107. Security Failures

“Do you have any idea what she’s doing?” Alexander asked.

“No, Your Majesty,” Sibyl replied.

Alex sighed and leaned toward his screen. He and Sibyl were seated behind his desk in the high office, watching Katherine through the security feeds, or Victoria as she liked to call herself.

So far, it had been immensely entertaining. He’d watched the altercation between an exemplar and the unremarkable Captain Russo. The struggle had been so quick, Alex could have glanced away and missed Russo’s swiping of the exemplar’s shield. What followed was clearly a memory trick, or else that exemplar was entirely too forgiving.

But after getting through security, her plan became… a little too obtuse for him to follow. She’d gone up floors and down, into closets and bunks and bathrooms.

“Is she… lost?” he asked. No. That made no sense. She must know how to get to him. Go up.

As entertaining as this was, it was also nerve wracking. He wasn’t even sure that was Katherine. She could have given glyphs to anyone, and that deployment pod could have contained more than one person.

“Maybe it’s a distraction,” he said. “Has anything happened over there?”

“Not yet.” Sibyl was watching the feeds for the security bay. “Maybe she’s looking for someone.”

Alex shook his head. “If she was, she’d already know where he was.”

He was tempted to call the onboard marines and tell them to suit up, just to have them ready. But if he did, Katherine or the Korean girl might see it. They’d know he knew.

Maybe he could have someone with a gun and a shield stone go down there alone, act like nothing was amiss right up to the point they shot her, but he’d have to bring them up to speed first. He could just imagine giving them abridged instructions: There’s a visiting soldier in the docking bay levels wandering around like he’s looking for the bathroom. Could you go down there and shoot him for me? I’ll explain later.

With a healthy dose of Sympathy, it might work, but that wasn’t great either. If it failed, he’d lose his advantage.

What he’d like is if she’d just go up the damn stairs. She’d already come so close. Alex had had his hand on the transmitter, but then she’d turned around. It’s like she knew about the bombs, but she didn’t act like it at all.

A muffled grunt diverted Alex’s attention. He glanced at his trump card. She was struggling to move.

“Would you hush?” he said, not that she could hear him.

He turned back to his console. Katherine was pacing circuits again, and it looked like she was mumbling to herself? Ah. He realized the significants of that. She’s talking to the Korean. Or that wasn’t her, but someone with the Korean’s glyph. Either way, whoever was wandering around down there was in contact with the ship

Then they must know that it was about to be destroyed in… he glanced at dashboard notification on his screen… twelve minutes. He then checked his other countdown, the timer on his wrist. Forty minutes until boom. The reset button was below the numbers, but he didn’t press it.

He was setting the pace here. Not her. Whatever she was up to, she was wasting her time. The longer this went on, the more this went in his favor.

Resting his elbows on the table, he steepled his fingers before his eyes and watched. Katherine finished her circuit and headed toward Deck 1, right back toward security, as though she were about to leave.

Alex threw his hands out. “What the fuck is she doing?”

“I’m going back to the security bay,” Victoria said, “and we’re going to play a new game.”

“Okay…” Winnie said. “What do I do?”

“Use Tan and find any more bombs. I need to know where all of them are, and any other traps Alex set up.”

“Okay.” She and Tan got started. “What are you going to do?”

“Something more elaborate,” Victoria said. “If Alexander is watching me, then there’s no point in being subtle anymore.”

Once Victoria was two corridors away from the bay, she paused. When a marine came by, she walked toward him. Just as they passed, Victoria stumbled. As he caught her from falling, her hand slipped under his collar and yanked off a necklace with his shield stone.

He glazed over.

“Come with me,” she said. Her voice resonated with Authority. With a nod, the man followed her toward the security bay. Another man passed them. Victoria pulled the same trick. Now two soldiers followed.

There was still a line at security. Guards lazily moved packs through scanners and escorted people to rooms. Others waited by the side, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.

“Distract them,” Victoria said, pointed to the supervisors. Her dumbfounded followers walked over and started a conversation with them. Meanwhile, Victoria moved toward another lingering guard. Slip, bump, swipe, and he was hers. As was the next, and the next. Some guards were noticing. They whispered to each other. Despite how normal everyone acted, unshielded aura’s were appearing. Each one would hiccup with alarm or confusion before returning to normal. Even incomers in line who had yet to relinquish their glyph cards were growing concerned.

From the scan rooms, a female exemplar emerged. She looked sternly at everyone, then called to the guards. “What’s going on?”

