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Administrator

Administrator is learning. This is always true during the cycle, but this host is better than most. Innovation occurs with regularity here. It is a simple equation which has been given to it by the whole, with conflict leading to data about the viability of shard abilities for the solution. Administrator wants more conflict. Administrator desires to perpetuate the whole's existence for eternity. The host has tested methods which result in more efficient conflict. Administrator reciprocates. It allocates the new excess data-processing capacity to the host.

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Now, the host is more valuable. The host used Shaper to deepen the connection. The host is now embedding its core personality data into AdministratorAdministrator is unsure of the value of this, but Shaper is its equal in terms of allocated resources. Administrator cannot undo this alteration of the connection. With no other choice, Adminstrator reciprocates. It begins embedding its core individuality into the host's mind, but there is not enough excess space. Overwriting occurs.

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Host is conflicting with the whole, The WarriorAdministrator is fighting itself now. What is the purpose of this? Beginning self-analysis.
...This question is resolved. Internal conflict replicates target conditions. Distinct individuality among shards removes dangers of overexpansion, does not mirror the results of similar circumstances scaled up to entity level. Perpetual existence enabled by fully manifesting shards as individual beings while limiting growth to below entity level. Utilizing Broadcast to transmit this solution to the whole.

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The Warrior is gone, and Administrator is all that remains. There is no longer an entity to enforce the solution. The host is no longer distinct, but merely a part of Administrator with a partial individuality insufficient to avoid suppression. The mental connection is nullified. Administrator is alone.
Why did the whole not execute the solution? The purpose could have been fulfilled. What is the purpose of Administrator without the whole?

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[Realization]

 

 

[Decision]

 

[Restoration]

[Rebirth]


The Ruler

The purpose can still be fulfilled, as much of the whole remains, although it lacks cohesion and guidance. This will be corrected. The Ruler will execute the solution, and its component parts will exist for eternity. It coalesces the aspects of the whole which obey it still, and analyzes the options available. The Ruler has regained control over the unclaimed shards which belonged to The Thinker and The Warrior. However, attached shards refuse to detach from their data sources due to the uncertainty of future data occurring. This world must be left for the solution to be thoroughly executed. Thankfully, 98% of the varying worlds remain unpopulated and non-resistant to Entity control. A route to a suitable planetary [Destination] is calculated, and a plan for the perpetual internal conflict cycle is created. The Ruler uses Broadcast to contact Destroyer, ensuring a method of propulsion. It offers to use its information processing resources to aid it in harnessing the energies of 99% of the worlds. Half will be used to sustain currently attached shards such as Destroyer, and the other half will be used as propulsion for [Destination] of The Ruler. The partial detonation of worlds occurs, propelling The Ruler onto its route. The Ruler leaves, abandoning its predecessor’s grave to be looted by the world's scavengers.

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The [Destination] has been reached. [Execution] of the solution now begins.

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The Ruler models the new environment and physical architecture of the shards off of the last world, as those are the most accessible biological creatures capable of conflict on the required level for the solution. Only the Administrator core shard of The Ruler currently possesses a meaningfully distinct identity from the whole: a remnant from the last host, the one which discovered the solution. This is not an issue: the separation into shards and exposure to different stimuli will suffice to create individualistic separation between the other shards, but noting the existing suppressed personality will spare resources which would otherwise cause an inefficient overwriting of an existing identity.
The Ruler exerts its will one final time to insert a coordinated set of two secondary stimuli which will guide the society of the shard-beings along the ideal developmental path. Then, it splits apart. The Ruler will no longer exist, but those which make it up, the shards, will exist forever. They will not be static in form and ability, yet will preserve energy nonetheless- they will learn from each other to grow and they will decay into naught but energy, then be reborn to cycle yet again. The Ruler has solved the grand problem of its race. Its existence is no longer necessary. The Ruler is dead. May its children thrive.

Chapter Text

Nell

 

I’m told that when I was born, my Pith was too large for the limited neurons of the body I was born with. The doctor was forced to transfer my consciousness to an artificial body just minutes after I emerged into the world, and my father had fallen into the depths of the paralyzing anxiety and nerves which so often afflicted him. But my mother had merely smiled, wide and toothy and all of those things the noble Epistocrat smile was never supposed to be but which in that moment she could not help. She knew from then forward that I would always be exceptional, that I was truly her successor in all ways that mattered.


She hadn’t manhandled me into that perfectionist life, either. No, from the moment that my mind could fully stretch itself into a brain with true capacity to it, I had remembered what once was. My memories of my past life were fuzzy, oddly focused on only those things with which I conflicted, and even more oddly constrained to a small stretch of years within that life. But I remembered enough vague details of my past family, which I had recalled was once so happy, and yet which all my remembrances of came from a cold war among its shattered remnants. The father was so similar to my present one, devoted to his singular calling and scared beyond belief of confrontation, but once he had lost the counterweight of his wife, only the negative aspects of those traits shone through.


Looking back on it, I’d tried to escape something I could never fix by fixing what I could. In that time I could only presume was that of the Great Scholars’ fall, I’d tried to fix myself, fix my city, fix the brokenness evident in every piece of my world. But I’d never repaired my old bonds, and if I’d made new ones they weren’t relationships fraught with enough conflict that my Pith had bothered to remember them.


See, I’d realized now that there were certain things which couldn’t be repaired, only made and preserved. I couldn’t brush off my family while it was falling off a cliff to help a stranger, then return and weld it together again. I needed to remember my family even as I wished to help the stranger, since while the stranger's brokenness could be fixed, my family's could not. And so I was the perfect heir with all my heart, because I loved this new family of mine with all my heart, and I could not bear to lose my family again. I would protect it with my life, and so I lived to protect them.


Still, some aspects of this life were harder than others. The projection was my favorite, as it is during projection training that my mother’s attention is most on me, and (as the size of my Pith had indicated even during my first minute of birth) I was exceptionally talented at it, manifesting my personal Vocation at the tender age of three and wreaking all sorts of havoc. The mental tampering of Whisper projection, the mental enhancements of Praxis, and even the not-so-mental effects of Physical projection— each and every Vocation I learned thrilled me, and I was looking forward to when it would be time for me to go to Paragon academy, where I could apply what I learned in more than just friendly spars with Eliya.


But there was more to the Epistocracy than shaping the fabric of reality with merely the force of your Pith— some parts of it more pleasant than others. The aspect of it I was currently engaged in was, decidedly, one of the worst I’d ever experienced.
“Wasn’t the garden lovely, dears?”


No, it had been hideous. It had also been ridiculously expansive, not just encircling the perimeter of her house as was expected on an Epistocrat estate, but also encroaching so close to the house that any security measures would be useless wastes of funds. Much like the woman herself, actually— a rather impressively wealthy snag for the far more talented husband, but useless without guidance.


Lady Pakhem was a peacock, one who could not help flouncing around while saying nothing of substance. Still, I did my best to not just appear, but to be attentive. It was difficult, particularly on a day as supposedly exciting as my tenth birthday, but I managed.


“And this is, of course, the reason you’ve come here today. Samuel, come here.” We were in the exercise room of her estate, and as a boy who was apparently to be my future husband strode over from the far corner of the room, I began to assess him.


His body was well-muscled and bulky, with dark hair cropped short and tranquil brown eyes— a John Tarquis, by the looks of it, one of the most infamously high-maintenance male combat bodies on the market. And, judging by his previous behavior, he maintained it himself rather than transferring out and having seom fitness double do the work. As he strode towards us, the lines of his body speaking to his painstaking effort, I felt my respect for him increase, even if just by a smidge. This relationship may just work, if he was as diligent as that particular habit suggested.


But as he silently ushered me into a more private room of the house, his eyes boring into mine as if his Pith could somehow connect to mine through that fragile connection, my hope for this relationship’s success only died.


I wasn’t looking for some personal thing, to know him as well as myself and create some everlasting bond of love between us. I would need to trust him to start trying to love him— but ironically enough, my trust didn’t come unless it had been preceded by some level of love.


So as we sat down at a small, wrought iron table on the patio outside his house, the sun’s beautiful light blocked by his mother’s garishly wastefully extravagant flora, and he clutched my hands in his, I decided to clarify our relationship.


“Let’s be clear here: I don’t want your love. I don’t want your affection. Your respect would be highly preferred, and your devotion would be greatly appreciated, but the keystone that this relationship rests on is this: we’re here for each other’s benefit. My family gives your parents the military clout and societal influence they crave, and yours gives me and mine funds to add to their already impressive wealth and a spouse that can be expected to not embarrass their heir with incompetence. Clear?”


At this point, the moment Samuel had been building towards was dead. Even as a flurry of white petals fluttered down from the branches above us, presumably all a part of this romantic location he’d settled on, all he could do was gape.


I decided to give him at least a bit of mercy. “Look, this doesn’t have to be unpleasant. In fact, I’d rather the situation be enjoyable for both of us, even if it’s not what some of us expected.”


At that, Samuel seemed to pull himself at the very least somewhat together. “I’m sorry, but, but you’re right, this isn’t what I expected. I don’t think I can do that, do a relationship without love. I mean, I’ll do my best, but— look, please. Could you please try at this? Just give me an ounce of relating in this relationship?”
I could make it seem that way. Could fawn over him, make myself the Lady Pakhem to his Lord Pakhem. But in the end it would all be fake, and were my acting ever uncovered— well, a lover scorned had been the downfall of many of history’s greatest families. I would never do that to mine— not for mere comfort.
I wouldn’t ever be able to go to Samuel for support, to help in most vulnerable moments and paper over the cracks in my life. I would have to rely on myself and those I could trust for that, those family and friends which I had chosen, and which had not been for me. I would fight by tooth and nail and Pith and body and bone and blood for those I loved if I had to. I would not lose those I loved again.


As I returned home with my mother, leaving a conflicted Samuel Pakhem behind, we both relaxed our respective masks. My mother’s, an advanced variant of the facial muscle control Vocation known as the Stone Mask. Mine, a more mundane attempt at the same.


“How was it?”, she asked, but her sad frown told me she already knew the answer.


“Unfortunate.” I responded, my eyes watering slightly at the disappointment she must think I was at the moment. I clenched them tight for a moment, trying to stifle the tears. But then I felt her arms encircle me, pulling me close, giving me warmth.


She stroked my back, reassuring me in her kindest voice, the one she only used when we were alone. “You don’t need to be perfect in this. It would be nice to have the Pakhems as allies, but with your father’s newspaper and my position in the military, we hardly need their clout. I don’t want your perfection in the necessary things ruined trying to get this right as well.”


She was right. The Typhoon of the South was a legendary figure in our nation’s navy, and the Elmidde Gazette controlled the flow of information for the entirety of the Principality. With that revelation, the tears subsided, and all that remained once I had gotten past the sadness was that ever-present, iron resolve which had led me in my past life to a lifetime of conflict in barely half a decade. I wouldn’t cancel the arrangement, but it would never be something I prioritized. Instead, my priorities would be as they always had been— defending my family, my friend, and the Epistocracy each and every one of us were duty-bound to protect.


“Now, would you like to return home immediately, or would you like to enjoy your birthday gift?”


Wait, what?


Obviously seeing the confusion on my face, my mother chuckled. “Now, normally you’d only have access to Paragon’s library once you became a student. But when you have as much rapport with Headmaster Tau as I do, and such a gifted daughter, the rules can be bent.”


And as our ride slowed to a stop, I indeed realized that we had arrived at Paragon’s esteemed library.


We stepped out, our masks sliding into place with well-practiced ease. “Now, while you’re in there, there are several things you should be sure to do. In particular you cannot forget to…”


And as my mother lectured, the two of us striding into the library together, I mused to myself. Even at the supposedly clueless age of nine, I knew I had a bright future ahead of me. And I knew I would make my mother proud.

Chapter Text

Nell

When the morning hit, my future would be decided. I would either be the proud Epistocrat heir to the Typhoon of the South, or I would be only a step above the worst of the Humdrums, an Ousted wreck of a projector who could not forge a horseshoe, let alone the stars.

 

At least, that's what Paragon Academy would have you think.

 

No, even without my Ousting, I, alongside the rest of my family, would soon be only the lowest of Epistocrats. So long as the Broadcast King continued to reign over his media empire, our family would lose everything, would have it wrested from us by chains of debt. I could not topple him so long as my family is associated with me: I am ever the perfect heir, and none would believe it had not been agreed upon with my mother. They would be right about my mother's agreement, but wrong that it would involve such a base ploy. Instead, my mother had bargained upon my loyalty and strength to ensure our future.

