“You were right,” said Max. “You were always right.”
Max’s Nekean therapist nodded from the other chair, scribbling in her notebook.
“This world is the real one,” Max sighed. “My revolution was a dream.”
The therapist smiled, something in between warm beaming and a smirk. And for a moment, Max wanted to kill her more than anything. She wanted to gouge that woman’s eyes out, pull each tooth out, one by one. She helped cut me up for the scientists. For all she knew, that therapist had given Max all these torturous dreams.
But Max couldn’t make a move against her. The commands and the Nudge Powder prevented her from doing any sort of violence, or using commands to free herself.
“I’m glad you’re facing reality,” said the therapist. “What happened?”
“My revolution failed,” said Max. “We took the academy, briefly, and got a message out to the people about the truth of their leaders. But we lost in the field. My best friend captured the Lavender Book, a critical item, but I’m certain she’s dead now. We failed, largely, due to the efforts of a girl in a decaying body and an Ousted Epistocrat. Two people who should have hated Paragon more than anyone.” Max slumped back on her chair. “But they never came round. They stayed indoctrinated to the end. ”
Why had Max put so much faith in people? What had Max believed that all the people would rise up in unison? So many people act like Anabelle Gage. Like Weston Ebbridge.
People had a way of disappointing you.
“It makes sense now,” Max continued. “That the revolution didn’t happen.” This elaborate dream was just some other torture method. Giving her hope and then tearing her down again, to make it more painful each time. She’d never been in control. She’d never done anything important as the leader of Commonplace.
And now that her revolution had failed, her dream world looked just as empty and cruel as Buttercup Lodge.
Maybe I knew it would end this way. Pure agony. A puppet full of needles, screaming as it danced on the strings.
“So,” said Max. “Please. How do I get rid of them?” Her voice grew weak, desperate. “I want to stop dreaming.”
“There are ways,” said the therapist.
“Do I need to die in the dream?” said Max. Maybe Paragon would finish her off, or she’d finish bleeding out in her next dream. And then, she’d wake up here for good.
Before, if she felt a hope, however faint, that the world of her revolution was real, she couldn’t kill herself there.
But the hope had evaporated. Max just wanted to wake up.
“Perhaps,” said the therapist. “But you’d probably just start dreaming about something else. Or your dream world wouldn’t let you kill yourself.”
Max leaned closer. “You can do something, then, can’t you?” They’d already broken her mind in so many ways. Controlled her, ripped away all her autonomy, peeled apart her identity. Fixing some bad dreams seems simple, in comparison.
“I can’t,” said the therapist.
“Can’t,” hissed Max. “Or won’t?” She enjoys watching me suffer.
“It’s not within my powers,” she said. “But you can make the dreams less painful.”
“How?” Max clenched her fists.
“You need to find something to bind yourself to this world,” said the therapist. “The real world. Something you love.” She stared into Max’s eyes. “Then, you’ll find the power to endure the illusion. In the dream, you’ll be unbreakable.”
Max slumped back on her chair, feeling more exhausted than ever. She stared outside the window, past the fluttering drapes and over the flowing yellow hills of Buttercup Lodge. The buildings where the scientists tortured and imprisoned her. The watery pit where hell itself had leaked through in her dream.
How can I love something in a place like this?
To her great disappointment, Maxine Clive woke up.
Her eyes snapped open, and she found herself in some stranger’s bedroom, a dusty studio apartment with a kitchen and small bathroom. Much like the ones she’d spent her teenage years in, before Buttercup Lodge. Used newspapers, empty beer bottles, and a half-eaten box of takeout fish and chips littered the floor. Morning light streamed in through a blurry window in the corner.
For a moment, Max thought she’d returned to her old life, her life as a bicycle courier. Maybe I dreamt up Buttercup Lodge. Maybe I dreamt up everything.
Then she saw the headline on one of the newspapers, stuffed into a mail slot in her door.
PARAGON ACADEMY SAVES ELMIDDE
And below it:
SYMPHONY KNIGHT AND HEADMASTER VANQUISH COUP
Max turned over on the bed, and closed her eyes. Her legs ached, her chest covered in bruises. And her clothes didn’t help, either. Whatever she was wearing, it felt tight, rough, squeezing her waist and legs and stomach. These aren’t pajamas.
One glance, and she saw her outfit. A dark blue military uniform. A Principality uniform.
A strand of light brown hair fell into Max’s face. My hair. This wasn’t the Maxine Clive chassis she’d used for the battle. I got swapped again.
Memories flashed through her head. Grace, carrying her bleeding body through the streets. A red-haired Principality soldier, leaving a house, aiming her rifle at Grace. Grace, jamming the gun, tackling the woman inside her home.
And then Grace, kneeling over Max, purple and white lightning crackling around her. Performing a forced transference on her and the soldier, swapping their bodies. Pushing Max’s Pith into the healthy body, and pushing the enemy soldier into the one covered in blood.
“I’ll draw them off,” Grace had said, slinging the body over her shoulders.
