I floated in an ocean of whispers.
The world blurred around me, every object fuzzing at the edges like a messy watercolor, buildings and people and objects fading into one another.
I had been teleported to the bottom of the sea, and the air itself had turned to a swirling liquid around me.
No, a voice whispered at the edge of my consciousness. You’ve been drugged. Penny Oakes hit you with knockout gas. Snap out of it.
But there were so many voices, so many whispers. How was I supposed to tell which ones were real? Maybe they all were. Maybe none of them were.
“I do pity you, poor thing.” Clementine’s voice.
“No matter how bad it gets. Do you think your soul is worth fighting for?” Isaac Brin said in the distance.
I waved my arms around me, touching the fluid objects next to me. The ground wobbled beneath me like gelatin, making my legs shake just to keep me from falling over.
“The world is made up of smart people and the ones who hold them back. Not everyone is worthy of the tools to forge the stars in their image.”
“Write the next page,” a boy’s voice drifted to me through the water. “Fight for it.”
I know that voice. “Kaplen!” I shouted, looking all around me. “Kaplen!”
Where was he? I couldn’t see him anywhere, but he had to be here somewhere. Kaplen would know what to make of this situation.
He’s dead, another voice whispered. And if you don’t wake up, you’ll join him.
Something gnawed at my stomach, a pit opening wider and wider. I glanced down. A wide gash had been torn in my stomach, all the way from the front to the back. Inside, greyish-purple flesh shifted around, as blood poured out of the hole.
Then, someone grabbed my hand, and the ground became solid again.
I was standing on a fire escape, and someone was pulling me up, dragging me from one landing to the next as my leg muscles burned.
Is this the real world? Have I woken up?
When I glanced up, the fire escape extended into the sky, stretching upwards to infinity. As I climbed, the light bled out of the sun, turning the world from day to night.
The twin moons shone down on me, but as I clambered up the metal steps, they faded too, and the night turned a pitch black. All dark. An empty, infinite, void, with no stars.
Then, something flickered, high above in the distance. A green light, growing brighter and brighter until it stretched across the entire night sky in a pattern of glowing ribbons. It flickered, its edges tinged with blue and purple and red.
An aurora. Like the northern lights. It fought back the darkness, shining a beacon of hope, of magnificence and awe.
I climbed faster up the fire escape, no longer being pulled. The staircase tilted back, getting steeper and steeper until I was climbing it like a ladder.
Faster, faster. I accelerated upwards, and gravity lightened around me. Each time I grabbed the steps, my pace quickened, until I was soaring into the sky, towards the aurora and its beckoning warmth.
I stretched my hand out to the light, getting closer and closer, reaching.
A face stretched over the heavens, blotting out the light. A boy with pitch-black hair and icy blue eyes. Lorne Daventry.
“Morning, Ernest.” He waved at me. “You’ve been up to some mischief, haven’t you?”
Above me, the fire escape became a molten soup, melting like a snowball in boiling water. It flattened into a horizontal wall, hiding Lorne’s movements. Where is he?
Something moved out of the corner of my eye, and I spun to look. Lorne soared down past us, connected to the fire escape with a thread of molten metal.
When we got within range of his Vocation, he yanked the thread. The metal connecting the fire escape to the building turned to liquid, severing it from the wall.
Wait, it’s attached to a wall? I blinked, and the infinite stairway became an ordinary fire escape. It screeched, dropping away from the brick apartment building.
I dropped with it, flailing my arms. My stomach wrenched, and the darkness enveloped me.
Wes’ voice whispered in my ear. “I’ll fight for you, Anabelle Gage.”
A hand stretched out and grabbed my wrist, stopping my fall. Its fingers dug into my skin, and it yanked me, into a window of the apartment building.
My shoulder slammed on the wooden floor, and the darkness vanished, replaced by dim grey sunlight. Objects stopped bleeding into one another, and the ocean vanished, turning everything solid and ordinary again.
Left-Hira and a grey-haired boy stood next to me, wearing gas masks and holding a shotgun and briefcase, respectively. Someone had put a gas mask over my head, too. This is real. It had to be.
“Ana,” said the grey-haired boy, in my voice. “You still dreaming?” That’s me. It was like staring at a mirror.
No. You swapped bodies with him, remember?
I grabbed a wall to steady myself, shaking off the dizzy sensation. “Just a little,” I said.
“Great,” said Wes, patting me on the shoulder. “Because your old boss is setting us on fire, and we’d love it if you could join us.”
“Move your ass!” shouted Hira.
