” he said.  “But they were dressed funny.  Light clothes, bare feet on the snow, like they didn’t care about the cold.  And they were wearing masks.  All of them.  Shaped like animals.”

Silence.

The blood drained out of Rowyna’s face.  “Leave this tent in fifteen seconds,” she said.  “Then tell the men to prepare for battle.”

Florence placed a hand on the man’s forehead, completing the wipe.  A few seconds later, Yarwell stepped out.

“What the fuck was that?” said Isaac, foot tapping.  “What do bare feet and animal masks mean?  Is there some briefing I missed?”

Rowyna put down her cider mug, standing up.  “I hope you’ve been practicing,” she said.  “We’re about to get hit by Shenti Commandos.”

________________________________________

Even in a war this brutal, there were rules.

As projectors, both the Guardians and commandos were bound by the Treaty of Silence, the agreement that kept their world safe and hidden.  The battle had to be at night.  There couldn’t be too many Humdrum witnesses present, so that they could be mind-wiped at the end of the fight.  Intelligence teams from both sides would agree on an ordinary explanation of the situation.

And projectors could only fight if other projectors were present.  If Florence and the rest of Revenant Squad weren’t here, the commandos would have to find another battlefield.

Our presence may have killed these soldiers.  A sobering thought.  But secrecy was critical, to prevent another, larger war with the Humdrums.

All this, she thought, over some dumb asshole who chose the name ‘Black Tortoise’.  Some mad dictator with dreams of global conquest, who’d named himself after a turtle

Florence adjusted her grip on the rifle, aiming out at the pitch-black snowstorm.  The brigade’s trucks, tanks, and non-flammable supplies were arranged in a semicircle with a rock wall against their backs.  In front, hasty trenches had been dug in the snow to serve as a second source of cover.

Every headlight, flashlight, and lamp they had was directed outwards into the storm, casting orange and yellow light onto the blowing white snow.  Even with that, it was almost impossible for ordinary eyes to see more than a few yards ahead.

“Hold!” shouted Lieutenant Mayfield, their second-in-command.

In a normal battle, Rowyna or Florence or one of the other Guardians would be giving the orders.  But since the commandos didn’t know their faces, they had disguised themselves as common soldiers.  If the enemies didn’t know who they were, they wouldn’t get sniped right away.

A soldier next to Florence shivered, her hands shaking on the barrel of her rifle.  Florence’s joining-enhanced ears could pick up her faint voice.  “Scholars,” she whispered.  “Scholars watch over me.

Something dark moved in the distance, then vanished.  Florence squinted.  Another shape moved through the blizzard, closer this time.

Florence projected into the nearest car horns and pushed them twice, the speakers blaring over the howling wind.  A signal.  They’re here.

Fwip.  And a muffled crack.  The sound of a silenced gunshot.

A car’s headlight shattered, going dark.  Fwip, fwip, fwip.  They came from all sides, breaking a lightbulb each time.  Fwip, fwip, fwip.  The suppressors weren’t as quiet as the movies, but it was still impossible to tell where the sounds were coming from.  No muzzle flash, either.

One by one, the lights went dark.  The ring of orange and yellow turned pitch-black.

Fuck,” muttered the woman next to Florence.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Fwip, fwip, fwip.  Men and women dropped around Florence, each shot clean through the head.

“Lieutenant!” another shouted, panic slipping into his voice.  “Orders!”

Rowyna honked a horn three times, the second signal.  Grace projected into one of the many flares scattered around the edge of the camp, and lit it, igniting the gasoline they’d poured around it.

A ring of fire exploded around the trucks, lighting up the blizzard with roaring flames.  The snow nearby evaporated into hissing steam, a brief flash of warmth on Florence’s face.

The first ring ignited a second, creating two walls of fire between them and the commandos.  The soldiers cheered.  “Burn, you eastern dogs!” screamed the woman, her wide eyes lit in flickering orange.

The commandos would be fireproof, with reactions too fast to get caught in the blast.  But the heat would screw with their infrared vision, forcing them to go through and get close to shoot them.

The flames crackled.  No one came through the wall of fire.  The shouting and cheering died down.

“Where the fuck are they!” one soldier shouted.  But they could guess.

Florence felt four objects move through the air, coming down from the sky.  Area-wide scanning took great energy, and air projection was exceptionally rare, but thanks to her Physical Vocation, Florence could do both.  Grace’s prediction was right.

Above!” she whispered, using her air Vocation to speak to the others.  “Above!

Fwip, Fwip, Fwip, Fwip.  The commandos shot from midair, hitting headshot after headshot.

Through the air, Florence felt four figures land inside the ring.  Got you.

She used the full power of her Vocation, taking control of the nitrogen in the air around the targets.  Not too hard.  If she strained her Pith, the green lightning would give her away.

Around the targets, the wind shifted direction, blowing all the snow away from them.

And for the first time, she saw them.

Two men, two women, standing on car roofs and tanks.  Wearing thin white camouflage, swinging heavy rifles like they were light as twigs.  Each wore a pale mask depicting a different animal on it, turning their expressions feral, unreadable.

The nearest soldiers turned towards them, aiming shotguns and SMGs.

They died first.  The commandos moved in a blur, their aim snapping to one, then the next.  The targets leapt from car to car, trying to jump to the blizzard, but Florence moved her wind, keeping the air clear around them.

Then they aimed at the soldier next to her.

Next phase.  Florence projected down, below an inch of snow, into the steel armor they’d stripped from the tanks.  She yanked them upright, forming barriers between them and the commandos.  It had to be protecting both her and the soldiers next to her, or they’d know which one was a projector.

The rest of Revenant Squad followed in her lead, lifting diagonal metal walls.  Isaac projected into most of them, making them lighter, easier to move.

The car horn sounded twice again, from Rowyna’s projection.  Now.

Revenant Squad attacked.

A storm of frag grenades flew at the commandos from every direction, forming a sphere closing in.  All looked identical, but a third of them were coated with Voidsteel.  Rowyna’s projection.

The commandos leapt, shooting for the part of the sphere with no Voidsteel.  Pieces of the car beneath them ripped off, forming shields.  The grenades closest to them exploded, but none of them fell, or slowed.

As they dodged the grenades, Isaac shot a volley of darts at them, dropping the mass to accelerate them, then increasing it a moment before impact.  They punched through the metal shields, and slammed all four of them, crashing them into the rock wall with a dull boom.

Florence felt one of the figures slow, its arm going limp.  Another one clutched its side, staggering.  Voidsteel darts.  Two of them had hit.

At the same time, Florence turned up her Vocation, blocking the flow of air in front of the commandos’ noses and mouths.  It’d take a while, but even master Joiners needed oxygen eventually.  She buffeted the commandos with wind, gusts strong enough to snap a man’s neck.

And Grace?  Grace they held back, as a trump card.

Then, all four enemies started moving again.

The commandos’ guns started firing again, made faint by the howling winds.  They went faster this time, aiming for everyone who wasn’t covered by one of the improvised shields.

Bodies dropped around Florence, one after the other, men and women all shot through the head.

More grenades from Rowyna.  More darts from Isaac.  But this time, their enemies were wise to them.  They dodged or blocked all the Voidsteel, and the rest just bounced off their skin.

Bullets burst out of crates, streaming towards the commandos and into their weapons.  Their guns could be modified to fit different calibers, so they’d never run out.  Until we’re all dead.

One of the Commandos broke off from the main group and leapt to Isaac in a single bound.

She grabbed his metal barrier, layered steel plates eight inches thick, and ripped it apart like a cobweb.

Brin lightened it, shot it at her, and made it heavy, with enough force to break a building in half.  

The Shenti bitch flowed around it, like water.

It didn’t even graze her.

In the same smooth motion, her palm lashed out, pushing his solar plexus.

Isaac Brin slammed into the rock wall.  Something cracked, and he went limp.

Something exploded on the far side of the ring, making Florence’s ears ring.  A box of explosives.  Lieutenant Mayfield crawled out of the dust cloud, leaving a trail of blood behind him.  He collapsed onto the snow, unmoving.

The air grew colder.  The winds of the blizzard whipped faster, too intense for even Florence to control.

And Florence realized they were all going to die.

Rowyna’s birds weren’t working in this storm.  Isaac was down.  Florence’s suffocation was too slow.  Grace had talent, but without knowing her Vocation, lacked a strong focus.

Think, think, think.  There had to be some way out of this, some way to escape this blizzard back into the light.

Then, the commando ripped through Rowyna’s shield.

On instinct, Florence blew her shield forward, forcing all four commandos to dodge for a split second.

In that instant, she made eye contact with Rowyna.  Spoke with the wind.

See you round, Row.

Rowyna’s eyes widened.  The commando leveled a pistol at her head.

And Florence exploded.  Instead of down or to the side, she forced the wind upwards at hundreds of miles per hour in four columns.

The four commandos shot into the air.  Their overwhelming strength was useless with nothing to push against.

Florence created an updraft beneath her, unfurled her wingsuit, and shot up after them, green lightning crackling around her.  She blew the four commandos together, trapping them in a sphere of nitrogen, and whipped the air faster and faster, ripping their guns in pieces.

Then, the same woman who’d hit Isaac braced her feet against another commando, and pushed off, punching her fist through the barrier of air.   It’s not enough.  They were still too strong.

Before Florence could react, the woman’s hand darted towards her throat.

When it was inches away, a blast of white flame filled Florence’s vision, knocking the commando back in the sphere.

Palefire.  The air bubble turned into a glowing fireball, consuming all the oxygen in seconds, then funneling in more.  Florence’s face burned from the heat.

Grace Acworth flew up beside Florence.  “You’ll never make it on your own!” she shouted.

Florence understood.  The fire wouldn’t kill the commandos, but it would slow them down enough for Florence to get them away from the battlefield.

Together, they soared up the side of the mountain, a bright white globe surrounded by green and purple lightning.  A multicolored lantern in the middle of a blizzard.

As they climbed towards the peak, Florence glanced down.  Her winds had cleared the blizzard for a moment, revealing the ring of fire and the camp below.

Dark blue dots covered the snow.  Bodies.  It looked like the commandos had slaughtered almost the whole brigade.

Then they went over the peak, and the headache became overwhelming.  It felt like someone was jamming a dentist’s drill into her brain.  Florence could almost feel her skull cracking at the edges.  Her vision blurred, and she writhed in the air as she flew.

Florence screamed, tears running down her face.  But she kept going, shooting the burning sphere down the far side of the mountain and off a cliff, wind whipping in her ears.  The sheer acceleration made her dizzy, but her Joining vocations kept her from passing out.

Grace was silent, her face contorted in agony from the strain on her Pith.

They shot through the blizzard, past trees and rocks and snow, as the fire’s heat burned Florence’s face.  Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.  Just a little further.  If she went a little further, it would be enough.

Her skin started to smoke.  The screeching headache multiplied again, overwhelming the rest of her thoughts.

The world blurred out of focus, and she blinked.

When she opened her eyes, the ground was right in front of her.

Florence jerked herself up, blowing with the wind.  Too slow.  The sphere slammed into the ground, bursting apart, and Florence crashed into a snowdrift.  Something snapped in her leg.

After a few seconds, the headache faded, replaced by a sharp, stabbing pain in her thigh.  She projected into the snow above her, digging herself out.

Florence limped forward, the dark blizzard howling around her.  The fire had gone out, making it hard to see more than a few yards in front of her.

Grace stumbled out of the storm and fell to her knees, coughing.  In front of her, three of the commandos became visible, lying on their backs.  Breathing, but barely moving otherwise.  They must have spent all their energy protecting their bodies from the fire.

Where’s the fourth?

Grace pushed herself upright, and a hand punched through her blue armor, exploding out of her stomach.

The fourth commando stood behind her, and yanked out her arm, stained red up to her elbow.  Grace collapsed, blood spilling out of her mouth.

