Yellow and orange sunlight shone down on me, still bright after teatime. The late summer glow illuminated the letter, and my eyes flitted over it, scanning its contents.
717 Darius Street, Elmidde, The Principality
Dear Mr. Gage,
Thank you for your interest in Paragon Academy.
I am sorry to inform you that we cannot offer you a place in the class of 519. Our admissions committee evaluated tens of thousands of applicants this year, and only accepted those with the highest scores on cognitive reasoning, tactical proficiency, and projection potential.
Your scores on the entrance exam were as follows:
Critical Reasoning and Rhetoric – 71/100
Strategy and Tactics – 97/100
Natural Science – 73/100
Psychology and Social Engineering – 67/100
Projection Potential – 58/100
TOTAL: 366/500, out of a minimum of 470 required for consideration
Projection Ranking Estimate: Bronze
We wish you well in your future endeavors. May you forge the stars in your image, and strive to become an Exemplar.
A sinking pain grew in my stomach. A dizzy sensation washed over me, and I grabbed a streetlamp to steady myself. I read the letter over again, to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I paused over every sentence, parsing the meaning of each one.
The sinking sensation spread from my stomach to every muscle in my body. No, no, no. I blinked several times, feeling tears collect at the edges of my eyes.
The rumble of automobile engines drifted out from the streets of Elmidde’s lowtown. To my right, I could hear waves splashing against the docks. To my left, the streets curved upwards, to the nicer buildings of midtown and hightown.
Further up, on the dense forests surrounding the peak of Mount Elwar, I could make out a thin diagonal line stretching up from a building below. A cable car.
Paragon Academy floated on the other end of the line. A vast network of halls, pavilions, and glittering spires on top of hovering chunks of rock, frozen in midair high above the city.
When the sun went down, the outsides of Paragon’s buildings were lit up with lights, in blues, greens, and reds, changing from color to color. How many times had I stared up there, late at night, when the rest of the house was fast asleep?
It was beautiful, but still, I’d always found myself wondering what the view looked like from up there, cozy and warm inside one of those common rooms.
Now I would never know. The rest of my life would be as mundane and grey as the first nineteen years had been. I would die as a scullery maid, without ever mattering much to anything. Or anyone.
My legs carried me back towards the house. Bursting through the front door, I grabbed the blue folder on the table, stuffing it into an inner coat pocket.
It contained the plans for Clementine’s illegal operation. Maybe I could give it to the police, and get the bitch arrested.
Then I strode down the hallway towards the dining hall.
Normally, I’d think about the repercussions, how if I got caught, a stunt like this could end my future, or my life. But right now, it didn’t look like I had much in the way of either.
I pulled the door open a hair and peeked through the crack, looking up and down the length of the table. The criminals inside were dining on slices of the apple-cinnamon cake we had baked. I breathed in the scent, savoring it.
I closed my eyes, picturing the layout of the room, the people sitting there, the locations of the cake pieces. I imagined swarms of maggots, wriggling in and out of every slice, plopping into glasses of wine and onto expensive clothes. In my mind’s eye, I saw every detail, every squirming larva and all the movements they made.
I took this mental image and reached out with my consciousness, feeling the Piths of twelve guests in the room and Clementine. Thirteen webs of light inside thirteen skulls. I touched the edge of them with my soul, on the locations where their minds processed sensory input. And pushed.
Inside, Gabriel Cunningham stood up and screeched, knocking over his chair. He dropped his plate onto the floor, and it shattered. Others followed suit, yelling. Eda Fortescue backed away, swatting at her dress. A broad-shouldered man doubled over, retching.
The image in my thoughts was now layered over their senses. They were seeing maggots.
It may not have been kind, but fuck if it wasn’t satisfying.
The next part was easy. In my mind’s eye, while still picturing the maggots, I added another imaginary layer to my world: an empty space where I stood. An illusion to erase me from their vision.
Invisible to them, I pulled the door open, witnessing the chaos I had created. Men and women swatted at themselves, gagging and backing into the corners of the room. The cooks and other servants burst in from the kitchen, gazing dumbfounded at the commotion. I layered on the illusion for them too, hiding myself from them.
This was my Vocation. The special technique that only I knew how to use. The fundamental expression of my projection. This was the reason I’d thought I had a shot at Paragon.
Of all the guests, only Clementine was still sitting. Calm, she set her plate down in front of her and scanned the room.
That’s strange, I thought. She should be seeing the illusion too.
I felt a warm, soft force press up against my consciousness. It increased in pressure, like a suffocating pillow pushed into my face.
I turned to run, and the pressure increased, wrapping around my mind, filling it with a thick fog.
“Don’t move.” Clementine’s voice rang out in the hallway.
“Turn off your projection.”
My extended Pith slid out of the others’ minds, snapping back into the confines of my skull. My illusory maggots vanished, and her guests stopped panicking. They looked around the room, confused.
There was no force exerted on my body. My muscles weren’t even paralyzed. But no matter how much willpower I summoned up, I couldn’t let myself run away or even defend myself. For reasons that made no sense to my panicking conscious mind, I just didn’t feel like it.