They ran through the hallways, and I followed them. In the stairwell, a cloud of smoke rose from below, and fires flickered in the lower levels. None of the sprinklers were working. Lorne’s blocking off our escape.
“Up!” shouted Hira.
We sprinted up the stairs, towards the roof. One level below the top, an orange beam of light exploded through the ceiling, slicing through the concrete like it was made of cardboard.
We leapt to the side, heat washing over my face.
When the roof crumbled away, the sky had turned black again. It’s not real. Lorne floated over us, and for a second, the green aurora flickered behind him, burning my eyes.
He floated high above us, far out of my range. A sphere of water surrounded him, peppered with sheets of paper from Wes’ attacks.
Hira blasted him with her shotgun. The bullets zipped through the water, making ripples, but none of them touched Lorne. Not Voidsteel. Against his ABD, they’d be useless.
Spheres of molten metal floated around him, and he squeezed two of his fingers together, flicking them in our direction.
The closest sphere shot towards us, becoming another beam. Wes yanked me by my collar, pulling me down the stairs and out of the way. We landed with a thud on the floor of the apartment building, and Hira clenched her teeth, nursing a burn on her right arm.
This was Lorne’s Vocation. The technique that made him the only platinum-ranked projector in his class. So lethal, so full of raw power that it got banned from squad battles at Paragon. With a touch, he could melt any metal, and shoot it with enough force to knock over cars.
We scrambled down the stairs, as beams of metal sheared through another level. “How the fuck do we beat him?” shouted Wes. “Takonara.”
None of our attacks were working. He knew everything we could do, and he was keeping us at a distance, staying out in the open. My trick to beat ABDs from earlier wouldn’t work without anyone next to him.
We’d gotten lucky, but Lorne had outplayed us now.
“How do we take him out?” said Wes, repeating himself.
Hira held up a green bullet, spinning it between her fingers. Voidsteel. Where did she get that?
We all knew what that meant. We’d shot other projectors, but with normal bullets. Their bodies could be replaced.
But if we hit Lorne with Voidsteel, it would damage his Pith. At best, the injury would be permanent, disabling. At worst, it would kill him, and no chassis could save him.
Hira and Wes looked at me. They still think I’m a leader. After everything I’d put them through. After I’d gotten us trapped in a burning building, surrounded by enemies, wanted by every Guardian in the city, they were still looking at me, trusting me.
I don’t deserve it. But that didn’t matter. They trusted me all the same.
“Shoot him,” I said. “Not a headshot, if you can, but somewhere that’ll stop him from chasing us. But don’t telegraph it. Find an opening first.”
Wes scowled, with my face. Hira nodded. “And until then?”
I glanced down the hallway, out the window. “We run.”
Hira sprinted down the hallway, loading the green bullet into a pistol at her waist. We ran after her, and she blasted the window with her shotgun, shattering the glass. She leapt across another alleyway, projecting into her clothes to lift her, and smashed through another window.
Wes leapt after her, soaring into the next building. They make it look easy.
I jumped out of the window, arms flailing, my foot clipping the edge of the sill. Then I projected into my clothes, dragging myself up, up, up.
A headache exploded inside my skull, and blue lightning flickered around me. My shirt ripped, and I jerked downwards.
Wes grabbed my hand from the window, yanking me up before I slammed into the wall. I landed on the floor with a thud. Normally, an impact like this would be pure agony, but in Wes’ body, I could shake it off in seconds.
Wes helped me up, and we burst out of the empty apartment and into another one, racing to the far side of the building.
We ran through a bedroom, and Wes slammed into the side of a desk, knocking over a plate of bacon and eggs. “Hey!” A man shouted at us as we passed his spilled meal.
“Sorry!” I shouted, as Hira burst through another window. The second jump was easier than the first, with a shorter distance, towards a house several stories down that required less lifting on my part. Wes formed a wall of paper above us, hiding some of our movements from above.
As I soared through the second window, a blast of molten metal tore through Wes’ barrier, raining hot bricks and liquid steel all around us. A pair of droplets landed on my forearm, burning it, and I hissed with the pain.
Lorne’s not too accurate with his blasts. That was good. But the boy was still following us.
Hira held up a hand before we broke through the next window. “Jun has an escape plan he’s explaining to my other body,” she muttered under her breath. “This way.”
She made us turn left, through a different hallway, smashing through a different window and leaping into a different apartment building.
As we ran, Lorne’s voice rang out from the walls around us. “This entire year, I’ve been asking myself: How did someone this clueless get into Paragon? Even as a Grey Coat.” The wood and brick vibrated, making noise. “Now I know.”
