I opened my eyes to a starless sky.
An endless black expanse stretched across my vision, visible through the broken ceiling of the tower. Back when this building was whole, when the Great Scholars had walked its halls, the heavens had been a glimmering canvas, a realm of endless possibility.
But it was all dark now. Drowned and faded away like their entire civilization.
I coughed up a mouthful of water, gasping for air. My throat and chest burned, and I spat it out.
A wave of nausea rushed over me, and I vomited up seawater onto the metal floor beside me. A chill breeze passed over my wet clothes, and I shivered.
“You need to change soon,” a familiar voice said, “Or you’ll get hypothermia.”
I turned to look at it, and saw Isaac Brin, dressed in his Guardian’s cloak and armor, standing over me. Wes sat behind him, leaning against a pedestal. His eyes stared blankly ahead. My suit jacket and weapons had been taken off, and were scattered around me, and my wig had fallen off in the water.
My lungs sucked in deep breaths. Each one ached more than the last. I crawled up to a sitting position, leaning against the rusty metal wall behind me. “I’m alive.” I croaked, my voice hoarse. “How?”
Brin indicated his head to Wes. “Mr. Brown used his physical projection to help pull you out of the water. Consider yourself fortunate. If he hadn’t leapt in so fast, you would have been too far gone. Past a certain point, the average success rate of CPR is less than ten percent.”
Wes saved my life. My chest rose, sending more stabs of pain through my lungs.
“You seem to be breathing fine, but your body is at high risk of pneumonia, wet lung, and possible brain damage from your asphyxia. It could happen in a week, or a year, and given your fragile state, any of those could be fatal.”
I pulled my knees to my chest, rubbing my shivering arms. In a year, I’ll be dead anyway. And it wasn’t like I had the insurance to treat any of those.
“You got my signal,” I said.
Major Brin nodded. “It took me two minutes to discern your location, and three minutes to arrive here. The police and coast guard showed up half an hour after.”
I glanced through the hole in the wall behind me. Three white patrol boats flanked the Golden Moon on all sides.
Cops and soldiers swarmed over the yacht, herding dead-faced party guests into rows. Spotlights from the coast guard boats cast glaring white beams on the main deck. Tables were overturned. Smashed wine bottles, flipped platters, and piles of food littered the floor.
The men and women shuffled forward in unison, demure and compliant. They’re used to following orders. Most of them were still wearing their party masks.
Major Brin pushed my head back behind the wall. “Stay out of sight,” he said. “Don’t let the people on the ships see you. I kept the two of you here so you could avoid the cops questioning you. We’re not allowed to memory-wipe all the Humdrums now, so cover-ups are a bit trickier.”
I wiped a strand of wet, grey hair out of my face. Even though I’d just woken up, it felt like I’d pulled five all-nighters in a row. “How long was I out?”
“Few hours,” he said. “The police took in the guards here for questioning and analysis, but they still haven’t cleaned up everything.”
I looked down. A corpse sat several yards to the side of me. Its head and neck were a red pulp, a misshapen pile of flesh, brain, and bone. Blood pooled around it, most of it dripping through a hole in the metal floor.
Its features were unidentifiable, but it wore a bright green gown, and the edge of a wrinkled blue party mask stuck out of the crimson mush that had been its face.
Then: I did this.
“Mr. Brown told me her guards turned on her,” said Brin. “Went from shocking him to bashing her head in a heartbeat. She was likely unconscious in the first few seconds. No time to project or swap bodies.” His voice turned softer for a moment. “Was this your first?”
I thought I’d feel disgusted at such a bloody, mangled sight, or horror at having taken a person’s life.
But I just felt vindicated. And relieved that she wouldn’t be able to hurt any more people.
After the night’s events, I felt exhausted, hollow. But when I looked at Honeypot’s body, I felt relaxed.
Killing her hadn’t been a calculated decision. It had been an impulsive moment of rage. But if I went back in time, right now, would I act any differently?
I thought of the room at the bottom of the Golden Moon. Of the pile of thralls, crawling over each other, licking up rotting garbage like pigs. I thought of Kaplen, blinded, drained of all joy and motivation, slumped against a wall, and of Wes, twitching from a dozen electric shocks.
No, I thought. I would break her, again and again.
Thinking of Wes reminded me of his presence. I stared at him. He ignored me, staring into the distance, leaning back and taking shallow breaths. He looks like –
A twinge went through my stomach, and I recoiled. “Major Brin,” I said. “Wes was exposed to Lyna Wethers and her Whisper Vocation for an unknown amount of time. How can we tell if – “
Brin held up a hand. “I scanned the Piths of the guests we confirmed as compromised by Honeypot’s Whisper Vocation. It’s a difficult technique, but I’m chief of counterintelligence. It’s practically a requirement. It has a hard time detecting a lot of alterations, but Wethers wasn’t subtle. After trial and error scanning people’s pleasure centers, I identified some general patterns for when people lost their full autonomy to her.”
“Once I refined the test, over seventy percent of the people on the boat tested positive.”