Victoria whispered to a converted guard near her. “The shields are malfunctioning. No reason to be alarmed. Calm everyone down. Tell them.”

The guard stepped forward, holding out a staying hand. “Everyone remain calm. It looks like we’re experiencing an issues with the shield glyphs. We’ll sort this out as soon as we can.”

“Approach the exemplar,” Victoria murmured to him, “and Winnie, I’m about to swap bodies. You and Josephine get ready to blank whoever I leave behind.”

“Got it,” said Winnie.

The guard approached the exemplar.

“Stop.” The exemplar backed away. “Don’t come any closer! Not until we sort this out.”

“It’s just a malfunction,” the guard said. “Why are you getting your panties bunched up about it?”

“This is exactly the sort of situation we’ve been warned about,” the exemplar snapped. “Everyone stay away from each other until we contact the Committee. No one leaves. Now, everyone with a broken shield stone needs to get against the far wall there. That means you, and you, and you.” She pointed out anyone with a visible aura.

Her attention, however, was on a group of guards far from Victoria, and so the exemplar missed when Victoria lightly brushed the hand of another guard. There was the telltale spasm. Josephine immediately pried out his immediate memories, and the man now in Captain Russo’s body stood eyes wide, frequently looking down at his foreign hands, but never getting around to yelling.

As a guard, Victoria joined the others still shielded. The exemplar never considered that the threat could hide in a seemingly shielded body. Her shepherding allowed Victoria to convert others. Auras popped up as she tore shields away. Within seconds, half the group was compromised.

The exemplars from the other scanning rooms came out, looking just as upset as the first.

The female exemplar pointed to one. “You, get on the phone with the Committee. Tell them what’s happening.”

“No,” Victoria yelled out. “You said everyone is to stay right here.”

“Do not contradict me,” the woman snapped back. “I’m taking charge here. You will keep your mouth shut.”

“What? Why should we trust you?” Victoria said. “How do we know you’re not causing this?”

Be quiet,” the woman yelled. She spun to the other exemplar. “Why are you still here? Go.”

“It’s them,” Victoria yelled to everyone, her voice thick with Authority. “They’re the impostors. Capture them now!”

The crowd charged as a riot. Even some who still had their shields followed along. The exemplars ran, but they didn’t get far. The crowd pinned them. Victoria caught up and wrested away their plaques. After that, the whole maneuver lost steam. A few shielded individuals asked about what to do next, but they joined the shieldless moments later. Everyone calmed down, even the exemplars. Victoria was back in Russo’s body. It was as though nothing had happened at all.

“I really wish this system had sound,” Alex said.

On screen, the occupants of the security bay were crowded together in a huddle. Whether guest or guard or exemplar, they were all equal now. Freaky. Alex had nearly forgotten about her power of Authority. She’d stolen that trick moments before shooting Anton in the head. At least he knew for certain that it was Katherine down there. A body swap and Authority. She was laying all her cards on the table, wasn’t she? Might as well. She only had ten minutes before all her friends died. Or maybe she cold enough that she’s wouldn’t let that rush her. Nah, he thought. She’s cold, but there’s still a little too much sentimentalism in her for that. She would rush.

Either way, there was no more pretending anymore. Alex tapped a call button on his screen.

“Marine deck,” said a gruff voice. “This is Captain Romero.”

“Captain, this is your queen.”

“What can I do for you, Your Majesty.”

“Suit your men up for combat. That triage scenario we discussed? It’s happening.”

Romero was silent a moment. “Understood, ma’am. What is your confirmation?”

The code. Right. “Project Cornered Falcon is a go. Get ready and await orders.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He was a glutton for drama.

106. The Labyrinth

An officer announced Alexander’s arrival on the bridge, and the buzz of activity halted for formalities. Alex waved people back to work. Any other day, he’d wallow in the attention, but right now it was idiotic. He stepped up to a display table beside Admiral Laughlin.

“What’s happening?” Alex asked. The display showed an overhead view of South America.

“We picked up a deployment drop twenty minutes ago, Your Majesty. It skirted in from the Atlantic side of Brazil and landed near the Guyana border. The ship that deployed it came in hot, nearly two thousand kilometers per hour. It has to be them.”

He pointed toward a single dot pinpointed under Central America, “They’re accelerating back to cruising speed. In fifty minutes, they’ll be untouchable again. Fortunately though…” He pointed to a nest of dots over Honduras. “Our squads scrambled as soon as they got the alarm, and luck was on our side. No matter their course, our boys will synchronize with them for at least six minutes before the target reaches cruising speed. After—”

The map updated. A line extending from the target dot flickered and now curved downward over the antarctic.