We leapt through another two buildings, directed by Hira, still pursued by Lorne, until my clothes had torn all over and my head felt like it was imploding.
“I can’t keep this up,” I wheezed in Wes’ voice, too exhausted to speak with illusions.
“One more,” said Hira. We ran through the hallway.
“What did Headmaster Tau tell you last night?” said Lorne.
More than you might think. Even though I’d only understood half of the old man’s words, I knew this much: he’d told me about my talent, my potential, my future.
“Did he flatter you? Did he say, ‘your destiny will reveal itself in time’?” Lorne’s bitter laughter rang around us. “He says that to everyone.”
My stomach wrenched. No. This was just another mind game. Lorne must have listened in to our conversation.
“Headmaster Tau loves rambling about destiny. It’s his favorite trick to make students apply themselves. Of course, it doesn’t work when you say it to everyone, but he’s too senile to know that now.”
Hira broke through a window, and we leapt over a warehouse, crashing through a glass skylight in the ceiling.
Molten metal blasted towards us from above, a bright orange beam slicing towards us. I projected into my sleeves, spinning myself around to face it.
The tail end of it crossed us for a fraction of a second, and Hira and Wes projected into a pile of crates, pushing them above us, making them into a shield.
Only a sliver of the liquid steel touched the makeshift shield, but the crates exploded, showering us with burnt apples and a cloud of sawdust. A piece of broken wood struck me in the side, and I slammed into something metal, coughing up blood. A forklift.
Lorne shot at me through the smoke. He grabbed my throat with his ungloved hand, shoving me up against the vehicle.
The boy closed his eyes behind his helmet visor, and the sawdust hovered around him, landing on me, floating in the air. He’s using it to feel. Beating my Vocation with his projection sixth sense, though I could still mess with some of the positioning.
Lorne’s hand tightened, and I gasped for air. I raised my machine pistol and put a burst in his stomach. He grunted, and the bullets dropped to the floor. Body armor. His ABD wouldn’t protect him at this range, but his projection-enhanced suit would.
He touched the forklift, and it melted beneath me. A wave of fire washed over my back, and I writhed, crying out in pain.
Hira dropped her go bag and aimed her pistol at Lorne’s head. The one loaded with Voidsteel.
Before she could pull the trigger, Lorne let go of me and tackled Hira, soaring to the far side of the warehouse and grabbing her gun hand. Out of my range.
Hira tore herself from Lorne’s grasp, flipping backwards, but the gun flew out of her grip. It hovered in the air away from them, wobbling back and forth. They’re both projecting into a part of it.
Purple and green lightning flickered around them, as they fought for control. Then Hira shot forward, her gloved hand darting towards Lorne’s face, crackling with electricity. Harder to see, a thread of water stretched from her pinky towards his ankle.
Lorne sliced the thread with a whip of molten metal, keeping it separate from his body. Protecting him from her electricity. Flicking his other hand, he stabbed at Hira with a molten spear, forcing her to dart to the side. She’s too close for him to shoot a beam.
For several seconds, they clashed in a blur, Hira with her martial arts, Lorne with his metal projection. They swung fists and metal, weaving around each other’s strikes, each failing to land a critical blow. Both of them used the same style, western-style boxing with fast jabs, haymakers, and dodges.
Purple lightning flickered around Hira’s palms as she ducked and lashed out. She’s using her Vocation. Stitching Lorne’s thoughts in short bursts to keep herself alive.
Then Wes threw a concussion grenade at them, and blew it up behind Lorne’s head. He doubled over, then shot into the air. He blasted through the warehouse ceiling, keeping himself safe while he regained his senses. Hira shot her wrist-grapple at him, but he darted to the side, dodging it.
So, we ran again, even as my back sent searing pain throughout my body. Hira grabbed her bag and pointed towards one of the doors, and we ran there, supporting her as she wobbled back and forth, dizzy, fighting off the effects of the concussion grenade.
We burst out, and Hira ran to a car with the doors open, its engine already running. Jun and Right-Hira hotwired it for us. The three of us leapt in, and Hira floored the gas pedal. The tires screeched, and we shot down the empty streets.
On North Island, this early in the morning, the streets were empty. Hira accelerated, zipping around flooded streets and through alleyways. Wes shot more paper out of his briefcase, forming an angled wall behind us. He nodded at me, and we clasped hands. Lightning crackled around us, and our Piths swapped back, flowing into our normal bodies. I stared at the grey-haired boy with the bulging forehead, until I became him,
I regained my senses in my usual body, feeling all the usual aches and weights again. Wes ran his fingers through his brown hair, taking stock of his familiar body once again.