“And I was negative,” said Wes. He didn’t look offended at my suspicion. He just kept staring forward, dripping water into a puddle underneath him.
In spite of Brin’s instructions, I peeked through the hole again, gazing at the Golden Moon. Soldiers strode up from the stairs below, carrying men and women on stretchers onto the coast guard boats. All of them were tied down, and many of them were writhing under the ropes.
I couldn’t see Kaplen, but I knew he was one of them.
“How the fuck did this happen,” I growled. “Wethers was supposed to be in prison for the rest of her life. She’s not even platinum-ranked. I thought you people were good at dealing with rogue projectors. Why was she even left alive?”
“Lyna Wethers was a gold-ranked projector, just below the cutoff for execution in the case of criminality.” Brin frowned, crossing his arms. “But still, projector prisons for gold ranks and under are very high-security, and tailored to each individual’s skills. For Wethers, guards were drilled to limit their time with her, undergo routine psychological evaluations, and stay outside her range at all times. She was kept dosed on Null Venom to block her from Whisper or Physical projection, with a long overlap in between doses to account for errors.”
“It wasn’t enough,” I said. I couldn’t keep the anger from slipping into my voice.
“That’s the thing,” said Brin. “Someone made a mistake with the scheduling of the Null Venom. On the same day a guard was assigned to her for hours at a time. And both the alarms and the line to the contingency teams were malfunctioning. All this in a prison that almost nobody knows the location of.”
“So you have a traitor inside.”
“But I did an investigation afterward. There was no paper trail, no evidence of Whisper Vocations, no spies. They were all total coincidences, a random series of clerical errors. Except they all happened at the same time. I’ve been in counterintelligence for over a decade. I don’t get stumped very often.” He ground his teeth together. “Someone broke her out. Someone smart.”
“Can’t be certain,” said Brin. “But I can guess. Tomorrow, this story is going to be in every paper across the Principality. Along with the fact that Wethers used to be a Guardian.”
I swallowed. “They did all that, just to make Paragon look bad?”
Brin knelt down and rifled through my possessions. The stolen machine pistol, my kitchen knife. He picked up the pillbox and brushed water off of it.
“Was that why you sent us instead of Guardians?”
Brin nodded. “Since the Edwina Massacre and the foundation of Parliament, our government’s been strict about transparency. If we sent in Guardians, they’d know, and then the Humdrum public would know. I was hoping the two of you could have been discreet. That was clearly a mistake.”
My voice was flat. “Are we fired?”
Brin flipped open the pillbox. The white Kraken’s Bone tablets inside were dry, unscathed by the water. The box was waterproof. Though it wasn’t like they had done any good.
Brin closed it and tossed it back to me. It bounced off my chest, and I fumbled for it. “Keep that. Keep all your weapons.” He reached into his coat, and dropped a thick yellow envelope next to me. It thudded as it hit the ground. “You’ll need them on your next job.”
I pulled the envelope open. It was filled with stacks of bills, all tied together in bundles. A quick count estimated the total as around four thousand pounds. Two thousand when counting for Wes’ share.
It was more money than I’d ever seen in one place. Forty-one thousand to go. But the next jobs would pay much more.
“Two thousand is my usual starting number,” said Brin. “But this was a tough one for a newbie, so I doubled it.”
I projected into the water in my shirt and pants, squeezing it out and pushing it into a hole in the floor. I pulled my knees closer to my chest, hunching down against the chill wind.
“Does it get easier than this?” I asked Brin, staring at my feet.
“No,” said Brin. “But you do get used to it.” His face was impassive.
I don’t want to get used to it. I didn’t want to become like Brin, callous and indifferent to human suffering. When I saw cases like this, I wanted to feel the pain, the devastation.
The alternative was apathy, nihilism. Accepting a broken world and giving up on trying to change it.
A pair of flight harnesses floated from beneath Major Brin’s cloak. One landed on my lap, the other on Wes’s.
“Put those on,” said Brin. “I’m taking you back to the city. Do you want me to drop you at King’s Palace, or somewhere else?”
Wes spoke up, looking at me. “There’s a twenty-four-hour liquor store across the street from your place, right?”
“King’s Palace,” said Wes.
“Same for you?” asked Brin.
I glanced back towards the ship, and the stretchers being carried onto it. Kaplen’s there, somewhere.
“Where are the victims being taken?” I asked.
The hospital waiting room was packed. Men and women filled every seat, biting nails and shifting back and forth, muttering to family members and arguing with nurses.
In spite of all that, it was quiet when Brin and I walked in. Everyone whispered or stayed silent, absorbed in their thoughts.
A man talked in urgent undertones to a woman behind the front desk. I caught the words “wife” and “son”. A doctor led a woman through the set of double doors on the far end of the room, leading into the central area of the hospital. As soon as they shut, muffled shouting echoed from inside.
How many wives are here? How many husbands? How many marriages and romances did Lyna Wethers ruin tonight? How many people would come home to their spouses, and find themselves incapable of loving them?