“They’ve changed course, sir,” said an officer behind them. “Southward arc, at two point four two meters per second per second. Predicted change.”

“And the window?”

“Six minutes twenty-seven seconds. Their course is optimal, sir.”

“Excellent.” Laughlin turned to Alex. “Any course change they make now will only benefit us.

“Can they evacuate?” Alex asked.

“They can try. We’ve already made arrangements to shut down the local grid if they do. The evacuees will make one hell of a crater.”

“And just to confirm, all pilots have shield stones with them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex turned to the bridge. “And is there anyone here who is not shielded? Anyone at all?”

No one responded. He couldn’t sense any auras anyway, but he was coming down a case of Sakhr’s paranoia.

“You won’t be in trouble if you speak up now,” he said, “but you will if you don’t.”

“Everyone here is equipped, as ordered,” said Laughlin.

“Fantastic. What about the deployment pod?”

“We’ve sent a team to investigate. It’s touchdown area was directly next to a gridport.”

Laughlin tapped controls on the display table. A small window popped up overtop of the orbital chase. It was a topographical map of a region. An arrow indicated where the pod landed. Next to it was a dot labeled “Cantá Gridway” with lines spraying from it. They were grid chutes which led to ports all over South America.

“But there was only one pod?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How many people could have been in it?”

“They’re meant for one soldier, but in a pinch, they can hold two.”

“Have we heard back from the gridport?”

“Not yet.”

“Are they all equipped with shield stones?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Probably not entirely. No region is fully equipped yet.”

“All right then.” Alex turned to leave.

“You’re not staying, Your Majesty?”

“You’ve got this under control, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then there’s no need, is there? Destroy them all and keep me posted.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

Any other day, Alex would have stayed, but he knew who was in that pod. He now had preparations to make. A good host should be ready for guests.

“New trajectory confirmed.” Navigator Tremont checked his readout. “Time to optimal cruising speed: fifty-eight minutes.”

“What’s the window?” asked Rivera.

Tremont fiddled with his onscreen numbers. “Six minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”

Rivera nodded slowly. Winnie didn’t bother asking how bad it was. That window was several times larger than the one they had faced before.

“Are you sure about those ships?” Rivera asked Winnie. She too wished she were wrong. The onboard radar hadn’t yet picked up the incoming interceptors. They had only Winnie’s word, and if she was wrong, they might yet live, but it wasn’t the case.

“Yes,” she said. “The people in the Manakin came up with the same intercept window.”

“Hmm.” Rivera faced Tremont again. “How quickly can we course change over a grid?”

The officer got to work.

Winnie spoke up. “For evacuation?”

“Why?” Rivera asked.

“They’re going to shut off the grid wherever our pods are going to land.”

“…I see. Are you sure about th… nevermind. Of course you’re sure. Disregard my last query, Lieutenant.” Rivera returned to the display board. Dots were shown in exactly the same configuration as aboard the Manakin. Six ships were coming. Same as last time, only the crews were shielded, the attack window was minutes long, and the Venezia only had two-thirds of the spider drones it had before. Death was certain. From the auras on the bridge, everyone else knew it too.

“What’s the status of the queen?” Rivera asked.

Winnie brought Victoria to mind. She was still in the body of Captain Russo, sitting in a shuttle on its way to the Manakin. She was in the back, away from the other soldiers in transit. They kept glancing at her as she mumbled to herself.

“Answer me, Winnie. Pay attention,” Victoria murmured. “Look at me, Winnie. Answer me.”

“Sorry,” Winnie said. “I’m here.”

“Don’t look away again. I’m about to land.”

“Have you been watching what’s happening to us?”


“Any ideas?”

“As long as I can get to Alex in time, it won’t matter. I’ll call them off.”

“And if you can’t?”

“Then you’re on your own. Stephano and Rivera knew what was at stake, but those ships aren’t going to reach you for fifty minutes, and I don’t plan on failing.”

“Okay.” Winnie relayed this to Rivera. He seemed as concerned with the idea as she was. Their lives were in the queen’s hands. To live, Winnie would have to help Victoria however she could. She wondered if this had been part of Victoria’s plan, but chose not to dwell on that.

“What do you want me to do,” Winnie asked.

“Just look ahead,” murmured Victoria. “Use Tan.”

Winnie returned to the ready room and stood in the door frame, keeping her in view of the bridge crew. Tan was still cramped into his seat, and he’d finally put his tablet away, as though he’d finally decided to invest himself in this fight for their lives.

