9-C Silver Letters

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Ana

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.

Illusions.  Now.

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.”

Silence.

“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.

Foppington’s Bakery
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.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




9-B Silver Letters

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

We’re fucked, I thought.

But that was a fine starting point.  We’d been fucked before, and none of us were dead yet.

Of course, we’d never gone up against a full team of Guardians.  And the enemy knew our Vocations.  And we had no Voidsteel.  And I had a hangover.

But we were fine.  “I know what I’m doing,” I muttered under my breath.  “I know what I’m doing.”

I floated my new briefcase towards me, flipping it open and shooting paper out in every direction.  Then I checked the objects I’d flattened.  All secure.

While I was at it, I took the white crane mask out of the briefcase, the one Samuel had given me, and I put it on.  The enemies already knew my identity, but it seemed like a nice touch.

Mark!” shouted Ana with illusions.

The first step was simple: Buy time, learn the enemy.  Figure out who we had to target, and if the rest of her plan would even work.  Jun, on his way back, had jerry-rigged a telescope out of spare parts, so he and Right-Hira could spy on the alleyway from a distance, without exposing themselves to the police.  And Hira could wield his Vocation here too, using his Left body.

Cardamom coughed from the pale gas, his green fur standing on end.  I crawled towards him, but before I could reach him, the cat clambered onto a chair and leapt out one of the broken windows, yowling.

My stomach jerked.  No.  He was going to get hurt.

I closed my eyes.  Shouts rang out from the outside, but so far, not a single gunshot.  He must have gotten out.  Lucky green furball.

His human owners would have a harder time escaping.

I reached upstairs, feeling around Hira’s bedroom.  Where did I leave my gas masks?

“Here’s the situation,” said Hira, his voice soft.  “They’ve got cops holding a perimeter on all sides.  Pistols and rifles.  Voidsteel bullets, maybe.  Keeping their distance.”

Makes sense.  At close range, Ana’s Vocation could turn enemies in seconds, making them useless, or hazards.  She was forcing them to make this a long-range battle.

More gas grenades shot through the window, spewing white smoke.

“Six projectors,” said Hira.  “Oakes, Olwen, a squad of students led by some ginger with a blue scarf.  Basic body armor.  Students don’t have ABDs.  They – “  Hira stopped for a second.  “ہمیں کرنا ہو گا.”  His eyes widened in confusion.  “آخر کیا بات ہے؟?”

He’s speaking Ilaquan.  Hira relied on his Praxis Vocation to speak Common and other languages.  Was something wrong there?

“مجھے دس ہزار بھڑکتے نیزوں سے بھاڑ میں جاؤ,” Hira said.  Purple lightning crackled around his palms, then fizzled out, suppressed.

This is Adam Lynde’s Phoenix Squad,” said Ana, as Hira clamped down with more bowls on the new gas grenades.  “One of them has a long-range Whisper Vocation that can suppress the effects of skill-stitching while he concentrates.

They brought him in to counter us.  Without his stitching, Hira couldn’t talk to us at all, much less use his skills.  And Adam Lynde had been sabotaged by Ana before, at Lorne’s request during a squad battle.  Thanks to her, he was at risk of getting Ousted this summer, just like me.

Penny Oakes’ Vocation makes gaseous chemicals, and she can control their movement.  Lady Olwen’s Vocation is Whisper, not relevant for this fight – she’s just extra muscle.  Lynde himself can harden concrete in seconds.  Number two in his squad can stretch his Pith into a large area without losing energy – it’s good for scanning, it’ll let them track our movements.

That one would make it harder for Ana to fool people.  Another direct counter to us.  My stomach sank.

The last one creates a large number of frozen projectiles and –

Hundreds of icicles blasted through the windows, shattering what was left of the glass and slamming into the wall, shattering or sinking into the wood.  They formed a storm of ice, like a dozen machine guns were shooting at us from the outside, all loaded with tiny shards.

Hira flipped the coffee table over, using it as a shield.  The frozen bullets weren’t going fast enough to penetrate walls, but they were ripping through the cabinets in the kitchen, shattering Ana’s mug, tearing splinters off the table.  They whistled as they shot through the air, a sharp, piercing noise that made my ears ache.

A few more minutes of this, and we’ll have no cover left.  And if we stood up, the icicles would puncture our flesh like a hundred nail guns.

While we cowered from the barrage, a single thought rang through my head.  How the fuck did Paragon find out?  Had someone talked?  Was this because Ana told Professor Brin about the Pyre Witch?

More gas grenades flew in, and Hira was out of stuff to cover them with.  The white gas ballooned out from a dozen clouds, washing over the room and making me feel dizzy.

I finished fishing out the flattened gas masks I’d hidden in Hira’s bedroom, pulling them out beneath his bed legs, then floating them down the stairs.

Then I shot them into each of our hands, and slid mine on.  The dizzy sensation faded, and the gas coalesced around us, forming a dense cloud in the living room without spreading to the kitchen or upstairs.

Oakes’ Vocation.  Keeping the knockout gas where it would hurt us the most.  If we moved, it would follow us.

The icicles kept coming, thudding into Hira’s wallpaper, poking holes in the coffee table.  One sliced my arm, leaving a burning streak of pain.

None of Hira’s booby traps went off.  At Ana’s request, he’d turned them all off, so they wouldn’t get triggered by accident during the barrage.

And in the meantime, Hira floated a golf bag down from upstairs and pulled an anti-tank rifle from it, taking the place of his usual weapon.  His fingers fumbled with the clip, and he grabbed the barrel, clumsy and confused.  He relies on his stitched skills to shoot.  With the enemy suppressing him, he wouldn’t be able to hit a drunk elephant.

A pair of grenades dropped onto the floor, and turquoise gas hissed out of them, a new color.  It shot towards me, Ana, and Left-Hira, collecting around our heads.

Something sizzled, and a piece of Ana’s mask fell off.  I touched the filter of my mask, and bits of metal crumbled away.

Takonara,” I muttered.  This gas eats metals.  Penny Oakes was using it to break our defenses.

In less than a minute, our masks would be gone.  And we’d have to breathe it all in.

It’s time,” said Ana.  She made a flashing red light in front of Hira, a nonverbal signal.  “Wes?

I whipped the papers around me in the air, causing disturbances in the gas, making it difficult for Penny Oakes to sense our movements, since air projection was already so difficult.  Then I nodded, crawled over, and grabbed her hand.  The headache throbbed in my skull, made worse by the gas and the chaos.  This will be unpleasant.

Do you trust me?” she said.

Scholars help me, I do.

I reached.  She reached.  Green and blue lightning crackled around us, hidden from outside view with layers of paper walls.

My Pith melted down and flowed through my arm, like a river of lava from a volcano.  With one pair of eyes, I gazed at a desperate grey-haired boy, veins bulging on his neck.  With another, I stared at an exhausted young man with freckles.  I felt the warm stasis of one body, and lingering aches of another.

I blinked, gasped for breath, and clenched my fists.  Ana’s fists.  A successful body swap.  Now I was in her chassis.

A chill sensation bit into my skin, and my stomach ached.  The fingers on my right hand went numb, and my chest felt tight, short of breath.  In an instant, I felt tired.  Thick, heavy exhaustion stronger than any I’d felt in weeks, and a bitter chill on my skin from her anemia.

I’d been in Ana’s body before.  The decay is getting worse.  She was running out of time.

Next, I scanned the storm of icicles, feeling where they struck, the patterns and gaps in the assault.

There were a few spaces.  Parts where the wall or the door blocked the barrage of ice.  We lifted the table with projection and moved through those, walking towards the front exit.  Out of the cloud of gas and towards the enemy.

Then Ana, wearing my body, staggered out of the door, raising her hands above her head.  I floated pieces of paper around her, then let go of them, letting them drop to the ground.

That’s a solid body, I thought.  Please don’t break it.

The Guardians and students turned their attention to her.  A ball of white gas coalesced around her brown hair as she stumbled into the alleyway, ensuring she’d breathe in a knockout dose the moment her mask broke.

A tiny icicle hit her thigh – my thigh, and she staggered.  Another pair hit her arm and her shoulder, drawing lines of blood.  But nothing on her head and neck.  Nothing that would put her in the hospital.

We guessed right.  My mother had helped plan this attack.  She despised me, but a part of her still clung to me.  She wouldn’t want to kill the child she’d raised for nineteen years unless there was no way to avoid it.

And right now, it looked like Weston Ebbridge was surrendering.

Outside, the Guardians had split into two groups, blocking the street from both sides.  Ana couldn’t get both in range of her Vocation at the same time.

The left group contained the two real Guardians, Lady Olwen and Penny Oakes, along with the Hira-suppressor and icicle-shooter members of Phoenix Squad.  The right group included Adam Lynde himself, the concrete projector, and the one with the stretched Pith, who could sense everything in the vicinity to see through Ana’s illusions.

Ana moved towards the left group of enemies, but before she got within range, she collapsed, falling onto her belly.  Her mask broke beneath her, exposing her nose and mouth to the melon-sized ball of knockout gas floating around her head.

Her chest rose and fell, and her arms and legs went limp, as if she had breathed in the gas and had fallen unconscious.

With luck, Penny Oakes wouldn’t notice that Ana was wide awake, holding her breath, making tiny exhales to send disturbances through the gas.

And the Guardians thought Ana was me.  They’d still keep their distance, but they wouldn’t focus on that.  They were expecting illusions from the grey-haired skeleton, not the brown-haired alcoholic.

Adam Lynde floated a sphere of liquid concrete across the alleyway, and dumped it on Ana.  It splashed around her arms and legs and back, soaking everything except her chest and head.  My chest, my head.

She would be able to breathe, but not much else.

Through a hole in the coffee table, I spotted green lightning flickering on the right side of the alley, around Lynde’s fingers.

The thick sludge of the concrete began to harden, starting from the outside around her hands and feet and working in towards the center of her body.

Thanks to Ana’s illusions, we could see the process happening in real-time, seeing through the thick white gas to the action outside.  Ana’s Vocation had better range on me and Hira, so she could share her perceptions with us.

I felt my gas mask break down further, and sucked in one last breath as the metal pieces of the filter crumbled.

The concrete kept hardening, spreading around Ana’s body.

Now it gets complicated.

Then, Jun’s car slammed into the police barricade, sending up a deafening clang.  It exploded, and in a fraction of a second, the entire alleyway filled up with hot steam.

A steam explosion.  A worthy distraction, for a split second, just weak enough to avoid maiming anyone.  Every head turned in that direction, and the projectors shielded themselves from the blast.

At the same time, I made paper explode from the second floor, shot it towards the cops and Guardians, and cut every piece of exposed skin I could find.  A second layer of distractions.

And, at the same time as that, Ana dragged herself forward, projecting into her clothes – my clothes – and the concrete to pull herself a few yards towards her enemy.

The concrete scraped on the cobblestone, but made no vibrations.  No sound.  Most of it hadn’t hardened yet, and poured down her back in a thick grey sludge.

She got within range of a few soldiers, and two students: The Whisper specialist boy – the one suppressing Hira, and the icicle-shooter-girl.  Both had body armor, but neither of them had ABDs.

Ana made an illusion of two Hira bodies leaping out of the house, two blurs that would be just slow enough to get seen by the students.  That’s the real attack, our enemies would think.  The steam and paper were distractions for this.

The illusory Hiras launched illusory projectiles from beneath their clothes, dark brown spheres the size of grapes, with a tiny bit of red material at the end.  Micro-bombs.  Like the ones used by Shenti commandos, or my mother with her birds.  One would be enough to blow off an arm, or destroy a person’s brain.

The fake micro-bombs shot forward at rapid speeds, appearing to blow up the soldiers around Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl.  The trick wouldn’t fool the stretched-Pith student, who could see through Ana’s illusions, but for a few seconds, it would work just fine on these two.

The barrage of fake explosives turned to the Guardians.  There was no point trying to push them away, since Hira’s Pith would be inside them already, and the icicles were for attack, not defense.

But, as Guardians-in-training, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl had absurd reflexes.

So they dodged them all, bobbing and weaving and ducking like Nekean moon dancers, projecting into their combat suits to enhance their movement.

And in half a second, their dodging brought them next to Lady Olwyn, Penny Oakes, and a Humdrum soldier, all of whom were invisible to Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl.

The soldier, controlled by illusions, swung the butt of his rifle into Whisper Boy’s face, bashing in his nose.  The act broke his concentration, freeing Hira’s skill-stitching for an instant.

A moment later, Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl collided with the two adult Guardians, bumping into Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes.  Their body armors scraped up against each other, and the steam was pushed away, clearing the alleyway.

In that instant, Hira fired.

He squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession.  The anti-tank rifle thudded into his shoulder with a pair of dull booms, loud enough to make my ears ache.  He aimed into the wall of pale gas from the very back of the room, holding his breath and lying on his stomach.

He was out of Ana’s range, unable to see through the gas.  But on the outside, his other body had a sightline to the alleyway through Jun’s telescope.  He always knew the position of his bodies, relative to one another, which meant he could aim with one body and fire with another.

The student’s body armor could stop a pistol, or even an ordinary rifle bullet, but not an anti-tank weapon.  However, Lady Olwyn and Penny Oakes, the proper, full-time Guardians, had autonomous bullet defenses – that could stop any bullet, as long as it wasn’t Voidsteel.

But, an ABD had limits.  It hovered a foot or so around a person, slowing and deflecting bullets that came within its field.

So if you put a gun to someone’s forehead and fired, the bullet would go through the ABD.  There wouldn’t be enough space to slow it down or deflect it.

Whisper Boy and Icicle Girl?  Their bodies were full of Pith, and they had no bullet defenses.  Rashi’s Second Law meant an ABD couldn’t deflect a bullet inside a person’s body.  If you acted as a human shield for someone, at close enough range, you could disable their ABD.

So when the fifty-caliber steel rounds blew through the students’ chests, they punched through the Guardians too.

Two bullets.  Four targets.  All executed with perfect timing thanks to Ana’s illusions.

Penny Oakes, Lady Olwen, Whisper Boy, and Icicle Girl all collapsed, bleeding from their chests, coughing.

They would all get fresh bodies in time, and suffer no permanent damage to their Piths, but they were disabled for the fight.  The enemies would have to spend resources to evacuate them and save their lives.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle, aiming at Adam Lynde and the stretch-projector.  Before he could fire, Lynde lifted a wall of concrete between him and the window, and hardened it, barely visible through the gas.  Green lightning crackled around him.

The stretch-projector knows exactly what happened.  We no longer had the element of surprise.

And then, Ana’s illusions vanished.

The alleyway became invisible again, cloaked by Oakes’ wall of white gas.  She’s asleep.  For real this time.  During the commotion, she must have inhaled the knockout gas.

She’s going to get caught.  

My lungs burned, a building pressure in my chest from holding my breath in Ana’s body.  This wasn’t part of the plan.  Outside, the girl was exposed.  And now, the Guardians would know she wasn’t me – they might shoot to kill.

Right-Hira stared at me, and his eyes flitted to the staircase.  I knew what he was thinking.  On the second floor, we could get gas masks and equipment, escape before the enemy reinforcements sealed the trap.

Maybe the Ebbridge family was sealed off forever, now.  But maybe not.

And to rescue Ana, we’d have to venture out into the open, through the gunshots.

Strive to become an Exemplar.  If it weren’t for Ana, I’d be a hollowed-out, depressed thrall of Lyna Wethers.  Or dead, a dozen times over.  I owed her, for more things than one.

I didn’t have to be here.  I had a choice.

But the answer was pretty obvious.

I spent my last breath on a shout.  “Help Ana!”

In the chaos and smoke, Left-Hira and I scrabbled forward towards Ana, reaching our Piths forward into her clothes and the concrete blocks around her limbs.

Together, we pulled, yanking Ana back towards the front door, towards safety.  Green and purple lightning crackled around us, and a headache exploded in my skull.  My pieces of paper drifted to the ground, as I put all my concentration and effort into this one task.

In response, figures moved through the smoke, charging towards the unconscious Ana as she scraped across the ground.  Humdrum cops, or the two remaining projectors.  The footsteps grew louder and louder.

Too fast.  They’d reach us before we could escape, and they had functioning gas masks.  In our state, they’d crush us.

We pulled Ana over the doorstep, my lungs screaming, and Hira clapped his hands together, slamming the door shut.  Something clicked in the wall.

A cop burst through the door, bashing it down with his shoulder.

Then, electricity ran through his body, reducing him to a pile of twitches.

A second and third cop ran over the doorstep, onto Hira’s rug.  A pair of pressure plates sank, and two concussion grenades dropped on their heads.  They exploded with an ear-splitting crack, and the two cops fell over, clutching their heads.

Hira’s booby traps.  The stretch-projector could sense them, but the cops couldn’t.

And the cops were wearing gas masks.  We weren’t.  And with Oakes out of the picture, the turquoise metal-destroying gas had dispersed, leaving the filters intact.

So we took the cops’ masks.  Or at least, we tried.

We stretched our Piths towards the chin straps.  Someone else’s Pith was already inside, blocking us from projecting into them.  The stretch-projector.  The one who could project into a huge volume, even if weakly.

So we pushed, brute-forcing the stretch-projector’s Pith out.  Green and purple lightning flickered around us, the headache grew, pressing the edges of my skull with a burning sensation.

But the stretch-projector pushed back, keeping us out, holding his position.  Green lightning flickered from through the smoke.

No masks for us.  Which meant no breath.  My lungs screamed for air, a void opening in my chest.

While we reeled, our chests burning, the students attacked.

Only two enemy projectors remained – Adam Lynde, the concrete projector, and the stretch-projector.  They burst through the wall, wood splinters raining down around them.  None of the booby traps activated for them.  The stretch-projector could sense them all, and dodge or disable every single one.

Hira turned the anti-tank rifle towards the pair.  As he aimed down the scope, Adam Lynde shot concrete at the gun.  The grey sludge blocked the sights, sliding down the barrel, sinking into the mechanisms.  Lynde clenched his fist, and it hardened.

Hira tossed the rifle aside, and it thudded onto the floor.  At the same time, he rolled to his left, and his pitch-black trench shotgun floated into his hands.

In response, Adam Lynde shot a dozen concrete blocks forward, each the size of a melon.  They floated in front of the shotgun barrel, moving as it moved.

Hira fired, and the concrete exploded.  Another block took its place, as the Ilaquan dove behind the kitchen counter, bobbing and weaving.  How is he doing all that in one breath?

The stretch-projector came a second later, floating orbs of water around him.  I shot a storm of paper at him from all sides, and the orbs stretched, forming thin walls of water to cover his skin.

Another counter to our projection.  Between the armor and the water barriers, my paper was all but useless.  I assembled it into barriers in front of the enemy’s eyes, blocking their vision.

And while Lynde was focused on blocking the shotgun, turning his back to me for an instant, I separated two pieces of paper, unflattening a grenade behind the small of his back.  It exploded, throwing Lynde forward with a splash of red.

Adam Lynde dropped, bleeding from his back and arms.  The concrete blocks dropped with him.

As the stretch-projector turned to look at the noise, Hira threw his shotgun forward.  It spun through the air, stopped next to the student, and pumped four rounds into the boy’s kneecap.

The body armor stopped the first shot.  The second one blew holes in it.  The third and fourth ones reduced the knee to a red mush.

I projected forward, ripped off the boy’s mask, held it to my face, and gasped, sucking in a desperate breath.  My chest rose and fell, as I wheezed and coughed, securing the straps around my head and chin.  My throat burned, and my shoulders shook.  Ana’s shoulders.  Her lungs are decaying too.

Hira did the same, and both of us fell to our knees in the white gas, hyperventilating, my head spinning, and my chest aching.

Then, gunshots rang from the outside, and bullets shot through the smoke.

We flattened ourselves to the ground, taking cover as my ears rang.  Humdrum police.  They couldn’t see us, but I had no ABD, and Ana wasn’t wearing her blue combat suit.  Now that the Guardians were out of the line of fire, the cops could shoot up the house as much as they wanted.

I crawled over to Ana and fit a gas mask over her face, bullets whizzing over my head.

Hira crawled next to me and projected into the concrete, making cracks spiderweb out all over.  Purple lightning flickered around him, and the concrete broke into pieces, freeing Ana’s limbs.

At the same time, I pulled a trio of flattened concussion grenades from my briefcase, floated them out the windows, and let them pop back to three dimensions.

They exploded among the cops, making my ears ache even more.

The gunfire paused.  Now.  We grabbed Ana under her arms.  I projected into Ana’s torso, helping to lift her, and Hira did the same for her legs.

Together, we sprinted up the stairs to the second level, gasping for breath.  We projected into the wooden floor beneath us, muffling our footsteps, and set Ana down.

The gunshots started up again, a deafening hail, but none of the bullets went to the second floor.  They still think we’re downstairs.

I ripped open Hira’s cabinets, tossing aside shirts, beer cans, and bags of tobacco.  “Where are the smelling salts?” I hissed, speaking with Ana’s voice.

Hira stuffed his hands into a hole in the mattress, pulled out a glass bottle with tufts of cotton, and tossed it to me.  I unscrewed it, lifted Ana’s mask, and held it under her nose.  The knockout gas was thin up here, so she could go without her mask a little.

Ana’s eyes shot open, and her lungs sucked in a deep breath.  She coughed, spluttering, and I put the mask back over her.  Her eyes darted around the room, taking in the new information.  The gunshots downstairs.  Hira grabbing a go bag from under the floorboards, stuffing Ana’s combat suit into it with his black sniper rifle and every other weapon in the room.  Along with his purple hookah.

“We took out the projectors,” I said, leaning into her ear so my voice wasn’t drowned out by the gunshots.  “But the cops are still shooting at us.”

She nodded, still confused, and pushed herself to a standing position.   The girl wobbled back and forth, dizzy from the gas, and she grabbed my hand to keep herself from falling.  “I’m okay,” she slurred in my voice, a surreal sound.  “I’m okay,” she repeated with illusions.

You don’t look okay.

Thanks,” she said, her eyes unfocused.  “For not leaving me out there.

I slapped her arm.  My shoulder – her shoulder ached.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  Of course we got you.”

While Ana regained her senses, Hira walked over to a wall, clenched his fists, and slammed them together.

The plaster wall crumbled before him, spilling onto his bedroom floor, silent.  Grey morning sunlight washed in, revealing a fire escape on the building next to us.  Hira’s secret backdoor.

Hira leapt out, grabbing onto the fire escape on the building next to us.  The metal didn’t clang, silenced by his projection.

A police officer stood on the level above him, wielding a shotgun.  She aimed it at Hira, sticking the barrel through a hole in the metal grates, and pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked.  Nothing.  Jammed.

Hira jumped up and grabbed the metal grate above him with his bare hand.  The cop fell over, twitching, as electricity ran through his body.

Hira clambered up the stairs and grabbed the rifle, pulling out the clip along with a single green bullet, wiggling it between his fingers.  A Voidsteel round.  That could come in handy.

Ana groaned, still half-asleep, and limped forward to the hole in the wall.  Hira and I projected into her clothes, lifting her across the gap and onto the fire escape.  She sagged over and grabbed the railing, pulling herself up the steps.

I followed her, and the three of us climbed up the fire escape, one flight at a time, towards the cloudy grey sky.  Hira’s neighboring building stretched seven stories tall, filled with dingy apartments.  Once we got to the top, we could leap from rooftop to rooftop and make our escape in a side alley.

In the street below, one of the cops pointed at us, shouting.  Bullets whizzed around us, taking chunks out of the brick wall.

Then, as we climbed the fire escape, a wave of heat washed over us, and the top half melted.

In an instant, the cold metal turned into an orange magma, dripping down the walls and pouring over the stairs beneath, collecting in pools around us.  I could feel the heat on my face, radiating from all around us.

There’s only one projector I know with a Vocation like that.

Lorne Daventry leaned over the edge of the rooftop, smiling down at us.  The edge of his pinky finger touched the molten metal.

“Morning, Ernest.”  He waved at us with his other hand.  “You’ve been up to some mischief, haven’t you?”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




9-A Silver Letters

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

At Lorne Daventry’s spring equinox party, I wore a new body.

“Are you sure?” I’d said to him, wondering if this was a trap, or a prank.

“It’s not a request, Ernest,” said Lorne, glaring at me as we strode across a bridge in Paragon.  “You are to attend my party, and I won’t have you looking like a shriveled tumor with two broken fingers.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, glancing ahead, at the banquet hall towering over us.  “That’s very generous.”

“It’s nothing,” said Lorne.  “Just in our vault, my family has an Allen Norrys, a pair of Johen Wardes, a Luca Hagan, and a vintage Maxine Clive.  That one’s female, but it’s the first-ever chassis model that was sold in the Eight Oceans.  Worth a lot.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’ll have fun,” he said.  “Or you won’t, but it’ll be educational either way.”  He floated an embroidered invitation out of his bag.  “Show me your midterm grades again.”

I fished my transcript out with my good hand and extended it to him.  There weren’t many classes on it – just Harpy’s Tactics course, Oakes’ chemistry, and Hewes’ physics – Grey Coats didn’t get a full roster.

But still, I’d done far better than expected.

Lorne pursed his lips.  “It’s sink or swim, and you’re not drowning.”  That was probably the closest he ever got to a compliment.  “And Matilla likes you.”

Matilla Geffray.  The girl who controlled sand.  Kaplen’s replacement, who joined in Lorne’s bullying without the slightest hesitation.  Who’d been assaulted at the start of the school year by Commonplace thugs with bats.

Lorne floated the invitation into my palm.  “Strict dress code.  Don’t be late.”

I still hate you.  For how he’d treated Kaplen, how he punched down to all the other students.  How callous he was.

But still, I’d worked so hard for this.  I’d spent so many nights awake in my pod, scribbling notes and practicing for exams until my hand ached.  I’d washed so many of his clothes, fetched him so many meals.  After class, I’d reviewed the most difficult concepts from every angle I could think of, asked Tasia a hundred questions until they fell into an intuitive shape.

I couldn’t help but feel a little proud.  A little grateful.

The morning of the party, Lorne gave me the body and suit, so I could get used to it.  A male body, even a healthy one, still felt uncomfortable.  But it was nice to have all ten fingers working again, to not be shivering all the time, to have normal skin.

The young man in the mirror stood tall, with bulging muscles, a sharp jawline, and short blonde hair.  Large, round eyes stared back at me in the mirror.  A handsome form, certainly.  The exact kind of form Lorne needed me to have.

The worst symptoms had vanished, for the present.  But the twinge of disgust, of wrongness was still there.

For an instant, my mind jumped back to where it had been at the end of last summer.  And I imagined stealing this body.  Using my Vocation to get a ferry ticket to a foreign country and leaving this all behind, even if I didn’t love this body.

But I banished the thought.  Why throw away everything now?  I was making good money on Isaac Brin’s payroll.  And the path to Paragon was looking clearer and clearer.

I arrived at the party half an hour early, just to be safe, striding to Lorne’s mansion from the Paragon cable car building.  If I was late, he would yell at me.

As expected, his family’s estate was massive, especially given the city he was in.  His stone front wall extended as far as the eye could see.  To get to the mansion from the front gate, you had to cross three separate bridges over a network of canals, past five-tiered fountains and beneath intricate wooden pavilions.

The guards didn’t let me in, so I spent half an hour hanging around the front gate, sweating into my grey suit and nursing a stomachache.  Don’t fuck this up, I repeated to myself.  Don’t fuck this up.

When the party finally began, most of the guests showed up late.  Only a handful of them were at the gates when Lorne strode across the bridges and clapped his hands, swinging them open.  “Welcome!” he shouted.  “I hope you’re ready to make some memories.  And then get so drunk you forget them all.”

Cheering and laughter.  I blinked, and for a second, I was back on the yacht, the Golden Moon, surrounded by rich people in masks.  Staring across the deck at Kaplen as he vanished.

I blinked.  Everyone else had already started for the mansion.

I jogged after him.

Inside, servants ushered us into a lavish ballroom, sporting beacon vine chandeliers, floating blue lanterns, and windows extending many stories from the floor to the ceiling, letting in the evening light.  Upbeat swing music played from an amplified gramophone on a raised dais.

In less than a minute, the older nobles gathered into tight circles, sipping cocktails and complaining about Commonplace, or fuming about how well their rivals’ Ilaquan stocks were doing.  Ilaqua’s GDP had eclipsed the Principality’s this quarter for the first time in history, and people weren’t happy about that.

More than half of the guests were Paragon students, though.  But they had made tight circles too, muttering about professors and squad rankings and exams.  Others convened in adjacent, smaller parlors, filling them up with tobacco smoke.

It reminded me of the other servants at Clementine’s house.  Setting a hard boundary.  Pushing people out.

And I was easy to push out.  Lorne had given me a grey suit, the same color as my uniform, but everyone else wore in blue, or black, or white.  The only others in grey were the servants.

So I hovered to the side, glancing around with a busy, focused expression, so it looked like I was alone on purpose, avoiding the towering plates of appetizers and pastries, declining offers of white wine or cocktails.  This was just a temporary body.  I didn’t want to taste anything until I’d earned it.  And I’d lost all my appetite.

After half an hour of discomfort, Lorne approached me, and I found out why he’d dragged me here.

He pulled me in front of a tall woman in a shimmering blue gown, made from thousands of tiny scales, like the skin of a fish.  Her wavy maroon hair had been tied back in a bun, and she smiled at me.

Isabelle Corbin.  The Symphony Knight.  The Scholar of Music.

And Lorne Daventry’s mother.  A common-born Guardian who had refused to give her surname up to the noble she married.

She shook my hand.  “Isabelle Corbin,” she said.  “Wonderful to meet you.  Wonderful.”  Though she made eye contact with me, she seemed to almost be looking past me, like she was straining to see something behind me.

“Er – Ernest Chapman,” I said.  I’d spent time around celebrities at Paragon, but this was a whole new level.

“Ernest has a disease,” Lorne said.  “A terminal one.  We’re trying to get him into Paragon as a proper student, so he can transfer to a fresh body and get his feet under him.  I’ve been helping him study, boosting his grades up.  It’s a lot of work, but I think we can both speak to the results.”

Corbin’s smile widened, and she nodded.  “Good, Lorne.  That’s very good.  A noble of this nation has a duty.  When you reach down and pull someone up, you live up to your country’s promise.”

Her smile seemed forced, her words rote and formulaic.  Is she even paying attention?

Before I could ponder this, Lorne pulled me to another noble, a handsome man with long black hair.  He introduced me, and launched into a conversation with him, too fast and complex for me to want to say anything.

Then the conversation turned to me, and Lorne gave him the same speech.  “Great tragedy,” he said.  “Ernest’s illness.  But I’ve been trying to get him into Paragon as a proper student, get him a fresh body so he can get his feet under him.  It’s a lot of work, getting his grades up in a school like this, but I think we can both speak to the results.”

He moved to another person, and we went through the same thing all over again.  Talking of my illness.  Praising his generosity.

Then we did it again.  And again.

And I understood.  I’m social capital for him.  A trophy of his benevolence to parade around.  Just like Clementine.

But Lorne was actually doing something for me.  If it helped get me into Paragon, I could endure this.

In between bouts of parading me around, Lorne dragged me aside and gave me orders to pass on to his butlers.  Refilling food, replacing one wine with another, yelling at the chef so that the Lord of Buxworth got his favorite dish, picking up his mail from the front to see if anything urgent arrived.

I welcomed the opportunity to leave the party.  When I was outside that ballroom, I could catch my breath, take in the cool night air.

When I showed him the mail, he tossed it all aside, except for one engraved one in cursive from a luxury car company, and a sealed silver letter from some unknown address.

“Silver means it’s from Paragon,” he said, tucking it into his shirt.  “Go talk to the chef.  Tell him to double the custard tarts for the second half of the night.”

It was strange.  Even though he was using me, even though he could be cruel at the drop of a hat, a part of me knew he had grown to respect me, to some extent.  He believed in the survival of the fittest, and I’d managed to survive.

Lorne took me to a coffee table at the edge of the party, where a man in a beige suit lounged back on a couch, alone.  A long black beard hung from his face, and the rest of his hair stretched almost to his shoulders.

The man looked peaceful, like he’d just woken from a restful sleep.

Headmaster Tau.  The strongest projector in the world.  Or the former strongest projector, since his aging Pith had filled up with Null Particles.

I gaped at him.  This was Nicholas Tau.  The man who’d built the Spirit Block, saved the country countless times, and instructed generations of students at Paragon with his patient wisdom.

And he was eating crab cakes.  A whole platter of them.  Crispy, brown, each with a dollop of caper sauce on top.  He ate them with a silver fork, eyes lighting up with glee at every bite.

“Good evening,” he said to me.

“Er – Ernest Chapman, sir,” I said.  “I’m Ernest Chapman.”  Then I forced my lips shut, trying not to look a fool in front of the most famous person I’d ever met.

Lorne started his whole speech about me and his generosity.  Halfway through, Headmaster Tau lifted a finger.  “Not to interrupt, Mr. Daventry, but I believe your mother wished to talk with you about a private matter.  I can keep your friend entertained in the meantime.”

“Of course, sir,” said Lorne.  He walked away, shooting me a glare that said don’t make me look bad.

Then he was gone.  Headmaster Tau beckoned me to sit.  He extended the platter of crab cakes to me.

I held up my hand, though they looked delicious.  “No thank you, sir.  I’m stuffed enough as is.”  I have to earn it.

“More for me,” Tau said, biting into another.  He smiled at me, an easy, simple expression that made me feel warm.  “You seem ill at ease, Ernest.”

“Is it that obvious?”  I chuckled, sounding more nervous than I wanted to.  Say as little as possible.  I didn’t want to let anything slip.  Tau had been one of the smartest men in the world, and had at least some of his wits still about him.  “I’m not used to gatherings like these.”

“Few people are,” he said, leaning back.  “There is a dance here, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, and these people have trained in it their whole lives.  Do not feel guilty for not knowing the steps.”

He seems so lucid.  This was nothing like Paragon’s opening banquet, where he’d struggled to even get through a pre-written speech.

“I’ve been to many gatherings such as these,” he said.  “I learned to smile and nod at the right times, but they are not in my blood.”  He spread sauce over a crab cake.  “So I sit, find something tasty, and relax.  And I don’t worry about what they’ll think of me.”

He makes it sound so easy.  And, to be sure, the man’s calm expression hadn’t budged an inch.

“If, um, if I may ask then, sir.  Why did you come here tonight?  I don’t think anyone could force someone of your stature to attend an event, especially – “  At this age.  I stopped myself.

“Especially because I’m a doddering, ancient goat?” he said, still smiling.

“I – I’m sorry, sir, I shouldn’t have – “

“There is no shame in stating the obvious.”  Tau held up a hand.  “In this stage, I am still sharp enough to know my condition, to be aware of my mental decline as it happens.  On most days, at least.”

Is that a blessing or a curse?

“And my age makes me rather unpopular at parties,” he said.

“May I ask why?”  Keep asking questions.  The more he talked, the less I’d have to explain about myself.

“I remind these people.  That no matter how young and powerful they are, they’re going to grow old and die.  I might not have wrinkles or white hair, but every time I forget something, every time my mind wanders, they feel a whiff of terror.”  I leaned back on the cushions.  “One day, these people will be right where I’m sitting, in a gathering like this, confused at all the music and too slow to keep up with the young people.”

He doesn’t make it sound very appealing.

“But it’s not so bad,” he said.  “I am grateful that on a beautiful day such as this, I can be sound enough to hold a conversation with remarkable young people like you, Ernest.”

I shook my head.  “I’m no one remarkable.”  Still, I felt a twinge of pride.  That’s what he thinks of me?

“Mr. Daventry seems to disagree,” said Tau.  “Those such as you are quick to downplay your talents.  But that’s fine.”

“That’s…fine?”

He nodded.  “Your destiny will reveal itself in time.”

A thrill rushed through my veins.  He thinks I have a destiny?  But I was just an assistant, a Grey Coat who came from nothing, who failed her admissions test three times in a row.  But he thinks you have a destiny.

I had to remind myself to not get swept up too much, not to let slip my true identity.

“What about your destiny, sir?” I said.  Fuck.  Why had I said that?  I was still on the rush.   “Is there anything you can do about Commonplace?”  Or the Shenti, or the rising water.  “You’re still the strongest projector in the world.  They say you can level mountains.”

“When you’re young,” he said.  “You learn how to level mountains.  But when you’re old, you realize that leveling mountains doesn’t solve anything.  All it does is make a bunch of rubble.”  He munched on a crab cake.  “Now, putting a mountain back together.  That’s a Vocation I’d pay to learn.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow.  When the world was in this much chaos, how could anyone leave things the way they were?  But maybe that wasn’t what he meant.

Headmaster Tau laughed.  “Of course, I’d also pay for a Vocation to make crab appear out of thin air.  So maybe I don’t know so much.”  He finished his plate, brushing crumbs out of his beard.  “My time has passed.  I have sacrificed too much to bring us to this point.  I will rise when I am called, but can only do it so many times before I fade.”

Lorne stepped next to me, glaring at me with a forced smile.  “Chapman,” he said.  “May I speak with you in private?”

The headmaster bowed his head to me.  “It was lovely to meet you, Ernest.”

“Thank you – “  I bowed back to him, stiff in my movements.  “It – it was nice to meet you too, sir.”

I don’t think I’ll ever understand that man.  But that had to be a common effect of his.  When you took one of the smartest minds in the world and choked half its soul particles, strange things were bound to happen.

And he said I had a destiny.  He hadn’t talked to anyone else at the party.

Lorne pulled me aside.  “My chef is missing from the kitchen,” he said.  “My servants are idiots, and busy anyways.  Find him, now.  Before everything goes to shit.”

I nodded.  “Understood.”  I remembered what the chef looked like, after picking up a meal from him last month.

He’s either sick, in the bathroom, or smoking somewhere.  I moved through the party, glancing at students sipping cocktails and Epistocrats in evening gowns.

Before I could reach the ballroom’s double doors, a girl’s voice drifted through the crowd, familiar.  “ – and therefore, the inhibitory effect can be reduced, or erased.”

Tasia.  I spun towards the source of the voice.  Tasia stood near the middle of the room, gripping a full wine glass, dark circles under her eyes.  Bunches of tangles hid under her straight black hair.

She must have arrived late.

I recognized the man and woman she was talking to.  Lord Lynde and Lady Olwen.  Two of Paragon’s reigning experts on pneumatology.  They each stood half a head taller than Tasia, looking down on her with bemused curiosity.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Tasia, pleading.  “The Great Scholars must have found a way to remove Null Particles.  And we can too.”

“The Great Scholars drowned,” Lady Olwen said.  “And crackpots have been dreaming up immortality schemes for millennia.  Nobody’s solved it.”

“It’s not an immortality scheme.  And Humdrums had been dreaming of flight for millennia.  They didn’t figure that out ‘til a few decades ago.”

Lord Lynde smirked.  “You’re suggesting that we take scientific cues from Humdrums?”

“How about this, then?” said Tasia.  “Semer Bekyn invented the first Maxine Clive in your lifetime.  Before then, fabricated bodies were nothing more than a fantasy.”

“It’s all been tried,” said Lady Olwen.  “Voidsteel scalpels.  Particle burning.  Specialized mind-spheres.  Using the Synapse and the Nadir.”

“I addressed those in my report,” said Tasia.  “I’m not suggesting any of those things.”

“What next?” said Lord Lynde.  “Should we turn mud into gold, drain the oceans, bring the stars back?”

Forge the Stars in Your Image,” said Tasia.

“You do know that’s an expression, right?” said Lady Olwen.  “It’s just saying you should imprint yourself onto the world.  It’s a metaphor, not an endorsement for….misplaced hubris.”

“Listen,” said Lord Lynde.  “It is noble and fine that students like yourself carry themselves with passion and vision.  And your grades are admirable.  But rather than looking to us for research help on this daydream, you should do something practical with your talents.”