How many of them would be pining after a dead monster for the rest of their lives?
I shifted my button-down shirt, uncomfortable, and adjusted my dark blue pajama pants. The dry clothes Brin had given me were several sizes too small, and felt scratchy on my skin. But they didn’t smell like dried saltwater, and they weren’t damp.
“Here’s how it’s going to go,” said Brin under his breath. “You, Ernest Chapman, were woken from your bed by a Paragon representative, because you are a friend of Kaplen Ingolf’s, and came here without changing. You know nothing about Lyna Wethers, the Golden Moon, or the masquerade ball. Speak as little as possible: you being here is a privilege. Understand?”
We sat in silence for half an hour, watching doctors and nurses and concerned loved ones file in and out of the door.
I held onto the question I’d been dreading, stewing over it and rephrasing it in my mind as I folded and unfolded my legs, staring at the clock and biting my lip.
Finally, it spilled out of me. “Can you cure them?” I asked Brin, under my breath. “You scanned their minds. You know what the Vocation looks like, now. That’s almost as good as having a codex.”
The major shook his head. “Those areas have been destroyed and written over. It would be like trying to rebuild a burnt house by gluing together its ashes. Without a blueprint. The truth is, most new Whisper Vocations can’t be defended against, and usually can’t be undone either, when they have lasting effects.”
I leaned forward. “But what about Headmaster Tau? He’s the greatest projector alive. He made the Spirit Block. He’s bent the laws of reality.”
Brin sighed, massaging his temples. “Do you know how many mental hijacking cases happen in the Principality every year?”
“And what would happen if the headmaster tried to fix all of them? If he spent all his time dashing from case to case, neglecting his most important duties?”
“What’s more important than this?”
“There’s no telling he’d be able to solve this anyways. Creating whisper defenses and cures is cruel, tiring work that usually involves trial and error and access to the Vocation itself in action.” Brin gazed towards the double doors that led into the hospital. “If they’re lucky, they’ll just lose a marriage or a girlfriend.”
In a far corner, a girl my age began to sob, one of the only noises in the room. She wiped her nose on the long sleeve of her sweater, and gripped the armrest of her chair. Nobody acknowledged her. None of the people next to her said anything, or so much as looked in her direction.
Brin fell silent. After a long pause, he opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, looking towards the main entrance of the room.
“Have you been through something like this before?” I asked.
Brin said nothing, but got a strange look in his eyes. I wasn’t sure if he was exhausted or terrified. That means yes.
Two men and a woman strode into the room, wearing black suits. A tall, muscular man with a thick brown beard, a blonde woman with dimples, and a lithe Shenti man with electric blue hair.
Several people in the room glanced at them, muttering. I recognized them right away. Sebastian Oakes. Penny Oakes. Charles Hou. The Obsidian Foil, and the official Scholars of Synthetic Gas and Biology, respectively.
Three professors at Paragon, and all celebrities in their own right.
Professor Oakes floated a cloth-covered picnic basket beside him. Next to him, it looked tiny. He strode in front of us, inclining his head towards Major Brin.
“Professor?” I said. “What are you doing here?”
Professor Oakes clasped my shoulder with his hand. “One of my students is hurt, Mr. Chapman!” He spoke at full volume, his voice filling the room. “I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t come to see him.”
Penny Oakes hugged him, giving us a warm smile. “My husband always knows how to care for people.”
Professor Oakes clenched his teeth, speaking under his breath. “If I’d been there on that ship…” His voice was taut.
“You can’t be everywhere at once, love.” Penny squeezed his hand, and his shoulders relaxed. After this whole nightmare, it was nice to see people as kind and sincere as these two.
Tasia stepped into the waiting room. Her long black hair was tousled, and she was wearing pajamas in lieu of real pants. She massaged her puffy, bloodshot eyes. She’s been crying.
We made eye contact, and I stood up without thinking. She rushed towards me and hugged me. I wrapped my arms around her, taking in deep breaths.
We held the embrace for several seconds. There were no words exchanged between us. Just the silent understanding of each other.
We’d never been close. Neither of us had ever opened up to each other. But both of us cared about Kaplen. Tonight, that was enough to bring us together.
A pair of bright green cat ears poked out of the top of Tasia’s backpack. The girl let go of me and reached behind her, pushing it down and zipping the top up most of the way.
“You brought Cardamom?” I whispered to her.
“I smuggled him out of Kaplen’s room,” she murmured. “Don’t tell the professors.”
I glanced at Brin, Oakes, and Hou. None of them were looking at us. “Where’s the rest of his squad?” muttered Brin.
“Lorne Daventry and the rest of Golem Squad were woken up and informed,” said Oakes. “But they declined the offer to come.”
Of course they did. Selfish pricks. And if they hadn’t bullied Kaplen so much…
Brin shook Oakes’ hand. “I have to manage the rest of the ship’s mop-up. We’ve got hundreds of victims, who might be perps too.”
“Make us proud,” said Oakes.
Brin strode out of the room, giving me a significant look as he passed me. A reminder to keep my mouth shut about the illegal operation I’d just conducted for him.