The Shenti’s mask had come off, and her uniform had been reduced to burnt rags, but her face and body were untouched.  In an instant, Florence recognized her.  The long black hair.  The deep red lips and pale skin and flawless beauty.

The Immaculate Vanguard.  The strongest Joiner in all of Shenten – in all the Eight Oceans.  The woman who stood at the right hand of The Black Tortoise.

Florence blew a gust at her.  The Immaculate Vanguard sidestepped it with ease, darting forward and drawing a red Voidsteel hook sword.

The blade moved in a blur.

And Florence’s hands fell off.

Her arms exploded with pain, and she dropped onto her back, spurting blood onto the snow.

But through the agony, through the fear, Florence felt a sense of peace.  Of satisfaction.

She and Grace would be executed, or worse.  Most of their unit had been wiped out in a matter of minutes.

But now, the rest stood a chance of escaping.  Isaac could get a new body.  Rowyna could live the rest of her life.  The best parts of Florence and Grace would live on in their memories.

As the world faded away, and the Vanguard approached, Florence knew she’d made the right choice.

________________________________________

In the coming years, Florence would come to question that decision.

By the time the Shenti got them into new bodies with Null Venom, and dragged them to the interrogation room, both Florence and Grace had wiped all critical memories.  On the faint chance that they ever got back, the information would be easy to re-learn, and now they were useless as sources to the enemy. Florence’s new body was mousy, short, older – vastly different than the chassis she knew. Joining would be near-impossible, but that didn’t matter now.

And the Shenti hated Whisper projection, so there was almost no risk of being hijacked, thank the Scholars.

The Shenti could try and force them to share their Vocations, but writing the codices would take years.

Florence said as much during their first conversation, and pretty quick, the interrogators realized she was telling the truth.

Florence and Grace were feeling pretty clever with themselves.

Then the interrogators sent them to a redemption camp.

They were blindfolded and driven up in trucks, on bumpy, winding roads that made Florence nauseous.  The prisoners were cuffed to each other, and the truck never stopped, so after the first few hours of agony, Florence pissed herself.  The stench and the chill from her damp pants lingered with her on the splintering wooden bench.  That was the first humiliation.

After an eternity, the truck pulled to a stop.  The prisoners were herded out, and someone pulled the blindfolds off.

Florence squinted, the grey morning light stinging her eyes.  Her vision cleared, and she got the first glimpse of her new home.

A vast tundra spread out before her, every inch covered in yellow grass or snow.  A tall barbed-wire fence stretched across it as far as the eye could see, and in the middle, a simple wooden gate had been built.  Where the fuck are we?

No insignia.  No dramatic words scrawled on the entrance.  If it weren’t for the red and gold flags and the Shenti soldiers, she could have mistaken it for some country farm.

Florence had no coat, and in this new body, no access to the tiny handful of Joining vocations she knew.  The cold bit into her skin, making her shiver.  Her hands hung limp and grey from her wrists.  The Immaculate Vanguard’s Voidsteel blade had sliced through her Pith, so even in a new body, they would crumble into dust within a week or two.

A bulky Shenti man climbed up a ladder to a raised platform by the gate.  Another barked out an order, and the soldiers stood at attention.  All eyes turned to him.

Time to find out what this is all about.  Dissidents and those deemed mentally defective had fewer rights under Cao Hui’s regime, but they’d heard nothing about mass imprisonment.

“The era of humanity’s treacherous sloth is over!” he cried in Shenti.  “This is your redemption.  You have committed a grave offense against the state.  You are as locusts, leeching off the hard-earned goods of the people.  For this, your privileges have been curbed.  The privilege of unbound feet.  The privilege of reproduction.  The privilege of food.”

No one spoke back.  The men and women beside Florence stared up with dead eyes.

“Prove you are not a locust, and you shall earn these privileges back.  Prove your intellect, and your diligence, and you will ascend into the light, to live amongst your betters in this enlightened nation.“

Then, he smiled.

“One way or another, you will get the fate you deserve.”

And that was it.  Florence and Grace were no longer Guardians, or soldiers of the Principality, or even humans.  They were locusts, though it took them some time to realize it.

“When I get a weapon,” Florence muttered to Grace.  “The first thing I’m going to do is slaughter that eastern dog.”

But the first person they killed wasn’t a guard.  It was another prisoner.  An innocent woman.

First, Florence had to learn the meaning of hunger.

It wasn’t the ache from when she skipped meals at Paragon, or the pangs from when she got sick.  It wasn’t even the intense, stabbing pain she’d felt after a month of rationing in the field.

No, true hunger was a whole identity.  After a certain point, you became unrecognizable to yourself.  You stopped caring about things and started sleepwalking through your new life, and your determination seeped out through your belly.

The camp allotted two meals a day to its prisoners.  Rice in the morning, soybeans at night.  Cold, unflavored, filling only a fraction of a bowl.  Sometimes, on good days, they caught rats or snakes in the camp, and could cook them in a fire.  The guards didn’t mind if they ate those, since they fertilized their farms with human waste and pests were common.

But mostly, they just starved.

Florence’s abdomen swelled up, becoming bloated.  Her periods stopped.  Her skin turned dry and flaky, cracking at the edges, making every movement painful.  The sweaty parts of her body took on a rotting stench, made worse by the fact that they rarely got to change clothes.

And the hunger made everything harder to bear.

Every day, she and Grace would force themselves out of the women’s dorm, covered in aches and pains from the unheated concrete floor they slept on.  A guard would order the prisoners into a line, and they would trudge to a factory inside the camp, shuffling through the snow and wet grass.  In the smoke-filled building, a Shenti woman with a cigarette screamed instructions at them, putting them to work at various parts of an assembly line.  With her hands chopped off and no projection, Florence could only pick up boxes and operate foot pedal machines.

The pieces got assembled at another factory, so it took Florence a day or two to figure out what she and Grace were making.  Tank treads.  They were making tanks for the Shenti military.

At first, she’d thought of performing silent resistance, half-assing her work to weaken the Shenti war machine.  But at the end of each week, the man or woman who did the most work received an extra bowl of rice.

Florence held off, for the first few months.  And then, it became too tempting to resist.  She loathed herself for it, whispered a thousand words of disgust as she shivered herself to sleep.  You should be escaping, she told herself.  Or dead.  Better than this shame.

But she still went for it.  Florence made tank treads with desperate fervor.  All for the hope of earning that one extra bowl.

But with no projection, and no hands, it was almost impossible.  Everything was almost impossible.  Grace had to open doors for her, spoon food into her mouth, even help her go to the bathroom in the pit dug next to the dorm.  It humiliated her, made her cry at night, when everyone else was asleep.  Pathetic.  They’d made her so pathetic.

But still, Florence was grateful.  Without her squadmate, she would have died in under a month.  Grace nearly broke herself to keep her squadmate alive.

Then, the tests.  Every month, they took a variation on the Civil Examination, the same one every Shenti citizen was required to take.  Pattern recognition.  Spatial reasoning.  ‘Which shape does not belong?’  Short term memory.  Mathematics and logic.  Memorizing passages from The Ninety-Nine Precepts, and Cao Hui’s speeches.

There was even a verbal variant that Florence could take without having to write anything.  Even for a lowly prisoner such as her, they took the time to give her exam after exam, making her speak the answers out loud.

At first, Florence and Grace aced them.  Next to the material at Paragon, it was nothing.

And then, they got harder.  And harder.  The first few times, Florence thought they were ramping up the difficulty, but that wasn’t it.

The tests weren’t getting smarter.  The two of them were getting dumber.

Paragon liked to talk about the noble supremacy of the Pith over the body, but with her body breaking down, her mind was weak, useless.  With no joining, and Null Venom regularly injected, she was no better than a Humdrum.  And she didn’t even have ideas for an escape plan.

The one thing she improved on was her knowledge of Caoism.  She’d studied it from intelligence briefings, but she understood the system now on a deeper level.

In the redemption camp, the prisoners were organized with ‘Economic Scores’ of zero through seven.  The rest of the Shenti meritocracy consisted of scores eight through ninety-nine, signifying how much value they added to society.  A critical scientist or CEO might have one in the mid-eighties.  A foot soldier might be in the thirties.

And an intellectual cripple would come here.  Within the camp, dissidents and prisoners of war were near the bottom, with a base economic score of two.  Florence and Grace were even lower – a score of one.

At zero, you weren’t worth the price of feeding.  A one, at least, could perform manual labor.  At two, you got a dorm with a coal fire to warm you at night.  At three, you got twice as much food.  At four, you got bedding.  At five, less painful jobs at the factory.

And at eight, you got to leave.  You were a human again.

Every week, they would read stories of men and women who had redeemed themselves, becoming productive, intelligent, high-scoring members of society.  The era of humanity’s treacherous sloth is over.

But Florence hadn’t seen anyone gain more than a point or two.  Her and Grace’s cognitive test scores should have helped, but this far down, it still wasn’t enough.

After a while, the days blended together.  Florence forgot how long she’d been in this camp, began to forget life outside.  In the first weeks, she’d imagined eating at the Paragon dining room, drinking mulled cider in the warm common room with Rowyna, escaping this horrible nightmare.

But now?  Now, she didn’t imagine anything.

Pain had a way of narrowing your thoughts.  When you were in constant agony, it was almost impossible to imagine a world without eternal misery.  Comfort and peace seemed foreign, absurd.

Yes, she thought.  Pain could give you tunnel vision.

One day, a Shenti Joiner visited the camp, the first other projector they’d seen in ages.  He smiled at them and had them escorted to a heated room on the far side of the camp, where he revealed an entire platter of roast duck.

Grace helped Florence devour them, so fast the bones cut into the inside of her cheek, sauce dribbling down their chins.  They both knew this was going to be a one-time thing.

Then, the man offered moist towels to clean themselves, and bowed to them.  “I have never faced you directly,” he said.  “But as I’ve heard, you were formidable opponents, who served your nation well and always upheld your duty.”

Here comes the whaleshit.  Florence could bear it from Humdrum guards, but hearing it from someone on her level was somehow worse.

“Others may disagree with me, but I hold you both in high respect.  As soldiers, as projectors, we can give each other that courtesy.  We inhabit a world the Humdrums cannot even dream of, and – ”

“Get to the point, you smirking gutter rat,” said Florence, her voice hoarse.  She knew it was a bad idea, but she couldn’t take any more of this posturing.  “You want my Vocation codex, right?  And hers, I assume.  You want us to write them for you.”

It made sense.  Null Venom wasn’t cheap, why else would they have kept injecting them with it?

“And in return, you’ll take us out of here, and give us a warm house and a puppy and a mountain of stupid fucking waterfowl to stuff down?”

“A Principian,” he said.  “Lecturing me on food.  Don’t you eat sheep stomachs?”

Grace shot her a look, as if to say shut up.

“When this is over,” Florence said, smiling.  “We’ll be sitting where you’re sitting.  In your living rooms and restaurants and ugly government buildings.  And we’ll be eating your duck.”

He kept smiling at them.  But at the end of the meeting, the soldiers took her to a different truck than Grace, blindfolding her again.  She thought they were taking her to be executed, until they dragged her to a surgical table.

When she woke up, the headache was agony.  The duck man sat at the foot of her bed, still smiling, and explained how a Joiner had modified her body, making it impossible for her Pith to leave.  The Shenti didn’t believe in artificial chassis, or in transferring bodies.

I was an experiment.  Now, the Shenti could lock anyone inside their body.

Decades ago, Semer Bekyn, a pneumatologist from a small village, had created the first fabricated bodies.  A true miracle of modern science.  And now, the eastern dogs could wipe that all out.  They could trap a soul for an eternity, to satisfy their sick religion.

The man patted her cheek.  “Thank you,” he said.  “For the work your body has done for Shenten.”

Then they sent her back to the camp.  Alive, still injected with Null Venom, now trapped inside this body for the rest of her life.  They’re still waiting for us to break.

That was the last time she talked back to the Shenti.