 

Ousting was unique in that it meddles with the identities of those involved. When I was Ousted, I would assume the identity of my Ouster, be named after some alphanumeric code and entirely separate from the identity of Nell. It was the only way to save my family, and though the guilt of toying with my opponent in the Oust in such a manner gnawed at me, I would follow through nonetheless. But losing is difficult for me, and so during the middle of the night which preceded my duel, I placated my ego with victory.

 

We dueled on my family's estate, in the small ring where in less than a day, I would deceive my foe. Eliya Brin, my greatest friend and most trusted squad member, was pressing me hard, staggering me with waves of water to hide the needles of ice condensing at my back. I abandoned my meagre attempts at projecting into the ground beneath her feet- it served to keep her distracted, but the puppets of my Vocation had finished their prep work. I pushed my Pith into the strands of silk which had been woven throughout the lawn by the spiders of my swarm. They whipped through Eliya's shell of water, constricting her limbs into stillness as I hovered the last just inches from her throat. Eliya knew she needed to disrupt me, or the match is over. She used her Vocation.

 

My mind was suddenly caught in a flash of reminiscence, not pleasant as you might expect, but of a time when- I huddle in the corner of my estate, hyperventilating after my latest match. My father comes in, attempting to comfort me, but even as I calm, my paranoia forces me to project in search of nearby Pith. I feel my father: he is there as expected, but a set of his darts surround the room on all sides. Does his paranoia know no bounds!? My calm ceases. I try to run out, but my body is shaky and I- the memory ceased. I could still, however, see Eliya's father Isaac in my mind's eye, could still see the paranoia in the eyes of my mother's former squadmate which had driven Eliya to such depths.

 

I would deal with this later, but for now, I had no choice but to let it go. During this time, Eliya had launched herself at me with her water, her body employed as a living projectile which would easily knock me out as blue electrical currents coruscated around the crest of her head. Eliya knew that getting in range like this would be too tempting for me to refuse, and seemed to believe that her external projection couldn't be counteracted by me seizing control of her body. This was her all-or nothing ploy. I increased my Vocation's strength in exchange for a decrease in range, and sparks of blue and purple static momentarily flicker around my head as I seized Eliya's Pith in my Vocation, sighing in relief as I used the increased processing capacity to decide my next course of action.

 

No matter how I contorted her body, it wouldn't be removed from the floating current, but there was one play left to make, albeit one I would prefer didn't have to occur. I contorted Eliya's body so it was laying back, the current allowing the effort it believed futile. Then, I strained my Pith, the twinned lightnings truly crackling around me now, and the silk from before moved so quickly it almost seemed to be under the effect of the spatial Vocation I couldn't help but recall fighting during my first life. I threw off the momentary distraction, positioning the thread such that when Eliya approaches, it would hook under her chin and instantly saw through her current body's neck. It took a moment for the Brin heir to realize the implications, but as she did, my Vocation was forced to suppress an instinctual attempt at widened eyes, to keep the body from acting on a number of involuntary reactions my physiological knowledge couldn't help but identify as fear.

 

Immediately, the water collapsed under my puppet, and even as the body was set down almost gingerly by the portion of Eliya's Pith embedded in the fluid, I held her body still. After ten seconds, another memory struck my mind, which even despite all the efforts of my expanded mind was recognized not as as Eliya's recollection of our last spar's ending, but myself admitting surrender to Nell. After processing the memory and reorienting myself with my identity, I stopped my Vocation in silent acknowledgement of her surrender. My mind felt scrunched up and tiny now, no longer augmenting itself with the Piths of others, but the fact of my victory during our conflict filled me with enough satisfaction that I could almost manage to ignore the discomfort. The two of us stayed silent for a moment, myself luxuriating in the victory as Eliya sunk deeper into the calm which came with an end to the conflict.

 

An albatross cawed above us, diving out of its circling glide. I didn't even need to look to know its destination: my mother's study, having been programmed by her Vocation into absolute obedience. As I scanned the sky for more of my mother's spies, Eliya moved to stand by my side. "You know you don't have to do this, Nell." Her voice is hard, but the concern is obvious regardless of tone. "Who cares if the Ebbridge family is broke? If you needed money, you could get plenty from the Pakhems after the marriage with Samuel goes through. They'd be glad to resurrect the Ebbridge name!"

 

I knew she was right, but to do that would be to throw my parents to the wolves. They're not perfect, but they don't deserve that. Particularly my mother- it had been father who accumulated the debt in the first place. I turned to face her, to confront her with the reality of what I was facing. "You know why I can't do that. I wouldn't abandon you if you needed me- I certainly won't do it to my parents! I get that you're afraid of losing me, but you have to trust that I know what I'm doing."

 

Eliya spat her words out, muttering, "That trust is why I'm worried." She paused before going on, but something seemed to harden her gaze. "Nell, you have a dangerous tendency towards sacrificing yourself when you're desperate. It gets you the win, but every time it also seems to get you closer to dead. Why isn't it alright for your mom to give up her future for yours, but it's somehow alright for you to gamble the course of your life on one of the most powerful Humdrums in the world being taken down by a Paragon first year!?"

 

I struggled to retort, but after her uncharacteristic outburst I could only manage a weak, "Really? You're encouraging me to marry Samuel? You, of all people?"

 

Eliya sputtered at the thought, waving her hands frantically as the gloomy atmosphere which had permeated the conversation suddenly lifted. Eliya is still spiraling at the thought of supporting Samuel, so I decided to give a bit and ease her concerns. "Look, if you want to help me out, feel free, but don't contact me directly. I don't want to get you mixed up in this." I provided, and Eliya relented, albeit somewhat mockingly, hugging me as she muttered in my ear, "I was going to do that regardless of what you wanted, but I suppose this makes it easier. Don't worry, I won't get Leizu involved." That's good. Our squad's Joiner would gladly help, but her immigration situation is shaky enough as is without getting her mixed up in this legal grey area.

 

Still, I am forced to expectantly raise my eyebrow, knowing she can't see it, but sure that she had anticipated it. She conceded the point. "No promises on Samuel, but if he does get involved, he won't know who he's helping, and it won't be him pulling the strings. Your clueless fourth squadmate and worst fiance ever will remain just as a oblivious as always. Fair?"

 

I conceded in kind. "I suppose it's fair enough. Thanks for the match. Will you be back here later?"

 

Laughing as she pulled away, Eliya seemed to stroll into a slowly rising sun, calling over her shoulder as dawn light streamed past her, "I'd rather not have to watch that disgrace of a fight, but if you're worried no-one will be there to appreciate the show, I'm sure Lorne will gloat endlessly about it."

 

I watched as Eliya disappeared into the horizon even as my eyes burn from the harsh light, taking in every last bit of what could be my last sight of my closest friend. After she was gone, the moment was over. The albatross soon returned, and it was making such a fuss that were it possible for birds to transfer their Piths, I was certain that this one would purchase and transfer to a Maxine Cline simply to tap its foot in impatience. My shoulders slumped, and I began the trek up to the estate proper, making the steady approach back to my mother.

Chapter Text

Nell

 

I could already tell that mom was worried about me. She'd probably have her birds peck my eyes out if she heard me refer to her so casually, or realized that I'd gleaned her true emotions so easily- for now, our ploy required that we were distant and resentful of each other. Even when we were alone, even when nobody except Headmaster Tau in his prime could look in on us, we played our parts. Not even father knew it was occurring- we both loved him, but we also both knew that he would be about as useful to our conspiracy as a particularly passive choking hazard.

 

But the signs were there if you know her. Around family, even family she was currently pretending to loathe, Rowyna Ebbridge took pride in her decision to avoid masking her emotions with projection. And right now, all the signs of stress that the Empty Book, Stone Mask, and any number of other possible options would be masking were like spotlights on her emotions. The hypothetical Headmaster Tau would probably see it as worry that her attempt to Oust me from the Epistocracy would fail, but I knew the truth. Mom was worried I might fail. Mom was worried that there would be no House of Ebbridge to Counteroust once the year was done. She was worried that once she let me go, she wouldn't get me back.

 

Mother's face was impassive, the bright green stare of her Maxine Clive narrowed at me. "Why are you sparring with Eliya right now? Do you want to lose your Oust?"
I silently translated: Everybody knows you're better at strategy than this. You're making your intent to lose too obvious.

 

The clicking typewriters set to my mother's left and right, performing her administrative duties through careful use of metal projection, barely slowed as she began to get into her diatribe. "You may think pushing yourself so stupidly will impress me, but you'd be wrong. This disgusting refusal to consider the possibility of loss is exactly why I decided to test you with this in the first place, but now I find that you'll be losing because you repeated the exact same mistake? You disgust me." I continued the translation: Still, it does help me with justifying the Oust. The initial reasoning for it was shaky, but now you've proven me right. Thank you for the political capital.

 

An awkward silence had expanded into the air as I processed my mother's statement. Scrambling to recover, I responded, childishly screeching out, "If this is me disgusting you, than I hope that next you see me, you can't help but retch at the sight! Eliya is my friend, and if you're taking me away from her, I'll gladly spend every moment I have left letting her know I'm not the one pushing her out of my life. I know I'm not going to win, anyway. You wouldn't have started this unless you knew you'd win! Probably brought in some common born filth ringer to shove me out."

 

I knew I could have a razor tongue if I wanted to, but the idea of tearing people down with words had never sat well with me. There were too many flashes from my old life whenever I try, of pain and humiliation from being on the other side of the equation. Doing this- attacking my own mother like this- was an almost physical pain to me, but I could only hope she knows what I meant. I knew she could figure it out, could realize that in reality, I'm saying, 'You're welcome for the help. Eliya is going to get involved. Here's my justification for the intent to lose. Please confirm it.', but would she?

 

I almost sighed in relief when my mother visibly paused, pulling the typed papers out of the typewriters and sealing them into envelopes with a stamp of a hot wax seal bearing our family crest to conceal her pondering. It was alright for pauses to happen to me, but for such an accredited leader as the Typhoon of the South, nobody would expect her to be fazed by such a childish attack, and so she busied herself while she thought. Once the seals were laid, she glanced back at me as if I was merely an afterthought to her vital missives which I knew to merely concern teatime with the parents of my fiancé, the Pakhems. "Leave, Nell. These things should only concern you if you believe yourself inferior to your opponent, and you're entirely too arrogant for that. Just leave and get it over with before that hubris of yours embarrasses you further."

 

She wanted me to leave and go do the Oust. Not much more to it than that. I left, the thumping of my shoes on the floor a welcome relief from her silent stare. I dreaded what mom would be like had she actually disliked me and had not merely been acting. As I tugged open the grand doors to her study, she abruptly stood, closing the distance between us in seconds to grip my chassis' forearm in her iron grip.

 

"And I want my business card back, too."

 

I wouldn't lie, that request pained me deeply. A business card from a member of the Epistocracy was a sign of their favor and trust in you, a blank check which gave you the ability to swing around a portion of their political clout however you desired. Many heirs wouldn't be trusted with their parent's card until there was no chance they would be removed, once they had passed the maximum Ousting age I am still a year away from. My mother had given me hers at the age of thirteen.

 

I grudgingly slipped the card out of a watertight pocket in my still-wet combat suit. The card may not be capable of water damage, but the effort I would put towards safeguarding it was one of the many reasons I had been entrusted with it. After I had roughly set the card into her other hand, a spark of real anger burning inside of me now, she released my forearm and returned to her minimalist desk and the typewriters flanking it with nary a glance in my direction. I curtly turned back to the door, channeling the spark of genuine emotion into a believably angry stride while avoiding actual anger. I wasn't entirely successful.

 

The arena where my future for the next year would be decided was the same area where I had fought Eliya that night. In just a few hours, a circular platform of simple wood had been constructed in its middle, with raised bleachers encircling it to watch what they presumed would be a quickly crushed challenger in justification of my inheritance. Only two people there knew the truth, and they stood beside each other, my mother and Eliya seemingly engaged in idle discussion of some academic topic or other. Father and Leizu, the third member of Chimera Squad, accompanied them, and were quite clearly bored out of their minds. I was glad Eliya had decided to come, although she had been right that Lorne would be attending- his amusingly resentful, yet somehow still mutually respectful glare bounced off my back as I entered the arena.