Professor Oakes walked up to the front desk and had a quiet, animated conversation with the woman there. Two minutes later, a nurse opened the door for us, beckoning us into the hospital.
The corridors were painted bone-white. The smell of antiseptic hung in the air, mixed with the fainter odor of blood and pus.
It brought back memories of the days before I’d had this body, of months stuck in a bed with scratchy sheets, covered in bedsores. Unable to think through the constant, exploding headaches. I was alone for hours at a time, while my parents went to work and the nurses attended on other patients. I’d stared at the bright green wall for hours, drowning in pain and wondering what I’d done to deserve this.
Well, Kaplen won’t be alone. He would have that much, at least.
After ascending two staircases and going down a hallway, the nurse stopped us in front of a door, holding up a hand.
A conversation echoed from behind the door, just loud enough to be heard. An older woman’s voice, crackling from a speakerphone.
The woman sounded urgent. “- doesn’t have to be over. So many people go blind later in life and master all the relevant skills.”
There was a brief silence. Kaplen said nothing.
The woman’s voice grew softer. “If you think we’re mad about the scholarship, it doesn’t matter. We care about you. Your father and I are – we are so incredibly sorry for the pressure we’ve put you through.” Her voice grew strained. “Whatever path you take, we’re sure you’ll make the right choice.”
Still nothing from Kaplen.
“Here’s something your father suggested. We’ll quit the factory and the port. We’ll get on a ferry to Elmidde and find jobs here. You can stay with us instead of those Paragon dorms. We’ll be here for you, and we can help take care of you. Anything you need.” Her voice perked up. “And you can take us to one of those famous city bakeries you keep gushing about. Would you like that?”
Kaplen’s voice was a flat monotone. “I don’t care.”
“But – please, don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine. We’ll adjust. Do you think you’ll be alright without someone to help you?”
“I don’t care.”
“Do you want to talk a little more, then?” Desperation crept into his mother’s voice. “You could talk about something fun you’ve been doing, or your friends. Or – or I could tell you about my new Jao Lu group. I – “
“Nurse,” said Kaplen. “I’m done.”
“Bye, sweetie,” his mother was desperately trying to sound upbeat, and failing.
There was a click. Then silence.
A nurse opened the door from the inside, beckoning us in. The three professors stepped in first. Tasia and I went in after.
Kaplen was uninjured. There wasn’t a single blemish on his body, save for dark circles under his eyes from a lack of sleep, and his red hair being tousled.
Despite that, he was probably worse off than most of the patients in this hospital.
Oakes floated his wicker basket onto the bedside table. “Hi, Kaplen. It’s Professor Oakes, from Chemistry class.”
“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.
Oakes ignored him. “I brought you some goodies to cheer up your visit. The last time I ate hospital food, I wanted to throw up.“ He unwrapped the paper on top of his gift basket. “This thermos has Penny’s pumpkin soup. She’s chemically perfected the recipe over the last decade.” He pulled out another thermos. “And this one has some of Paragon’s mulled cider.”
“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.
“Look,” said Oakes. “I understand if you don’t want to talk to me. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But happiness is a choice. You’re young and strong. This is probably the last thing you want to hear, but you will be alright, in the long term.”
Sebastian Oakes patted Kaplen on the shoulder, and the boy clenched his fist. Professor Oakes removed a glimmering black business card from his wallet and slid it on the table next to the basket. “In case you ever want to talk. May you strive to become an Exemplar.”
“Where’s Lyna?” asked Kaplen.
Oakes stepped out of the room. His wife followed him. Maybe they got the message.
Professor Hou took one last look at Kaplen. The man was a playboy, a foreign blue-haired diva in a professor’s uniform. I wasn’t even sure why he came. The man wasn’t exactly known for his emotional intelligence, or his seriousness.
“It’s tough,” he said. “No promises. Stay warm.” And then he was out the door. That’s unexpected. It was just Tasia and me now.
Tasia raised her hand, and a hardcover cookbook slid out of her backpack, flipping open in front of her. The cover read: A Moron’s Guide to Baking.
“I memory bursted a few recipes from other books too, so I know them by heart.” She pointed behind her. “The hospital has a kitchen downstairs, and I convinced the lady in charge there to let us use it.” She held the cookbook in front of Kaplen’s face. “The Silver Flask stopped selling their raspberry-chocolate chip scones, and think if we modified one of the recipes here, we could – “
She stopped. Kaplen hadn’t reacted to a single thing she’d said or done. If he wasn’t breathing and shifting his position, I’d have thought he was dead, or in a coma.
“Look,” said Tasia. “I’m not here to pressure you with plans for the future or throw advice at you. I just want to do something fun with you. So does Ernest.”
Cardamom crawled out of Tasia’s bag and leapt onto the floor. The green cat ran to Kaplen’s bed, jumping up onto the mattress next to him.
He nuzzled Kaplen’s face, rubbing the top of his head over the boy’s cheek. Kaplen recoiled, pulling away on the pillow.