One winter, a nasty case of kesou fever swept through the camp.  Grace spent a week curled under a blanket, shaking and retching as Florence tended to her and gave her a 

portion of her food.  Without Joining or other projection, there was nothing else to be done.  

Florence’s body seemed to have natural immunity, but the others didn’t.  In the Principality, kesou fever was easily treated with medical care.  Here, over a dozen died in her dorm, with dozens more unable to work.  So the guards cut their rations again.

One of the prisoners in the women’s dorm, they didn’t know her name, begged for extra rice for her brother, who had been given an economic score of zero.  Florence refused.  Grace was still recovering, and she needed regular meals to avoid a secondary infection.

The prisoner bowed her head, polite, murmuring that she understood.

Then, three hours later, she tried to kill her.

Florence was eating with Grace, sitting on the grass on the side of their dorm.  Grace fed herself a few grains, then Florence, as they stared out at the view.

On the north side, there weren’t as many factories and dorms dotting the tundra.  You could see all the way to the electric fence, and beyond to the rolling hills and mountains of Shenten.

In this light, it almost looked beautiful.

To her right, bare feet made a soft thumping noise on the grass.  She spun to look.  The woman from before rushed towards them, a rock clutched in her bony hand.  Her eyes were wide, bloodshot.  She wants our food.

Remembering her close-quarters training, Florence jerked forward and side kicked the woman in her solar plexus, using her momentum against her.

The prisoner dropped back.  Her head slammed against the wooden wall of the dorm with a thud, and she fell unconscious.

Florence dragged her back into the dorms and gave her the blanket she’d scavenged.  It was the least she could do.

Then, the woman didn’t get better.  When she woke up, she was weak and delirious, dry heaving, too weak to even get off the floor.  After a few days, her condition worsened, and she was designated a zero herself.  Two nights later, a pair of guards dragged her corpse out of the dormitory.

Florence asked around.  The woman’s name was Wan Guo, a farmer who’d been sent here for protesting Cao Hui’s regime.  And I killed her.

Despite the exhaustion, despite the hunger and dizziness, Florence stayed awake for three straight nights.

And she realized, that if she’d gone back, if she’d known Wan Guo’s name, that she was an innocent woman, Florence would have done the same thing.  The other prisoners were just like her – they weren’t companions, they were competition.

After losing her hands, after being trapped in this body and enduring starvation, beatings, excruciating nonstop work, that was the point when Florence finally understood.  Locusts.  We are locusts.

That was the first time she wiped her memory.

The technique was a Praxis vocation, not Whisper.  Null Venom only blocked external projection, so she could still use this one.  It was called Memory Encryption.  It let you scramble memories within your Pith, so they could only be accessed with a key.  The technique was easy, but uncommon, mostly used for spycraft.

First, Florence encrypted the memory of her killing Wan Guo.  Grace remembered that, and could tell Florence if necessary.

Then she looked back through her recent memories, and encrypted them too.  She kept everything critical – the things could help her and Grace survive or escape – how to work the factory, memorized passages from The Ninety-Nine Precepts, and the snippets she overheard from guards.

But she dumped the rest.  The long nights she’d spent awake, hungry and shivering.  The excruciating days of work, that turned into nights as her muscles shook from the exertion.  When she fell behind quotas, and the guards decided to punish her.

And when the camp faded away, Rowyna’s face became clear in her mind.  Her sharp eyes, her triumphant smile, her warm, steady hands holding Florence’s.

Grace never encrypted her memories.  She knew the vocation too, but she held onto every day like it was the most important experience of her life.

Every night, Florence curled up on the concrete floor, running through the day’s events and sealing away most of it.  And Grace sat across from her, leaning against the wall, staring forward.

To other prisoners, her expression might look cold, blank, like all emotion had been drained out of her face.  But Florence knew better.

Grace was angry.  That was rage bubbling beneath her flat, obsessive stare.

And every night, Grace sat in the same position, stared at the same point, and got angrier.  

With the memory wipes, and the hunger, Florence was even more adrift in time.  Every day felt like a lifetime, and yet they all blurred together.  Every night she died, and was reborn in the morning.  Every day, she endured the same agony, and yet it felt fresh every time.  What manner of atrocities have I forgotten?

And so, she wasn’t sure how long it had been when Grace approached her one night, pulling her out of the pitch-black dorm to look over the camp.  At this hour, no guards were walking about.  No prisoners.  Only grass and snow and darkness.

An icy wind blew across the tundra, making Florence shake.  Her breath turned to thick fog.

“Why are we here?” she mumbled, her voice weak.  Through the holes in her shirt, she could see her ribs, sticking out of her chest like black keys on a piano.

Grace pointed at the tiny pale lights in the distance – the watchtowers ringing the camp, and the electric fence stretched between them.  “We’re leaving in two weeks,” she said.  “I have a plan.”

Purple lightning flickered in her eyes, lighting up the darkness.

________________________________________

And then, Florence’s memories cut off.

The next coherent thing she could recall was waking up in a hospital bed, strapped to an IV in a military care center.  The table next to her overflowed with flowers, cards, and gift baskets.

Over the next few days, Florence became certain that this was a trick, some elaborate mind game from the Shenti to lull her into a false sense of security.  When she felt safe, the rug would get yanked out from under her, and she would go back to the redemption camp, to sink even deeper into despair.

Then Florence found a business card under a gift basket, dark blue and purple, covered in diamond patterns and blocky, simple lettering:

Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273

Then, the phone calls began pouring in, along with the debriefings from counterintelligence.  And Florence had to cope with a possibility far stranger than psychological torture:

I’m free.  Somehow, in that frozen hell, Grace’s plan had worked.

Florence checked her records: The memories from that were encrypted, not wiped.  The escape is non-critical information.  And remembering it would be painful.

News came in, in secure manila envelopes to be viewed away from the Humdrum nurses.  Isaac, Rowyna, and Grace were all alive and healthy.  The war still raged on, and the Shenti’s industry was pushing the Principality back, inch by inch, conquering more of the Eight Oceans.  When she got out of the hospital, they would need her again, to fight the secret part of the war.

Inch by inch, Florence let herself relax.  She’d have lingering trauma from this, but had been spared from the worst of it.  All the most agonizing memories were encrypted in her Pith.

But what would happen next?  She had no idea.

Gradually, the null venom wore off and she regained her abilities.  I will kiss Rowyna again.  She would hug Grace, thank her a thousand times.  She would share a drink with Isaac.  She would fight by their side, and forge a host of new memories, ones she would never forget.

The nurses had been spoon-feeding her applesauce and yogurt and rice, but her appetite and strength were returning.

For her next meal, she had roast duck, fat, rare and crispy.  And she ate it with projection.

________________________________________

Florence Tuft, the Scholar of Air, the Harpy, was having a shit day.

That was hardly surprising.  Most of her days were shit.  But today had been even more mediocre and frustrating than usual.

First, her plane had broken down in the middle of a flight, some complex engine issue that would take days to diagnose, let alone solve.

Then she’d delivered a weak, half-baked tactics lecture, written at the last minute after a busy night.  And then none of her third-year students had corrected her errors.  Either they were too stupid to recognize the problems, or too scared of her to point them out.

Either way, she’d let them down as a teacher.

And, worst of all, the weekend had begun.  Among the projectors and pilots she commanded, she heard mountains of chit-chat about people’s plans – concerts, and parties, and romantic dinners.

Florence’s plan was to eat takeout and watch television.

It was not a good plan.

Her go-to Shenti restaurant was out of duck, and there were only a handful in all of Elmidde – Principality banks weren’t all that friendly to eastern foreigners looking to open new restaurants.  So she had to settle for a shitty joint in Midtown.  Their roast duck tasted like chalk coated in salt.

And nothing good was on TV right now, so she just flipped back and forth between the channels, waiting for something interesting to happen.

She sank back onto her fur couch, staring at the Hightown house she’d bought with her Guardian’s salary.  Big windows, huge rooms, designer furniture, a big kitchen island.  All the amenities you could dream of.  And empty, except for her.

Then she went through her mail, because there was nothing else to do.  Much of it consisted of arranged marriage feelers being sent out from Epistocrat families, to see if she’d like to marry this or that lord.  With her war history and position as the Scholar of Air, it was easy to imagine why, even if she wasn’t an epistocrat.  Projection potential had some element of genetic lineage, but no one knew how much.  And skilled projectors tended to produce skilled children, regardless of their parentage.

She projected into the offers, flung them into the trash, and noticed a glint of something at the back of the drawer, pulling it out.  A business card.  Purple and blue.

Captain Grace Acworth
Foreign Intelligence | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273

It was the one she’d given her after they first escaped the redemption camp.  Something like a decade ago, when nobody knew what a redemption camp was.  For some reason, it was still among her stuff, buried beneath the clutter.

Florence floated it between her stumps and focused, creating a fire along its surface.  In a few seconds, the business card turned into a blackened crisp.  It, too, went in the trash.

The truth was, Florence didn’t lack social skills, but thanks to the war, Revenant Squad had been her only friends.  And after they broke up, it had been so hard to make new ones as an adult, especially when her jobs were so demanding.

And after Rowyna rejected me.  To saddle herself with some simpering fool who owned a newspaper company, just a few years before the newspaper went under.

As for romance, that was out of the question.  She was dead-average to the normal population, but a hag next to the other women at Paragon.  I’m repulsive.  A simple fact, obvious to anyone who looked.  And, thanks to some eastern dog a decade ago, she’d be stuck like this until she died.

And if she was found with another woman, there would be demotions, lost connections, angry bosses.  Her career wouldn’t tank, but it would take some serious steps back.  That sort of thing was allowed in Ilaqua and Neke, but she wasn’t about to move there any time soon.

So, she lived with the loneliness.  And every night, she did what she’d promised never to do again.

Once the duck sank to the bottom of her stomach, Florence sank back onto the couch, listened to the pouring rain, and ran through the memories of the day.

The broken engine?  Important.  The failed lecture?  Important, if she wanted to improve.  The paperwork and strategy meetings and training?  Important, important, important.  Since the Conclave of the Wise had been disbanded, the Humdrum-led Parliament insisted on mountains of red tape and documentation for everything.  Bloody bureaucrats.

Then, she encrypted the rest.  The mediocre conversations, the dull and frustrating hours of pointless whaleshit.  The moments where she could feel her brain fluid dripping out of her ears.  All gone in a few seconds.

After all these years, the keys to unlock them were still burned into her Pith, but she hadn’t decrypted a single one.

And unlike her time at the camp, these weren’t traumatic memories.  Just reminders of a lonely existence, pissed away a day at a time.

The phone rang, and she projected into it, lifting it to her ear.  In the middle of a rainstorm, Commonplace had incited more riots.  The police were struggling with the deluge, and were requesting for Paragon’s Guardians to assist them.

Florence changed out of her pajamas and glasses, sliding on her armored blue flight suit and goggles.

If she was lucky, she’d be able to forget all this by sunrise.

But she doubted it.

________________________________________

Isaac strode out of the waiting room, back into his office.

Florence leaned closer to Rowyna, talking in an undertone.  “So,” she muttered.  “Am I dreaming right now?  We’re going to try to kill Grace.”

“Not try,” said Rowyna, tying her blonde hair back in a tight bun.  “You’re not going to go hug her, are you?  She killed Professor Keswick, and who knows how many others.”

“Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“In this case?  Yes.”

“And it’s not that simple,” said Florence.  “Why would Grace try to bring down the Principality?  The Shenti must have hijacked her.  Brin said there’s evidence that they’re supporting Commonplace.”

“The eastern dogs hate Whisper projection.  Why use it now?”

“Desperation,” said Florence.  “Warlord Qian has hired the Droll Corsairs before, and that would be more than enough.  They’d just need to catch her with her guard down.”

“Grace Acworth, let her guard down?  Ridiculous.”

“You know, not everyone’s a cold, logical husk of careerism like you are.  Some people have these things called ‘feelings’, that cause them to make mistakes.  Grace wouldn’t do this without hijacking.  I know her.”

