Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.
A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.
His brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.
A new novella collection from Brandon Sanderson, Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds includes Legion, Legion: Skin Deep and the brand new, shocking finale to Leeds’ story, Lies of the Beholder. Available September 18th from Tor Books.
Lies of the Beholder
“So…” J.C. said, hands on hips as he regarded the building. “Anyone else worried that this doctor’s office is in a slum?”
“It’s not a slum,” Ivy said, extending her hand to help me from the back of the limo.
“Sure,” J.C. said. “And those aren’t crack dealers on the corner over there.”
“J.C., those kids are like six.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Starting early, are they? Nefarious little entrepreneurs.”
Ivy rolled her eyes, but Tobias—an African American man who was growing a little unsteady on his feet, now that he was getting on in years—just laughed a hearty, full-throated laugh. He climbed out of the limo with my help, then slapped J.C. on the back. They’d been joking the whole way here.
J.C. grinned, showing he was at least a little aware of his buffoonery.
I eyed the building. Though it was your typical, generic suburban office structure, it was across the street from a pawnshop and next door to an auto mechanic. Not a slum, but hardly prime real estate either. So maybe J.C. had a point.
I rapped on the front passenger window of the limo, which rolled down, revealing a young woman with short blonde hair. Wilson’s grandniece was shadowing him again. Right. I wished he’d left her behind today; I tend to be a little more… erratic when visiting with reporters.
I looked past her toward the tall, distinguished man in the driver’s seat. “Why don’t you wait here, Wilson,” I said, “instead of going to the service station? In case we’ve got the wrong location or something.”
“Very well, Master Leeds,” Wilson said.
His grandniece nodded eagerly. As comfortable as Wilson looked in his traditional buttling gear, she seemed awkward wrapped in a coachman’s coat and cap. Like she was playing dress-up. Had she been listening as I talked to my hallucinations in the back seat? I was used to Wilson, but it felt wrong to expose myself to someone from the outside. I mean, I was used to people seeing my… eccentricities when I was in public. But this felt different. An intrusion.
I turned and walked with my aspects into the office building, which had a familiar, sterile quality. Not quite like a hospital, but scrubbed often enough to give it the off-white scent of one. The first door to the right was number sixteen, where we were supposed to meet the interviewer.
J.C. glanced in through the side window. “No reception area,” he said. “Just one large room. Feels like the sort of place where someone grabs you the moment you walk in. You black out, and then… BAM… three kidneys.”
“Three?” Ivy asked.
“Sure,” J.C. replied. “They need unwitting mules for their illegal organ trade.”
“And exactly how unwitting are you going to be when you wake up with an incision in your abdomen? Wouldn’t you immediately run to the doctor?”
His eyes narrowed. “Well, the doctor’s obviously in on it, Ivy.”
I looked to Tobias, who was still smiling. He nodded toward a painting on the hallway wall. “That’s by Albert Bierstadt,” he said. “Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The original hangs in the Smithsonian, as one of the most famous works of the Hudson River School.” His calming tone was a relaxing contrast to J.C.’s jovial—but still deep-seated—paranoia. “I’ve always loved how the clouds part to illuminate the dark wilderness: a representation of the Creation through the lens of the American frontier. Our eyes are inexorably drawn toward that central light, as if we are being accepted into heaven.”
“Or,” Ivy observed, “perhaps the clouds are closing, and the landscape is dimming as God withdraws and leaves men in darkness.”
Startled, I glanced sharply at Ivy. She was usually the religious one, sticking up for all things Christian and holy. She shrugged and looked away.
I knocked, and the door opened to reveal a tall, mature Asian woman with a square face and prominent smile lines. “Ah! Mr. Leeds. Excellent.” She gestured for us to enter, and J.C.—of course—went first.
He ducked under her arm, deftly avoiding touching a real person, then looked around, hand on his weapon. Finally he nodded for the rest of us to enter.
The interviewer had set out a group of chairs for us, and she stood by the door a conspicuously long time for all of us to enter. She’d done her homework. Though she waited too long—she couldn’t see the aspects—her effort did help with the illusion, for which I was grateful.
Ivy and Tobias settled themselves while J.C. continued to inspect the room. Large windows to our right looked out on the curb, where Wilson stood beside my limo. The far left wall of the room was dominated by a large saltwater fish tank. The rest of the décor was in a “writing den” theme, with hardwood bookcases and deep green carpeting.
I stepped up to the window and nodded toward Wilson, who waved back.
“Three today, then?” the interviewer asked.
I turned around, frowning.
“I followed your eyes,” she said, pointing to the chairs where Ivy and Tobias sat, then to where J.C. had been standing—though he’d moved to search the bookshelves for secret passages.
“Only three,” I said.
“Ivy, Tobias, J.C.?”
“You have done your homework.”
“I like to be prepared,” the woman said, settling down in her own seat. “I’m Jenny, by the way, in case Liza didn’t say.”
This woman was Jenny Zhang, reporter and bestselling writer. She specialized in salacious pop-biographies that rode the lines between information, entertainment, and voyeurism. She had won awards, but really, she was just another hack who had fought her way out of the clickbait trenches and earned a measure of respectability.