And one of the trucks behind us melted into a molten sphere. It turned into a beam, shooting in our general direction. The beam sheared through the paper barrier, blasting into the side of the car and tearing off one of the rear wheels.
The vehicle swerved, metal screeching on the concrete. It started to tip over, and Hira clapped her hands, projecting all the doors open.
We leapt out as another beam tore into the car, ripping a hole in the center as it flipped over. I projected into my clothes one last time, lifting myself up and away from the crashing vehicle. My headache tripled, making my vision blur, and I slowed to a running stop as I touched the ground.
Smoke bombs exploded all around us, and Hira grabbed my hand, dragging me forward. We burst through a pair of double doors, and found ourselves in a crowded shopping center, filled with shops, restaurants, and bustling people.
This is Hira’s target. Where she and Jun had been leading us to.
With the smoke still around us, Hira floated three outfits out of a box on the floor, complete with pants, coats, and hats. She slid them onto our bodies and pulled off our old clothes.
In less than three seconds, we were striding into the crowd, disguised, moving away from the smoke with the confused shoppers. She and Jun set this up too.
I used illusions to make us blend in further, whipping up some fake security guards for the Humdrums around us to pull them closer, blocking our movements with their bodies.
Behind us, the doors burst open, and I turned my head to watch it out of the corner of my eye.
Lorne shot out of the smoke, flying above the crowd. “Remain calm!” he shouted. While he talked, I projected into everyone in range, blocking out his orders. “Do not leave, this is a police operation!”
Then, Lorne looked straight at us, and shot towards our group. How can he still see us? He hadn’t been projecting around us during our quick change, and Hira’s disguises were thorough.
I made my fake security guards bark out orders, drawing the crowd closer to us, swelling its size. Lorne was a brutal bastard, but even he wouldn’t burn dozens of Humdrums just to take out a target. His attacks were broad, imprecise. And if he got too close, Hira could still shoot him with the Voidsteel bullet, which would shear through the enhancements on his armor.
So he hovered at the edge of the crowd, staring at us from less than thirty feet away.
We’d bought time. But more cops would come, more Guardians. They might already be here.
Hira whispered the rest of the plan to me, and I shifted my illusions on the crowd around me, creating fake gunmen shouting orders at them. Several of them broke off from the group, jogging through corridors and down stairwells. Lorne glanced at them, but kept following us as we strode through the shopping center.
“I have a hunch,” whispered Hira. “Once you send the signal, stop using all projection. Don’t let a single bit of your Pith leave your body.”
Huh? I nodded, confused.
Then, Hira nodded to me. It’s time. I shifted my illusions on the crowd of Humdrums around us. In unison, all of them screamed, a deafening sound that filled the entire room and made my ears ache. That’s the signal.
At the same time, dozens more smoke bombs exploded around us, and a pair of concussion grenades. The crowd scattered, and the three of us scattered with them, stumbling from the effects of the grenades. As we ran, Hira yanked off the coats and hats of people around us, switching our clothes again.
I ascended one level, darted down a hallway, and hid behind a counter in a coffee shop, massaging my aching temples. Don’t project.
If Lorne had lost us, he’d be watching the exits, and waiting for backup to surround the place properly.
Tires screeched on the concrete outside, and I glanced out a window. A dozen automobiles sped away from the shopping center at the same time, driving from the sidewalk, across the street, and the small garage underneath. Each one held three or more people, so if you projected inside, you’d feel at least three Piths.
In unison, at least a hundred people fled from the building, pouring onto the sidewalks.
Lorne would have to stop every car, and check if we were inside, or if we were among the fleeing pedestrians.
“Stop!” he bellowed, his voice ringing out from the concrete. “By order of Paragon Academy, stop!”
Some of them stopped. Others didn’t. Police cars with sirens pulled up around the streets, stopping more of them.
While Lorne and the cops focused on the people outside, I sprinted to the ground floor, meeting Hira and Wes in a clothing store. Hira opened a door to a backroom, revealing her Right body and Jun standing over a hole cut in the floor.
“I’ll lift your clothes,” said Hira. “Don’t project, Ana, or we’re fucked.”
We’re fleeing. That had to be the right choice. We’d never beat Lorne in open combat.
One by one, we dropped into the hole, landing on a dry patch of a sewer tunnel. Jun projected above us, locking the door and sealing the hole behind us with a shower of sparks. They’ll find it eventually. But it would take time.