Winnie transmitted Victoria’s instructions to him, and he rolled dice to come up with locations for Winnie to search. Victoria was entering a docking bay. She would have to pass a security checkpoint—one that would require her to relinquish her “shield”. Tan’s search instructions turned up nothing of interest. His second roll even had her searching empty space outside the citadel. Winnie double-checked his mind to make sure he hadn’t changed his winning conditions to whatever will make Winnie stop bothering me the quickest.

The place Winnie really wished she could see was Alexander’s office in the bridge tower, except that it was still one enormous blind spot. He’d kept Naema in that office for days now, yet somehow his glyphs weren’t breaking when he’d come and go. Winnie tried one last time to creep her awareness inside only to have her power clench like a spasming muscle. A shame. He was there right now, and Winnie knew he was up to something.

The landing nodes aboard the Manakin snagged Victoria’s shuttle. Its invisible hand carried it in and deposited it neatly upon a landing space. Victoria and the others shuffled off. Down the landing stair, armed soldiers cordoned them toward the security bay. Like all citadels, each bay aboard the Manakin had its own dedicated section for security checks and exemplar scans, but traffic had increased since the Capital Bombing. As a result, field tents were set up at the back of the landing bay, extending the security section to twice its size. Even then, a queue had formed containing a dozen soldiers.

Tan rolled. Winnie checked. “Fourteenth,” she said. She scanned the line. “Let one more person go ahead of you.”

Victoria paused to check her pockets. Another soldier filed into the queue, and then Victoria stepped in. Thirteen people were before her. The security bay took soldiers off the queue in twos and threes. Even with the extra tents, it took Victoria twelve minutes to reach the front of the line. Winnie knew because she watched the countdown in the bridge leading to intercept time.

They called Victoria and the soldier before her. The soldier got sent to the dedicated security room while Victoria got sent to a tent. They checked her bag, sent her through a body scanner, then directed her inside.

An exemplar was sitting at the other side of a table. Unlike with the dedicated scanning rooms, there was no shield between her and him. He gestured her to take a seat.

“His shield is in his left coat pocket,” Winnie said. She had Tan throw another set of dice. “Wait eleven seconds,” she added.

The exemplar spoke. “You need to take off your shield for the duration of this interview.”

“I don’t have a shield,” Victoria said.

“Yes, you do. Check your pockets.”

Victoria patted herself down. Winnie’s own count was down to five seconds.

“I swear I don’t have a shield on me.”

The exemplar pointed impatiently toward the door. “Yes, you do. Return to security.”

Winnie’s countdown reached zero. Victoria snatched the exemplar’s extended hand and lunged. Yelling, he pulled away, but he reacted too slowly. Victoria reached into his coat. Either by luck or by the help of Tan’s power, her hand slipped into his pocket and snagged his shield. She tossed it under the desk.

“Sit,” the exemplar said. “Don’t make a sound.”

The words coming from the exemplar’s mouth could not be disobeyed—Victoria’s words. An invisible hand forced the exemplar, now in Captain Russo’s body, into his seat.

A guard rushed in.

“Is everything okay in here?” the guard asked.

“I slipped.” Victoria righted her chair and sat. When the guard lingered, she looked at him again. “We’re fine.”

The guard left. Victoria turned back to the dumbfounded exemplar. Despite being in an unexpected body, he didn’t seem alarmed. Winnie had heard Victoria and Josephine discussing this tactic earlier. Victoria was erasing his immediate memory so constantly he had no time to panic.

“Now listen to me,” she said. “I passed this scan. There was nothing wrong, and you will report nothing once I’ve left. You will obey.”

Hearing the words, even Winnie nodded her head.

Moments later, Victoria exited the tent, once again in Russo’s body. The exemplar was dazed, but not alarmed. In total, the security checkpoint took Victoria fifteen minutes, leaving thirty-five minutes on the countdown clock to intercept.

Soon, Victoria was wandering the cramped lower corridors of the Manakin.

“Play the next game,” she murmured.

“Right.” Winnie sought Tan, who turned ponderously to his dice. Through her eyes, he saw the passageways before Victoria. Ahead, a ladderwell led up and down, but the corridor kept on as well. Doors lined the sides.

He rolled, examined his results, and passed it on mentally to Winnie.

“Keep straight,” Winnie said.

Victoria did so. She arrived at a smaller bay area, where ships were kept in storage. Several doors, ladders, and elevators led from here. Tan rolled again.

“Down the ladderwell.”

“Down?” asked Victoria. “I’m trying to get to Alexander.”