“Lady Hewes in my department is sharpening several Praxis vocations for spatial awareness,” said Olwen.  “I’m sure she’d welcome the help.”

“Annotating old books,” said Tasia, barely hiding her contempt.  “Squeezing out a few percentage points on techniques that haven’t changed for decades.”

“Careful,” said Lady Olwen.

“This is the greatest projection school in the Eight Oceans,” said Tasia, desperation slipping into her voice.  “So why is progress so stifled?  Why is so much of the Great Library locked away from everyone?”  She stared at the two of them.  “What do you care more about?  Stability, or building a better future?”

“Do not forget your place, Henry,” said Lord Lynde, raising his voice.  “Your admission here is a gift.  Not a certainty.”

In unison, the two of them strode off.

Henry.  That had to be Tasia’s old name.

Tasia stalked into a side room, hyperventilating, turning her head down and hiding her face from the other guests.

I froze for a moment.  Lorne will punish you if you fail.  If his guests went without food and his party was anything less than perfect.  And he’d forbidden me from talking to Tasia.  If he caught me, I could lose so much progress, hurt my chances of getting into Paragon.

But she’s your friend.  And she probably needed help.

Fuck it.  I jogged after Tasia.  Lorne’s chef could wait.

Tasia moved through drawing rooms and antechambers, past bookshelves and pianos until she reached a balcony, overlooking the rest of the Daventry’s estate.

She cried, wiping her tears and snot on the sleeve of her dress.  I approached her from behind, calling out.  “Tasia.  Is this a bad time?”

Tasia glanced back at me, then looked away, hunching over the balcony.  I stepped next to her, and looked at the view for a moment.

The balcony overlooked the network of canals, bridges, and gardens around the mansion.  Lines of glowing blue lights illuminated the pathways beneath us.

And from this angle, we couldn’t see the city around us.  It was if Elmidde had vanished.  Like this mansion was the only place in the world.

“Did you hear that conversation?” Tasia said.

I nodded.  “Most of it.”

“Those two were my best chance,” she sighed.  “Of getting my project off the ground.  Of creating a cure for Null Particles, or at least something.  They want me to work on Praxis Vocations,” she said.  “But those make more Null Particles.  The more Praxis Vocations you use, the faster your mind ages, which puts hard limits on how many you can install.  We can’t truly unlock our potential until we learn how to remove them.  If we can’t fix that, we’ll never become Exemplars.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She squeezed her bloodshot eyes shut.  “I thought that if I did the right work, if I showed them enough promise, that I could convince them.”  She shook her head.  “So stupid.  My sister.  Sarah, she’ll – “

She’ll drown in Null Particles.  And she’ll be lucky to live another year.  What could I say in the face of that?  What words could possibly comfort her?

“A barbaric age,” she muttered.  “We live in a barbaric age.”

“For what it’s worth,” I said.  “I believe in your mission.”  Though I wish you hadn’t Ousted Wes as part of it.  That still sat in my stomach, burning a hole in my abdomen.  “I still believe in you.”

“I can’t stay,” she said.  “I have to get back to work.”  We broke our embrace.  “It’s alright.  This just means I can solve more of the problems myself.  Get all the credit.”  She smiled at me through her tears.  “It’ll be fun.”

Tasia’s failed so many times.  Despite her talent, despite her knowledge of pneumatology.  And yet, she didn’t stop.  She kept chasing that dream with her love of learning, her hunger for knowledge.

If I’d been in her place, if I was as gifted, would I have done the same thing?  Maybe.  Tasia had such a grand vision.  Maybe that was a privilege.  All I could think about was getting through the day.

It sounded nice.  Imagining a future, instead of the past.

“I’ll help you,” I said, clasping her hand.  “I’ll do everything I can.  If I get Lorne’s favor, I’ll use that too.”  I stared at her.  “I promise.”

Tasia stepped forward, hesitant, and hugged me.  I wrapped my arms around her, hugging her back.  Is this what she wants?  Will this help?

When we broke apart, she just nodded at me, and strode back through the rooms, heading for the exit of the mansion.

When I returned to the hallway, Lorne was waiting for me.  A man slouched over behind him, his hair covering his face.

“Enjoy your chat?” Lorne said.

My heart wrenched in my chest.  A freezing sensation spread over my skin.  He saw me.  He’d seen me talking to Tasia.  He’d forbidden me from talking to her, and I’d done it anyway.

There was only one way to protect myself, to keep my entire future from collapsing.

I knelt in front of Lorne, staring at the ground.  “My apologies, sir.  How can I repay this?”

Lorne pulled me to my feet, a pensive expression on his face.  The silver envelope I’d picked out sat in his coat pocket, unopened.  Then, he pointed at the man behind him, beckoning him to approach.  His breath smelled like cheap liquor.

I recognized the light brown beard, the slim jaw and small eyes.  That’s the Daventry’s chef.  Lorne had found him before me.

“Poor Joshua was stressed from the day’s work, so he decided to go and get drunk in a bathroom instead of doing his job.  Thanks to his laziness, the kitchen is in chaos now.”  He looked at me.  “You want to repay me?  Nudge him.”

A spike of pain jabbed into my stomach.  What?

“We’ll memory-wipe him after, it’ll be no fuss.  Make him start punching that wall as hard as he can.”

I’d done a lot of petty, cruel bullying at Lorne’s orders.  I’d ruined people’s evenings, vandalized their possessions, sabotaged their homework.  More than enough to make me loathe myself.

But never physical violence.  Never mental hijacking.

“Are – are you sure, sir?” I said.  “It’s your mansion, he might damage the wall.”  Maybe I can convince him away from this.

“It’s stone,” he said.  “It’s not going to break.”

“Someone might see,” I said.

“They won’t,” he said.  “People don’t come this way often.”

I closed my eyes, blood rushing in my ears.  Every time I thought I made progress with Lorne, every time he seemed to show some sliver of humanity, he went off and did something like this.

I threw up visual and auditory illusions on Lorne, hiding me and the chef’s actions from him.  Then I muttered to the chef, Joshua.  “I’m not Nudging you.  Go over to the wall.  Do as I say, and he won’t hurt you.”

Confused, the chef nodded, and walked over to the wall.

Go over to the wall,” I said with my Lorne illusions, making it seem like I was Nudging him.  “Start punching it as hard as you can.  Don’t stop or make any noise.

I made the illusions look and sound like he was punching the wall, fists thumping into the marble, face contorting in pain.

A few seconds passed.  I added blood on the marble, making the chef’s knuckles torn and bleeding.  I made tears run down his face, and his shoulders shake.

Finally, Lorne called out.  “Enough.”

Stop,” I said, and my illusory chef stopped punching the wall.  I lined the real one up with the fake one, and kept making the knuckles look bloody.

Lorne placed a hand on the man’s forehead, and the man’s eyes went blank.  He blinked, his recent memories wiped.  The technique would keep wiping his memory for the next few minutes, so the chef wouldn’t remember what happened right now either.

“Go,” said Lorne.  “You go with him, Chapman.  Make sure the kitchen’s back in order.  I don’t want to see blood in the soup.”

I bowed, and made it seem like I was jogging after the chef, keeping Lorne fooled with my Vocation until he stepped into another room and shut the door behind him.

When I arrived at the kitchen, I wrote down a note and floated it in the chef’s pocket.  Lord Daventry thinks you were Nudged into punching the wall, and that you injured your hands in the process.  Put bandages on the next time you see him, or he’ll punish you.  Speak nothing of this.

As I left the kitchen, I made an illusory whisper into his ear.  “Check your pocket.

Hopefully, that would be enough.

The rest of the party went by without issue, though I stayed tense the entire time, terrified that Lorne would notice my deception.

Time passed.  The party ended.  The guests drifted out, and I swapped back to my normal body, under careful guard.  And Lorne insisted that I help clean up with the servants.  Another punishment for speaking with Tasia.  The real punishment would probably come later.

After mopping the floors and scrubbing dishes for hours, I managed to leave close to midnight, jogging out the front gates towards the cable car station, in hopes of catching the last tram back to Lowtown.

As I ran along the cobble street, something flew out of the darkness, shooting towards me.

I dove to the side, stretching my soul around me.  Feeling a Pith ahead of me, I threw an illusion over it, making it look like the projectile had hit me.  As I ran to the side, illusion-Ana crawled on her belly, groaning and bleeding out of a stomach wound.  I projected into my clothes, preventing anyone from yanking me around.

A dark figure stood ahead of me, cloaked in shadow.

Damn it.  I’d left my machine pistol, body armor, and cattle prod back in my sleeping capsule.  They would have been noticed at the party.

I reached under my belt and slid out a square and a rectangle.  They expanded into three dimensions, becoming a frag grenade and a knife.  Wes’ flattening Vocation.

I threw the grenade forward, pulling the pin, and floated it so it sat just behind the dark figure, making it a shield between me and the explosion.  Then I charged at him from an angle, driving my knife towards its throat.

The knife froze.  The grenade didn’t detonate.

Up close, I could make out the figure’s features.  Olive skin.  Dark brown hair.  Sideburns.  Isaac Brin.

I glanced behind me.  A dart lay on the cobblestone.

“Half a year ago, that would have hit you,” said Brin.  His eyes glimmered at me.  “This one wouldn’t have ripped your guts out, of course, just given you an annoying pinprick.  But you dodged it all the same.”

I exhaled, relaxing, and let go of the knife.  Crickets chirped in the public park next to us.

Brin floated an inch off the ground, his legs hanging limply beneath him.  A metal contraption floated down above him and unfolded, becoming a wheelchair that slid beneath him as he sat down.  Scholars, is he paralyzed?

“What happened?” I said.

“The Pyre Witch,” he said.  “And a sniper with Voidsteel.  Pictogram.  The one you fought on Attlelan Island.”

“Did you win?”

The exhausted look in his eyes was his answer.

“I’m so sorry.”  I wanted to comfort him, but had no idea how.  Would he even want it?  “Do have a job for me, then, Major?”

“We lost,” he said.  “But they’re quieting down.  Commonplace.  Tunnel Vision’s mob.  The Broadcast King’s affiliates.  Whoever that leader is, the person you mentioned with half a thumb.  And nothing from the secret Shenti connections you saw.  Fewer attacks, operations, shipments. I’d still move out of that house on North Island and your sleeping, but the mob probably won’t move on you for at least a week. They’re not moving on anyone.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said, staring into the darkness.  “And that scares me more than anything.  They’re getting ready for something.”

“So you have nothing,” I said, sighing.

“Apologies,” he said.  “You are close to your required amount, no?”

Don’t let him know how desperate you are.  Or how close.  That could be leverage for him to pay me less.

“I’ve got a ways to go,” I lied.  I’m just a few thousand away.

“Well,” said Brin.  “I have nothing new.  But if you don’t make enough by the end of the year, or if your body decays and leaves you unable to work, show me your funds and I’ll pay for the rest.”

I threw up an illusion, masking my surprise, and the thrill that ran through my body.  Why would he do that?  Was this just a fake reward, another tool to control me?

“I know you don’t trust me,” said Brin.  “And that’s smart, the world is full of liars.  And there’s nothing I can say to prove my honesty.  But it’s the truth.”  He handed me a silver card, reflecting moonlight off its surface.

Major Isaac Brin
The Scholar of Mass
Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division
Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy

His business card.  And a sign of his favor.

Isaac Brin looked straight at me.  “I’m proud of you, Anabelle Gage.  And I will not let you die.”

Crickets chirped in the trees around us.  In the distance, one of the trams chugged along its rail, heading down the mountain to Midtown.

“What was that you told me,” he said, “on the night we first met?  About caterpillars dying?”

“Most caterpillars die in the cocoon,” I said.  “They’re eaten by animals or injected with parasitic wasp eggs.  A majority of them never get to become butterflies.”

“Do you still believe that?”

It’s a fact.  It’s not about belief.  But that wasn’t what he meant.

I thought about Headmaster Tau, and his speech to me about destiny.  I thought about how close I was to a new body, a new life.

“There were men and women,” I said.  “Crawling over each other’s corpses on Lyna Wethers’ yacht.  And Kaplen, he forced me to feed him – “  I closed my eyes.  “In a flash, the Silver Flask cafe turned into a mass grave full of rubble.  Your other mercenaries – the Shenti man, the woman with mortars – they both died too, on Attlelan Island.”  I stared at the ground.  “How many of them had hopes and dreams and ambitions?  How many of them thought this was just the beginning of their story?”  I clenched my teeth.  “Of course I still believe that.  How could I not?”

You told me yourself.  It doesn’t get easier, but you do get used to it.  My soul was worth fighting for, but that didn’t mean I would win.  I could write the next page, again and again, but that wouldn’t fix my circumstances.

Brin got a sad look in his eyes, and sagged in his wheelchair.  “I hope you are proven wrong.”

The chair unfolded, and he soared into the air, vanishing into the darkness.

________________________________________

Instead of returning to my capsule, I went to Hira’s house.

The conversation with Brin, Lorne’s cruelty, watching Tasia’s dream struggle for breath.  If I went back to my sleeping pod, I knew I’d just toss and turn in the cramped space, obsessing over all that, and thinking about everything that could go wrong.

Lorne could get worse.  He could ask me to do something that went utterly beyond my moral code, something I couldn’t do, no matter how much he offered me.

Then all my work would have been for nothing.  It had taken half a year of all-nighters and tears to get to this point, and he could break it all with a snap of his fingers.

I took the last tram down to North Island and passed through the bustling Neke night market, past stalls hawking sea urchin and persimmons and wall hangings.  The place where Wes and I’d been tailing Hira only a few months ago.

Ignoring the vendors, I strode out the far end, to the alleyway that was Emerald Street, and the squat yellow building halfway down, number 189.

The members of Queen Sulphur sat on the front steps of Hira’s house.

Wes, pouring a bottle of sake into a coffee mug, petting Cardamom’s green fur, while the cat purred on his lap.  Hira, dressed in bright orange, her Left body puffing her purple hookah, her Right body sharing the sake with Wes.  And Jun, leaning back against the wall, munching on spicy chicken skewers from a cardboard takeout box.

Orange lights from the night market lit up their smiles.  Their voices drifted through the cool spring night.  “Praxis is the best, obviously,” said Wes.  “You could fix anything wrong with your Pith, turn your mind into a powerhouse.  It makes you smart.

“Being smart is overrated,” said Right-Hira, while her other body took a long, slow puff.  “I’d rather be red-hot, rich, and famous any day.  If I were a Joining specialist, I could do anything to my body, with no consequences.”

“You could just learn Joining the normal way,” said Jun, leaning forward and petting Cardamom.  “‘Specialist’ just means your Vocation.”

“Too much work,” said Left-Hira, blowing out smoke that smelled of sour cherries.

Wes saw me and raised his bottle.  “Ana!”  Everyone laughed and cheered, all drunk except Jun.

I couldn’t taste any of the food, and I couldn’t get drunk anymore without vomiting up blood, now that my liver had decayed.  So I sat down on the top step, and leaned against Hira’s front wall, taking care to avoid pushing on the booby-trapped front door.

“Settle our debate,” said Wes, scratching behind Cardamom’s ears.  “If you could pick any specialization, which would you choose?  Praxis, Whisper, Physical, or Joining?”

“I’ve got to go with you here,” I said.  “Praxis specialization opens all kinds of doors.  I don’t think I could even imagine being a Joining specialist.”  I can’t even imagine feeling at home in my body.

“Alright, alright,” said Wes.  “Next question: If you could get drunk with any projector from history, who would you pick?”

“That depends,” said Hira.  “Can I beat the shit out of them while drinking?”

As the conversation wound on into the night, and we cracked open a game of Jao Lu, I found myself doing something I wasn’t very good at, or experienced with.

I forgot my body.  I forgot the stench of my sweat, my broad shoulders, the tufts of grey hair.

And I wasn’t escaping into my mind.  I was here.

In the coming days, we’d have to leave this place, move to some new location, stay hidden from the Pyre Witch’s assassins.

But for now, I sat back, closed my eyes, and just breathed.

________________________________________

I woke up slow, with a throbbing headache.

The nausea hit next, and the stomachache soon after.  I exhaled, feeling the dryness of my mouth.  When my eyes fluttered open, the morning light glared at me, grey and bright and stinging.  A hangover?  How?  I hadn’t drunk a single drop of liquor last night.

The first thing I saw was a bullet hole in Hira’s ceiling.  How on earth did that get there?

Back to work.  The world didn’t stop turning just because I felt like death.

Groaning, I pushed myself off Hira’s couch, and rubbed the crust off my squinting eyes.  Wes boiled a pot of water on the stove, flipping through jars of tea leaves and muttering to himself.  He ran his fingers through his tangled brown hair, his mouth hanging half-open, dark circles under his eyes.

“Finally up?” he said.  “You look almost as bad as I do.”

I staggered forward, grey hair falling in my face.  I was still wearing my grey assistant’s coat.   “Did I drink last night and forget it?”  Did I swallow a Kraken’s Bone pill by accident?  Or Jun’s tranquilizer?

Wes shook his head.  “If you did, we’d probably be carrying you to the hospital now.”

“Then why – “ I coughed.  “ – do I feel so terrible?”

He shrugged.  “Don’t ask me, I slept through all my biology classes.”

Left-Hira’s voice rang out from the second floor.  “I asked Jun.”  She jogged down the stairs, her hair wet from a shower.  “He says it’s your liver.  It’s still fucked up from the decay, and that’s one of the symptoms.”

“Fuck me.”  I’m still running out of time.

“He says to ‘hydrate, don’t panic, and stay out of fights’.”

Wes handed me a cup of water.  “Well, one out of three.”

“Thanks,” I murmured.  He poured me a mug of tea to go with it.

Hira sat down on the couch, folding her hands behind her head, smiling.  Grey morning light washed over her through the shut curtains.

“You look great,” I said.  “How come you don’t have a hangover?”

“My other body got drunk,” she said.  “That one’s going out to pick up breakfast with Jun and that scrap metal car he made.  Paratha and baozi and whatever you Principians eat.  Fried custard sausage or whatever.  We’re out of food here.”

My stomach growled.  Despite all my symptoms, I was starving.  “Not even marmalade?”

“I don’t know what the fuck that is,” said Hira.  “But I don’t have it in this house.”  She waved her hand.  “My other body is on the way back, don’t worry.”

“Drive fast,” said Wes.  “I’ll teach you all about the strange wonders of marmalade.”

“Strange,” said Hira.  “The morning market was here when I left with Jun an hour ago.  It’s empty now?”

“What?” I said.

“Someone cleared the people out.”

Oh shit.

“Get down!” hissed Hira.

Wes and I dove for the floor, flattening ourselves.  My shoulder ached from the impact.

Spherical objects smashed through the windows, bouncing off the wall and landing on the floor.  White steam hissed out of them, spreading throughout Hira’s living room.  Smoke.  A sharp, chemical odor filled the room, and my dizziness tripled.

Not smoke, gas.  My chest tightened.

A booming woman’s voice shouted from a megaphone.  “Anabelle Gage, 516-R, Hira Kahlin, Jun Kuang!”

Penny Oakes.  The Obsidian Foil’s wife.  A chemist, and Physical specialist.

“This is the Elmidde Police department!  You have thirty seconds to come out before we are authorized to use lethal force!”

They know my real name.  I’d been exposed.  Everything was over.  Brin’s jobs, my chances with Lorne, my odds of getting a new body.  I’m going to die in prison.  The world became hazy around me, and my chest pulsed, hyperventilating.

“What the fuck do we do?” hissed Wes.  “Ana?”

Don’t panic.  My mind raced.  Think, idiot, think.  What do you know?

“Twenty seconds!”

They’re not authorized to use lethal force yet.  Which meant the gas wouldn’t kill us.

They know our names.  Which meant they knew we were projectors.  They would have Voidsteel, maybe even counters for our Vocations.  There would be more Guardians among them, not just Oakes.

But they said ‘Jun Kuang’.  They thought all four of us were still in the building.  They didn’t know Jun and Right-Hira had left earlier.  And we didn’t have an execution order, which meant they thought little of our projection skills.

Fire rushed through my veins.  They’re underestimating us.

“Ten seconds!”

Hira floated metal bowls and glass jars on top of the gas grenades, stopping them from releasing any more.

“Don’t shoot!” I screamed.  “We’re coming out!”

At the same time, with my illusions, I drew arrows and instructions over reality, outlining the beginnings of a strategy for Wes and Hira, who hefted their briefcase and sniper rifle.

Ready?” I said with my illusions.

The two of them nodded.  Hira tossed me the pieces of my machine pistol.  I caught them with projection, assembled them, and slid the clip into place.

“Don’t shoot!” I shouted.  “I’m trying to get through the smoke!”

On my mark,” I said.  “Three, two, one –

I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Mark.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




8-D – Grace

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Grace Acworth’s friend was stabbing someone.

A young woman, with a bag of spilt groceries next to her under the streetlamp.  Blood trickled out of the side of her stomach where the blade had punctured her.

The carpenter’s boy, Edric, held the hilt of the dagger, his eyes wide with shock.

Neither of them were moving, both frozen in place by some unknown force.  Edric’s arm shook, as tears ran down his face.

Waves washed against the side of the boardwalk, but other than that, the dark cobble street was silent.

Edric was the son of an old carpenter who did repair work on Paragon.  Since they were Humdrums, their memories were modified after every job, but they were paid handsomely in return.

Due to the Whisper vocations on them, Edric and his father often got confused while they worked on campus.  Other students and Grey Coats would keep their distance, but Grace would strike up conversations, take her lunch break with them.  To her surprise, the pair would actually remember a lot.

A dark red streak ran down the woman’s pant leg, making a small pool beneath her shoe.  How long have they been standing there?

And the dagger.  It had all sorts of markings up and down the hilt, and a Voidsteel blade.  He wouldn’t own something like that.

“Edric?” said Grace, her voice unsteady.

Edric’s eyes turned to look at her, the rest of his body still frozen.  Someone’s hijacking him.

She projected around his Pith, Nudging him.  “I release you from all – “

“Stop.”  A boy’s voice rang out behind her.

Grace spun around.  A black-haired boy strode towards her from the far sidewalk, gazing at her with big, innocent blue eyes and an easy smile under a straw boater hat.  He spun a kitchen knife between his fingers.

Lord Tybalt Keswick.  Her student boss at Paragon.  A rising young Epistocrat.

“One moment,” he said.  He pried Edric’s fingers from the engraved dagger and pulled it out of the woman.  Then, he replaced it with the kitchen knife, which fit neatly into the hole already made.  “There we go.”

Grace’s gagged, and she stepped back, feeling dizzy.  He stabbed the woman.  No, he gave his dagger to Edric, then Nudged him to stab the woman.

“So, Grace.”  The blood floated off the dagger’s green blade, sailing into the harbor.  The blade slid back into the sheath with some hidden mechanism, and Tybalt put back into his coat.  “What brings you to this part of town?”

“I – “ she stuttered.  “You wanted me to pick up a package from a storage unit.”  She pointed down the street.  “Sir.”

Grace’s stomach ached.  Why?  Why would Tybalt do this?  He was so sweet in Paragon, so considerate.  Of all the students to be a Grey Coat assistant for, she’d felt like she lucked out.

Tybalt snapped his fingers.  “Right.  So silly of me, I forgot.  I was actually going here to pick that up myself.  That’s when those two Humdrums tried to mug me.”  He jabbed a thumb at the pair behind him.

Does he expect me to believe that?  “The woman – she has groceries,” said Grace.  “And she mugged you?”

“That was part of the act,” Tybalt said.  “She asks for help, gets you to come close, then both of them turn on you.”  He shrugged.  “Well, they picked the wrong target.”  He turned to them.  “Piss yourselves.”

Edric closed his eyes.  A dark spot appeared on his pants.

“That’s – that’s my friend,” said Grace.  “This is mental hijacking, this is murder.”

Tybalt rolled his eyes.  “It’s self-defense.  Don’t be dramatic.”

“You’re a good person,” said Grace, her voice unsteady.  “I – I know you want to do the right thing.  Let’s get these people to a hospital and talk to Professor Oakes, or Headmaster Tau, or – “

The woman collapsed onto her back, unconscious.  Edric held the knife steady, still frozen.

Grace was frozen too.  What am I supposed to do?  She wasn’t a match for Tybalt in combat.  He was the best fighter in their year.  And as a first-year Grey Coat, her projection was subpar at best.  She didn’t even know what her Vocation was.

And even if she was strong enough, she wasn’t sure if she could fight him.  Everything felt distant, blurry, like she was viewing her own life through hazy water.

“This is difficult for you,” said Tybalt, his voice soft and comforting.  “I understand.  Let me help.”

A cool spring breeze blew across the water, and one of the streetlamps flickered.  What?

“My family has enough clout to get just about anyone an admission to Paragon.  With a full scholarship.”

What?

“You’re hard-working, you’re great in class, you’re loyal.  You’ve got a great shot already.  But I can fast-track you.  Get you a guaranteed admission, right away, without you having to pay a dime or go into debt.”  He smiled at her, as the bleeding woman coughed.  “You can forge the stars in your image.  And we can call an ambulance for this mugger.”


“If I – “  If I keep quiet about all this.  Tybalt could memory-wipe his victims, but not her.  Given the nature of this crime, there would probably be a Paragon investigation, and people might ask her questions.

She would have to lie for him.

“If I – “

“Yes,” said Tybalt.  “That would be a necessary step.”

Grace stared at Edric’s wide, bloodshot eyes, his cheeks stained with dried tears.

“And Edric,” she said.  “He’d go to prison.”

Tybalt shrugged.  “The guy did try to mug me.”

Liar.  “And if I’m not interested in that?”

Tybalt’s face fell.  “That would be unfortunate.”  His voice turned sympathetic.  “We would not be able to continue our working relationship, and my family would have to inform Paragon of your character.”

They’ll use their connections to smear me.  And being half-Shenti would make things even harder.  Grace would never get a Grey Coat job again.  She would never get into Paragon.  And she’d go back to being a functional Humdrum – she might even get her memories of projection classes wiped.

That girl is still bleeding.  If she waited too long, the damage could be significant.  But if Tybalt wasn’t held accountable, who else might he hurt?

Tybalt drew the Voidsteel dagger from his coat, and the blade shot out of the carved hilt, bright green and as long as his forearm.

“This is Reverie.  A Nekean Tanto knife gifted to my ancestor by a war priest, after the enlightenment of the Neke Islands.  He told my ancestor a story along with it.”  He leaned forward.  “It’s called The Ant and the Beetle.

Tybalt spun her a parable, of ants and beetles in a forest, where selfless ants built a boat of their corpses to save the colony during a flood, and a selfish beetle survived off the backs of their sacrifice.  Throughout, Grace glanced at the unconscious woman.

“The story has been passed through my family, along with the knife.  The idea being that, when the floods come, our family will stick together and float.”  He shook his head.  “But here’s my theory.”  His voice got quiet.  “There are no ants.  You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.  Survival takes priority over everything.”

Spoken like a true beetle.

“So,” he said.  “Tell me.  Which are you?  Ant or beetle?  What is your future going to be?”

Grace stared into Edric’s eyes.  He stared back, pleading.  The waves washed against the pier.  Tybalt sheathed Reverie, then unsheathed it, moonlight reflecting off the green blade.

Grace made a decision.

________________________________________

The couple walked out of the emergency room, eyes red from crying.  Grace leaned against a wall next to the exit, watching them out of the corner of her eye.

The victim, their daughter Priscilla, was alive and recovering.  But the hospital bills had been enough to put them in debt.  They could lose their house.

And Edric had been sentenced to life in prison.  When the police found him with the bloody knife in his hand, his fate was sealed.  His lawyer took a plea deal to keep him from a potential death penalty, and it didn’t go to trial.

Grace didn’t even get to visit him.  Such an act would cast too much suspicion on her, bring questions that would lead back to Tybalt.

Paragon had carried out an investigation, but Grace was shocked at how small it had been.  She’d only been interviewed once.  And after just a week, the investigators seemed to lose interest in the case.  Maybe they were investigating it in secret, but Grace somehow doubted it.

It was like Paragon’s internal police didn’t even care.  Not when someone like Tybalt was involved.

And the victims remembered nothing.

The couple walked across the parking lot to their automobile.  They sat in the front seats, slumped over, staring forward with dull eyes.  All the tears had been drained out of them.

Tybalt had held up his end of the bargain.  Grace had a full scholarship to Paragon next year, as a student, not a Grey Coat.  She had a prestigious, comfortable future as a Guardian ahead of her, an entire life opening up like a vast blooming flower.

But she was disgusting.  Repulsive.  All she wanted to do was go somewhere private and hurt herself.

Tybalt held your future in his hands.  There was nothing you could do.  If she had reported him, what would have happened?  If she had fought him with the element of surprise, could she have won?  If, if, if.

The rage bubbled up inside her Pith, turning her blood into a frothing storm.

For Priscilla, the incident would be a scar, haunting her for the rest of her life.  And for Edric, his neighbors, his friends, and his family would see him as a deranged murderer for the rest of his life.

As he decayed in prison in the coming decades, Edric might start to believe them.

Something shattered nearby, a deafening sound yanking her back to reality.

Grace looked around.  All the car windows in the parking lot had been broken.  On the first two floors of the hospital, glass walls collapsed into piles of shards.  A water glass shattered in a nurse’s hand, falling to the floor as she screamed.

Men and women shouted, or murmured expressions of confusion and shock.  All Humdrums.  They’d probably attribute it to some freak accident.

Had Grace been projecting into the glass around her?  She hadn’t been paying attention to her Pith.

She looked down at her hand.

When she squinted, she could see a bolt of purple lightning, flickering around the edges of her palm.

________________________________________

Grace was in hell.

She didn’t believe in an afterlife – this was no mystical experience.  And the Shenti had no hell in The 99 Precepts, but managed to make a good impression of it anyways.

After sacrificing themselves to save their squadmates, her and Florence had been sent to a Redemption Camp.  The Immaculate Vanguard, the Shenti’s most skilled Joiner, had cut off Florence’s hands with a Voidsteel sword.

And now, Florence had given up on reality.  After saving Grace’s life from another prisoner, the former Guardian was now encrypting most of her memories every night, curled up on the concrete floor of the women’s quarters.

Grace knew the vocation herself, and the Null Venom only blocked her from external projection, not fiddling with her own Pith.

But she didn’t use it.  She couldn’t.

Florence was losing so much in those memory wipes, so much she deemed ‘non-critical’.  Horrors, yes.  But horrors that Grace couldn’t look away from.

“Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged!” Grace chanted with the other prisoners, reciting the most famous line from the Black Tortoise’s speeches.  A propaganda session pulled from the pages of The 99 Precepts.  Or, at least, one man’s interpretation.

“This is your redemption!” shouted the soldier.

The moment Grace first heard that slogan screamed in her face, she knew: This wasn’t just the one camp.  This wasn’t one of a handful, for the most extreme prisoners, or as an experiment.

This was happening all over the country.  To millions and millions of people, most of them Shenti citizens, Humdrums.  The old, the disabled, political dissidents, anyone with an ‘economic score’ low enough to be deemed a burden on society.  An unimaginable number of people were being exterminated through labor.

Florence didn’t want to think about that – she didn’t want to imagine the scope of the horror.  And other prisoners escaped into their imagination.  In the morning, they recounted dreams of lavish dim sum meals, reuniting with their families, going out on the town to drink and dance.

But Grace could never avert her eyes.  Could never escape from reality.

The exhaustion, the sleep deprivation that made the whole world blurry.  The blaring horn that woke them every morning, and the cold concrete of the women’s dorm that served as their only mattress.  The frostbite she would get on her feet after trudging to the tread factory, turning her toes swollen and crusting.  The blackish-brown color her clothes took on, after being worn over and over without being washed.

And the stench.  Body odor and stale urine and dried blood.  Even after months in the camp, it made Grace’s stomach churn.

And the hunger, of course.  The hunger was stronger than everything.

Back in Paragon, food had just been a necessity.  Grace had never understood all the fuss about it – the mad rush for scones at breakfast, the huge banquets, the obsession with the academy’s famous mulled cider.

It was all just fuel.  Nothing special.

Now, she understood.  Food was on her mind as she woke up aching, as she fit together tank treads with shaking arms, as she shivered on the concrete and tried to fall asleep.  First, the pangs in her stomach, the ache that grew larger and larger every minute.  Then the sheer exhaustion, as her arms became heavy and her thoughts became consumed.

Sometimes, Grace would eat her bowl of rice all at once, to experience a moment of full, satiated bliss.  Other times, she would divide it up over, one clump every hour, so it would last longer.

When she did that, other women in the dorm would try to take it from her, some begging, others with threats or violence.  

Wan Guo, a farmer from the south of Shenten, was the first, and her death prompted Florence to begin encrypting her own memory.  But she wasn’t the last.  Other prisoners were competition, not allies.  If one of them succeeded, that meant more suffering and death for the others.

To the victims of this camp, the guards were a fact of the world, an inhuman, unchangeable presence who could not be fought.  Grace was the one taking their food from them.  And Florence, since she was the only one who Grace shared her rice with.

The first time Grace killed someone in self-defense, she became a sobbing wreck for weeks.  But after the second, and the third, it started to seem ordinary.  The other prisoners had been reduced to locusts.  They would eat each other if the guards permitted it.

Before long, Grace simply got used to seeing the unmoving women every morning in her dorm, the ones who drank wine, went to sleep the night before and never woke up.  Guards would drag the body away, and a new woman would come to take their place.

As time passed, Grace saw less and less actual Shenti soldiers.  Most of the people who enforced the rules were prisoners themselves – just the higher-level ones with an economic score of five or higher, whose good performance could earn them true freedom from the cmap.

Those guards were the cruelest of all.  When you were this low in life, sometimes the only comfort was knowing someone else was worse.

And they always made sure to remind her.  “What was your profession, locust?” they would shout at her during discipline sessions.

“Teacher,” muttered Grace, the Humdrum-friendly response the Shenti interrogators had assigned her, to conceal the truth of her projection.

“Serving a corrupt nation,” the guard said, sneering.  “Forcing the propaganda of imperialists onto the youth, indoctrinating them against the state.  Spawning another generation of locusts just as worthless as you.”  She gestured to the other prisoners standing on the grass.  “Show her what she deserves.”

In unison, the other prisoners grabbed clods of mud from the damp ground and threw them at her.  Grace closed her eyes, flinching.  They hit the side of her cheek, her chest, her legs and her arms, staining her clothes brown, dirty water trickling down her skin.  They screamed at her, that she was trash, that she was complicit in murder and torture and treacherous sloth and that she was nothing, nothing before this camp and The 99 Precepts and the Black Tortoise’s mercy.

Florence couldn’t throw anything, but she screamed too.  There would be more beatings if she didn’t.

When it was Florence’s turn to be humiliated, Grace would do the same.  Even with Florence’s mind-wipes, they were both becoming fluent in the language of the Black Tortoise.

Life blurred into a perverse routine.  Avoiding beatings, trudging to the factory, eating scraps, stepping over the bodies on your way out the door.

And at first, it was thoughts of freedom that sustained Grace.  In Florence’s state, she wasn’t in any shape to provide support.

This is temporary, Grace told herself.  You’ll find a way to escape, or the Principality will liberate this camp.  All the guards would be punished.  Cao Hui would be brought to justice.

But nothing came up.  The Null Venom injected into her veins prevented her from external projection.  Internal projection was unaffected, but she knew almost no Joining, and Grace’s Praxis Vocation still eluded her.

She thought of messing with the Null Venom schedule.  But the men injecting her were thorough, never late, always injecting a large dose with a wide overlap.  The watchtowers had no blind spots, and the fence was electric.  A prisoner had tried slipping through it at night, and the Shenti left his smoking body on the live wire for a week as a reminder.

Most Humdrum POW escapes happened with tunnels, but no one had the energy or tools for that.

She attacked the problem from every conceivable angle.  But nothing clicked.

And the Principality’s liberating army never came.  Just the horn, every morning, jolting her back to reality.

Day by day, Grace’s future began to fade.  And without that, what goal was there to strive towards?

Prisoners with higher economic scores still dreamed of climbing out, but at levels one and two, there were no such delusions.  They had been abandoned by society, as repulsive, worthless things to be ignored at best.

What are you living for?  What was the purpose of their continued existence?  To fuel the Shenti’s war machine?  To help build tanks and factories and train tracks that would help the monsters conquer the Eight Oceans?  To turn the entire world into camps like these.

What was the point?

Grace didn’t have an answer.

So, instead of sleeping, she spent many nights outside the front door of the dorm, shivering.

After the first few times she did this, a Shenti woman began to join her on the front steps, leaning back against the wall of the dorm, her breath turning to fog ahead of her.  At first, Grace thought she was trying to befriend her, as some sort of long con to steal Grace’s food.

Or perhaps she was an agent, sent by the Shenti to earn her trust and secure her loyalty.

But the woman said nothing.  She just sat there, staring into space.  Most of the time, there wasn’t even eye contact.

Grace and the woman just sat there, two insomniacs passing in the night.

Until one night, Grace spoke up.

Maybe she was curious.  Maybe she was just desperate for connection.

“Why do some of them drink wine?” Grace asked.

The woman turned to her, mouth half-open, a look of surprise on her face.

“The people in our dorm.  I don’t pay much attention to them, but sometimes, I see them drinking wine before they fall asleep.  What’s the purpose?”

The woman laughed, a hoarse, weak sound that turned into a wet cough.  “You’ve been here for months, round eye, and you still don’t know about the Choice of Rice and Wine?”

Half round eye.  Grace’s father was Shenti.  “No, why would I know that?”

“I sit behind you on the cognitive tests so I can read over your shoulder,” said the woman.  “I know how smart you are.  How is it not obvious?”  She cocked her head to the side.  “Or maybe you just don’t want to see it.”

“Fine,” said Grace.  “What is the Choice of Rice and Wine?”

“The guards are hungry too,” said the woman.  “Not as hungry as us, but they’re not exactly getting a feast either.  When they can, they’ll steal our food.”

“Yes, obviously,” said Grace.  Her infrequent bowls of rice had been snatched by the guards before.

“But sometimes, we can trade our food to the guards for other things.  A ration of rice wine, in this case.”

Grace raised an eyebrow.  “But we need the rice to survive.  The wine is a pointless luxury.”

The woman chuckled.  “The wine isn’t about survival, dummy.  It’s about giving yourself one pleasant night before it all goes away.”

Oh.

“It’s about accepting your fate, that the struggle is too much.”

Grace slouched over.  “That’s the most bleak thing I’ve ever heard.”

The woman shrugged.  “Humans aren’t built to last in a place like this.  It’s only the selfish monsters like me who last more than a few months.”

“If you’re so clever, how did you end up here?”

She sighed.  “I tried.  On the day Cao Hui’s thugs chopped the emperor’s head off, I knew I had to get out.  I was unemployed, living through part-time jobs and the occasional violation for drunk and disorderly.  The Black Tortoise doesn’t like my type.”

“Drunk and disorderly?”

“There aren’t a lot of public bathrooms in Ri Chu City.”

“So why didn’t you leave Shenten?” said Grace.

“Do you know how hard it is to get a visa for another country?  When you’re dirt-poor with an economic score in the pits, nobody wants to give you a free ticket to their country.  Nobody wants to give you anything.”

“Sorry.”  Grace pulled her knees to her chest to warm herself.  That could have been me.  If she’d reported Tybalt and gotten expelled, had all knowledge of projection wiped from her head.

The woman shrugged.  “At a certain point, people stop acting disappointed and just start ignoring you.  It’s easier then.  But by the time I found a good smuggler, the state decided I was worth more here.”

On impulse, Grace stuck out her hand.  “I’m – I’m Grace.”

The woman looked at her with confusion, then shook the hand.  “Right, I forgot you westerners did that.  I’m Sun Bi, but you can just call me Sun.”  She smiled, her dry lips cracking.  “I spilled my guts.  Your turn.  What did you do on the outside, round eyes?”

“Well,” said Grace.  “I was a wizard.”