“Do you?” said Rowyna.  “Or did you wipe those memories too?”  Rowyna’s glare cut into her.  “You’re still doing it, aren’t you?”

Florence fell silent for a moment.  That was all the answer Rowyna needed.

“Pot, kettle, black,” said Florence.  “There’s enough fucked-up geniuses in Paragon to fill a dozen asylums.  If you took away their tea and scones and doilies, half of them would probably off themselves within a week.  And you’re no exception.”

“I don’t eat anything sweet,” said Rowyna.

“Right,” said Florence.  “That explains a lot, actually.”  Her voice got quieter.  “We could have stayed friends.  After Grace.  We could have looked out for each other, kept each other sane.  But instead – “

“Do you like me?” said Rowyna.  “Do you still like me?”

The first time she uttered those words, they had been uncertain, but with a softer undertone.  Now, they were an accusation.

“Do you want the polite answer?” said Florence.  “Or the honest one?”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“Of course I still like you, you stuck-up bird.”  Florence raised her voice.  “You’re red-hot and competent and distant and I have terrible taste.”

Rowyna glanced at her blonde Maxine Clive chassis in a mirror, making eye contact with herself.  “I don’t even have the same body as before.”

“Who gives a shit?” said Florence.  “Everyone in Paragon is beautiful, except me.  It’s you I was attracted to.  The explosive fucking brilliance in your Pith.”

Rowyna held her gaze.  “Do you remember the time we spent together, or did you erase that too?”

Florence had considered it.  A lot of those memories had been happy in the moment, but were tinged with pain now.

But it had also been her anchor during the agony of the camp, a dear friend to hold onto through the nightmare.  If she encrypted that, she wasn’t sure who she’d become.

“No,” said Florence.  “I didn’t erase them.”  And, if they survived tonight, she would decrypt the memories of her escape with Grace, so they’d know as much as possible about their enemy.  The process took too long to finish in the next few hours.

“And are you going to erase your memories after tonight?”

“No.”  Florence stared out a window on the far side of the room, into the pitch-black rain.  “But I wish I could.  I wish I could erase it all, and wake up with a fresh start.”  She grit her teeth.  “But I can’t.  My students need me.  My country needs me.”  And for the first time in years, it felt like Isaac and Rowyna needed her.  “But if I could, I’d get rid of it all.”

“Then why’d you keep the decryption keys?”

“What?”

“You told me, the first night we talked after the camp, that you’d kept the decryption keys.  You still have them, don’t you?”

“I taught a class last semester on psychological warfare.  Don’t try to shrink me.”

“So that’s a yes, then.”

Scholars damn her.  But Florence didn’t have an answer to her question.  She had made sure to keep all the decryption keys.

She’d told herself it was a contingency, in case some memories turned out to be important for a mission.  But was that true?

“Did it have to be this way?” said Florence.  With Grace, with Isaac, with her and Florence and everything that had decayed between them.  “Was all this inevitable?”

Rowyna slouched over.  She didn’t have an answer, either.

“I miss you, Row.”  The old you.  Not the admiral.

“I know,” she sighed.  “Me too.”

________________________________________

Revenant Squad leaned off the railing, dropping towards the city through the deceleration field.

The rain and darkness closed in around them, wind whipping in their ears as the lights of Elmidde grew larger below.  Halfway down, Florence unfurled her wingsuit, clipping the ends in place.

The others did the same, and in unison, they spread their arms and legs.  The wings went taut, and they soared forward down Mount Elwar, shooting from Hightown towards Midtown.  From here, Florence could see the line of the riot police and protestors clashing, smell the smoke from the fires that had been set off.

We stop Grace.  That’s how we help them all.

Florence projected into the air with her Vocation, making adjustments to steer herself towards the target house.  And as she flew, she kept thinking about Rowyna’s words.  Why didn’t she throw away the decryption keys?

Some part of her was still holding on.  The same part that knew something terrible had happened to Grace, and that she desperately needed help.

Maybe we can fix her, a part of her whispered.  Maybe Revenant Squad could be together again.  Maybe she could remember tonight, and all the nights to come.

The house came into view.  No witnesses nearby.  Isaac whispered instructions, his voice carried to their ears by Florence’s Vocation.

Thunder boomed, and Florence smashed through the top story window.  A dozen men and women on the couch stood up, eyes widening with terror, hands reaching for their pistols and shotguns.  One of them flipped back into a fighting stance, red lightning crackling around his fists.

And for a moment, Florence was a part of the storm.

Previous Chapter

8-A – Isaac Brin

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Martin didn’t want to change.

After years of being bullied through middle school, he never would have guessed it, but he actually liked the person he’d become.  And though it was easier to gaze forward, and stress about the trials ahead, he was trying to be grateful for this moment in his life.

Martin’s marshmallow caught fire, snapping him back to reality.  He yanked his stick out of the flame, blowing on it until it went out.  Half of it was a perfect golden brown, but the other half had turned a blackened crisp.

Ophelia laughed.  “You were pondering.  You always get that cute distant look when your head’s in the sky.”

Martin sandwiched the half-burnt sweet in between two biscuits, then added a piece of dark chocolate and a handful of sliced strawberries.  He stuffed the entire sandwich into his mouth.  “Shtill amazing thish way.”

“Is it good, then?” his mother said.

To answer, Martin stuck four more marshmallows onto his stick and shoved it back into the fire, his mouth covered with bits of food.  Marshmallow shortcake was his favorite food of all time, and this batch didn’t disappoint.

Everyone around the fire cheered, and bit into theirs.  Now that the birthday boy had taken the first bite, they were free to stuff their faces.

“Have you thought about your decision?” said Martin’s father.

“Give him space,” said his mother.  “It’s his birthday.”

“He’s a man now,” said his father.  “It’s his responsibility, and the earlier he does it, the easier it’ll be.”

Martin smiled at both of them, turning his stick to cook the marshmallows evenly.  “To tell the truth, I’m not sure.  Mr. Thornton’s offer is quite generous, but…”

But it’s so far away.  Caseberde Pharmaceuticals’ stores were all over the Principality, but its headquarters was in Elmidde, on the opposite side of the country.  

One of the supervisors, Mr. Thornton, had offered Martin a job there that would pay at least three times what he could make in Herenport, with unimaginable opportunities if he climbed the corporate ladder high enough.  If he accepted it, he would get on a train in a month, leaving everything behind.

The alternative was obvious – it had been Martin’s life plan until two weeks ago.  Work at his father’s pharmacy, marry Ophelia, and raise a family.  Eventually, he’d inherit the pharmacy, and settle into a world of friends, fishing, and Friday drinks.

He couldn’t pick both – moving to Elmidde would necessitate loans, that Martin could only pay back with a heightened salary.  But after asking all the adults in his life, the consensus was overwhelming: Caseberede Pharmaceuticals was the financially safe choice, in the long term.

But he’d have to leave everything behind.  His parents, his friends, his neighborhood.  Ophelia.  The town he’d lived his entire life in would become a distant memory.

But the conventional wisdom was clear: Financial stability trumped everything else.  He could make new friends, find a new girlfriend, visit his family once a year.  Even if it hurt now, his future self would thank him later.

And yet, at the same time, the mere thought was terrifying.  He’d never worked anything more complicated than a drugstore counter.  He had no idea why Mr. Thornton had selected him for this assistant role, only that the offer was genuine.  He’d have to learn a hundred new skills in a stressful, lightning-fast environment.

And he’d have to do it alone.

Martin lay down on the bench, on Ophelia’s lap.  The fire is warm, the food is delicious, the company is magnificent.  Focus on that.  He finished cooking his marshmallows and made another chocolate-strawberry shortcake, stuffing it into his mouth.

His father popped open the cork on a bottle of red wine, pouring Martin a glass.  “I know you’re not quite twenty, but the cops aren’t exactly going to burst in and ID everyone.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, grinning.  “This can be Martin’s first time drinking.”

Everyone laughed.  They all knew Martin had gone to parties with other teenagers before, but the adults in the room pretended not to notice.

They emptied the bottle in two minutes, passing it around.

“Someone want to grab more from the cellar?” said his father.  “It’s a special occasion.”

Martin pushed himself upright.  “I’ll get it.”

“Pick out whichever one you want,” his mother said.  “Even the one on the top shelf that cost more than our engagement rings.  Consider it a present.”

On instinct, Martin hugged his mother.  “Thank you.”

Then he strode off, away from the fire pit and back towards his house.  His hand hovered on the rear doorknob, and he glanced back at the festivities.

Ophelia laughed at one of his friends’ jokes.  His mother leaned on his father’s shoulder, closing her eyes.  The fire crackled, shooting sparks into the night sky, and the smell of pine trees hung in the air.

This could be the last birthday he had with them.  His friends would move on.  Ophelia would find someone else, or suffer the loneliness of a relationship sustained only by letters and the occasional phone call.

Martin tried to imagine a world without them.  And he couldn’t.

At that moment, standing on his back porch, Martin made his decision.  He didn’t need the money.  Financial stability was a distant second behind his loved ones.  I’m going to stay here.

He opened the door, and strode towards the basement.  He hadn’t the faintest what wine to pick, so he’d just grab a random one and hope it didn’t taste like vinegar.

When he stepped into the basement, it was empty.

What?  Martin had been here hours ago, and it had been filled with food and blankets, with a handful of wine bottles on a shelf somewhere.

Instead of a rug, a thick layer of dust covered the floor, lit by moonlight from the upper-floor window.  Martin flipped the light switch, but the bulb was dead.

“What the – “  He walked back up the stairs.  Something doesn’t feel right.

He strode towards the backyard, calling out.  “Guys?  Do you know where the wine is?  Someone took everything from the basement.”

He heard only silence.

He walked out the back door, and the fire pit was dead, snuffed out, and the ground had turned white.  Martin knelt, touching it.  Snow.  A thin layer of snow had fallen over the backyard.  It’s the middle of summer.  That wasn’t possible, shouldn’t be possible.

“Hello?” Martin yelled.  “Hello?”  His voice rang out through the woods, to no response.

Martin turned back, and froze.  He’d been in such a hurry before, he hadn’t noticed.

The entire house was empty.

Windows were shattered, furniture had vanished.  Vegetation grew up in cracks in the floorboards.  The front door hung open, its hinges covered in rust.  Dust was everywhere, coating the floors, the windowsills, the stairs.

The entire place looked like it had been abandoned for years.

An icy wind blew through the door, and Martin shivered.  What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.  He’d been in this hallway minutes ago, and it had been fine.  This was his house, that he cooked and showered and slept in.  And in an instant, it had become a ruin.

“Guys?” he said, panic slipping into his voice.  “Selyne?  Ophelia?”  He jogged out of the front door, onto the street.  The other houses around him were abandoned too, or gone.

His entire neighborhood was a ghost town.

“Ophelia?” he yelled, running onto the sidewalk.  “Mom?  Dad?”  His stomach ached.  “Mom?”  He sprinted through the streets, shouting until his throat burned, feeling dizzier and dizzier by the minute.

No one answered.

Martin leaned against a darkened street lamp, wheezing.  Why is this happening?  Scholars, why me?

A voice called out in the distance, piercing the silence.  “Isaac?”

He jolted upright, shouting back.  “Hello?  Hello?”

“Isaac!”  A young woman’s voice.  “Isaac!”

Isaac?  Could other people be missing?

He ran towards the source of the noise, shouting back, winding through streets and alleyways.  The snow crunched beneath his boots.

Finally, he turned a corner, to see four people running towards him.  Three young women his age, and a middle-aged, handsome man, all decked out in some kind of armor.

As soon as they saw him, a look of relief spread across their faces.  The man knelt, speaking into a radio.  “Revenant Squad to seven-two.  We found him.”

One of them, a girl with short brown hair, ran up to him and hugged him.  “Isaac,” she breathed.  “Thank the Scholars, you’re alright.”

Martin pushed away from her.

“Oh,” she said.  “Sorry, sorry.  Should have asked before I hugged you.  How are you feeling?”