“The dice say down.”

Victoria followed. This brought her to a catering room. The soldiers down here glanced at her. Captain Russo stood out. Only local personnel worked here.

“Where now?”

“Continue through the door before you.”

This brought her into a sleeping quarters.

“Go right.”


“Up a ladder well.”

“Up?” asked Victoria.

“Up, yes.”

Victoria went up. Further instructions led her past a medical ward, a line of military-supply outlets, a few commercial diners, and finally back to the very hallway she started in after leaving the security bay. The whole circuit cost them nine minutes. Twenty-six to go.

“Why am I back here?” Victoria said.

“I don’t know.”

Victoria kept walking, taking turns at random to appear busy. “Is Tan reading the dice correctly?”

“I think so.”

“Winnie. Look into his eyes. Are his goals the same as ours?”

“Yes. They are. He’s going to die too if you don’t get to Alex.”

“Confirm it,” Victoria growled.

“It’s already confirmed. I’ve been looking at his mind this whole time.”

“She think I’m lying?” Tan asked.

“She’s back where she started,” Winnie replied. “Are you sure you’re doing the dice right?”

“I am doing what she say. Roll dice. Give you path.”

“But the dice aren’t doing that,” Winnie said.

Tan shrugged. “If they don’t give path, there is no path. Dice are random.”

“I don’t accept that,” Victoria said. “Alexander is in the bridge tower. There are two stairwells into there, and an elevator. What is Tan’s game specifically? I need to safely get to Alex within the time limit. I can go anywhere. I can swap bodies. I can make anyone do whatever I need so long as I can de-shield them. Is Tan considering all my options when he rolls his dice?”

Winnie locked minds with Tan.

“Yes.” Tan said. “Maybe… Alexander go to her?”

“Can you roll the dice for a yes or no answer?” asked Winnie.

Josephine answered. “It doesn’t work like that. Tan can only steer her toward a winning condition. He can’t tell her what it is.”

“Here’s an idea,” Victoria said. “Have Tan change the game. To win, I need to safely get to Alexander within five minutes. Any longer and we lose. Roll.”

So Tan rolled, Winnie issued instructions, and Victoria followed. Within a minute, the dice took her into a dead-end armory room, and then turned her right around.

“These are random steps,” Victoria said. “Why can’t we win this? What are we missing?”

Tan shrugged.

“Are you rolling the dice enough? Maybe you’re not giving your flair enough time to control your micro-movements.”

“No,” Tan said.

“Winnie,” Victoria said. “You’ve been watching Alex regularly, right? He is on board?”

“I watched him go into the office on top of the bridge spire.”

“But have you been watching closely? Could he have slipped away?”

“No. You know he hasn’t. I can’t pull him to mind, which means he has to be in that blindspot.”

“Then there’s something we’re missing,” Victoria said, “I refuse to believe I cannot get to him at all.”

“What if he knows you’re coming?” Winnie asked. “Wouldn’t that explain it? He knows a pod landed. He’s not going to do nothing about that. He must at least know we’re up to something. Maybe he’s waiting for you.”

“No,” said Victoria. “Not waiting for me. Or else I could get to him. He must be doing something to ensure I can’t reach him.”

“Like what?”

“An escape route? A warning system? He must have something hidden in that blind spot to stop me.”

“That should mean you could at least get close to the blindspot,” Winnie said.

Victoria nodded. “Have Tan set the target destination four floors below the staff bridge.”

Winnie worked with Tan again. He rolled dice. Victoria went from the corridor, down a ladderwell to an engineering room, through a break room, and into an equipment closet.

Victoria growled in frustration. “Does this game even work? Can you even get me to the stairs?”

They played. Up a ladderwell, down a hall. Through a general quarters. Then up a ladderwell twice. She arrived at the base of a stairwell leading up the bridge spire.

“So at least we know it’s working,” said Winnie.

So as not to linger, Victoria kept moving past the stairwell and walked a circuit through nearby corridors.

“But why can’t I just walk up these stairs?” asked Victoria “It would take me right to him. Look with me, Winnie. I can’t see anything in the stairwell or the spire that would stop me.”

Winnie checked. Inside the bridge spire, business was as usual. Admiral Laughlin was monitoring the intercepters on route toward the Venezia. In the operations room, officers coordinated incoming and outgoing air traffic from the citadel. The staff bridge was empty. In the other control rooms, officers weren’t even watching the door. The stairwell leading down was deserted apart from a lone sergeant walking up the stairs while fumbling with loose leaf notes. He didn’t pay attention to anything around him.