“Your Vocation,” mumbled Max, the world blurring in and out around her.
Grace turned around.
“It’s been focused on nothing but this mission for the last decade. What does it think is going to happen next? What future is it perfecting you for?”
“Nothing,” said Grace, her voice flat. “I see nothing.” Sirens rang in the distance. Approaching police cars.
“The day we met,” said Max. “We went out for lunch together, to that salad place.” She chuckled. “I tried to eat healthy, but you only ate croutons and olive oil. The entire restaurant stared at you. Do you remember that?”
Grace shook her head. Her Vocation’s erased it. Her knife scored down the woman’s forearms, faking a suicide.
“Don’t worry,” said Max. “I’ll remember it for you.”
And then Grace had left.
In the present, Max sat up in her bed, her military uniform tight and uncomfortable. She staggered to the window and stared out, squinting through the morning sun. A military truck rolled past the street, filled with Principality soldiers.
She knew the protocol for this situation. Protocol that she and Grace had set up. If everything went to shit, and Max got isolated, she could give a signal in a dead drop and convene an emergency meeting of whoever survived.
So many contingencies. Max had insisted on contingencies. Grace only cared about Plan A, her single perfect world that she drove towards with all her might. She anticipated victory, at every turn.
Max, on the other hand, had expected failure from the start.
Thanks to all the drills she’d insisted on, Max knew exactly which code to use, which location to place it in. She knew exactly how to regroup, figure out the next steps for fighting Paragon’s tyranny. She could do it right now, if she wanted to.
Max crawled back under the covers, and closed her eyes.
She tossed and turned for half an hour, unable to sleep. So she started thinking.
Our revolution failed. It had given Paragon a scapegoat to kill Parliament, so Commonplace might have even made things worse. A return of the Conclave of the Wise seemed likely.
They’d made that damning recording with Christea Ronaveda, demonstrating how Paragon had hijacked their own parliament. But without the Radio Man, they couldn’t broadcast to every radio in the Principality. They just had to pick a channel and hope that people were listening.
And judging by the headlines, not enough people had tuned in. Or a few of them had, and Paragon had muzzled the newspapers. It didn’t matter either way. Max didn’t have a copy on her anymore.
Grace. Afzal Kahlin. Pictogram. All the Nudge terrorism she’d authorized. The chassis scams on innocent people. The ordinary soldiers she’d butchered. The servants she’d used for their Paragon assault. All the violence and cruelty and death. All the moral compromises.
What did those accomplish? What was the point?
In the flood, Max had become the cruel ant queen, ordering others to give up their lives to join the living raft. And they’d drowned anyways, ants and beetles alike tumbling into the water and choking out.
Only Max, the tyrant, had lived.
Max thought of Khona and the Farmer, the parable she told Pictogram, when she met him. The world is Khona. And I am the farmer. Committing atrocities over and over again, hoping for some end to justify the means. An end that never came.
Our revolution failed. The stars were still gone. And the water was still rising. Humanity’s twilight has begun.
Please, Max thought. Can this dream end already?
Max lay in bed for hours, at least. She had no clock in the room, but the sun rose in the sky, and sunk into the early afternoon. Lying here made her more exhausted, not less. A headache started to throb in the back of her skull, and her muscles burned where she’d been lying on them.
And the more exhausted Max felt, the harder it was to pull herself out of bed. A vicious cycle. She’d been carrying such a heavy burden on her shoulders for the last few years, and now, it felt like her feet had been cut off. The weight crushed her. She couldn’t even crawl.
It’s all a dream, right? This world was empty, in the end, just some figment of her imagination. Might as well enjoy it.
Max rolled out of bed and slumped onto the dusty floor, on all fours. After a minute, she pushed herself to a standing position, stumbled to the closet, and ripped her military uniform off.
As she did, she glanced at the back of her hand. A white scroll on a blue square had been tattooed on this person’s wrist, with a sword stabbing through it. The Principality’s flag. A military symbol. This soldier had been a true believer.
Max kicked her military clothes into the corner of the room, and pulled on a simple pair of pants and a shirt, with a pair of shoes. A wallet sat on the bedside table, next to a pistol and a holster. The wallet had a few pounds in it, plus the woman’s identification cards, and a small key. Ailith Roland. Thirty-four years old.
She whispered a quiet apology to Ailith, then picked up the pistol, examining it. I could put this beneath a coat. Conceal it, so she could still defend herself on the streets.
Max put the gun down.
Then, she walked out the front door, into the glare of the midday sun. She found herself looking at a flat Midtown street, wrapping around the western slope of Mount Elwar.
A pair of soldiers jogged past her on the sidewalk, carrying submachine guns, and she staggered back, out of their way. Don’t piss them off. Max didn’t need extra attention.
A bicycle had been chained in front of the apartment building. On a hunch, Max knelt by it and used the key on the lock. The mechanism clicked, and it came undone.
Max tossed the chains onto a pile of trash. And she biked off into the city.