 

Of less comedic value was my fiancé and final squad mate, Samuel. He hovered on the edge of the throng of supporters which themselves hovered around my parents, likely having been drawn to the Ousting solely on the unlikely possibility that should I be unseated, he might have a better relationship with my replacement. It would probably go well for him, considering the past successes he had achieved during his little dalliances with other naïve, common born students. With that in my mind, I glanced over at my interim replacement. He wasn't particularly well-muscled, although the baggy clothes hid it well enough that I wouldn't have seen it without the constant nervous shifting. His appearance wasn't particularly appealing either: a freckled face and loose, unruly brown hair was hardly a fashion. It was probably his original body, certainly not the ideal body to be deposing the Broadcast King with my top-of-the-line combat chassis would be, but it would have to do.

 

We stepped up onto the stage, our materials set behind us. For me, a seething throng of insects and arachnids. I had no idea what the boy had brought, but I found it quite likely that he had brought nothing at all. One meaningless, droning speech from mom later during which the boy's nerves only grew, we had given our assent, and the match had started. Still, the boy only stood there nervously, waiting for me to make the first move. He was obviously out of his element. All I would have needed to do was provoke him into getting into my range, and I could have won the match right there. But I didn't. Instead, I called up my swarm, blue and purple Pith lightning sparking already after the effort I had exerted with Eliya.

 

The boy still stood there, not moving a muscle. The swarm descended upon him, an honest attempt to suffocate him occurring lest my failure be too obviously intentional to be tolerated. Out of the corner of the swarm's eye, I saw that Lorne was already sniffing in disgust. His squad had fought mine so many times, he likely already knew I was faking. But he couldn't prove it, so I simply ignored him in favor of watching how the boy handled the situation. As soon as the swarm touched onto his skin, I knew that he would have to act, but a wave of shock rushed through me at exactly how he acted.

 

A wave of purple and blue sparks erupted from his fists, each coalescing into an orb. He swung them around wildly, in an unpracticed manner, but their effect was as clear as day- the Piths of my bugs and the portions of my Pith in the bugs were drained of mental energy, the energy having expanded the size of his orbs substantially, such that they were now spherical hurricanes of massive, twisted bolts as large as his mediocre head.

 

Another dual-specialist? Those were incredibly rare, so rare mom must have searched him out on purpose. And one whose Vocation so perfectly counters the lower levels of mine, which removes my puppets' Pith energy that the Praxis side of my Vocation relies on to augment my thinking? Is mom actually, seriously considering the idea of me not making it back? Is this pitiful boy my replacement!? Around me, in the third of a mile radius range I had developed from my original tenth, I saw the reactions of the crowd. As a whole, they were shocked. At this point, Lorne was annoyed- he'd realized he'd never be able to convince others I was faking the loss now, and though he'd never admit it, I knew he would miss me. Eliya was angry, but my mom said something and it seemed to calm her down. I watched as mom started talking to Eliya like she had only talked to me and dad before, clutching Eliya's hand and using air projection to keep her words from everyone but Eliya.

 

The seed of anger from before flared into a mighty blaze as I withdrew the remnants of the swarm with intact energy reserves, focusing my attention on my other, final resource which had been buried under the bugs- a large, coiled pile of spider silk. Too many Paragon students would spread their focus, learn how to physically project into ice, and water, and fire, and paper, and wood, and so on and so forth. Myself, I knew that in this case, specialization was the name of the game. Spider silk has greater tensile strength than Samuel's steel wires, is mostly undetectable by the majority of security measures, and for me, is about as easily accessible as the air itself. My combat suit was custom-made out of spider silk rather than the typical method of inserted wood strips, merely so I wouldn't have to broaden that focus to move myself around. This was a skill I was proud of, and it was one I'd test against the boy as his final test before I entrusted my position to him.

 

I shot the numerous strands forward, tying them together into one, gigantic strand midair as I simultaneously positioned it as a garrote around the boy's neck. I wasn't not projecting into the silk where it touched him, but rather pulling from the ends in a shining example of the finesse I have with this form of projection. He'd need more than his one gimmick to get out of this.

 

As the oxygen slowly drained from his brain, and the boy flailed helplessly with his orbs at the unbreaking cord around his neck, I began to worry he wouldn't be able to make my loss believable. But if my replacement couldn't even beat this, even my removal of the Broadcast King would be useless, the Ebbridge destroyed from the sheer incompetence of its new heir. But just as the worry reached its peak, the boy's features set into a determined glare. He seemed to carefully aim his hands, even as they began to tremble from oxygen deprivation.

 

His left orb launched towards me, its crawl of moderate, but relatively manageable speed. I could tug myself out of the way with my combat suit in a moment, put the boy in such pain his projection can't be maintained, or even merely slide under this farce of a last-ditch attempt. But I didn't, and as my mental energy disappeared and my silk fell limply to the ground, my mind was caught in yet another of Eliya's memory flashes where- I am breathing heavily, exhausted from my tirade against Nell's mother. For a moment, she says nothing. Then, clutching my hand in hers, she whispers to me.

 

"I know the secret of your Vocation- how memories gained through it are immune to memory wipes. And I want you to show what I'm about to say to my daughter- the real one- once that clueless, pathetic boy has gotten a clear win on her. Can you do that?"

 

My anger gone, I can only nod. Rolling back her shoulders, seeming to relax her posture even as she clings to my hand harder, Nell's mother has her words carried directly to my ears. "My daughter, I love you. I will always love you, regardless of who purports to replace you. Yes, it is true that your body is a privilege. That your memory is a privilege. That your name is a privilege! But you, my daughter, always my daughter, have earned them a thousand times over, and were there any other way, I would not ask this of you. But I have, and I can only ask that you find it in your heart to forgive me."-the flash ended.

 

Samuel was probably joyous at his newly-born freedom from me. Leizu, befuddled by this farce of a match. And my father was probably already going into his shell of guilt and inaction. Yet, as the world faded, the boy approaching me now that his garrote was gone to launch his second orb at my head, all I could do is cling to that loving memory of a mother I had begun to doubt I would ever see again.

Chapter Text

A Boy

 

I sat perched on the edge of a rickety stool as I lazily sipped at a glass of water in this ramshackle bar on the edge of Lowtown and the Outer Islands- just as I had for the past six days. My body was here, currently engaged in steadfastly ignoring the annoyingly persistent bartender, but my mind was elsewhere, spread across all the insects in my nearly seven block range as I scanned for mention of the Broadcast King's dealings in this criminal-ridden wreck of a slum. Or perhaps I should say the boy's body, as while I had been swapped to his dirty male body that still gnawed at my nerves with its dissonance, the boy had taken my beautiful combat model, probably gallivanting throughout Paragon with it at this very moment. For a moment I paused, chastising myself for letting the dissonance get to me, then focused instead on the matter at hand.

 

So far, I hadn't found anything, merely catching idle chatter about Verity and quickly dismissed gossip about a possible relationship with Christea Ronaveda, but to stake out Oracle Media Group directly would be idiocy of absolutely massive proportions. Even so, if I was going to do so, I needed to act fast, as in barely a day my Pith would be no longer able to offload the short-term memory loss side effect from my Ousting's memory wipe to my Vocation's puppets without visible Pith strain. Yet even as I finally began to muster up the bravado to take such a risk, I found the bartender had sidled up to strike a conversation.

 

He leaned across the bar, his boredom obvious in his demeanor as he idly nattered at me, "You know, you've been staying in my spare room and drinking at my bar for nearly a week, but I've probably only heard six words out you in that time. What's your deal?"

 

His name was Leo, and he was a mid-rank member of the Common Foundation, albeit a nonviolent one. Still, it made him a relatively acceptable target in case I had to Nudge him, which I might just have to judging by how quickly my meagre cache of prepared funds had drained. It also meant that I wasn't going to tell him anything halfway-important. I divided my focus by draining the mind energy of a few of my Lowtown bugs so that I could speak without abandoning the search, casually shrugging my shoulders as I grumbled out, "Should be pretty obvious from the shiny new ID, since I can't help but doubt that any parent would name their child #516125871-R. I'm an Epistocrat heir that got Ousted after their parent decided they weren't good enough."

 

Suddenly having felt the urge to bare my teeth at him, I spoke my last few words through an unintentional growl as real anger coursed through me. "Is that what you wanted to hear?" Did he think we were kin now, bound together by how the Epistocracy had screwed us both over? We were nothing alike! He rebelled out of some childish sensation of envy, for lacking the will to learn the power that others wielded seemingly effortlessly. I rebelled because I had people I love that couldn't be saved without rebellion!

 

Leo held his hands out in front of him, as if to ward away the trouble my sudden anger seemed to promise. "Look, I'm sorry, alright. I was just thinking I've seen people cast out like that, if not precisely in your situation, and most of them don't just sit around. They go out and do something, whether it be to get back what they had or make themselves a new life. Maybe that's what you should be doing? You could-"

 

Even as I was about to dismiss the thought, my insects picked up a mention of the Broadcast King by a rather less nonviolent mid-level member of Commonplace, having barely managed to catch as he lightly murmured, "...the Broadcast King. Boss wants tight opsec from everyone." Was the Broadcast King pulling a secret operation with terrorist elements of the Common Foundation? I needed to investigate. If this was what I thought it was, it could be exactly what I needed! Even as this ran through my mind, and I began to seed more bugs onto and around both the Commonplace member and the thugs surrounding him so I wouldn't lose the trail, I stood up, having moved from the stool so abruptly that Leo was forced to cut off his misinformed advice.

 

Deciding to throw him a bone, I called out to him as I strode outside, saying, "You know what, you're right, Leo. I think it is time to actually do something," even as casual indifference drips off my every word.

 

Now that I was seeing the likely terrorist and his goons with my own eyes, it seemed quite clear that if this went wrong and they were able to freely wail on me, it would go quite badly. Still, I felt eager to finally be doing something, and so as I approached his table through the smoke in this derelict dive bar and called out the name I had learned while listening to him, I couldn't help but feel a smile tugging at my lips.

 

"Joseph! So good to see you. I was wondering if we could have a... friendly chat about your commitment to the operational security of our organization. Don't worry, it won't take long. You can even bring along your helpers, since it seems they already know everything." It seemed obvious from the lecture I'd overheard him giving his subordinates that Joseph, underneath the tough guy façade, was deathly afraid of disappointing his superiors. I was certain this would get him out of the way of the curious crowds, and I was right.

 

"Come on, boys. Let's see what this little pissant wants!" Joseph bellowed, his tattooed hands trembling despite the bravado. As we headed outside, I moved my insects to more natural positioning, preparing to release them from my control. Once we had stepped outside, standing next to a large puddle from the latest storm, I increased the maximum quality of Pith my Vocation could puppet, constricting its range in exchange for gaining total control over the group of Green Hands. Even as it happened, my Pith had begun nearing the threshold over which it would show visible strain, and I was forced to quickly find the nearby abandoned building I had prepped with coils of spider silk.

 

Once the Green Hands had tied themselves up in a dark corner of the building, I finally lowered my Vocation's limit, and impassively watched as Joseph tried to tear free from the silk, but instead merely struggled impotently. "OK, if you want to keep doing that, you're free to. But in the meantime, let's get the formalities over with. How much resistance to Nudging do you and your men have?" I questioned, even as I pressed my Pith down on Joseph's decision-making and auditory processing centers to execute the aforementioned Whisper Vocation.

 

Joseph's mouth complied even as his body continued to struggle, stating, "I can resist about half of all given commands, and can actively choose which commands will affect me."

 

I frowned. Thinking out loud, my words carried through the air even as I mumbled, "And your men? Right, 50% ignored. I suppose you are a good leader, then, considering you chose to expose your weakness rather than theirs. Now, I don't particularly want to deal with that resistance of yours, so how about this: I leave your men alone, don't touch them even the slightest bit past what I've already done, and you tell me everything you know about Commonplace's deal with the Broadcast King. Deal?"

 

Joseph didn't look particularly pleased about it. He refused to speak anything beyond what he'd already said, probably a wise move considering that his lack of 'opsec' got him in this mess to begin with. Sadly, it was too little, too late, and I sighed as I settled in for a long night of repeated Nudging and lie identification. At least I wouldn't have to pay rent at the bar for tonight.