“Do you see the soldier in the stairs?” asked Winnie.

“Of course I do.”

“It looks like he’s gone up those stairs a lot today. Maybe you can just go. Maybe there’s just a locked door near the top you can’t get through.”


“We’re running out of time,” Winnie said. The countdown was now sixteen minutes.

“I’m not going to go unless the dice tell me to go.” Victoria walked another hallway. “Let’s try playing the game in parts to see where it fails. Roll the dice again. Set my destination as the deck level landing of the stairwell.”

Tan rolled again. Instructions led Victoria to the end of her current hall, and then the door on the right, which led to a bathroom.

“Okay then,” Victoria said, “How about just one floor up this floor. Can we do that?”

Dice rolled. They led her back to the stairwell, then up one floor.

Victoria stopped on the landing. “Okay. Try going up another floor.”

The dice led her back down. She descended.

“So for some reason,” Victoria said. “Tan’s flair thinks we lose if I go to the deck floor of that stairwell.

Winnie scanned the stairwell thoroughly. “Do you see the security camera?” she said.

“Yes,” Victoria said. “And have you seen the hundred other security cameras I’ve passed since coming aboard? It’s not that. Try playing the Spotting Game with Tan. Center it on that floor.”

As usual, Josephine took the first turn rolling the dice. Winnie followed the resulting instructions and viewed four floors below in a shower room. Nothing. Tan’s turn. The dice pointed Winnie about six feet away. It put her mind inside the wall, close to an air duct. She glanced inside.

“…Oh,” Winnie said. That definitely counted. Tan-1, Josephine-0. Tan wins the game.

“What is it? What do you see?” Victoria asked.

“Look in the air duct.”

“Which one— Oh, I see it.”

It was a canister. Attached to it was a device with wires leading to a small box with an antenna.

“He put a bomb in his own stairwell?” Winnie asked.

“He rigged the elevators too,” said Victoria.

Winnie checked and found a bomb immediately. She’d missed them before because she’d never thought to check underneath the elevator.

“Couldn’t he bring his own spire down with that?”

“Maybe,” said Victoria. “I wouldn’t expect rational thought from a man who has a doomsday device on his watch.”

“Are those bombs remote controlled?”

“Yes,” said Victoria. “And if the dice don’t want me going in there, it means Alexander is watching me right now, and he has his finger on the trigger.”

105. The Sovereign Citizen

When the pod dropped from the ship, Winnie had expected to see Victoria’s hair lift about her like a halo now that she was in free fall. It didn’t happen. Apart from the initial lurch and some turbulence, the gravity inside the pod remained normal, even as the pod screamed through the atmosphere, building up an aura of burning light around it as it soared. A repulse field in the pod must have been correcting the gravity. Made sense. Winnie had seen those pods touch down on the news. If there wasn’t an internal repulse field manipulating G-force in the pods, the marines would turn to paste upon landing.

“Are you having trouble following me?” Victoria yelled over the rumbling.

“No,” said Winnie from the captain’s ready room. The others glanced at her as she seemingly spoke to no one. Josephine, Christof, and Tan sat across from her, each with glyph cards—awaiting orders, although Tan was watching a show on his tablet.

Victoria’s pod plummeted like a meteor. Already she was over Brazil. The terrain and cities grew close. Seconds before she’d have struck the earth, her pod arced to skate a quarter mile above Brazilian forests. The pod jostled. A beep sound inside, and a light came on.

The grid had picked her up.

The hidden traffic nodes beneath the earth worked in tandem to slow her momentum as much as they could before she skipped past. The timer inside the pod indicated touchdown in seconds, but Winnie still had no idea where to look ahead to. The machines knew though; that’s what mattered.

The pod changed trajectory again and careened into a field. The crash echoed like thunder, sending birds into the sky. Inside, the repulse field kept the landfall down to a shudder. Victoria’s restraints popped free. Lighting came on around a prominent button on the inside of the door. A marine would punch it and immediately be thrown into whatever hostile situation they were deployed to. Victoria took a moment to adjust her clothes and pat herself down.

Satisfied, she pushed the button. The pod hatch blew open. She daintily climbed out and looked around. She was in a field beside a highway road. Of six lanes, only one each way was maintained, the rest were crumbled. A few ancient trucks lumbered along. Overhead the highway, shuttle cars soared through the air along an invisible line.

Winnie checked where Victoria was relative to where she was going. Not too bad.

