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Ana

 

At the age of sixteen, I abandoned my home.

 

We had known my body was dying for years. It was a cruel trick of fate. A sad happenstance that when I switched to this uncomfortable semblance of a home for my Pith in escape of a fatal illness, it, too would kill me.

 

My mother told me that there was still a chance to fix this, that she and father could put together the money. But I knew the truth.

 

Our family had nearly crippled itself to get this failure of a replacement body. There was no chance of a second.

 

So even as she comforted me in her arms, her left hand stroking the short blonde hair of my body in which deathly gray was slowly emerging, I plotted my betrayal of her. Paragon Academy, several thousand miles away, gave bodies to its students for free. And I could already project, had already fled to illusory fantasies in escape of my dismal future using my Vocation. It was my only chance.

 

I started with the funds I would need. Tickets to Elmidde were expensive. Housing, costly enough I would likely need to get a job once there. Father kept our savings in his bedroom, set in a small, hidden drawer of the nightstand. It ensured that should thievery occur, he would know it, and defend what was ours. But my Vocation fixed that problem.

 

I crept into the bedroom, fumbling around in the darkness. I could make my parents think it was quiet, but even that strained my Pith. Altering their sight as well would be too much. Eventually, I found it. There was less there than I expected, and I took a greater portion to compensate. Less than an eighth was left by the end of it. I still don't know how they reacted. In truth, I doubt they did well after that, but I'm good at lying to myself. I lied that they succeeded without me as a burden. I lied that as I indentured myself to a midlevel crime boss, their business boomed. And I lied that as I stole the crime boss's heist for myself, thieved a fresh new artificial body for myself, and crippled Paragon students to protect it, they were better off without me.

 

Now, as I transferred away from that fresh body bleeding out on the ground, I wondered if that last lie had been the truth all along. The Scholar of Mass, an idol for his dedication to the Principality's laws, nodded in satisfaction. Then, while I watched through a grey-haired boy's eyes, steely darts flittered out from Major Brin's belt. In a flash, they had flung themselves at the auburn-haired girl, blowing her limbs off. He casually kicked the crippled body into the sea. Then, almost as an afterthought, he flung a final dart after the body. It crunched against the skull, and I watched as the face of my dreams collapsed into bloody mush.

 

I could barely speak, the dissonance tearing at me after my brief respite. Regardless, I pressed on. "Why did you-"

 

Major Brin swept his hand down, cutting me off. He began to lecture, posture stiffening as his darts floated back to him. "The suspect attempted to flee into the sea even after being crippled, presumably due to their projection abilities being able to enable a quick escape once submerged. Judging the risk of escape too high with nonlethal force, she was killed through simultaneous strikes to the stomach and head. The Pith was destroyed, eliminating the chance for identification."

 

I understood. He wanted to know that I knew the cover story. "Understood."

 

After that, it was just logistics. He sent me to a capsule hotel, gave me a rendezvous point for the morning, and left. Now, having slept like a rock, I headed to the ice cream parlor he had directed me towards. I sidestepped the cashier, unsure of his position in Brin's plans, and found the path to the roof Brin had given. The staircase was small, and had nearly rotted through, but I managed to make my way up it with difficulty. At its top, I unlocked the roof's door, and stepped out to see my new boss.

 

The roof was empty. The sun shone on white tiles, a small garden lining the roof's edges, but not a person was there.

 

Or so I thought, until the steel door I'd swung open stopped in its slow motion outward.

 

Isaac Brin stepped out of the shadows, holding the door in his left hand. The hand shot forward, closing my only means of escape with a bang. I barely got out of the way in time. He was dressed in casual clothes, not a Guardian's uniform, but cheap articles not unlike what I wore. It jarred with what I'd seen before, so heavily I could hardly bear it. He remained quiet for a moment, before raising his hand. Wooden planks flew around us, briefly separate before they formed into two chairs opposite each other. As a final touch, a series of nails shot forward in the same manner as his distinctive metal darts, nailing the planks together. I took the hint. I made my way to the closest chair, sitting down as he did likewise. Then, he began to speak, his vocal patterns unchanged even as everything else was.