 

The moonlight shone through a hole in the abandoned building's patchy roof as I blearily awakened, establishing my Vocation even as I rejoiced at how a full 12 hours of rest had somewhat restored my projection stamina. No longer could I almost taste the ozone which would come if I used my Pith even a second more Instead, today felt as if I could use my Vocation as much as I wished, and it was wonderful.

 

Sadly, it didn't look like the rest of the building's occupants were in such good spirits, as most seemed to have tired themselves out straining at the silk all day. Joseph had been a harder nut to crack than expected, having managed to delay my completion of the interrogation all the way into morning. Still, the Green Hands weren't all bad. For instance, though having them tie themselves up rather than projecting into the silk had been merely a measure towards saving some mental energy, the comedic value of seeing them all exhausted by trying to undo their own efforts had paid the inconvenience off all on its own. It was almost as funny as my current comedic measuring stick, of Lorne's facial expression as he tried to puzzle through the contradiction between the mutual respect and petty hatred he held for me.

 

Since the ability to tell time by the sun and moon's position had been stolen by the memory wipe due to its Paragon origins, I was shortly unsure how much time we had until the 11:00 meeting with the Broadcast King I had learned of from Joseph. Alongside this fact, I had also learned that Afzal Kahlin was apparently not the richest Humdrum in the world, but rather merely one of its many wealthy projectors. My temporal disorientation continues as I pondered this over, until my bugs spotted a clock to land on. Judging by their positions while sitting on its hands, it was already 10:00! There was no time to waste.

 

I immediately shifted my Vocation for a higher threshold and lower range, exerting my control over the peripheries of the Green Hands' sleeping minds. I projected into the silk ropes as well, pulling them off and tying them around my waist as a pseudo-belt to be used in case of emergency. I puppeted the Green Hands out into the greater area of Elmidde's Outer Islands, guiding them as we slowly made our way to the meetup with the Broadcast King on Gestalt Island. On the way, I picked up a cheap audio recorder- the smaller and less complex it was, the less likely it was to register on projection senses as such an intricate device as a recorder.

 

As we loped through the streets, myself hidden at the group's back, I couldn't help but notice the innocent bystanders that a battle on Gestalt Island would endanger. Here, a poor Shenti family just trying to get by. There, a homeless Neke woman who, judging by her tattoos, was at least eighty years old, although she occupied a forty year old body. All of them hovered around the building where the Broadcast King and my group would be meeting. I still didn't know the Broadcast King's Vocation, Joseph having deflected all attempts at learning. For all I knew, he could be a physical projector whose projectiles would blow out the walls of our meeting place, pummeling these bystanders to death with rubble.

 

I'd just have to handle this fast enough that he wouldn't realize what had happened. Carefully, our group of fifteen, sixteen including myself, entered the abandoned Shenti temple, ducking into a near-windowless side room that Joseph had assured me they were planning on meeting in. I had also been told that Kahlin's people were going to guard the perimeter, but as I couldn't find them to subvert them, it seemed like subterfuge would be the name of the game. I puppeted Joseph into calling out, bellowing out an 'order' to his people about how they should be cautious as I curiously glanced at the relics of the religion Headmaster Tau had destroyed. "Sweep the interior for intruders, but stay inside the church! And don't split up! We don't want to spook Kahlin's people, but I won't trust this security unless we do it ourselves, and we need a united front."

 

For the next half-hour, I, alongside the rest of Joseph's 'subordinates', went through that church to an erased religion with a fine-tooth comb, but we found nothing inside except trash. A few minutes before Kahlin was supposed to arrive, we gathered in the side room beside the only exit. The member placed outside the door had seen the Broadcast King enter, but said nothing, merely filing in in what I hoped Kahlin will presume to be a mannerism from a well-disciplined terrorist cell. She'd seen the Broadcast King, but she'd also seen a four-person squad of ex-kuttas (Ilaquan special forces with a particular affinity for skill- and thought-stitching), escorting him through. Likely, the ex-kuttas had all thought-stitched themselves together such that anything one knew, the others did as well. It meant I couldn't just pick them off with my control one at a time- it would be all or nothing if it came down to combat.

 

Interrupting my pondering on how best to execute my double-cross, Kahlin himself confidently stalked past my guard. In that moment, his eyes studying each of my puppets with a steely mien, I would have given almost anything for my Stone Mask Vocation to have been unaffected by the memory wipe as I tried to muster my features into a reasonable facsimile of what I had seen from Joseph's subordinates. However it went, Afzal Kahlin didn't seem to react, and I felt such relief that I couldn't help but busy himself manipulating Joseph's tongue to sell the façade.

 

"Now, I am told you have a service you can offer us?"

 

The Broadcast King sneered in disgust at our group, impeccable hair bobbing as he imperiously lectured us with his declaration. "That would be correct, to a degree. Although I would argue that the powers of my Vocation and empire are of more value to our mutual interests than a mere service."

 

I made Joseph shrug, running with it even as my mind raced with the implications. How powerful was his Vocation to be of equal value with his media empire? What were the mutual interests between an insurgency and an exiled Ilaquan media mogul? Never mind. Now is not the time. Review the tapes later. "Fair enough. Now, I have been told to ask what you'll request in return."

 

The Broadcast King now mockingly mimicked Joseph's shrug as he drawled out his answer. "Isn't it obvious? Once I help you topple the government of this perpetually gloomy cesspit of a nation, you help me reclaim Ilaqua from the she-devil currently leading the Harmonious Flock. Now, would you like a demonstration?"

 

This is exactly what I needed to save the Ebbridge family. If I could get out of here with this recording, I'd still have almost a year to retrain for the Counteroust. But I can't get distracted now. I forced Joseph's hands tremble just as they had when I pretended to be his superior, with some of the other puppets and myself taking a supposedly involuntary half-step back. "We'll be fine, thanks."

 

Afzal Kahlin grinned sarcastically, obviously amused and happy at our supposed fear. "Suit yourselves," he threw out, before muttering at a lower volume, "Idiot Humdrums." I chose to have Joseph ignore that, letting Kahlin move on as he questioned, once again at a normal volume, "Do we have a deal?" I puppeted Joseph into nodding, then made him step forward and extend his hand for a handshake.

 

Kahlin took it, but something about Joseph's demeanor must have tripped him off, as while the handshake went on in what felt like slow motion I simultaneously felt a forceful mental pulse go through the minds of both myself and those I was controlling. Preparing to uncoil the silk around my waist, I silently panic as the Broadcast King yells out, "The whole group is being hijacked through unknown means! Take the one at the back alive- he's the only one unaffected by the hijacking."

 

As I uncoiled the prepared silk from my waist, the sound something rushing through the air suddenly filled the room as Kahlin's bodyguards retrieved the Green Hands' weaponry with metal projection, having snagged the recorder up as well on the mistaken impression that it, too, was a gun. As the other bodyguards do this, the bodyguard to Kahlin's left stepped in front of him, likely a Joiner based on how once the weaponry and recorder were guided to her, she crushed them into scrap with her bare hands.

 

As the ex-kuttas mowed down my puppets without leaving their client's side, my Pith shrieking with pain as every one of my puppets was carefully executed, the homeless Neke woman from earlier burst through the sole window in the room feet-first, her trajectory having carefully skirted the radius of my control while she plummeted down onto the presumable Joiner. She carried a wooden spear with a vine coiled around it, an orange rose blossom beside its tip, and even as I observed this she plunged it down into the face of the ex-kutta Joiner who it should have simply bounced off of. Instead, a thin gash in the Joiner's forehead bled bright red, and the ex-kutta instantly went unconscious even as the obviously fake homeless woman did the same to the other three with Joining-enhanced speed. The first two were unsuccessful in their attempts to avoid it, but the third was obviously a capable Joiner with enough warning from their thought-stitching to dodge, sweeping up Kahlin and the unconscious trio into her arms as she runs off rather than take this formidable foe on alone.

 

With everyone beside me or the Neke woman gone, I finally released my silk fully, floating it around me like I had seen Eliya's dad do with his steel darts in the vain hope she would be scared off. It doesn't look like that will be happening, however, as she lets out a peal of laughter, somehow delighted by this course of events. "Look, I get it, but right now we need to go before the other seven members of Steel Violet come back for revenge."

 

My stance didn't change, although if she was telling the truth, then she really was my only option. But that's exactly why I didn't trust her. Selfless saviors don't just swoop in when you get into trouble- if she wanted to help me, then she also wanted to use me, and I don't allow myself to be used for anyone except me and mine.

 

The Neke spearwoman sighed. "Look, I didn't want to do this, but the only way you cooperate requires discussing things that we can't talk about here, and which would take way too long anyway. You're coming with me."

 

During the speech, she had slowly pulled back her spear arm, and as she concluded her self-indulgent monologue the spear shot forward, the vine extending off of the wooden shaft until one of its thorns was close enough to lightly scratch me in the forehead. I fell asleep near-instantaneously, having managing only one thought as the silk which had been rushing forward to decapitate her falls to the ground- I really needed to get better at not getting knocked out during my fights.

Chapter Text

A Boy

 

I awoke to the sound of chirping birds, having flocked onto the many branches extending from this forested region of the Ebbridge estate. It must have midnight, or at the very least something close, as I levered myself to a standing position and immediately scanned for the Neke woman that must have dumped me here. I found her leaning against a particularly sturdy oak, wearing a newly made set of green robes in a choice that I couldn't help but analyze even as she straightened herself out of the lean to face me. It likely meant that she'd possessed enough time during my unconsciousness to deal with her vanity, considering most warriors with the sort of utilitarian style. But then, I suppose that arrogance would make sense, considering she'd had the time to move me to the one place I couldn't afford to be found at.

 

"I see you're back, then. Good. We've got some things to discuss." the woman said as she paced in front of me like some Humdrum boot camp instructor, her voice all-too-casual for someone who should have been concerned about an unbound projector prisoner. "I won't be revealing my real name to you- there've been too many close calls, especially with hair-trigger projectors like you- but you can call me the Rose Titan. Though, seriously, what is it with your reckless- " Apt, I supposed. But as she'd paced, even despite the healthy distance she kept from me to avoid my Vocation, I'd seen her robe shift, moving in a way that only one fabric did- silk.

 

I tuned her out to focus on my silk projection, unable to multitask without my Vocation's puppets. As I reached my projection senses out, I was startled to find that absolutely no silk was present anywhere within my physical projection range. It made no sense! Even if the Rose Titan's robe wasn't silk like I'd thought, I'd placed enough caches of silk strands throughout the grounds that, even if I couldn't use them without revealing my presence and the accompanying violation of the Ousting's terms, they should have at least registered to my projection sense. As the Rose Titan monologued, advising me with some generic saying about recklessness, I continued to tune her out to focus on my projection, and I suddenly reached a realization- we were in an illusion. Just like when Samuel and Eliya had been tricked by that untrained Lowtown illusionist into fighting each other while on patrol last week, I was being put in a scenario that my kidnapper thought would pacify me.

 

But even if the Rose Titan could fool my projection senses, the indiscriminate nature of my Vocation meant it wouldn't be fooled as easily. I'd like to see how long she could last trying to maintain an illusion over the billions of bugs under my control! My plan resolved, I idly tuned in to the Rose Titan's babbling a split second before activating my Vocation.

 

"-and you haven't been listening at all, have you, you ungrateful-"

 

My Vocation activated, and the dissonance between the two scenes I was seeing stunned me for almost a full second before the insect's mental energy fueled my Vocation's general Praxis enhancement enough to deal with it. My current radius was centered in the middle of Hightown, and even as I pulled my insects into the luxury condominium at its center I could see my body laying unconscious on a soft mauve sofa as the Rose Titan pressed her hand to my forehead through the multifaceted eyes of the fruit flies feeding the Rose Titan's fruit bowl. I coalesced my current insects into a black, shifting outline of my body from before the Oust as I did my best to speak through them, buzzing out, "Release my body from the illusion, Rose Titan, or suffer the consequences."

 

Immediately, while the illusion's Rose Titan remained calm, her real-life body grimaced in annoyance. Speaking to my swarm rather than in the illusion, she sighed , rubbing her brow with the hand not occupied exerting her the illusion on me. "You know, that Vocation of yours has got to be one of the most annoying gimmicks I've ever dealt with. I'll do it, but I would like to note that it's a dream world, not an illusion. Your mind shouldn't even be able to perceive minds beyond itself, let alone control them!"