The cat persisted, padding forward and curling up beside Kaplen’s neck. He purred, swishing his tail back and forth and sinking into the sheets.
Kaplen pushed Cardamom with a hand, shoving him off the bed. The cat dropped like a rock, and landed on its paws with a thud.
A second later, he turned around and crouched to jump back onto the bed. Kaplen threw his water glass at Cardamom, and it shattered on the floor next to him. Water splashed onto Cardamom’s green fur, and the cat backed away, confused.
“I know you can’t see, but that’s Cardamom.” Tasia picked the cat up. “Kaplen, that’s Cardamom, he’s just trying to say hello.”
“Get it away,” he said.
“He’s your friend. Don’t let the hijacking make you forget about that.”
“It was never my friend,” said Kaplen. “A bacteria in my brain made me think I cared about it. Now, something else took over my brain and changed that. My friendship with it was just as hollow as the platitudes Professor Oakes just dumped onto me. People with easy lives always say it gets better, because they’re incapable of true empathy.“ He made eye contact with Tasia. “Where’s Lyna? You know, don’t you, Nell?”
Tasia bristled. Why did he call her Nell?
“Kaplen,” she said, “I understand your frustration. And I’ve read the same books as you on Whisper Specialists. But mental hijacking doesn’t have to be permanent.” She grasped Kaplen’s hand. “I’ve been studying Whisper Vocations and Null Particles all semester. If I devote myself to the task, I think I’ll be able to reverse some of the damage.” Her eyes sparkled. Her voice was confident, upbeat. Or trying to sound that way. “We can fix this.”
There was a long pause between them. None of us said anything.
Only a week ago, I’d imagined us all going to Paragon together. I’d pictured our trio becoming best friends, fighting side by side, going on adventures and defending the Principality together.
“I want to talk to Ernest alone,” said Kaplen.
Tasia’s face sagged. The enthusiasm leaked out of her like a deflating balloon. She clenched her teeth, and rubbed her reddened eyes furiously, wiping away tears. Her lips moved, and she muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t hear.
Without another word, she turned and stepped out of the room, carrying Cardamom in her arms.
The door clicked shut behind her. And then we were alone.
Outside the window of the hospital room, this part of Midtown was dark, with only a few street lamps outside and a few lit-up residential areas. The rest of the hospital had quieted down.
How late is it? I glanced at the clock on the wall. 2:16 in the morning. Part of me wanted to drop on a couch somewhere and nap for a week. Another part of me was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep for a long, long time.
Kaplen broke the silence. “Where’s Lyna?”
I couldn’t bring myself to lie to him. He’d find out sooner or later.
“She’s dead.” I killed her.
A small sigh escaped Kaplen’s lips, and he stared at the wall across from him. “Ah,” he said.
There was another silence. I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say. I’m trying to help you. Why can’t I help you?
“Of all the people in this building,” said Kaplen. “You might be the only one who understands just how fucked I am.”
“You’re not in your right mind. It’s hard to believe, but there are solutions to this stuff. They’re going to try – “
“Antidepressants?“ he said. “Behavior therapy? Praxis Vocations? Psychodynamic counseling? Meditation?” His voice tightened. “How many of those do you think I’ve tried over the last few years? Do you think I’d be lying here if they’d worked? And that was when I had normal mental problems.“
I wanted to escape this room. I wanted to travel back to weeks ago, when Kaplen and me and Tasia were happy together. Was he, though?
“You helped me once,” I said. “By teaching me the true meaning of the Empty Book.” Let me repay the favor. “I thought I was worthless, just like you did when you were a Grey Coat. Remember your own advice.”
“You can try to write the next page,” said Kaplen. “You can use projection and grit and all the inspiration in the Eight Oceans to try and become a better person. You can strive to become an Exemplar.” He looked me in the eye. “But in this world, others can rip pages out. They can erase the identity you’ve worked for, and write their own words in the blank space.” He clenched his teeth, the only expression I’d seen from him all night. “Our souls are just toys to the people with real power.”
Yell at him, a part of me said. Slap some sense into that idiot. He was wrong, he had to be wrong.
But I said nothing.
“And so,” said Kaplen. “I have a request for you. Go to a corner store, buy a straightedge razor, and smuggle it in here.”
I stared at my feet. Everything felt distant again, just like on the Golden Moon. Like I was watching some puppeteer move my arms and legs and lips, making my decisions for me.
“Security screens patients, not visitors,” said Kaplen. “It should be easy.”
My insides felt like I was falling, a dizzying, hollow sensation growing out from my stomach to the rest of my body.
“I can’t do that,” I choked out.
“Let me tell you what my future looks like,” said Kaplen. “My friends and family are going to make me try the things I once loved. Baking and parties and learning and spending time with my loved ones. Over and over again, until the last drop of pleasure is squeezed out of them, and I begin to hate them. The truth is, there was only one solution that could make me happy again.”
Lyna Wethers. I raised my head, forcing myself to look at Kaplen.
