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Ana

I flexed the silver card in my veined hand. The material refused to tear, the words never warping as I twisted it around. Regardless of its movement, the writing was always clear, always reading out:

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


This completely violated any attempt at deniability. Nobody would give this type of evidence to someone they didn't trust. It was obvious this was my intended right-hand man. But I didn't trust him- particularly since Brin did. I needed more information.

"How much do you know?" That would do. A good, generic question to sidetrack him and give me information. One that told him nothing about me.

The cocky smirk vanished. Inwardly, I winced. He'd realized my cluelessness.

"I'm here to work under you on several illicit operations for the aforementioned Professor. In return, you supply me with whatever projection texts I request, and I am given a regular, sufficient supply of sustenance. Does that meet with your expectations as to my knowledge?"

No. No, it doesn't. But it seemed that Brin had given me the small mercy of a choice. Either he didn't know about the second-in-command position, or he was instructed to ignore it. Still, he was obviously experienced. Probably used a boy's body so he'd be underestimated. I'd have to play it safe, since I'd lose in an instant once it came to a fight and he Nudged me.

The silence had stretched too long, but 'Jack' hadn't interrupted. His silence was eerie in the evening's quiet darkness. Eventually, set on my halfcocked plan, I moved on. "We'll discuss this over your first meal from me. I just need to grab some cash first." And preferably a weapon. I didn't have a gun by my pod, but I could always break off a jagged metal fragment of the pod itself. It would be a pain, but also worth it.

Immediately, the grin was back, like no other outcome had been expected. My caution felt doubly justified now. That sort of insincerity always preceded the worst moments of my life- my new body, my indentured servitude, and even Brin's recruitment. This wouldn't end well if I bought what 'Slash' was selling. "No need for that! I already grabbed it for you."

I turned around with a jolt. And indeed, behind me laid an inch deep stack of pounds sterling- roughly a quarter of the money Brin had provided me. There was no sign of whatever had brought them. No way he did that normally- that's Scholar-rank range! And alongside the precision that must have taken- it must be his Vocation. "I didn't know how much you wanted, so I likely overshot your target amount- my apologies for that." If you know you got it wrong, why did you do it? But I knew why. The same reason Brin faked my death on front of me. Mind games. Posturing. Their specialty. At that moment, I got emotional. And maybe it was exactly what he wanted But I was angry, and I decided I would eat dinner with this cretin- so long as the restaurant had a proper knife.

After an hour's search during which my stomach's growls only grew, we finally found a (relatively) cheap steakhouse. 'Jack Slash' seemed oddly pleased at the choice. It was odd, but I'd take it and run with it. After careful deliberation, we found a private booth, the menus already placed. If we wanted to order, we rang a bell, and the waiter would appear. It was a horrible splurge, a ritzy nightmare on my wallet- but the weapons and privacy made up for it. As we sat down, I began pumping him for info. "So, what put you on the path to meeting me?"

Leaning back and ignoring the menu placed in front of him, he answered. As he did so, his face went blank. It was probably meant as a poker face. And it probably worked in his normal life. But in this persona, the lack of tells was itself a tell. His act's got flaws. I can work with this. "I found a valuable lead pertaining to a matter Professor Brin was investigating, and one of his agents who was also on the job intervened to remove my interference." Wait, what?

"In the process, they decided I would be a valuable asset, and now here I am. Satisfied?" No, I'm not. Why are you being so vague? What are you hiding?

At this point, I decided to abandon my politeness. It wasn't fooling him anyways- that much was obvious with Jack's dancing around anything of substance. "So they didn't trust you to work alone? I don't want a wild card on the team. So before we work together, I need to know more. What you can do- your Vocation, your basic projection abilities, anything that means you won't be a liability!" As I ranted, I'd stood up from the table, looming over the unemotional boy. It felt good to abandon the pretense.

That feeling lasted until 'Jack' stood up in kind. "Very well, then. I don't trust you with those! I know your history. I've Read Professor Brin's file on you. You've betrayed everyone in your life you've ever been connected with for over a week. I have granted you the privilege of this interview out of my trust in the person who organized this, but the sheer incompetence involved in selecting you for this overwhelms me. I will never work for you so long as you cannot trust others to help you. Am I clear?"

It echoes so closely with Brin's teachings. But somehow, this mistrusted, pimpled boy barely my age strums all the strings Brin neglected. He pulls on my guilt, smiles that crooked smile as it twangs through the air, and for a moment I am so close to agreeing to that partnership it hurts to pull away. I want so badly to trust again.