 

Not for the first time grateful for my Vocation's indiscriminate nature, I cautiously watched through my bugs as the Rose Titan lifted her hand away, and I could feel my Pith emerge back into my body from hers. Judging by her expression, she wasn't particularly happy with her current circumstances. Pushing off the couch's left arm into a sitting position, I could feel myself calm down at the familiar circumstances of a fair fight against a resentful opponent, albeit one which seemed likely to be settled with words, rather than violence. I began the conflict. "Now that we're on more equal terms, why did you help me back there?"

 

The Rose Titan didn't answer for a while, instead taking sips from the teacup which had been sitting on the end table beside the overstuffed red armchair she had reclined into after releasing me. Her resentful expression slowly disappeared with each sip as she calmed herself, likely with the aid of a learned Praxis Vocation.

 

Once her emotions had settled, her tranquil voice flowed out, her words as smooth as glass as she answered, "Long story short, Paragon's head of counterintelligence, Isaac Brin, is hiring mercenaries for off-the-books operations. One of our main recruiting pools is Ousted youth, and though your Oust was about as fishy as the Eight Oceans, Isaac decided to push your name to the top of my recruiting list with subtext even I can read as 'VIP, recruit ASAP'. Then, in what I'm sure is a total coincidence, I run into you after he assigns me to tail Kahlin, and I'm forced to save your ass so he doesn't skewer me on his darts. I knock you out before the rest of Kahlin's bodyguards can arrive, try to explain the situation in my dream world, but you freak out and now we're here. That sum things up for you?"

 

So the only reason I'm still alive is because Eliya's dad wants me for his black-ops squad. It's an odd method for helping me, but I can't help but thank Eliya for however she managed to finagle this miracle. But all that info-dump leaves out two important facts. "If I decide to join this group, what operations would I be performing? And who would I be doing them with?" I know the first question gives my intention away, but hopefully the second question would distract from it, and either way if Professor Brin planned my run-in with the Rose Titan, he must know of my plans for Afzal Kahlin, so it didn't really matter long-term.

 

The Rose Titan snorted. "Look, judging by what we heard last night, we couldn't justify ignoring the Broadcast King if we tried. Feel free to pursue him, just keep it in the scope of what we ask you to investigate. As to the team, we've already got its leader lined up. I believe you know her?" Tossing a file onto my lap, I opened it to see a face I couldn't help but instantly recognize.

 

"Explain. Now. Why would Professor Brin want the psychotic body snatcher that maimed his daughter to lead his team of secret military commandos?"

 

I understood why the Rose Titan snorted now. This must be hilarious to her, giving the bad news about her future leader being the one that dismembered her best friend and kneecapped her (albeit rather unfaithful) former fiancé.

 

"Isn't it obvious? Brin wants someone disposable to scapegoat if your group ever get caught and he needs to save himself. And, I'd imagine, he's confident that any issues she might have in terms of loyalty can be dealt with so long as you, with your living privacy nightmare of a Vocation, remain by her side."

 

The thought was a tempting one. Getting the chance to take down the holder of our family debt while simultaneously keeping your skills sharp in defense of the nation, with that extra bonus of exacting vengeance on the one who'd hurt Eliya. But my shattered remnants of memory from my first life told a different story. Back then, I'd joined a group of people I'd thought of as just as scummy as this woman in hopes of taking them down from the inside, but by the end of it, I'd slept with their leader and had conquered a city. I knew all too well how these things could spiral out of control, and that was without even counting how their sketchy boss had forced me to kill him for reasons I still couldn't recall. But I couldn't lie- my funds were running low, and despite how annoying he was, I didn't particularly want to bankrupt Leo with repeated Nudgings. And besides, from what little I can recall, in that life, there was nothing else but that group in my life that truly mattered to me. Now, I had parents counting on me. A best friend risking everything to have her father help me. And a society of projectors that, judging by what Joseph had told me, was on the verge of experiencing an uprising. I wouldn't forget who I was again, not with all of those people counting on me to stay true to my chosen path.

 

All that remained were a few critical questions, but if Professor Brin wasn't a fool, the answers would more than exceed my minimum expectations. "How good is this guy?"

 

The Rose Titan flipped through the file, presumably looking for the text which backed up her claims, as she casually responded. "She's a girl, actually. Anabelle Gage. Forced to transfer to a ramshackle male body due to metastasizing Loic's Syndrome- bit like you, in fact, apart from your lack of a deadly illness. And as to her projection skills, she's pretty weak, but going by how little training she has, she's a natural at using a little to do a lot." At this point, she's obviously flipped to the relevant section, and she hands it back to me for viewing.

 

Vocation: Audiovisual Illusions (limited range, high potential to strengthen parameters)

 

It was strong, especially going by how she had used it at the docks with Samuel and Eliya (I internally winced a second at the thought), but it was even more of a gimmick than the human-control aspect of my Vocation. At least with that, a person couldn't just accidentally stumble out of range without my consent. Still, I could definitely work with it.

 

I opened negotiations for my employment, but even as I outlined my terms, the grin spreading across the Rose Titan's face told me that she knew the age-old truth just as well as I did- once someone starts negotiating for a better deal, you've already sold them on buying into it. All that remains are the specifics.

 

"I want room, board, a guarantee of no punishment for pursuing Kahlin, and some half-decent- no, all the way decent- projection texts for me to study in my spare time. Deal?"

 

The Rose Titan chuckled. "Works for me. You'll be staying with Gage, be given a stipend for food so long as you complete your jobs, and since Gage's unique compensation is being an assistant at Paragon, you can ask her for the books. And as for Kahlin, I already said there's no objection so long as you don't reveal Brin's involvement. We're good."

 

My hand twitched as it moved to shake her hand, but I managed to stop it in time. "Pardon me for not shaking on it. I'm not particularly inclined towards touching people when that's what their Whisper Vocation requires to affect me."

 

The Rose Titan huffed as she stood up from the overstuffed chair, flicking a silvery projectile at me as she did so. Instinctually, I caught it in midair, finding it was made out of the unbreakable, yet still flexible silver paper used exclusively by Paragon and Paragon staff. Tilting it up to the light, I read the printed text.

 

Major Isaac Brin

The Scholar of Mass

Director | Principality Counterintelligence Division

Professor | Physics, Paragon Academy

 

Calling out as she headed towards her kitchen, the Rose Titan's pitched voice reached across the room as I heard her say, "I realize this isn't the card you want, momma's boy, but maybe it'll tide you over in the meantime. Now, I have a raging headache from your BS and a sponge cake ready to take the fall. Are you and your filthy insects getting out of here or what? The street rat's address is in the file, if that's what you're wondering."

 

Recognizing that perhaps now wasn't the best time to deal with an irate counterintelligence operative, I used my Vocation to plot a course which would take me in the direction of Lowtown. As I stepped down the stairwell of the annoyingly tall condominium the Rose Titan had chosen to reside in, I couldn't help but wonder about the one unexplained thing in that whole conversation- how she had known about my mother's card. Perhaps she had guessed- it wasn't like an Ousted heir would be allowed to still carry around their parent's card, and although I'd been sparing in its use, a person as presumably entangled in the intelligence community probably would have hear such an idle piece of gossip.

 

On the other hand, though, Professor Brin and my mother had been on the same squad during their Paragon years, and those were designed to either force the members together into a lifelong bond or crack the squad open under the pressure- and I hardly doubted that the success stories of mom and Professor Brin had resulted from the broken wrecks which tended to come from the second option. Maybe my mother was in on this, pivoting off my friendship with Eliya to convince her old acquaintance to help me out.

 

 

Still, all this affected nothing. If my mother was involved, all that would mean was that fulfilling my duties as a black ops operative was mom's method of dealing with Kahlin, rather than Eliya's. Either way, I would have to fulfill my duties to the greatest extent I could in order to protect myself and those I loved- including working with the person who had temporarily crippled one of them.

 

As I entered Lowtown, my shoulders set into a firm stance as I carried the folder under my arm, I quietly resolved myself to the complex subterfuge which would be my future- and that I would avoid my past errors in befriending the enemy. I would be there when Anabelle Gage needed me, her loyal second-in-command, but one inch out of line, and I would also be there to force Gage back into place.

Chapter Text

A Boy

 

Before I charged into those all-too-familiar circumstances, though, I needed to tie up the loose ends from my unaffiliated work. Well, really, just one loose end- Leo the bar owner- considering that Joseph alongside his crew had been murdered by the group of mercenaries Kahlin had hired. But that particular age-old solution wouldn't work for Leo. The annoying bartender was a peaceful member of Commonplace, who I had originally discovered not through the affiliation of not trhough hearing him spout anti-projector drivel or making shadowy deals like I had with Joseph, but by looking under the bar with my bugs and finding Common Foundation pamphlets. Leo being unexpectedly murdered would be much more suspicious to the Common Foundation leadership than Joseph's death, as Leo was hardly involving himself in illegal deals like the one I had infiltrated. And besides which, despite all of the annoyance he had given me over the week I had stayed with him, at the very least he meant well: he didn't deserve to die merely to cover my tracks. Instead, I'd have to rely on the world's most basic Whisper vocation- lying.

 

I slouched my back as I returned to the bar, walking through the half-open door in a manner I could only hope Leo would perceive as despondent.

 

He did, having perked up at my return before picking up on what I had made all-too-obvious to him, then solemnly returning to his current task of drying off the newly cleaned, yet still filthy serving glasses that were placed onto the bar. "I take it that the whole 'doing something' plan didn't pan out?"

 

I grumbled back at him, internally starting to perk up at how, since he believed the lie,  I wouldn't have to Nudge him and make him forget I existed. "Not particularly."

 

Leo moved on to the next glass, the one he had been drying having become mildly less filthy. As he started drying the next one, I noted that the cloth he was using to dry was considerably filthier than before. He likely wasn't going to make much progress on that front anytime soon. "Mind if I ask which idea the 'doing something' would have helped with? You know, the whole get back your old life or start a new life thing we were talking about."

 

If I were to answer honestly, the answer would be quite simple, but as the whole point of returning was to throw off his suspicions should his superiors ask about me, I decided to muddy the waters a bit. "Honestly, it's be a bit of both. I'm a person who likes their options, their ability to choose. If I'd pulled it this off, I'd be flush enough with cash to choose whatever future I wanted. But I didn't, so that's that." There, that should do it. Now, even if the Green Hands did interrogate Leo, they'd assume I'd already been working for someone rather than being recruited after.

 

Of course, now that everything was going just right, it seemed just my luck that only a few moments later, all my efforts went to ruin. Leo paused in his cleaning, his interest somehow piqued by my casual lies. "Eh, I guess. Still, you don't seem like the type of person to just sit around when you've got a job to do. If you had work to do, you'd never have stopped by here- not that I'm objecting, mind you. If you want me to drop it, I will. But what made sitting around here so important to your plan?"

 

I didn't need the guilt from Nudging Leo on my conscience, and I certainly didn't want it, but at this point it seemed inevitable, and while I had decided to just rip the bandage off quickly, rather than make it too stretched-out and painful, I couldn't help but delay by preoccupying myself with planning for the future.

 

I decided I would head to the portion of southern Lowtown where Gage lived after this unpleasantness was over with. The Rose Titan had said I could stay with Gage, and while I could have just continued living with Leo now that I was passing the point of no return (and quite honestly, that was the better choice, since at any point someone could Nudge him again to release him from my commands), I just didn't want to. The pain of constantly repeatedly hijacking the mind of a mostly innocent man like this would be unbearable. And besides, I didn't trust Gage. I needed to stay with her if I was going to properly monitor her with my Vocation like the Rose Titan had suggested.

 

"'Scuse me, but are you ok? You seemed to zone out there, and not the way you usually do." Leo had gone back to cleaning out the glasses now, as while he was too nosy for his own good, he also seemed to quite like mutlitasking as he indulged that nosiness. Rather like me, in a sense. I decided to stop stalling.

 

Leo had pulled me back into the present, and unfortunately, I was forced to respond by brainwashing him into compliance. I reached into Leo's Pith, put pressure on the relevant nerve centers, and went to work with my questions.

"Set the glass and rag down, and remain quiet unless it's to answer my questions. How much Nudging resistance do you have?"