Both of them laughed, their voices echoing over the dead tundra.

Through all the bitter chill, Grace felt a pulse of warmth.

After that, Grace and Sun had many conversations outside the dorm, huddling close for warmth, staring out at the moons, at the factory, at the watchtowers in the distance.  Even in spring and summer, the cold was brutal, and their talks made them lose sleep.

But they didn’t stop.  They both knew that this was their lifeline, the flimsy thread keeping them from drinking that wine.

Months after they’d started talking to each other, Sun ruined it all.

“What if I told you,” she said.  “That I was planning an escape?”

Scholars, please, no.  “I would ask you what the plan is,” said Grace.

Sun huddled closer, lowering her voice.  “I’ve been developing it for over a year,”  she said.  “The guards have a shift change every night at a regular time.  During that period, there’s a moment when nobody is looking at the wire.”

No, no, no.

“The tread factory is only a quarter mile from the perimeter.  If we mess with the gas system and use a timed fuse, we can create a fire during the shift change, drawing all the nearby guards – including the ones at the watchtower.  With the distraction, we can cut the wires on the electric fence and go.”

Grace slumped over, staring out over the tundra.

“Well, what do you think?”

Grace gathered up the energy to speak.  “I thought of that plan,” she said.  “Four months ago.”

“What?” said Sun.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it won’t work,” said Grace.  “In the event of an emergency, all perimeter guards are to stay at their posts, and increase their vigilance.  And the wires on the electric fence are connected to an alarm system.  If they get cut or the circuit gets broken, it sends off an alarm.  You wouldn’t make it a mile.”

We wouldn’t make it a mile,” said Sun  “If you’ve thought about it this much, we can perfect this plan together.  Get out together.  You, me, and your handless friend over there.”  She indicated her head to Florence back to the dorm.

A hole opened up inside Grace, growing and growing until it felt like her torso had been hollowed out.  “I tried,” she said.  “I tried.  But it’s a dead end.  All my escape plans were dead ends.“

Sun shook her head, eyes wide.  “No, no.  That’s not possible.  I thought this through.  A big enough explosion, and the guards will have to come running.  And there’s no way of knowing if the electric fence has an alarm to it.”

“Please,” said Grace, her voice soft.  “I don’t want to watch you die.”

“I’m going to die if I spend another year here,” said Sun.  “I don’t know if it’ll be fever, or a guard, or hunger, but I can’t last much longer.  Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.”

“Then wait,” said Grace.  “Wait just a little.  We can come up with something else, it’ll just take time.”

“Can you guarantee when you’ll have something else?  Or if you’ll even have anything at all?”

Grace forced her eyes shut.  Please don’t do this.  Please.

“Then I can’t wait.”

She’s in denial.  Sun had placed all her hopes on this plan, and couldn’t imagine a world where it would fail.  It would be impossible to convince her otherwise.

But Grace tried anyways.  She tried for hours into the night.  And the next night.  And the next.  Until the two of them stopped talking, and Grace went back to shivering on the concrete.

And Grace started to think, knees pulled up to her chest, staring at the far wall of the dorm.

If Grace reported on an escape attempt from another prisoner, she could boost her economic score, move up a few levels.  If she was lucky, she could pull Florence up with her.  She’d probably never get out, but she and Florence would have a lot less agony, a much higher chance of survival.  They would have twice as much food, warm bedding.  Maybe even an easier factory job, that wouldn’t tear their muscles and leave them shaking at the end of the day.

Just the thought was enough to make Grace’s mouth water.

And Sun would be killed if she tried to escape anyways.  The outcome would be the same either way.

Grace drifted off to sleep, full of indecision.  The horn jolted her awake a few hours later, screeching in her ears.  Within a few minutes, she was marching in a line with the other prisoners to the factory, her swollen feet aching with every step on the dirt path.

“Guard,” she croaked.  “Guard.”

One of the Shenti guards walked over to her.  On the other side of the line, Sun glanced at her, eyes widening.

The guard scowled at her.  “What?”

Grace and Sun made eye contact for a few seconds.

But Sun’s gaze wasn’t terrified, or angry, or vindictive.  It was sympathetic.  Understanding.

Sun turned away, walking back into the line.

“Well?” said the guard, gripping her rifle.  “Fuck you want?”

Report Sun.  Save yourself.

Grace snickered.  Then chuckled.  Then broke out in hoarse laughter, tears running down her face.

The guard punched her in the solar plexus.  Grace doubled over, gasping for breath.  She collapsed to her knees, wheezing.  Scholars, that hurts.

“Back in line, locust,” the guard said.

Grace crawled back in line and pushed herself upright, taking slow, labored inhales and exhales.

Step by step, she staggered towards the rising sun.

A week later, Grace heard a loud explosion at the factory, and Sun went missing.  A week and three days after that, the guards marched the prisoners down a different path in the morning, leading them to a hill with a tree stump in the middle.

The guards dragged Sun to the stump.  Bruises and bloodstains covered her face, but she was still breathing, still lucid, eyes darting around.  They looked into Grace’s for a split second.

There was no speech, no dramatic introduction.  One guard forced Sun onto her knees, pushing her head forward over the edge of the stump.

Another guard drew a curved Voidsteel dao sword, and brought it down on Sun’s neck.

Blood spilled onto the frozen grass.  “This is the symptom of society’s treacherous sloth!” shouted a guard.  “A great failure of intellect.  Do not try to leave.”

And then they went back to work, like nothing had happened.

Grace didn’t scream.  Any strong reaction to the incident might be seen as collaboration.  She pushed her emotions down all throughout the day.

Finally, late at night, she found herself on the concrete floor again, leaning against the wall, knees pulled to her chest, staring forward into space.

Next to her, Florence was erasing all the memories of the execution.  She might even be erasing her memories of Sun.

And it all washed over Grace.  Tears poured down her cheeks, and her face twitched.  Her chest gasped, in quiet, violent sobs.  She clenched her hands on her knees, her brittle fingernails digging into her skin.  Her stomach ached, a part of her mind already drifting to her next meal.  Even now, all my body wants to do is survive.

Sun could have saved her life if she’d given Grace’s name.  The guards knew the two of them had talked, all they needed was an excuse.  Grace and Florence would have been tortured, at least for some time, and Sun could have gotten a new chance at life.

The rational choice, the choice of survival, was to report Grace.

But Sun hadn’t.  She’d let herself die.

Ants and Beetles.

Grace had to make her sacrifice count.  Merely continuing to exist was insufficient.

In that moment, she decided: I am going to get Florence Tuft out of this prison.  Even if it meant dying.

Everything coalesced around that goal, that one singular obsession.

Intention: Get Florence Out

Purple lightning crackled around her wrists.  It spread to the rest of her body, becoming a cloud, growing brighter and brighter until it was an electrical storm, blurry through a film of tears.

The headache grew too, a stabbing pain that split her skull down the middle, but the rush was a thousand times stronger.

Grace let go, relaxing her Pith.  The lightning vanished.  The handful of prisoners who had woken up fell back asleep, no doubt convinced it was some hallucination.

Alignment.  Perfect alignment.  Everything made sense now, everything clicked.  A slow process at first, then faster and faster.

Intention: Get Florence Out

It rang in her head, thrumming as if her soul was a tuning fork that had just been struck.

And her mind responded.

In an instant, her memory focused, spitting out a schedule of every guard’s rotation for the past year.  Their names flashed through her mind, ones she had forgotten, or had only heard once in passing a few months ago.  The tiniest details from years ago became clear, sharp.

Then, she surmised their weaknesses.  Qiu Heng was a drunkard.  Kang Hai was wracked by guilt, and showed great sympathy for the prisoners.  Zhao Lin feared being reassigned to the front lines.

Han Shufen.  Cui Fu.  Li Ping.  Tao Xue.  Su Jing.  All of them had vulnerabilities.  Humans were the weak point in every security system.

But the insights didn’t stop there.  From a single glance at a cable technician a month ago, Grace guessed where the power for the electric fence was generated, how much longer Florence would last before she made the choice of rice and wine, how to stay strong and functional through the coming winter.

Within a few seconds, her hunger faded into the background, along with the other aches and chills.  The pain was still there, but it was like an adrenaline rush – the other thoughts were stronger, making it easier to concentrate.

And her Pith began to run through all her flawed escape plans, all the failed attempts she’d seen other prisoners make.

In the span of two minutes, she came up with three new ideas for how to break into the guards’ weapons locker.  Grace had never fired a gun before, but that wouldn’t be a problem now.

The next day, when Grace ate her weekly bowl of rice, she couldn’t taste it.

Her sense of smell had been dampened too.  On a hunch, she tried to think back to her childhood.  What did her house look like?  Did she have any pets?  Who were her neighbors?

All a blur.  And other memories of her earlier years were vanishing by the moment.

In that moment, Grace understood the truth of her Praxis Vocation.  It was a True Praxis Vocation, as they called it, a technique that modified her entire Pith, not just a few tiny aspects of it.

It wasn’t a clean upgrade to her intellect.  It didn’t give her perfect plans.  It was focus.  Obsession.  When Grace held a specific goal in her mind, her Pith adjusted at a rapid pace, sharpening itself to solve the problem at the cost of everything else.  Sections deemed unnecessary for the goal were written over, replaced.

The Shenti could control her body.  They could inject her with Null Venom, starve her, and work her to the breaking point.  Her skin was covered in frostburn.  She was shivering, frail, swollen from the hunger.

But her mind?

Her mind was burning.

________________________________________

It had taken two more years to escape the camp.

Two more years of agony, of mastering her Praxis Vocation.  In the process, she’d even forgotten her name a few times, needing Florence to remind her of it.

Florence had survived.  To Grace’s surprise, she’d made it out too.

And now, nobody cared.

There were noises of sympathy, of course, medals for surviving capture by the enemy, newspapers with their faces on page five.

But when Grace went into the details of the camps, everyone seemed to change the subject, or forget.  And when she pressed the issue, they would dismiss her, accuse her of embellishing her story, diagnose her with false memories.

Florence barely talked about it at all – she just wanted to forget.  And the Epistocrats believed Grace even less.  Being half-Shenti didn’t help with that.

Everyone was happy that the two of them were home, but nobody seemed to care about what they’d been through, what was still happening to Humdrums all over Shenten.  Nobody believed her.

Grace coped by training, making herself strong, so that nobody could force her into a cage ever again.  She mastered Palefire, a technique she’d barely understood before the redemption camp.

Then, she’d gotten herself a job in foreign intelligence.  With her Praxis Vocation, finding patterns in the data became as easy as breathing.

And now she had proof.

Grace pressed the button.  Clockwork filigree mechanisms spun and whirred before her, bringing the elevator down the shaft to her.

Level Five.  This was the highest level in the Great Library, where the Conclave of the Wise met to rule the country.

And above it, Headmaster Tau’s personal study.

While she waited, she glanced around the room.  This level of the Great Library was nothing like the ones beneath, full of effects that seemed impossible based on what she knew of projection.

The entire room was shaped like a sphere, and gravity itself had warped around it.  The ceiling was the walls was the floor.  Jade glass bookshelves covered every inch, each book sealed in its own separate compartment.  A miniature crystal sun floated in the center, shining warm, natural light over everything.

Hooded figures stood around the sphere, clad in dark blue robes, their faces obscured, watching her.  The Librarians.  The real librarians, not the Guardians who watched the entrance or the clerks who helped fetch books at the lower levels.  Silent watchers who protected the most dangerous codices in exchange for their freedom, wielding unknown powers.

Paragon took their book security very seriously.  Most of the damn academy was based around restricting people’s access to information.

The elevator arrived, a tall birdcage made of blue filigree metal, covered in spinning gears and cables.  Due to the warped gravity of the sphere, it rose up from the floor, even though it was technically coming from above.  I’m standing upside-down, thought Grace.

The door swung open, and Grace stepped in.  It swung shut, and the elevator descended into the floor, whirring and clicking.

The world went dark around Grace for a few seconds.

Then the elevator emerged, right-side up, noon sunlight glaring in Grace’s face.

Grace gaped at her surroundings.  That doesn’t seem possible.

The elevator was rising through the open air.

The entire top level of the Great Library was invisible from the inside.  Grace gazed down on the floating air islands of Paragon, and, thousands of feet below, Mount Elwar and the ocean, all lit by the warm sun.  When she glanced up, there was no cable supporting the elevator, nothing other than the spinning mechanisms on the cage itself.

After a few minutes, the elevator rose into a hole on the side of a platform, that appeared to be floating midair.  And Grace Acworth entered the headmaster’s study.

In comparison to the surreal wonders of Level Five, Nicholas Tau’s office was quite humble.  The only notable object was the globe, a vast metal sphere five times wider than she was tall, engraved with all the continents of the world, hanging from the ceiling high above, complete with a pair of tiny moons.

Natural sunlight shone in through countless windows, illuminating a handful of bookshelves behind the desk, including the Lavender Book itself.  Those can’t be normal.  There were no windows on the outside of the Great Library, or the tower at the top.  The same effect as the elevator shaft, probably.

The most remarkable thing in the whole building, of course, was the bearded man in front of her, wearing a bathrobe, bare feet resting on the smooth wooden desk, sipping tea and reading a book.  A gramophone played a smooth piano song, and he nodded along with the rhythm.

“What are you reading?” said Grace.

Headmaster Tau beamed at her, taking his feet off the desk.  “Shellfish Secrets: A Hundred Different Recipes for Crab,” he said.  “Riveting.”

“The Shenti are winning,” said Grace.  “And you’re reading a cookbook.”

Tau chuckled.  “You know, most people would have just feigned interest.”

Grace shrugged, and slid her dark blue and purple business card across the desk.  An introduction, of sorts.

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

“My apologies,” said Tau.  “I may not look it, but I’m rather old, and we have a different sense of pace than you saplings.”  He indicated his hand.  “Please, sit.”

Grace sat down on a couch chair.

“You seem quite intent, young lady,” Tau said.  “So I’ll try not to fuss around.  What do you have for me today?”

Grace showed him her evidence.  Pages and pages of it.

“So, in summary,” she said.  “The Shenti are operating over five thousand redemption camps, some in captured territories, but most within Shenten itself.  As per Cao Hui’s system, those with the worst economic scores are sent to locations where they are exterminated through labor.”  She took a deep breath.  “Between two and nine thousand are killed every day in these camps, mostly through starvation and disease.”

Tau exhaled, a mournful look on his face.  “This is excellent work, Grace, thank you.  It is a great horror you have uncovered.”

A horror that would have been uncovered a year ago if people listened to me.

“You’ve had to endure great suffering.  Especially given your parentage.“

Grace grimaced.  “I’m as native to the Principality as any.”

“Of course,” said Tau.  “But your father was from Shenten, no?  And the growing instability was one of the reasons he left.  Do you have any family at risk of being sent to one of these camps?”

“No,” said Grace.  “But why should that matter?”

“A horror,” muttered Tau.  “A horror.  But, forgive me – ”  He folded his hands on the desk.  “The population of these camps are almost entirely composed of Humdrums, yes?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Florence and I were the only projectors in there that we know of.”

“And the perpetrators are Humdrums, yes?”

Grace didn’t like where this was going.

“Cao Hui, the Black Tortoise, is a Praxis Specialist,” she said, “and he runs the whole country, but yes, everyone else involved is a Humdrum.”

A tired, pained expression passed across Tau’s middle-aged face, and he closed his eyes.  “The Treaty of Silence is… rather strict.  Our own world must be kept separate from the Humdrums, for their safety and our own.  Every civilization, back to the Great Scholars, has understood this.  Acting against the camps would threaten to expose us.  There is a natural balance, that should not be upset.”

“But we’re not separate,” said Grace.  “The Conclave of the Wise – the council that rules this entire country – is made up of Epistocrats.  Guardians insert themselves in the military.  Projectors run all the major newspapers.”

“A necessary step,” said Tau.  “A few centuries ago, all it took was an invisible school and a memory wipe every now and then.  But today, the Humdrums have radio, television, mass media.  Secrecy is a fragile thing in these times.  We need all that to conceal ourselves.”

“And the war?”

“We can fight Shenti projectors, as you and your comrades have bravely done, but it must be kept secret, hidden.  Through all the atrocities of this war, the Treaty of Silence is the one aspect all sides have agreed on.  If anyone were to break it, entire societies would collapse.  Our way of life depends on this.”

“But we can help them,” said Grace.  “They’re humans, just like us.”

“If we solved one problem for them, they’d expect us to fix everything,” Tau said.  “And do not imagine they’d be grateful for your help.  The thoughts of a Humdrum are close-minded and stubborn and prideful all at once.  If they found out people like you existed, many would try to burn you at the stake.  They’d try to burn all of us.”

The world is already burning.  “But even if we can’t act, what about our Humdrum military?  We could bomb the rail lines leading in, or disrupt their communications, or – “

Tau sighed.  “As you’ve described, we’re losing the war.  A year ago, we had landed on the beaches of Shenten.  Today, we’re a thousand miles west of that, and we’re losing islands by the week.  We can focus on helping the Humdrums when we’re not on the verge of destruction.  Then, we’ll do everything we can.”

They’ll all be dead by then.  Grace clenched her fists.  The anger bubbled up again inside her chest, the same sensation she’d felt in the women’s dorm so many nights.

“I know how much pain you’re in,” said Tau, his voice calm.  “And right now, it may seem as though the whole world is against you.  But if peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it.  By maintaining balance, we – and the Treaty of Silence – are protecting the lives of countless millions of Humdrums.”

Tybalt Keswick’s face flashed through Grace’s memory, lips parted in an easygoing smile as he forced Edric to stab Priscilla.

What are you protecting, Headmaster? thought Grace.

Grace had tasked her Praxis Vocation with gathering evidence of these camps.  Overwhelming evidence.  But she’d never imagined that she would need to convince people beyond that.

The truth was enough, wasn’t it?  Once people knew of the cruelties happening in the camps, they would act, right?

“Life is so complicated these days,” sighed Tau.  “I must confess, I wax nostalgic for the days of my childhood.  The world was so much simpler back then.”

The world was never simple, said Grace in her head.  You just thought it was.

“A kinder world,” he said, a faraway look in his eyes.  “A kinder world.”  He stood up and squeezed her hands.

Grace stepped back.  “Thank you for your time, sir.”

“But still, I’m glad that we have young idealists like you to defend this nation.”

Grace bowed to him.  You might end up regretting that.

________________________________________

“We’re almost there,” said Penny Oakes.

Grace swung her pick into the ice above her and pulled herself onto the ledge.  Snowflakes drifted all around them, a light storm passing through the mountains.

Isaac pulled himself up after her, and Florence floated close behind, lifting herself on a gust of wind.  Revenant Squad was using both projection and ordinary methods to climb the mountain, in order to preserve their strength for the mission.

Penny Oakes unfolded the map from her bag, floating it in front of her.  “We’re still going the right way, yes?”

Grace glanced over her shoulder, and nodded.  “My intel says the training grounds should be on the other side of the mountain.  The storm will give us some cover.”

Shenti training grounds.  Commandos were difficult to fight, but if you killed them before they finished their training, not so much.  And a place to teach Joiners wouldn’t have any Humdrums present, so the Treaty of Silence would remain intact.

It was a perfect target for Paragon.  And a perfect excuse to bring Revenant Squad back together, with the exception of Rowyna, who was busy leading half the fleet now.  Penny Oakes served as her temporary replacement.


“At last,” said Florence, wiping snow off her face with one of her stumps.  “We can get shot instead of freezing to death.  Have I mentioned that I hate winter?”

“Nineteen times in the last week,” said Isaac, leaning against the rock wall.  “I counted.”

“Now I know why the Shenti are so gruff,” she said.  “If I spent all my time this cold, I’d probably want to punch something too.”

“How’re you gonna punch something, Florence?” said Grace, indicating to the woman’s stumps.

“I’m a Guardian,” said Florence, grinning.  “It’s our job to be creative.”

Grace’s intention still rang clear, her Vocation operating at full capacity.  She glanced up at the ridge near the peak of the mountain, snow falling all around her.

“Thank you,” she blurted out.

A look of confusion spread across Isaac and Florence’s faces.  “What?” Florence said.

“After we’d escaped from that camp, Florence, I was unconscious,” said Grace.  “You could have abandoned me.  Vastly increased your chances.  But you carried me through that wasteland.”

“I don’t remember that,” said Florence.  “I’m sorry.  What’s this about?”

Grace smiled at the two of them.  “Of all the vicious, ignorant people I could have had as squadmates, I had you guys.  I’m grateful, I guess.”

“I dunno,” said Florence.  “We’ve got some issues.  I’m pretty sure half my brain is melted cheese at this point.”

“And still,” said Grace.  “I’m grateful.”  She went back to climbing.

A few seconds later, they clambered over the ridge, to the edge of a cliff.  Far beneath them, through the storm, they could make out the details of the structures below.

A grassy, flat tundra.  A factory puffing out black smoke.  And an electric fence, stretching as far as the eye could see, dotted with watchtowers and floodlights.

“Huh?” said Penny Oakes.  “This looks too big for a Joiner’s training grounds, and that looks like a factory there on the left.  Captain Acworth, are you sure your intel is accurate?”

“I’m sorry,” said Grace.

“No,” said Florence.  “No.”  Her eyes widened.  She understood in an instant.  “You can’t – you can’t – “

Isaac crouched down at the edge of the cliff.  “This is the camp, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Grace.  “This is Jiachong, the twenty-third redemption camp constructed by Cao Hui’s government.”  The place where I forged my Vocation.

“And the training grounds?” said Isaac.

She pointed at a second location on the map.  “That’s not a Shenti brigade, as written.  The real training grounds are at those coordinates.  You can go there if you want.”  She put her hands on Florence and Isaac’s shoulders.  “Or you can join me.”

“What’s going on?” said Penny Oakes.

“You’ll be breaking the Treaty of Silence,” said Isaac.  “Attacking Humdrums.  You’ll overturn thousands of years of secrecy in an instant.”  His chest rose and fell at a rapid pace.

Tybalt’s face flashed through Grace’s memory, followed by Edric, the carpenter’s boy, and Priscilla, the young woman who’d been stabbed.

“And if you do this,” said Florence, stepping close, speaking under her breath.  “You won’t just face the Shenti.  Paragon will hunt you down.”

“Those are Humdrums down there?” said Oakes.  “No projectors?  Then if you engage, the sentence is a full memory wipe at best.  And death at worst.  I won’t fight you here, but I will report you.”

“I know what you went through,” said Florence.

“I’m not sure you do anymore,” said Grace.

“And – and I know enough about revenge,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears.  “It won’t make you feel whole again.  All it does is add more misery to the world.”

“I know,” said Grace.  “I’m not doing it for me.”  She hugged Florence and Isaac, pulling them close at the edge of the cliff, as snow fell around them.

Revenant Squad.  Look at us.  All broken in their own way, all straining under the weight of the world they fought in.

“I love you,” she said.  “Please.  Remember this.”

She let go of them, and jumped off the cliff.

On the snowy tundra, a group of prisoners trudged forward, directed by the guards, forming rows and columns around a hill.  Many dorm’s worth, hundreds and hundreds.  Snowflakes drifted around them, the air still and silent, the sun covered up by clouds.  High in the sky, a silver oracle snake wound back and forth, tranquil and distant.

A surreal moment of peace, amidst the daily violence that was the norm in Jiachong.  They all knew what was coming.  They’d been to this hill before.  But most just looked grateful for the chance to rest, to not be walking or working or scrabbling for food.

So there was no surprise when a guard dragged a limping prisoner to the tree stump.

“This locust attempted to steal food from the storehouse!” the guard cried.  “His treacherous sloth rots from within.  He lacks the discipline, the intellect, the moral spine to be a patriot!”

“No!”  The prisoner yelled, his voice hoarse.  They hadn’t beaten him into silence, and these were his last words.  He was going to make them count.  “I campaigned for the Black Tortoise, for Cao Hui!  I fought for his vision, to restore our nation’s beauty, to save us from the monsters at our gates.  Were it not for my injury, I would have joined the front lines.”

“Silence!” A guard kicked the prisoner’s face.

The prisoner spat up blood, and kept going.  “And now that Cao Hui no longer has use for me, I am sent here to die.”  He looked at the guards around him, at the prisoners.  “Is this what you wanted?  Is this what we wanted?  What was the point?” he wheezed.  “What was the point?”

The other prisoners just stared at him, apathetic, exhausted.  Snowflakes collected on their withering hair, their slow, labored breaths fogging the air in front of them.

The guards ignored him too.  How many times had they heard rants from locusts, cries of regret and despair?  The accusations, the questions meant nothing to them.  They knew their role in this society, and were filling it.  That was all.

The guard next to the stump drew his broadsword, lifting it above his head.

The prisoner screamed, his voice cracking, a raw, animal noise.  Raging at his life cut short, at his complicity, at how powerless he was.

Grace screamed with him, and lit the world on fire.

A flash of pale light lit up the sky, washing over the executioner.  He dropped to the ground, limp, his skin charred and white.

The Voidsteel sword fell out of his hand, spinning through the air.

Grace’s hand reached out of the storm, and grabbed it.

Time stood still.  The guards stared at her, in disbelief.

Then Grace screamed again, and set them all on fire.  Nineteen precise blasts of palefire shot out around her, crashing down on nineteen guards from above.

They were dead before they hit the ground.  The fire vaporized the flakes in the air, turning the snow into steaming puddles.

Two of the perimeter watchtowers turned to her and opened fire with their machine guns.  The rounds bounced off her autonomous bullet defense, deflected with ease.

Grace flicked her fingers, and a pair of fireballs slammed into the towers, blowing them up with a dull boom.

Then, she projected into her body armor, and unfurled her wingsuit, shooting into the air.

The difficult step was disabling the lines of communication.  She flew all over the camp, breaking all the radios from the inside, knocking out the signal before any guards could alert their superiors.

Then came the simple part.  She slaughtered the guards.  She stabbed them with knives, turned their own guns on them, pulled the pins on the grenades at their belts.

But mostly, she burned them, flying through the snowy air and raining down waves of pale flame.  An angel of fire and rage.

The guards were Humdrums.  Men and women from another world.  None of them had been outfitted with Voidsteel.  Why would they need it, in a remote camp with the Treaty of Silence intact?

Killing them was easy.  Easier than every battle she’d fought, even the ones in training.  Unless they shot her point blank, her Autonomous Bullet Defense would deflect everything they had.

And once Grace destroyed the trucks, broke the mechanism on the gates, the fence the guards had built now served to lock them in.  Some of them tried to claw their way out, only to be shocked and burnt on the electric wire.

Meanwhile, despite the boiling anger in her veins, Grace took pains to control her flame, making sure that the tundra didn’t burn, that there were no lasting fires that could spread to the dorms or cause collateral damage to the prisoners.

No collateral damage.  That was important.  Some of the guards tried to take hostages of the prisoners, or execute them, but she just jammed their guns, or pulled the knives right out of their hands.

One guard dropped his weapon before she could burn him, falling to his knees on the snow.  “Mercy!” he sobbed.  “Mercy, mercy.  Please.”  Unique among the guards, he wasn’t Shenti, looking to be somewhere from the Principality.

Grace landed on the ground in front of him, still holding the broadsword from earlier.  Dried blood coated its green metal.  They’ve done many executions with this.

“My name is Corporal John Enright.  I was a prisoner too,” said the guard, shaking.  “And I was a soldier in the Principality before I was sent here.  I’m not one of those eastern dogs.”  He ripped his shirt, showing lines of scars up and down his chest.  “They would have killed me if I didn’t join in.  I was just trying to survive.”  He closed his eyes.  “I was just trying to survive.”

He’s a beetle.  Like the old parable Tybalt had told her about the flood.  Someone who only cared about self-preservation, who would commit all sorts of atrocities if it meant they could endure.

Grace set the broadsword on the grass next to him.  Then she Nudged him.   “Do to yourself,” she said.  “What you did to the prisoners.”

A look of horror dawned on John Enright’s face, and he picked up the sword.

Mental hijacking was immoral and cruel.  But in this case, she’d make an exception.

By the time she’d dealt with all the guards, many of the prisoners had coalesced around the tree stump, where she’d first stopped the execution.  Most of them were hiding in their dorms, but a few had wandered out.

Grace descended near them and strode past the stump.  The burnt body of the executioner had been covered with a thin layer of snow.  As she passed, the prisoners stared at her.

Walking to the electric fence, Grace grabbed it.  Demonstrating that the power was out.  Then, she lifted her arms, projected into the fence posts, and ripped them out of the ground, tearing out a wide section of the perimeter wall.

“Listen closely!” Grace shouted, speaking in Shenti.  “The guards store their food in the grey building to the northeast!  They store weapons in the red building next to it!”  She projected into her bag, shooting out a storm of pamphlets.

A few prisoners picked them up, reading through them.

“These include directions on how to travel through the mountains to the Principality’s lines!  Do not linger!”  Her voice softened.  “The journey will be cold and difficult.  Some of you will not survive.  But in struggling, you may help ensure the freedom of others.  And that’s all any of us can do.”

She repeated the speech in Common, Neke, and Ilaquan, for the foreigners in the camp, instructing them to spread the information and pamphlets to the ones in the dorms.

Then, she consulted the maps that her Vocation had seared into her memory.  The next closest redemption camp was Luoyesong, thirty-two miles southeast of here.  They had no idea she was coming.

The Shenti’s Joiners and commandos were far away from the homeland – fighting on the front lines around Ilaqua and all over the oceans.  It would be a long time before they could move against her.

Intention: Free as many as possible

Her Vocation kept working, optimizing her Pith for the next camp, burning away all that was unnecessary.

The Treaty of Silence would burn too, as a side effect.  But Grace could accept that collateral damage.

Grace flew into the snow, seeking her next pyre.

________________________________________

Basilisk, Lampago, and Ouroboros squads had been hunting Grace for four weeks.

The chase had spanned glaciers, through cave networks beneath mountains and across vast rivers.  She’d liberated countless redemption camps already, fighting off Humdrums and Joiners along the way, making the occasional detour to resupply or help steer the new refugees in the right direction.

But her goal made her easy to track.  At the next camp, Lianhua, they were waiting for her.

Even in the middle of a war, Paragon could spare three whole top-ranked squads to hunt down one of their own.  Grace wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or repulsed.

Every time she found a path out, they cut her off.  Every time she fought them, they came together, keeping her palefire at bay and wearing her out through the sheer force of their projection.  They slept in shifts, allowing them to pursue her twenty-four hours a day.  Her Vocation helped her function without sleep, but her body could only take so much.  And on top of that, one of them had touched her with his hand, putting a tracer on her Pith.  Now, every time she projected outside her body, it would send them her exact location.

And now, they’d cornered her here, some unnamed lake deep in the Yachi Mountains.

Cliffs surrounded her on all sides, steep faces extending from the shore to a dozen snowy peaks high above.  Guardians in blue armor stood on ledges throughout them, encircling the whole lake.  If she tried flying out, they’d intercept her.

The other two squads strode down the river, the only real entrance into the valley.  And the only exit.  In the winter, the lake had frozen over, so they didn’t even need a water walk to stride towards her.

Grace sat on a small rocky island in the middle.  She hunched over, catching her breath, resting her hands on her knees.

Her armor was in tatters now, peeling, full of holes.  It had broken off her body in most places, revealing her ash-stained clothes beneath.  Her brown hair had grown tangled, greasy, singed at the tips.  A patch of her scalp had burned, leaving a shriveled bald spot.

Bruises stretched up and down her arms.  One of her ribs had broken, sending stabbing pain throughout her chest every time she moved.  And a Guardian’s Voidsteel knife had grazed her neck, leaving a red scab across her trachea.

As the main group approached from the front, the other Guardians descended from the cliffs, closing in on all sides.

Grace exhaled, a slow, aching motion, her breath fogging up the air.

The main group stopped thirty feet away, and the tallest one flipped up his helmet.

Short black hair.  Round, innocent blue eyes.  And a warm, open smile that, when you squinted, turned into a smirk.

Professor Tybalt Keswick.  Her old student boss, spry and rested, gazing at her across the frozen water.

“Normally,” he said.  “They don’t send former connections after people like you.  They get emotional, hesitate, don’t want to hurt their former friends.”  He folded his armored hands behind him.  “But when I asked, they made an exception.”

Grace just stared at him.

“This is the part where I ask you to surrender, one last time, so I can tell Headmaster Tau that I did everything I could.”  Tybalt adopted a sympathetic look.  “He’s heartbroken, by the way.  Won’t even look me in the eye.”

“You don’t think I’ll come quiet?” said Grace, her voice hoarse.

Tybalt laughed.  “You’re such an angry little creature.  To be honest, I was surprised you didn’t try to kill me all those years ago, on the night with your Humdrum friend.  I wish you had tried.  The world would have stayed a lot simpler with you in a prison cell.”

“The world was never simple,” said Grace.  “You just thought it was.”

Tybalt spun Reverie, the Nekean Tanto knife, between his fingers, the green blade shooting in and out of the hilt.  “You know what you’ve done, haven’t you?”

“I saved people.”  Thousands and thousands of them.

“Is that what you’re telling yourself now?”  Tybalt’s voice took on a surprised tone.  “You went mad.  You burned every Humdrum in sight, soldiers and civilians.  You created mountains of ashes.  They’re calling you ‘The Pyre Witch’ now.”

Lies.  Grace had expected a smear, an attempted cover-up, but nothing on this level.  How many will they have to memory wipe to achieve this?  Paragon Academy couldn’t admit that a traitor did a good thing, a moral thing, something they lacked the spine to do.

She had to be seen as the monster.

“And,” said Tybalt.  “You attacked Humdrums.  You shattered the barrier between our worlds.  In retaliation for your little tantrum, the Shenti’s Immaculate Vanguard massacred an entire carrier group.”

A carrier group.  Does that mean Rowyna – 

“The Edwina,” he said.  “May Vice Admiral Kerst have rest.  Projectors are now fighting in the open.  The Treaty of Silence is over.  You exposed us to the Humdrums, and now they’re going to try and destroy us all.  The world as we know it is going to burn.”

“Some things,” Grace said, sitting up with effort.  “Deserve to burn.”

“This is your legacy, Grace Acworth,” Tybalt said.  “This is how history will remember you.”  His smirk widened.  He knows the truth.  And he was taking pleasure in the lie.  This country will always protect people like him.

Grace’s calloused fingers dug into the skin of her leg.  The rage was almost enough to make her scream.

“What’s the sentence?” said Grace.  “Memory wipe or death?”

“If all your memories are wiped, and your personality flattened,” Tybalt said.  “The Conclave has ruled that you may live.  If you want to survive, there’s only one rational choice you can make.”

Ants and Beetles.  It always came back to the ant and the beetle.  Sacrifice and survival.  Death and life.  A selfish man like Tybalt, thinking everyone was just as empty.

But it was almost time.

When the Guardians arrived, they had stretched their Piths over the area, looking for traps, hidden allies.  They would have noticed a sunken metal ship on the far end of the lake, but that was it.

And scanning an area was costly, took energy.  They would have only done it once, preserving their strength for the fight, as per Paragon’s tactics guidebook.

And why bother with more?  Their target was exhausted, cornered.  They’d prepared for her palefire, bested it several times already.  And the Guardians had chosen this battlefield, not her.

So, during the course of their conversation, they wouldn’t have noticed the pieces of the underwater boat breaking apart, reassembling themselves.  The particles of cordite rising from the lake bed, packing into bullets behind Voidsteel rounds.

They didn’t know the details of her Praxis Vocation, that Grace had been to this place before.  That every loss, every failed escape had been part of Grace’s plan.  That her body was exhausted, but her Pith was not.

Intention: Kill enemies and escape

A dozen rifles finished assembling in the icy water, each loaded with a Voidsteel bullet.

They floated, one by one, beneath the ice, separating.  Aiming at their targets.

“You know,” said Grace.  “When I was looking through data in foreign intelligence, I had some curious insights about you and your family, Tybalt.”

Tybalt laughed.  “Got any fun conspiracy theories?”

“About Buttercup Lodge,” said Grace.  “And Egress.”

Tybalt stopped laughing.  For a moment, a look of genuine surprise passed across his face.

“If your squadmates knew about that,” she said.  “They’d probably kill you for me.  But that’s a moot point.”

“Why?”

“Because none of you are leaving here alive.”

“I don’t think that – “ Tybalt moved in the middle of his sentence, his body shooting forward in a blur.  He’d studied some Joining, and his reactions were enhanced.  He would strike her in a fraction of a second, at a speed a Humdrum wouldn’t even see.

Grace moved faster.

________________________________________

Revenant Squad moved.  Isaac Brin, Florence Tuft, Rowyna Ebbridge.  The Scholar of Mass, the Scholar of Air, and the Typhoon of the South.  Two of them now scholar-ranked.  All sharper and improved since the last time she’d seen them.

Grace moved faster.

She washed palefire over the trio, melting their armor.  Florence pushed back, funneling the oxygen away from them to starve the flames, but Grace was far stronger.  Green lightning crackled all around Florence, betraying her effort, but Grace wasn’t even getting sparks.

Back during the war, Grace wouldn’t have dreamed of hurting her best friends.  Even a year ago, she might have stayed her hand, moving to drive them off instead of killing them.

But her Vocation had kept working, writing over the unnecessary, focusing her thoughts, driving her towards her ultimate goal.

Now, she could slaughter them without blinking an eye.

The trap she’d set wasn’t perfect.  Grace didn’t know about the attack until ten minutes ago.  And advanced projectors had a new vocation these days, Voidsteel Sense, that let them detect Voidsteel at close range – the trick she’d used with Tybalt wouldn’t work.

So she’d hid in a separate, hidden room with countless other Piths around her.  Revenant Squad wouldn’t know which one to hit.  Isaac had shot his Voidsteel darts already.  Rowyna’s birds had been burnt to death.  And in these tight quarters, Florence had no plane, and couldn’t dodge around much.

In close quarters like these, the best strategy was the simplest one.  Revenant Squad’s makeshift shields would protect them from Voidsteel bullets, so raw, overwhelming fire was the best method to break down their defenses.

Once they had no energy left, it didn’t really matter which way Grace killed them.  Without their projection, they would be helpless  And though Florence could push out her palefire for now, it was taking all her concentration, leaving her unable to attack.

By her estimation, Grace would win the battle of attrition in less than a minute.

So, Revenant Squad went on the attack.  Rowyna shouted some inspirational speech from her blonde Maxine Clive chassis, another decadent symbol of wealth.  Isaac tore bricks out of the walls, accelerating them and increasing their mass with his Vocation.  He shot them at everyone, unable to make out faces through flames, but able to feel their Piths.

They slammed into the men and women around her, blowing through their skulls, turning their heads into showers of flesh and blood.

Grace stopped one of the bricks before it hit her and broke it up.  Then, she dropped to the floor, acting as though she’d been hit in the head.  Her Vocation added to the illusion, making her Pith appear to flicker out and disperse, like her brain had been turned to a pulp.

Playing possum like this wouldn’t buy her that much time, but it would help.

Grace projected into the concrete floor, making it vibrate with her voice.  “Did you ever ask why I turned against this nation?” she said.  “Did you ever wonder who you were defending?

As she taunted them, she upped her attacks, ripping explosives from parts of the walls and detonating them near Revenant Squad, blasting through their defenses further, showering them with shrapnel on top of the fire.

Of course not,” she said.  “What should I expect from a band of broken fools, who stood by and watched while innocents died?

The raw force was too much for Revenant Squad.  Green and blue lightning crackled around them, evidence of the strain.  Florence’s thin combat suit had begun to burn off in the heat, and the explosions had broken off pieces of Isaac’s armor.

Isaac shot darts and bricks at the ceiling, punching through the brick and concrete with dull booms, forming a hole back to the surface.

The projectiles tore through pipes, and the street above them had flooded, pouring a wave of water onto them from above.  It met Grace’s palefire, turning into a vast cloud of hot steam, expanding in all directions, blocking all vision.