As she passed ruined storefronts, Max thought of what she could do. What’s supposed to be fun? Max didn’t know anymore. So she just followed the first thoughts that popped into her head.
First, she went to a movie theater. One of the ones that hadn’t closed. She bought tickets for all the showings, and at the last minute, wandered into The God and the Dancer, a cheesy Ilaquan romance flick about a famous chef falling in love with a backup dancer.
In the lobby, Max found herself tempted by the popcorn on display, and the ice cream sodas she saw everyone else buying. But she didn’t order them. I still don’t know if my sense of taste will work in a new body. If she had a problem with her Pith, then it’d be broken forever. And besides, she craved bacon, not theater food.
Still, Max enjoyed the movie. She found herself laughing at all the jokes, joining the rest of the audience. Such a normal act, after such a violent day. Max found herself surprised, that the citizens of Elmidde weren’t hiding under their beds, or praying, or getting blackout drunk right now.
Their city had just been attacked, and here they were, watching a matinee. It seemed almost remarkable.
Is this what normal people do? Is this a normal life? It seemed nice.
When the credits rolled, Max walked back to the box office, bought another ticket, and watched a second movie, A Hero Rises, an action flick about some heroic soldier during the Shenti War. This one irritated Max a bit. Untrained guitar players can’t land headshots at a hundred meters. Totally inaccurate.
Plus, A Hero Rises came off as war propaganda. She had a hard time ignoring that, no matter how much she tried to turn off her Pith and watch the explosions.
I could have done this for years. Instead of fighting for a future that she’d never see. For a world that would never answer her prayers, an empty dream designed to torture her.
This could have been me. If she’d ignored that fake letter from Paragon. If she’d just stayed in her apartment, looked away from the temptation.
She’d spent all the money in her wallet, so she biked back to the apartment to pick up more money. When she got back, a stack of bills had been shoved through Ailith Roland’s mail slot. This doesn’t slow down, either.
This time, Max also noticed a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, a veritable mountain of filthy pots, pans, and plates that would take half an hour to clean.
Where do you see yourself in five years? The job interviewer asked her, so many decades ago.
Doing dishes, Max had thought. Bleeding out of my ears.
Yes, maybe this would have been her life. The monotony, the money troubles, wading through bureaucracy until she died.
Max stuffed the dirty dishes and bills into a large trash bag, then pulled open her rear window and threw them out. They landed in the alleyway below with a crash.
Then, on one of the bookshelves, she spotted a stack of Nekean romance manga, Panda Blossom. Volumes one through fifty. This wouldn’t irritate her with war propaganda, or feeble attempts at realism.
Max refilled her wallet, took all of them, and went to a cafe.
She sat at a window table, drank hot water, and dug into the stack of foreign comics.
It was the most ludicrously stupid thing she’d ever read. She dug through fifteen volumes in an hour.
Heavenly scents of coffee and fresh pastries drifted into her nose, with the heavenly scent of fresh bacon, sizzling on a pan somewhere. But Max still didn’t order anything, no matter how tempted she felt.
On volume twenty-seven, Max reached a boring part of Panda Blossom, some lengthy side POV, and glanced around the cafe for a moment.
The men and women here looked exhausted. Half-awake. They slouched over at their tables, didn’t talk, stared at their drinks with baggy eyes. A tank drove down the street outside, its motor growling, its metal joints screeching as it bumped over piles of rubble.
These people don’t look normal. They looked like the citizens of Kiterjede after the Corsairs’ conquest. Or the Shenti, in the aftermath of the Spirit Block. They’ve lost the will to exist. And now they were drifting through life, aimless, waiting for the next apocalypse.
The simple life was never possible for me. A ‘simple’ life required financial stability and free time. Her boss at the bike company had taken that from her when he decided to pay her starvation wages. The moment he fired her for showing up late on one delivery.
In Ailith’s life, the fantasy would fade. She’d have to buy new dishes and clean them. She’d have to fish those bills out of the trash and pay them.
This would be her future. A slow, lonely existence. Going to work again and again, until she grew old, imploded from the medical bills, and died, wondering what could have been, whether any of this had been real.
Until they forget me. This was the future of so many in the Principality.
Max gazed out the window. A lone Green Hands ran away from the military, his hands cuffed behind his back. A Principality soldier tripped him, and another one kicked him in the face, sending up a spurt of blood and broken teeth.
Max flinched. This is my fault. This wouldn’t have happened if they’d won.
She stared at the bleeding Green Hands, as the soldiers dragged him into a truck. You deserve the magnificent world that I hoped for. But she hadn’t built that. She’d crumbled.
Even if this was a dream, even if this was all pointless, Max still felt responsible. No matter what she did, the weight of the world still pulled down on her shoulders.
Max left some money on the table for her hot water, though it was technically free. Then she picked up her manga and left the cafe.
Max strode towards the edge of the North Bridge.