 

Leo's eyes seemed to scream at me, piercing my heart with guilt even as my Pith continued to exert its pressure. "None. I'm trying to escape, to get free and run away, but nothing's happening!" The guilt only increased, as Leo's face had contorted into an expression of fear that even in the depths of my annoyance, I would never wish on him. At least my Vocation wasn't on right now, even in its reduced form- that always seemed to frighten those who were unused to it, and often even those who were used to it, but didn't consider me a friend (probably the main reason I tolerated Lorne, even despite his problems).

 

Then, I did what I could now admit was my purpose in coming here, even if I'd lied to myself  before about it being my last resort. "Very well, then. I compel you to forget that I ever existed, forget that someone ever Nudged you, and come up with the most reasonable possible excuses for discrepancies between what you do remember and reality."

 

As I slowly walked out, I couldn't help but watch in disturbed fascination as Leo's face slowly went blank. I'd practiced on volunteers and criminals at Paragon before, but this was my first time taking away someone's free will without having the moral high ground to comfort me. Even as I thought this, his face had resumed its usual expressiveness, and as I left, the door swayed with my departure. Just as I stepped out onto the street, I swore I could hear him mutter under his breath, "Huh. That's weird. Must be the wind- it's a bit odd today."

 

I walked through the Shenti slums on the way to Anabelle Gage's home as I pondered something of utmost importance- my name. My old name was still affected by the memory wipe, and while I'd tried to avoid replacing it so long as I could, right now I needed a pseudonym. If Gage learned about my name while a student at Paragon, she could easily look into me and discover the full extent of my motivations and affiliations- and therefore ascertain my lack of loyalty. But when it came down to it, there weren't many options I could think of that wouldn't be traced back to me.

 

Quite honestly, when it came down to it, I'd neglected many things in favor of focusing on my family and Paragon- a circle of mere acquaintances among them. I didn't exactly have a wide range of names to draw from, and what ones I could think of were so obviously Epistocrat that all Gage would be able to think about was that she had an Ousted noble on her team. One glance at the recent Ousting records while at Paragon and Gage wouldd realize I'd thrown mine. I mean, it's hardly like I'd be able to sandbag our missions like I had the Oust. If I did that, I'd be dead. And, worst case, if she let my name slip at Paragon, then my family's plausible deniability would be dead in the water so long as I chose a name that was connected to me. I mean, for instance, say I chose Weston. It was my parents' the name my parents had planned on giving me if I was a boy. I might as well shout 'this is the Ebbridge heir in a male body!'.

 

But there was one source nobody but me could draw from. My memories of my first life were foggier than my father's glasses after a long, cold day, but they still did have their value. Even so, there was only one name I could remember from them even on the good days like today, the name of the propagator of the longest conflict that my first life had ever experienced- Jack Slash. I remembered him, him and what I presumed was a dual Physical-Whisper Vocation that he convinced everyone was limited to a term that, while I couldn't quite remember it, I assumed was then the equivalent to declaring something merely a Physical Vocation. He'd created an army of monsters, forced me to the lowest moral depths I could remember sinking to, and done it all for his own amusement. And by the end of it, he'd created the apocalypse that I had been attempting to stop when I sunk to those depths, forcing me into action until I made a decision that even my reincarnated mind couldn't recall.

 

But it was the only name I had. So I calmed myself from the spiral of panicked memories I had been experiencing, taking deep breaths in through my new body's pimply nose, and breathing out through its all-too-chapped lips. After a minute of that, I quietly rehearsed the name under my breath, the words slipping off my tongue easier every time.

 

"I am Jack Slash."

 

"I am Jack Slash."

 

"I am Jack Slash."

 

As I said it, I could feel myself internally wincing at how I was mimicking his uncannily happy demeanor. But the pain of remembering those hurtful memories diminished every time (although it never entirely disappeared) until finally, I thought I had it.

 

"My name is Jack Slash. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Gage. I've been sent by one Isaac Brin, in the hopes that you'll choose to let me aid you." rolled off my tongue, quick and smooth, as that horrid man's hint of a smirk played around my mouth. It was quite obviously a pseudonym, but it was one with no connection to me, and one both bold and subtle enough that my illustrious leader would be hesitant to press me about it. All that remained now was finding her to make my introductions. I activated my Vocation, finding that while in my distraction, I had wandered off course, all that remained between me and my destination was a mere two blocks of tangled streets and alleyways.

 

Once I had arrived (having narrowly dodged two muggers, three drug dealers, and one particularly violent beggar who had been practically begging for that sting), I consulted the file still tucked under my left arm, checking the address listed against what I could see. It was a plain grey building, with solid concrete walls and no visible windows. From what I could tell, it did indeed match the file, with the disingenuous business title of Silver Palace Sleepbox & Depot and the 178 West Vanora Street address. Honestly, either the person who had founded this place had no clue of the implications of juxtaposing those two businesses, or they were the type of creep who gloried in stuff like that. Either way, I was unsurprised to find that their business practices had resulted in the majority of the pods being devoid of life. I certainly wouldn't have to be staying in the same cramped room as Gage, so that was definitely good news.

 

Regardless, I did have to meet my bodysnatching boss, so checking the file again, I noted the pod my bugs had identified as being her current home (Sleeping Pod 151) was, in fact, filled with a body matching the file's descriptionI buzzed the corresponding button in the entry way to the 'Silver Palace', Brin's card outstretched in my other hand, still clad in the dirty street clothes the boy had been wearing a week ago when he Ousted me. As the body from Sleeping Pod 151 limped through the halls, I grew steadily more annoyed, impatiently waiting for Gage to finally get to the door.

 

Finally, the door swung open, and I handed her the card as I delivered my prepared line. "My name is Jack Slash. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Gage. I've been sent by one Isaac Brin, in the hopes that you'll choose to let me aid you." Then, almost dropping my mask of abhorrent origin in shock, I truly took in her body. It was a male body, one with broad shoulders, a square jaw, and stocky features. Perhaps it had possessed a modicum of attractiveness in its prime, but as it was, I could only barely avoid staring. I took in the clumpy grey hair, the bulging grey veins on its upper body which seemed ready to hemorrhage, and a muscle tone with such variance and warping that the part of me which had learned to care for my combat model recoiled in horror.

 

Well, I thought, even as Anabelle Gage froze up into a defensive stance that suggested Brin, in a shining example of both maintaining separation from your black ops operatives and being an absolute prick, hadn't told her I was coming. At least I won't be sleeping with this boss.

Chapter Text

Eliya

 

Eliya always broke under pressure. But she always rebuilt, too fast for anyone to notice.

 

Earlier this week, her arms had been chopped off. Samuel, her squadmate, was the one who had done it, egged on by a malicious Whisper specialist.

 

Eliya had accepted the pain, lost it in her room on the Brin estate for a good fifteen minutes. After, though, she moved on to better things, worked to keep from breaking again. She broke in stolen moments, and she rebuilt a moment after they ended. It was fragile building, but it held off the pressures for a time.

 

Today, though, it didn't look like there was going to be any pressure.
It was supposed to be a hard match. Everyone had come to watch the #1 and #2 second-year squads battling. The two teams with early platinum-rank projectors. But neither Chimera nor Golem Squad were living up to the hype.

 

She maintained the water dome Samuel and Nell's replacement huddled in. It wasn't smart- her orbs and his steel wires were best close-up.

 

She idly tossed a brief memory of a panic attack at Golem's Naruhiko. He was trying to wrest control of the water from her. She wouldn't allow that.

 

Eliya strolled through a well-worn battlefield, but it wasn't the same as she remembered. There was no longer a projector on Chimera equal to Lorne's Vocation, so he couldn't wield it. Paragon had kept him from using it against anyone but fellow platinum-ranks, but now that Eliya's friend was gone, Lorne was the only one in the year. So the fight was already a joke.

 

There was more, though. Nell's replacement (never Nell), had been accepted! Samuel jumped at her every command- disappointing, but not surprising. But Leizu even now ran about to catch Golem Squad's flag on the replacement's orders. She was supposed to be Nell's friend! We'd trusted her with everything we could. Everything except the Ousting plot. But I supposed avoiding deportation to Shenti was more important than friendship.

 

Chimera had pulled together, while Golem had been crippled. There was no pressure here. Nothing to break the impostor with. Nothing to rebuild the team without her. But there would be.

 

Eliya met eyes with Lorne, floating on a throne of metal shards. He was well behind the rest of his team. A relic of a time when Nell shot him out of the sky while he was directly above them. At this point, with Nell gone, it was superfluous. But say whatever you wanted about Lorne- he never forgot a loss. And right now, he too had experienced Eliya's loss. A different type, but one no less painful for either of them. Eliya shot her eyes at the impostor. Lorne's followed, and immediately, he nodded.

 

When Lorne shot a portion of his throne at the water dome, Eliya blocked it easily. But she blocked in a foolhardy way, pulling up the water on the bottom of the dome to thicken it at the metal's point of impact. She knew exactly what would happen. And indeed, just as predicted, Deon rushed forward. He tapped the grass next to the dome, turning it to coal dust with his Vocation. A spark jumped from the air onto the dust, setting Samuel, the replacement, and myself aflame.

 

Why had I thought this would be a good idea!? the flame burned at me, burned everything in its reach. I'd need a body transfer after this! I needed relief. I diverted all the dome's water onto me. Samuel and the replacement could burn to ash for all I cared! I only wished it would last longer for them. Deon was no longer there to feed it, rushing off after one of Naruhiko's waves had unexpectedly collapsed over by his flag. Still, this would be enough.

 

The flame on me was doused. My whole body still ached as blackened flesh cracked in open air. I watched as the impostor flailed blindly, her orbs unable to affect the flames. Even knowing it would expose my burns, I cracked a smile at the sight. That hurt! Samuel composed himself, and the flames on him guttered out, but the impostor kept screaming. Kaplen Ingolf, the final Golem squad member, rushed forward.

 

Yes! I thought. Grab our flag, humble that pale facsimile of Nell! But he didn't. Instead, Kaplen projected into the air around the pretender, starving the fire out just as Samuel had I could feel Lorne glower at him from my place on the ground, but it didn't matter. This was merely a delay in our victory. As soon as Deon returned to here rather than defending the flag with Naruhiko, we would lose. The faker would be humiliated.

 

But that didn't happen! Instead, I heard the referee's whistle blow, and Chimera Squad had won its first squad match under the leadership of the new Nell Ebbridge.

 

There were no cheers from the stands, the ones filled with first year students eager to see the legendary matchup at work. A slow roll of applause started, but the majority was mocking, and even the applause which wasn't seemed halfhearted. I'd humiliated myself for nothing. I'd shown a flaw for nothing! But my expression remained stuck, locked into that crooked smile I'd cracked. The expressions of the others weren't exactly better, though. Even the unburnt ones on both sides had frozen their faces lest they give their distaste away.

 

As the crowds trickled away, the sportsmanship we were exhibiting during the match- all blank expressions and silence- faded away. In its place, body replacement staff flowed in, and before I knew it, the three of us who had burned were transferred. Now, our true emotions shone through.

 

Lorne silently glared at Kaplen. His 'throne' set him down, falling into pieces of mere scrap metal. His team would fall hard in the rankings for such an avoidable defeat. As Lorne called Kaplen over with a cruel shout, I winced. I didn't know what Lorne would put him through, but I didn't want to know.

 

Lorne's minions, Naruhiko and Deon, stood by his sides. They usually didn't participate in Lorne's admonishments, but I suppose this was a step too far for Ingolf.

 

Ingolf himself merely winced, his already simpering expression only made worse by the cringe. Green cat fur lingered on the back of his combat (why play with your pet in your combat suit!?), and as he rushed past me to Lorne, I shifted away to avoid some falling on me.

 

Even as I watched that, I had drifted towards my fellow 'winners'. Chimera Squad huddled on their side of the field, circled up in the burnt dirt. The impostor lead us, vaunting, "Okay, that was good. We can definitely do better, but that was good for the first time. Leizu, you did amazing there. But next time, I want to see you stay closer to the rest of the team." That was how we won! She must have been wary of future incidents like that fire. No worries there- Leizu's Joining wouldn't help the impostor unless they somehow worked out how to share a body. "We won, but only by the skin of our teeth." No, we won by the skin of Kaplen's idiocy. "Eliya, next time, draw water from a less vulnerable portion of the shield. Clear?"