“Who are you?” said Martin.  “Where’s my family?  Where’s Ophelia?”  He leaned on his knees, catching his breath.  “And who the fuck is Isaac?”

The looks of relief melted away.

“Oh, Scholars,” another girl whispered.  “Did someone – did someone hijack him?”  She stepped forward.  “Do you know what your name is?  Where you are?  What year is it?”

What the fuck?  “501,” he said.

The three women nodded at him.  Who doesn’t know what year it is?

“This is Herenport, in the Principality.  And my name is Martin Clavell.”

The girl who’d hugged Martin started crying, turning away from him.

The one who’d been questioning him closed her eyes, taking deep breaths.  “What kind of monster would do this?” she said.  “Why?”

The armored man got a faraway look in his eyes and started muttering nonsensical jargon into the radio.

And the third young woman, the one who hadn’t said a word.  She just stared at him.

“That’s – that’s not the name of this town,” the second girl said, having difficulty speaking.  “This is Essne, and – it hasn’t been inhabited for over fifty years.”

“No,” said Martin.  “That’s ridiculous.  I live here, my family lives here.  I can give you dozens of names of the neighbors on my block, they just – “  Vanished.  He felt hot tears gathering at the edges of his eyes.   “No, no.  I was with my family, and my girlfriend Ophelia just ten minutes ago in my backyard.  Have you seen anyone nearby, a tall, skinny blonde man, a girl with curly dark hair, a woman with – “

“Your name is Isaac Brin,” the second girl said.  “You’re a nineteen-year-old student at Paragon Academy, and you were with us on a mission to investigate remnants of a criminal Whisper Specialist.  You were with us half an hour ago when you vanished.”

Whisper Specialist?  Paragon Academy?  None of those phrases made sense to him.

She turned to the man talking on the radio.  “Can you fix him?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“It’s a simple question.”

“It’s really not.”

Fix me?  Martin felt sick, dizzy.  Everything was moving so fast, and all of it was nonsensical.  And the wind was so cold.  It’s summer.  It’s summer.  It’s summer.

Martin would have given anything to be back by the fire with everyone, eating marshmallow shortcake and gulping wine.  To wake up from this horrible, freezing nightmare.

A stabbing stomachache hit him, and he knelt on the cold snow, doubling over.  “I want to go home,” he whispered.  “I want to go home, I want to go home.  I want to go home.”

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up, blinking away the blur of tears.  The silent girl of the trio stood over him.  “I’m Grace.  You don’t remember me, but we’ve been friends for years, and you’ve pulled me out of a lot of fires.”

“What?” said Martin.

She scribbled down a number on a card, handing it to him.  “They’re going to put you in a recovery hospital, but when you get access to a phone, if you ever want to talk, call me.”

Martin read the card:

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

Grace Acworth knelt on the snow beside Martin, and hugged him.  The air was cold around Martin, but she felt warm, like a raging fire.  “We’re going to find the people who did this,” she said.  “We’re going to find them.”

________________________________________

Isaac Brin read the card:

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

The ink had faded over time, but the writing was still legible.  Looking at it always brought back bad memories.

But still, a necessary reminder.

I am surrounded by enemies.  Competent enemies.  Almost too many to fathom, and yet it was his job to fathom them.

His leg bounced up and down in his chair, as his mind ran over the ones he knew.

In the Neke Islands, a terrorist cell run by an unknown woman was growing fast.  They’d eclipse Paragon’s intelligence apparatus within the year.

To the south, the Locus of the Harmonious Flock, nicknamed ‘the smartest woman in the world’, had assassinated and replaced fifty-seven of the most powerful people in Ilaqua.  And he had no idea why.

Though it wasn’t the biggest, the most urgent threat was Commonplace, and more importantly, its backers.  Tunnel Vision in the mob.  The Broadcast King’s media empire.  And though he couldn’t prove it, the Shenti too.  They spoke publicly with reasonable-sounding positions – disbanding the house of lords, justice for mental hijacking, redistribution of bodies.  Uniting the Common Foundation of the Principality.  But the group’s real aim was to overthrow the whole government.

And, the bastards had taken his daughter’s eye.

Isaac’s leg bounced faster, and his chest tightened.

Something banged, and he almost jumped out of his chair, shaking the vase of lilies on his desk.  Someone’s knocking at the door.

Probability, enemy is outside door: Low

Low wasn’t zero.

Brin checked the darts he’d hidden around his windowless office, hard to notice with a simple projection scan. Paragon’s security headquarters was one of the most secure places in the world, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.

Then he checked his three alarms: the obvious one, the backup, and the third one, three stories below.  All ready.

Finally, he confirmed that his panic seal was intact and ready to go.  It had been installed in his Pith by his right-hand woman, Sigrith, and if he felt himself being mentally hijacked, he could break the seal in an instant.  Only Sigrith could install that specific panic seal again, and with it broken, anyone in his department could look at his soul and know he was compromised.

Of course, the seal wouldn’t help him if the enemy moved fast.  But it was better than nothing.

Another knock.  Sarra had complained about his overthinking, the paranoia that had made him cancel a third of his social plans.  He’d even been late for their wedding.

But she hadn’t seen the reports he did.

Isaac opened the door.

A young man stood in the hallway, smiling at him.  It was Avery, one of the new hires.  Though everyone he knew looked in their twenties or thirties, the boy’s stylish green hair and violet eyes gave away his youth.

No weapons, Whisper Specialist, Gold-Ranked, Vocation induces temporary paralysis.  Probability, subject a direct threat: Low.

“Hi,” Avery said.

“Three-eight-one-nine-seven-thirteen pond caldera,” said Isaac, prompting the boy’s subconscious key.

“Eight-Nine-One Ultimatum,” Avery said, the correct response, dredged up from his subconscious.  Then, Brin wiped the last few seconds from the boy’s mind, preserving the key’s nature.

That was the basic level, one that every Paragon student knew.  Next, they exchanged messages with signatures from their private keys, then decrypted them with the public counterpart.  That vocation had only been developed a decade ago.  Mastering it was now one of the main qualifications for working in this department.  A rare skill, even at Paragon.

“You sent for me, sir?” Avery said.

Probability, subject an imposter in this body: Low.

“Yes,” Isaac said.  “Please, come in.”  He hated socializing, but still made a habit of getting to know everyone in the department.  If anyone was acting out of character, he’d notice right away.

Isaac sat down at his desk.  Avery sat down across from him.

“This isn’t anything formal,” said Isaac.  “I’m just trying to get to know all the new hires, and answer any questions you might have.  I know you got top grades at Paragon, but the environment here’s a lot different.”

“Of course,” said Avery, flashing Isaac a nervous, overcompensating smile.  “That’s great, because I have a few questions about efficiency.”

“Efficiency?” said Isaac.

“The security checks,” Avery said.  “The verifications, the ten thousand passwords and recording our location every hour.  I’m not saying they’re all useless it’s just…we do so many of them.  I’ve talked with the guys in accounting, and our budget is constantly stretched.”

Probability, trying to undermine security: Low.

“I’m not saying we cut all of it, but if we make some strategic choices, we can spend more money on recruiting agents, vocation research, that sort of thing.”

Isaac internally rolled his eyes.  Every time some young hotshot came in fresh out of Paragon, they thought they knew better than everyone and could fix the system with a snap of their fingers.

“Do you know what a Berwick Scenario is?” said Isaac.

“Don’t think so, sir.”

“Not many do.”  Isaac’s leg started bouncing.  “A hundred and fifty-nine years ago, Paragon Academy had a lord in charge of internal security, but the system was old and withering, based on simple Humdrum concepts.  A Whisper Specialist used their Vocation to take control of Lord Osgood Berwick, the man who used to live in this office.”

“How?” said Avery.  “Berwick was a legendary fighter, wasn’t he?”

“His house’s location was exposed,” said Isaac.  “Even legendary fighters have to sleep.  Once they had Berwick, they used his body to take control of his right-hand man.  Then another.  It only took them a month to control the entire department.  Then another two months for the military, followed by the Conclave of the Wise.”

“How did they defeat the Whisper Specialist?” said Avery.

“They didn’t,” said Isaac.  “Whoever it was, they were very old.  Their Pith decayed.  We never even found out their name.”

“So that’s where Whisper-Sec comes in, right?”’

“That was when we got serious about it, yes.”  Isaac’s leg bounced faster.  “Due to a random mental check scheduled for tonight, you had to cancel a dinner date, yes?”

Avery glanced at the floor.  “Yes, sir.”

“You would rather we schedule them in advance, yes?  So that our members can have a social life.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sure,” said Isaac.  “But let’s consider: What if I’ve been hijacked?”

Avery swallowed.  “Sorry, sir?”

“What if we try your plan, and I’ve been hijacked?  When you go on that date tonight, the person who’s controlling me snatches the girl’s body in advance and uses it to hijack you, too.  You invite your co-workers over for drinks the next day, get them too.  Before your next scheduled check, the person in charge of monitoring you has already been taken over.”

“I think I understand,” Avery said.

“Within the next year, the entire country will have been taken over.”  Isaac folded his hands on the desk.  “Now, would you like to guess how many times a Berwick Scenario has been attempted here since the first one?”

Avery shrugged.  “Whatever I think is probably wrong.”

“Eighty-nine,” said Isaac.  “And some of them got close.”

Avery swallowed.  “Do people like me frighten you, Professor Brin?”

Probability, subject attempting psychological probe: high.  But it could be benign.

“Yes,” said Isaac.  His stomach ached, tying itself in knots.  “But fear can be rational.  Humans evolved it so they wouldn’t get eaten, or die of disease.  It’s my job to be afraid.”

I am surrounded by enemies.

Isaac thought back the night he met Anabelle Gage, one of his mercenaries, with a powerful Whisper Vocation.  While he was hovering over her boat, there had been a moment where he had almost launched a second dart at her head.

Isaac had come this close to killing her.  Eliminating the risk.

Whisper Specialists did frighten him.

Does the entire department know how terrified I am?  What were they saying about him, around the cafeteria and in the break room?  Did they all think he was some paranoid, psychotic freak?  The other day, while he was walking past one of the cubicles, he’d overheard someone say his name and then snigger.  Were they all – 

Stop.  He was going into a spiral again.

“Sorry,” said Avery.  “That question was over the line, sir.”

“Yes, it was,” said Isaac.  “But you deserve to know how your superior will treat you.”  He sat up.  “Praxis and Whisper Specialists are some of the most powerful people in the world.  Power makes someone a risk.”

But that wasn’t the only reason Isaac was frightened of Whisper Specialists.  His fear wasn’t always driven by logic.

It wasn’t rational to lie awake in his bed for hours, sweating into his covers.  It wasn’t rational to hide in his room instead of meeting foreign diplomats, out of the fear that one of them could be a Droll Corsair in disguise.  But he did those things anyway.

He blinked, and his mind jumped back in time.  The taste of strawberries and chocolate in marshmallow shortcake.  The crackling fire pit in his backyard.  The sharp cinnamon scent of Olivia’s perfume.  The name Martin.

“Professor,” said Avery.  “Are you alright?”

Isaac realized how fast he was bouncing his leg, that his shoulders were tensed up like steel cables.

“Yes,” he said.  “Well, no, but – yes,” he stuttered.  “I can deal with it.”  That was more than he’d been planning to say.

“My older brother gets flashbacks too,” said Avery.  “Wakes up screaming, avoids gatherings of more than a few people.  On bad days, he just shakes in his covers.”

“I’m sorry,” Isaac said.  “The Shenti War?”

Avery nodded.  “He was with the north sector during the Olthorpe Landings.  The eastern dogs outnumbered him three to one.”

A brutal battle.  Before the Spirit Block, when the Shenti’s industry was still an unstoppable force.

“I don’t have any advice,” Avery said.  “I’m sure you know all the techniques already.  I just wanted to say – well – I understand.”