She leaned over the metal railing, next to one of the massive steel cables suspending the whole structure over the water, connecting Elmidde to the mainland of the Principality. A warm summer breeze blew through her brown hair. Behind her, a line of trucks and automobiles waited at a military checkpoint, undergoing inspections before entering or leaving the city.
Next to them, military trucks sped into Elmidde, filled with Principality soldiers. An endless parade of enemies.
Max stared down. The Carheim Ocean sat hundreds of feet below, a flat expanse of water extending far into the horizon. It looks so blue. So clear and inviting.
She closed her eyes, and pictured clambering over the railing. Leaping off, dropping through the sky, and crashing at the bottom. At this height, the impact would crush her in an instant, and with the military and hospitals this busy, they wouldn’t have the time to fish her out and tend to her wounds.
A burst of warmth flooded Max’s veins as she thought of this. She couldn’t save this city or wake up from this nightmare. But she could control this, at least.
If this was a dream, Max could finally free herself of its cruel whims. And if this was real, then Max wouldn’t have to live with her failure. She would get the punishment she deserved. The endless water would take her, just like it had taken the Great Scholars, and so many others.
The sea remains. She’d used so many slogans, but should have focused on that one. The one prevailing truth, that preceded all others.
Max pushed herself up on the railing, clumsy, unfamiliar with this body. She vaulted one leg over, and glanced back at the road, towards the pedestrian walkway on the other side of North Bridge.
A short woman stared at Max, dressed all in black. The two of them made eye contact for a second.
Then the woman opened a grey carton, and threw an egg at a passing tank on the street. It struck the vehicle’s slanted blue armor and ran down the side. Impotent. Harmless.
The woman sprinted away, and a police officer tackled her, slamming her onto the concrete and knocking the carton out of her hands. He pressed her face into the pavement, while another officer cuffed the woman’s hands behind her back.
She knows she can’t harm the tank. That she was powerless next to the military might of the Principality. She had no guns, no explosives, no projection. The tiniest ant against a beetle the size of a mountain.
But she still threw the egg. She still made a petty act of defiance, even though it would cost her freedom.
Max broke out into laughter, doubling over on the railing. Her shoulders shook, and her chest ached as she guffawed, the noise echoing over the bridge.
One of the soldiers stared at her, fury in his eyes. “Hey!” he shouted. “Shut the fuck up!” He’s giving me an out. In case Max was laughing at something other than him.
Max kept laughing. She stared at the tank with the egg white running down the side, the yolk broken on the sidewalk. And she kept laughing.
The soldier sprinted over to her, crossing both streets filled with stopped cars. Then he grabbed Max’s shirt.
For a moment, it seemed like he was going to shove Max off the bridge. To give her the silence she’d wanted for so long.
One push, and it’d all be over.
Then he pulled her off the railing, onto the bridge’s sidewalk, and started kicking her. His steel-toed combat boot slammed into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. The next kick smashed into her face, breaking two of her teeth and blurring her vision.
Max didn’t stop laughing. Not even when the third kick went between her legs, sending agony throughout her body.
The soldier raised his boot for a fourth kick, a stomp to her nose that might be enough to kill her.
“Enough!” a voice shouted in the distance.
Max’s vision cleared. Another soldier stood behind the man kicking her, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Enough,” he said. “See her wrist, book-burner? She’s one of us.”
The man grabbed Max’s right hand and held it up, staring at the tattoo of the Principality’s flag. Then he stepped back from her, clenching his teeth, his boot stained red with blood. “Why the fuck was she laughing at us?” he snarled.
“She’s shell-shocked,” said the other soldier. “It makes people do crazy shit.” He knelt next to Max. “Hey. Sorry about that. Do you need any help?”
Max shook her head.
“Let’s go,” he said, standing up. “You’ll have other outlets for your anger, Clarke.”
“Forget it,” said the violent soldier.
Both of them walked back to the tank, and stuffed the handcuffed young egg-thrower into a truck. The kinder soldier slammed the door shut, and they drove off.
Max lay on the ground for a few minutes, curled up, as the aches subsided, blood and drool leaking out of her mouth. That could have gone much worse. The soldier hadn’t kicked her in any important places. If I didn’t have that tattoo. She didn’t want to think about it.
But she’d survived. Instead of jumping off the bridge, she’d broken out in laughter.
Max stood up, brushed herself off, and strode down the sidewalk, blood dripping down her chin. Back towards Elmidde.
That evening, as she walked through the streets, she overheard a radio broadcast, echoing out of a cafe on the street.
A man’s voice, deep and measured, with a thick eastern accent. “My name is Cao Hui. The Black Tortoise. The Scholar of Economy. Conquerer of the Nekean Islands, Ilaqua, and the Principality, and Grand Marshal of the Shenti Empire.”
Max froze. Impossible. The Black Tortoise was wasting away in a hut somewhere, not broadcasting on the radio. The Shenti Empire had dissolved into a chaotic mess of squabbling warlords and bombed-out buildings. It wasn’t unified.
Then she ran into the cafe. A group of waiters had gathered around the radio on the counter, listening to the broadcast. “Where’s that coming from?” Max said.