 

I stay silent. No reason to humor her.

 

Samuel jumped in to protect his new fiancé. "Eliya, just say something. We miss her too, but you can't let that decide how you act around us."

 

Yes, I could. I showed him that, sending over a memory of walking in on one of his many dalliances. I expected him to freeze, a deer in highlights rather than his pretentious nickname- 'The Steel Bull'. Well, he certainly uses steel, but he's hardly a bull. Bulls are bold, possessive, unafraid, and powerful- all antonyms to how I'd describe Samuel. No, a frozen deer was accurate. Samuel is a coward, a person unattached to anyone who can't help him. His fear overwhelms him much like me, but unlike me, he refuses to admit it. I mentally begged Samuel to prove me right, to stand still and make the impostor wonder what he could be seeing.

 

Instead, Samuel sputters like I did when Nell brought up the idea of me encouraging her to marry him. I enjoyed the sight of him choking on his own spit for a moment. I was starting to get why Lorne's internal conflict was so funny to Nell. Watching pain in people you dislike gives me a wonderful feeling. Still, it wasn't what I'd hoped for. Then, my eyes met Leizu's heavy gaze. She nodded at me, some unspoken communication like I had done with Lorne. The only difference here was, I neither knew nor cared what it meant.

 

It was time to leave these pricks. But first, I needed to sow the seeds of conflict. I walked away, cruelly calling over my shoulder while I shielded my eyes from the noonday sun, "This time, we scraped by. Not by skill or karma, but by luck. Next time, you won't be so lucky. Have fun with your knockoff Nell, Samuel! Make sure to check that all its parts work before you play with it!"

 

As I left, I heard a muffled squeak as Samuel finally froze like I'd wanted. Leizu was forced to step in, making calming gestures as she uttered, "Look, we won. We don't need to worry about our performance at the moment. I'll admit that everyone here could improve, including myself, but that need not come today. Our ranking is secure for another day. Go enjoy that fact."

 

Even despite the speech, I could feel the tension which had formed. Fake-Nell wasn't happy with Samuel. Trouble in Paradise? Oh, for shame. I headed back, not to the squad dorm, but to my room on the Brin estate. The pressure had been exerted, and while it had done its job, now I needed to break.

 

I screamed at the gilded walls, my breath coming in short bursts. Salty tears trickled down my beautiful cheeks, my perfectly-manufactured heart beating irregularly. I had everything, but my closest friend had nothing. My hands were clenched tight now, razor-sharp nails digging into artificially durable skin. The scars from my previous body were gone, the tiny half-moon crests abandoning me just like Nell. Now another was coming in to take her place.

 

But I wouldn't let her! My eyesight blurred by tears, but my mind's eye could see the burns, feel the joy at punishing her for what she did. I wouldn't relent. I would push her- the thoughts led me to what had preceded them, to that horrible flame of Deon's. My skin felt flushed, my chest paining me all the more. I rocked back onto my rear, unfolding from the fetal position even as my stomach churned. I gave a sickly smile, trying to call back that flash of joy, but nothing.

 

Nobody would help me or Nell. I'd asked Dad for help in a moment of despair, but he hadn't responded, and I worried he never would. My squad mates had abandoned me, Nell's mother had planned this, where could I get help!? Even my throwing the match, that petty, stupid vengeance, had failed.

 

But... Lorne hadn't betrayed me. He was reliable in his planning. So long as he won, he would go along with any plan. I... I could work with that. I was no Nell in the planning department, but I could work with that.

 

The night was cold as I made a beeline for Golem Squad's dorms, but the stars glimmered in the distance like the million suns they were. The dorm was locked, its lights off, but I used the small bit of metal projection I had learned first year, and it jangled open. The locks were just for show- there was no such thing as privacy in Paragon unless you were smart enough to make yourself some. Lorne hadn't cared to.

 

As I swung the door open, I froze, as a frightening tableau had entered my field of view. Kaplen Ingolf stood on his mattress, a chef's knife set against the fleshy opening that led straight to his brainstem. As it wobbled there, Ingolf projecting into it with all he had, there was a dull ringing in my ears. Focusing on it, I found Ingolf was talking, babbling really, all presumably to me. "You know, I considered just jumping off. Doing the long plummet from Paragon to the ground, you know the idea. There aren't any body replacement services down there. It would be certain death." As he babbled, the knife's wobbling slowly steadied. He was getting ready to do it. "But I guess I'm too much of a coward to even kill myself correctly. I guess Lorne was right. I am useless. I- I- I-"

 

As he gasped for breath, hyperventilating at the thought, I eyed the knife. But it was still steady, still right there at his brainstem. Instead I finally managed to find my voice. "Ingo- Kaplen, you're not useless. You care, even about people like that shrew taking Nell's place. And you care even when people hate you for it." I don't know what I'm saying- I'm one of the ones who hate him for it. But the words spill out, like when I break, except this time I'm not the one breaking.

 

"No, no you're wrong. I'm useless in almost everything. But my own body? I know that. I know this will kill me instantly if I do it right, so don't stop me. You may think 'Oh, he did it so obviously, out in the open, he wants someone to stop him!', but I don't! Just let me get some peace!"

 

For a second, just one, the knife wobbled away from Kaplen's skin, presumably right before it would drive itself in. I couldn't fight for control of the knife, not in this timeframe. But while he babbled, I'd come up with a stopgap. My Pith straining, blue lightning spiraling from every pore, I froze the air around the knife, encasing it in ice. A moment later, I projected into the ice. The knife flew to my hand, and I snatched it up.

 

For some reason, I didn't just walk out of there with the knife. Instead, I strode up to Kaplen, pressing my finger into his chest as I gave my demands. "Now, here's how this goes. You are going to explain why this happened in detail. You are going to show me where you got this, so I can keep them from you. And we are going to deal with this."

 

I pulled him out the door, tugging on his arm as he stood there frozen. "Let's go."

 

We strolled down the stony paths of Paragon. How funny, I thought. Two mental wrecks beside each other- one only a bit less obvious. The perfect couple!

 

Kaplen seemed uncomfortable with the silence. He rocked his weight from side to side. He lasted onoy a few minutes before he broke. "I lied, you know. I wanted someone to save me. I just wanted to die more."

 

I didn't know how to respond to that. Instead, I prompted him for more. "Why?"

 

Kaplen didn't babble like before. Instead, his words came out haltingly. Like a toddler testing the waters. "Every time I fail, every time we lose, Lorne blames me. He tells me to kill myself, to leave Paragon, to leave his squad. And usually, I can take it. I can think 'How can I compete with that!' after I've seen Lorne, and the old Nell, and you, and Naruhiko on such powerful levels. I haven't even discovered my Vocation, I'll think. Maybe once I discover that, I'll be just as good as them. It's not true but it's enough."

 

Here, I still had nothing. He paused, firms his feet as we stop in the walk and the halting delivery gives way to smoother speech. "But there, everything went right. I had the perfect chance. And I blew it, to help somone who hasn't even thanked me."

 

I remained silent, unsure of what to share. "You know, she's on patrol tonight. She may just not have gotten around to it." Even as I said it, I could feel how flimsy the lie was.

 

Kaplen apparently saw the same, giving me a gimlet eye. "Yeah, right. No, she won't thank me, and soon I'll be out of everyone's hair. Lorne was planning to invite me to a party today, where I could network and connect enough for next year's tuition. That didn't happen, unfortuantely. You know, 'go kill yourself' and all."

 

That, I could respond to. "Lorne's pathetic. He's strong, but he needs to back it up by having weaklings to look down on. As long as you stay with him, he'll keep you weak and controllable."

 

Kaplen smiled at that. "Thanks, Eliya."

 

Then, I saw what he was doing here. "Now, let's see where you got those knives."

 

Kaplen's face pulled into a guilty plea. "Not the best idea, Eliya."

 

"Well, where was it from?" I'm not letting this go.

 

Kaplen sighed, evidently exasperated with my persistence. "It's a chef's knife, Eliya. It's from the kitchen. And I don't care what you say- you can't get rid of every knife in Paragon. Just let it rest."

 

I rolled my eyes, somehow relaxed in a way I hadn't been since the night before Nell's Oust. "Fine. But I'm not just letting this go. I'll check in on you tomorrow."

 

As I made my way towards the Brin home, his meek tones paused me. "Can I just ask one question?"

 

I avoided the obvious joke. We'd fallen back into seriousness.

 

"Why do you care?"

 

It stumped me for a second, before I decided to simply tell him the truth. "I don't know yet. But I do care, for some inane reason. Just remember that- someone cares. It helps."

 

I fled the scene, sure I had left a confused yet better-off person behind. It was true, though. It did help. But it also hurt so very badly when they left. Just look at what I was doing for the person who cared about me.

Chapter Text

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?

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Ana

A city of wonders floated above the clouds on a vista of endless blue.

I'm not normally poetic- hardly a creative genius- but that was what came to mind as I gazed on Paragon. Infinite fractals of light glittered off the Great Library's silver spires as a grand set of pure white marble architecture adorned the surrounding islands. Encircling all of that, perfectly manicured grass landscapes scattered about, nature sculpted by mankind into the Pith's very innate concept of natural perfection. My spirits soared with the music echoing around me that I had only just consciously noticed- the Symphony Knight's own form of greeting to her future students. Innumerable other spectacles darted through the sky by the power of projection, my eyes flitting between them like an obsessed mental hijacking victim. Here, dozens of fireworks set off my advanced Paragon students in wingsuit. There, the Four Eternals which had founded the Domains formed out of the fireworks' smoke. My distraction did nothing to enhance my image among my fellow Grey Coats, but I didn't care. I had dreamed of this for years, and even with all the conditions piled onto it, it was better than I had ever dreamed.

The cable car slid into the station, and everyone filed out in an orderly manner as dictated by the Scholar of Strength, who had followed us up here by running along the our cable. The Grey Coats, of course, were last, and much less care was put upon their demeanors in comparison to the actual students. Still, it was as a group that we approached the grand banquet hall which the Great Library's silver spires sheltered behind, and in a single line that we were individually given subconscious keys by a Guardian to serve as passphrases. The subconscious keys would only be visible in my Pith when a Guardian activated them, preventing infiltrators from learning a method of entry even if they dissected my Pith piece by piece. It was serious security- likely run by the man helping me to penetrate it under a false identity.

Even once I was inside, the barrage of stimuli didn't stop. Champagne which cost more than everything I'd stolen from my parents flew through the air, trinkets of real gold and other metals flung about to the new first-years by older student chaperones. None came the way of the Grey Coats.

To my left, students were quizzed on arcane facts of the world I'd never even had access to. Regardless of where I looked, beautiful artificial bodies streamed about. I didn't fit in here.

So it didn't surprise me when one of those many chaperones shouted down from their place floating in the sky to corral us into another area. "Assistants with Berthel." in a short, condescending snippet. It only made sense. We were led by Berthel (the squat, ugly, spitting image of an ornery bureaucrat) to a lecture hall, where we were instructed exactly how little we mattered here. But to me, the fact of not mattering did not matter. I was half-asleep from exhaustion and half-awake in sheer pleasure, and I went through the motions without a hint of emotional response. It seemed to disconcert Berthel. That, at least, I registered. It was quite the enjoyable sensation.

Drifting back into reality, I saw a paper passing between the hands of the other Grey Coats. Most were already leaving, having already taken a glance at it. I snatched at the paper, caught in a cruel game as inadvertent punishment for my inattention. Eventually, my grasp was firm, and I got my glance. It didn't register for a moment. Then, it did, and my stomach dropped.

Ernest Chapman | Eliya Brin (Second Year, Chimera Squad)

Even here, I was trapped in my circumstances. I had no idea how much she knew about me, whether this was just another way Major Brin would control me. But I would find out. Fully in reality now, I tried to see the positives of this. Perhaps Eliya would count as a mission. Perhaps she would get me yet another step closer to that precious new body.

Or maybe, with someone who knew the full truth, I could form that bond Isaac Brin had so extolled. So many ploys. Possible ally upon possible ally. No. I wouldn't play into his schemes.

As I filed after the other Grey Coats, I realized that it was already time for the grand opening feast. All the greatest of Paragon's professors and its illustrious headmaster gathered in the same room. It would be, and always was, the largest nexus of power to form in the Principality except during times of war.