After a few uncomfortable seconds, Isaac spoke.  “Thanks,” he blurted out.  “Thank you.  If your brother needs anything, there are people I can recommend.  Books about trauma that go beyond the cliches to offer practical advice.”

“I think he’d like that.  Thank you, sir.”

“The world is drowning,” said Isaac.  “We need to look out for each other.”

The boy was forward, but kind.  Cocky, but willing to learn.  It would take time, but Avery would grow to be an excellent Guardian.  One who could offset the more callous agents in the department without being naive.

And he would climb the ranks faster than most.  The boy was easy to trust.

Trust.

The word rang through his head, like his entire skull was a plucked lyre string.  For a moment, everything thrummed in accordance with that word, a perfect, elegant alignment.

Isaac’s stomach jerked.

No.  Avery was loyal, honest, had been vetted by Isaac’s people.  He’d passed all of the crypto checks, and hadn’t given off any red flags during the conversation.

Isaac had no reason to be suspicious of him.  If anything, he should have been trusting him more, giving him his business card, or a similar gesture of faith.  This was an example of what his books called ‘hypervigilance’, a compensating method that could turn him into a shivering, paranoid shell.

Probability, you are making rationalizations to yourself: High.

On instinct, Brin put his Eyes of the Makara Praxis vocation into high gear, even though it would leave him exhausted and wired for the rest of the day.  As he did this, Isaac wondered if he was doing something silly and irrational, like an old woman putting five locks on her door.

A quick test would allay his fears.  The name in his fake memories, Martin, was only known by his old squadmates, Headmaster Tau, and a handful of others.  Avery wouldn’t know it.

“Are you alright, sir?” Avery said.

“It’s hard,” said Isaac.  “It’s hard.  You know sometimes, when I’m not paying attention, I still answer to ‘Sebastian’.”  A different fake name, one Isaac had made up on the spot.

Avery’s eyes flashed, a brief flicker of surprise.

He knows the name ‘Martin’.

Blood rushed in Isaac’s ears, and a wave of dizziness washed over him.  His chest tightened, and his palms tingled.

Then, Eyes of the Makara went crazy, firing all at the same time.

Probability, subject using active Whisper Vocat – 
Probability, subject modifying subcon – 
– High, Probability, subject 
Probability, subject aware of ongoing panic att – 
High, Probability, subject discovered potential blown co – 
High, High, High

Avery was using a Whisper vocation – an incredibly subtle one – to make Isaac trust him more.

Isaac’s heart pounded in his chest.  The temperature of the room seemed to drop.

He detonated his panic seal, pressing on it until he felt it snap.

“Listen,” said Isaac.  “I just wanted to say, thanks for coming in.  I really appr – “

As he spoke, Isaac projected into five separate darts in his desk, the walls, and the floor.  He used his Physical Vocation to reduce their mass, making them almost weightless, then shot them forward.  In midair, he flipped his Vocation, making them heavier.

“ – reciate it.”

The darts hit Avery, all but one striking him from behind.  The first four blew off his arms and legs in an explosion of gore.  The fifth punched through his lower trachea, tearing a red hole in his torso.

Avery fell to the floor, gasping for air, and Isaac rang every alarm at once, sending out a specific code.  None of them made any sound.

One second passed.

Two.  Three.  Four.

The far wall exploded into rubble.  A Voidsteel tranquilizer dart flew out of the smoke cloud, puncturing Isaac’s neck.

The dizzy sensation multiplied, and Isaac wobbled back and forth.  He knelt on the ground, lying on his back so he wouldn’t injure himself when he went out.

As the world grew blurry, Isaac slurred orders to the Guardians rushing into the room.  “Eight-Two-One.  Target…capable of subconscious control.  Full quarantine, Platinum security.  If someone intercepts the prisoner, kill him, don’t let him be freed.”

At the far end of the room, a Guardian knelt next to Avery with a mind-sphere, forcing his Pith into it and sealing it in a Voidsteel mesh bag.

Your systems are working, Isaac told himself.  You’re safe.

But his Praxis vocation – Eyes of the Makara – knew better.

Probability, threat part of a larger network, high.

Probability, network has already penetrated counterintelligence, unknown.

Isaac drifted away, swamped by visions of blue lightning and whispering demons.

________________________________________

It took two days before Isaac could walk free again.

His subordinates sat at him at a table and interrogated him for hours, injected him with a cocktail of drugs and performed every possible check on his Pith until his head spun.

An agonizing process, but necessary.  No matter how fine Isaac felt, he had no idea how compromised he was.

When they let him out, they debriefed him.  “We got lucky,” said Sigrith.  “We found the Whisper vocation he used in a codex on the fourth level of the Great Library, though we have no idea how Avery got access.”

“And?”

“It makes people trust you.  The effect is gradual and subconscious, but builds up over time.  But, if you catch on early enough, even a Humdrum can nullify it.”

Isaac pictured Avery in his mind.  A twinge of warm trust lingered at the edges of his consciousness, but fear and panic and loathing drowned it out, choking it until it vanished.  

“And,” said Sigrith.  “we can scan for it, when we know what to look for.”

Brin nodded.  Most Pith scans could only get a vague, general sense of the shape of someone’s soul, detecting massive changes or imposters, but if you knew which Vocation to look for, it sometimes got easier.

“You’ve been affected a little, as have John Salford and Baslilia in management, but that’s it.  We’ll monitor you for safety, but none of you are affected enough for restraining action.”

Thank the Scholars for Eyes of the Makara.  Without it, none of them would have caught it in time.  The cost he paid for it was dear, but it was still worth it.

And as far as he could tell, the department still knew nothing about Avery.  Who was he working for?  If he was hijacked himself, who was controlling him?

His people would interrogate him, but odds were, they’d never find out.

Hours later, he found himself lying in his bed, unable to fall asleep, running through the situation again and again.

We got lucky.  If he hadn’t engaged Eyes of the Makara, if he’d spent a little more time under the Whisper vocation, he could have lost everything.

No matter how hard he tried, his world was still so fragile.

I’m not going to fall asleep.  He’d ingested enough sleeping pills to knock out a small elephant, done every exercise he knew of, but still didn’t feel the least bit drowsy.

Persistent insomnia could be an early symptom of Pith cancer.

Probability, you have early-stage terminal Pneuomatoma: Low.  Low wasn’t zero.

Isaac grabbed a stack of reports from his bedside table.  If he wasn’t going to sleep, he could at least be productive.

He skimmed the first one, about Commonplace sympathizers in the military.  Support for terrorism and dangerous political organizations was a national security threat, especially in the military, and it was growing by the day.  Humdrums everywhere.  A terrifying problem, but not one he could do much about.  Trying to suppress it would only lend it strength.

The second one talked about the riots.  Even through the rainstorms, the Humdrums were smashing storefronts and attacking the police.  They’d screwed up the applications for their legal protest permits, but had gone out anyways.  Intelligence suspected incitement from Commonplace, and Brin was inclined to agree.

But again, not much he could do about it.

When Isaac read the third report, he froze.  It was statistics, a stack of pages from some nobody mathematician out west that had been left at the bottom of the pile.  His lieutenants didn’t think it was worth his time.

It concerned sea level readings, information from islands around the Eight Oceans.  Most oceanographers had given up trying to make sense of it at this point.  The water was rising, but the rate went up and down, going from big numbers to zero between months.

It was slow, slow enough for people to pretend it wasn’t happening, or that it was someone else’s problem.  After all, global ambient temperature was steady.  No glaciers were melting.   In a decade, the tides might go back down.

This mathematician had developed a model to predict further sea level rise.  Big deal, most people would say.  A new one of those comes out every week, and none of them hold up.

So Brin read it, checking the math and the data and the assumptions.

Then he read it again.  And again, scanning the tables and charts with more and more precision each time.

That was when he froze.

The numbers checked out.  No matter which way he framed it, this report was a better model of sea level change than any he’d read.

And the rate of sea level rise was growing.

Exponentially.

The increase looked flat now, as exponential graphs always did in the early stages.  But if you took a water lily in a pond and doubled it every day, it would cover a quarter of the pond on one day, and the entire pond just forty-eight hours later.

At this rate, in five years, everything below Hightown would be underwater.  In six, there wouldn’t be any land left.  The Eight Oceans would join together and become one flat expanse.  Civilization would vanish, piece by piece, like the stars in the sky.

Isaac let go of the metal bars on his bed.  He’d been gripping them tight enough to see red lines imprinted in his skin.

Eliya.  He’d lived part of a life already.  A difficult, often unhappy life, but life nonetheless.  But her future was filling up with water.  And I have no idea how to stop it.

The edges of his eyes felt wet, and he blinked to clear the tears.  Sometimes, it felt like he was the only one who saw the true horrors coming.  Everyone else went to work, partied with their friends, fell asleep at night without a care in the world.  Like nothing was wrong.

The world was drowning, but as long as people lived above the water, they could pretend they were safe.

Isaac’s chest tightened.  We need to stop this.  Maybe if they read this report, Parliament and Headmaster Tau would authorize use of the Lavender Book, the most exclusive, guarded book in the Great Library, among thousands of exclusive, guarded books.  He had no idea what Vocation Codices were inside, or if they even were actual codices.

But if earth-shattering power lay in those pages, that might be the only thing that could save the Principality.  If the water was entering the ocean from anywhere, it was coming from below the four-thousand-meter limit, from a depth no person had ever returned from.

All this, and the country’s already on the verge of collapse.

The phone rang.

Isaac twitched in his bed, fists clenching.  What kind of horrible news could be waiting on the other end?  I have no choice.  He had a job.

He picked up the phone.

“Dad?” a young woman said.

“Eliya?” he said.  They exchanged private key signatures.  Eliya was the only person in her year who had mastered that Praxis vocation.  “What are you doing up so late?”

“It’s six AM,” she said.  “This is when I wake up.”

Isaac checked his internal clock.  6:02 AM.  Scholars, she was right.  With no windows in his bedroom, he’d lost track of the time and stayed up through the whole night.

I have to go to work in an hour and a half.  The mere thought made his eyes ache more.

“And,” said Eliya.  “You weren’t picking up when I called last night.  Or yesterday.  Or the day before.”

Probability, Eliya an imposter: low.

Probability, Eliya hijacked, low.

I am surrounded by enemies, he thought.  No.  That was his daughter.  To be this paranoid about her was crossing a line.

But the Principality’s enemies would know that.  To them, Eliya was just another opening to exploit.

Isaac wanted to tell her everything, to let her know how terrified he was, that he’d just come out of interrogation for a potential mental hijacking.  How his cold, professional demeanor was little more than a flimsy mask covering his raw terror.

“Sorry,” he said.  “I was busy.”

“‘Busy’,” she said.  “You throw that word around a lot.  I know something happened to you.  If it’s outside my clearance, don’t tell me, but if it’s not – “ She stopped.  “I’m never going to earn your job this way.”

Tell her everything.  Eliya was mature enough to deal with the heavy stuff, and she had high enough security clearance.  A Commonplace bomb had blown out one of her eyes.  And at her young age, she was already writing her Vocation Codex.

But he knew his daughter.  She had his genes.  She made many calls like this, panicking about classwork or uniforms or fears of Pith damage after Anabelle Gage had injured one of her bodies.  More stress would not be good for her.

The water is rising.  He couldn’t protect her anymore.  Only she could.

“I learned a Praxis vocation,” said Isaac.  “Called Eyes of the Makara, developed in Ilaqua centuries ago and gifted to the Principality when we colonized it.  It’s been passed down to the men and women in my position.”

“What does it do?”

Probability, subject will share this information with others: Low.

“It makes me good at analyzing threats.  Very good.  Better than any other similar vocation.  Sometimes as probability guesses, sometimes as vague intuitions.  But as a side effect, it makes my Pith very focused on analyzing threats.  Can you guess what that means?”

Eliya said nothing, which meant yes.