One of them shrugged. “Some music station out of Alcaross. I think someone broke in.”
Cao Hui continued. “Two days ago, we orchestrated our greatest attack yet against the imperialist butchers of the Principality. Our agents in Commonplace, under the command of my generals, struck a mighty blow, to bleed the enemy.”
Max clenched her teeth. Bastard. He was taking credit for all of Commonplace’s hard work. Her Shenti warlords had provided funding and training, and an elite soldier, Pictogram. But Max had set all the priorities, not them. She wanted to build something. They just wanted revenge. They wanted to use me. And maybe they’d succeeded.
“They exposed the truth of the Principality’s so-called democracy. Their bloated, aging government, propped up by stolen wealth and mental hijacking. They made a recording, with their own spoiled celebrity, who could tell nothing but the truth.”
He found out about Christea Ronaveda. Then he’d heard the recording, even if most of the Principality hadn’t.
“Paragon Academy did its best to hide all copies of this recording. But it failed. And so, I share it with you today, so that you may know your enemy:”
A woman’s voice crackled onto the radio. “My name is Christea Ronaveda.”
Cao Hui played the full recording from the Great Library. Exposing how all of Parliament had been hijacked, that Paragon was responsible. How many people are listening to this? It didn’t sound like a popular radio channel, but the word would be spreading. People would be tuning in around the country.
“See you in paradise, squidfuckers,” said Ronaveda.
The recording finished, and Cao Hui’s voice came back. “So,” he said. “To all my brothers and sisters of the Shenti. To our children who have left our shores, and traveled to the lands of the enemy. To all who feel the infinite cruelty of the Spirit Block. Our hearts, ripped from us.” He paused. “I call on you to fight with me. To gather your arms and your bodies and all your strength. Join me, and witness the rebirth of the Shenti Empire.”
The recording ended.
The cafe fell silent. None of the waiters or the guests spoke, frozen in pure shock. The Black Tortoise has returned. The enemy they thought they’d defeated a decade ago. The Praxis specialist genius who had turned the Shenti’s industry into an unstoppable war machine.
“Eastern dogs,” muttered one of the waiters.
If the Principality had been harboring any doubts, they were definitely going to invade now. Their enemy had revealed himself.
Max forced herself to take slow, calming breaths, slowing her rushing heartbeat. Then she stepped out of the cafe.
She had a dead drop to make.
Leo’s Place, the sign said, bathed in the orange glow of a streetlamp. A contingency of a contingency. A few alphabets away from Plan B.
One of Max’s subordinates had given her a list of locations to memorize before the battle, a long series of emergency backups in case of catastrophic failure. All the other spots ahead of it on the list had been demolished, or had closed, with the owners missing. Or had a heavy police presence nearby.
Someone had smashed the front window of the bar, and streaks of black ran up the walls from a firebomb. But otherwise, it looked fine. Next to the rest of the country, it’s pretty much paradise.
Max strode through the front door. The bartender, a middle-aged man cleaning glasses, indicated his head to the back room. I’m late. The meeting had already started. Max had kept herself busy this afternoon.
She strode through the door, to a dusty hallway in the back of the building, lit by a single dim light bulb.
Voices echoed from the room ahead. Two men, angry. Nelson Hicks and Cyril Hosmer. Two of her lieutenants, lower on the command chain, who hadn’t participated in the attack. Makes sense that they survived.
“They’re dead,” Nelson said. “Tunnel Vision and Clive.”
“What about the Broadcast King?” said Cyril.
“Kahlin’s safehouse got attacked, too, after the battle. He’s gone missing, which means he’s either dead, a traitor, or on the other side of the world. And our Shenti contacts have gone silent, now that their new boss has taken our credit.”
“Eastern dogs,” a woman muttered.
Nelson’s voice grew heavy. “We’re alone. We have nothing.”
“Then who called this emergency meeting?” said a female voice. Flora Davis. “Only a few people have those security protocols.”
“Maybe it’s a trap,” said Nelson. “Maybe a few of us in this room have already been hijacked, or replaced, and they’re just waiting for more of us to show up before they sweep in and arrest us.”
“No,” said Flora. “Paragon is reeling and disorganized after the battle. They don’t have the resources for that kind of offensive right now.”
“They weren’t supposed to have the resources to crush us like this, either,” said Nelson. “Maybe this is just the last, dying gasp of our movement.” His voice echoed through the shut door. “We’ve spent our money, our guns. And our people are dying. We invested everything into the attack on Paragon. An empty, pointless defeat.”
“It wasn’t pointless!” hissed Flora. “Look at how many Guardians we slew. Listen to the radio!”
Nelson and Cyril started shouting at the same time. Flora and another two voices joined them, making an incomprehensible din.
Max burst through the door. “Hey!”
Inside, a dozen men and women stood up from a table and pointed guns at her. New body, new rules.
“Three-One Purgatory Exclamation,” she said. The password. “Sit down. We have a lot to discuss. I didn’t call this meeting so we could all yell at each other.”