We jogged through the sewers, and I gagged at the stench. Why couldn’t my sense of smell be broken too? As the adrenaline wore off, the headache returned. And the exhaustion. My lungs burned, taking huge, gasping breaths. It took all my effort to put one foot in front of the other and keep myself from collapsing.
“Lorne touched your skin, right?” said Hira. “With his skin. When he choked you.”
I nodded, too winded to speak much. It was odd, how he wasn’t wearing gloves, given Wes’ paper projection. Paper cuts to your fingers could hurt like hell.
“I think he put a tracer on you.”
“What?” I panted.
“A tracer. It’s a Whisper vocation, advanced. Requires physical contact to get activated. As long as you’re within roughly a hundred kilometers or so of Lorne, give or take, it’ll send your vague whereabouts to him. Right now, he knows you’re still in Elmidde, but that’s it.”
“How is that a problem?” said Wes, jogging ahead of us. “I know my ex is still in the city, but that doesn’t mean I can hunt down his exact location and slap his face off.”
“When you project, Ana,” said Hira. “When your Pith leaves your body. The tracer pings him. And he’ll know exactly where you are, down to the inch. That’s how he tracked us in the shopping center.”
“Any projection?” I said.
“Anything that makes your Pith leave the confines of your body. Lift a pebble, and they’ll hunt us down in minutes.”
My shoulders felt heavier, and my pace slowed. Scholars, why? I was basically a Humdrum now. And I can’t swap bodies anymore. Not without giving him my precise location.
“I’m so sorry,” said Jun, squeezing my shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
We emerged from under a manhole cover in an empty street, flooded at the far end. Before anything else, we fetched my emergency cash out of my hidden stashes.
It would pay for food, but our posters would be all over the city, our records stamped red. We’d never be able to buy a chassis legally. And now, who would rent to us? Who would hire us?
We found ourselves on a half-flooded street again, empty and silent, as the sun rose, dim behind grey clouds. “What the fuck,” said Wes. “Do we do next?”
Everyone looked at me again. Why are they still looking at me?
I leaned against a wall, closing my eyes. Every muscle ached, weighing me down. “I have no idea.”
“Well,” said Wes. “While we think it over, I know a place.”
Wes handed a stack of bills to a brown-haired man with a thick neck. “Thanks, Leo.”
“I’m sorry. You and your friends can’t stay here,” Leo said. “If the cops find out, I’ll lose everything.” He slid the bills into a cabinet behind the bar, chuckling. “I want to nobly refuse this money, too, but rent is expensive. I hope that’s not a problem.”
Wes smiled at him. “When you agreed to talk to me, that was already beyond my wildest hopes.” They have history. How did Wes know some random Humdrum?
Leo poured him a cup of tea. “Welcome back, kid. Wish you’d stayed here from the start.”
“Yeah,” Wes sighed. “Me too.”
Queen Sulphur gathered around a table, pulling up stools. Leo poured tea for the rest of us, and dropped a bowl of walnuts in the middle.
“So,” said Wes. “If I may sum things up: We have no house, no sleeping pod, and no money. Our leader can’t project, or swap bodies. Our main source of funds, Professor Brin, is either in prison or an enemy, and we’re all wanted projectors being hunted by the most powerful military in the Eight Oceans.”
“Yes,” I said, picking apart a walnut and dropping the tasteless crumbs into my mouth. “That sounds right.”
“So what are we thinking, suicide pact? Get shitfaced and cry ourselves to sleep?”
“We could leave the country,” said Jun. “Get out of range of Lorne’s tracer Vocation. We can find mercenary work overseas without compromising our morals.”
“Not in Shenten,” said Wes. “People there would throw their sister under a tank if it meant gaining another yard of frozen rubble.” He glanced at Jun, the lone Shenti in the room. “No offense.”
“I’m not offended,” said Jun. “Just disappointed.”
“And, while I’d love to visit the glimmering home of I-Pop, Hira said he didn’t want to go back to Ilaqua.”
“Yeah,” said Hira. “If I go home, I’ll probably get tortured to insanity, which would put a real damper on the year for me.”
“Fair points,” said Jun. “That’s why we should go to the Neke Islands. They’ve got issues, but there’s no war, no one trying to torture Hira, and they have ramen, for when Ana gets her taste buds back.”
He said ‘when’. Funny.
“We head for a port,” Jun said. “On the far side of the Principality. When we’re out of Lorne’s range, we use Ana’s illusions to get on a boat and past border patrol to the Floating City. Plus, Ana’s part Nekean, right?”
“Quarter,” I said. “On my mother’s side. I’ve never been there.” And I don’t speak either of the languages.