 

"When I contact you in this manner, you will refer to me not as Isaac Brin, but my chosen alias of Martin. I will begin by paying you two thousand pounds for successful completion of missions, but as the difficulty of those missions dramatically escalates, so too will your compensation."

 

I hesitated for a moment, schemes running through my Pith. My income would be nothing at first, hardly enough to get a new body before this one dies. But it'd increase, and in the meantime, I could supplement my income with theft. It was wrong, but I'd done it before, to those I cared much more for. Besides, my Vocation was perfect for it. Resolved, I nodded, and Martin went on with his well-practiced spiel. "Independently-acquired intelligence will be paid for proportionate to its value. That said, you will not endanger the secrecy of our arrangement pursuing work unconnected to my intentions. Petty theft, mercenary work with third parties, and other such actions will result in a termination of our contract." And, as an unstated truth, my own termination.

 

I nodded to confirm that I understood. Martin went on. "Dead drops containing a stipend for use to purchase food will be given on a weekly basis at this location. This is to be used for both yourself and your team, and while I recognize that the chance to take excess as funding for a new body is tempting, you are to avoid this on pain of losing your stipend." Now, 'Martin' went silent.

 

I nodded once more to hurry along the briefing, yet 'Martin' continued to pause in his orders. A silence began to hang in the air, before Martin started up once more. He spoke now in more normal tones: instructional, rather than commanding. "Originally, I had planned on you alone knowing of my involvement. You would be the sole point of contact between myself and whatever team you decided to form. However, as the result of certain events I will not be disclosing, I have changed my plans in that respect. You will be able to hire a second-in-command, one who you will inform of your team's true circumstances and use as an intermediary between you and myself. This is to be done before any operations occur."

 

At that, I couldn't just nod along any longer. "Why are you assuming I want a team? Why can't I just work alone?"

 

At that, my new boss's posture stiffened and changed, until I no longer felt comfortable calling him Martin even within my own mind. Instead, it was indisputably Major Brin, the Scholar of Mass, who gave his response. "In my years in counterintelligence, I have learned many things, many ones which I would wish to forget were they not necessary in defending this nation. One of the ones which I will never regret, which I can only wish I had learned sooner is this: our enemies are at the gates. They number in the millions, outweighing our forces on an immeasurable scale. This is because on some level, to some degree, there is enmity between everyone. There is no solution to this I can name, but there is a small respite: those few you can trust absolutely to always be at your side. It is why Paragon puts their students in squads. It is why I, against all reason, have given you the ability to trust someone with a secret I have otherwise prohibited: so that you may have at least one person who does not number among your enemies in even the slightest of senses. Toss it aside if you wish, but know I have no place for someone who cannot trust another. I am trusting you in giving you these responsibilities. You, too, must be able to trust if you will solve the problem of my numerous enemies for me. Am I clear?"

 

I nod, but his now imperial mien scowls at it. "I want to hear you say it."

 

Frantically, I vocalize my agreement. "Yes, sir." I wonder what makes him so insistent on this. Who does he trust like that?

 

"Good." He stands, brushing imaginary dirt off of his ragged clothing. "Alongside that requirement, before your first mission, you must be able to defend against Nudging. My five-year old can do that. It's absolutely pathetic that you can't, and it will cripple you in the field. You'll be going to Paragon- it should be easy enough to learn."

 

What? I'm stunned. Scared this just a cruel deception, I can't help but stand as well. "Sir, I'm sorry, but what do you mean by that?"

 

He chuckles. It doesn't bode well, but then he delivers a more realistic reply, one which can't help but settle my nerves. "You'll only be a grey coat, the assistant to one of the actual students. Still, it gets you library access- albeit under a false identity. Read the file for information, but the short of it is, your name is Ernest Chapman while you are at Paragon- and your first day is tomorrow." He pulled a small woven bag towards him with his projection, forcing it into my hands. "This should explain it in more detail. But for now, does that help you understand?"