Her lieutenants lowered their guns, and stared at her. Then, one of them spoke up. “Ma’am?”
“I told you,” she said. “‘Max’ is fine.”
“You have a plan, right boss? Max.” Flora gazed at her, expectant, puffing on a cigarette.
“Of sorts,” said Max. “Give me all your guns.”
The men and women around her flicked their safeties on and handed their weapons over. Max stacked pistols and submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns in her arms, a pile weighing her down, even in this fit soldier’s body. An array of customized, death-dealing tools, each tailored and perfected by its user. Loaded with steel and Voidsteel and all sorts of buckshot.
Then, she walked to the edge of the room and dumped them in a trash can. They clanked to the bottom, making a crunching sound on a paper bag inside, none of them firing on accident.
The men and women shouted, made sounds of irritation and confusion. “I spent five thousand pounds on that gun!” yelled Cyril.
Max raised her hands to quiet the din. “We,” she said, “can’t fight with these anymore. You just described why.”
“Then we can die honorable deaths,” said Cyril. “Or fight until the people rise up and join us.”
Max strode to the edge of the room and threw open the curtains, letting in dim light from the streetlamps. From this window as a vantage point, they could see some of the larger streets of Lowtown in the distance.
Even at this late hour, tanks rolled down the boulevards, past storefronts and apartment buildings, accompanied by soldiers and the occasional Guardian. Far more soldiers and firepower than Commonplace had ever gathered in one place.
“That’s what we’re up against.” Max paced back and forth in front of the table. “Paragon has overwhelming strength. Very soon, they’ll come after us with all their military, all their intelligence and projectors. We don’t have Kahlin, or the Shenti, or the Pyre Witch to fend them off. We won’t even have Parliament’s bureaucracy to slow them down.”
“Then,” said Nelson, his voice heavy. “What are we supposed to do?” He snorted. “Peaceful protest? Like a decade ago? Give out free hugs to the armed riot cops?”
“We have only one, slim chance for victory,” said Max. “Scatter.”
Dead silence. None of them had expected this, not from her.
“Flee to the corners of this nation. To the corners of the Eight Oceans, if you have to. Cut off contact with all other major branches of Commonplace, and perform memory wipes, so if any one group gets hijacked, it won’t affect the others.” Her voice grew quiet. “Forget your colleague’s faces. Forget their names. Forget the internal workings of Commonplace. Forget me.”
The silence lasted for another second. Then everyone broke out in shouting again. Questions, protests, suggestions of alternatives.
“But if we separate,” said Flora, breathing out smoke. “How can we coordinate action? Keep fighting the war?”
“We can’t,” said Max. They still had some soldiers, their Conduit, and a few leads Max hadn’t explored yet, but none of those were enough to take on the full force of Paragon.
Flora slouched over on her chair, putting out her cigarette. “Then we’re fucked,” she said. “The Principality is lost. Paragon Academy will roll over us, and the forces of cruelty will own this nation. At least until the water drowns us all.”
Max thought of the young woman on the bridge. The one who threw the egg.
“We’ve lost the military war,” said Max. “But – “ She reached into her coat, pulled a folder out of her pocket, and set it on the table.
“A poll,” said Max. “Finished four hours ago. Three hours ago, an appointed security panel banned it from public release for ‘purposes of national security’. So an office assistant gave it to one of our people. They passed it on to me this evening.” She slid it to the man next to her. His eyes widened as he read it.
The folder circled the table, each time stirring surprise and wonder from the people gathered.
“Two weeks ago, national support for Commonplace sat at thirty-one percent,” said Max. “Four hours ago, it sat at fifty-three. Paragon’s crackdown. Our revelations about Parliament. They didn’t fall on empty ears.” She shrugged. “Of course, it wasn’t enough to turn the whole military, or key government officials, or deliver us the country. Anabelle Gage exposing our Shenti connections didn’t help. Neither did the Black Tortoise revealing himself.” Cao Hui was a genocidal maniac, not an ally they could trust.
“That’s a cute number, Max,” said Nelson. “But we can’t overthrow an oligarchy with slips of paper. That fifty-three percent is going to be bombarded with propaganda. Without Kahlin’s papers, we can’t counter it. And there’s the matter of the Shenti, too.”
“Yes,” said Max. “The Principality will invade Shenten. For a time, this may rally the public around their struggle, and against us. Righteous vengeance against a shared enemy.” She smiled. “But sometimes, nations wage wars because they’re weak, not because they’re strong.”
“What does that mean?” said Flora.
“Paragon won’t fix any of their subject’s real problems. And so, a day will come when this nation tilts off-balance. When a foreign war can’t quell dissent anymore. When the people’s horror overwhelms their apathy. When that day comes, we’ll be waiting.”
“Waiting with no guns,” said Nelson. “No serious force of projectors. No money.”
“I’m not telling you all to be peaceful,” said Max. “I’m telling you to be quiet. For now. Hide. Listen. Train. Let Paragon think we are defeated, broken. They’ve always underestimated us.”