“If we’re guns for hire, anywhere but here,” said Hira. “We’re competitors to the Droll Corsairs. They’re not just the biggest private military company, they’re one of the biggest companies, period. They’ll buy us up or try to kill us.”
“And Afzal Kahlin is here,” said Wes. “He’s not going anywhere. I can’t save my family from debt and go back to my friends if I’m chugging sake halfway across the world.”
“And Commonplace is still trying to destroy this nation,” I said. “Tunnel Vision – the Pyre Witch – is still trying to burn down everything I care about.” Even if I was powerless, a fugitive, unable to project, I couldn’t just sit by while that happened.
“I understand all that,” said Jun. “And I’m sorry. I can’t imagine the roots you have here, and venturing out carries its own risks. Do any of you have better plans?”
Wes spoke up. “When Lorne gets Ana’s location, it’ll take him a while to wrangle all the necessary forces. We could break into a body vault somewhere – not Paragon’s, but somewhere less secure. Lorne’s maybe, with that vintage Maxine Clive chassis Ana told us about. Ana could swap, and we could run before they catch us.”
“Won’t work,” said Left-Hira. “The tracer probably wasn’t fully activated yet, when the two of you swapped back. But the more you project, the longer the ping lasts. If Ana swaps bodies now, Lorne might have her location for hours.”
“We have plenty of money to last out the year,” said Jun. “Buy toothpaste, food, supplies. We can lie low and think it over. Until then, we need a place to live.”
“Somewhere quiet, shady, underground,” said Wes. “Where the law won’t find us.”
Everyone looked at Hira. Our go-to criminal expert.
She rolled all four eyes at once. “Fine. I’ll work on it.”
But there was another possibility for us, that Jun hadn’t raised.
We could split up. Nobody said it, but everyone had to be thinking of that as a possibility. If the rest of Queen Sulphur abandoned me, they could move about freely, without fear of Lorne’s tracer. And without Hira, Ilaqua wouldn’t be as dangerous. And even if Wes and I wanted to stay in the Principality, Jun and Hira didn’t have to.
They’re my friends. Losing them would tear a hole in my heart.
But in a few months, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Hira found us an abandoned duplex in a slum on East Island.
The windows were broken, and the roof had been torn off in places. Dust covered the entire thing from top to bottom, and plants grew out of cracks in the wood.
And the neighborhood, if anything, was worse than Lowtown. According to Hira, it didn’t flood quite as often as North Island, but it had been abandoned all the same. Men and women sat on the steps of tiny houses and apartment buildings, spilling over into the streets as homeless people. Trash covered the streets, and rust covered the streetlamps.
But it was out of the way. And it had running water in one tap in the backyard, plus a toilet in the basement.
When I went to the second floor, I found a group of squatters.
Three men and two women sat on the floor upstairs, huddling close to each other and counting out money. A cart with a bucket and mop sat off to the side, overflowing with cleaning supplies. They’re janitors. Or maids for hire. Half of them looked foreign. Nekean or Shenti, maybe.
They stared at me, shocked.
Then Hira came up the stairs, spotted them, and cocked her shotgun. “Fuck off. This is our place now.”
The squatters clambered back to the far end of the room, holding their hands up and shaking. One of the men nodded, his eyes wide, and the rest of them nodded with him.
Scholars, she’s being vicious. I knew she was just trying to scare them off, but still. “It’s alright,” I said. “We can find another place.”
“It wasn’t easy,” said Hira. “Finding a spot in this part of town that wasn’t owned by a vigilant land-grubber or some pissed-off public housing official. Most homeless people sleep on the street. These ones weren’t here when I found this spot. For all we know, they got here five minutes before we did.”
“All the more reason to let these people stay,” I said. “They’ve done nothing wrong, other than having jobs that don’t pay them enough by the hour.”
“We’re – we’re part-time,” said one of the women. “We don’t get paid by the hour.”
Jun strode up the stairs, joining us. “Hi!” he said, beaming. “How’s this. We need a place to stay, you need a place to stay, it’s a solid house. How about we become roommates? How would you feel about that?”
They muttered amongst themselves. Then one of the men gave a short, hesitant nod.
“In exchange, I could help fix the water and lights and clean the place up a bit.”
“They’re not evil. But they are a risk.” Left-Hira turned to us. “The more they know about us,” she said under her breath, “the higher risk they are. Sooner or later, our faces are going to be on some newspaper next to a big fucking sum of money. They could report us to Paragon.”