Victoria saw it too and set off in a direction. About five hundred meters ahead was a border gridport. Air shuttles touched down in lots. Throngs of luggage-toting travelers came out, where guards and signs directed them to customs and border patrol. Inside, they waited in masses for workers in a long row of kiosks to call them up to check their credentials. Brazilian police and soldiers dotted the port, and a barbed wire fence surrounded the land.

“Do you see where I’m going?”

“I see it,” said Winnie.

“Look around. Find any investigators.”

Winnie’s mind swept the area. Everything seemed normal. If anyone was investigating the landed pod, they weren’t coming from there. She widened her search. There was a nearby village. Most of the buildings were dilapidated. She gave a quick glance in a dozen or so empty buildings and determined it was a ghost town. Looking further, she saw dead forests, a few new farms, and several deserted settlements. Basically, a whole lot of nothing. To be expected at the border of the empire. If it weren’t for the grid chute passing through here, this part of the world would be returning to nature.

Winnie’s next check was Alexander. He had been in his meeting with the Indian delegates when an officer interrupted him with an alert. The military picked up an unscheduled deployment drop. A ship had been detected, and a squad sent to intercept.

“Alexander knows,” Winnie said.

“I see. There’s nothing we can do about it. Tell Rivera about the squad.”

Winnie stepped onto the bridge and shared the knowledge. Rivera nodded. The squad was expected, but Winnie didn’t like the worry she sensed in the auras of the bridge crew when she shared their trajectory.

Winnie returned to the ready room. Soon, Victoria reached the edge of the woods. A few steps further and she’d be in view of the gridport security on the landing tarmac.

“It’s time to play a game,” she said. “What gets me inside? I need a time and a direction of approach.”

Winnie nudged Tan. Reproachfully, he paused his show and looked Winnie in the eyes. She mentally pushed along Victoria’s order. From dice scattered before him, he picked several, cleared the rest, and rolled.

“East south-east side. Count to one hundred thirty-two and go.” He resumed his tablet.

Victoria tramped through the woods without any attempt at stealth. After circling the property, she waited. “Play a game of Spotters.”

Winnie got Tan’s attention again, and pushed the situation. Sighing, he slid some dice to Josephine while keeping a set for himself. Josephine rolled first. She studied her results, then looked Winnie in the eye. Winnie wouldn’t have known how to interpret the dice herself, but she saw in Josephine’s mind where to look—about forty feet up in the air. It was a complete dud of a roll, but that was expected from her.

Tan’s turn. His roll had Winnie looking deep into the gridport. She followed as best she could, and ended up in a communications room. Guards waited around a desk where a man on a phone wrote instructions down. Tan’s roll couldn’t have been random. Unfortunately, the security officer was not speaking English.

Winnie got Christof’s attention. They locked eyes, and he listened to them. Part of his contribution to this was his centuries-worth of lingual skills.

“Oh, dear,” he said.

“What is it?” Victoria said as she crunched through dead foliage.

“I have no idea what they’re saying.”

“What who is saying?” asked Victoria.

“We found some guards on a phone. They look like they’re getting new orders,” said Winnie, “but they’re speaking Spanish.”

“They’re speaking Portuguese,” Christof corrected.

“Which is a language you knew,” said Victoria.

“I did. Once. Almost a hundred and fifty years ago. They didn’t have words for airplanes or phones or repulsers. I’m not sure if… no, hold on. Okay. They’re supposed to leave and look for something. No. Someone. People. Something fell down. Yes. They’re looking for the pod.”

“Winnie,” said Victoria. “Are they soldiers or security guards?”

“They’re just guards, I think.”

“Are they shielded?”

Winnie checked over their bodies. “I don’t think so.”

“Then I want you to—”

“On it.”

Hold on. Wait until they’re gotten their orders. Then do so.”

Winnie waited. Once the man on the phone hung up, he shared his new orders to the others. Winnie mentally linked with Josephine, and he trailed off. After studying his notes, he restarted, only to trail off again. The other guards shuffled. Eventually, the man gave up and returned to work. Everyone else trickled away as though their water cooler chitchat had ended.

“Done,” said Josephine.

Prodding Tan, Winnie returned to playing Spotters. Tan won the last round, but this time Josephine and Tan found nothing. Draw.

“The place should be safe now,” Winnie said.

Victoria finished counting down and strode toward the gridport. A barbed wire fence barred her way. With no way around, Victoria climbed. At the top, she deftly stepped over the curled razor wire, getting several slashes for her effort. A security camera was trained on Victoria. Frantically, Winnie looked for the associated security room.