“My reward centers were already broken. She took what little was left and made them work for her.” He closed his eyes and smiled. “When I think of her smile, I feel content for a moment. More than anything I get from my professors or parents or pets or friends. Or you.” He opened his eyes again, glancing back at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“But Lyna is dead. And every day I spend in this hospital costs my parents more money. Every day I spend in school, in treatment digs deeper into funds they don’t have, drowning them in debt.”
“You can get a job,” I said.
“I can’t sum up the motivation to get out of bed, much less maintain a job as a newly blind man.”
Think, idiot, think. I could beat Paragon students and ex-Guardians with my tactics, I could come up with something here. There had to be something that could pull Kaplen off the ledge, I just wasn’t seeing it yet.
“I care about you,” I said, letting the desperation seep into my voice. “Tasia cares about you. So many people love you, so much. If you die. It will break everyone.” It’ll break me.
“I’ve thought about this,” said Kaplen. “This way, I’ll go out as a simple tragedy, a poor victim of mental hijacking. The pain that my loved ones will feel will be brief and simple. You’ll all get over it within a few years, I’m guessing. Maybe less for you. You only knew me for what, a month?” His voice grew quieter. “But if I drag it out, it will be a thousand times worse. I will die resented and loathed, as the boy they couldn’t cure. As the disgusting, worthless monster who couldn’t love anymore. Who dragged everyone down with him.”
As his voice grew softer, I leaned closer to listen to him.
“Simple calculation,” he said. “One cheap life against the happiness of many others. Please, Ernest.”
“No,” I forced out. “Your soul has to be worth more than that.”
I felt someone trying to Nudge me, and I edited my mind away from it, resisting the assault. Is he –
“Taught you too well, didn’t I?” Kaplen sighed. “I know you’re lying to Paragon.”
Something jerked in my stomach. I forced down the panic, compelling my body to stay calm. “What?”
“That voice. That desperation. I knew it was you the moment you spoke to me on the Golden Moon. You made it sound like a girl’s, but you’re not as subtle as you think you are.”
I shook my head. “Kaplen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I got a full report from the nurses of all the other Academy students and assistants at that party. Your name never came up. ‘Ernest Chapman’ never went to the masked ball.” He looked over my body. “And you show up to class with injuries all the time. Bruises. Scrapes. Minor cuts. You try to cover them up, but I see.”
My machine pistol shifted in its concealed holster, and I grabbed it, pushing it back down.
“And,” he said. “There’s a gun in your pocket. With the serial number filed off.” His face hardened. “I don’t know who you are, what your real name is, or what you intend with Paragon. But I imagine it’s something quite illegal. Go ahead, Ernest. Prove me wrong.”
“I live in Lowtown,” I said. “I need to defend myself. That’s why I have the gun. The civilian application process is too bureaucratic, so I got this one off the black market.” It was a terrible lie, but it was the best I could come up with on the spot. I had been trying to get a gun before this, and Lowtown did scare me. “Kaplen, you’re not thinking straight.”
Kaplen shook his head. “When I tell the people in Paragon, they’re going to investigate you. Whatever you’re doing, they’re going to know everything. Your plans will be over. Your life will be over. Help me, and I won’t say a word. Please.”
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to him.
“You don’t have the Whisper Vocations to control me,” he said. “You have no leverage. Your only way to save your life is to give me what I want. To help me.”
I ground my teeth, staring out the window, away from him. “I – can’t,” I forced out. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re disgusting, you know that?” said Kaplen. “You made me feel sick the moment I saw you. Every kid who knows you in Paragon is laughing at you.“ His voice got louder. “I should never have gotten within a hundred feet of you. I helped you because you made me feel better about myself.” He was almost shouting now. “Because of all the losers and freaks I knew, you were the only one worse than me. And I would gut you a thousand times over just to spend another minute with her.”
He grabbed my hand. His eyes weren’t mocking, or angry, or cruel. They were pleading.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the metal pillbox. It felt like I was deep underwater, and all my motions were slowed down. Like I had to push past a thick, unseen pressure with every movement.
I flipped open the box, and shook seven white tablets into the gift basket on the table.
“What are those?”
“Ventrinol. Kraken’s Bone. Take all of them at once. It won’t be painless, but it will be quick. Especially on an empty stomach. The pills cause damage to your nervous system in such a way that makes it impossible for them to transfer your Pith out, so they won’t be able to force you into another body.”
The poison had been meant to knock out Lyna Wethers. And now I was using it to kill one of her victims.
Kaplen sighed, relaxing back onto his bed. It was the most relieved he’d looked all night. Not happy, but relieved, like he’d just finished a long run and finally got to rest.
“I’ll take them in a few hours,” he said. “Nobody will know where they came from.”
Brin will know, I thought. But Brin, of all people, might understand the choice I’d made.
“You can leave now,” said Kaplen.
I’m sorry, I thought. I wish I could have taken your place.