But they didn’t flee.  Not yet.  They thought the water would be enough to deal with her.  Big mistake.

Huge volumes of water kept pouring out of the broken pipes above, crashing into the room from a dozen angles and flooding it.  Grace jabbed her palm forward and blasted her palefire again.  This time, Florence’s air projection snuffed almost all of it out, turning a cone of flame into faint wisps.

Now, Revenant could go on the attack.

Grace kept a sheathe of projected air around her, all she could manage with her limited air projection.  It kept Florence from choking her out or ripping her apart with a vacuum.  So instead, Florence shot her winds behind Grace, swinging her handless stumps to the sides and snapping the necks of the mobsters behind her.

Now, Grace was alone.

Florence Tuft,” said Grace, making the water vibrate with her mocking voice.  “Addicted to wiping away your pain.  You have forgotten your moral compass.  You are not worthy of your title.“  As she spoke, she started to freeze the pipes above her, in places her enemies wouldn’t see.

Isaac floated another wall of clutter behind him.  Chair legs, bricks, chunks of stone and scraps of metal from the pipes.

He dropped their mass, shot them forward, then made them heavy again, shooting them all at Grace with the speed of a machine gun.

Grace clasped her palms together and pulled them apart in a circular motion.  Purple lightning crackled around them, and a shield of electricity blossomed in front of her, forming the shape of a passion flower.

The projectiles hit the shield, and froze, inches in front of Grace’s face.  A Deceleration Shield.  A rare physical vocation based off the deceleration field surrounding Paragon.

A few chunks of stone shot at Grace from behind, above and below, but she could see their reflections in the streams of water around her.  She projected into her black skirt, harness, and suit jacket, yanking herself left and right to dodge.

Isaac Brin,” she said.  “Trapped in an empty past.  Whimpering in fear, terrified of the people you’re supposed to protect.  Can you even get out of bed without a panic attack?

At the same time, a dense flock of birds shot down from the sky, through the hole in the street above, splashing through streams of water.  Rowyna’s Vocation.  Hundreds of swiftlets, tiny and fast, each equipped with a small explosive designed to take out a single enemy.  Each programmed to seek out Grace’s face and attack.  The deceleration field wouldn’t stop them.

Grace slammed her fists together, activating Ninety-Nine Faces, another rare physical vocation.  It used crude light projection, creating dozens and dozens of illusory copies of her head, floating around the room.  At the same time, it bent the light around her body, making her invisible below the neck, allowing her to blend in with the fakes.

It wouldn’t fool the enemy projectors.  But it would fool the birds.

The flock spread out in every direction through the flooded chamber, diving for the fake Tunnel Visions and exploding.  Grace ripped off two pieces of metal from the pipes above, sharpening them into blades.

A few swiftlets dove at her real head, and Grace sliced them with her makeshift cleavers, chopping them before they got close.

Kurayo Shrivatsa,” said Grace, to Rowyna.  “You hollowed yourself out.  You bled away your name and love for a newspaper company.  How’s that working out for you?”  She snorted.  “You are not fit to rule a classroom, much less an army.

Grace sliced the birds, dodged Brin’s projectiles, and maintained both a deceleration shield and her Ninety-Nine faces.  All at the same time.  And her Praxis Vocation was optimized for the plan right now, not for this fight.

All together, it was taxing.  Purple lightning crackled around her body, showing the effort on her Pith, and her head ached.

And in the process, Grace slipped.  Her control of parts of her wind sheathe dropped, for a fraction of a second.

In that instant, Florence grabbed control of Grace’s arms, yanked them out, and locked them in place with her air.  Holding Grace.

Green lightning crackled around Florence.  This is taking all her energy.  But it was working.  With her arms imprisoned, Grace couldn’t dodge anymore.

Isaac Brin pulled a Voidsteel dart from a wall, and shot it at her chest, jabbing his index finger forward.

As he did this, Grace lifted the two metal knives she’d made, clenched her teeth, and brought them down on her arms.

The heavy blades cleaved through flesh, and bone, chopping her arms off at the shoulders and freeing her torso.

Grace projected into her suit and leaned back, dodging the dart.  It grazed her forehead, slicing her skin.

At the same time, she finished freezing the pipes above them.  The streams of water stopped, and the air became clear.

Blood spurted from her twin stumps, and her enemies gaped at her.

In that instant, Grace exhaled, and a hundred streams of palefire blasted out from her mouth.  They shot at Revenant Squad from a hundred different angles, fast enough to look like a flash of light.

Florence raised her stumps, blocking with a wall of air.  But too little, too slow.

The fire washed over the trio from head to toe.  Rowyna’s armor protected her.  But the other two sizzled.  When the smoke cleared, Isaac and Florence were covered in crusty black burns.

Revenant Squad,” said Grace.  “You will never become Exemplars.  And I regret ever caring for you.

As one, Revenant Squad shot into the air, back into the dark rainstorm on the streets of Lowtown.  Another flock of birds flew down from the sky, helping to cover their escape.

And that was Grace’s plan.  She stretched her Pith upwards, feeling the smoke to sense what her enemies were doing.  Searing pain exploded in her shoulders where she’d cut herself, but her Praxis Vocation kept her thoughts sharp, prevented her from going into shock.

Pictogram, the Shenti’s attack dog, stood in the window of an adjacent apartment building, seeing through the steam with his joining-enhanced eyes, analyzing their movement with his visual recognition Vocation.

And in eight different rooms, from eight different angles, the Shenti man projected into eight anti-tank rifles, each loaded with a fifteen millimeter Voidsteel bullet.

He fired.

Rowyna’s family armor stopped the bullets, the rounds making three large dents in the head and chest.  Disappointing.  It had been created through projection, but it seemed even Voidsteel wasn’t enough to penetrate.

Florence dodged.  Pictogram had assembled the guns on short notice.  The models weren’t as good as standard commando gear, so they still made a muzzle flash.  With her Joining and reflexes, that gave her enough time to spin herself around with a gust of wind and a yank on her suit.  Only one of the bullets grazed her leg.

She pushed Brin too, but slower.

A bullet tore through his armor, entering through his stomach and blowing out his back.

The lower half of his body went limp.

Pictogram pulled the bolt action on the rifles, preparing to fire again.  Before he could, in a fraction of a second, hundreds of birds with explosives descended him.  They smashed through windows and detonated themselves on the guns, turning them into piles of scrap.

Others flew at him, targeting his face and gait.  Pictogram knew almost no defensive Joining, couldn’t harden his skin.  A single explosion on his forehead would be enough to kill him.

Pictogram detonated a series of smoke bombs, and leapt back into the building, shooting from a dozen pistols floating around him.

While he fled for his life, Revenant Squad soared into the air, shooting straight for Paragon Academy.  They slowed down to a near-halt before reaching the edge of the first island, passing through the deceleration field.

More birds descended through the steam and rubble, gunning for Grace and the survivors of the attack.  With a single breath, a wave of palefire turned them all to ash.

Don’t pursue,” she said to Pictogram.  Guardians would be on their way now, and they had to leave this hideout before they arrived.  Their secrecy mattered far more than pursuing three targets, and Grace wasn’t prepared to take on the Symphony Knight, or the Obsidian Foil, or Headmaster Tau, senile old fool though he was.

As Grace slipped through the sewers with her mobsters, and transferred into a spare chassis, she thought about what had just happened.  The Voidsteel bullet had hit Isaac in his spinal cord.  The man was going to be paralyzed from the waist down.  If he was lucky.

And so many of her allies had died, blown up by Rowyna, torn to pieces by Isaac, choked out by Florence.

Grace searched her mind for the pain, the guilt, the agony at knowing so many of her subordinates had died, so many broken.

She found nothing.

She looked for the happy memories she’d made with her squad, all the fun times they’d had together at Paragon.

Again, there was nothing.  Only rage, determination.

Those memories were not necessary for her goal.  In some ways, they were detrimental to it.  For all she knew, they were some of the first things her Praxis Vocation had stripped from her.

A flicker of regret passed through her mind, a flare of nostalgia for what she’d lost, for what she would lose as she continued her mission.  Victory would take a thousand sacrifices, starting in her own mind.

It hurt, knowing how much she’d burnt away.  She stopped for a moment, resting on the side of a sewer tunnel and catching her breath.  How many lives have I taken?  Innocents hijacked by Lyna Wethers.  Guardians and Humdrums, Shenti and Principian.  And soon, if her plans succeeded, her friends in Revenant Squad.

Water dripped from a pipe behind her, splashing into the filth.  She glanced at the water, at the woman staring back at her.  Do I even recognize that face?  She’d been in and out of so many bodies, altered so much of herself.

But before she could even finish the thought, the pain vanished, replaced with a renewed sense of purpose, a reminder of her Intention.

Grace picked herself up and kept moving forwards.

________________________________________

The next morning, Grace sent two messages.  One for a friend, one for an enemy.

She sat at her desk, sheathing and unsheathing Reverie, her Tanto knife.

Through her window, she watched two figures enter Akhara’s Gate through the front door.  A ginger woman in an Elizabeth Cranbrook body.  Clementine Rawlyn.  And a tall, muscular Shenti man with a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder.  Pictogram.

Clementine gazed at her surroundings with wonder and fear, clutching the file in her hands until her knuckles turned white.  This was the first time she’d been granted access to the Gate, and she had no idea how any of it worked.

A vast, circular factory rose before the woman, fumes rising from a dozen smokestacks.  It stood on an island, in the middle of a frozen lake surrounded by cliffs and mountain peaks.  An electric fence surrounded the base of the factory, dotted with guard towers and floodlights.

And the factory was changing.  Metal arms and welding tools moved of their own volition, building towers and elevators and gears.  At the same time, buzz saws sliced off huge portions of the building, tearing apart walls and doors and cables.  They pushed the parts onto conveyor belts, dumping a steady stream of metal into holes in the ice of the lake.

Constant destruction, constant regrowth.  An endless cycle.

Clementine walked across the concrete bridge, the only path over the lake and past the fence.  As she approached, voices whispered around her, men and women, young and old, in Common, Shenti, and a dozen other languages.

There are no ants.  You can pretend, you can be tricked, but deep down, everyone is a beetle.

Sooner or later, I’m going to choose wine instead of rice.

Clementine recoiled from the voices, but they kept going.

If peace were easy, we’d never have to fight for it.

Do to yourself.  What you did to the prisoners.

Please.  Remember this.

The world was never simple.  You just thought it was.

The bridge circled around the building, forming a pathway towards the top.  Clementine walked up with Pictogram, through metal chambers, cringing at every loud noise, every burst of sparks.

At last, the two arrived at the top, where Grace sat behind her desk.  Clementine bowed before Grace, her eyes wide.

“Stop,” said Grace.  “Don’t do that.”

Clementine straightened herself.  “Ma’am.  Where are we?  I walked into a door in your submarine, and then – ”  She gazed around.  “I’ve never heard of projection like this.  How is this even possible?”

“The projectors of this nation,” said Grace.  “Have very narrow vision.”  She left it at that.  There was no need for Clementine to know more about Akhara’s Gate.

Clementine handed her the folder.  “The operation was successful.  We succeeded at breaking out the key asset.”

Luke Mayns.  A researcher on pneumatology, and, more importantly, one of the few living Conduits in the world, a man whose thoughts had merged completely with that of another.  Almost no one knew that second bit, which would prove invaluable to the plan, along with a certain Paragon student, the Principality’s experimental weapons supply, and Grace’s intimate knowledge of international shipping logistics.

“We also broke out the secondary asset,” Clementine said.

A sort of warm feeling spread throughout Grace’s body.  “Thank you,” she said.

“But I wanted to deliver this in person, ma’am, because I have a request.”

“Speak.”

“I would ask your leave to pursue a target.  The girl who broke into civilian headquarters, killed Lyna Wethers, and helped with the assault on Attlelan Island to take our bombmaker.”  She took a deep breath.  “The Blue Charlatan.  Anabelle Gage.”

“Denied,” said Grace.  “The matter is too personal for you.  But Gage is an irritation.”  A small problem, like most of the Principality’s black ops mercenaries, but one that could grow.  Thanks to her spying, the Guardians had discovered Grace’s identity as the Pyre Witch, and Revenant Squad had attacked her base in the sewers.

Even if they’d done no real damage in the long run, or found the real boss, it was accelerating things at a frustrating rate.

Pictogram drew a piece of photo paper from his bag.  It shifted colors, developing into a photograph like paint dripping on a canvas.  It revealed a picture of a young masculine chassis with ragged grey hair, a wide jaw, and a thick forehead, veins bulging in its neck.  “That’s Anabelle Gage, yes?”

Clementine nodded.

“My facial pattern matching found something when doing my rounds.”  He leaned down and whispered in Grace’s ear.

Interesting.  Having Pictogram around could be frustrating.  A Shenti warlord had sent him to supervise her along with the money and weapons, which meant he was always full of questions and nitpicks.  And if the public found out the Shenti were funding her and Commonplace, there would be huge backlash.

But still, the man had his uses.  Case in point.

“Clementine,” said Grace.  “Why is Gage working for Paragon?”

“She’s dreamed of being a Guardian,” said Clementine.  “But most likely, she’s trying to buy herself a body.  Her current chassis is decaying, and she needs a fresh one in order to survive.”

Survival.

Grace handed Clementine a sealed envelope.  On her desk, she began writing a group of letters with a few dozen projected pens.  “This envelope contains instructions for transferring a foreign bank account, getting identity papers, buying a ferry ticket to the Glass Oasis, and giving it to the second asset.”

“Edric Gorney?” said Clementine.  “Ma’am, if I may ask, why are we sending an asset away and giving him money?”

“He has no strategic value to the plan,” Grace said.  “He’s a Humdrum carpenter who’s been in prison for most of his life.”

Clementine nodded, then looked confused.  “Then, not to question your decisions, ma’am, but then why did you free him?”

I owe him.  “He’s important,” Grace said.

She had let Tybalt destroy Edric’s life.  It was her fault that he had spent his twenties and thirties in a cell.  And now she was getting to fix it.  He would live a comfortable life in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with a small house on a quiet street.  It wouldn’t give him back the years he’d lost, but it was a start.

Did Grace feel anything as she did this?

She didn’t smile.  A twinge of happiness flickered at the edges of her mind, but nothing more.

Clementine left, and Grace handed a stack of letters to Pictogram.  These were to be sent to members of parliament, along with various Guardians, journalists, and police officers, ensuring that the information would spread.

They were sealed in silver envelopes, the same color as admissions mail from Paragon.  Given the circumstances, it seemed appropriate.

The target profited off lies and manipulation.  She was unwilling to consider the bigger picture, the moral weight of her actions.  All she cared about was her own survival.  A beetle.

And she would be dealt with like a beetle.

Pictogram slid the silver envelopes into his bag, striding back towards the door, surrounded by a thousand hissing voices.

The letter read as thus, addressed to individual names:

Dear ______________,

‘Ernest Chapman’, a Grey Coat assistant at Paragon Academy, is an imposter, a girl with the mask of a boy.  Her real name is Anabelle Gage, a three-time failed applicant who attempted a body theft from cargo ship 9187, crate serial 541256h, attacking and nearly killing two students in the process.

She currently acts as an illicit mercenary for Major Isaac Brin.  A Whisper Specialist with the ability to make audiovisual illusions at a range of around 30 meters, she has used illegal projection for military purposes, working out of King’s Palace Sleepbox and Depot and 189 Emerald Street, a house on North Island.  Her accomplices include the former Nell Ebbridge, an Ousted Epistocrat whose Vocation can hide objects, Copycat, an Ilaquan agent who can steal skills and passwords, and Jun Kuang, a Shenti terrorist.

She remains at large.

Now that was enough to make Grace smile.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




8-C – Rowyna Ebbridge

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Rowyna had to be here.  She didn’t really have a choice.

The Epistocrats at the art gallery acted stiff and distant to her, and it had been a long day.  She’d rather curl up with a good book in her dorm, or have a quiet game night with the other Paragon students.

But, these were some of the most powerful, influential people in the Principality, and Rowyna needed to network.  

The girl across the way had made an overnight fortune in the stock market.  The boy to her left had developed a new microscope model over his winter break.  And the boy next to him had more music awards than fingers.  And those were just the first Paragon students she glanced at.  The students.

The standards were high – impossibly high.  If Rowyna wanted to stand out, find success, she had to take little steps like this, pushing past her limits to build her connections.  Lose an hour of sleep here.  Cancel something fun there.  Fill up this chunk of free time.  She needed to prove, beyond denial, she was better than the competition.

In the long term, it would add up.  For now, her legs were sore.

The art was pretty, though.

They depicted all sorts of uncanny, ethereal scenes.  Landscapes of endless waves.  Infinite triangles within triangles, an eternal fractal that got as small as the eye could see.  Ancient men and women reaching towards a starry sky as water rose over their shoulders.  The Great Scholars, perhaps.

And from this gallery in Paragon, Rowyna could gaze out one of the windows and see the entire city glowing beneath her.  If she looked out another one, she could watch the sunset over the ocean, staining the clouds pink and orange.

Epistocrats milled around Rowyna, in suits and dresses and designer bodies, whispering and making comments on the gallery.  She overheard one circle chattering about the painting in the corner of the room, a work from the anonymous street artist Kashaf Ram.  I need a fresh opinion to stand out there.

So she strode to the corner, and pondered the art.

Of all the pieces in the exhibition, this might be the only one that disturbed her.

It depicted a woman in a dark maroon dress, singing as though she were in some sort of opera.  She stood on top of a massive crashing wave, stretching from the top to the bottom of the painting, a tsunami of epic proportions beneath a carpet of stars.

It rushed towards a city full of people, but none of them were running, or hiding.  They were smiling, standing in front of the oncoming wave, tears running down their faces.

The painting had no description, and no title.  Kashaf Ram has a twisted sense of style.  But she needed something more insightful than that.

Is it depicting a fictional scenario?  Some theory as to what happened in the past?  What is the wave supposed to represent, when – 

“It’s all whaleshit, you know.”  A girl’s voice echoed from behind her.

More interruptions.  Rowyna turned behind her again.  A girl with a vaguely eastern look strode towards her, hands in her suit pockets.

“Excuse me?” Rowyna said.

The girl patted down her tangled black hair.  “It’s all a scam.  The galleries pick a bunch of random fucks to designate as ‘artists’, inflate the prices, then sell it off to oligarchs to fill their pockets.”

Rowyna smirked.  “I think the Epistocrats here are a little smarter than that.”

“They’re in on it!” the girl said.  “They can use it to hide their money.  Write off taxes or avoid them entirely.  At best it’s a bunch of nonsense so they can prove they’re richer than all the other squidfuckers.  All the dinner and flowers and prestige is just to make it look dignified.”

Rowyna folded her arms.  “So you don’t think it has anything to do with beauty?  Or talent?”

“This – “  The girl gestured at the caterers, the view of the city, the walls filled with art and the live band playing soft classical music.  “Is just rich assholes justifying their power.  Half of high culture is rich assholes justifying their power.”

“Not everyone is just out for themselves, you know.”  Rowyna raised her voice.

“Not everyone.”  The girl nodded.  “Just these people.”

Rowyna’s face grew warm.  The girl would dismiss the great plays and symphonies of history, the novels that had shaped the world, the sculptors who shaped the very ground they walked upon.  Such rudeness.

“Just who are you, exactly?” said Rowyna.  I don’t want to have to talk to this bitch ever again.

The girl handed her a dark blue and purple business card.

Grace Acworth
Second-Year | Paragon Academy
31 – 1621 – 8273

“I’m your new squadmate,” Grace said, extending her hand.

Oh scholars, please no.  Rowyna raised an eyebrow.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you around classes before.”

Grace shrugged.  “I was a Grey Coat the last two semesters.”  She pointed at Rowyna.  “You’re passionate.  I like that.  For all the wonders we get to uncover here, not many people seem thrilled about them.”  She snapped her fingers, creating a puff of smoke.

“What are you doing?” hissed Rowyna.  “There are Humdrum caterers here.”

“Sorry,” said Grace, waving the smoke away.  “What I’m trying to say is: it’s nice to meet you.  You seem better than most of this lot.”

“It’s been a long, hard climb to get to this level,” said Rowyna.  “But we all deserve it.”  Disagreeing with Grace and complimenting her at the same time.

“How did you get here?” said Grace.  “If you don’t mind me asking.”

Rowyna mulled over the question.

________________________________________

How am I still here?  Kurayo wondered.

It just didn’t seem fair.  Jonathan Hosmer down the street got to attend the college of his dreams, all because his great-uncle had made a fortune off some soda company.  Meanwhile, Kurayo was stuck in this mediocre seaside leech of a town, that would suck the life out of her until she became as boring as the baker.

All because she hadn’t checked the mail.  Because her mother had gotten to it first.

Kurayo’s mother shook the packet in her face.  “You applied to Elmidde University?”

If Kurayo had gotten to the front door first, before her mother went through the mail, she could have kept this hidden.  But she hadn’t expected the letter to arrive this fast.  Now, she – 

“Look at me when I talk to you!” her mother shouted.  “Show your parents that much respect, at least.”

“You promised us,” her father said, his voice measured.  “That you wouldn’t apply.”

“You locked me in my room,” Kurayo said.  Keep your voice calm.  “You wouldn’t let me out until I agreed.”

“You manipulated us,” her mother said, pouring hot tea into a cup.  “How could we have raised such a deceitful child?”

“You said I was a moron yesterday,” said Kurayo.  “Which is it?  Am I a deceitful genius, or a moron?”

In response, her mother took Kurayo’s bowl off the table and scraped the rice and salmon into the trash.  The metal spoon screeched on the porcelain, making Kurayo wince.  Other kids at her school got eggs and bacon.  She had to settle for fish, the kind that made students wrinkle their noses at her lunch.

“You’re just proving my point,” her mother said.  “Scholars, I love you, but you can be both short-sighted and cunning.”  She filled the teapot up with boiling water.  “Now, do you think you deserve to sleep in the house we bought?  On the bed your father built with his blood and sweat?”

Kurayo stared at her empty bowl.  Stay calm.  When she cried, they called her hysterical.  So she drained the emotions out of her face, turning it into a stone mask.

“I think everyone deserves a bed to sleep in,” said Kurayo.  “And the chance to build their own life in the world.”

But her calm tone and rational arguments were futile.  She was standing up to them, and that was enough to damn her.

“Come on,” her father said, placing a hand on her chair.  “Let’s go.”

Kurayo could resist, but they had other ways to punish her, and she had no legal recourse.  Her parents never hit her, so nobody in town gave a shit.  Never mind that she’d gotten sick when they starved her, caught cold when they made her sleep outside.  Unless she came to them covered in bruises, the police would just laugh at her and her quirky foreign parents.

So she went with them, walking through the front door and out onto the lawn.

The worst part was, she didn’t even deserve it.  Kurayo was a good kid.  She got exceptional grades, stayed out of trouble, hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol like other teenagers.  She had even joined her school’s science club to study physics and chemistry in her spare time.

They should have been proud of her.  But they loathed her.  And she had no idea why.

“In a few decades,” her mother said.  “You’re going to grow old, and your skin is going to sag, and your naive dreams are going to fade away.  Then, you’ll stop thinking of yourself as the next Great Scholar.  Then, you’ll understand how this world works.”

Still holding the teapot in one hand, her mother ripped open the packet, reading the content inside.  A smile spread across her face.

“Looks like this conversation is moot,” she said.  “You’re not going to Elmidde University either way.”

No.  That couldn’t be right.  Admissions were competitive, but Kurayo had gone above and beyond with her application.

Her mother held the letter in her face.  A rejection.  Clear and inarguable.  Elmidde University had rejected her.  No, no, no.

“You’re mediocre,” Kurayo said, the words spilling out of her mouth.

“Excuse me?” 

I should stop talking.  “You’re miserable and mediocre, and you never made money in the Principality because you’re not talented enough.  And Dad wanted to be a painter in the Floating City.  He married you and immigrated here because he failed at his dreams too.”  She clenched her fists.  “I won’t let you drag me down with you.”

Her mother said nothing, her face twitching.

Then she threw the teapot at Kurayo.

Time seemed to slow.  “No!”  Kurayo reached forward, holding her hands in front of her face as she snapped her eyes shut.

Unbidden, all the physics of motion she’d studied ran through her head, all the chemistry.  She reached.

The teapot never hit her.  And there was no sound of shattering porcelain, no splash of hot liquid on the concrete.

When Kurayo opened her eyes, the teapot was hovering in midair.  The tea splashing out of it was frozen in time, too.

Her parents gaped at it, whether in awe or horror, she wasn’t sure.  She stared with them, feeling dizzy.

Then she blinked, and the teapot fell to the ground, shattering on the stone pathway through their lawn.  The tea splattered on the grass.

Her parents looked at her with a new disgust.  Whatever Kurayo had just done, it was more frightening and immoral than the rest of her transgressions put together.

Wordless, her mother stalked towards her, clenching both fists.

And then, two steps away from Kurayo, she stopped.  Her angry expression melted, into a blank, vacant stare.  She blinked, and beamed at her daughter.

“Come inside, dear,” she said.  “We’re just about to have breakfast.”

“Yes, dear,” her father said, with the same smile.  “It’s grilled salmon with rice, just the way you like it.”

They strode back to the door, beckoning her in.  What’s going on?  Her parents never acted like this.

Normally, after something like this, Kurayo would run away, to hide in the local library or at the back of some cafe.  But despite everything, her instincts were telling her there was no danger here.

So she followed her parents back in.

When she came inside, an elderly man was sitting at the table.

She blinked.  No, not an elderly man.  A middle-aged man with a long black beard and a patient smile.  He just seemed old in his bearing, wearing what was either a monk’s clothes, or a bathrobe.

“Who are you?” said Kurayo.  She’d never seen this man before.

The stranger tipped his hat to her.  “In a moment.  But first, if you please, I would love to take part in this scrumptious feast.”

Her parents smiled when they saw him, as if he was an old friend.  “Tea?” her mother said.  “How do you like your fish?”

“Black and crispy.”  The man tucked his napkin into his collar.  “But anything would be lovely, Mrs. Norrys.”

“And you, Kurayo dear?”

Kurayo blinked.  Her mother never called her ‘dear’, and never used a tone that sweet.  “Um.  The same, I guess.”

A few minutes later, her mother placed a hot bowl of food in front of her, like she hadn’t just thrown one away in a fit of rage.

“Eat,” said the stranger through a mouthful of rice.  “Thish ish amazing.”

Kurayo nibbled a piece of fish, keeping her eye on the man.

“They never would have let you go, child,” said the man.

“What?”

“No matter what you said to them, no matter what you did to please them, they would have kept you locked up here for the rest of your life.”

Kurayo’s mother poured her a fresh cup of tea, still beaming.

“How do you know all that?”

“Your parents are afraid of your gifts.”  The man took a sip of tea.  “Your intellect and hunger that outstripped theirs many years ago.  They are furious at the thought that their child might surpass them, might live a life that eclipses their strangest dreams.”  He handed his empty bowl to her father, murmuring thanks.  “They have been through pain, but they are unkind.  Even for Humdrums.”

Humdrums?  “Is this about what I did to the teapot?”

The man nodded.

“Who are you?” she asked again.

“I’m the reason you didn’t get into Elmidde University,” he said.  “You’re an exemplary student.  You were near the top of their list, but I made them reject you.”

The anger bubbled up in Kurayo again, and her throat clenched.  “Why?” she said.

“It was ill-suited,” he said.  “For your talent.”

“It’s the best school in the country,” she said, through gritted teeth.

The man chuckled at that, a warm, light sound that made Kurayo feel at ease.

“What’s so funny?”

The man leaned forward.  “My name is Nicholas Tau,” he said.  “Headmaster of Paragon Academy.  How would you like to find a real home?”

________________________________________

“There are four schools of projection,” said Headmaster Tau, floating cross-legged above the water.  “Physical projection is concrete and external.  It modifies the physical world around you.”  A green orb of light appeared in his palm.  “The nation of Neke excels at this school.  To balance it, you must learn humility.”

I don’t want to talk about Neke.  Kurayo had left all that behind.

“Like when I stopped the teapot,” she said, sitting on a boat next to him.

He nodded.  “Joining projection is concrete and internal.  It modifies the physical world inside you – your body.”  He held a rock in his other hand and squeezed, crushing it into pebbles.  The orb of light turned red.  “The Shenti are known for this school.  To balance it, you must practice discipline.”

Kurayo nodded, clenching her fist and staring at her light brown skin.  Not sure if that’s the school for me.

Praxis projection is mental and internal.  It modifies your own Pith – your mind.”  The orb turned purple.  “Our colony Ilaqua, and its religion, the Harmonious Flock, are most adept at this school.  To balance it, you must have empathy.”

That leaves out my parents, then.

“Whisper projection is mental and external.  It modifies the Piths of others.  The Principality was best known for this, but in recent decades, we’ve improved in the other schools as well.”  The orb turned blue.  “Your Pith was blue, which means you’re a Whisper Specialist, with a Whisper Vocation, even if you don’t know it yet.  To balance it, you must practice ambition.”

“Why?” said Kurayo.  “What does ambition have to do with mind control?”

“Whisper Specialists often feel incomplete,” said Tau.  “They escape into their dreams, or the minds of others, minimizing their own identity in the process.  This often helps power their Vocations.  To balance this, you need to have a strong sense of individuality, and a goal to hold it together.  Without those, you risk losing yourself.”

Kurayo closed her eyes.  Individuality.  A goal.  Simple enough, right?

“That’s what Paragon is all about, isn’t it?  Forge the Stars in Your Image.

“Yes,” he said.  “Not everyone can forge the stars in their image, reach the highest levels of the library.  But the ones who can?”  He smiled.  “They can create beauty beyond our strangest imagination.”

Kurayo would train for at least another year, before attempting her first great challenge.  It would be strenuous, far more difficult than anything at Elmidde University.  But through it all, she would make sure to hold onto those words.

________________________________________

It was the crack of dawn.  Kurayo was to enter the most important challenge of her life.  A battle with no holds barred, a final exam to determine her future against an opponent stronger than any she’d faced before.

And her enemy was an hour late.

Kurayo paced back and forth on the dewy lawn, making the occasional glance up towards the wooden platform where the ceremony was to take place.  Her enemy’s Epistocrat parents sat off to the side, next to Headmaster Tau, the only witnesses attending.

Tau made eye contact with her, and they smiled at each other.  His training over the last two years had been patient, but thorough.  Still, she was shaking from the anticipation.  Or was that the cold?

Kurayo had no choice – it was this, or let herself be crushed under student debt at Paragon, with far weaker opportunities for advancement.  But still, she felt guilty, at ripping someone out of their life like this.

The feeling wouldn’t last long.

Rowyna Branigen, Kurayo’s opponent, emerged from the fog, wearing a Maxine Clive, an expensive designer chassis.  Her blonde hair was a tousled mess, and her eyes twitched back and forth, bloodshot, a telltale sign of recent nudge powder use.  She’s high for her own Ousting.

“Apologies,” Rowyna said, floating herself onto the platform.  “My assistant forgot to wake me up.  When this is over, I’ll go shopping for one of the five servants in this city who isn’t a book-burning idiot.”

Kurayo climbed on top of the stage, and Rowyna strode towards her, muttering in her ear.  Does anyone care how illegal this is?  “Eighty thousand pounds,” she whispered.

Kurayo said nothing.

“I hired someone to do some digging, Kurayo Shrivatsa, and I know that’s more money than you’ve seen in your life.  All you have to do is…”

Throw the match.

“You’ve only been training for a few years.  You’re not even from here.  I’ve been training my whole life.  My parents have tried Ousting me several times before, on all sorts of whaleshit charges.  I showed up to them even more groggy and shitfaced than I am now, facing girls with more experience than you, with more anger on their faces.”  She leaned close and whispered in Kurayo’s ear.  “I beat all of them.  I’m not going to lose to some island rat.”

Kurayo had beaten Rowyna on the written tests, but only barely.  And according to Tau, the other candidates had gotten this far too.

“Even if you did win,” said Rowyna, still quiet.  “You don’t want my name.  To you, this world is still brimming with magic and wonder.”  She shook her head.  “This world is empty.  You might have been the most clever rat in some Nekean backwater, but here, there are thousands smarter than you.  More special than you, with a grander destiny.  When you realize that, deep down, you’ll get how this world works.”

Then, Kurayo understood her enemy.

Rowyna was mediocre.  Like Kurayo’s parents, she aspired to nothing, stewed in envy, and resented those who reached higher than rock bottom.  She wanted to prove that the whole world was as miserable and uninspired as she was.

That’s why, despite Rowyna’s obvious talent and intellect, she’d done nothing with her life.  Had failed enough to get herself in this position.  As long as she could feel superior to someone, she’d be satisfied.

This family, this country deserved better than her.  That Maxine Clive body deserved to be worn by someone who would treat it right, not rot it with alcoholism.

No one would ever follow Kurayo Shrivatsa into battle.  A name like that was doomed to mediocrity.  But they would follow Rowyna Branigen.  They will follow me.

Rowyna’s mother gave the standard ceremonial speech, and the explanation of the rules.  “ – the first to touch the ground beneath the platform will be considered the loser.  May you strive to become an Exemplar.  First combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

“Yes,” said Rowyna.

“Second combatant, are you aware of the rules and able to commence?”

Kurayo said her first and only words to her opponent.  “Do you want to know who trained me?”

Rowyna snickered.

Kurayo pointed to Headmaster Tau in the stands.

The confidence drained out of Rowyna’s face.

“I’m ready,” said Kurayo.

“Begin!”

Kurayo reached out with her Pith.  The dozens of cages behind her swung open, and a wall of birds expanded behind her.  Falcons, eagles, delirium hawks.  Enough to blot out the rising sun behind her, cloaking her in shadow.

A look of fear passed across Rowyna’s face.  Then the girl snarled, green lightning crackling around her fists.  “Come on!” she shouted, in a burst of desperate bravado.  “Show me what you’ve got!”

Kurayo showed her.

________________________________________

Rowyna’s men were losing.

Gunshots and mortars rang out in the snow-covered hamlet far down the coast, tiny flashes of light in the darkness.  It was hard to see details at this distance, but the Shenti’s tanks were pushing the Principality’s soldiers back, shattering their assault.

And Rowyna couldn’t do a thing about it.

There were many thousands of Humdrum witnesses here on both sides – far too many to memory wipe.  And no enemy projectors had been reported, so Revenant Squad couldn’t step in, thanks to the Treaty of Silence.  They had to sit back and wait for the enemy’s Joiners, who might never show up.

What a strange dance this is.  Fighting a secret war beneath the ordinary one, with its own set of strict rules.

Still, her body appreciated the break.  Her squad had been fighting Shenti projectors for the past week, soaring on wingsuits between ships and over moonlit waters.  They hadn’t encountered any commandos, thank the scholars, but even the weaker Joiners were threatening.  They never seemed to tire, and a single punch could snap your spine.

Every muscle in Rowyna’s body ached.  Everything felt heavy, sluggish, like she was moving through a five-ton river of mud.  Even her breaths felt heavy, and when she lost focus, her eyes fluttered shut and she had to snap them open again.

If Revenant did come across Shenti commandos, Rowyna didn’t like their odds.  They’d only graduated from Paragon a few years ago, and gold-ranked Joiners were still giving them trouble.

“You’re brooding,” Florence said.  The woman strode towards her cot, playing with her blonde hair between her fingers.  Waves crashed against the cliff beneath them.  “Overthinking.  Am I wrong?”

“Hey, Florence.”

“Can I join you?  It’s been a week since I showered, but I promise I don’t smell that bad.”

Rowyna nodded, and Florence slipped under the thick blanket with her.  After hours of shivering in the cold, the warmth was pure bliss.

“Remember back in Paragon?” said Florence.  “During winter break, when I showed you how to make a snow falcon.”

“Is that what this is?” said Rowyna.  “Trying to get me to ease up?  We’re fighting a war, you know.”

“All I’m saying is, the last time you did that, it led to your first kiss.”  Florence rubbed her hands over Rowyna’s, warming them up.    “So maybe you should try it again.”

Rowyna pointed down the coast, towards the village of Binan Suo.  “Our Humdrum soldiers are dying over there.  Isaac is panicking at the edge of camp.  Grace is fuming that we can’t do anything to help them.  Any moment, we could be called into battle.  I can’t relax now.  But I’m too tired to think.”  She sagged down further.

Something moved beneath the surface of the water, a distant light getting brighter and closer by the second.

Rowyna’s breath caught in her throat.  “Is that – “

“It’s not the Shenti,” Florence said.  “We’re alright.”

The light grew, flickering blue, green, purple, red.  The sea exploded into a rainbow of colors, and Rowyna finally understood.

Lantern whales.  A whole colony of them, skin shining bright, swimming past the coastline, bathing the frozen cliffside with a warm glow.  They didn’t usually come this close to large landmasses, and Rowyna had never seen them before.  Just one of them was longer than their entire camp.

Seeing twenty of them, Rowyna forgot to breathe.

Isaac strode to the edge of the cliff next to the cot, gazing out at them.  Then Grace, wiping the angry tears from her cheeks.

They might all die tomorrow in this frozen wasteland.  They might lose the war, watch their country torn to pieces.

But for a moment, Revenant Squad stood together, and watched nature light up the darkness.

Florence wrapped her arms around Rowyna, and Rowyna pulled her closer.  There were no more words that needed to pass between them.

Rowyna let herself relax.

It was enough, for now.  It was enough.

________________________________________

Rowyna screamed.

She’s gone she’s gone she’s gone she’s gone she’s gone.  Both of them were gone.  Florence and Grace.  The Shenti Commandos had taken them in the blizzard, after breaking Isaac’s spine and massacring most of their unit.  Eastern dogs.

Rowyna had kept her cool throughout the escape from the pass.  As they slipped past Shenti battle lines and clambered over icy cliff faces, she’d stayed calm and rational for the sake of the mission.  For the sake of Isaac, who was still in critical condition, and the handful of Humdrum soldiers who had survived the commandos’ nighttime assault.

But now, they’d made it back to camp.  Isaac got his replacement body, and the handful of surviving Humdrums were memory wiped.  They were safe.

And Rowyna was free to break down.

She knelt on the cold stone ground, eyes welling up with tears, hands shaking.  Isaac, in his new body, put a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off.  “Don’t touch me.”

“Step back, please,” said Tybalt Keswick, a new professor, looking at the other Guardians around them.  “Give her space.”

Rowyna projected into the ground, and ripped.  She punched the stone, and cracks spiderwebbed out beneath her fist.  She reached to the side, projected into the frozen pond next to their camp, and shattered it, turning the ice into fine dust.

Then, she projected into a trio of trees in the distance and slashed her hand through the air.  The trees burst into flame.

The other Guardians backed up.

Except for Headmaster Tau.  He knelt beside her, his robes brushing the ground.  “There are no words,” he said, his voice soft.  “But there are others here who have known what you did.  They are all here for you.  As am I.”

Professor Keswick nodded, along with Sebastian Oakes and a handful of the other Guardians.  It’s been a brutal war.

“What do you know of loss?” she spat at him.

“More than you could imagine,” he said.

Rowyna inhaled and exhaled, catching her breath.  She closed her eyes.  “Do we know they’re dead?”

“We don’t,” said Professor Keswick, folding his arms.  “They were undoubtedly taken for interrogation, but as per protocol, they’ll have erased their relevant memories.  Past that, we’re not sure.”

He’s not saying the obvious.  If Grace and Florence were no longer useful, the eastern dogs would execute them.

“Why, for fuck’s sake, did they have to be so stupid?” she said.  “There were other solutions, other strategies.  They didn’t need to throw their lives away.  We could have immobilized them and hit them with our Voidsteel bullets, we could have split them up and fought them four on one.”  There were so many options.

“It’s not always that simple,” said Headmaster Tau.