Nods around the table. On that, they all agreed.
“Our job, for the present,” said Max. “Is not to trust in foreign intervention, or wealthy backers, or the raw power of Tunnel Vision’s mob.” She looked at each person in the room, one at a time. “No fancy Vocations. No awe-inspiring power. No ambushes or assassinations or terror strikes.” She exhaled. “Our mission is to trust in the people we’ve spread the truth to. The Common Foundation.”
“A slogan,” muttered Nelson. “Against trained Guardians. Against the Symphony Knight. Forgive me for feeling a bit disillusioned.”
“When garbage collectors skip work,” said Max. “The city chokes. Trash fills the streets. When factory workers stay home, the war machine grinds to a halt. And when farmers all quit, people go hungry. Even the Symphony Knight needs to eat.” She clenched her fist. “No nation, no matter its strength, can survive without the Common Foundation.”
Nelson relaxed his jaw. Then he nodded. The others nodded with him, reluctant.
Max sat down at the table and poured herself a glass of water. “Now,” she said. “Let’s hash out the details.”
That night, Max fell asleep in Ailith Roland’s bed, and woke up in Buttercup Lodge.
For the first time in her life, she felt ready for it.
The wake-up music drifted into her ears, same as usual. “Sway on the blue, skip on the sea, dance on the waves with me.”
Max’s eyes snapped open. Her sleepiness vanished, and she sat upright at the edge of the bed, pushing away the covers. Just like she’d been hijacked to do.
The nurse came to dress her, gave her the daily dose of Nudge Powder to extend her commands, and led her through the field of buttercups on the island. Past the silent waterfall, and the deep pit of black water, as the sun rose over the ocean. Into the building where they’d chopped her up and put her back together. To the room where she’d talked for hours and hours, outlining all of her plans, her hopes and dreams and failures.
“So,” said her Nekean therapist. “In your dream, you’ve taken a new body, a new name.”
“Yes,” said Max, sipping her tea from a dainty porcelain cup.
“And you commanded your people to go into hiding.” She scribbled in her notes, furrowing her brow.
“Because you got inspired. After you saw a woman throw an egg.”
“Yes,” said Max. “We showed the world that the Principality is fragile, that the might of Paragon Academy can be challenged. That was our first attempt. You should fear our second.”
The therapist kneaded her forehead, and sighed. “You’ve been busy in your fantasy world,” she said. “You sound pleased with yourself. But you need to abandon the fantasies. Have you thought at all about what I said earlier?”
“Yes,” said Max. “I have.”
She’d thought about that lots after her meeting at the bar. You need to find something to bind yourself to the real world. Something you love.
“Maybe it’s not important, which world is real,” said Max. “The important thing is which world I care about. Even if they’re both real. Or if they’re both fake.”
“So you’ve found something here,” said the therapist. “Something to anchor yourself here?”
“Well,” said Max. “I found something to anchor myself.” She stood up, her voice calm and measured. “I’m going to kill you someday.”
The therapist looked taken aback. “What?”
“I thought that if I endured enough pain, I could somehow find the strength to escape this world, to live in a place with possibility and hope, instead of hollow misery. To wake from this nightmare.” She shook her head.
“Max,” sighed the therapist. “We’ve been over this. You can’t wake up from here because it’s the real world. I thought that you were – ”
Max stomped on the wooden floor, making her therapist flinch. She couldn’t perform any direct violence, but the commands didn’t prohibit loud noises.
“But I am a Humdrum!” Max cried out. “We don’t get shortcuts. We don’t get easy solutions. But we endure. We can get knocked down and spat on and hijacked, and we still find a way to kick you in the balls. We still strive to be our own Exemplars, our own best selves.” She smiled and closed her eyes, thinking of the woman throwing the egg. Of her friends in Commonplace. Of Grace. “I know which world matters to me.”
“It – it doesn’t matter,” said the therapist, stuttering. “You can’t escape.”
Max shook her head. “Someone did this to me. Put me in this hellish dream world. I don’t know who, but if they did it, they can undo it. I don’t care how long it takes. I will outlast you.” Her smile widened, into a grin. “I’m not your patient, or your victim. I’m your worst enemy.”
The therapist just blinked at her, shocked.
Max leaned forward, placed her palms on the woman’s ears, and kissed her forehead. “Hope you’re ready for war.”
The kiss shook the therapist out of her stupor, and she jumped out of her chair. “Guard!” she shouted. “Guard!”
The guard burst into the room and whistled, freezing Max’s movements in place. He hefted his rifle. “Ma’am, are you alright?”
The Nekean woman exhaled, her forehead and armpits damp. “We’re done for the day,” she said, out of breath. “Escort the patient back to her room.”
The guard gave Max another clicker-whistle signal, compelling her to follow.
Before Max stepped out of the door, she called out to the therapist. “See you tomorrow, genius.”
A thousand Whisper vocations at your fingertips, thought Max. And I’m the one who made you sweat.