“When I was serving under the old chief of counterintelligence, he offered to teach me this vocation.  When I accepted it, I gave up any hope of getting better.”  I knew I’d be scared for the rest of my life.  “Of dealing with the things that have haunted me since – “

“It’s alright, Dad,” said Eliya.  “I know what happened to you, you don’t have to explain it all over again.  But you have gotten better.  You’ve made Paragon and the Principality safer than they’ve ever been.  You’ve taken Whisper-Sec to a whole new level, to the point where other countries are adopting your systems.”

She still doesn’t understand.  “I know you admire my work,” Isaac said.  “But you need to know what you’re getting into.  I would not wish this vocation on my worst enemies, least of all my child.”  You will lose far more than an eye.

“But you wished it on yourself.”

“And I know you get stressed about your grades, and your homework, and your career, and – “

And I saw you have a panic attack when you were thirteen.  And I’m pretty sure the only reason I haven’t seen a second is because you’re hiding them from me.

“It helps you do your job,” said Eliya.  It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” said Isaac, his voice tight.

“And you save lives.  You keep our country safe.”

“In many ways, yes.”

“Then one day, I want to learn it.”

Brin’s entire torso felt twice as heavy, dragging him down towards his bedsheets.  “It’ll be harder than any class you’ve ever taken, more stressful.  You’ll start at the very bottom of the department.  I won’t ever advance you through nepotism or my connections.”

“I know.”

“And it’s not a glamorous job.  Most of it is obsessive paperwork.”

“I know,” she said.

Isaac thought of all the mistakes he’d made as a parent.  Immersing himself in work instead of helping Sarra raise his daughter.  Keeping Eliya away from anything he thought remotely dangerous.  Failing to make time for his infant son.

But his biggest mistake had to be this: making himself a role model to his children.

“Why did you call me?” he said.

Probability, Eliya in psychological crisis: Medium.

“I haven’t talked to you in months,” she said.  “I just miss you.”

Isaac sighed.  “Miss you too.”

After a short, fitful hour of sleep, he dragged himself out of bed.  Long day ahead.  Last night, during the storm, he’d received the news that Professors Stoughton and Havstein, who had been in deep cover in Commonplace, had gone missing after attending a major meeting to spy on its leader.

On the way there, he checked one of his covert dead drops, projecting into a trash can to note the contents inside.

Queen Sulphur wanted to meet.

A part of Isaac hoped that the two things weren’t connected.

Probability, Anabelle Gage knows what happened to them: High.
Probability, Anabelle Gage will betray you: Unknown

But he was surrounded by enemies.  Why should he expect anything better?

________________________________________

Isaac met with Anabelle Gage.  At the end of the meeting, he stitched a few of her recent memories, too.

The news was worse than he could have imagined.  And it meant he needed to act.

First, he recruited the Lonely Hero, in her mansion.

“No,” said Admiral Ebbridge, two typewriters clicking next to her.

“We need you,” Isaac said.  “You can find Tunnel Vision with your Vocation.”

“I don’t have authorization to scan the city,” said Ebbridge.  “We should go through the proper channels, and unless you convince me otherwise, I’m going to report this.”  The birds on the walls glared down at him in unison, unblinking.

Probability, Admiral Ebbridge reports you for attempting illegal operation: Low

“I thought you’d say that,” he said.

“Then you shouldn’t have wasted my time.”

“Rowyna,” said Isaac.  “It’s Grace.  Tunnel Vision is Grace.”

The typewriters stopped.  The birds froze in place.  Admiral Ebbridge pushed her chair back, staring at the wall.  A chill wind blew through a crack in the tower’s window, rain pouring down outside.

“You trust the source?” she said.

“Yes,” he said.  To my surprise.  Though if Ebbridge knew the source was an illegal mercenary working with her Ousted child, she would definitely report him.  Black ops freelancers let him dodge many of Parliament’s transparency laws and red tape, but the came with serious risk if he ever got found out.

For the first time in decades, Isaac watched Admiral Ebbridge hunch over, leaning on her desk.  The blonde hair of her Maxine Clive designer body fell into her face.  “Did I ever tell you about my greatest fear?”

“We both know you haven’t.”

“Well,” she sighed.  “Now you know.”

Isaac had feared Grace’s return, especially after she’d murdered Professor Keswick, one of the kindest and most powerful projectors he’d known.

But still, it wasn’t his greatest fear.  He would never share that with anyone.

“I always knew she’d come back, but a part of me hoped – “  She shook her head.  “Silly, irrational.  What’s important is, we know now.  She has to be eliminated.  Instantly and from a distance.”

“Would you leave yourself open to an easy sniper shot?  Would any of us?”  Paragon had a new suite of secret weapons, too, for use in emergencies, but they wouldn’t work on a city.

Rowyna looked straight into his eyes.  “It’ll have to be you.”

“What?”

“You’re the one with the best shot of removing her.  Put enough kinetic energy on a dart, and it won’t matter how hot her palefire is, it’ll still split her skull like a watermelon.”

Admiral Ebbridge rapped her knuckle on her desk, and in unison, the birds on the walls jumped off, flying out of the window.  Other birds, animals with incredible eyesight, would be streaming out of other buildings in her estate, and a private aviary west of the city.

They would fly over the city, keeping hidden or blending in with pigeons.  Watching.  Gathering information.

“It’ll have to be you,” she said, again.

Isaac couldn’t even imagine that.  The mere thought sent him into deeper waves of panic, though still didn’t approach his greatest fear.

Probability, failure if you do not strike the killing blow: Very High

“We’ll see,” Isaac said.  “There’s someone else I have to recruit first.”

________________________________________

He recruited the Broken Coward in a storm of rain and violence.

They’d sent her to the worst of the riots, a paper wall trying to hold back a tsunami.  There were more powerful Guardians, and more eager ones, but none of them could keep down a crowd without murdering them all.

Freezing rain poured down on Diamond Street, dripping off pale street lamps and forming tiny rivers into gutters.  The night sky seemed to close in from above.

And still, the fires kept burning.

During the day, Diamond Street was a hub of commerce, a bustling thoroughfare circling the mountain throughout Midtown, full of restaurants, stores, and theatres.

Now, it was filled with rioters.  Some of them had thrown makeshift firebombs on parked cars, whose gas tanks were now fueling the blaze through the rain.  Others threw rocks, or smashed storefronts.

Most of the rioters were just holding up signs, chanting, but they formed a shield for the more violent ones.  Even in the dim light, Isaac could spot the green circles tattooed on their hands.

At his end of the street, a line of police held them back, thumping batons against their riot shields to make noise.

A woman floated above them, her brown bob and Guardian’s cloak billowing around her, resembling a mousy, middle-aged librarian.

Professor Florence Tuft.  The Broken Coward.  Known to most as Harpy.

Someone in the crowd threw a gasoline bomb at her, and she slapped it away with a gust of wind.  It splashed into a puddle, snuffed out.

“I appreciate the thought,” said Florence.  “But is now the best time to catch up?”  One of the guards tossed a pepper gas grenade over her head, into the crowd.  She raised an arm stump, and it hovered in midair, the gas forming a condensed wall on the street instead of spreading into the crowd.  “Hold, damn you!” she shouted.  “No gas!”

“We’re short on time,” Isaac said.  He explained everything.

Florence floated back behind the police and clapped her hands.

The road went silent.  The screaming of the protestors, the breaking glass and crackling fire, the sound of the pouring rain vanished in unison.  Air projection.  The pepper gas wall stayed in place, preventing the rioters from advancing.

“Rowyna’s scanning the city.”  Isaac glanced up at the sky.  “But you’re better than either of us at stealth, and you’re the only one who can counter Palefire.”

Probability, the Broken Coward will not want to fight her: Medium.

Florence had spent more time with Grace than anyone else in the Eight Oceans.  She knew how terrifying the woman was in battle.  But that wasn’t the reason the Coward was tempted to run away.

Isaac glanced at the stumps where Florence’s hands used to be.

Florence Tuft had forgotten a great many things, but the Witch forced her to remember all of them.

“Do you have a plan?” she said.

“First, we have to find her.”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I don’t know.  She’ll be in a tight space.  I won’t be able to use my plane.”  She glanced out at the swirling mass of people, the burning cars, the looted storefronts.  “And I’m needed here.  Without me, the cops are going to escalate even more, and then we’ll never fix this.”

“For all we know, Grace is the one causing all these riots.”

She shook her head.  “They’re rioting because a family almost drowned in one of the floods, got pneumonia, and couldn’t afford a replacement body for anyone except the kid.”

Isaac felt sick to his stomach.  An avoidable tragedy.  And a sign that the Epistocrats and leaders of Paragon were failing at their noble duty.  Paragon Academy had a whole vault of combat chassis, and they didn’t need all of them.

“People die every day,” he said.  “They don’t riot every time.”

“Then talk to the Symphony Knight,” she said.  “Or Oakes.  Or Clarel.  Why me?”

Isaac lowered his voice.  “You do still remember what happened between you two, yes?”

Florence glanced at her feet.

Isaac stared down the mountain, at the chaotic, waterlogged mess of a city beneath him.   “And you don’t feel responsible at all?”

It was a low blow, but these were desperate times.

“When is it happening?” said Florence.

“Tonight.”

Florence nodded.

________________________________________

Florence was dodging the subject.

A tactics professor, an experienced soldier with countless kills, and she was avoiding the main problem.  The Broken Coward.  A cruel nickname, but accurate.

“So,” she said.  “How’ve the two of you been doing?  I just had to chew out these idiot students who thought they could throw their daddy’s name around to get their grades changed.  The spoiled Epistocrats are the worst, they know table manners better than tactics.  No offense, Rowyna.”

At the other end of Isaac’s debris-filled office, Rowyna tested the pieces of her family’s custom body armor, ignoring Florence.

“These little shits have never been in the military.  Couldn’t make a bed if I held a gun to their heads.”  She shrugged.  “They’re green, but they’re not book-burners.  They’ll turn into proper soldiers yet.”

Isaac strapped on an extra belt of darts, a flash grenade, and a row of flares.  As a Joiner, Florence could effectively see in the dark, but he and Rowyna couldn’t.

“Tuft,” said Ebbridge.  “No one cares.”

Florence rolled her eyes, leaning back in her chair.  “Just trying to lighten the mood, Lady Typhoon.  We could be here a while.  Who knows how long it’ll take your birds to find Tunnel Vision in this storm?”

“My birds can see through a blizzard on a moonless night,” Rowyna said, fitting together two pieces on her chest plate.  “They can handle a little water.  And I have thousands of them running a facial pattern match.”

“If she hasn’t changed bodies fifty times,” said Florence.

Probability, Tunnel Vision will have an unrecognizable face: Medium.

“Not necessarily,” Isaac said.  “Grace is posing as a competent, but simple mob boss.  She needs to attend meetings, play politics.  Those are a lot harder if you’re swapping faces all the time.  And an endless well of disposable bodies would leave a trail, draw attention.”

What’s more, Grace was capable of some light Joining.  She might not want to lose that by wearing an unfamiliar body.

“What about other Guardians?” said Rowyna.  “The Symphony Knight, or the Obsidian Foil, or Headmaster Tau.”

“Headmaster Tau,” said Florence.  “Can barely find his way to the toilet.  What makes you think he’ll be able to beat Grace?  She killed Professor Keswick.”

“Careful,” said Rowyna.  “Show some respect.”

“I only invited you two,” Isaac said.  They’d be on permanent record as visiting Isaac, but this was still the most secure place he could think of.  “You’re the only two I trust.”

Florence laughed.  “Why?  We’ve barely talked in years.  You don’t go to tea with us, you don’t call us outside of work, I don’t even think I have your business cards.  I have the Locus’s business card, but not yours.”

“Get over yourself,” said Rowyna, floating on the legs of her armor.  “We’re all busy.”

“No,” said Florence.  “Busy is an excuse for a week, a month, a season.  Not nine years.  What the fuck happened?”

We all know what happened.  The event could have brought them closer, forged their friendship into a lifelong bond.  But instead, it had broken them apart, like they’d committed murder, and being together only reminded them of their guilt.