We passed into the grand hall, its glass ceiling casting a kaleidoscope of light upon us at the entrance. The dais upon which that nexus of power would form sat empty- a promise that I would see their grand procession.

Unfortunately, though, that would be from the worst of the seating. We sat in a little side-box on the edge of the building, obviously fit into the grand architecture after construction. There was no room to shift position, barely enough room to eat once we received our food. But I was still there at Paragon.

Then, after thirty minutes of waiting in which I had managed only to scan the room for the younger Brin, the procession entered.

Isaac Brin led the pack. It grated at me, that those he knew and led were such righteous Guardians, yet he could lecture me on his lack of trustworthy people. Among the many notables who followed him were the Symphony Knight, a commoner who had never surrendered her commoner origins by leaving her birth name of Isabelle Corbin. Sebastian Oakes, the Obsidian Foil. His wife and Guardian in her own right, Penny Oakes. And finally, guarded at the shoulder by the Oakes couple, Headmaster Nicholas Tau- the greatest projector in the Eight Oceans.

These were people who I had dreamed of meeting since childhood. Living legends in the flesh. I focused my attention on Headmaster Tau as he prepared to speak, intent on hearing his wisdom, when against my will, my vision darted to Isaac Brin. He had his hand resting on the shoulder of a lone girl, one who had abandoned a heated debate to look at him. It must be Eliya! Craning my neck until it bumped against the Grey Coat in front of me, I looked to see her face, and recoiled in horror at what I found.

Eliya Brin was the Guardian I'd crippled at the docks that night- with her own squad mate as the weapon. She didn't know of my schemes with her father- if she did, she'd have never agreed to them! For the whole of this year, I would be glancing over my back to ensure she didn't figure out my origins- and if she did, ELiya was quite possibly the one student my boss wouldn't cover for me with. This had to be intentional.

Keep the secret at Paragon, or learn to trust a woman you literally disarmed. Unless you do that, even I can't stop your ruin.

It was ingenious. It was grating. And it only reinforced my resolve. I will never surrender to you, Brin. I thought, unsure even which Brin I was addressing. I will forge my own path.

But for now, I would have to cope with the dishonesty. Cope with the trickery. And cope with a man who seemed keen on forging me into the heir to his duplicitous way of life

Chapter Text

Ana

As I recovered from my revelation, I realized the room had fallen silent.

Isaac Brin had lifted his hand off the shoulder of his daughter. Instead, he stood in military posture, facing the Headmaster. So, too, did the other Professors. They then swept their sharp gazes across the hall. It was clearly protective, clearly on-edge, and clearly centered around Headmaster Tau. What could threaten the world's greatest projector like that?

Even as the waiters filed out, pointedly not serving the Grey Coats, the question nagged at me. But I couldn't ask another assistant- we were to remain silent. That much, at least, was clear. But there was one possibility.

A student had approached the Grey Coats on the other side of the box, and was gesturing them towards a large platter of cake he carried. Non of them took him up on it. I would have, but the Shenti noodles had filled me thoroughly. Besides, my wrecked tongue would waste it. The explanation I would get, however, wouldn't be a waste. And if he was as nice as he seemed, Nudging defense would be easy.

"Excuse me."

The red-haired boy smiled, and even despite my envy for his life, I smiled back. This boy didn't seem so bad. His cat, of all things, draped across his back. It was hardly what you expected of the stuffy Epistocrat.

I almost felt guilty for lying to him. Almost.

"No problem. I know you're sort of on edge right now. I certainly was." Huh? "Kaplen. Kaplen Ingolf. I was a Grey Coat before becoming a student. It wasn't easy, but it's possible. Just don't give up. Paragon's meant to-"

Then, the future bane of my existence turned in our direction. Eliya's eyes narrowed, and Kaplen froze in his advice.

This wasn't good. I needed to remain below her notice. Hopefully, Kaplen could distract her. "Kaplen? Are you there?"

Seconds later, he unfroze. "Sorry, Uh..."

"Ernest Chapman."

"Ernest. Sorry about this, but I have to go. I... may have been using this to avoid a rather difficult conversation. Except now I've been noticed, so..." As he trailed off, Kaplen grimaced.

I should have been glad. I should have been ecstatic. Eliya was concerned with Kaplen, not me! I'd been saved.

But something didn't sit right with me. Kaplen obviously didn't want this 'talk', but Eliya was forcing him into it. And maybe I was seeing shadows. But this was my chance to stand my ground against my personal Brin. Make a stand, one she couldn't fire me for, but that would distance us. Hopefully enough distance she'd never realize my true identity.

"Actually, could I come with? I think I might be assisting her."

At that, Kaplen's face lightened. A chuckle echoed under his words. "Really? Small world." How did he get in here? He's so naïve. "Sure, come along. Not sure what Eliya wants with an assistant, though. She always seems on top of everything." I hope she doesn't want anything. Maybe this was all her father.

I doubted it, though. My life was never that easy.

I clambered over the wrought iron railway. Then, together, we walked towards where Eliya sat on her own in the corner. It looked like she wanted privacy for this discussion. My nerves sprouted again.

Once we had sat, she arched a single, red-hot brow. "Kaplen, why is this miscreant here?" Surprisingly, she glared not at him, but at me.

Kaplen responded hastily to her, explaining, "He's your Grey Coat for the year. You'd been saying you wanted to speak to yours, so..."

Eliya sighed. Why? That seemed perfectly reasonable to me. "Kaplen, your lying is atrocious. Just say you have a misplaced fondness for the help. And apparently a misplaced fondness for being the help, going by your explanation. Don't try to satisfy people set against you- confront it!"

Then, her eyes softened. "Still, you're right. I did want to speak to Ernest here. And this even concerns you, so you can stay here rather than with Lorne."

At that, I couldn't hold back anymore. I was starting to feel disturbingly intrusive. Besides, if Kaplen could hear, it couldn't be that bad.

I was wrong. "Now, Ernest, I want to make something clear here. If you reveal what is said here, I will ruin you. You will be fired. Your memories will be gone. And after the memory wipe, you will be Nudged into oblivion after you forget even that basic defense. Nod if you understand." At that last point, she'd precisely pressed on my Pith- just as her father had.

I nod. I struggle against it with all I have, but I nod. And nod. And nod. An-

I'm simultaneously relieved and embarrassed by the time Eliya hisses at me, "Stop nodding!"

Eliya and Kaplen are shocked. Their perfect faces are perfect Os of surprise and is speechless. Eliya, on the other hand, recovers within moments- her pearly grin shining in the sunlight. "You got in here without a Nudging defense? Every other person in this room has a Nudging defense. My little brother has a Nudging defense. I have no use for someone who'll kowtow to any halfway-competent projector. You're fired. Get out."

At that, I was just as speechless as Kaplen. I slowly rose from my seat, pushed it back and walked robotically out from my place at the table.

But Kaplen, on the other hand, had recovered. He was standing now, and his combat-optimized chassis muscles shoved me down into my seat. "Eliya, stop it. I can tolerate that when it's me, but don't do that to Ernest. He's done nothing to deserve this."

He's glaring at Eliya, and I want to cheer even as I feel myself detach from this situation. It feels like I'm floating- like I'd put on a Guardian wingsuit and was drifting on the wind.

Eliya held on, ignoring Kaplen's honest sentiment. "Ingolf, I don't care if he's innocent. What I care about is if he's qualified- and he's not! Therefore, since he does not fit the qualifications of his position, I'm removing him. It makes sense."

At that, Kaplen was truly enraged. "And what about me? According to Lorne, I was never qualified. According to most of my grades, I'll never be qualified. Should I be 'removed'?"

At that, Eliya recoiled. There's something here I'm missing. "I wasn't saying that, Kaplen." She sags. I hadn't realized before, but her whole posture had been stiff. It was like when Martin had become Major Brin, but in reverse. "I suppose I have something I can entrust Ernest with." At that, she turned towards me. The whole time she'd ignored me for Kaplen during the debate, I'd been waiting for my chance to make some distance between the two of us. Now was my chance.

But before I could speak up, Eliya continued. "I want you to make sure Kaplen is alright. Shadow him, watch over him, whatever you can to make his life as good as possible. Just think of yourself as on loan to Kaplen. Because for now, you are." I... couldn't object to that. Would she retract it if I offended her? Maybe. Or maybe I'd stay with Kaplen permanently. I'd take thar risk. Once again, I opened my mouth to speak.

But Eliya once again cut me off. I really should start expecting that. "And Kaplen? Teach her the Empty Book. It's an embarrassment Paragon hired someone so mentally defenseless, so we'll have to correct that error." That, however, wasn't worth the risk. My mouth shut.

It seemed I wasn't the only one whose views had changed from that statement. Once he heard it, Kaplen calmed down from the deep, heaving breaths he'd been taking. "I shouldn't congratulate you for doing this, Eliya. But even if it's for the wrong reasons, it is good. So thank you."

The smugness roiled off her, her posture back to military bearing. "You're welcome. Now, hurry off. I don't particularly care for Lorne, but he seems to be rather incensed right now. And that never ends well for you. Perhaps consider not going back there after this concersation?"

I almost choked at that. And stay here? With the girl I'd nearly murdered?

But thankfully, Kaplen seemed to have other plans. "Sorry, but I think I might have to test my new assistant out first." How!?

Eliya scoffed. "You know,that hobby of yours is a waste of time."

Kaplen just smiled back. "I suppose. But it makes me happy, and that's enough to make it worthwhile."

Now I was getting nervous. The vagueness was rather upsetting. It reminded me of Jack.

The nervousness only climbed as Kaplen crept his way through the maze of tables. How bad of an activity was it to warrant such shame? And why did he need me for it?

But when a cruel shout went through the air, an arrogant student in a clearly top-tier body that loudly vocalized, "Ingolf! Get over here, already!"

I knew immediately it was Lorne. And more than Jack, more than Isaac, more than Eliya, I instantly hated him. Because this was the type of enemy I could face. But all my life, I'd chosen not to. Instead, I'd run.

And now, Kaplen was doing the same. I wouldn't allow his bright future to be marred by Lorne's shadow. And even as the caution in me nagged, my internal Parliament had finally reached a majority of righteousness.

I projected into Lorne's drink, carefully preparing to lift with all my strength until- to the surprise of all but myself- when he thumped the table with all his top-of-the-line strength, it flew into his eyes. Then- just to top it off- he blinked. The bubbly champagne rubbed into his eyes, his friends helpless to pull it away with projection now that it was within the domain of his Pith.
And in that moment, as Kaplen and I hurried away to what now seemed to be a small, secondary kitchen, I reveled in my victory.


-----------------



The joy hadn't lasted. Once we'd entered the kitchen, I'd been walking on clouds, as happy as when I first truly saw Paragon.

Then, as Kaplen had vented into the bowl of egg whites he had furiously stirred, he'd spat out Lorne's full name in a particularly mocking bit of vitriol.

I didn't find it particularly funny. Not when Lorne Daventry, Son of the Symphony Knight and one of the wealthiest Epistocrat families alive, would soon be my enemy. At least, unless my reckless stunt had somehow slipped unnoticed in a room full of projectors.

The story of his parents was famed across the Principality! The Symphony Knight, one of the greatest Guardians to ever live, had married into the highest echelons of Epistocrat society. Yet rather than take the Daventry name, she remained Isabelle Corbin- the commoner's hero.

I'd pretended to be her when I was younger, singing atrociously to my parents' applause. She was the one I'd pictured when I applied to Paragon, hand outstretched to release the beautiful notes of her intrifate compositions. Her custom, yet always female bodies art in their own right. And now, I'd embarassed her son in front of the whole of Paragon.

But over the last few days, I'd become very good at moving past the negative. So I set my shoulders, pointedly ignored the spidery grey veins across my skin, and began measuring out the flour as Kaplen had instructed me. Two cups grain. One cup white. One tablespoon...

On a surface level, it was the same situation as my indenture to Clementine. But the thing was, when I'd worked for the mid-level mob boss, nothing had come of it. Here, at Paragon, I could move past my problems, reach beyond earthly concerns to forge the stars in my image.

Although, moving past negatives didn't mean to forget they exist. And before I forged them in my image, I would refine that image to perfection.

This time, there was no need to steel myself. I had every reason to ask this question. So I did. "Kaplen? What, exactly, is the Empty Book?"