Max woke up in the real world.
The world of a thousand flaws. The world where she’d met Grace, fought alongside thousands of comrades. Where she’d failed.
Max had escaped Buttercup Lodge. She had led a revolution.
It didn’t matter what Whisper Vocations the scientists had thrown over her. It didn’t matter what kind of soup they’d turned her Pith into. To Max, this world was real. This world was worth fighting for. And that was all that mattered. The next time she fell asleep, she would wake up in Buttercup Lodge again.
But she would be ready.
Her eyes snapped open in bed, and she jumped out, feeling her bare feet on the cold hardwood floors. An anchor. Max smiled. That therapist was right about one thing.
She couldn’t dwell on her internal struggles. Paragon’s crackdown was about to start. She had work to do.
First, though, she needed breakfast.
One quick trip to the grocery store, and she had two large bags filled with supplies. One large supply, really. The soldiers on the street stared at her, but the sun had risen. Curfew had lifted hours ago, and she still had her military tattoo on this chassis.
Max slammed her apartment door shut, and turned on every burner on her stove. She flung open the cabinets and pulled out every pot and pan that Ailith Roland had bought. That she hadn’t thrown away already.
Then she reached into her grocery bags, and pulled out two dozen packages of bacon. Since she’d never made bacon before, she set the burners at all different temperatures, then ripped open the packages and slapped on the strips of meat.
In minutes, the smell of bubbling pork fat filled the room, thick and rich and smoky. It stung Max’s eyes a bit, and she pulled open the window to let it out. The bacon sizzled in small lakes of oil, crackling and browning. One of the pieces went pop, splashing droplets of hot liquid onto her arm.
Max flinched, then smiled.
As Max cooked the bacon, she gazed out of the open window, past the alleyway with her trash and to the street outside.
Soldiers jogged down the sloped street, all carrying rifles or automatic weapons. A pair of them kicked down a door across the road, running in. A tank rolled next to them, its engine growling, and a pair of trucks drove behind, stuffed with groggy men and women in handcuffs.
The purge has started. The mass arrests in the aftermath of the attack on Paragon. With luck, most of the victims would be sent to prison, rather than murdered. The Principality hadn’t descended to that point. Not yet.
Max slid pieces of bacon from the stove onto a clean bath towel, calm, draining out the grease. They ranged from almost raw to crispy and burned. She stuffed them into the largest paper bag she could find, then tossed the grease-filled pans out of the window, into the alleyway.
Then, she dressed up in her military gear and left the house. Ailith Roland had gotten a phone call from a superior, ordering her to help with the ‘cleanup’ efforts, excoriating her for missing a day of work.
Max had faked some sickness. Her CO had bigger things on his mind, and at this level of the military, people didn’t use personalized passwords. That bought her a day, but to maintain her cover, now, she had to go to work. Report to the office in Midtown for her assignment.
She shut the door behind her, locked it, and walked through the streets, calm, as sirens rang in the distance and soldiers shouted orders. The sun rose over the Eloane Ocean, casting warm, orange light over the city.
A few soldiers and cops gave Max odd looks as they jogged forward. As she stared at them. But none of them aimed at her. Whenever any of them got close, Max flashed the military tattoo on her wrist, and they backed off.
It only took a few minutes for Max to get to the tram station. A pair of soldiers guarded the lobby, forcing people to go through an inspection to get on public transportation. As a result, the line of people stretched around the block.
When Max came up to the checkpoint, the soldiers smiled at her, and waved her through, not even bothering to check her bag.
As usual, the station’s platform was full, a crowd packed shoulder to shoulder, shouting, jostling for space near the front so they had a chance of getting a seat. Purge or no, these people had places to be. When the train arrived, they pushed forward, flooding into the tram.
Max didn’t push. She just strode forward, calm, and squeezed herself into a corner of the car. Indistinguishable from any of the hundreds around her. Just another member of the crowd.
When the engine started, the crowd pressed Max up against a window. So as the train chugged up the slope, Max had a perfect view of Elmidde as it spread out beneath her. The sun rose behind Mount Elwar and Paragon Academy, casting them in a dark silhouette, obscuring their features. And even with the military, people walked to and fro on the streets of Lowtown.
A magnificent city. A wondrous people.
As the tram rumbled on the street, Max whispered a quiet prayer under her breath. For the innocents she’d killed in her Nudge attacks, her assault on Paragon. For the young students she’d hurt, indoctrinated into a cruel system. Matilla Geffray and all the others.
But most of all, she whispered a prayer for the citizens of the Principality. The Humdrums who would face terror and death and endless propaganda. Who would watch their country and their hope slip away from them, inch by inch, day by day.
We’ll take it back, one day. But it wouldn’t be soon. It wouldn’t be easy.
I hope we make it that far.
Max reached into her bag, pulled out a thick piece of bacon, and bit into it.
The tastes of salt and fat and pork blossomed in her mouth.
Not bad, she thought. Not bad.