It was the same sensation I had when procrastinating, except a thousand times stronger.
Nudging. The most common of Whisper vocations. A Vocation from long ago that had been adopted into a technique that anyone could use now.
Clementine was projecting into my mind to heighten my suggestibility. She couldn’t control my thoughts, but now, she had command of everything else.
And, like an idiot, I’d had no idea she was capable of that.
She stepped into the hallway, glaring at me, and tapped my forehead with a glossy fingernail. “And after all I’ve done for you.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” I growled.
“You think I’d normally hire someone that looked like you as a servant?” She laughed. “But when you came in for your interview, you told me how you ran away from home. How you had no money, and dreamed of getting into Paragon Academy and becoming a Guardian. You had no chance, obviously, but it moved me. You made me feel so sad. So I took you in. Because I help people.”
You exploit people.
“But not when they spit in my face. Not when they disrespect me and my guests.” She folded her arms for a moment, then nodded to herself. “Go downstairs and grab whatever money you’ve stashed. Bring it here.”
I turned and walked down into the basement, lifting up my mattress and pulling out my key. My feet carried me to my locker and unlocked it.
My hands pulled out the wads of cash inside. My meager life savings. No! No! Fuck you. I gathered them against my chest and jogged upstairs. The mission folder in my coat pocket dug into my chest. When I emerged, everyone had moved into the hallway. I dumped the stacks of bills onto the floor.
“Georgina. Count those, put them in a bag and give them to one of my men.” Georgina, a dark-haired servant, knelt to the floor and began to pick them up. Nobody spoke up for me.
“Ana. Outside. Porch.”
My legs strode through the dining room and through several doors, emerging on a balcony overlooking the sea. No matter how much I wanted to resist, tear Clementine apart, a part of me knew it was important to obey her, somehow. It felt like my brain was being drowned in a warm bath.
The sun set over the water. It illuminated several areas on the balcony still under renovation, lacking a proper railing. Clementine indicated her hand, and I walked over to the edge.
Thirty feet below, water bobbed up against the concrete sea wall. “Turn around.” I spun to face her. A small crowd had gathered behind her, watching my humiliation in silence. Some of the servants looked away. Most of the mobsters stared at me with rage. I’d humiliated them in front of their peers, and that was an unforgivable sin.
“Tell me the truth. What was that? What did you do to us?” The pressure on my mind intensified, and all the anger I summoned was helpless before it.
“My Vocation. Illusions. I projected into your minds and altered your perceptions.”
Clementine reached into her pocket, and pulled out a long straightedge razor with a pitch black handle. She walked up to me, unfolding it. She held it before my eyes, poised to slice my face into ribbons.
She flipped it around, extending the handle to me. “Take it. Put it to your throat.”
I grabbed it, touching the blade to my throat. Without putting any pressure on it, I could already feel a light, warm trickle of blood down my collar. I wanted to curse her with every hateful word I knew, to scream how pathetic and fake and cruel I thought she was.
“Ma’am. Clementine. Please.” I racked my brain for what would sway her. My eyes grew wet, and tears poured down my cheeks. “You don’t have to do this. Please.” The metal edge of the razor was bitter cold.
Please don’t make me take off my jacket. If she saw the file I’d stolen, she’d kill me without a second thought.
Clementine frowned, looking around at her audience. Her voice grew hard. “What, you think I won’t? Think I don’t have the guts?” She placed her index finger to her throat. “Mirror my movements.” She tapped her finger against her thigh.
My hand reached down and tapped the razor to my thigh. It parted my pants like they were made of air, and I felt a stinging sharp sensation where it touched my leg. A thin line of red appeared, and droplets of warm blood trickled down my calf.
Clementine moved her finger back to her throat, and I did the same.
“Don’t twitch too much. That blade was sharpened by a metal projector. It’ll slice through you like you’re made of warm butter.”
She grinned, and touched my forehead with a finger. “Then there’s my Vocation.” Dark blue lightning crackled around her fingertip. Her Pith is blue. That meant she was a Whisper specialist. Like me, her Vocation could mess with people’s minds.
The pressure on my mind shifted, and my throat felt dry. Thirsty. More thirsty than I had ever felt in my life. Pangs rose in my stomach, and hunger was added to the mix. It was like I had spent a week in a scalding desert with no food or water. I wanted to eat or drink something, anything, even if I couldn’t taste it.
If Clementine hadn’t nudged me, I would have run into the dining room and wolfed down every slice of cake in that room. I’d never felt this famished in my life.
I craned my neck to look behind me at the drop below, overcharging my brain to search for solutions. What made her hire me last time? What moved her?
Clementine lifted her finger, preparing to draw it across her throat.
“One year!” I screamed.
“What?” She stopped.
“I only have one year to live.” I spoke between sobs. “The results came back from the doctor a few weeks ago. The decay in my body is accelerating. In nine months, I’ll barely be able to move. In ten, I’ll be too paralyzed to even feed myself. And then, my body falls apart. Literally.”
“Are you telling the truth?” The pressure of her nudging redoubled. I tried pushing back against it, but all I could think about was how much I wanted to down a warm glass of cider, and swallow all the food in the world.