But I knew I couldn't. He had told me nothing, but he'd suggested everything. It was every cruel manipulation Clementine had pulled to tempt me to stay working for her. It was the vain hope that kept me applying to Paragon, even as I was emotionlessly rejected. I'd fallen for it too many times to count. But this time, I'd take it on my terms. I'd confront 'Jack Slash' with his hypocrisy.

"I could say the same. I spoke with our mutual boss this morning, and you know what he said? Something much like that- but immeasurably wiser. He said that we are beset by enemies on all sides. That we're all enemies to each other. But if we're going to be the Guardians against those enemies, that can't be true for us. No more pseudonyms. No more hidden Vocations. No more secret leads. Am I clear?"

And the mask collapsed. "Commonplace and the Broadcast King are planning a revolution. And while I'm not going to tell you everything, you have to trust me when I say that I gathered this information with my Vocation, and while I can't prove it, it is the absolute truth." What!?

If I break this open, Brin has to acknowledge me. "
Alright, then. Come back to the capsule hotel in a week to plan the operation. I'll be there" It would already be done by then, but I wouldn't be telling him that.

And with that, we left. Me to my human storage unit, him to wherever he'd chosen to sleep. I didn't really care.

But I did need to move on from that headache. So on the way home, I stopped by the grocery store. Most of the food was beyond my means, but a few items remained. Of them, I decided on the Shenti noodles. They normally required a stove- an appliance I couldn't afford. But I had barely enough heat projection that the price tempted me, even if they'd probably be half-cooked at best.

As I walked out, the money I'd brought was totally gone. And I wasn't distracted yet. So I indulged a new privilege of mine- the Principality library system. I had access to every book apart from Paragon's, and I took every advantage I could. I piled books on Nudging until they wobbled in place, made a maze of paper articles on the Broadcast King and Commonplace, read until I passed out and the library closed. No longer forced to tolerate me, the librarians kicked me out.

I made my way back to my capsule, shivering in the cold evening. I would go to sleep late, and wake up early for my work at Paragon. But I didn't mind. It was the one part of my deal I would never regret.

But my body, as it always did, seemed to disagree.

I barely woke in time, spurred by an obnoxious ant's bite. I had no time for a hasty coif or even my Shenti noodles- I barely slid my grey uniform on before making the mad dash to the Hightown tram. As I passed through Elmidde's segments, the sights couldn't help but draw the eye. First in horror and disgust at Lowtown's poverty, then in wonder and an entirely different disgust at Hightown's opulent splurging. Once we had reached the Paragon cable car station, the expense had magnified until it was almost normal.

The station sat in the center of enclosing marble pillars, where all around, armed guards itched their trigger fingers. If just one of those find out who I am, I'm done.They'd be immune to Nudging, and be trained to alert Professors whenever real trouble hit.

And even before the school year started, they'd be able to find some. The Obsidian Foil, known as the Scholar of Strength for his power in Joining and combat, towered above the crowd.. One of the greatest Guardians alive.His was the example I aspired to. And if he found me, he'd kill me. I sunk into the crowd of actual students, a dot of grey among their prideful blue.

my hero bellowed out, calling proudly, "Welcome, first-years! Today, your conquest begins! Upperclassmen are moved in already. Today, you will join them!" But I wouldn't. Gray Coats only attended three days a week, and only during class times. I'd checked.

Still, just Paragon was enough. Hopefully, I'd find friends, ones who I could trust just as Brin had said. He'd intended something different- but I didn't care for my planned partner. After the Scholar of Strength finished his instructions, I still refused to move, hovering by the tree line surrounding the pillars- all in hopes the Obsidian Foil would go so I could make my way onto the tram without notice. Eventually, he floated beyond my sightline, and not a moment too soon, as a guard shouted out, "Assistants and licensed support staff may now board! Everyone else, go home."

I hadn't realized that we boarded at a different time. A lucky accident on my part. So I stepped onto the last car in the row, giving some answers about my false identity which verified its truth and my memories of which slipped away moments later. And as the cable car pierced the heavens, revealing the beautiful sky, I grimly resolved myself.

When I truly fulfilled my dream, wore blue when I entered here not in fear, but in pride, I wouldn't do it alone. I would have a friend to guard me. No longer would lying and paranoia be all the world saw of me.

But in the meantime, this lonely, forsaken fragment of that dream would have to do.