“These people barely have anything.” I spoke at a normal volume. “I’m not going to kick them out just because you’re scared of strangers. Let’s stay with them.”
Hira grit her teeth. “Wes?”
“Your old place had a bubble bath,” sighed Wes. “I’m going to miss bubble baths. But if we’re staying in a fetid garbage heap, I don’t care if we have to share it. Being homeless is a fucking nightmare.”
“Fine,” muttered Hira. “But if this fucks us, I’m going to say ‘I told you so’ while they line up the firing squad.”
We moved our possessions in, what little we had, and found some blankets and pillows on the streets. Jun boiled the fleas out of them with projection, and we set them on the ground floor, sweeping aside the broken glass to make room.
Jun promised that he would make upgrades, as long as he could hide his projection from our housemates. But for now, next to Hira’s house, the ruin was cold, dusty, and broken.
“We’ll get through this,” said Jun, putting a hand on my shoulder. “It’s going to be alright.”
We played a game of Jao Lu from a set Wes had scavenged, and then settled in for the first night. I lay on my pile of blankets, staring at the ceiling long after the others fell asleep. Maybe it was the new aches and pains, in my stomach, my lungs, my ears. Maybe it was the anemia-induced chills. Maybe it was the fact that Cardamom was gone. Maybe for good.
Or maybe it was the realization, gradually settling in, bleeding into all my thoughts. You are going to die. Working as a mercenary, as a Grey Coat, was already the backup plan. The doors had shut.
Jun sprucing up the house, my friends’ words of kindness, those were just hospice. Making me comfortable in my final days.
At least I wouldn’t pass alone. Six months ago, I would have passed away in Clementine’s basement, and all the other servants would have forgotten about me by the end of the month.
I have friends now. That was a mercy. I wanted to drink mulled cider with them, not die with them, but that had always been a long shot.
Eventually, the exhaustion overpowered the dread, and I fell asleep.
A hand shook me awake. My eyes snapped open.
One of the squatters stood over me, her face masked in shadows.
My stomach wrenched. I leapt out of my makeshift bed, staggering back, and reached for my machine pistol, before stopping myself. It takes projection to assemble. I couldn’t do it by hand.
I’d come this close to using projection, to slipping up and revealing our location to Lorne.
Before I could shout for help or grab my cattle prod, the woman held up her hands, stepping back from me in a non-threatening gesture.
If she wanted to hurt me, she would have just stabbed me in my sleep.
I exhaled, letting my shoulders relax, my heart thumping in my chest. “What?” I said.
“Thank you,” the woman said. “For your kindness.”
I shrugged. “It’s basic decency. It doesn’t deserve praise.”
“We’re all fighting together,” said the woman, her lips chapped. “For a better life. I can tell you’ve been fighting for a long time. For survival. To get through the day.”
Is this a trap? She wasn’t wrong, though. I nodded.
“But,” the woman said. “If you want to fight for something more, call this number.” She pulled a business card out of her pocket and extended it to me.
I took it. Dim moonlight streamed through a half-broken window, illuminating its contents.
Pastries, Bread, and Flour
515 Bay Avenue
59 – 1987 – 2170
I bent the card back and forth. Mundane paper. Not like the fancy, impervious cards that projectors carried.
Then I flipped it over. A different phone number had been scrawled on the back, next to a green circle.
17 – 0302 – 5157
Say “Bicycle, Envelope, Flower, Circle”
My breath quickened. “Is this for – “
“The forgotten, the tread upon, the ignored. The souls who get hijacked, sacrificed, broken for the powerful, who get our memories wiped. Who will never become Exemplars, or forge the stars in our image. This isn’t just for our political group – the front. This is for the real warriors. The people who go to war.” The woman clasped my hand, smiling. “We are the common foundation.”
A chill spread across my skin. Commonplace. She’d given me a number to become a Green Hands. A terrorist.
I held onto the card for almost a week, without telling anyone. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them, but I wasn’t sure if they’d want the same things with it.
I spent most of the week lying in bed, too tired to get up. I couldn’t project, anyways, and with the state of my body, physical labor would just hasten the decay.
A month ago, I’d sprinted from project to project, studying or practicing or coming up with plans during every waking minute. I could see my future as a Guardian, far above me, and I’d climbed towards it, even when my arms shook and my skin tore and I wanted to give up.
Ambition was its own sort of drug. It drove you forward, sucking up more and more of your mind. And when it vanished, the withdrawal could break you.
Before, I’d been losing sleep, going from classrooms to missions with aching, heavy eyes. Now, I slept fifteen hours a day, which was somehow even more exhausting. I got up to eat, shave, and use the bathroom, but that was it. Lying down that long made my skin and muscles ache, and without showers, the stench of my body odor built up into a potent cloud around me.