I wished I’d never promised Liza the favor of doing an interview with one of her friends, but I was stuck. Hopefully Jenny wouldn’t keep me too long, and her eventual book wouldn’t be too painful.
She nodded toward the seats, but I remained beside the window. “Suit yourself,” she said, getting out a notepad. She pointed at my aspects. “J.C., Tobias, Ivy. Id, ego, superego.”
“Oh, great,” Ivy said. “One of those. Tell her we’ve been over this. It doesn’t fit.”
“We’re not fans,” I said to Jenny, “of that psychological profile.”
“Ivy’s the one complaining?” Jenny asked. “She’s a repository of your understanding of human nature—you’ve externalized in her your people skills and your understanding of relationships. She’s reportedly very cynical. What does that say about you, I wonder?”
I shifted uncomfortably.
“Hey,” J.C. said. “That’s not bad.”
“But you’ve also created a personification of peace and relaxation.” Jenny pointed her pencil toward one of the seats. She had them reversed, but obviously she meant Tobias this time. “You say he’s a historian, but how often does his knowledge of history prove relevant?”
“Frequently,” I said.
“That’s not what I hear,” Jenny said. “You claim to have limited ‘slots’ in a given team of aspects. Imagining too many at once is difficult, so you bring only a few with you at a time. Yet you always take these three. J.C.—your sense of paranoia and self-preservation—is a logical inclusion. As is Ivy, who can help you cope with the social norms of the outside world. But why Tobias?”
“She knows too much,” Ivy said. “Something’s wrong with this interview.”
“Do we really need to panic?” Tobias said. “So she’s read the previous profiles people have done of Stephen. Surely, we should expect that. Wouldn’t we be more suspicious if she hadn’t come in with some theories about our nature?”
I idled by the window, but finally J.C. nodded and sat down. He was satisfied. I stepped away from the window, but didn’t sit. Instead, I walked up to the fish tank. It was extravagant, with variegated corals and beautiful lighting. So much work to create what amounted to a prison.
Jenny was writing on her notepad. What did she find so fascinating? I’d barely said anything.
I watched the fish pick at the coral, eating at their own confines. “Don’t you have any other questions for me?” I finally asked Jenny. “Everyone else wants to know how I distinguish reality from hallucination. Or they want to know what it feels like to assimilate knowledge—then manifest it as an aspect.”
“What happened to Ignacio?” Jenny asked.
I spun on her. Tobias raised a hand to his lips, gasping softly.
“You mentioned Ignacio in past interviews,” Jenny said, watching me with poised pencil. “One of your favorite aspects. A chemist? And yet, in your recent case with the motor-oil-eating bacteria, you didn’t involve him at all. Curious.”
Ignacio. He, like Justin, was… was no longer one of my aspects.
Tobias cleared his throat. “Did you see she has an Algernon Black-wood book on the shelf? Original Arkham House edition, which is my favorite. The feel of the paper—the scent… it is the scent of lore itself.”
“You’ve frozen up,” Jenny noted. “Can you lose aspects, Mr. Leeds?”
“Original Arkham House editions are… are rare… though that depends on who you want to read. I once had a copy of Bradbury’s Dark Carnival from them, though the cover…”
“What happened?” Jenny asked. “Did they simply move out?”
“The cover… did not… age… well.…”
“Ivy,” I whispered.
“Right, right,” she said, standing up. “Okay, so she’s acting like this is an innocent question, but I don’t buy it. She knew this would touch a nerve. Look how tightly she holds that pencil, hanging on your words.”
“I’m sorry,” Tobias said, dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief. “I am not helpful right now, am I?”
“She’s goading us,” J.C. said, standing up. He rested his hand on Ivy’s shoulder. “What do we do?”
“She wants to push us off balance,” Ivy decided. “Steve, you need to reassert control of the conversation.”
“But how much does she know?” Tobias asked. “Did she really guess what happened to Ignacio? You don’t speak of these things often.” He cocked his head. “Stan says… Stan says she must be working for them.”
“Not helping, Tobias!” Ivy said, glaring at him.
“Quiet,” I said to them. “Quiet, all of you.”
They quieted. I locked eyes with Jenny, who now sat calmly twirling her pencil between two fingers. Feigned nonchalance.
I couldn’t keep unraveling every time Ignacio or Justin came up. I had to control this.
I was not crazy.
“I’m not comfortable talking about this topic,” I said, finally walking over and taking the seat she’d provided for me.
“Different question, please.”
“Have you lost any aspects besides Ignacio?”
“I can sit here all day, Jenny,” I said. “Repeating the same words over and over. Is that how you want to waste your interview?”
The pencil stopped twirling. “Very well. Another question then.”
She shuffled through her papers. “You’ve maintained throughout all your interviews that you are not insane—that by your definition, ‘insanity’ is the line beyond which an individual’s psychology impinges upon their ability to live a normal life. A line you’ve never crossed.”
“Exactly,” I said. “The media pretends that ‘insanity’ is this magical state that is simply on or off. Like it’s a disease you can catch. They miss the nuance. The human brain’s structure and chemistry are incredibly complex, and certain traits which—in the extreme—are deemed insane by society can be present in many so-called normal people, and contribute greatly to their success.”