I bobbed my head up and down in a frantic nod. “When they rejected me, Paragon took my last chance at a free body, and I don’t have any money. Please. My life is already worthless. Take pity on me. Don’t take my last year away from me.”
Clementine stepped close to me and whispered into my ear. “I do pity you, poor thing.”
That moment, more than anything else, made me want to kill her.
She leaned away and made motions for people to go back inside, shooing them away. “Come on,” she said. “We’ve got a meeting to finish.”
The others filed back into the door, still looking at me. Judging me. Clementine was the last to reach the door. I let out a half-sigh of relief.
When she grabbed the doorknob, she stopped and turned back towards me. “Cut your hair off. Drop the knife. Then jump.”
My left hand grabbed my blonde-dyed ponytail, pulling it taut. My right hand jerked back and up, feeling only the faintest resistance as it sliced through. I dropped the blade, and it clattered to the wood beside me.
Then I leaned back off the ledge.
I whipped through the air headfirst, and the water rushed up to meet me. It slapped into my face, and I plunged into the sea.
The first thing I felt was the cold. Then the weight, as my shoes and clothes pulled me under.
Below me, the ocean was pitch black. An endless, dark expanse stretching far below out of sight.
I twisted myself around right-side up, then tried kicking. My legs flopped feebly beneath me, slowing my sinking, but not stopping it. I’d never learned how to swim, and my clothes dragged me down, growing heavier by the second.
I stretched my hand up, breaching the edge of the water into the air. Concentrating all my efforts on the area around it, I focused on my knowledge of water.
Surface tension. Up to four hydrogen bonds with neighboring atoms. Cohesive forces pushing outwards to minimize surface area. I pushed my Pith into the area around my hands, willing it to coalesce, strengthen, solidify.
As I slid further down into the water, I extended my fingers over the surface, and gripped. The liquid formed a rough handhold. The surface of the water bent and stretched above me like a trampoline, and then straightened itself.
I grabbed on with my other hand, still clutching my decapitated blonde ponytail in it. Straining with my arms, I pulled myself out of the water and onto the improvised solid I’d created on top of the water.
A splitting headache exploded in my skull from the strain, and the water shook. Blue lightning crackled around the water, as my Pith strained to keep me afloat. I can’t keep this up for long.
Moving my makeshift raft forward, I crawled onto a small staircase carved into the sea wall, off the water.
I collapsed on the hard steps, shivering in my soaked clothes. The setting sun behind me bathed the grey concrete in bright orange light.
I need to drink something.
Unable to resist the urge, I leaned over and chugged salt water from the harbor. I knew it would dehydrate me in the long run, but I didn’t care. Every gulp made my stomach hurt more, made me feel sicker, but I kept lapping it up like a dog, water splashing in my face.
After three full minutes, I stopped. Pulling my head out of the water, I retched, then vomited into the harbor.
Wiping my mouth and spitting, I stumbled back up the stairs. I coughed, nursing a bloated, heavy stomachache. For once, I was grateful I couldn’t taste the acid in my mouth.
In my palm, the cheap blonde dye leaked out of my wet hair, washed off by the ocean. It trickled in between my fingers and dribbled into the water, revealing the withered grey strands it had covered up.
I touched my scalp gingerly, feeling the ragged edges where I had cut. Even my hair was like a boy’s, now. Or like an old man’s. It had been the one part of my body that I tolerated, that didn’t make me feel sick. And Clementine had taken that away, too.
Needless to say, I was fired. And if I tried to go back in for my spare set of clothes, Clementine might do something worse to me.
I pulled off my wet jacket, dropping it on the stairs below me. Clementine’s blue folder dropped out, bouncing down to the bottom steps.
I picked it up and flipped it open. It was soaked through with water, dripping all over my lap. I projected into the water permeating the paper, then pulled, sucking all the moisture out of its damp pages.
Most of the ink on the documents was smudged, but I could figure out the basics of Clementine’s plan if I squinted.
Luxury body shipment coming in at southeast docks tonight at 2300. Cargo ship 9187, Crate Serial 541256h. One female. Two male. Intercept truck en route to midtown at 0130. Haul 400K low, 1M high.
Clementine worked for Tunnel Vision, a known mobster. Tonight, she and her cronies were going to steal a trio of fabricated bodies to sell on the black market. Expensive ones, by the looks of it, worth up to a million pounds between the three of them.
There was a two and a half hour window between when the shipment came in and when they were going to execute the heist. Two and a half hours where the precious cargo would be exposed and vulnerable.
Clementine’s crew wanted to steal a fabricated body? Fine. I’d beat them at their own game. I’d use the intel they’d gathered to steal it before they could.
But I wouldn’t sell the female body. I’d take it for myself. I’d transfer my Pith into it, and save myself from the decay that would kill me in a year.
Or die in the attempt.
Wringing out my wet jacket, I folded it up over the file with Clementine’s plans. I took one last look at the clumps of grey, battered hair in my palm, then tossed them into the ocean.
I strode up the staircase, away from the sunset, leaving the strands to drift away on the current.