 

Oddly enough, it does. Unconditional aid made me suspicious. It had ever since my luckily discounted replacement body turned out to be defective. One of my greatest dreams wasn't just fulfilled out of the goodness of his heart- it was half-fulfilled under a crippling set of restrictions so Brin would have a higher-quality pawn. It fit with what the world really was.

 

Major Brin continued. "I can see it does. Good. Once you've acquired both your second-in-command and Nudging defense, report here with both. I'll be here every week at this time. Once both have passed inspection, your dead drop of both the stipend and any missions I have planned will appear here for pickup at the same time. Until my requirements are fulfilled, you will receive neither."

 

I froze. After all I'd done to get this far (that beautiful body), I would starve unless I could fulfill his strict requirements? It fit with my image of him (darts cratering her face to deceive the law), but it was the opposite of how a Guardian should act. And even if I fulfilled them, did enough missions to buy a body that wasn't dying, where would I be? I'd probably be just as bad as him.

 

"That will be all." I still stood frozen. This wasn't acceptable! I needed to start working for my new body now. Then, what felt like a warm, thick blanket fell over my consciousness. I was being Nudged. "Anabelle Gage- leave this, now. Go back to the home I've provided. And don't return to this place until you can undo this."

 

Against my will, my legs walked me on the reverse of my previous path. The cashier I'd previously passed by looked at me strangely, as while my legs forced me home, my face indicated a struggle to undo the command. With difficulty, I mustered it into impassivity. Still, internally, I brought to bear all my will, my rage at this enslavement. But it did nothing. So I laid down in my pod, stomach grumbling, and at last, I was released from the command. Apart from that last section- that still remained. But at this point, I was too tired to bother. Instead, I flipped through the documents I had been provided within the bag.

 

The prize of the collection was my library card, proudly reading on its rigid white cardstock:

Ernest Chapman

Level 0 Access

 

With this, I had access to every library in the Principality apart from Paragon and its higher level areas. They wouldn't have Vocation codices or the pneumatology texts necessary to learn Nudging defense, but they possessed a wealth of other, valuable information. Alongside this were the four hundred pounds enclosed. I would need it, as he had also enclosed the rental paperwork for my pod. I would be responsible for housing myself. The final notable item was my uniform- a grey ensemble cleaner than anything I had ever owned. Other than that, the rest was legal paperwork, verification of my false identity and such. It was important, but merely supplementary to the keystones of the supplies. Mostly satisfied, I settled down for a short nap in preparation for the excitement of tomorrow.

 

I had sunk deep into my sleep, enough to ignore my stomach begging for food, when I heard the buzzer ring. Stumbling out of my pod, I made the difficult trek to the Silver Palace's door. All the while, my body punished me for starving it earlier today. In truth, I more clambered than walked my way there. Still, I made it to the door. Straightening myself, I refused to let whoever was awaiting me see weakness. I yanked it open.

 

Beyond it stood a brown-haired boy, his easy smile catching my attention immediately. It was cocky, relaxed, and so utterly unlike the rest of the boy's posture. He stood with knees mildly bent, eyes darting over me. This was a person used to constant threats, constant awareness. The words which followed only reinforced my impression of him.

 

"My name is Jack Slash." Obviously an alias. Obviously a lie. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Gage." No, it's not. You've never met me, all you know is my appearance, and I am well aware that is more horror than pleasure. I've been sent by one Isaac Brin, in the hopes that you'll choose to let me aid you." That, at least was the truth. The official language, the constant subterfuge- all of them fit with Paragon's counterintelligence head's nature.

 

He handed me a silvery business card, something Brin had not even given me. but for me, the impossible-to-counterfeit document merely served as confirmation. Everything he was aligned with Brin's methods. Is this who Brin wants as my second-in-command?