8-A – Isaac Brin

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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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