“They chose to sacrifice themselves,” said Professor Keswick.  “So that you and Captain Brin could keep fighting.  Grace served as my Grey Coat back in Paragon, and I know she wouldn’t settle for anything less.”  He stared at her.  “Mourn however you need, but honor that.”

Rowyna exhaled, a slow, agonizing sigh.  She projected into the icy water of the lake, washing it over the burning trees as she wiped away her tears.

Then she nodded.

________________________________________

The battle was over.  The last enemy ship had been bombed into a burning hunk of metal, one of almost a dozen nearby in the Chamakna Ocean.

And Rowyna was still losing the war.

Her forces had been outnumbered more than two to one, with far superior equipment on the enemy’s side.  This was the fourth bout she’d won this month against impossible odds, and she’d only lost two small ships in the process.

But the Shenti kept coming, week after week, with more battleships, more bombers, more carriers.  And they kept gaining ground.  At this rate, the nation, the people, and the light wouldn’t be around in a couple of years.

Even now, after a victory, Rowyna had to abandon Shizukesa, a tropical island with an airfield that was close enough for the eastern dogs to launch long-range bombers at Jaye Aman, the capital of Ilaqua.  The strategic value was obvious, but she no longer had the manpower to hold it.

In the end, it wasn’t grand strategy that mattered, but simple economics.  The nation with the more efficient industry would win.  And in that aspect, the Principality wasn’t even close to the Shenti, thanks to the Black Tortoise.

For all of Rowyna’s creative tactics, she didn’t matter much more than a Humdrum grunt.

But the sailors were all cheering around her, thumping their boots on the ship’s metal deck, chanting the nickname she’d recently picked up.

Ty-phoon!” they shouted.  “Ty-phoon!  Ty-phoon!”  The Typhoon of the South.  Since she’d been operating in the southern seas around Ilaqua, and because of her unique strategy two weeks ago.

The rising sun bathed Rowyna in warm orange light, and she let the cheering wash over her.  They were losing, but it felt nice, for now.

“Attend to the damage!” Rowyna shouted.  “Make sure nothing got broken after that last strafing run.  Then report back here for ice cream.  Captain’s orders.”

At the phrase ‘ice cream’, the sailors doubled their cheering.  “Ty-phoon!  Ty-phoon!  Ty-phoon!”  They’d been eating stale bread and powdered eggs for the past five months.

It had been an exhausting few weeks, and the troops needed a morale boost.  They’d saved the ice cream for this sort of occasion.

Rowyna would let them have this.

The soldiers dispersed, and Rowyna was free to trudge back to her cabin.  The moment she got the door shut, she slid off her tight bra and unclipped her military bun, flopping over on her cramped desk.

She fed a piece of paper through her typewriter, beginning her report.  Who do I even write it to?  Vice Admiral Marsham had drowned a week ago when her ship was torpedoed.  And Rear Admiral Baret, her replacement, was in the medical bay, pissing herself and shivering, dying of whale’s fever.

Rowyna outranked most of the Humdrums, but still had little experience as a naval commander – she’d only just got command of the destroyer squadron five weeks ago.

And now, it looked like she was going to be in charge of an entire carrier group.  It was all so much, so fast.

Someone knocked on the door.  “Come in!”

It swung open, and the sounds of laughing men drifted in, mixed in with happy shouting and the occasional cheer.

Her assistant leaned in, extending a metal bowl of ice cream towards her.  “Vanilla?  We ran out of all the other flavors.”

Rowyna took it.  “Thanks.”

“The guys are really happy about your performance in the last battle.  Feel like joining us?”

Rowyna shook her head.  “Work.  Always work.”  Her assistant nodded, and swung the door shut.

Kerst.  Vice Admiral Kerst, of the CNS Edwina.  He was her immediate superior, and the person she would send the report to.  The man was a Humdrum, but she hadn’t encountered any projectors in the last few weeks, so who cared?

After she finished the report, Rowyna rubbed her eyes, resting her face on her arm.

This isn’t what she wanted to do.  She’d wanted to lead a mission behind the Shenti lines with Isaac and other Guardians, to see if Grace and Florence were still alive.  And if they were, then rescue them.

But Headmaster Tau had recommended her for this position.  And a part of her knew, deep down, that such a mission would be pointless.  The Principality executed enemy projectors that were Platinum-ranked and above – imprisoning them was just too dangerous.  And the eastern dogs were far less civilized.

And it had been two years.

It was funny.  Rowyna had dreamt of being an admiral for so long.  And now, on the verge of fulfilling her dream, it barely felt like an afterthought.  The world is ending, we’re losing a war against monsters, and half the people I care about are dead.  In the face of that, everything else seemed trivial.

She glanced at the pile of letters to the side and flipped through it.  The mail had arrived weeks ago, but she hadn’t had the time to look through until now.

One message caught her eye.  A marriage offer from another Epistocrat.

When she read the name on it, she blinked, and had to check it again.  Lord Felix Ebbridge.  Heir to The Elmidde Chronicle, the largest, most prestigious newspaper in the country.  She’d seen him at a couple of parties, and he’d seemed funny and easygoing.

She wasn’t attracted to him, of course, but this was an incredible offer, from a family far more renowned than the Branigens.  Love had nothing to do with it.  His family was simply recognizing her accomplishments, and opening a door to untold opportunities.

Florence’s face went through Rowyna’s head, and she felt a twinge of guilt.  Are you going to hold yourself back because of a memory?  Marriage was a vital part of Epistocrat life.  Without the war, Rowyna would have married ages ago.

If she survived, this would be the most important decision she made.

There was glamour in being a rebel, in defying the system.  But realistically, if Rowyna wanted to forge the stars in her image, she had to accept this offer.

Florence would have understood.

She squeezed her eyes shut, clenching her fists.  It shouldn’t have to be like this.  This world could be so cruel.

Another knock at the door.  “Come in.”

Her assistant peeked in again.  “Headmaster Tau on the phone for you in the comms room, ma’am.”

Letting me know about my promotion to Vice Admiral, no doubt.  That she was about to be put in charge of an entire carrier group.

Rowyna glanced down at her ice cream bowl.  In her haste, she’d forgotten to eat it.  In the heat, half of it had already melted into soup.

“Of course,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

As she left the cabin, she glanced back at the letter from Felix Ebbridge.

She would think about it.

________________________________________

When Florence and Grace returned to the Principality, they had a reunion like no other.

There was crying and hugging and food.  Their friends were breathing, healthy, and not compromised.  Against all odds, they had escaped from the Shenti.

Rowyna brought blankets, flowers, and balloons to meet the two of them at the port.  The members of Revenant Squad embraced each other and went to a Midtown soda fountain to celebrate their shore leave.

Then, Rowyna broke up with Florence.

Florence just smiled at her, resting her wrist stumps on her lap and nodding.  “I understand,” she murmured, staring at her strawberry float.  “I understand.”

“And I can’t do anything secret with you,” said Rowyna.  “No forbidden romance.  No midnight trysts.”

“I understand.”

“Because there’s no guarantee that we could hide it.  And if it ever got out, it’d hurt us both.  And you deserve a real relationship.”

“I understand.”  Florence kept smiling at her, behind her huge glasses with deep brown eyes.  In her new body that the hypocritical Shenti had forced her into.  Scholars, she’s still beautiful.  It wasn’t fair.  “I’ll find another great love.  I’ll be fine.  And we can still be friends.”

Rowyna steeled herself, suppressing all of her emotional reactions.  Florence’s new body was less conventionally attractive than most of the chassis at Paragon.  Shorter, mousy, less symmetric, duller lips, skin with moles and imperfections.  And, of course, she’d lost both hands.

But still, Rowyna kept feeling twinges when she glanced at her.

And the guilt.  The guilt felt like a black hole opening up inside her stomach, swallowing her organs one by one.

“I’ll be fine,” said Florence, taking a sip from a straw.

Grace slammed her empty glass on the counter.  “She won’t be fine.”  She pointed at Florence.  “Look at her face.

She’s right.  The frequent blinking, the tense upper lip, the glances at the floor.  Florence had never been good at hiding her pain.

“We survive hell,” said Grace through clenched teeth.  “She loses both her hands.  And the first thing you tell her is that you’re leaving her?  For some boring lord with a newspaper?”  She jabbed a finger in Rowyna’s face.  “We went through things we will never talk about, but I’ll say this much: You were the thing that got Florence through the camp.”

“It’s my choice,” said Rowyna, her voice quiet.  “This is for my career.  For the rest of my life.”  Being with Florence wouldn’t destroy her career, but it would damage it.

“Is climbing the ladder all you care about?” said Grace.  “Is there a line you wouldn’t cross if it meant you could achieve success?”

Florence forced her eyes shut.  “Please,” she half-whispered.  “Let’s not fight.  We’re friends.”  She looked at Rowyna.  “Grace has been through a lot.”

And that’s no excuse for being an ass.  “I wanted to be up front,” said Rowyna.  “Address the major issue right away.”  She sipped her chocolate float.  “Florence has every right to be mad at me, but I’d rather it be now than later.”

Isaac piped up.  “I’m just happy that you’re both alive, and that the Shenti didn’t hijack you.”

Florence slouched over further, her face practically buried in her ice cream float.

“I’m sorry, Florence,” Rowyna said.  “For what you went through.  And for – for this.”

“I know,” said Florence.

Grace turned her gaze on Rowyna.

“It’s the hardest choice I’ve made in my entire life,” Rowyna said.  “But I have to follow my ideals.  I have to make something beautiful in this world.  And – “

Something slammed into the side of her face, and she fell off the stool, her head spinning.  Rowyna slammed on the ground, and spun around to face her attacker.

Grace stood over her, fists clenched.  The knuckles on her right hand were red.

She punched me.  Then: She punched me?

The side of Rowyna’s head ached.  That’s going to leave a bruise.  She pushed herself back to a standing position, and stared back at Grace.

The two made eye contact.  No one spoke.  After a few seconds, Grace turned and stalked out of the soda fountain.  The door swung shut behind her.

The headache was bad, but not nearly as painful as the memories running through Rowyna’s head.  The feeling of Florence’s body, intertwined with her’s, as they stared out at a colony of lantern whales.  Their first kiss in the fresh snow at Paragon.

“It was difficult for her,” said Florence.  “Very difficult.  She’ll be better next time.”

Rowyna paid for her drink.  “I need to make a phone call.”

________________________________________

“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice,” said Rowyna.  “I know your schedule is full, but I’m shipping back out tomorrow.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Lyna Wethers, known in the field as ‘Honeypot’.  “I always make time for other Guardians.”

Rowyna stared out the window of the lecture hall, casting her gaze over the city of Humdrums below.  A layer of light projection kept Paragon Academy and the cable car hidden from the outside, making the view blurry.

She almost envied the Humdrums.  They walked those streets in ignorance, free of impossible expectations.  They could live a simple life without the weight of the world on their shoulders.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” said Wethers.

It was all legal, of course.  There had been forms to sign, interviews to complete.  Counterintelligence was monitoring this conversation, all to ensure the transaction was voluntary, not mental hijacking.

But Rowyna did not make this decision lightly.  After spending more time with Tuft, her feelings for the woman hadn’t diminished at all.  Even after a stint in a prison, Florence still had the same energy, the same curiosity and eagerness.

She would be spending more time with Revenant Squad, and marriage alliances were fragile.  If she was caught with Florence, her betrothal to Lord Ebbridge could be shattered.  That family had connections all over the military.  They would know.

And after she’d accepted their offer already, trashing the alliance would make them attack her reputation, spread rumors amongst the other Epistocrats.  The Ebbridges would demolish her chances of another marriage alliance.  She would go from the Typhoon of the South to the laughingstock of Hightown.

Below, in Paragon’s pavilion, students sat on the grass, their heads buried in books and pages of notes.  All studying.  All working their hardest to move forward for their country, to achieve greater heights.

Everything she’d sacrificed.  All the pain she’d put herself through.

It couldn’t be for nothing.

Forge the stars in your image.  Strive to become an exemplar.

Rowyna had to be here.  She didn’t really have a choice.  Her first name, her parents, her Nekean roots.  Those were all just things holding her back.  This was no different.

After this, she would have genuine love for her husband-to-be, and be free of her uncomfortable feelings for her squadmate.  She could go on with her life, and fight beside Florence without complications.  Unlike others who used Wethers’ services, she would keep all her memories, so she maintained perspective.

This was the responsible choice, the rational one.  Even if it made her feel like a monster.

Rowyna projected into the window and cracked it open, letting in a cool summer breeze.  She exhaled.

“Ms. Wethers,” said Rowyna.  “I have a question for you.”

Honeypot leaned back in her chair, putting her feet on a desk.  “Shoot.”

“Piths are not singular entities,” said Rowyna.  “They’re made of soul particles that form clusters.  And those clusters combine and flow into each other.”

“Of course,” said Wethers.  “That’s basic pneumatology.  Everyone knows that, why are you telling me this?”

Rowyna breathed in the fresh air.  “Old people, truly old people, as they age and build up null particles, begin to lose clusters.  They’ll get aggressive, forget their loved ones, become apathetic or compulsive or cruel.  People who know them often say they’re not themselves anymore.”

“Yes,” said Lyna.  “What’s your question?”

“If an important part of you dies, one of the most important parts – “  She exhaled.  “Does that mean you die?”

Lyna Wethers laughed, tilting her chair back.  “People say the strangest things.”

“What?”

She slid out of her seat, walking towards Rowyna.  “You’re just a bunch of glowing bits stitched together in a skull.  The you, that’s just an illusion, a story we tell ourselves because it’s more convenient.”  She tapped Rowyna’s forehead, and Rowyna flinched.  “You can’t die, because you were never alive.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

“Your mind is whatever you make of it.”  Wethers shrugged.  “That’s either a blessing or a curse, but it’s true either way.”

Rowyna shut the window.

“Do it,” she said.  

Wethers raised her hand.  Rowyna looked off to the side, as if she were getting a shot and afraid of needles.

Out of the corner of her eye, Rowyna could see the blue lightning.  Flickering, growing, and finally, engulfing her vision.

________________________________________

Killing Humdrums was easy.

There were a total of twelve in the mobster’s safehouse, six armed with Voidsteel bullets.  And one projector with them – a Joining Specialist.  But it didn’t matter.

In unison, Florence, Isaac, and Rowyna flew through the pouring rain and crashed through the windows of the second floor.  Florence’s projection kept it silent, and their armor protected them from the glass.

Florence grabbed one Humdrum, using her air projection to immobilize him.  Their guide, to get to Tunnel Vision through the sewers.

The rest were expendable.

A Voidsteel dart shot through the Joiner’s forehead, exploding it.  Isaac.

Then, three dozen swiftlets, one of the smallest, most agile birds in the Principality, dove past Rowyna to the stairwell and nearby rooms, with a package tied to each of their legs.

Rowyna’s Whisper Vocation programmed the birds to search the rooms, scanning for humanoid shapes and unrecognized faces.  They would blow holes in doors and fly in, darting to avoid gunfire.

When they found a target, they would dive for its face at seventy miles per hour, then squeeze its talons twice in quick succession.  The tiny shaped charge attached to its leg would detonate right on the enemy’s forehead, destroying the brain.

Rowyna’s birds could pick out a target in a crowd through a layer of fog.  To them, this was as easy as breathing.

All Rowyna could hear were a series of faint pops, one after another.  It only took a few seconds for her scouting birds to return to her, broadcasting images of the dead targets.

Next step.  Rowyna stretched her Pith forward, Nudging the one breathing target.  He’s immune.

Isaac leaned down and muttered something in the man’s ear.  A threat.  The man’s eyes widened, and he nodded.  Mobsters, not Green Hands.  These people weren’t eager to die for the cause.

The man stood up and led them down the stairs to the basement.  Inside a closet, he brushed off a layer of dust to reveal a hidden trapdoor, then yanked it up.  He explained the layout of the tunnels – what he knew, at least, then Isaac placed a hand on his forehead, knocking him out with Basic Sleep.  An associate of theirs would come to arrest him later.

One by one, they dropped into the trapdoor, down the rusty ladder into a sewer tunnel.  It stretched into the distance, barely wide enough to fit in without hitting your head, lit only by the occasional dim lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.

They strode forward on top of the water.  Rowyna noted Florence’s thin, black armor, skin-tight in all the relevant places.

And she felt nothing.  Even after her death, Lyna Wethers’ Vocation was doing its job.

“Rowyna,” said Isaac, his voice carried by Florence’s Vocation.  “Your turn.”

Rowyna flipped open the visor on her family’s armor, wrinkling her nose at the stench of the sewer.  She blew a whistle, making noise at a frequency humans couldn’t hear.

A stream of birds exploded from the trap door.  Bee hummingbirds, all colored pitch black, small as a fly, and able to see in the dark.  Her scouts.

They dispersed into the tunnels, flying silent, keeping to the shadows.  Another cluster of birds stayed with Rowyna, a group of larger, more agile fliers with explosives.

A few minutes later, the scouts flew back, streaming information into Rowyna’s Pith.

“Five targets ahead,” she said.  “One thousand feet, left-right-left.  Pistols and a radio.  Mobsters dressed like construction workers.”

“Let’s get close,” said Isaac.  “Stay quiet.”

They approached, staying behind the bend, out of sight.  Florence extended her Vocation forward, carrying the enemy’s faint voices into their ears.

Pointless chatter, all of it, complaining about the smell and diseases down here.  Then, after a few minutes, a woman’s voice crackled on the radio.  “Pearl Vale.

“Feather Ink,” the man said in response.  A code.  Regular check-ins.

Isaac glanced at her, nodded, and gestured forward.  Execute.

Rowyna sent a signal to the birds behind her.  A dozen of them shot forward, fanning out.  Thanks to Florence’s Vocation, there was no sound from the explosions, not even a splash as their bodies dropped into the filth.  Rowyna projected into the radio so it didn’t fall into the water.

After a few seconds, they strode forward, past the five bodies with holes in their heads.  They took the radio, moving faster.

The sewer tunnels wound back and forth, going further down the slope of Mount Elwar.  There were no more guards.  The enemy didn’t want to call too much attention here.

Ten minutes later, the radio crackled.  “Pearl Vale.

Florence used her Vocation, making vibrations in the wind to copy the exact sound the guard had made.  “Feather Ink,” the wind replied.

Near the bottom of the mountain, below Lowtown, they reached a service door, blocked off and marked as an area taken out of commissions.  According to the man they’d threatened, this was where Tunnel Vision’s territory began.

The locking mechanism was Voidsteel, and the door itself was built of reinforced steel, designed to tank heavy explosives.  Inside the mechanism, Rowyna could feel wires and circuits, some of them Voidsteel as well.  If they were broken, they’d set off alarms, traps.

And Rowyna could feel the Piths of people inside, at least a dozen, maybe more.  Probably not the target, but there was always a chance.

Isaac knelt by the door, pulling off the gauntlet on his armor.  He felt the door with his bare palm like a doctor with a stethoscope, closing his eyes and nodding.

“Alright,” he said.  “Stand back.”

“Leave one alive,” said Rowyna.

They stood back.  Isaac drew seven darts from his belt, floating them at specific points around him.

He made them light, shot them forward in unison, then made them heavy.  They struck precise points in the door with a clang, disabling key systems and smashing structural weak points, blowing seven clean holes in the metal.

No alarms went off.  None that they could hear, at least.

The door swung open, and Revenant Squad dashed in.

This room was larger, well-lit, with a ceiling two stories tall and a variety of furniture inside.  Couches, chairs, tables, bookcases, even a second floor with a balcony and a staircase.

And the people.  Mobsters, men and women, young and old, from all corners of the Eight Oceans.  All carrying guns.

Florence struck first, cutting off all the sound leaving the room.  Gusts of wind blew everyone to the ground, slamming their heads against the hardwood floor.  A layer of projected air fit over their heads, holding them to the ground, blocking their noses and mouths.

Four mobsters in dark coats resisted Florence’s blast, staying on their feet.  Projectors.  One of them raised a fist, green lightning crackling around it.  A Physical Specialist.

Then their heads exploded.  Four Voidsteel darts impacted the wall behind them, making small craters.

Florence’s targets choked, unable to breathe in or out, and Rowyna’s birds shot forward, diving for their foreheads and necks.  A series of cracks rang out, with small explosions of bird feathers and gore.

And a few seconds later, it was over.  Revenant Squad stood in a room filled with corpses.  The enemies hadn’t gotten a single gunshot off.  Most of them had died before realizing what was happening.

This had been easy.  She wasn’t even out of breath.  But the real fight hadn’t started.

Rowyna’s Pith cast around the room, and her birds scanned the area, confirming that they’d killed everyone, save for the one man they’d kept alive.

Rowyna stared at the bodies, and felt a growing wave of disgust.  We risked our lives for you devils.  Guardians had fought and bled and died to keep the Principality safe from the monstrous Shenti hordes.

And now, these ungrateful wretches were repaying them with betrayal.  As cruel book-burners with Commonplace, or selfish monsters with the mob.

Which one is Grace?  Perhaps neither.  It didn’t make sense.  Grace had fought in the war with other Guardians, she understood their value.

Maybe we’ll figure it out after we kill her.

Florence released the last remaining enemy, the Humdrum woman dressed in the most expensive clothes.   The one most likely to be in charge.

Brin knelt next to her, his voice muffled by his combat armor.  “One chance.”  A single bloody dart hovered behind him.  “Where is she?”

She told him.

Two minutes later, they reached the area she was talking about, a door at the end of a dark hallway.  They would have used the air ducts, but they were too small for a person to fit in.

One of her chameleon birds shifted the color of its feathers, blending in with the background, and inched its head up to look through the window, relaying the images back into Rowyna’s Pith.

Rowyna’s breath caught in her throat.

Unlike the dark concrete tunnels of the rest of the area, this room was pure white, glaring under the light of lamps far above.  The walls were made of some foam-like material, the kind that absorbed sound.  It looked like some surreal billionaire’s office.  How can someone build a room this big without being noticed?

Desks packed the tiny space wall to wall, filled with mail clerks, people on phones, guards with shotguns.

And all of them were wearing Tunnel Vision’s body.

Every single one of them had Grace’s light brown hair, in a thin, long ponytail.  Every one of them wore some form of suit jacket and skirt.

There was no obvious person in charge, no single desk that rose above the others that everyone seemed to be reporting to.  It was organized chaos, a swarm of ants moving in a swirling pattern.

“Isaac,” Rowyna whispered, indicating her head.

Isaac peeked in, staring through the window.  He could get spotted, but his threat analysis vocation, Eyes of the Makara, might be the only thing that could pick out her target.

A few seconds passed.  If the real Tunnel Vision sees him, it’s over.  Or if someone opened this door.

“I’ve got one,” said Isaac.  “A pattern, someone who’s connected to everyone else, who people are treating like an authority figure.”

“How sure are you?” said Rowyna.

“Sixty percent, maybe.”

Shit.  “Then target them all,” said Rowyna.  “Every dart you have, sorted by how likely you think each target is.”

“Judging by their actions,” said Isaac.  “Some of them may be prisoners.”  He kept staring through the window.

“If we don’t kill her right away,” said Rowyna.  “She’ll burn us to death.”  She was too competent for them to leave alive.

“There’s a good chance it’s a trap, too,” said Isaac.  “If that’s the case, we should leave.  Now.”

“If it’s a trap,” said Rowyna.  “It’s already too late.  The only way out is through.”

“We should leave,” said Isaac.

Isaac’s not being rational.  Maybe it was a trap.  Maybe there were prisoners in that marble room.  But Isaac Brin, the Scholar of Mass, was simply afraid of killing his old friend.

Isaac turned to Florence.  “What do you think?”

The black helmet hid Florence’s expression, but Rowyna could see her shoulders tensing.  “Do it,” she said.

Isaac Brin floated almost every single dart from his belt, from the extra slots in his armor and the bag slung across his back.  A hundred, at least.  Maybe half of them were Voidsteel.  They made tiny adjustments, angling to aim at every person in the room.

“Florence,” he said.  “You remember the standard fast breach?”

A nod.

“Then on my mark.  Three.  Two.  One.  Mark.”

Even with Rowyna’s keen eyes, the attack was almost impossible to follow.

Isaac’s first four darts hit the door’s hinges and handle, and Florence made a gust of wind, blasting it to the ground.

Then something moved in a blur, a dull boom rang through the air, and a hundred heads exploded.

Eleven Tunnel Visions were left standing.  Autonomous bullet shields.  Non-Voidsteel darts.  Half a second later, their heads exploded too.

A flock of birds darted in, scanning for survivors in the room, for hidden chambers or enemies playing possum.

All headshots.  No movement.  Rowyna cast her soul out, and felt a room full of dying Piths, dispersing in the air without a vessel to hold them.  Nothing living.

The desks and white floor were coated with blood and bits of grey brain matter, with a layer of corpses draped over it.

“Did we get her?” said Florence.

“No,” hissed Isaac.  “This is too easy.  She has to be somewhere else.  Look for her.”  His eyes widened.  “No, a trap, we – “

The lights went out, turning the subterranean room pitch black.

In the split second before they could react, a wave of palefire washed over them, filling the room with white light.

Rowyna spun around.  Florence stood between her and the source of the flame, wind whipping around her, creating an invisible cocoon to keep the fire out.  She’s holding it back.  Keeping it starved of oxygen.  A storm of green lightning raged around her body, and the Scholar of Air screamed from the effort.

Rowyna’s family armor was maybe the best of its kind in the Principality.  It kept the worst of the heat out, but still, it felt like someone was pressing her face to a hot pan.

And in this burning nightmare, as the desks, the corpses, her birds turned to blackened crisps around her, as the back of her mind raced to come up with an exit plan, Rowyna thought of the night she met the Pyre Witch, at that art gallery, when she’d just earned her name.

She should have paid more attention to that moment.

Did I ever really understand Grace Acworth?  Did any of us?

Another thought: How much has she found out about us?

“Guardians!”  Rowyna shouted over the wind.  “If you ever thought yourself an exemplar, if you ever dreamt of forging stars, then do not stay your hand.”  She ripped out a chunk of the floor, using it as a shield.  “The nation, the people, the light!”

As one, Revenant Squad dove into the river of flame.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




8-B – Florence Tuft

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Florence Tuft wanted to remember this.

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

Even though she was getting her ass kicked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good game,” said Florence.

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

“Interesting?” said Rowyna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowyna held up her book, thicker than her biceps.

Naval Strategy of the Early Industrial Period, Volume 3

It looked so boring, Florence almost gagged.

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

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

Rowyna shrugged.

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

“I guess,” Rowyna sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thought this could be the scenic route.”

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

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

Florence blinked at her.  “What?”

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

“You seem testy about this.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Look down,” said Florence.

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

Rowyna’s eyes widened.  “How – “

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

Rowyna looked confused.  “What are you doing?”

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

Rowyna snorted.  “You look like an idiot.”

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

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

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

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

They stared at the crescent moons overhead.

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

“I don’t care about all of them.”

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

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

Florence kissed her.

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

Rowyna kissed her back.

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

“I think I like you too.”

________________________________________

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

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

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

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

“And Paragon?” said Grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We don’t have onions,” said Isaac.

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

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

Florence nodded.  Rowyna always knew what to say.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Scholars,” said Isaac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a Humdrum.  Staring at Florence’s projection.

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

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

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

Yarwell froze.  She’s Nudging him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, that’ll be a pain.

“And something else.”

“Go on,” said Rowyna.

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

“How many?”

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

Silence.

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

Even in a war this brutal, there were rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the first time, she saw them.

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

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

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

Then they aimed at the soldier next to her.

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

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

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

Revenant Squad attacked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, all four enemies started moving again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shenti bitch flowed around it, like water.

It didn’t even graze her.

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

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

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

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

And Florence realized they were all going to die.

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

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

Then, the commando ripped through Rowyna’s shield.

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

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

See you round, Row.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world blurred out of focus, and she blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the fourth?

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

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

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

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

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

The blade moved in a blur.

And Florence’s hands fell off.

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

Florence and Grace were feeling pretty clever with themselves.

Then the interrogators sent them to a redemption camp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, he smiled.

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

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

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

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

First, Florence had to learn the meaning of hunger.

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

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

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

But mostly, they just starved.

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

And the hunger made everything harder to bear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every week, they would read stories of men and women who had redeemed themselves, becoming productive, intelligent, high-scoring members of society.  Society’s treacherous sloth must be purged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this light, it almost looked beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the first time she wiped her memory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

And then, Florence’s memories cut off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what would happen next?  She had no idea.

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

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

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

________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not a good plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she doubted it.

________________________________________

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

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

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

“Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“In this case?  Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t patronize me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“So that’s a yes, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” she sighed.  “Me too.”

________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




8-A – Isaac Brin

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Martin didn’t want to change.

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

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

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

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

“Is it good, then?” his mother said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he’d have to do it alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he stepped into the basement, it was empty.

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

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

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

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

He heard only silence.

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

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

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

The entire house was empty.

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

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

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

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

His entire neighborhood was a ghost town.

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

No one answered.

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

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

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

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

Isaac?  Could other people be missing?

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

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

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

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

Martin pushed away from her.

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

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

The looks of relief melted away.

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

What the fuck?  “501,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” he said.

“It’s a simple question.”

“It’s really not.”

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Martin.

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

Martin read the card:

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

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

________________________________________

Isaac Brin read the card:

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

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

But still, a necessary reminder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probability, enemy is outside door: Low

Low wasn’t zero.

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

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

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

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

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

But she hadn’t seen the reports he did.

Isaac opened the door.

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

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

“Hi,” Avery said.

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

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

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

“You sent for me, sir?” Avery said.

Probability, subject an imposter in this body: Low.

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

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

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

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

“Efficiency?” said Isaac.

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

Probability, trying to undermine security: Low.

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

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

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

“Don’t think so, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

Avery swallowed.  “Sorry, sir?”

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

“I think I understand,” Avery said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am surrounded by enemies.

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

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

Whisper Specialists did frighten him.

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

Stop.  He was going into a spiral again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust.

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

Isaac’s stomach jerked.

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

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

Probability, you are making rationalizations to yourself: High.

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

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

“Are you alright, sir?” Avery said.

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

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

He knows the name ‘Martin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ – reciate it.”

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

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

One second passed.

Two.  Three.  Four.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probability, threat part of a larger network, high.

Probability, network has already penetrated counterintelligence, unknown.

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

________________________________________

It took two days before Isaac could walk free again.

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persistent insomnia could be an early symptom of Pith cancer.

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

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

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

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

But again, not much he could do about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was when he froze.

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

And the rate of sea level rise was growing.

Exponentially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The phone rang.

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

He picked up the phone.

“Dad?” a young woman said.

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

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

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

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

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

Probability, Eliya an imposter: low.

Probability, Eliya hijacked, low.

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

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

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

“Sorry,” he said.  “I was busy.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it do?”

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

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

Eliya said nothing, which meant yes.

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

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

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

“But you wished it on yourself.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Isaac, his voice tight.

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

“In many ways, yes.”

“Then one day, I want to learn it.”

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

“I know.”

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

“I know,” she said.

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

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

“Why did you call me?” he said.

Probability, Eliya in psychological crisis: Medium.

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

Isaac sighed.  “Miss you too.”

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

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

Queen Sulphur wanted to meet.

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

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

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

________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you’d say that,” he said.

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

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

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

“You trust the source?” she said.

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

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

“We both know you haven’t.”

“Well,” she sighed.  “Now you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

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

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

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

And still, the fires kept burning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence floated back behind the police and clapped her hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a plan?” she said.

“First, we have to find her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence glanced at her feet.

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

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

“When is it happening?” said Florence.

“Tonight.”

Florence nodded.

________________________________________

Florence was dodging the subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am surrounded by enemies.

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

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

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

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

“And?” Isaac said.

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

“A basement?” said Florence.  “Or – “

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

“Fuck,” muttered Isaac.

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

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

Probability, that’s a trap: Low

Probability, there are traps in the tunnels: Very High

“And after?” said Florence.

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

Isaac swallowed.  “I’ll do it.”

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

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

Probability, you will hesitate before killing blow: Medium.

Probability, hesitation will cause death: Very high

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

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

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

Probability, she is telling the truth: High.

“I’m working, Eliya.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac stood there for a moment, blinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The phone rang.  And rang.  And rang.

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

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

Grace Acworth
31 – 1621 – 8273

The future was collapsing, slowly but inevitably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to go home, thought Martin.

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

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

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

Would he slaughter them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

The trio stood on the bridge, ready to jump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to see how much heat it can withstand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t hesitate,” said Rowyna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together, they descended into the fire.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




7-D The Blue Charlatan

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Wes

Ana is friends with my replacement.

I tripped on an empty glass, and dropped onto the floor face-first.

“I’m not spiraling,” I said, my tongue aching.  “I know what I’m doing.”

“Your mouth is full of blood,” said Jun.  “I think you bit your tongue.”

The room wobbled back and forth, dizzying in my vision.  “I know what I’m doing.”

“How stupid do you think I am?” said Hira.

“I mean, you did sleep with me, so…”

Hira tossed a book at me, and I caught it.  “We’re supposed to be studying pneumatology for your exam, you pampered fucking bird.  I don’t know how you managed to smuggle alcohol in here, but you’re paying me to keep you clean.  This ends now.”

I felt something project into the flattened objects in my belt and shoes, yanking them out.  Eight flattened bottles of liquor popped into three dimensions, some of them half-empty.

“Of course,” Hira said.  “I should have checked there earlier.”

Jun sat on the couch next to me and pressed a glass of water into my hands.  “Why now?”  He painted a sympathetic expression across his face.  “You were doing so well.”

“Don’t try to play sympathetic with me, you Eastern fossil,” I snorted, half-slurring my speech.  “You can’t just pretend to be all huggy after making bombs, for genocidal murderers.”  I pointed at Hira.  “Him, at least, I know that I’m paying.  And Ana is a righteous, brooding wannabe with a stick up her ass taller than the Radiant Canopy.  But I still don’t know what the fuck you want.”

Jun’s expression curdled.  “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a tough person to care about?”

I shrugged.  “Only my mother, father, friends, and fiancé.  Why do you ask?”

“Self-awareness is not the same thing as kindness,” he said.

I pushed myself upright and stalked to the door, pulling it open to the rainy tempest outside.

“Don’t,” said Jun.  “There’s a storm going on.  It’s not safe.  Let’s just talk about this, alright?  This is about Ana, isn’t it?”

I glowered at him.  “I’m going to get drunk, fix this hangover, and do unsafe things.  And if you want to stop me, Hira, I will fight you, and even if I lose, I will blow up your fucking kitchen.”

I stomped out the door, into the storm.

________________________________________

I downed my fifth drink of the night, and listened to the idiots whine.

“They’re thieves,” said the first Green Hands in the booth behind me.  “That’s the best word I can think of.  My friend spends fifteen hours a day delivering shit to their mansions, and about two-thirds of them don’t tip.  The ones that do act all smug about it, like they rescued him from poverty with three fucking pounds.”

Typical Humdrums.

“Most of them haven’t done a day’s work in their lives, or talked to a person with an income below seven figures,” said the second one, both trying to convince a third man, who hadn’t gotten the hand tattoos yet.  They’re Commonplace recruiters.  “They talk big about Ousting and how only the worthy join them, but the game is rigged.  Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to replace the child of a powerful Epistocrat family, no matter how stupid or lazy they are.  They pretend it’s a fair system, but only the real morons ever get kicked out.”

I stood up, making my stool fall over with a clatter.  All eyes in the bar turned to me, as I spun around to face the booth.  Five Green Hands and one loud idiot with opinions.  I can manage that.

“It’s comforting,” I hissed, “to think that the people at the top are just money-grubbers and ass-kissers and cheaters who steal from the tragic deserving Humdrums.  But the reality is, we score higher on tests of intelligence.  If any of you whiners tried to make it in Paragon classes, you’d crash and burn within a week.  And if anyone in your ‘Common Foundation’ tried to take on a Shenti Commando without a Guardian, they’d kill them with a pinky.”

Two of the Green Hands stood up, both half a head taller than me.  “We?” one of them said.

“Do you know why your wannabe revolution isn’t going to work?” I said.  “Because all the people smart enough to start a real uprising are going to Paragon.”

I stepped closer to the Green Hands, flashing them my best shit-eating grin.  Please punch me, please punch me, please punch me.  I needed an excuse to let off some steam.

He punched me.

Well, he tried to punch me.  His fist swung around in a haymaker, fast enough to knock out most amateurs.  But not me.

My close quarters training kicked on.  One arm raised to block his strike before it hit me.  The other arm shot forward, slamming my palm up into his nose.

As he stumbled back, my other fist swung forward and punched his windpipe.  One.  Despite my drunken state, I was moving faster than I expected.

Another step, another block, and the man standing next to him was wide open.  I decked him in the solar plexus, leaving him to gasp for breath.  Two.

I was feeling pretty good about myself when the rest of them stood up and started beating the shit out of me.

I took several steps back, trying to force them to go in one at a time, but they clambered over tables and knocked over chairs, surrounding me from all sides.

The unfortunate thing was, when four muscular men surrounded you, and didn’t give a shit about a fair fight, it didn’t matter how much you’d trained in martial arts.  Without Joining, there were only so many things a human body could do.

I knocked back one of them with a feint and a kick to the groin, then got a second in an arm lock.  Then the third one kicked me in the back of the knee, and before I could recover, something smashed the side of my head.

I collapsed, ears ringing, the world turning into a blur.  My Pith stretched out, searching for paper nearby.  Only napkins and a few loose bills in wallets.  No good cutting edges.  And it was so hard to concentrate when my head was spinning like this.

I shoved my Pith forward into the heads of the enemies around me, Nudging them.  All four of them pushed back, resisting the Whisper vocation.

The other patrons of the bar stood back.  No one was screaming or running or calling the police.  They’re taking the Green Hands’ side.  If these morons killed me, they’d pretend they saw nothing 

One of the men punched me in the solar plexus, and another one shoved my chest.  I collapsed on my back, and they stood over me, fists clenched.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, my face aching.

The one closest to my head leaned down.  “What was that?”

“I said I’m sorry,” I said.  “Please don’t murder me.”

One of them spat on me, and I projected into the water, making it miss my face by an inch.

“You tried to Nudge us,” said another one.  “What were you gonna do, make us piss our pants and then wipe the memories?”

“I’m very sorry?”

“Guardians,” he said.  “You always think you’ll get away with it.”

“Not a Guardian,” I said.  “Not even an Epistocrat.  Let’s talk about this.”  If my head wasn’t hurting so much, if I wasn’t so drunk and dizzy and exhausted, maybe I could have thought of a better plan.  But my thoughts had turned to garbled static.

They said nothing.

“Takonara,” I muttered.

One of them lifted his foot to stomp my face.

Then something snapped, and he fell backwards, screaming in pain.  What?  He collapsed next to me, clutching his knee.

“Scholars,” said Right-Hira, looking down at me.  “Will you ever learn to shut it?”

He zipped forward, jabbing his fingers into the eyeballs of a second Green Hands.  The other four ran forward, having recovered from my throat and solar plexus punches.

Right-Hira grinned.

In the span of a few seconds, I saw the vast gap between our skills.  As they tried to surround the Ilaquan, he spun and weaved backwards through tiny gaps in the crowd, pushing bystanders in the way and forcing the Green Hands to arrive at different times.

As the Green Hands forced themselves through the crowd, he struck, darting around one and swinging his fist into the back of his head.  A rabbit punch.  The man was out cold in an instant.

The next two attacked at the same time.  One of them got beer tossed in his eyes.  In the split second his vision was distorted, Hira flung the empty glass at his face, and as the man ducked to avoid it, Hira swung a knee into the bridge of his nose.

The second man grabbed Hira’s neck from behind, pulling him back in a rear naked chokehold with the crook of his elbow pressing into his throat.  Hira grabbed the arm and shocked him, making him loosen his grip, then elbowed his jaw with a sickening crack.

The final enemy, the recruit, leveled a gun at Hira from behind the bar.  “Fucking hornets.”