I am surrounded by enemies.

Probability, Rowyna Ebbridge and Florence Tuft are enemies: low.

Those two weren’t enemies.  But they weren’t friends anymore, either.

Hours later, the birds got a hit.  The squad stood up, prepping their armored wingsuits, wearing cloaks on top so they could conceal their combat outfits.

Rowyna stood up, explaining.  “The memory Major Brin stitched to me from his contact included several faces from the recent Commonplace meeting, though the leader herself remained hidden.  My birds couldn’t find Tunnel Vision, but they got the others.”

“And?” Isaac said.

“They’re traveling into three common buildings.  Two of them have the blinds up, but they were careless in the third one.  I saw an entrance.  On the bottom floor.”

“A basement?” said Florence.  “Or – “

“Tunnels in the sewers,” said Rowyna.  “I think that’s where she’s hiding.”

“Fuck,” muttered Isaac.

“I think ‘shit’ is the word you’re looking for,” said Florence.  “Since we’ll be wading through it for hours.  How deep in the tunnels did you see?”

“Not far,” Rowyna said.  “Didn’t want to get spotted.  But I saw one of the targets go into a building, with no one else inside, and as far as I can tell, they haven’t gone into the tunnels or left.  If we move now, we can grab him and use him as a guide.”

Probability, that’s a trap: Low

Probability, there are traps in the tunnels: Very High

“And after?” said Florence.

“You take point, Tuft,” said Rowyna.  “Keep us hidden.  I can use my smallest birds to scout out ahead, and take out smaller targets.”  She looked at Isaac.  “And Brin lands the killshot.  If he has the spine for it.”

Isaac swallowed.  “I’ll do it.”

Florence shot him a concerned look.  “You sure?”

He shrugged, masking his creeping dread, and slotted on his final belt of darts.  “I have to.”

Probability, you will hesitate before killing blow: Medium.

Probability, hesitation will cause death: Very high

They strode out of Isaac’s office, towards the edge of Paragon where they could launch.

Eliya sat in the waiting room, her foot bouncing, fiddling with her eyepatch.  No, no, no.  Not now. When she saw him, she stood up, shoulders tight.

They exchanged keys.  “Dad,” she said.  “I need help.”

Probability, she is telling the truth: High.

“I’m working, Eliya.”

She took short, shallow breaths.  “Please.  It needs to be tonight, or I’ll fail my class for tomorrow.  I could get held back, or expelled, or – “

“I’m working,” he said.  “Later.”  He couldn’t say anything more, not for something this top-secret.  “Talk to your classmates, or your advisor.”

“Would I be doing this if they were available?  If I weren’t this desperate?”

It felt like she’d thrown boiling water in his face.  You’re a terrible father.  He did this sort of thing to her all the time.  And since Sarra had split with him and moved to the other side of the Principality, he was Eliya’s only available parent.

Any other day, he might have succumbed to the guilt and acted like an adult.  But this time, there actually was something urgent.

“Please,” she said.

“Take some deep breaths, Eliya,” he said.  “Go home.  I’ll see you later.”

He wished he had something better to say, some profound, concise bit of advice that could quell her panic, or steel her against the world’s cruelty.  The girl had potential.  Like his students.  Like many of his mercenaries.

Like Anabelle Gage, even though she didn’t trust him and he underpaid her to leverage her, an act that made his stomach twinge with guilt.  I’ll pay her enough in time.  She’d be able to afford a body.

Eliya’s expression curdled.  “You know, I did get panic attacks back in secondary school, especially during the last year, when I was terrified Paragon wouldn’t accept me.  When they got bad, I would wish, more than anything, that I could fly away from the classroom and go home.  It was the safest place my mind jumped to.”  She shook her head.  “But not anymore.  You took that from me.  Our house is empty now.”

Eliya stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Isaac stood there for a moment, blinking.

Then he spoke.  “I forgot something.  Give me a minute.”

Before anyone could reply, he strode back to his office, locking the door behind him.

There was still dust on the marble floor from the fight with Avery, a piece of wood where the far wall had exploded.  Five holes sat around the room where he’d ripped darts from hidden sheathes.

He paced back and forth in the room.  Eliya hates you.  She blamed him for the divorce with Sarra, for being so distant.  And she’s not wrong.  He’d failed her, both here and earlier, when he couldn’t protect her from Commonplace’s bomb attack.

His breath quickened.  He clenched his hands, fingernails digging into his palms.

And at the same time, Eliya still wanted his job.  She’s going to be even lonelier than I am. His son could be worse, if he lived to see his teens.  With the exponentially rising water, he might not.

He ran to the phone at his desk and picked it up, dialing Sarra.

The phone rang.  And rang.  And rang.

Hello, you’ve reached Sarra Tevaris.  I’m not able to answer the phone right now, but call back later and I’ll do my best.

Isaac hung up, reached into his top drawer, and pulled out Grace’s business card, staring at it.

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

The future was collapsing, slowly but inevitably.

His chest ached.  His fingers felt numb.  Sweat collected underneath his armpits, and he wheezed, short of breath.

A panic attack.  He closed his eyes and placed his hand on his abdomen, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths.

When he opened his eyes, he started counting objects he could see, touch, and hear in the room.  Desk, chair, wall, pen, lamp.  But nothing changed.  Stay present, don’t get lost in your thoughts.  He tensed his muscles one at time, then relaxed them.

His breath quickened again.  Scholars.  None of his calming exercises were working.  Gardening helped, in the long term, but couldn’t deal with panic like this.  And he couldn’t just sit this one out.  He had a mission.  There wasn’t much time.

Don’t do it.  You’re better than that.  Don’t do it.

Isaac made a split-second decision, and succumbed to the temptation, striding to the other side of the room.  His Pith stretched forward, unlocking his hidden refrigerator and swinging it open.

He removed a bowl of sliced strawberries and a bar of dark chocolate, placing them on top of a sweet biscuit sliced in half.  Then he removed a marshmallow and projected into it, heating it.  Within a few seconds, the inside was a gooey soup and the outside was a perfect golden brown.

Isaac bit into the marshmallow shortcake.  As the sweet flavors rushed over his palate, he felt his heartbeat slow, his breath relax.  When nothing else worked, this calmed him down like nothing else.

Isaac had talked to his parents – his real parents, and in truth, he’d never eaten marshmallow shortcake in his entire life.  At least, for the first nineteen years.

As he dug into the dessert, memories flickered through his mind.

Camping in the woods in the summer.  Making snow forts in the backyard and crushing everyone in snowball fights.  Asking Ophelia to slow dance at prom and tripping over a table leg.  Both of you laughing as she helps you back up.

And his nineteenth birthday party behind his house.  When he closed his eyes, he could almost feel the heat from the fire pit, hear his friends and family and Ophelia chatting around him.

For a moment, the warmth sank into his mind, and he let himself forget Eliya.  Forget Anabelle Gage, and Serra, and Avery, and Grace and the rising waves.

I want to go home, thought Martin.

But home wasn’t the fortified apartment he slept in now, or the squat house at the edge of downtown where he’d actually grown up.  It was that firepit, that backyard, that quiet suburban street, nineteen years of his life that vanished into thin air, that never actually happened.

That was Isaac’s greatest fear.  That he was happier in his fake memories than he would ever be again.

A part of him wondered: If he ever found the Whisper Specialist who did this to him, what would he do?

Would he slaughter them?

Or would he get down on his knees, and beg them to fix his Pith?

Isaac wasn’t sure.  That scared him more than anything else.

A knock on the door startled him out of his daze.

“Brin!”  Rowyna’s voice.  “Quit moping about, we’ve got a job to do.”

Another voice, softer.  “I don’t know what you’re dealing with, Isaac,” said Florence.  “But whatever it is, you’re stronger.  And we can face it together.”

Maybe.  But at the end of the day, there was only one way for Isaac to find out if this reality was worth living.

Isaac stood up, pocketing Grace’s business card, and strode to the exit.  In one second, it was unlocked.  In another, he was out in the hallway.

He left half of the shortcake on his desk, covered in crumbs.  Unfinished.

________________________________________

The trio stood on the bridge, ready to jump.

Raindrops pattered off the top of Isaac’s helmet.  To his left, the conical Great Library towered above them.  To his right, the lights of the banquet hall shone into the darkness.

He strode to the edge, gazing over the balcony.  Thick clouds blocked out the moonlight.  The lights of Elmidde below were blurry below, faint through the rainstorm, but visible enough for him to cross-reference with his internal atlas and get a sense of direction.

Then he reached for the clasp of his cloak and undid it, attaching it to the railing so it wouldn’t blow away.  No point in concealing their weapons now, and it would only get in the way.

The others mirrored him.  Florence swept her cloak off, revealing the thin, tight-fitting black combat suit underneath, strong enough to stop a bullet, but light and flexible enough to maneuver with.  The only tool she carried was a pistol at her waist, filled with Voidsteel rounds.  Her real weapon was her Vocation.

Rowyna folded her cloak in front of her, revealing her dark blue family armor beneath.  Even in the darkness, Isaac could admire its construction.  It looked more like modern art than military gear, made of countless triangles interlocking with one another, a modular design that could fit almost anyone who wore it, absorb any impact and hold countless weapons in its chambers.

Even modern armor strengthened by the Obsidian Foil couldn’t compete with the Ebbridge House’s mail.  It had been forged with an ancient Vocation from generations ago, whose codex was too difficult for anyone else to decipher.

Time to see how much heat it can withstand.

A lone hawk flew out of the rain, perching on Rowyna’s arm.  The armor unfolded from her wrist up, exposing her hand, and she touched its head with two fingers.

She nodded.  “Target still in location three!” she shouted through the rain.  “We should move now!”

Florence, in contrast, was squeezing her eyes shut, taking sharp, fast breaths.  She’s afraid.  Isaac couldn’t blame her.  His stomach ached, and his fingers tingled, but the sheer adrenaline was enough to force down the panic.

I can keep my cool in battle.  He just had to stay focused.

And if they failed, his dead man’s switches would kick in.  Everyone in Paragon would know the truth about Tunnel Vision.

Isaac stepped closer to the others and put his hands on their shoulders.  The trio formed a huddle beneath the freezing rain.

“Stick to the plan!” he yelled.  “Don’t underestimate her!  We don’t know which body she’s in, or what vocations she’s learned since we last saw her.”  He stared into Rowyna’s eyes.  Then Florence’s.  “She knows our vulnerabilities.  She knows the country’s vulnerabilities.”

And we still don’t know why she’s trying to topple it.  That was the great unspoken question between them, the one that worried him more than all the others.

“Don’t hesitate,” said Rowyna.

He nodded, putting on a face that he hoped was more determined than scared.  “And that country.  Millions and millions of people.  Paragon Academy.  Our families.  The world we love.  They’re all depending on us.”

“The nation, the people, the light,” said Rowyna.

“The nation, the people, the light,” said Florence.

The nation, the people, the light!” they chanted.  “The nation, the people, the light!

“We’re walking into the fire,” said Isaac.  “But I wouldn’t do it with anyone else.”   No matter what happened, no matter how distant they’d grown, Isaac would protect them, even if it meant dying.

The front of Rowyna’s helmet folded shut.  Isaac flipped his helmet down.  They climbed to the top of the wooden railing, balancing on it.  The dark ocean swirled far beneath them.

And in unison, Rowyna, Florence, and Isaac leaned forward off the edge, shooting through the one-way deceleration field around Paragon towards the lower slopes of Mount Elwar.  The orange and yellow lights of the city grew in their vision as they fell, becoming a glowing flame to their eyes.  A pyre, covering an entire mountain.

The Typhoon of the South, The Harpy, and The Scholar of Mass.  Revenant Squad.

The Lonely Hero, the Broken Coward, and the Frightened Watchdog.  Twisted, but twisted together. 

Probability, the Pyre Witch will burn you to death: High

Together, they descended into the fire.

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