“So you deny that mental illness is, indeed, an illness?”
“I didn’t say that.” I glanced at my aspects. Ivy, who sat down, primly crossing her legs. Tobias, who stood and strolled over to the window, looking up to where he thought he could see Stan the astronaut up in his satellite. J.C., who had moved to lounge by the door, hand on his gun.
“I’m just saying,” I continued, “that the definition of the word ‘insanity’ is a moving target, and depends greatly upon the person being discussed. If someone’s means of thinking is different from your own, but those thought patterns don’t disrupt their life, why try to ‘fix’ them? I don’t need to be fixed. If I did, my life would be out of control.”
“That’s a false dichotomy,” Jenny said. “You could be both in need of help and in control.”
“And your aspects don’t disrupt your life?”
“Depends on how annoying J.C. is being at the moment.”
“Hey!” J.C. said. “I don’t deserve that.”
All three of us looked at him.
“…today,” he added. “I’ve been good.”
Ivy cocked an eyebrow. “On the way here, you said—and I quote— ‘The police shouldn’t be so racist to them towel-heads, because it isn’t their fault they were born in China or wherever.’ ”
“See, being good.” J.C. paused. “Should I have called them ‘towel-headed Americans’ or something… ?”
“Your id is speaking out?” Jenny looked from me to J.C. She was good at following my attention.
“He is not my id,” I said. “Don’t try to pretend he somehow articulates my secret desires.”
“I’m not certain he can articulate anything,” Ivy added. “As doing so would, by definition, require more than grunts.”
J.C. rolled his eyes.
I stood up and walked over to the fish tank again. I always wondered… did the fish know they were in a cage? Could they comprehend what had happened to them, that their entire world was artificial?
“So,” Jenny said. “Perhaps we could track your status, Mr. Leeds. Three years ago, during your last interview, you said you were feeling better than you ever had. Is that still the case? Have you gotten better, or worse, over the years?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” I said, watching a little black and red fish dart behind some fake yellow coral. “I don’t get ‘better’ or ‘worse’ because I’m not sick. I simply am who I am.”
“And you never before considered your… state… to be an affliction?” Jenny asked. “Because very early reports paint a different picture. They describe a frightened man who claimed he was surrounded by demons, each whispering instructions to him.”
That had been a long time ago. Find a purpose, Sandra had taught me. Do something with the voices. Make them serve you.
“Hey,” J.C. interrupted, “I’m gonna go grab some jerky or something at that gas station. Anyone want anything?”
“Wait!” I said, spinning away from the fish tank. “I might need you.”
“What?” J.C. said, hand on the doorknob. “Need me to be the butt of more jokes? I’m sure you’ll live.”
He stepped out, then pulled the door closed. I stood, speechless. He’d actually left. Usually when J.C. disobeyed, it was because I tried to leave him behind—or because I didn’t want him practicing with his guns. He disobeyed to protect me. He didn’t just… just walk away.
Ivy ran to the door and peeked after him. “Want me to go after him?”
“No,” I whispered.
“So,” Jenny said. “We were talking about you getting worse?”
“That’s an Achilles tang,” Tobias said, stepping up to me and nodding toward the little red and black fish. “It looks black, but it’s actually dark brown, sometimes even a dark purple. A beautiful, but difficult fish to keep; that spot on the tail is the origin of its name—as it looks a little like a bleeding wound on the heel.”
I took a deep breath. J.C. was just being J.C. We were talking too much about aspects—and he hated being reminded he wasn’t real. That was why he’d left.
“I’ve had some rough patches lately, perhaps,” I said to Jenny. “I need something to focus my aspects and my mind.”
“A case?” Jenny said, pulling a few sheets out from behind her notepad. “I might be able to help with that.” She set the sheets on the coffee table in front of her.
“Ah…” Ivy said, walking over to me. “That’s her angle, Steve. This is all preamble. She wants to hire you.”
“She was pushing you off balance,” Tobias said with a nod. “Perhaps to get herself into a better bargaining position?”
This was familiar ground. I relaxed, then walked over and settled down in the seat across from Jenny. “All this to offer me a case? You people. You realize that you can just ask.”
“You have a tendency to return letters unopened, Leeds,” the reporter said, but she did have the decency to blush.
“What is this…” I said, skimming. “Machine that can use big data to predict a person’s exact wants, updated minute by minute, incorporating brain chemistry with historic decisions, removing the need for most choices…”
“Kind of interesting,” Ivy said, reading over my shoulder. “I guess it will depend on what she’s willing to pay, and what exactly she wants us to do.”
“What do you need from me?” I asked Jenny.
“I need you to steal a—”
My pocket buzzed. I absently glanced at the phone, expecting a text from J.C. He’d probably sent me a picture of himself trying to drink straight from the soda machine at the gas station, or some similar nonsense.
But the text wasn’t from J.C. It was from Sandra. The woman who originally taught me to use my aspects; the woman who had brought me sanity. The woman who had vanished soon after.
The text read, simply, HELP.
Excerpted from Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds, copyright © 2018 by Brandon Sanderson.