A gunshot rang out, and he fell over, clutching his shoulder.

Left-Hira stood up from an empty booth, grinning, leveling a revolver at the recruit.  “Stay down.  Or keep fighting, if you want to give me target practice.”  Right-Hira gave me a hand, pulling me to my feet.

A few of the others at the bar stepped towards Left-Hira, menacing looks on their faces.  She leveled the revolver at them, and they backed away.

“You were following me?” I mumbled, wiping my bloody face on my shirt sleeve.

“You’re still paying me,” said Hira.  “I figured you’d get into something fun during your rock bottom.  And…”

“And?”

He bit his lip.  “And I didn’t want you to get hurt.  Though, to be fair, you did deserve some of that.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled, blood dripping off my face.  “Alcohol.  I wanted to provoke them.”

“Wow, your life sounds hard,” said Hira.  “Have you ever considered sobriety?”  He shook his head, muttering under his breath.  “Principians.  Crazy bhenchods, all of them.”

I can’t even fight Humdrums right.

“I’ll patch you up at home.”  He slapped me on the back.  “Let’s get out of here before one of these goras calls the cops.”

“Thanks,” I said, stumbling out into the rain.

To my surprise, I meant it.

________________________________________

As Jun wrapped a bandage around my shoulder, the phone started ringing.

Hira picked it up.  “Johnny’s Tofu Delivery, how can I help you?  Hello?  Hello?”  He looked at us, shaking his head.  “I think someone’s coughing on the other end.  Rain, too.”

I stood up, my chest and face still aching from the beating I’d received.  I think I might have broken another rib.  “Where’s Ana?”

“Probably in her pod, studying her eyeballs out,” said Hira.  “We just finished a job, she’s not going to fuck around and do reckless things.”

“Was she acting strange at all?”

Hira shrugged.  “A little.  Crippling guilt at people she shot, panicking over whether she’s a monster, gaping at the metaphorical blood on her hands.  Typical newbie stuff, you know.”

“Actually, I don’t.”  I staggered to the door, massaging my pounding headache.  “I’m going to check if she’s alright.  With the storm and all.”  I looked at Hira.  “And I can’t drive.”

“Are you sure?” said Jun.  “You might not be welcome.  You’ve pretty thoroughly antagonized her.”  Judging by his tone, I’d antagonized him a bit too.

“Well,” I said, “too bad for her.  If she wants to send me away, she can scream it to my face.  Hira?”

Hira sighed.  “Don’t have anything better to do.”

“Could be dangerous,” I said.

His face lit up.  “That’s a good point.”

We went back to the car.

________________________________________

Ana’s street had flooded a little over a foot, and we’d had to leave the car on higher ground.  Hira and I jogged across the surface of the water, towards King’s Palace where Ana’s pod was.

We found her across the street, beneath a phone booth, head sticking out just above the water.  Through the pouring rain, it was almost impossible to make her out.

“There!” I shouted.  We sprinted forward, the water hardening beneath our shoes.

When I saw her, my stomach sank.

Anabelle Gage lay on the pavement, slumped against the phone, unconscious.  Blood trickled out from her mouth, dripping from her chin and soaking into her clothes.

The flooded street seemed to get a little colder.

“Lift with me,” said Right-Hira.  “Take her right shoulder.”  We pulled her upright, and the two Hiras took the upper and lower halves of her body.

“Let’s get her in the car,” I said.

________________________________________

“We need to talk about Tasia,” I said, standing over Ana’s bed.

She froze.  “How do you know that name?”

“And I followed you two.”

Ana clenched her teeth.  “You spied on me?”

“We thought we were just stalking her,” said Hira.  “Until he found you sipping tea with his nemesis.  Or that’s what he told me.”

I stepped forward.  “What the fuck are you doing with her?  What are you planning?”

“Nothing.”  Ana’s face turned to stone.  “Stay out of my personal life.  And don’t follow me.”

“I’m allowed to gather intelligence on my enemies,” I said.  “Of all the red-hot geniuses in Paragon, why did you have to become friends with the bitch who destroyed my life?”  That couldn’t be an accident.  There had to be something there.  “Is this some petty revenge thing?  Because I’d rather you beat the shit out of me and get it over with.  Not this underhanded whaleshit.”

“It has nothing to do with you,” hissed Ana.  “We’re just friends.  She knows nothing about Queen Sulphur, or you.  I still care about our operation.”

“She’s savvy,” I spat.  “Knows how to find people’s weaknesses.  If you think she’s oblivious to your side gig, you’re more naive than my great-aunt Annie.  And she spent half her fortune on tulips.”

“I don’t know what to say to you,” Ana said, staring at the sheets.

“She’s perfect, isn’t she?” I said.  “Says all the right things.  Just makes your heart warm up with her fucking brilliance.  My mother has given her the family armor already, hasn’t she?”

“I didn’t know,” said Ana.  “I didn’t know you were an Ebbridge until after we were already friends.  If you’d been honest with me, none of this would have happened.”

“So it’s all my fault then, is it?” I said, fingers tapping on my thigh faster and faster.  “It’s always my fault.”  I paced around the room.  “Lady Ebbridge, the lying moron.  Born into one of the most powerful families in the Eight Oceans.  And still managing to fuck it all up.”  They’re thinking just like those Green Hands at the bar.  I stopped at Ana’s bedside.  “And now you’re kicking me out too.”

Thoughts ran through my head, unbidden.  Does she think I deserved to be Ousted?  Is she right?

Eventually, Jun would find a better place for his engineering skills, and Hira would move onto his own mercenary work.  The Ilaquan enjoyed my body, and my money, but those would only last for so long.

Everyone would move on without me, sooner or later.  And then I’d be alone on the streets, scrounging food out of the trash, or whatever Humdrums did when they were this poor and drunk.

My legs felt weak.  The headache from my hangover seemed to triple.

“I’m sorry,” said Ana, “But I’m not going to throw away my best friend just to make you feel better.”

I leaned forward, trying to flatten my body language into something cold.  “I’m going to Oust her this summer,” I said.  “And if you say a single word to her about me, I’ll make sure to remember.”

A long silence extended between us.

“Does anyone want a cup of tea?” said Jun, smiling.

No one responded.

“I think,” he said, “what Ana is trying to say is – “

“Stay out of this, greybeard,” I snapped.  “You don’t know what it’s like, none of you do.”  I looked at Ana, the Hiras, and Jun in turn.  “You still have your names.  You chose to leave your family.  They didn’t throw you out, rip your friends away from you.  I don’t have a home anymore.  Everyone I cared about has abandoned me, in one way or another.  And right now, it seems like that’s going to be permanent.”

Jun stared at the ground.  “You don’t know who I am.”  He looked me in the eye, his neck tensed up.

“I know you built bombs for the Shenti,” I said.  “I’d say that’s plenty.”

“Everyone hated me,” he said.  “My co-workers, my best friends, my sister, all wrote letters to me, explaining how I was a monster, how I was disgusting, how they regretted ever knowing me, and wished I would just die.  And then they came to my trial, and said it all over again to my face.  Did you ever think to ask why I was enslaved by my own people?”

“That’s what they do.  Everyone who isn’t smart or useful enough goes to a redemption camp.  Though I’m not sure if they still do that, now that the war is over.”

“But I was an engineer.  A military engineer, under Warlord Luo Cai.  After the Spirit Block, that’s like finding a rainforest in the desert.”

“I’ll bite,” said Hira.  “Why’d they throw you in chains?”

“They didn’t,” said Jun.  “Not at first.  It was my father who they threw in chains, after he tried to blow up the warlord.”

“He tried to – “

“Where do you think I learned to make all the bombs?  The plot failed when Luo Cai’s bodyguard threw herself on top of him.  Joiners.  Invulnerable, you know.  But my father had done his homework.  Nobody could trace the explosive back to him, and Luo was none the wiser.”

“Then how did his people find out that – “ I stopped.  “No.”

“I told them,” Jun said, staring at his feet.  “I reported my father to the military police.  He was sentenced to a redemption camp.  One of the few left operating.  It was more or less a death sentence.  And I got promoted.  Senior Colonel and an office.”  He folded his hands together.  “I pondered my status in the world, and the moral weight of my actions.  With the Spirit Block in place, that was a great deal harder than you might imagine.”

“Why?” said Ana.

“The Ninety-Nine Precepts were the moral compass of the Shenti People.  They were the words I’d grown up with, or, at least, I think so.  When they got wiped out of reality, I had to rebuild my conscience from scratch.  But once I grasped the weight of what I’d done, I attempted to take my own life.”

The room fell silent.  Rain pattered on the window outside.

“It was a half-hearted attempt.  Were I serious, I would have climbed into the mountains with a shotgun.  I survived, without many permanent scars.  When I left the hospital, I put in an order to visit my father in person.  Once it went through, I bribed the guard on duty to allow me time alone with him.  He was an old man, frail, on the verge of death.”

Then the pieces of the puzzle clicked together for me.

“I swapped with him,” said Jun.  “Explained how to use my military credentials to leave the country and build a life for himself overseas.  I promised him I could use my projection to escape the camp, and gave him a place to meet me.  I lied.  It took them only two weeks to catch onto my scheme.  When I refused to work for them, they let me rot in the camp for two years.  And after that, I’d do anything they wanted.”

Thunder boomed in the distance.  Jun sat down on a chair, taking deep, slow breaths.

“So don’t tell me, Principian,” said Jun.  “That I don’t understand your pain.  I’ve tried to be kind to you, but you only seem interested in mocking me, or pushing me away.  So let me give you my honest opinion: You’re looking for an excuse to lie down and die.  And that makes you a coward.”

My stomach twisted in knots.  “Excuse me?”

“You have turned despair into a security blanket.  Caring, and then falling, has become so terrifying, that self-loathing is a comfort.  You refuse to take responsibility for your existence, your choices.  And at the same time, you cling to snide elitism, in the hopes of squeezing out some droplets of confidence.  Like I said, a coward.”

Fuck you.  Who did this smug foreigner think he was?

“But that’s alright,” he said.  “Because I was a coward too.  Bravery is a choice you can make any day.”

“If that’s true,” I said.  “Why haven’t you gone to see your father.  You’re free now.  You have a meeting place, somewhere.  Why not pay him a visit?”

Jun hunched over on his seat.  “It’s been years.  My father will have built a new life with the money I gave him.  He doesn’t need me dragging down his life anymore, reminding him of all his traumas.”

Whaleshit, I thought.  Any fool could piece together the real reason.

For all his talk about bravery, Jun was simply afraid to look his father in the eye.  Who wouldn’t be, after hurting a family member like that?

“When I get the chance to speak to my parents again,” said Ana, “I’m not sure they’ll want to talk to me either.  After the money I stole from them, they probably despise me.  Or they will, once they learn the things I’ve done.”

“Scholars,” said Hira.  “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t have daddy issues?”

Everyone stared at him.

“Someone had to say it.”  He shrugged.  “I mean, if my dad doesn’t kill me the next time I see him, I’m going to cut his face up with a cheese grater.  Same goes for my older brother, who’s busy licking up table scraps from the most red-hot psychopath in Ilaqua.  You all are talking about wanting to go home to your family.  I won’t get either of those in my lifetime.”

Another moment of silence passed.  Hira lit up his hookah, puffing cherry-scented smoke throughout the room.

“I’m so sorry,” said Jun.

“Don’t be,” said Hira.  “They’re pricks.”

“Well, then I’m sorry you had to live with them.”

I swallowed, stepping forward.  “I’m sorry, too.  I know apologies aren’t worth much, but I’m sorry.  I guess – “  I crumpled an origami crane in my hand.  “I guess my mother’s psychological torture palace was its own sort of bubble.”

“Fuck,” said Left-Hira.  “And it only took you nineteen years to figure that out.  You should get a medal or something.“

Your father’s a billionaire.  But maybe I deserved that, too.  “Thanks, Hira.”

Lund pe chadh,” he said.

“I don’t want to lose you,” I forced out.  “All of you.”

“Even me?” said Jun.

“Even you, greybeard.”  But my gaze was focused on Ana.  I’m sorry, I thought.  I’m so sorry I lied to you, and I’d say it over and over again if it meant you didn’t hate me anymore.

Ana just gazed back at me.  “Let’s get some rest,” she said.  “Lots to talk about in the morning.”

________________________________________

First, we had a picnic.

Jun insisted on it, even though it made no sense to me and Hira, and Ana called it ‘a petty distraction to sap our attention as we circle the drain’.

For some reason, we all went along with him.  Even Ana joined us.  Maybe he had a secret Whisper vocation.  Maybe he made those sad old eyes at us and we felt sorry for him.

Or maybe we were all just bloody exhausted.  And with no imminent mission and hangovers all around, there wasn’t much better we could do.

We traveled to the rain-soaked Darius Park, up the mountain and closer to Hightown  On a normal day, it’d be jam-packed with families, couples, and tourists from the rest of the Principality, overflowing to the point of fire hazard.

But a massive storm had just passed.  The water had still soaked through the grass, turning the fields into muddy slush.

For once, the park was empty.  That’s why Jun had called this a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’, why he dragged us out here while I was too bleary to form complete sentences.

Me, I didn’t get the appeal of picnics.  At a restaurant, you could get better food, with less itchy grass, and dim lighting so nobody knew how drunk you were.  But I still trudged up the hill with him, Scholars knew why, past the broken trams and damp streets.

We projected into the water, pushing it aside to clear a wide, dry circle on the grass to set Hira’s blanket down.  On the way up, Jun had stopped by a midtown store and picked up the necessary materials.

With a little prodding, I got the four of us to start up a game of Jao Lu on Hira’s board, which helped distract me from my throbbing headache.  But eight turns in, Ana already looked uncomfortable.

Maybe she’s still sick after last night.  But something told me that wasn’t the case.

After hesitating over her moves for a full five minutes, Jun spoke up.  Cardamom perched on his shoulder, the bottom half of his body sticking in Jun’s backpack.

“What’s wrong?” he said.  “Is it the food?  We don’t have to eat it in front of you if it makes you feel bad.”

“Shpeak for yourshelf,” said Hira, both mouths stuffed full of bread.

Ana pointed down at the rest of the city.  “We’re up against the mob, one of the most popular movements in this country’s history, a genius billionaire, and the Shenti.  None of us know what we’re doing, my body is decaying, and the water is rising.  And we’re sitting here, picnicking.”

“I like picnicking,” said Jun, scratching Cardamom’s ears.  “I had a picnic during an air raid, once.”

Everyone stared at him.

He shrugged.  “Short picnic.”

“It just seems callous,” said Ana, “to be enjoying ourselves when the world is sinking into the sea out there.  Like we’re dancing over people’s graves just after they throw the soil on top.”

“Gotta dance sometime,” said Hira.  “The world’s not gonna stop drowning.”

“I’m scared too, Ana,” said Jun.  “When they threw me onto a rusting cargo ship bound for Elmidde, I didn’t think I was going to make it to the end of the year either.”  He swallowed.  “To be honest, I still don’t think I’m going to survive the year.  But you have to enjoy the breathers.  Because life passes in blinks, and then you die.”

“I have decided,” I said.  “That you actually give the worst advice.”

He took Ana’s hand in his.  “So I’m begging you: Take a breath.  It’s the weekend.  We don’t have any missions right now, and we can’t talk to Isaac Brin until later in the day.  If you can’t exhale right now, your lungs might be broken, and then we’re in for some real nightmares.”

Nobody spoke for a few moments.  The only noise was the rustling of the trees, and the sound of Hira crunching into another fistful of food.

Ana reached for her Blue Charlatan piece and moved it forward, taking the center hexagon of the board.  Then she took a bite of a sandwich.

“Your turn, Wes,” she said.

Her move was a bold, but dangerous one.  In that position, she could take over the game in a few turns, or get knocked out.

I saw an opening.  I could move my Chameleon Spy forward, breaking her force in two and taking key space from her.  It was a better move than my other options, but it’d destroy Ana.

I moved my Chameleon Spy backwards, shoring up my defense and protecting my territory.  A solid, conservative move.

Ana raised a grey eyebrow.  “Thanks.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” I snapped.  “Hira was going to shred me if I didn’t block him.”

“Right,” said Ana.

She didn’t thank me, but over the next few turns, her Blue Charlatan began to dominate the game, knocking Jun out, then me, once my clever gambits could no longer stand up against her overwhelming resources.

And as Ana took over the board, hexagon by hexagon, I watched her scowl melt.  Just a hair, at the edges.  She wasn’t smiling, but she was here.  No escaping into her imagination, no swan diving out of reality and sticking her head in the sand.

After another fifteen minutes, she won.

An idea came to me, and, on impulse, I blurted it out.

“Hey Ana,” I said.  “So I’ve been thinking – “

“What?” she said, staring at the ground.

How do I phrase this?  “I like suits,” I said.  “And alcohol.”

“Really?” said Hira.  “Fuck, I had no idea.”

“Shut up,” I said, helpfully.  “I enjoy pastries too.  Marbled steak and marble floors and canopy beds big enough to get lost in.  And no matter how many times you tell me about the struggles of poverty, I’m never going to lower my standards, or grow to accept broken air conditioning, or stale bread and peeling furniture.  And when I return to my rightful seat, I am not going to miss any of this day-to-day.  You’re a billionaire’s kid, you understand, Hira.”

“No,” he said.  “There’s a ‘but’ coming.”

“But,” I said.  “No matter how much I want these things, I don’t actually need them.”  I looked around the blanket.  “Of all the people here, you’re the only one who needs the money.”

“Not true,” said Hira.  “If it stops smoking for a day or two, my Right body’s going to shiver, vomit, and rant conspiracy theories about the Droll Corsairs.”

“Point is,” I said.  “I’m not going to let you suffer and die because I want to sleep in a mansion with an infinity pool.  Even if it is gorgeous when the water fades into the sky and you lie at the edge and – “ I bit my lip, stopping myself.  “And.  I owe you after lying to you about the Broadcast King.  I owe you a lot.  And trust is earned, and I know I haven’t earned it, but – ”  I can try, can’t I?  And this was better than nothing.

And I chose this path.  I couldn’t blame my mother, or my broken Pith, or Paragon.  Jun was right.  I had to take responsibility.

Jun spoke up.  “So you’re saying – “

“Everything I have.”  I stood up.  “I’ll keep buying food, and toothpaste, and all the other basic needs, but all the rest of the money is yours, Ana, as long as you still need it to buy your body.  I know we don’t make that much, but a half share’s got to be better than a quarter, right?”

“I – “ Ana blinked at me, her eyes wide.  “I, um.”

“Three-quarters,” said Jun, petting Cardamom.

“What?” I said.

“I don’t make quite a full share, but I’m used to frugal living.  I wasn’t spending most of my money already.  Ana may have the rest.”

Ana kept blinking and staring at us, stunned.

“Fine,” said Hira.  “Me too.  I’ll give you whatever it takes to put you over the line.”  He glanced down at his female body’s orange dress.  “I’ll let my wardrobe gather dust for a few months.”

“You – you don’t owe me anything,” said Ana.

“I don’t,” said Hira.  “But you do irritate Wes in the most delightful ways, and I’d hate to see you flop dead like a spiked crab.”  He jabbed a finger in Ana’s face.  “But it’s not a handout.  It’s an interest-free loan, and when you’re Brin’s richest attack dog in a sparkling new body, I’ll expect you to pay back in full.”

Ana’s shoulders shook, and she folded her hands in front of her, forcing her eyes shut.  When she opened them, they were wet at the edges.

We spent a few minutes tallying up our tiny net worths and expenses, writing out the numbers on Ana’s notepad.

“So,” said Jun.  “You need forty-three thousand pounds for the cheapest reliable body from Eminent Forms.  When you mash all our fortunes together, you get about thirty-five.  Stretched, maybe thirty-seven or thirty-eight.”

“My numbers look about the same,” said Hira.  “Thirty-seven and a half.  Just a few thousand short of our goal.”  So close.

“Scholars,” I said.  “Is the universe taunting us?”

“No,” said Hira.  “Just Isaac Brin and his tiny fucking paychecks.”

“I don’t think Professor Brin is capable of taunting people,” I said.  “For that he’d need to have a sense of humor.”

“That is so right,” said Ana.  “Even when he’s trying to be nice, he looks so cold and wound-up, like enemies are about to pop out of the ocean and start shooting at him.”

“You know I tried making a joke to him once after class,” I said, leaning forward.  “And he docked me a point on the quiz.  Right in front of me.  He makes Ana look relaxed by comparison.”

“I’m sure he has his reasons,” said Jun.

“He almost killed you,” I said.

He shrugged.  “Nobody’s perfect.”

“Is there anyone you dislike, Jun?” I said.  “Mass murderers, psychopaths, Steel Violet haters?”

“Steel Violet almost killed you,” said Hira.

“And they write very catchy tunes.”

“I think most people are lovely, given the chance,” Jun said, shrugging.  “I can’t help it.”

Hira burst out into laughter, then stopped.  “Oh, that wasn’t a joke.”

Jun looked down at Ana’s notepad.  “Well, one more job at Mr. Brin’s current rate ought to get us enough to buy a replacement body.  After that, though, what’s next?”

“No, no,” I said.  “Stop.  In war movies, the guys who go on about their retirement plans always get killed.  If we commit to something after this next big job, none of us will make it.”

“You spend too much time at the theater,” said Hira.  “In real life, it’s the reckless fucks with zero plans who get murdered.  Like me.  And you.”

“If we get paid enough after this next job,” Ana said.  “If we survive and I get a working body.  Then the work is just beginning.”  She pointed at Jun.  “We need to protect you from Commonplace and their Shenti backers.”

Jun nodded.

She pointed at Hira.  “You’re still looking for revenge against that Whisper Specialist that experimented on you.”

“And my shit-eating dad,” said Hira.  “If you all want to tag along, I wouldn’t mind.”

She looked at me.  “And you’re looking to throw the Broadcast King in prison, save your family from his debt, and go home.”

Ousting your best friend in the process.  “Yes,” I said.  “I’m sorry.”

“I’m going to help you,” said Ana.  “With all my strength.  Including you, Wes.  We’ll find a way to get Tasia your library access, or keep both of you in Paragon, or something.”

Good luck with that.  But I appreciated the thought, in theory.

“I still don’t trust you,” said Ana.  “Maybe I never will.  You’re a stuck-up, self-destructive origami wrecking ball of dishonesty.  You are not striving to become an Exemplar.”

Fair.  That’s all fair.

“But you don’t have to stay that way,” she said.  “Write the next page.  I’ll be waiting.  And maybe you can make something beautiful.”

Right-Hira raised a finger.  “That reminds me.”  He stuffed his arm into his bag, pulling out a rectangular object wrapped in bright blue paper.  Then he looked at Ana.  “It was your birthday a few weeks ago.”

Ana’s eyes widened.  “How did you – “

“My background check,” said Hira.  “And when I copied your skillset, I got a few memories, too.  Some real vivid ones.”

Ana took the gift in her hands, confused.  “But why would you give me a – “

“After the last mission, you looked like a sad, lukewarm puddle of camel piss.  You’re our leader.  Your head needs to be clean and sharp so you don’t panic in the middle of a battle and get me shotgunned in the jaw.  Don’t think of it as a birthday gift.”  He jabbed a finger in Ana’s face.  “Think of it as me watching my back, so I don’t have to drink my meals through a straw.”

“Um,” said Ana.  “Thank you?”  She ripped open the wrapping paper with her good fingers, and looked at what was beneath.

It was a portrait.  A girl, in her late teens or early twenties.  Narrow brown eyes.  Principian, but with hints of eastern facial features.  She stood in a wheatfield, bright sunlight washing over her pale skin and bright red hair.  And she smiled at the painter.

Ana’s eyes widened.  “That’s – “

“You,” said Hira.  “If you’d grown up to today without transferring.  I got your face from a stitched memory, and I copied the skills of a few of the best painters from the local arts college while you were asleep.  I thought you might appreciate it.  As a target, of sorts.”

Ana blinked for a few seconds, her jaw hanging half-open.

Then she rushed forward and hugged both Hiras.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Scholars, thank you.”

Hira shrugged.  “Was pretty easy.  Though you Principians all look the same, sometimes.”

We played a few more games of Jao Lu after that.  Ana kept glancing back at her picture.  Then Jun pulled out a deck of cards, and we played around with that, too.  But as the sun began to descend into the late afternoon, Jun started dealing out another game, and Ana raised a hand, stopping him.

“Wait,” she said.  Her face twisted into a pained expression, like a wince frozen in time.  “We have to call it.”

“Why?” I said.  “I’m on a hot streak.”

“We have work to do,” she said, staring at her feet.  “We have work to do.”

“Work?” I said.  “But our list is finished.  Brin hasn’t given us anything.”  Is this what she got so wound-up about?

“I saw something on my last mission, and I had a thought,” said Ana.  “I was exhausted.  And then, I didn’t want to bring it up and ruin the fun, but – we can’t sit on this.  We can’t.”

“Spit it out,” said Hira.  “No ominous whaleshit.”

Ana wiped the crumbs off her shirt and massaged her temples, doubling over.  “I saw Tunnel Vision.  And I think she’s the Pyre Witch.”

All of us went dead silent.  The sun rose over the rooftops, bathing us in a warm glow.

“And if I’m right,” she said, “she’s probably going to kill us all.”

“Wes,” said Hira.  “Do you wanna get drunk?”

________________________________________

As the sun rose over the city, we walked back down to Lowtown, past empty storefronts and dark apartment buildings.

“So,” I said.  “You think Tunnel Vision is the Pyre Witch.”

“Yes.”

“May I ask why?”

“What is the Pyre Witch known for?”

“Massacring civilians.  Slaughtering Professor Keswick, who everyone liked.  Exposing our world to the Humdrums.”

“Right,” I said.  “Killing Guardians.  Showing projection to the public.  The underlying motivation to work with Commonplace is already there.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” said Jun.  “When she went crazy, the civilians she burned were Shenti.  Why would she be working with them?”

“I don’t know,” said Ana.  “Maybe they think she’s useful.  Maybe something’s changed.  But until last night, that was all just speculation.  Now I know.”

She went on a mission last night with Hira.  “What did you see?” I said.

Ana swallowed.  “She killed two Platinum-Ranked Guardians with a snap of her fingers.”

Scholars.  “What?” I said.  “Which ones?”

“Professors Stoughton and Havstein,” Ana said.

I clenched my fists.  I’d taken Chemistry from Stoughton in my first year, and he’d been one of the nicest teachers I’d had.  And Havstein was Eliya’s advisor.  Had been.  Fucking monsters.

“I’m sorry, Wes,” said Jun.

“When she killed them, she used some kind of Physical vocation that was difficult to see,” said Ana.  “A flash of white light that caused third-degree burns.  I think it was Palefire.”

“What?” said Hira.  “Is this some Principality thing I don’t know about?”

“Palefire is a Physical vocation invented some hundred years ago, with a codex in the upper levels of the Great Library,” I said.  “Of the few Guardians given access, the Pyre Witch was the only person alive who could master it, except maybe Headmaster Tau.  It allows the user to manipulate oxygen density in the air, along with other factors like pressure, and some other process that turns atmospheric elements into fuel.  The result is an incredibly fast, hot, highly controllable flame that burns white.”

“That’s what I saw,” said Ana.  “What else could it have been?”

“Fuck.”  I stopped, rubbing my temples.  “Fuck!”  I looked around at the rest of Queen Sulphur.  “How are we still alive?”

“I’m not sure,” Ana said.

“Dumb luck?” said Hira.  “Let’s go with that.”

“So what’s the plan?” said Jun.  We all looked towards Ana.  We were defaulting to asking her for plans these days, treating her like the de facto leader of our group.

“Obviously,” said Ana.  “The Pyre Witch is far, far out of our weight class.  We need to get to Isaac Brin as soon as possible and tell him about this.  He’ll know what to do, and if he gives us an information bounty, it might be high enough to put us over the top.”

“Don’t let Brin know how close we are,” said Hira.  “Or that we’re pooling our funds for you.  If he does, he might try to pay us less to maintain his control.”

“Good idea,” I said.  “We can’t put anything past that grouchy – “

A phone rang, interrupting me.

We stared down the street.  A payphone was ringing on the far side of the street.  Besides us, the space was empty.

“Electronics can act up all the time after a storm,” said Jun.  “Trust me, this is much better than when the sewers break.”  He extended his hand towards the payphone, and it went silent.

A minute later, we turned the corner to another street and a second payphone started ringing.  This time, just a few dozen feet away.

A knot grew in my stomach.

“Ignore it,” said Jun.  “Ignore it.”

We kept walking.  After we passed it, it stopped ringing.

Two blocks down, a third and fourth payphone rang for us, one close, one at the far end of the street.

Ana’s shoulders tensed up.  Her chest rose and fell.

The ringing continued, loud and piercing in the silent street.  Water dripped off the edge of the phone, making ripples on the flat surface.

“I think – “ she said.  “I think it’s for me.”


“Don’t,” said Jun.

Ana’s machine pistol assembled itself in front of her, and she snatched out of the air.  “Be ready for anything.”

I flipped open the latch of my briefcase, preparing to send out paper.  Jun projected into a pair of cars, disassembled them, and began to build them into something else.  Hira’s bodies took cover behind a pair of storefronts and drew a rifle and shotgun.

Ana picked up the phone.  It crackled in our ears, as she used auditory illusions to let us listen in.

The phone was silent for a few seconds.

Normally,” said Tunnel Vision.  “I would kill you, Anabelle Gage.

Fuck.  Oh fuck.  Fuck.

It would take half an hour for my team to detonate a bomb in your home and pick your group off with snipers.  That’s what my advisors suggested.

Ana’s hands shook on the receiver.  “Why – “ She swallowed, forcing her eyes shut.  “Why haven’t you?”

Blood rushed in my ears.  I swept my gaze around the buildings, looking for enemies, snipers, anything.  But the street was empty.

You are an enemy.” said Tunnel Vision.  “But you’re the kind of person we’re trying to fight for.”

Ana gripped the phone.  “I’m not a Humdrum.  And I’m not – I’m not like you.”  I wasn’t sure if she was angry, terrified, or both.

They took your body,” said Tunnel Vision.  “They locked you out of their towers and dressed you in grey, so you could pour their wine and scrub their floors while you rotted in front of them.”  Her voice went quiet.  “You’re a victim.

Ana’s voice was barely a hoarse whisper.  “Why are you telling me this?”

If you tell Isaac Brin about my identity,” she said.  “It will be a mild inconvenience, not a devastating blow.  That is the only reason you’re still alive.

So Ana was right.  Our adversary was a legendary monster.  A butcher to rival any we’d seen in the past century.

Think for yourself,” said the Pyre Witch.  “Be an ant, not a beetle.  I wish you the best.

The line clicked, then went silent.

________________________________________

We met in a Hightown café, the closest thing to a safehouse I could think of.

Hira’s house and Ana’s capsule hotel were known by the enemy.  Jun was confident he could remove any traps or audio bugs, but they could still be watched.

First, we split up and checked for tails, taking roundabout routes and reconvening an hour later. Ana had selected Seventh Street Café in advance as a contingency, so none of us had to say anything.

It took a few minutes for everyone to arrive.  First Ana, then Jun, then me, and Hira after a few more.  During that time, nobody spoke.  We just sat in the near-empty room, sipping coffee or tea and staring out at the rain-soaked streets outside.

Hira sat down, the last one to get here.  Ana stared at her feet, clenching her tea mug with shaking hands.  Jun folded his hands in front of him, taking slow, deep breaths.  I fidgeted with pieces of paper on the table, folding them into frogs, tigers, and cranes.

Hira was the only one who looked calm, either because of drugs, or a death wish, or both.

We sat there for a minute or two, anxiety swelling inside us like an inflating balloon about to pop.

“So,” I said.  “While my life hasn’t exactly been ideal in the past few months, I’d still rather avoid dying, if possible.”  I finished an origami crane, placing it in the center of the table.  “So, if I may be so bold as to ask.  What, the fuck, do we do next?”

“If we tell Brin,” said Ana, “she’ll know.  And she’ll kill us.”  She took a deep breath.  “None of you signed up to give your lives.  If you leave now, I won’t judge you.”

“That’s it?” said Jun.  “You’re giving up that easily?  She’s working with the Shenti Government.  They’re trying to take over the country.  If she took the time to pull that phone trick on us, then it’s important enough to tell Isaac Brin.”  He pointed to me.  “And Wes can’t stop his work against the Broadcast King.  All we’ve been doing for the past few months is fight them.  How is this any different?”

“The Pyre Witch isn’t going to make idle threats,” I said.  “Not after she set half a continent on fire.”

“We’ll find another way to get the money,” said Ana.  “We’ll do another job for Brin without telling him, or raid some criminal’s safe, or something.  It’s just a few thousand.”

“Hira,” I said, looking at him.  “You’ve been quiet this whole time.”

“After listening to the call, I had a hunch,” said Hira.  “It took some time to piece things together, but I was right.  Tunnel Vision’s voice matched one of the memories Clementine was thinking of while I was using my Vocation on her.”

Ana leaned forward.  “What memory?”

“It was associated with an image of a safehouse and a code.  Feather 910.  So while you all were zipping around the city and losing your tails, I sent one of my bodies back to my place to check the files we filched from Clementine’s house.”

“And?” I said.

“Feather 910 is on one of the papers.  The page includes mostly nonsense code and references to things I didn’t understand, but there was one address that I found in several other papers next to it, matched with a few common dates.”

“What’s the upshot?” said Ana.

“The address is a house three blocks down from Steinway Maximum Security Prison.  The date was two days before a breakout caused by a series of seemingly random coincidences.”  He took a breath.  “I don’t know for sure, but I think Clementine helped break Lyna Wethers out of prison.  Under Tunnel Vision’s orders.”

My breath caught in my throat.  Nobody spoke.  Ana folded her hands on the table, then clenched them together until they shook.  “Are you sure?” she said, her voice quiet.

“No,” said Hira.  “But I’ve peeled people’s skin off over ‘probably’.  Probably is good enough for me.  Honeypot fucked up my underworld contact.”

Lyna Wethers’ face drifted into my mind, smirking and tired and beautiful.  My stomach ached, and a cold sensation spread through my chest and arms.  No.  Scholars, no.  I forced the image out of my mind, but it lingered at the edges, terrifying and perfect.

But Ana, if anything, looked worse.  Honeypot had given me permanent mental scars, but Ana had lost one of her best friends.  And I’d read Kaplen Ingolf’s autopsy report.  The boy had died of Kraken’s Bone poisoning.  It didn’t take a genius to put together what had happened there.

And now, the trail led straight back to Tunnel Vision.  The mobster had broken Wethers out to cause chaos and make Paragon look bad.

I looked at Ana, and saw something desperate in her eyes, the same look from after she’d talked to Kaplen for the first time.  An animal in a trap, willing to chew its own arm off to escape.

She stood up.

“Leave if you want,” she said to us.  “I’m going to tell Brin.”

________________________________________

“The Pyre Witch?” said Isaac Brin.

“Yes,” I said.  “And she broke Lyna Wethers out of prison.”

“You saw the Palefire?” said Brin.  “With your own eyes?  Not just some trick of the light, or some flash while you were panicked.”

“I know what I saw,” said Ana.

Brin paced back and forth across the roof of Nolwen’s Soda Fountain, folding his hands behind him.  He breathed in and out, hyperventilating.

Scholars.  I’d never seen him look this agitated.

“Is she a Physical Specialist, then?” said Jun.

He shook his head.  “She had a purple-colored Pith, which means Praxis, though she told everyone she didn’t know her Vocation.  Palefire is just a technique she picked up.”

A Praxis Specialist.  Harpy had always told us those were the most dangerous ones.

“How are you going to eliminate her?” said Ana.

“What Ana means to say,” Jun said, “is what happens next?”

“She’s possibly the greatest living threat to the Principality right now,” said Ana, “and she’s burned enough innocents for a thousand death sentences.”

And we have enough firepower to give them to her.  If this was happening, really happening, our top-level Guardians could crush her in a fair fight.  Headmaster Tau was senile, a fraction of his old strength, but even weakened, he was formidable, and we had the Symphony Knight, the Obsidian Foil, and countless more like them.

Together, in a fair fight, I was confident they could crush almost anyone.  The problem was getting a fair fight.

“I can’t make any big moves,” said Brin.

“Why not?” said Ana, her voice terse.

“There’s a huge pro-Commonplace faction in Parliament, and a small but vocal one among the Humdrum military,” he said.  “And they love drowning Guardians in red tape.  To get them to approve aggressive, wide-scale action against Tunnel Vision during peacetime, I need definitive proof.”

“Seriously?” said Ana.  “We just discovered that the greatest war criminal in our history is in this city, running the mob, and your biggest enemy is bureaucracy?”

“We are surrounded by traitors and imbeciles,” said Brin.  “And there is the risk of data leaking as well, losing the element of surprise.  If Tunnel Vision catches whiff that we’re gunning for her like this, she may go into hiding.”

“You can’t just let her get away,” said Ana.

“Did I say that?”  Brin stopped pacing.  “I’m going to find the two people I trust most in the Principality, and make sure the Pyre Witch isn’t breathing by the end of the week.”

Oh, shit.  I knew who he meant.

“Professor Florence Tuft,” said Brin.  “And Admiral Rowyna Ebbridge.”  The Scholar of Air and my mother.

“Why them?” Ana said.  “I can think of plenty of Guardians with more raw power.  No offense.”

“Because Brin was on a squad with them,” I said.  “Him and my mother and Harpy.  They were all close.”  Except my mother doesn’t talk to them anymore.  And she’d never told me why, which meant it was something bad.

“And,” said Brin.  “We know the Pyre Witch better than almost anyone in Paragon.”

“And why is that?”

“She was the fourth member of our squad,” he said.  “She was our friend.”

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7-C The Blue Charlatan

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Ana

The doorbell rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I take your coats?”

Both of us shook our heads, and we continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hammer pulled back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clementine’s servants were terrified of her.  ‘Please’ meant devastating punishment if they disobeyed.  They would obey the command.

Then, it was time for step two.  

Left-Hira tossed the empty liquor bottle over her shoulder, and Right-Hira gagged and blindfolded Clementine and bound her hands and feet, then put her in a headlock.  Left Hira knelt and held smelling salts under her nose.

After a few seconds, Clementine’s eyes snapped open.

Right-Hira’s hands crackled, as she ran current through Clementine’s body, not quite enough to completely disable her.  Clementine started twitching again, hopefully in too much pain to project, at least for the next few seconds.

I felt a twinge of guilt in my stomach.  She’d do the same to you in a heartbeat.

Right-Hira spoke into Clementine’s ear, rapidfire.  “Whatareyougoingtotonightwhatsthelocationwhenisithappeningwhatsthepassword.”  Purple lightning crackled around her palms, reading Clementine’s mind for a few split seconds while copying her skills.

Then Left-Hira injected the knockout drug again, and the woman fell unconscious.

“Got it,” said Hira.  “The password isn’t a Praxis vocation or any fancy crypto nonsense, so it must be a larger event.”

“So?”

“I’m not sure what kind of event it is,” said Hira.  “But it’s in a building complex on one of the outer islands.  From her intrusive thoughts, I think that Steel Violet will be on guard duty.”  She took a breath.  “And Tunnel Vision herself will be there.”

My stomach clenched.  “All the more reason to break in,” I said.

“Steel Violet will recognize my face in an instant.  You too, Gage, since you’re famous now.”

“We’ll make it work,” I said.  “We’ll put a plan together.”

“Well,” said Hira.  “Here’s the other thing.”  She glanced at the clock.

“What?”

“It starts in thirty-four minutes.”

The clock ticked on the wall.  The world froze for a moment, as every muscle in my body seemed to tense up, and a storm of panic grew out from my belly.

Then I exploded.  “Thirty-four minutes?

“I’d say we’re about twenty-eight minutes away from the place.  If I drive fast.  And if Jun’s literal trash car doesn’t break down.”

Scholars,” I said.  “What do we do, then?”