I closed my eyes, and pretended I was somewhere else. I imagined flying out of the hospital room, away from the stench of rubbing alcohol and stale body odor, back into the past when none of the horrors of tonight had happened. I pictured my voice carrying back to the night on that grassy ledge behind Alabaster Hall, where Kaplen and Tasia and I stood together, learning the true meaning of the empty book, staring over the glimmering lights of Elmidde below.
The world had seemed so full of possibility.
I imagined talking to the person who Kaplen was. The Pith, the identity that he had before Lyna Wethers cut it into pieces. The boy who believed in the Empty Book.
“My name is Anabelle Gage. My real name.” I squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”
Kaplen’s face was blank, not reacting to anything I said.
I walked to the door, and flipped off the lights.
When I arrived back at the storage unit, Wes was already drunk.
The boy was flopped back on his mattress, surrounded by the crumpled newspapers he was using as bed sheets, and the indigo blanket he put underneath. In one hand, he held a large bottle in a brown paper bag. In the other, a glass. The room was filled with the stench of black licorice and sweat.
Wes laughed as I pulled open the door, lifting up a second glass. “I bought one for you too!” he slurred, pouring cloudy white Arak into it. “On me!”
I don’t drink. Even when things had gotten rough with Clementine, when I’d been stressed out of my mind, unable to go to sleep, I hadn’t given in to the temptation to dull my own thoughts. On any other night, I would have refused him.
I sat down across from him and grabbed the glass. “Fuck it.” I tilted it back, gulping down a mouthful.
A tangy, sweet taste filled my mouth. My throat burned, and I coughed, spitting out half of it. “Scholars, that’s strong.”
Wes cackled, rocking back and forth. “Slowly, slowly. That’s a hundred proof. Not watered down.”
I took a smaller sip. This time, the burning heat was softer, easier to manage.
“How was your trip?” asked Wes. “Did you know one of the victims?”
I thought about lying about Paragon, of hiding my connection to Kaplen. The fewer people knew about my double life, the better. But I didn’t find myself caring anymore.
“Kaplen Ingolf,” I said. “I’m an assistant at Paragon. A grey coat.” I explained my situation to Wes. My first night with Brin, Lorne Daventry, becoming friends with Kaplen. Everything.
As I explained, I drank, and as the conversation went on, I felt a warm, thick cloud expanding through the inside of my skull.
“He was kind and smart,” I said. “He loved baking, and cats, and learning new things. He helped people when he didn’t have to, without expecting anything in return.” I took a larger sip of Arak. “And then, he was someone else.”
Wes raised his glass. “To Kaplen.”
“To Kaplen.” We drank. I coughed and hacked, doubling over. My lungs were still screwed up from almost drowning less than five hours ago, and my ears still ached from when Wes had stabbed them with toothpicks.
“Before Brin showed up on that tower,” mumbled Wes. “I thought you were fucked for sure. Can I ask you a question?”
“You get to be a Paragon assistant. Why are you working for the Major and risking your life? Are you really that desperate for the money?”
“My body’s going to keep decaying, piece by piece.” I held up my arm, covered in crisscrossing grey veins. “I’ve got maybe a year before one of my major organs crumbles to dust, and…” I trailed off.
Wes took a swig. “Scholars,” he said. “How’d you end up like that?”
“Two weeks after my eighth birthday, I got a headache and stayed home from school. My parents thought it was just a seasonal illness. Then it stayed for a week. Then a month.” I hunched over. “The doctors determined that I had Loic’s Syndrome, a genetic disease that chokes your cerebellum and brainstem.”
“I’m sorry,” Wes said, looking away from me.
“I spent the next fourteen months in and out of the hospital, confined to my bed, unable to think of anything besides the pain, desperately hoping that the symptoms would clear. They didn’t. And my parents had to give everything they had for this pile of junk.” I gestured to my body. “Then, turns out this thing is broken too. We couldn’t sell it, and we couldn’t afford a proper one to replace it.”
“What – “ Wes took a gulp, “ – the fuck kind of bastard sold that to you?”
“A company called Sapphire Industrial,” I said. “With lower prices than everyone else. I tried hunting them down afterwards, so they couldn’t exploit other families like mine. But they weren’t in any records. They were a shell company of a shell company, most likely, and there were hundreds just like them across the Eight Oceans, all independent, scamming gullible fucks like me. I was so stupid.”
“You were nine,” said Wes.
“My parents spent so much on this body. I think it broke them a little, to see it falling apart, piece by piece.” I took a sip of Arak. “But when I discovered I could project, and I asked if I could go to Paragon, they refused.”
“Why?” Wes sounded dumbfounded.
“My mother is half Shenti,” I said. “I don’t think she likes Guardians. But more than that, they didn’t think I could get in.” My hands tightened around my glass. “They didn’t want my last years to be in pain, struggling to achieve something beyond my abilities.” I let out a bitter laugh. “Maybe they were right. But I stole their money all the same. Enough for a ferry ticket and a week in Lowtown.”
Why are you telling him all this? a voice in my head reminded me, he’s not your friend. But I kept talking.