But still, I lay there, trying to escape into my imagination, to escape the waves of disgust and loathing at my crumbling body. The other members of Queen Sulphur talked sometimes, or went out, or brought back scrap metal to make repairs on the plumbing and lights and stove. Wes and Hira practiced projection and natural science at the other end of the room. But I didn’t join in.
It made me think of my study sessions with Tasia. Hanging out on the grassy pavilion at Paragon Academy, or that Shenti bakery in Lowtown she’d taken me to. Listening to her excitement, her passion for learning and her relentless, hard-working optimism after everything she’d been through.
Does she hate me, now? Did she resent me for lying, for pretending to be Ernest Chapman?
I might die without ever knowing.
The rest of Queen Sulphur staked out Lorne’s mansion for a few days, at Wes’ insistence, to see if we could take him out to disable the tracer. But the bastard was sleeping up in Paragon for the rest of the year. He anticipated that, too.
I even tried feeding the obscure pattern-matching Praxis vocation I’d studied, running everything I’d learned about the Pyre Witch, Lorne, Isaac Brin through my mental spreadsheet along with the rest of my data, over and over again. Maybe there could be some connection, some insight that could get me out.
But the technique was clumsy, basic. It only could give me matches on the most obvious, clear connections.
It did nothing for me here.
On the seventh night after I got the card, a rainstorm passed over the city. While it poured down around us, the rest of Queen Sulphur went upstairs and played Jao Lu with a pack of beers, joining up with the squatters. Jun cobbled together a gramophone, and Wes played some of his favorite Steel Violet tunes on it.
Wes had invited me to join, of course, and Hira had told me to not be a ‘sad, grey puddle of angst’. Jun had hugged me.
I’d still refused. They don’t understand. They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but at least they had a tomorrow.
While their shouting and laughter and swing music echoed through the ceiling, I sunk back into my pillow and thought about my parents.
It’s spring now. Asparagus and peas and strawberries would be in season. The Agricultural Islands supplied the majority of the Principality’s crops, so my hometown would be bustling.
I hope they’re alright. They didn’t work on a farm, but a good season was good for everyone. I’d dreamed of sending money back to them. Maybe I could still take the money I had left and ship it to their address. It wasn’t even a fraction of what I’d hoped for, but it was something. It was leaving something positive behind.
I thought of Clementine, too. In years past, when I was toiling away in her kitchen, lying on that mattress in her basement, I’d wondered. I was a projector. I had some measure of skill. Why had Clementine never tried to hire me?
I’d have turned her down, of course. I could be a maid for some petty criminal, but not a thug. But why had she never asked?
But I understood, now.
On some deep, subconscious level, Clementine had always looked down on me. She didn’t consider me worthy of such a position.
And she was right.
As the night went on, the others finished their fun and went to sleep around the ground floor. But I stayed awake – I’d slept through most of the day, and found it difficult to fall asleep
So I shivered under my covers, listening to the rain outside, staring out the dark windows and taking slow, aching breaths. I held up my left hand, examining my two grey, decayed fingers.
Then I came to a decision.
I threw off my blankets and stood up, pulling on a coat Jun had scavenged from the street. Then I strode out the front door, into the storm.
Rain poured down around me, seeping into my shirt and dripping from my hair. I stumbled down the sidewalk, and the rusty streetlamps flickered around me, casting a wavering orange light on the pavement.
My foot splashed into a puddle, soaking into my socks. Lightning flickered in the sky, and thunder roared in the distance. My wet clothes stuck to my skin, making me shiver even more. Thanks to the tracer, I couldn’t even warm myself up with projection.
I half-jogged to the far end of East Island, and over a short bridge to Lowtown. At this hour, in this storm, the streets of Elmidde had emptied.
This is far enough. I scanned the street, walked towards a payphone, and pulled the business card out of my pocket. My shaking fingers picked up the receiver, slid in a coin, and punched in the number.
It rang for a few seconds, and I huddled closer to the payphone under an overhang, shielding myself from the rain.
Then the line clicked. Someone picked up.
“Bicycle, Envelope, Flower, Circle,” I said, my chest aching, my voice deep and hoarse and exhausted.
“Welcome, brother,” a voice said on the other end. “What can we do for you?”
Brother. Even with everything else, that still stung.
“I’m the Blue Charlatan,” I said. “I want to speak to the woman with half a thumb.” My hand shook. “I want to talk to your leader.”