“We could try forced transference.”  Hira indicated both her heads towards the sleeping Clementine on the rug.

I shook my head.  “That requires brute force from our Piths, and she needs to be conscious.  Judging from our fight, Clementine is stronger than the two of us combined.  If we wake her up and try it, she’s going to tear us both in half.”

And, to be honest, our last forced transference hadn’t sat well with me.  If one more thing had gone wrong, Kahlin’s decorators could have lost their bodies forever.

Unless there was no way to avoid it, I wasn’t going to steal anyone’s chassis.

“What about a mask?” I said.

“What?”

“Did you see those traditional Ilaquan masks in Clementine’s study?” I said.

“The ones you squidfuckers stole when you colonized us?” she said.  “Yeah, I saw them.”

“I mean, she could have bought them legally.”  And I didn’t colonize anyone.

Lund pe chad,” she said.  “You can’t buy that kind legally.”

“Point is,” I said.  “We can put them on and use them to get in.  Then keep a low profile, use illusions.  If it’s a big event, it would make sense for people to hide their faces, right?”  I glanced at Clementine out of the corner of my eye.  “Her name isn’t on some list, right?  It’s just a password.”

Hira shrugged.  “I think so, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.  Which you’re suggesting we do.  And they definitely won’t allow weapons in.”

“We’ll have you,” I said.  “That’s worth more than a gun.”

“The password is for a single person,” said Hira.  “Both of us can’t go.”

I pursed my lips.  “Then who goes?”

Hira folded four arms at the same time.  “We have known faces.  You have illusions.”

Fuck,” I muttered.

“Take your time,” said Hira.  “You have a whole…four minutes to wallow in your neuroses.”

“Fuck,” I said again.  I would be going in with no plan, no allies, and almost no information.  Is this worth risking everything?

“And Praxis Specialists might be able to pick out your voice or your gait in a crowd, so you’ll have to modify those too.  Or just avoid talking.”

I’m so close.  More money, more favor with Lorne, more information, and I could be on the track to becoming a Guardian.

“Start the car,” I said.  “I’ll get the mask.”

________________________________________

Jun’s car jerked to a halt in the pouring rain.

“They’ll recognize this car,” said Hira.  “I can’t go any closer.”

I adjusted my mask and my wig.  They weren’t perfect, but they’d conceal my most obvious features from a distance.

“I’ll watch Clementine in her home,” said Hira.  “Keep any servants from wandering back in her house.  Call me on her phone when you want a pickup.”

“I can do this,” I muttered to myself.  “ I can do this, right?”

“If I don’t hear anything in the next ten hours, I’ll stop by the morgue and make sure they don’t defile your corpse.”

Thanks, Hira.

I checked my internal clock.  Ninety-one seconds.  I pulled myself out of the car and slammed the door behind me.

Then I broke into a run, splashing through puddles and streams flowing into gutters.  I turned corners past dark, abandoned buildings, past empty, pitch-black alleys and flickering streetlights.  This area’s gone to shit.

I jogged on a bridge over a rushing river, and caught a glimpse of Lowtown and Elmidde to my left, across Meteor Bay.

According to a book I’d read when I was young, the outer islands used to be a part of Mount Elwar, thousands of years ago, but had been separated when a meteor hit in the time of the Great Scholars, turning the whole area into a water-filled crater.

An apt meeting place for the people tearing this country apart.

I arrived at the near-empty entry of a stadium, screeching to a halt and wheezing for breath.

A decade ago, the building had been some big famous landmark.  George Stadium, or maybe Luther Stadium, I didn’t remember, and the letters on the sign had fallen off.

But, after enough floods and enough money draining out of the neighborhood, and one nasty terrorist attack during the Shenti war, the people here with money had given up and moved to higher ground.

Now, it looked abandoned, save for the three Steel Violet members out front, standing under floating umbrellas and hefting submachine guns under their coats.

They leveled them at me as I approached, and I raised my hands.

Then I stretched my Pith forward.  I’m in range.  I threw up an illusion, reshaping the face under my mask and the sound of my voice.  “Am I late?

“Yes,” said Rozi, the Joiner with Voidsteel gauntlets, who’d almost crushed Wes’ throat.  “White Balloon.“  The password.

Prisoner Moon,” I answered.

They lowered their guns.  “It’s already started, the doors are locked.  Sorry.”

I was told it didn’t start until nine-thirty.

“The talking starts nine-thirty.  You were supposed to get here at least fifteen minutes ago.”

Scholars.  We’d wasted too much time interrogating Clementine.

I pulled up the mask over my face, revealing the illusion I’d put over my features: John Asger, one of Clementine’s favorite cronies.  I’d served him dinner dozens of times, without so much as a glance in my direction or a thank you.

I positioned the mask so that people above me and to the sides wouldn’t be able to see my face – if other Steel Violet members were watching me through sniper scopes, they wouldn’t see any inconsistencies with their comrades’ eyes.

Clementine Rawlyn sent me in her stead,” I said with his voice, matching the disdain I was used to.  “She knows Tunnel Vision personally, and is not interested in hornets making her miss my report.

The members of Steel Violet stared at me, no doubt conversing amongst themselves using thought-stitching.  Droplets fell off the edge of their umbrella, splashing onto the ground.

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure if they were going to let me in or fill me with bullets.

Rozi stepped aside, beckoning me.  “Right this way, sir.”

I jogged into the ruined stadium, through vacant corridors lit by lightbulbs strung overhead.  I passed empty ticket booths, faded storefronts, and Green Hands with rifles, directing me through side doors and down stairwells.  A chill wind blew through the empty halls, with the muffled sound of rain.

Finally, I emerged from a dark tunnel into the stadium, back into the deluge.  A dense crowd of Green Hands and mobsters had gathered in the center of the overgrown field, lit by glaring white floodlights high above.  They stood shoulder to shoulder, silent and unmoving, staring towards a raised podium in the middle.

I stepped into a puddle, then glanced down.  What?

In the rain, the field had flooded, water rising to my ankles.  The entire stadium had become a tiny, shallow lake.

I waded forward, my feet sinking into the mud, tall grass brushing past my knees.  It took effort to move around without ripping my shoes off.  I shivered, my anemia making the cold rain even worse.

Why haven’t they canceled this?  This wasn’t an ordinary rally, though the crowd was more than large enough.  This was a secretive event that required passwords to enter, with armed guards patrolling the exterior.

Plus, all the Commonplace rallies I’d seen were loud, explosive events, full of cheering and jeering and applause.

Here, no one spoke.  The only sound here was the pouring rain.

I pushed forward through the crowd, holding my mask so it didn’t come off, and positioned myself near one of the emergency exits, with a few layers of people behind me.  This way, I wouldn’t stand out, but could still make a quick getaway.

Behind me, a few hundred Green Hands had spread out through the stands, all carrying rifles.  If I run, they’ll shoot me half a dozen times before I make it to the door.

Here, I had a solid view of the empty stage set up in the middle, too.  The stage was empty. 

It hasn’t started yet.

Then I glanced away for a second.  When I turned back, a line of people was standing on the stage.  In the lineup, I recognized Tunnel Vision on the far side, water dripping from her ragged skirt and bowler hat.

One of them stepped forward, a man with green circle tattoos, and the rain itself seemed to quiet as he approached the microphone.

Is he the leader?  No, the head of Commonplace was supposed to be a woman.  Was she here tonight?

The crowd didn’t cheer or clap, or acknowledge his presence in any way.  Are they hijacked?  Nothing about this event felt natural.

The man spoke in a calm voice.  “The median projector in the Principality has a net worth of two hundred and fourteen times that of the median Humdrum.  They own an average of four bodies apiece, while we get cancer at their factories and go into debt for our replacement bodies.  If we’re lucky enough to get a loan.”

The rhetoric of victimhood and vengeance.  They listed legitimate problems, then used them to justify an incoherent wave of violence and resentment.

We’d barely won the largest war in human history.  We’d defeated the Shenti by the narrowest margin, and these people wanted to eviscerate the heroes who’d protected us.  That wasn’t the right way to do things.

“If they could,” said the man, “they’d wipe our memories all over again.  Rip away our freedom and control us from the shadows again while they try to forge the stars in their vain image.  At best, they see us as witless dolts.  At worst, they see us as beasts, fit only for the kennel.”

While the man spewed his propaganda, I watched behind him.  A hooded figure stood next to Tunnel Vision, wearing a faded green military long coat, the kind you’d see in photos of the Shenti War, or older.

She reached up a hand to scratch her head, and I squinted through the rain.  One of her thumbs had been cut off at the first knuckle.  Of all the things broken with this body, my vision still worked fine.

Other than that, she looked identical to the others standing next to Tunnel Vision.

Except people treated her differently.  Though they tried to downplay it, the ones standing next to her on the stage gave her more space than the others, made glances in her direction, whispered amongst themselves but not to her.

The hooded woman held a certain gravity, in the very center of the stadium.

That has to be her.  The leader of Commonplace.  The woman who brought Tunnel Vision, the Broadcast King, and Shenti support all together in a singular movement.

What I’d give for a sniper rifle and a vantage point.  Not that I could fire one of those things, but one well-placed bullet and the whole country could be at peace.

“We,” said the man.  “Are the Common Foundation.  The Principality and Paragon Academy, have done far worse things than you can imagine.  To us, and the roots of the world itself.”  The rain poured down around us, and the pitch-black sky seemed to close in from above.  “They have reached into the heavens and touched the void.  They have burrowed into the mountains and whispered to gods, shattered the keystones of the human soul.  They are planning things, and even we don’t know what they are.”

This is nonsense.  There were a great many mysteries in this world.  The stars and the water and the Great Scholars and the Four Daydreamers.  But to invoke such things in this context?  It couldn’t be anything but empty conspiracy-mongering.

And this felt strange.  It didn’t feel like a normal rally, and it wasn’t a strategy meeting.  It was happening in the pouring rain, during a miniature flood, and the speaker was spewing confusing, surreal rhetoric.

Why are these people gathered here?

Tunnel Vision strode to the mic.

“There are Guardians at Paragon Academy,” she said.  “Doing their best, as we speak, to infiltrate our movement and bring it down from within.”  Thunder boomed in the distance, and the rain came down harder.  “They are the loyal dogs of the status quo, of the corrupt House of Lords and the broken Conclave of the Wise who hoard wealth and power.  And they will defend it, even if it means hijacking thousands.”

More propaganda.  Did these people need more convincing?

“They see us as a weak threat, insignificant next to the Droll Corsairs, or the eastern dogs of Shenten.”

The Shenti monsters are funding you.  Not that they’d want the public to know that.  Their public support could sour pretty fast if the nation found out they were funded by foreign terrorists.

“But they underestimate us.  That is their mistake,” she said.  “So.  To all the Guardians who think they’re smarter than the citizens of the country.”  She leaned into the mic.  “Hello.  And goodbye.”

What?

She stomped her foot.  The sound echoed around the stadium, ringing in my ears.

Two jets of mud and water exploded upwards from the ground, shooting a man and a woman into the air, both Green Hands.

At the same time, something exploded in front of them, coating their faces with bright orange paint.

“The orange-faced ones are Guardians!” shouted Tunnel Vision.

As the man and woman spun in midair, and the Green Hands raised their weapons, I realized several things.

One: Brin was right – Paragon had been at this meeting.  Guardians had been at this meeting, in disguises.

Two: This meeting was a trap for them.

That explained all the strange conditions.  This event wasn’t held for propaganda or strategy, but to lure the undercover Guardians in with Tunnel Vision and the leader of Commonplace.  Even the rain worked in the enemy’s favor – in these conditions, it would be difficult to fly out of the stadium, and much harder to spot snipers with enhanced vision that could shoot them out of the sky.

As these thoughts ran through my head, the raindrops stopped midair, hovering in front of my face.

Then the water exploded into a wave of steam, flinging a pair of Green Hands straight at me.

They crashed into me, blasting me backward with the shockwave and flipping me over.  I splashed face-first into the muddy water, my ears ringing.

I pushed myself upright, spluttering and coughing.  My chest ached, a sharp, piercing pain on my right side.  Did I break a rib?

White steam filled the air, hot, stinging my face.  As it cleared, I saw one of the Guardians in the middle of the field, his fist slammed to the ground.

Rings of corpses surrounded him, faces and limbs sticking out of the water.  Further away from him, Green Hands lay on their backs, groaning and covered in burns.

I know this.  A Physical Vocation that superheated huge quantities of water, creating burning-hot steam explosions.

That’s Professor Stoughton.  He taught Chemistry and other natural sciences to fourth-years.  One of the deadlier Guardians at Paragon, though he wasn’t Scholar-ranked like Harpy or Brin.

The other Guardian flipped over in midair and clapped her palms together.  Green lightning crackled around her.  A Physical Specialist.  A wave of pale light expanded from her hands, washing over me and the entire stadium.

Hundreds of Green Hands and mobsters aimed their guns at her, and pulled the triggers.

Nothing happened.  None of the guns fired, from the shotguns up close to the sniper rifles in the stands.  Everyone kept pulling the triggers, to no effect.

Did she jam them all at once?

No, I knew this Vocation.  Professor Havstein.   A platinum-ranked projector, she’d studied under Headmaster Tau himself.  Her Vocation could alter the properties of physics in an area, making combustion itself impossible.  Flames vanished.  Fuses fizzled out.

And guns couldn’t fire.

In an instant, she’d crippled all the Humdrums here.

She’d been missing a lot this semester.  Probably because of this infiltration job.

I need to get out of here.  These two had the power to turn this whole building to rubble, and there was no more intel to be gained.  I’d gambled on the wrong meeting.

Another second passed, and the Guardians attacked.

More pockets of water exploded into steam, tossing aside mobsters like dry leaves in the wind.  Hundreds of knives drew from the sheathes of Green Hands and shot at the hooded woman in a blur.  I knew she was important.

On the podium, the hooded woman turned towards the storm of projectiles, impassive, not even trying to run or dodge.

The podium flipped beneath her, forming a shield between her and the knives.

The knives impacted at high speeds, thudding into the wood and creating showers of splinters.  After the second volley, the podium was a pile of loose wreckage sinking into the water.

When the smoke cleared, Tunnel Vision stood between them and the leader of Commonplace.  The water had cleared in a wide ring around them, and the raindrops hovered four stories above, preventing steam explosions from going off right next to them.

I forced my vision away from the battle and scanned the audience for an escape route.  I had no delusions of being able to help the Guardians here.  Even if I managed to get close to them, I’d just slow them down.

Explosions rang out behind me, with flashes of light, the clang of metal, and clouds of hissing steam washing over me.

Above me, the stands were half as sparse as they’d been seconds ago.  Many of the riflemen had either been cut down or were charging towards the battle in the middle of the stadium.  With the guns all broken, most of them had switched to knives or bayonets – those that still had theirs.

I picked a door that had only two men standing in front of it, and climbed into the stands, sprinting up the steps three at a time.

On instinct, the Green Hands aimed their guns at the masked figure running at them in the rain, even though they wouldn’t fire.


I waved my hands at them, and layered over my voice as I got within range.  “Don’t shoot!  Don’t shoot!”  My illusion pulled off his mask, revealing a generic face I’d come up with on the fly.  “No orange, see?  We’re on the same team.

They lowered their rifles.  “I don’t think we could shoot you anyways.  What the fuck are we supposed to do without our guns?  Even our Voidsteel bullets won’t work if the mechanisms don’t fire.”

I had my illusion beckon the guards closer, and they stepped forward, leaving an open path to the door.  “Do we have any other projectors?

“Mob people,” said the other guard.  “Cutthroats for hire.  They died in the first ten seconds.”

As their conversation continued, I slipped past them, pulling open the door and sliding in.

I’m going to get John,” my illusion said.

“Who?”

My illusion ran away down the stands, ducking out of sight before vanishing.

I jogged through the halls, past groups of Green Hands and pairs of mobsters.  All the exit doors had been locked shut.  When I projected towards them, the locks had been jammed.  My weak metal projection wasn’t enough to force them open.

So I kept running, passing through hallways, clambering up stairs.

The rain pounded down outside.  Sweat collected in my armpits, and my lungs burned from the exertion.  Finally, after making several wrong turns, I found a door near the top of the stands that opened to a ladder going down to the ground.  Probably something for maintenance.

The door to the top of the stands was open.  Outside, a thick cloud of steam had gathered in the center of the field.  Explosions and shouts rang from within.

As the cloud cleared, I stopped for a moment to observe the fight.  No one else was nearby.  Maybe I can get a sense of Tunnel Vision’s abilities.  Or even her Vocation.

The steam blew away in the wind.  A whole fifth of the stadium on the far side had been demolished, like cutting a slice out of a pie.  I could see the lowtown buildings outside, the path cleared for an escape.  Several of the floodlights flickered, damaged.

Tunnel Vision stood in the center, her black coat and skirt covered in blood.  Miraculously, she hadn’t lost her bowler hat or messed up her long ponytail.

She held the top half of a severed head in her fist, clenching its long blonde hair.  Professor Havstein.  I felt like throwing up.  So guns work again now.  Though everyone else in the stadium seemed to have fled or died.

The hooded leader of Commonplace still stood behind her, unharmed.

In front of the rubble, Professor Stoughton had gathered a tidal wave of water around him.  It formed the shape of a many-headed hydra, long snakelike necks ready to strike and explode at a moment’s notice.  It stood at least fifty feet tall, as wide as a third of the field.

Stoughton stood in the center, catching his breath, a storm of green lightning crackling around him.  As I recalled, he and Professor Havstein had been close friends at Paragon, partners together for over a decade.  He must be furious.

Tunnel Vision cocked her head to the side, watching the professor as if he were some sort of curiosity.  Beneath his giant water monster, she looked insignificant, wielding nothing other than the severed head.

The two stared each other down, neither making a move.  Tunnel Vision folded her hands behind her back.

He’s afraid of her.

The professor spun his arms in a circular motion, and his water monster split in two.  The front half blasted forward, charging at Tunnel Vision and Commonplace’s leader.

At the same time, the other half formed a dense sphere around Stoughton.  It shot him away, rocketing him down the street.

The front part exploded into steam with an ear-splitting crack, covering half of the stadium in an instant.  I could feel the heat on my face, and my ears rang.

A flash of white light lit up the inside of the cloud, followed by another deafening boom.

The smoke cleared.  Outside the stadium, Professor Stoughton lay on the cobblestone, steam rising off his body.  Burns.  His thick shield of water had vanished.

When I squinted through the rain, I saw him move, crawling forward at a sloth’s pace.  Scholars, he’s still alive.

Tunnel Vision swung the severed half-head like a sling, tossing it to the side.  She strode towards the professor over the piles of rubble, slow and inexorable.  Sparks flickered around her, and blood coated her face and skirt.  A spirit of fire wreathed in rain and smoke, a dark silhouette in the storm.

Two top-notch Guardians with decades of experience, and she’d crushed them in seconds.

As she approached her victim, she glanced back at the stands, in my direction.

Is she looking at – 

Nobody else was nearby.  She was looking at me.

For several seconds, we made eye contact across the expanse of the field, through the pouring rain.  The panic rose in my stomach, spreading through my chest and washing over my entire body until my hands shook.

Then I tore my gaze away, walking as calmly as I could to the door.  Don’t look panicked or running.  I pulled it open and climbed down the ladder, hyperventilating.

After what felt like a lifetime, I slid to the bottom, making my palms burn.  Is she following me?  Did she recognize me?

I kept running down the hallway, even though I was already out of breath.  Beneath my coat, I projected into the three pieces of my suppressed machine pistol, sliding them together and holding it with two hands so I could shoot.

The lower halls of the building were empty, as far as I could see.  Most of the Green Hands and mobsters must be focused on the field.  I jogged through another set of corridors and stairwells without trouble, finally reaching a set of double doors to the outside.  My projection indicated they hadn’t sealed this one yet.

I walked towards them and reached for the handle.

“Stop!”

I spun around, raising my machine pistol.

A man stood across the hall from me, leveling a shaking rifle at me.  No – a boy.  About my age.

He’s out of range of my Vocation.  And I didn’t know how to jam a gun with projection, other than holding the trigger in place with brute force.  And besides, I was already exhausted.

And that’s a heavy rifle.  The combat suit under my clothes could stop light gunfire, but a shot from that would punch straight through.

“No one’s supposed to leave until we finish a full sweep,” the boy said.  No Green Hands tattoos.  He’s with the mob.  “That’s the order.  Anyone leaving could be an undercover enemy.”

“Relax,” I said.  “I didn’t get the order yet.  But I am going to need to see some identity confirmation.”  I layered as much calm and patience as I could into my voice, pushing down the panic.  “We’re not enemies.  We don’t have to point guns in each other’s faces.”

I took a hesitant step forward.  Get him in range.

“Don’t come any closer!”  The boy’s eyes widened.  “Take off your mask!”

Nausea bubbled up inside my stomach.  I felt like I was going to be sick.  I reached up with my other hand and pulled off my mask, revealing my face.  My real face.

“Sorry.”  I kept my voice calm.  “Sorry.  I’m going to lower my gun.  You lower yours, okay?  Then – then you can call your CO on the radio so we can, um, confirm the order and our identities.  Please, don’t do something you’re going to regret.”

The boy said nothing, taking sharp, rapid breaths.

“I’m – I’m lowering my gun.”  I inched the barrel of my machine pistol down, until it was pointing at my feet.  Then I took my finger off the trigger.

The boy lowered his rifle, slowly but surely.  For a few seconds, we caught our breaths.

He reached for the radio at his shoulder and pressed the talk button, glancing at it.  “Talon Five to Central – “

I shot him.

It happened so fast that, for a moment, I thought someone else had pulled the trigger.  A series of muffled cracks rang out, drowned out by the sound of the rain outside.  The machine pistol pushed back against my hand.

And the boy fell, a series of red holes punched in his chest.  The gun slid out of his hands, and he coughed, spitting up blood.  He twitched, and a wet gurgling noise came out of his throat.

Professor Tuft’s advice ran through my head.  Always confirm the kill.  Only an idiot would stand around when her target was downed and vulnerable.  If you monologued, or ignored them, or hesitated, that could be deadly.

If I left him here, he might get a replacement body in time.  Report my face to Tunnel Vision.

I pushed open the door and ran out, fleeing into the storm.

________________________________________

The sea swirled beneath Clementine’s house, aggravated by the rain.

Behind her house, the highest waves swept over the balcony, washing it with a thin layer of saltwater.  The same one I’d jumped off months ago.


I rang the doorbell, drenched from head to toe, not bothering to dry myself.

Left-Hira opened the door, a bottle of arak in her hand.  “You’re alive.”  She looked surprised.  “How did it go?”

I caught my breath, leaning against my knees for support.  When I pushed myself upright, I avoided eye contact, gazing down the street into the rain.

“Staring into the middle distance isn’t an answer, you know.  The least you could do is tell me if you – “

I looked at her.

“Hey, um.”  For the first time since I met her, she looked uncertain about what to say.  “Are you.  Are you alright?”

I wasn’t sure what to say.

“So,” said Hira.  “I read her pocketbook.  No one’s coming here to check on her for another few hours.”

“And her files?  Anything interesting?”

“Nothing on whatever ‘Buttercup Lodge’ is,” said Hira.  “But it did include a bunch of operations Clementine took part in for Tunnel Vision.  And some codes.  ‘Feather 910’, ‘Snake 171’, that sort of thing.  I woke her up and tried interrogating her with them, but only got a bunch of vague details.  Some voices, some smells, just a few associations.  And apparently, she helped develop some technique to avoid phones being traced.  That’s all I got.”

I scowled, and plugged those details into my new pattern-matching vocation.  I could read the files later and add those details too.  If anything matched in the future, I’d get notified.

“There’s got to be more,” I said.

She grinned at me.  Is she trying to cheer me up?  “Let’s strip this house for fucking parts.”

I nodded, and stepped forward.

Inside, Hira had stacked duffel bags in the middle of Clementine’s dining table, filling them with silverware, all three chandeliers from the house, and a handful of loose bills.

“Careful,” I said.  “Those are worth a lot less than they look.”

“Clementine’s still up in her study,” she said.  “I’m watching her with my other body.  It’ll be hard to find a fence for this stuff when Tunnel Vision controls most of the underworld.  This was all I could find.  No stacks of cash, jewelry, or Vocation Codices.”  She looked at me.  “But you worked here for years.  You know where the good stuff is, right?”

“This way,” I said, my voice flat.

I led Hira down to Clementine’s basement.  The wooden steps creaked as we descended.

Two-thirds of the floor was taken up by dirt-stained mattresses lined up against each other.  The servant’s quarters.

The mattress that had been my home had a different ratty blanket on top of it, messed up and unmade.  Someone had slept in it recently.  My replacement.  I felt for them, whoever they were.

“Yeah,” said Hira.  “If my boss made me sleep somewhere like this, I’d blow out his kidneys with buckshot.”

We strode to the far side of the room, to a locked door.  “You got her keys, right?”

Hira knelt by the door and jammed a bobby pin into the lock.  After a few seconds of jiggling, the door swung open.  “A thief named Pamello shops at the same grocery store as me.  I copied his skills this morning.”

I flipped on a light, revealing shelves and shelves of horizontal wine bottles lining the walls.

“Ah,” said Hira.  “Now I know why she kept this locked from all of you.  I’d have been in here twenty-four seven.  Where is it?”

I pointed at a tapestry, hanging on the wall behind the shelves.  On it, a trio of fighter planes flew above the ocean, the pilots etched in exquisite detail.

“There.  Behind that.”  Clementine had thought herself subtle, hiding her safe here, but after she’d visited it a few times, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

Hira stretched her hand forward, projecting into the shelf.  Then she yanked it back, tipping it over and smashing hundreds of bottles on the ground.  A purple-red puddle spread on the wooden floor, mixed with glass shards.

Then, she strode over it and ripped off the wall tapestry, tearing it in the middle to reveal a wall safe sitting behind it.  “You know the code?”

I shook my head.

“Not a problem.”  Hira pulled a stethoscope out of her coat, cleared a spot to kneel next to the safe, and began spinning the dial.

As she worked, I turned around, looking back at the basement.  Right now, in the middle of a winter night, it was bitter cold, making me rub my arms under the sleeves of my jacket.

And yet somehow, this same basement would turn into an underground oven during spring and summer, turning the nights here into hours of tossing and turning under sweaty covers.

Whoever my replacement was, they were stuck here now, for a lot longer than they were expecting.

A terrible thought ran through my mind.  What if the boy I killed – the boy back at the stadium – had been hired through someone like Clementine?  A servant working for some mid-level mobster, desperate for anything that would let him crawl out of this basement and get some financial security.

What would have happened if I didn’t find Clementine’s blue folder?  If I hadn’t done my body heist and gotten that job offer from Isaac Brin, while I bled out on that boat.

If I’d been pushed enough, could I have been at that stadium, in his position?

Thinking about it like that made me want to reassemble my machine pistol and point it at my skull.

I shoved the feeling down.  It’s not your fault.  It was the fault of monsters like Clementine, who forced vulnerable people into service for them.  Liars who’d never put themselves at risk for a cause, who’d never had to struggle just to live.

Hira pulled open the safe.  “Done.  Guess this bitch paid her safe manufacturer as much as her maids.”

I walked back to her, and we leaned forward, seeing what was inside.

“What?” said Hira.

No cash.  No jewelry or gold or gems.  Just a stack of three small books.  This was what Clementine checked every other week?

Hira pulled open one, flipping through it.  Then the next two.  “They’re not Vocation codices.  No obvious critical information.  Are they in code?”

“But if they’re code, why store them in a safe?  Why telegraph that these are important?”  I picked up the first book and flipped to a random page.

They’re journal entries.  And though it was impossible to tell at a glance, my intuition told me they weren’t in code.

I flipped to another random spot, revealing a photograph wedged in between pages.  In it, a smiling woman in a flight suit stood next to a bomber on an aircraft carrier, flanked by half a dozen pilots on each side.  All of them had their fists raised, and two of them near the middle held the Principality’s flag in front of them.  A war photograph.

The scrawled caption on the bottom read: The nation, the people, the light.  You’re still our ace, Captain Rawlyn.

“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath.  I read through the entry beneath it.  Then the next one.  Then the next.

“Ana?  Anything valuable?”

“It’s true,” I said.

“You’ve got to be more specific than that.”

“Clementine’s medals, her military history, all of it,” I said.  “She was a pilot in the air force.  She fought in the Shenti War.  I thought she was lying about all of it, but she wasn’t just some con woman.  She was a hero.”

At the back of one, I saw a folded-up letter, and read it:

Paragon Academy

717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality

Dear Ms. Rawlyn,

Thank you for your interest in Paragon Academy.

I am sorry to inform you that we cannot offer you a place in the class of 510.  Our admissions committee evaluated a record number of passionate applicants this year, from all over the Principality.  Unfortunately, they could only accept a limited number with the greatest proficiency, intellect, and projection potential.

Your scores on the entrance exam are enclosed.  Your projection ranking estimate was: Bronze.

We wish you well in your future endeavors to serve this country with pride and distinction.  May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.

Sincerely,

Nicholas Tau

Headmaster

I folded the letter back up.  Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I kept reading through the journal, losing track of time.  I pored over entry after entry, until I was finished with this book and moved onto the next one.

The truth was, I’d wanted to dismiss Clementine’s history.  I wanted to believe that she was propping her image up with a story of service and duty.  That would have been simpler, easier.  But I wasn’t sure what to make of this.

“There are plenty of asshole soldiers,” said Hira.  “Fuckers looking for an acceptable way to shoot people.”

“But that’s not how she comes across in these journals,” I said.  “And she can’t have been expecting anyone else to read these.”

“Why not?”

“Because these aren’t glamorous.”  I knew Clementine.  If she was making up a fake military backstory for herself, she wouldn’t have talked about getting dysentery for half a month, or failing her pilot’s certification twice, or making mistakes that got her subordinates maimed for life.  And she definitely wouldn’t have included a Paragon rejection letter.

“Some lunatic nationalist, then, drunk on the flag.”

Nationalists aren’t lunatics.  To Hira, anything she didn’t personally believe in was somehow corrupt or hollow.  “The woman I knew wasn’t a patriot.  Wouldn’t risk her life for anyone else, much less her country or her fellow soldiers.”  The Clementine in these notebooks was a stranger.

“Then why the fuck is she here?” said Hira.  “Why isn’t she in some naval base, trying to kiss up to Florence Tuft?”

“The Edwina Massacre,” I said.  The first time projection had been shown to the Principality at large.  After the Pyre Witch set Shenti civilians on fire, they’d retaliated by sending the most skilled Joiner in the world after our fleet.  All Humdrums, no Voidsteel.  The woman had ripped them apart with her bare hands.  We’d sent our own Guardians after her, including the warm-hearted Professor Keswick, but she’d burnt them too, and the Shenti didn’t care.

“What about it?”

I held up the journal.  “She fought in it, when she still thought she was a Humdrum.  Got her hands torn up from the battle, couldn’t fly anymore, or even work a desk job.  The one thing in her life that defined her, gave her meaning, and she failed at it.  All her friends were either dead or overseas.  And in her desperation and loneliness, she forgot who she was, and latched onto the first thing that made her feel powerful.”

“She became a selfish piece of shit.”

“There were justifications, ends and means and necessary sacrifices, but over time, they became sacrifices other people made.”

“Like I said, a selfish piece of shit.  And she’s still up there.”  We can still kill her, she implied.

I stuffed the books into my bag.  “Come on, let’s take her stuff and get the fuck out of here.”

Hira looked at me.  “Are you concerned that you’ll become like her?  Is that what this is all about?”  She shook her head.  “Fuck that.  Stop tying your brain into knots.  You’re nothing like that bitch.”

I strode out of the wine cellar, glass shards crunching beneath my feet, and shrugged.  “Neither was she.”

________________________________________

I lied back in my sleeping pod, flipping through Clementine’s journals for the third time.

I had a tactics exam the day after tomorrow.  I was supposed to be studying for it, but I kept getting pulled back by the books I’d taken from her safe.  One passage sat in the center of my mind, a mental knot I’d been failing to untangle for hours.  A more recent segment, taking place after I’d started working for her.

I read it again:

It’s strange.  In the rare moments when I’m not planning a job, or plying my bosses at parties, or preparing for the next step in my career, I just sit here in my room.  I don’t read books.  I don’t watch movies.  My servants do all the housework.  I just lie on my twenty-thousand-pound mattress and stare at the ceiling.  Sometimes, I put the radio on in the background.  Sometimes, I have a smoke.

I have no one to call.  No one to go out with.  The people I call my friends only want to use me, like I want to use them.

Is this going to be the rest of my life?

I have to get back to work.

I snapped the book shut and let my arms fall to my sides, staring at the ceiling of the pod.  You’re not like Clementine.  You’re not.  She hurts people, and you want to become a Guardian.  She’s helping to break this country, and you’re defending it.

What had I done during my last spurt of free time?  I kept myself so busy these days.

But if I had free time, right now, and no obligations, what would I do?  Hira, Wes, and Jun were all living together now, and I didn’t want to see any of them if it meant spending more time with Wes.  Tasia was always busy, and just the sound of Lorne’s voice made me tense up.

And if I dropped dead, right now, how many of them would really miss me?

Then, I remembered.  My birthday was a few days ago.  I’d been so busy that I’d forgotten it.  In recent years, I’d never done anything fancy for the occasion, but I’d often buy myself something nice, like a Nekean action manga or a box of macaroons, back when I still had my taste buds.

I’m twenty years old, and I spent my birthday alone.

I wasn’t a traitor to our country.  But in my loneliness, I was like Clementine.

Before I knew it, my hands were pulling me out of my pod, and my feet were carrying me out of the building, through the rainstorm in the streets, and to the liquor store on the corner of my block.  Then back to my storage unit, to the stained mattress where Wes had slept before moving in with Hira.

I poured myself a glass of Shenti Baijiu and drank it.  It tasted like stale tap water, but it burned as it went down my throat.  Then I drank another one, and another one, until the buzz in my mind was loud enough to drown out the noise in my head and the thick, heavy disgust I felt when looking at my skin, or smelling my body odor.

Then I closed my eyes, and imagined being somewhere else.  The dining hall of Paragon Academy drifted into my mind, the one all Grey Coats were banned from.  I imagined what the mulled cider there would taste like, the beef turnovers and chocolate scones that Lorne gushed about.

In the vision, I was sitting with friends.  Tasia, and Hira and Jun and Kaplen.  Wes’ face flickered into being around them, and I pushed it out.

A snowstorm blew outside the windows, but inside, it was warm and safe.  Later, we could retire back to one of the dormitories and play Jao Lu until two in the morning.

Jao Lu made me think of Wes again.  No.  I pushed it out again.

I sunk deeper into the image, sketching out every detail in my mind.

Shouts rang out in the distance, in the real world.  I diverted a sliver of my attention to staggering out the door and finding the source of the disturbance, holding my focus on the daydream.

Men and women stumbled around the halls, bumping into walls.  Some of them shouted, or made other noises of confusion as they felt their way around.

On a hunch, I pulled myself out of the daydream, bringing my full attention back to reality.

Everyone stopped, looking around them.  “The fuck?” muttered one man.  After a few seconds, all of them walked back to their storage units or sleeping pods, everything back to normal.

It dawned on me.  My Vocation.  I must have been using it on instinct, drawing other people into my escapist fantasy, making it look like they were in Paragon’s dining hall.  Something like this had never happened before, and the sounds had been coming from all over the building.  My range has improved again.

After banishing the illusions, I drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to fall asleep or wake up.  Over time, a growing stomachache built inside me, until the pain was too strong to ignore.

I curled up, twisting and turning to alleviate the pain.  Nothing.  Though it wasn’t as painful as Isaac Brin’s dart, it was close.  It felt like someone was swinging a spiked hammer into my intestines, over and over.  I didn’t swallow my Kraken’s Bone by mistake, did?

So I reached for the baijiu bottle.  It wasn’t as good as painkillers, or a cure for whatever was happening down there, but it would dull the pain.

I swallowed a mouthful, and the pain tripled.  The ache exploded into a burning heat, a pressure boiling over into my throat.

I doubled over and threw up, the familiar sting of stomach acid on my tongue, even though I couldn’t taste it.  This time, it was accompanied by a metallic stench, filling up the storage unit and making me gag.

Projecting into the wall switch, I flipped on the lights.  A splash of red stained the mattress where I had vomited.  Blood.  I threw up again, spitting more out of my mouth, the pain growing and growing.

I need help.  I pushed myself upright, and a wave of dizziness washed over me.  I grabbed the wall for support and stumbled out the door.  What do I do?  Calling an ambulance would bankrupt me, sealing my body’s fate.  Call Jun.  Phone.  Jun had training as a doctor, he could help me.  And Hira could copy the right skills.

I vomited again, splattering blood onto the concrete floor.

There was no phone in King’s Palace Sleepbox and Storage.  The closest payphone I knew was across the street, on the corner.

So I staggered out the front door, into the pouring rain, ears rushing, coughing, on the verge of throwing up or collapsing, and jogged through the puddles to the payphone.  I leaned on it, gasping for breath.

I forgot the coins.  All the willpower to drag myself out here, and I’d screwed up the most basic element.


Of all the ways to die, this had to be one of the dumbest.

Shut the fuck up and think, idiot.  I projected into the machine’s mechanism, feeling around for where it felt the coin drop in.  A few fiddles with metal projection, and I was set.  I dialed Hira’s number, my fingers slipping on the keys, and put the receiver to my ear.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.  I heaved again, spitting up a smaller amount of blood this time.

Then the sky spun around me, and the world faded out.

________________________________________

My eyes snapped open and I coughed, spraying blood onto the bedsheets.

“Damn it,” said Hira.  “I’m going to have to clean those.”

My blurry vision cleared, and I blinked.  I was lying on the guest bed in Hira’s house, flanked by her female body and Jun, sitting at my bedside next to an IV attached to my arm.  Cardamom curled up on the bed by my side, purring.  My blue combat suit had been draped over a chair, pulled off my body.

“You better not die,” said Left-Hira.  “Stealing that from the hospital was a pain in the ass.”

A quiet, lingering ache sat in my stomach and head, but only a fraction of what I’d been feeling earlier.  The agony had subsided, and I could think.

I glanced down at the rest of my body.  Bandages covered small patches of my skin on my arms, my legs, and the side of my stomach.

Jun saw me looking at them.  “Your skin was cracking there.  Keep the bandages on, and clean with alcohol at least once a week.  Don’t want you to get infected.  Your immune system might not be able to fight it off in this body.”

I shivered under the covers, and coughed.  My other decay symptoms feel worse too.  And they weren’t about to get better.

“What happened to me?” I croaked, my lips chapped.

“After the phone rang and no one picked up, we drove to your place on a hunch and found you lying by the phone booth.  Hira stole the IV and copied a few of the specialists at the hospital.  Far as we can tell, something’s messed up with your liver.  Made your body react to the alcohol all weird.”

I pushed myself to a sitting position in the bed, groaning.  “So I should stay dry for the foreseeable future?”

Jun nodded.  “It is as you say.”

“And if you have nausea, yellow skin, weight loss, or perpetual drowsiness,” said Hira.  “Your liver could be failing.  I’d recommend prayer.”

“I’m not religious.”

“I’d recommend booze or drugs, but that’d probably kill you.”

“Thanks, Hira.”

“And now that you’re awake,” said Jun.  “If you don’t mind, there’s someone here to see you.”


He knocked on the door, and it swung open, revealing a rain-soaked Weston Ebbridge on the other side.

“Hey Ana,” he said.  “Let’s talk about Tasia.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter




7-B The Blue Charlatan

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Ana

Hard work wasn’t paying off.

It was an old whaleshit cliché, thrown around by Clementine’s middle-managers and my parents, when they were convincing me to work in a factory for twelve hours a day.  A persuasion tactic.

But this time, I wasn’t working for any of them.  I was working for me.  And it still wasn’t enough.