“If I ever make it out of this body,” I said. “I’m going to pay them back a hundred times over. Every penny past my food and rent, I’ll be shipping back to my home in the agricultural islands.”
Wes gulped down his drink. “That’s a good reason to fight.” His face adopted a contemplative look. “A person shouldn’t just fight for herself. She shouldn’t.”
“That’s part of it,” I said. “But there’s another reason that scares me. Since that first trip to the hospital, for the better part of my life, I’ve felt hollowed out. A part of me knew, deep down, that I would never make new friends or become a Guardian or live a full, happy life. Beneath all the hopes, beneath all the dreams, I was certain that I would wither away, forgotten by everyone who mattered. I spent so many years in desperation, rotting away in body and soul.” I took a deep breath. “But when I was floundering in that water tonight, I didn’t feel empty. I felt righteous. I felt angry. My mind was sharper than it had been in ten years.”
Wes said nothing.
“Do you think that’s frightening?” I said.
Wes refilled his cup.
“I don’t want to become a monster,” I said. “I don’t want to become a brute who rationalizes her own cruelty. I don’t want to make up ends to justify my means.” I put down my glass in the corner of the room. “That’s why I want to ask a favor from you.”
“There’s a good chance my brain may decay with the rest of my body, and damage the Pith inside as a result.” I didn’t trust Wes, couldn’t trust him. But there was no one else. “If I get to a point where I can’t recognize myself. If I can’t move, or don’t know where I am, or –
I thought of Kaplen on the hospital bed, threatening to expose me so I’d help him take his own life.
“ – or if I lose my most fundamental moral values. If my mind goes past the point of no return.“ I reached inside my jacket, and pulled out the metal pillbox of Kraken’s Bone. “I want you to feed these to me. Seven at least.”
Wes was still for a long moment. The room was dead silent.
Then he nodded.
The room wobbled back and forth, a thick dizzy sensation layering over my thoughts. I put down a hand to steady myself. “But until then,” I said. “I’m going to find the people who broke Lyna Wethers out of prison and set her loose on the people of Elmidde.”
“About that,” said Wes. “While she was with me on the roof, she mentioned something. She told me that she would make me confess to dozens of other crimes she’d committed. She said that thirty-four newspapers in this country would make sure everyone knew how evil and disgusting I was.”
“Do you know who Afzal Kahlin is?”
“Some rich Ilaquan, right?”
Wes nodded. “He’s a media billionaire from Ilaqua, but he has fingers in pies around the Eight Oceans. Radio shows, television, magazines, and newspapers. Want to guess how many he owns in the Principality?”
“Thirty-four,” I said. “How do you know all that?”
“My father was a journalist. You pick up some stuff.”
“You think he broke Wethers out?”
Wes shrugged. “Can’t say for sure. Not unless we get more information.”
I leaned forward. “Where does he keep his records?”
“In theory, in a corporate library, but those are all public, so we won’t find anything there.” Wes fidgeted with a piece of newspaper. “And if he’s competent, he won’t be handling anything shady directly. He’ll be using couriers, encrypted messages, layers of loyal underlings who won’t talk.”
“So we’ve got nothing.”
“But.” Wes lifted a finger. “He’s a known recluse these days. Apparently, he spends the vast majority of his time in his luxury airship, and in his penthouse. If he’s making secret communications there’s bound to be evidence there.”
I nodded. “We’ve got our next mission, then.” A job above my pay grade, as usual, but my pay grade was minimum wage, and I couldn’t live on that salary.
Wes put down the paper, glass, and bottle. He shuffled towards me and crossed his legs under him. “Don’t think I ever said thank you. For rescuing me. A few more minutes with her, and…”
“You too,” I blurted out. “You didn’t have to pull me out of the water.”
“One of the big reasons I’m a mercenary,” said Wes, “is that I’m trying to get back to someone. A person who I love more than anything. A few more minutes, I could have lost…I could have lost – ” He gulped. “I need to be stronger, much stronger, to get them back.”
The storage unit fell silent again. We sat next to each other, neither of us saying a word.
I extended my right arm to Wes as if to shake. The two of us made eye contact.
“We’ll get your love back,” I said. “We’ll get my body back. I promise.” I’ll taste that mulled cider with a friend. Maybe that friend was Wes.
He clasped my arm, and I mirrored him. “I’ll fight for you, Anabelle Gage.”
“As long as our minds are free, we can still fight for each other.”
When I said this, Wes let go of my arm.
“What’s the matter,” I asked. Did I say something wrong?
“Brin was right about his test for Lyna Wethers’ Vocation,” he said. “I can still make the same choices. I still love the people that I love. I’m not a brainwashed thrall. You got to me in time.” His voice was faint, tired. He slumped back on the wall, one of his eyes half-shut. “But she still used her projection on me. When I rest my mind. When I leave the smallest opening in my thoughts, I picture her face. Her sallow, stretched cheeks and the circles under her eyes. The strands of loose hair over her thick forehead and her smirk as she chipped away at my mind, piece by piece.”
Wes stared at me with bloodshot eyes, both horrified and resigned.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”