I studied with every spare moment of free time.  Every day, I jogged around Lowtown to stay in shape and practiced at the gun range with my machine pistol.  And it wasn’t whaleshit, half-assed practice or studying either.  I put the effort in, tried new methods and avoided etching bad techniques into my muscle memory.

But my body was decaying.  Two of my fingers were gone.  My shoulder ached from the Steel Violet’s punch.  The slightest bit of smoke or even a whiff of perfume could send me into a coughing fit.  And at night, my anemia turned me into a quivering mess in my sleeping capsule at King’s Palace.  I had to bundle myself in thick layers to fall asleep, no matter how exhausted I was.

The decay grew faster than my improvements.  Despite all my technique, my aim with the machine pistol was growing worse, not better.  And even easy runs left me dry heaving and wheezing for air, until I made them into brisk walks, and then just walks.

With some adrenaline in my veins, I could sprint for a bit, but I had no endurance.  Training felt like trying to swim at the top of a waterfall.  No matter how hard I paddled, I was just delaying the inevitable.

On top of that, my physical projection remained weak, improving in tiny steps and inches despite all my study and practice with Tasia.  I could water walk for more than a few seconds now, but at this rate it’d be years before I could fly in a wingsuit.

Still, I made small improvements.  My Whisper projection was getting better.  I could now Nudge people, though I couldn’t imagine doing it to anyone.  I’d also learned a few useful Praxis vocations, like an internal clock, a basic pattern-matcher that used manual tables and a passive search function, and Stone Mask, which could flatten my body language for a short spell.  The pattern-matcher helped me track important details of our targets, and make connections in my subconscious that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.  And Stone Mask helped me with targets out of my range.

Still, most of it was basic, easy.  The average Grey Coat could do it in their sleep.  My grades, too, were improving, but were still dead-average for Paragon.

The only real achievement I’d made in the last few months was in my Vocation.  In my spare time, I could practice on Hira and Jun, or sit in a public park and use it on squirrels and birds.  My range had steadily increased, up to a consistent forty meters – almost twice that if I was projecting on a familiar target like Hira, and I could now modify up to three or four senses at once without straining myself, though touch was still out of my grasp.

And the jobs, of course.  The jobs were the only thing that made sense these days.  There were clear enemies.  Achievable goals.  A single puzzle to work out using strategy, projection, and teamwork, rather than a mountain of confusing textbooks and essay assignments.

So I accepted as many as possible, knocking them down as Brin gave them to me, along with some info bounties on the side.  We’d gotten that list of Commonplace and mobster meetings, which gave us an endless array of mid-level targets.  The thin blue armor Brin had given me also made things easier.  Bullets that would have killed me a month ago only left bruises, now.  In one battle, the rest of my clothes had burned away and it still kept me safe.

And the money added up, especially with my cheap capsule and canned-lentil diet.  I split it between the bank and a few hidden stashes in spots I was certain nobody would find.

It helped too, when I refused all of Wes’ offers to go out drinking.  I wasn’t going to let that boy manipulate me again.  The only contact I allowed was for missions and strategy meetings, where he gave me a flattened grenade and knife to fit inside my belt.

I didn’t have enough money to buy a body, but at this rate, I would by the end of the year.

But on top of that, I had to deal with Lorne Daventry.  My esteemed student boss.

The boy was starting to trust me more, but as he did, he demanded more too.  In addition to his laundry, his notes, and his takeout lunches, I now did his shopping, cleaned his room, ran his schedule, and bought him tickets.

Once, I even mixed him cocktails in the kitchen of his mansion.  I considered stealing some of his expensive silver, but decided against it.  He’d figure me out in an instant.

And through it all, I lost sleep.  The days blurred together, my eyes ached with every waking moment, and my night chills made my sleeping capsule feel like an icicle.  When I sat down at the laundromat or in the cable car up to Paragon, I drifted off before jerking back awake, terrified I’d forgotten something important.

And when my alarm clock screeched at seven every morning, it took all of my willpower to crawl out from under my blankets and face the world.  On days without classes or a mission, the pod seemed to encompass my whole universe.  The world outside faded to a faint buzz.

I skipped almost all my breakfasts.  On some days, I skipped every meal.  My showers were once a week, enough to keep me from getting filthy without taking too much of my time. As a result, I built up masculine body odor, a stench so repulsive I almost changed the habit. But I needed the time.

I cut back my neck-to-toe shaving to once a week, too. If I skipped those, or, worse, my morning shaves, the disgust would overflow in my mind and I’d have to pay attention to my chassis, with its thick, revolting body hair. Bulging grey veins were enough to handle.

My intermittent coughs grew worse, and once every few days, I saw blood in them.  Other aches and pains sprouted up throughout my body – in my shoulders, my lower back, my thighs – from bad posture, decay, or something else.

Of course, I didn’t have the time or the money to go to the doctor, so I just pretended they weren’t there.  I just imagined the pain away.

After many missions, and many coughs, Hira would glance at me with confusion.  “You shot so many,” she said.  “You should just take their bodies, if they’re going to die anyway.”

When I thought about taking another’s body, a yawning pit of disgust opened in my stomach.  But I had another reason to hold back.

Forced transference could only swap.  It couldn’t force another’s Pith into the open air to make an empty chassis, unless you’d studied more advanced techniques.

Which meant, if I took another’s body, I’d have to give up this one.  

And I wouldn’t be Ernest Chapman anymore.  I’d lose my Grey Coat position with Lorne, lose my best shot at becoming a Paragon student.  Maybe my best shot at a new chassis, too, at drinking mulled cider with a friend.

Make money with Queen Sulphur for a body.  Please Lorne for a body and admission.  I was racing down two avenues at once.  With the stakes so high, I couldn’t throw away either of them.

But on nights like this, I thought of the people I’d shot, of their faces and voices and their cries of pain. And I found myself questioning that.  Is this still the path I want?

I studied in my capsule, lying on my back and staring at page 596 of Biochemistry: An Introduction.  I’d read it three times already, but it still wasn’t making sense.  The words and sentences floated around my mind, bouncing off each other but never fusing into any meaning.

I looked past the tome, staring at the ceiling of my pod.  In two fingers of my book hand, I held my last can of lentils, spooning it in my mouth using the other hand.  A late dinner.  My only meal for the day.

I needed to get through this page for tomorrow’s quiz, but I was making zero progress.  If I fucked this up, then my grade for the Obsidian Foil’s class would be in the critical.

I couldn’t sleep until I got this.  And I couldn’t escape into my imagination without the risk of falling asleep.

Plus, I had to write a book summary and deliver it to Lorne at morning tea.  And I had to prepare for a mission tomorrow night.  I hadn’t started on either of those tasks.  And I had to buy more lentils, since I was out.  And my grey Paragon uniform was wrinkled, and I had to iron it for class.

I sighed.  I miss Cardamom.  Maybe I should have kept the cat here, even if it wasn’t the best home for him.

Then, I craned my neck to look at the alarm clock by my feet.  I’d placed it there to make it harder to shut off when I woke up.

Four in the morning.

It’s four in the morning?  I jerked back, hitting my head on the side of the pod.  The can of lentils slipped out of my grasp and dropped with a splat onto my chest.

All over my clean grey uniform.  My one school uniform.

There was no time to clean it before class.  But the assistant’s handbook specified that if I didn’t meet the dress code, there would be disciplinary action.  And if the old caretaker Berthel caught me like this, he’d follow through.

I began to shake with anger.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Unbidden, hot tears welled up at the edges of my eyes, running down my face.

“Fuck,” I whispered.  “Fuck.  Fuck.

I flopped back on the mattress, paralyzed.  What should I do?  Everything was at the boiling point.  There were so many things to do, and all were equally urgent.  And in just a few hours, the school day would begin.  It’s so much.  It’s all so much.

So I just lay there.  I wasn’t sure for how long.

Someone knocked on my capsule door, and I jumped again.

I peeked out from behind the curtain next to my head.  Jun stood outside, beaming and waving at me.

I considered throwing up illusions for him.  To make me look asleep, or gone, or more put-together.  It wasn’t good to have a squadmate see me this vulnerable, this pathetic.

Fuck it.  Jun wasn’t a threat.  Lying to my allies was something Wes did, not me.

I pulled open the curtain, opened the door, and crawled out of the cramped space, onto the hotel’s dusty concrete floor.

I rubbed the sleep out of my eye and brushed lentils off my coat.  “How’d you get in?”

Jun held up a weird-looking screwdriver with dials attached to it.  A lockpick gun.  “The buzzer was broken.  This building isn’t very well-designed.”

“Yeah.”

Jun looked me up and down, squinting.  “You want to get some coffee?”

I glanced behind me.  Wet canned lentils dribbled off my blanket and onto my sheets.  “I’m – out of spending money.”

He raised a grey eyebrow.  “You want me to buy you some coffee?”

________________________________________

I sat down next to Jun at the pier, beneath a lamppost, still lit in the dim early morning.  My assistant’s uniform sat on my lap, while I wore Isaac Brin’s thin blue combat suit, the only clean outfit I had.

I took a sip of coffee.  It tasted like the paper cup it came in, but I appreciated the warmth.

“A benefit of no taste buds,” said Jun.  “You can make that as strong as you like, and you don’t get any of the bitterness.  Lucky for you, I know all the cafés that are open this late.”

A chill breeze blew across the water, blowing Jun’s wispy grey beard.  I rubbed my arms.  “How much do I owe you for the clothes?”

“Nothing.”  He examined a chocolate-covered cream puff, then stuffed the whole thing into his mouth.

“I don’t like being in debt to people.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re not in debt to me.”  He floated my uniform into the air in front of him and pulled a cake of soap from his bag.  Water streamed out of the harbor, washing the clothes.

“You should have told me you didn’t have a washing machine, I could have rigged you up a miniature one for your storage unit.  Silent, so the building doesn’t complain.”

“What is this about?” I asked.  “You here to give me sage advice?”  I was getting that sort of tone from him.

“I don’t have any sage advice.”  The Shenti man pulled a grey hair from his scalp, holding it in front of him.  “I’m not actually seventy-one.  I’m twenty, and I have no idea what I’m doing.  I just want to eat wontons, watch television, and build spiky cars that shoot flames out the back.”

“I know.”

“And we Shenti aren’t full of wisdom anymore.  You people took that from us.”

“I was a kid when the Spirit Block happened,” I said.  Don’t blame me for breaking your bloody religion.  “But I’m sorry.”

What does he want?  The man – boy – was still an enigma to me.  Sometimes, his soft personality and cooking obsession reminded me of Kaplen, which made me feel warm and brought up bad memories at the same time.

And Kaplen hadn’t volunteered for an amateur band of government mercenaries.  On some level, this bombmaker-engineer-pacifist wanted to be here, in the Principality, with us.

And I had to know why.

“Can I be honest?” said Jun.  “That’s a rhetorical question, I hate lying.”

“Sure.”

“You’re not talking to anyone.  You’re getting big circles under your eyes and you’re jittery on missions.  You look detached, like you don’t care, even when you’re shooting people.”

“You don’t go on missions, how do you know I’m jittery?”

“Everyone’s worried about you,” he said.

“Right,” I said.  “So this is what, an intervention?”  Wes must have put him up to this.  “I can’t afford to slow down right now.”

“I know,” he said.  “I know.  But you don’t have to carry all the weight yourself.  I know you don’t want Wes’ help, but would you at least accept some from me and Hira?”

“I’m alright,” I said.

“Vocations are powered by a person’s inner state, yes?” said Jun.  “And you’re an illusionist.”

“Yeah.”

“So,” he said.  “Why are you so bad at lying?”

I slouched over.  “I spent a lot of nights in Clementine’s basement, lying on a dirty mattress, unable to fall asleep.  Before then, I worked in a factory in the Agricultural Islands, and didn’t have any friends at school.  And before then, I had to deal with Loic’s Syndrome.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What do you do?” I said.  “When your reality is unacceptable?”  I flicked my wrist, sending a ripple out across the water.  “You imagine a new one.  You escape into your mind, and weave the most elaborate fantasies.”

“It is as you say,” said Jun.

I froze a chunk of the water, making my wrist flicker with blue lightning.  “That’s what powers my Vocation.”  I chuckled.  “Sad, isn’t it?”

“You’re here, are you not?” said Jun.  “You endured.  It sounds like your strategy worked.  But it doesn’t have to be your only one.”

He finished washing and rinsing my clothes and projected into the water, pulling it out and drying them.  They folded themselves and set themselves down in my lap.

“Let me install a washer-dryer in your storage unit,” he said.  “And I can help you study.  Hira too, once I convince him not to charge you.”

I stared down at my clean, dry laundry, and sighed.  “Come in the day after tomorrow.”

________________________________________

In my mind, I was running down a steep hill.  I was going fast, faster than ever before, but if I slowed down or made one wrong step, I’d fall and hit my head.

At the front of the lecture hall, Harpy talked, a rapidfire stream of words matched by three separate pieces of chalk drawing on the board.

And for once, I was keeping up.

My note-taking hadn’t gotten any faster.  If anything, the decay on my body had made handwriting even harder.  But I’d gotten more efficient.  I could filter out the most critical words and pare down the core concepts, so even when I was sleep-deprived, I could take coherent notes.

“A Shenti Joiner with a rifle comes from twelve o’clock.  A Humdrum with a shotgun comes from five.  Both have Voidsteel bullets, you have a piece of plywood.  How do you block the attack?”

To my surprise, my hand shot up.

“Chapman,” she said.

“I – um.”  This was the first time she’d called on me since the first day of class.  The first time I’d even tried to speak up.  “It’s, um, a trick question, right?  You don’t block, you attack.  You use the plywood and heat it to mess with the Joiner’s thermal vision, hit the floor, then project into the Voidsteel shotgun to kill the Shenti.”

Professor Tuft raised an eyebrow behind her librarian’s glasses.  “Correct.”

Next to me, Lorne didn’t exactly nod, but the look he gave was a little warmer than his usual disgusted glare.  Progress.

At the end of class, we got our quarterly reports back, and in an even bigger surprise, I’d managed to pull ahead with my grades.  I was far from the top of the class, or even the top fifty percent, but I was adequate.

And in Paragon, adequate was amazing.

Lorne glanced over my shoulder.  “Not bad, Chapman.  Keep working.”

Coming from him, he might as well have kissed me.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t get too full of yourself,” he said.  “I have another job for you.”

________________________________________

Basilisk Squad was the second-best team in the academy.  Their strategies were fast and unconventional, and they had a unique, specialized set of Vocations.

And they were losing.

Golem Squad, complete with Kaplen’s sand-projecting replacement, Matilla Geffray, was running circles around them.  Geffray had been assaulted by Green Hands before the semester, the incident with baseball bats that Brin had told me about on the night we met.  Despite that, the first-year showed remarkable combat prowess with her sand.

Despite their mobility, Basilisk Squad looked wobbly, uncoordinated.  A slower reaction to a metal shard from Lorne, or a miscommunication that left them crushed by Naru’s water wave.  Added up, it had a devastating effect.

And I knew why.  Because I’d drugged them.

Twenty minutes before the fight, I’d used my illusions to sneak in dustings of a grey powder into their morning tea.  Which, according to Lorne, was a potent mix of several drugs he’d purchased from the black market.

Now, it was making them slower on the uptake, more prone to panic, less capable of strategizing on the fly.  I’d helped sabotage Basilisk Squad before, but this was a whole new level.

Lorne jabbed his hand forward, and a metal cable ripped off the last enemy armband.  In less than two minutes, the battle was over.

Adam Lynde, the leader of Basilisk Squad, pushed himself off the dirt, his clothes dripping with water.  He blinked, shaking, and charged at Lorne, roaring something unintelligible.  He projected into his clothes, shooting himself forward.

In one smooth motion, Lorne dodged him and wrapped a cable around his arm, slamming him face-first into the dirt.  A second later, he had Adam’s hands tied behind his back.

Lorne and the squad strode towards me, as Adam screamed expletives at them from behind.  I gave them their usual snacks of sesame crackers and mulled cider.  I could smell the aroma of fresh apples and spices.

“Why was he so mad?” I said, immediately regretting it.

“Lynde was struggling in Harpy’s tactics course,” said Lorne, smirking.  “And now he’s certain to fail it.  He won’t be expelled, but he’ll be held back a year.”

My stomach ached.  “And?” I said.

“He was already on the ropes with his parents.  This will be the final straw.  They’re going to try and Oust him in the summer.”

A wave of dizziness crashed over me, and I felt a spike of nausea.  Out on the pavilion, Adam walked back towards the bridge.  All the anger had deflated out of him, and now he just stared at the ground, a flat expression across his face.

You did this.  I felt like curling up and crying.  Or throwing hot cider in Lorne’s face.  Or bashing my head against the bleachers until my repulsive skull cracked like an eggshell.  You helped.

“You look outraged,” said Lorne.  “Offended.  I respect that you’re keeping it to yourself, but I can read your face.”

“Why?” I asked, my voice quiet.  “Why was that necessary?”

Lorne waved his hand at Deon, Naru, and Matilla.  “Good work today.  I’ll meet you guys in class.”

They nodded, trudging off across the bridge.

“I’ll only say this once,” said Lorne.  “So shut the fuck up and listen.  Do you know who my father is?”

“Lord Hugo Daventry,” I said.  “The Scholar of Thermodynamics.  A legendary physical specialist noted for his accomplishments in the Shenti W- “

“Everyone loved him,” said Lorne.  “A trusted mentor, a true friend, a man who always helped the weak and the vulnerable.  In the colonies, there wasn’t a criminal he couldn’t beat or an old lady he couldn’t help cross the street.  He was one of the strongest projectors in the Eight Oceans.”  He leaned closer to me.  “Want to know why he’s never in the papers anymore?”

“He’s on a mission overseas,” I said.  “Something top secret.”

“Wrong,” said Lorne.  “Don’t think like the other gullible fucks in this country.  When has the Principality ever announced a secret mission?”

“Right,” I said.  “So where is he?”

“Our mansion,” said Lorne.  “Hopped up on painkillers.  After trying to off himself three separate times.”

Scholars.”

“He saw a lot during the war,” he said.  “But in the end, it was what he did to the Eastern dogs that broke him.”

“Can I – can I ask what he did?“

“It’s hard for an enemy to churn out tanks,” said Lorne, “when your factory workers are all dead.  Not that it mattered.  We still would have lost if it weren’t for the Spirit Block.  Now, you know who my mother is?”  He indicated his hand, and we walked towards the bridge.

“Isabelle Corbin.  The Symphony Knight,” I said.  “The Scholar of Music.“

“It was a rhetorical question.  Everyone knows who my mother is.  And she’s killed far more people than my father.  But today, she’s a professor.  She provides for the family, protects her country, acts as a noble ideal for others to strive for and helps the innocent.  Because she does what’s necessary, and doesn’t look back.”

We stepped onto the bridge, above the water more than a thousand feet below.

“But why him?  Why hurt Adam Lynde?”

“Oh,” said Lorne.  “A month ago, he made fun of me in class and everyone laughed.  I couldn’t let that stand.”  He patted me on the back.  “Well done,” he said.  “Consider this an invite to my Spring Equinox party.”

My stomach twinged.  Lorne’s parties were notorious for being exclusive.  If I attended, I could talk to Guardians and billionaires and Epistocrats, maybe even the Headmaster.  And if I had the right conversation with the right person, I could get a fast-track into Paragon’s class next year.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Lorne knew it.

“And,” he said.  “If you do well with your grades next quarter, I’ll loan you a temp body so you can get to the end of the year.  If you do really well, I’ll loan you a Maxine Clive.  I look after my own.”  He turned and strode off towards Citrine Hall, towards a thick cloud of fog.

I glanced towards the ground.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t look back, Ernest,” he said.  “Don’t look back.”

________________________________________

“Adam’s going to be Ousted?” said Tasia.  “His parents would do that?”

I nodded.  The two of us leaned on the railing on the edge of the great pavilion, staring out at the bustling afternoon city below.  “He’s gold-ranked, so his odds aren’t awful.  But at this point, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help him.”  Except confess.

But then I’d be investigated, and they would discover my illegal mercenary work.  Then Parliament or Paragon or both would want heads on spikes.

“Do you hate me now?”

“No.”  Tasia looked away from me.  “But,” she glanced at me from the corner of her eye.  “Maybe, right now, before you get cornered, you should ask yourself what you wouldn’t do.  Draw a line for yourself, so you know when you cross it.”

“I won’t destroy the lives or the minds of innocents,” I said.  Not if I can help it.  Not any more.  “I won’t take another’s body.”  Beyond that, I don’t know.

I thought back to Clementine, to the expensive house on the edge of the water and the mattress in the basement.

“I’ve had a boss like Lorne before,” I said.  “She made all of us compete, and put us through these humiliating rituals.  And when we fell behind or talked back, she had her middle managers work us until we fell over.  She told us she was a war hero, with all these medals for saving people’s lives, but she treated us like livestock.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I promised myself,” I said, “‘when I get power, I won’t be like these assholes.  I’ll treat people right’.  But that’s what they all promise, isn’t it?  ‘The ends justify the means’ is easier to stomach when you’re not the one being sacrificed.”

“If you think too much about this stuff, you’ll get your mind all tied up in knots,” said Tasia.  “You did what you had to do.”

I glanced behind me, at the clock tower at the far end of the pavilion.  Four pm.  “I have to go,” I said.  “I have people expecting me.”  I started walking back down the pavilion, towards the bridge to the cable car back to Elmidde.

“I hope they’re good people,” she said.  “Every time I see you, you come back with more bruises and cuts than before.”

Fuck.  Is she onto me?  I threw up an illusion over her, softening my anxious body language, and shrugged.  “Working out is hard when your body is as defective as mine.”  It was the best excuse I’d prepped.  Anything else I could think of would dig me deeper into a hole.

Maybe I should have asked Wes for help.  He was great at lying.

And like Lorne, like Tasia, like me, he must have thought it was necessary.

“Do you ever think about the person you Ousted?” I asked Tasia, glancing over my shoulder.

“I did.”  She gripped the railing, her knuckles turning white.  “I asked other students what Nell Ebbridge was like.  Whether she was happy here, what kind of life she lived.”

“But.”

“But eventually.” She stared downward.  “I realized that if I thought too hard about her, I’d throw myself off the academy.”  A long silence extended between us.  “So no,” she said.  “Not anymore.”

________________________________________

“Ready,” I said.

Jun held a vial of smelling salts under Joseph’s nose, and I pushed a layer of illusions onto his Pith.  The Commonplace soldier jerked awake on the mattress, coughing.

His eyes flitted around the empty church.  The building itself was real, but instead of us, the man saw the allies he knew and trusted around him, other Commonplace militants with green circles tattooed on the backs of their hands.

How are you feeling?” said my illusion.

Wes floated pieces of paper above Joseph, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.  He’d been the one who’d pointed us here.

Rain poured down outside the windows, drowning out the noise from the streets.  That, too, was real.

Joseph stood up, and began reaching around him, touching the faces of me, Wes, and Hira.  My Vocation couldn’t fool touch, but I’d anticipated this – I’d mapped the illusions of Green Hands on top of our bodies, and made sure we were wearing similar clothes to Commonplace members.  I wore my thin blue combat armor under my other clothes, keeping it concealed.

“Can I have a password, ma’am?  Fifty-Nine Covenant” said Joseph.  The illusion on top of me was Joseph’s direct superior, Darcy Stubbe.

Of course,” said my illusion.

Left-Hira’s hands flickered with purple lightning, as she used her Vocation.  If he was thinking of the password in his mind right now, she would have it.  “‘Twenty-Six Isotrope Binary’,” she said.  “At some point in the conversation, he’ll mention listening to music, and you’ll have to answer with ‘Glass Infinity’.  It’s an I-Pop boy band.”

“An overrated one,” said Wes, water dripping from his light brown hair.  “Their last album sounded like whales being tortured.”

Twenty-Six Isotrope Binary,” my Darcy illusion said.  “That’ll do for now.  But until we give you further security checks to confirm your identity, I can’t discuss high-level matters with you.”  According to Hira, this was how Darcy herself talked.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Joseph.  “And I’m sorry, but I’d like more checks to confirm your identity as well.  The Blue Charlatan may have stolen our passwords, and I’ve had recent contact with her and her group.”

One of my Green Hands illusions at the back of the room spoke up – a new face Joseph wouldn’t know.  “The Blue Charlatan?

“It’s a Jao Lu piece,” he said.  “And the title of a foreign pop song I heard once, I think.  Forget which band.”

Glass Infinity, I think.”  The second hidden passphrase.

“The piece in Jao Lu was one of the first ones created by the Four Daydreamers.  It’s a reference to a Great Scholar, a woman who brought an entire city of Piths into a fabricated reality.  Depending on the game state, it can either be useless, or the best piece in the game.”

I know what it is,” I said with the ignorant illusion, “Are you referring to the illusionist?

Joseph nodded.  “Her, the Paper Crane, Copycat, and our old bombmaker are all part of a group.  The illusionist has been seen in blue armor, and she’s a Whisper specialist, so her Pith is the same color.  I can’t say more right now.”

He launched into a conversation about Darcy Stubbes’ husband and home life, layering his speech with inside jokes and references.  Each time, Hira’s hands crackled with lightning and she gave me the right response.

After a few minutes, the lightning stopped.

“I’ve exhausted my Vocation on him,” said Hira.  “I won’t be able to pull his thoughts anymore.”

“And how’s that operation doing?  The one John was telling us all about, are we still on for next week?”

It could be a trap.  Maybe there was no operation, or it wasn’t for next week.  “I’m not sure.  I’ll have to check on that.

Joseph nodded at us.  “So.  Did she tell you what Buttercup Lodge is?”

Hira shook her head.  “‘Buttercup Lodge’ isn’t in his skills.”  And who’s ‘she’?  Someone high up and important, judging by his tone.

No,” my illusion said, “she didn’t.

“One last question,” Joseph folded his hands in front of him.  “What’s her name?”

Tunnel Vision?  No, she led the mob, not Commonplace.  Someone we didn’t know was in charge of the coalition of Shenti Guns, Tunnel Vision’s mobsters, and Kahlin’s propaganda.  One person, all the way at the top.

“That’s not in his skills either,” said Hira.  “Whatever the name is, he doesn’t use it very often.”  

She didn’t tell me,” my illusion said.

“Yeah,” said Joseph.  “She did.”

He pulled a grenade from his belt, ripped the pin off, and dropped it.  At the same time, he sprinted for the door.

Left-Hira reached her hand towards the grenade, clenching her fist to jam it.  I ran after Joseph, still projecting around his Pith.

In my illusion, I made the lights flicker and go out in the room, like we’d cut the power.  While Joseph’s vision was distracted like this, I moved his perception of the door one meter to the right.

Joseph kept running, and slammed into the wall, feeling for a doorknob that wasn’t there.

It took him seven seconds to find the doorknob by closing his eyes and feeling around.  In that time, Right-Hira crossed the room, put a hand to the back of his throat, and shocked him.

Joseph fell over, twitching.  Hira inserted a hypodermic needle into his arm, injecting him with Jun’s custom knockout drug.  We didn’t have enough evidence for a legal conviction, so Brin would probably just block memory wipe him and release him back into the wild.

You could just kill him.  We’d never have to fight him ever again.  I’d pulled the trigger before, more and more in the past weeks.  But Joseph wasn’t a projector, or someone at the highest levels of Commonplace.  He didn’t stand much of a threat.

Don’t look back, said Lorne.

Draw a line for yourself, said Tasia, so you know when you cross it.

I broke down my machine pistol, floating the pieces into my armor.  Hira’s other body tossed the pinless grenade at me, and I caught it.

“What the fuck,” she said, “is Buttercup Lodge?”

________________________________________

Drowsiness floated through the edges of my consciousness, and I edited it away.

Then came a flicker of Nudging, and a wave of calm, followed by the twitch of the Empathy vocation recording my emotions, and a mental scalpel slicing away at my most recent short-term memories.

One by one I fought them off, remembering the Empty Book and making adjustments until they vanished.

All in all, the process took around four seconds.

Brin leaned back against the flower box on the roof.  “Your turn.”

I extended my Pith towards his, and pushed at his executive and auditory functions.  Nudging him.  Let’s hope I never have to use this for real.  I felt his soul push back, fending off my attack with ease.

Next, I tried Basic Sleep, Basic Calming, and my Vocation.  The first two had the same result, but Isaac Brin didn’t even notice my illusions.  Like many unique Whisper Vocations, there was no defense yet for my ability.

“Better,” said Brin, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth.  Unlike previous times, he didn’t water his plants, giving me his full attention.  “And from what I hear, you’ve improved in class too, and impressed young Lord Daventry.”

At what cost?  I sighed, staring at the grey rainclouds on the horizon.  “What if I told you Lorne was a bully?” I said.  “That he sabotages other students, drugs them, makes their lives miserable.  Could you punish him?  Protect the people he hurts?”

Brin’s smile died.  “That depends.  Who did he go after?”

“No one important.”

“That’s unfortunate,” he said.  He left his answer unsaid.

Let’s make this quick, then.  “Do you have a mission for me?”

“That’s not why I’m here.”

Oh, shit.

He folded his hands in front of him.  “I’m here to warn you: Paragon has launched an investigation into you.”

“What?” I choked.  “Why?”

“Ernest Chapman hasn’t been identified as a target,” he said.  “However, the Blue Charlatan, the illusionist taking out mobsters and Green Hands throughout the underworld, is now a target of some interest.”

“I’m helping them do their jobs,” I said.  “Why are they wasting their time on me when there are real criminals out there?”

“Parliament.”  Brin rolled his eyes.  “The divine will of the people.  Five seconds after the Pyre Witch set a continent on fire, and the Immaculate Vanguard massacred the Edwina, the Conclave got disbanded.  Then, the noble citizens of the Principality decided to elect some of the dumbest populists in the Eight Oceans.”

“And they don’t like secret government mercenaries.”

“They don’t like secret government anything.  They think their dreams of transparency are good enough to protect them from the Droll Corsairs and the Shenti terrorists.  Idiots.”

Fuck me.  “What do they know?”

“They know about you on the Golden Moon, killing Honeypot.  They suspect Queen Sulphur’s connection to the raid on Kahlin’s penthouse.  And from interviewing people involved in those, they think you’re an old man.”

“So shut it down,” I said.  “You’re chief of counterintelligence.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Brin.  “Our department’s Whisper-Sec is heavier than any other in the Principality, to guard against a Whisper Specialist getting control of our system.  If I had too much power, and someone hijacked me, they could dismantle our nation’s defenses.”

Panic bubbled up in my stomach, and my chest tightened.  “But you’re still the chief,” I said.  “Suppress it.  Feed them bad information.”

“You’re not understanding,” he said.  “The system is designed to protect against anyone being compromised, including me.  If I try to shut down an investigation, that’ll send up flags.  I’ll get blocks placed on me.”

“So that’s it,” I said.  “After all the work I’ve done for you, you’re going to let them tear into me.  If they catch me, my life will be over.”

“I’m sorry,” said Brin, his voice even.  “I can’t help you.”

“Fuck can’t.  You won’t.”  I clenched my fists.  “And you won’t even help Lorne’s victims, either.”

“We train our students to be violent and competitive.  We can’t be surprised when they act violent and competitive.”

“Really.”  I stood up to look him in the eye.  “After all that talk about protecting the country, you just what, throw up your hands and pretend like you’re powerless?  You could wipe the floor with a hundred of me, you’re a professor at Paragon, Chief of Counterintelligence, the Scholar of Mass.  You’re not powerless, you’re just a coward.  You don’t deserve to be a Guardian.”

Brin said nothing.

“Either that,” I said.  “Or you were a bully just like Daventry.”

Brin stepped towards me, clenching his teeth.  “I wasn’t a bully.  I did everything I could.”  He raised his voice.  “You don’t know where I come from.  You have no right to judge me.”

“You knew Wes was an Ebbridge, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you still let him use me, put me at risk, throw me into the fire.  Why?”

“Because I thought you two would work together,” he said.

“Because you want to use us.”  After thinking about it, I was fairly certain he’d only threatened Jun to pressure him into joining us.

He shook his head.  “That’s not it.”

“You could have given me a working body any time you wanted to,” I said.  “It would have been a fraction of the money you make every year.  But you didn’t.”

“I donate the vast majority of my paycheck,” said Brin.  “You think I live in a mansion like an Epistocrat?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  But your daughter Eliya acts plenty privileged.

“What do you want, Anabelle?”

I took a step towards him.  “Here’s what I think is going to happen,” I said.  “I think you’re going to milk me for every job I can do, paying me just enough to keep me desperate.  Then you’re going to leave me to rot with some vague whaleshit about the greater good.”  I took a deep breath.  “And I want you to feel a little shitty about it, that’s all.”

“Do you know how many men I’ve had to send to their deaths?” he said.

Again with the greater good.  “I’m not going to pity you.”

“I don’t want your sympathy,” he snapped.  “What I meant to say is – I’ve buried a lot of soldiers.  But if I tried to bury you, I think you’d claw your way out of the grave, even if your coffin was buried a hundred feet deep.  Even if it took a decade.”  He looked into my eyes.  “I push you because every time you break, you end up a little stronger.”

I don’t feel very strong right now.

“And I think by the end of this, you’re going to be stronger than you could ever imagine.”

He’s lied before.  Was he just stroking my ego to keep stringing me along?

But still, a part of me wanted to believe him.  To believe in myself.

“I’ll do everything I can to slow down the investigation without causing suspicion,” he said.  “You’re a good soldier, and I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you.  The truth is, Paragon is working on something.  A big operation, and Guardians are all over it.”

“And you can’t loop me in?”

“I don’t want them to arrest you, so I’m keeping you away from it.  But it’ll be over by tomorrow night.”  He stepped towards the edge of the roof.  “In the meantime, if you come up with an information bounty, I’ll pay you double.  Do you have any other leads?  Anyone who works for Commonplace or Tunnel Vision?”

I looked away from him, towards the expensive houses at the edge of the water.  “I’ll get back to you on that one.”

________________________________________

Two Years Earlier

“You’re an idiot, Gage,” said Guillaume, the head chef.  “You know that, right?”

I avoided eye contact.  He’s your boss, just agree with him. “Yes, sir.”

“Silverware goes in the left sink, dishes go in the right.”  He held up one of Clementine’s engraved plates, shaking it in my face.

Beatrix and the other servants stood at the far end of the kitchen, chatting amongst themselves, casting the occasional glance in our direction.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I stuttered.  “The right sink is full, so I thought – “

“You know this is really basic stuff, right?”

I stared at the tiles on the kitchen floor.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Almost all the maids got this sort of thing down in less than a month.  How long have you been working here?”

“Year and a half,” I mumbled.

“Scholars.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Clementine sure loves to hire the sad idiots.”

“She hired you.”  The words burst out, unbidden, before I could clamp them down.

The room went silent.  The other servants stared at us.

Regret washed over me.  Oh, fuck.

Guillaume said nothing for a good ten seconds, just looking at me.

Then he threw the plate against the wall.  It shattered, pieces raining down on the floor.

“Pick it up,” he said.  “Everyone else, take an early night.  You’re done.”

I knelt, picking up shards of porcelain and throwing them into the trash, holding back my tears.  The other boys and girls filed out of the room, one by one, until only me and Guillaume remained.

Guillaume took a puff of his cigarette, tossed it on the ground next to me, and stamped it out.  He glanced at the huge stack of dirty dishes behind him, remnants of Clementine’s banquet for Gabriel Cunningham and his subordinates.  “You’re on dawn shift,” he said.  “Be done with these and awake by then.  And throw out the leftovers.  Ms. Rawlyn has no use for them.”

Then he strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

It took me hours to clean the mountains of dishes and sort them back into the cabinets.  Forks, bowls, salad plates, bread plates, tea plates.  Why do rich people need so many plates?

After I’d finished dealing with everything else, the last leftover sat in the center of the banquet table: A massive, four-layer chocolate sponge cake, filled with whipped cream and raspberries.  Guillaume was a bastard, but he did know how to bake.

And it was untouched.  Clementine’s dinner feast had been too big, and the guests had all been stuffed by the time dessert rolled around.

I stared at it.  She wants me to throw it all out.

“Fuck it,” I muttered.  Someone ought to enjoy it.  And it had been my birthday a few weeks ago.

So, at two-forty-three in the morning, I cut myself off a fat slice, and sat on the front porch to eat it.

The street was empty.  The only sounds I could hear were the waves, crashing against the sea wall beneath Clementine’s house.  A cool spring breeze blew through my long, dyed hair.

Above the clouds, the multicolored lights of Paragon Academy glowed in the dark.  I’m going to be a Guardian, I thought.  I’m going to forge the stars in my image, and prove them wrong.  I pictured myself up there, feet kicked back in one of the common rooms with a crackling fireplace and a game of Jao Lu.

I gazed up, imagined, and ate cake.  A perfect combination of chocolate and berries and frosting, light and feathery and delicious.  It was the best thing I’d eaten in a long, long time.

A few minutes later, I went to sleep on my mattress.  I dreamed of swimming towards a warm, green light.

When I woke, two hours later, I had lost all sense of taste.

________________________________________

Rain poured down on Clementine’s house.  It trickled down drainpipes and dripped off the edges of roofs, forming rivers and puddles in front of her doorstep.

“You worked here for how long?” said Left-Hira.  Her male body was elsewhere.

“Almost three years,” I said, massaging my aching shoulder.  “And it felt like longer.  I thought I was going to die in this building.”

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “You still can.”  We’re short-handed.  This evening, despite knowing about this job, Wes had vanished from Hira’s house, and couldn’t be found in any of his usual haunts.  This mission was time-sensitive, so we’d just gone without him.

That could come back to bite us.  Silhouettes moved behind the curtains on the ground floor, lit from inside the building.  At least one of them had a gun.

“Remind me,” said Hira.  “Why didn’t you tell us about this lead earlier?”

“Clementine knows about my illusions,” I said.  “She knows my real name, and exactly what I look like.  I want to stay off her radar.  If Paragon finds out that I’m the Blue Charlatan, this will all be over.”

If she finds out about the investigation, or the investigation finds out about her, then – No, I didn’t want to think about that.

I looked down at my left hand.  The grey, cracked skin had spread from my fourth and fifth fingers to my palm and wrist, along with a numb sensation.  I’m running out of time.  The door is closing.

“We could just kill her,” said Hira, shrugging.  “After we get everything we need out of her.  I know what she did to you, I’d be happy to do it.”

How many times had I fantasized about that?  How many times had I lied back on my mattress and imagined my revenge?  Not uncommon for her employees, I imagine.  And I’d taken so many lives in the field, people I’d shot without even blinking.  I’ve killed so many already.  Did I need to kill so many?

But here, pulling the trigger in cold blood felt wrong, somehow.  Out of alignment.  “I’ll think about it,” I said.

“What does she know?”

“A great deal, I imagine,” I said.  Including what Brin was talking about.  “She’s been ladder-climbing in Tunnel Vision’s mob for as long as I can rememb – ”  I yawned.  As I did, a wave of dizziness passed over me.  My eyes ached, fluttering shut for a moment.

“You alright?” said Hira.  “You gonna fall over?”

How much would I give for a nap right now?

“I can deal with it,” I said.

“Lund pe chadh,” she said.  “Lie if you want, but if you fall asleep halfway through, I’m burning down this gaudy shithole.”

Wes was gone, and it felt like I was on the verge of cracking.  But I was on the verge of other things, too.  Acceptance from Lorne, getting enough money for my body, winning, after so many years of failure.

I couldn’t slow down.  I had to keep sprinting down the hill, or I would fall over.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We stepped toward the front door and under a veranda.

“I lived in that basement on a mattress,” I said.  “Almost never left.  It was like this place was my whole world.”

“Well then,” said Hira.  “Welcome home, Blue Charlatan.”  She stuck her hands in her pockets.  “Let’s go fuck up your boss.”

I reached my good hand forward, and rang the doorbell.

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