It was nested inside the gridport. An army officer was on duty, but someone else had come into the room to talk with him. The motion detection feature of the security system had made Victoria prominent on his screen, but neither paid attention. When Victoria’s pants snagged, she spent nearly a minute decoupling herself, rattling the chain links with every move.

Winnie held her breath. The officer’s conversation was ending. Already he was turning back to his screen. Just a glance and she’d be spotted, and like all soldiers, this man was shielded.

“Hurry,” said Winnie. “You’re on a camera.”

“I’m fine,” Victoria muttered. Victoria cleared the razor wire and climbed down the other side. The officer turned to his desk. His eyes were on his tea. After a sip, he glanced at the screen. Victoria had moved on.

“Do you know how close you just came to getting caught?” Winnie said.

“Nonsense. Trust the dice, Winnie. They’re not telling me what to do to succeed, they’re telling me whatever I need to hear so that I succeed anyway.”

“It’s still nerve wracking. What now?”

“Just keep an eye out.”

Victoria marched across tarmac and entered the gridport through a service door. She was in a terminal. Families and commuters waited for shuttles. Flight announcements sounded over speakers. Restaurants and convenience stores lined the walls, though most were closed. This gridport had been built before the Collapse. There was more traffic then.

Victoria walked through like any other traveler, though numerous cuts marred her arms and legs. She arrived at a security checkpoint and was already on the secure side. Kneeling, Victoria took from her pocket a few dice of her own, which she rolled on the floor. Winnie didn’t know the game, but timing must have been part of it, since Victoria took a seat in a nearby bench and waited. Minutes later, she marched abruptly toward the checkpoint, dropping her dice in a waste bin as she passed. After exiting the secure terminal, she turned and got into line to get right back in. A short wait later, it was her turn at the checkpoint.

A guard with a security wand said something to her in Portuguese.

Victoria replied calmly.

“He wants her passport and ticket,” Christof said for Winnie’s benefit. “She’s refusing.”

The guard repeated himself, and so did Victoria. She held out her empty palms. His eyes widened upon seeing her bloody arms. He called others over. They surrounded her. With hands resting on holstered weapons, they barked orders.

“They’re telling her to lie down,” Christof clarified.

Victoria complied. The men searched her and took her to a holding room. They spoke among each other in the other room.

“Are you listening, Christof?” Victoria asked.

Christof still had eye contact with Winnie. “I am,” Christof said. “So far everything is going to plan.”

“Translate everything said for Winnie. Keep her up to date.”

“I will do so.”

A soldier came in and sat across from Victoria. He stared her down a while, looking over the tattoos covering her wrists and neck. Victoria kept her eyes on the table.

“He’s got a glyph card in his wallet, and a shield stone around his neck,” said Winnie. “Do you see it?”

Victoria didn’t answer.

“Hello,” the guard said in Portuguese. Christof translated his words. “I am Captain Russo. I’m going to ask you some questions. First, what is your name?”

“Why have you detained me?” asked Victoria.

“You are trying to cross the border without papers or ID. Where are you trying to go?”


“Where in Colombia?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“It is my business. This is our gridport. You will answer my questions or you will be arrested.”

“On what charges?”

“Illegally crossing the border.”

“That’s nonsense,” Victoria said. “You can’t charge me for that.”

“You will find that we can. This is a serious matter. Now I’ll ask again. What is your name?”

She looked him in the eyes. “I’m not telling.”

He stared back and frowned. “Do you have a shield on you?”

“A what?”

“A shield stone. It is illegal for anyone accept military and security personnel to have a shield.”

“Are you trying read my mind? I never gave you permission.”

“We don’t need it. Do you have one?”

“You cretins already searched me. Did you find one?”

“This is a very serious matter,” he replied, irritated.

“You already said so.”

“I will ask you one more time. Do you have a shield?”

“Go to hell.”

The man stood and turned toward the door. He took one step when Victoria lunged and tackled him. He yelled and struggled, striking Victoria in the face. Blood streamed from her nose, but she kept clawing ferociously.

Suddenly she faltered. Russo shoved her off, took his baton, and clubbed her across the temple.

Other soldiers rushed in and apprehended her, but by then there was nothing to do. She was limp. Blood trickled down her face.

Winnie held her breath and watched. It had been hard to tell what had happened.

“What was that?” asked one of the guards. Christof still translated the conversation for Winnie.

Russo shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know.” Bending, he picked up his shield stone, which had come loose in the fight. The other men yanked the girl to her feet. She couldn’t keep her legs beneath her.

“Get her out of here,” Russo said.

The guards either ignored or didn’t notice Russo’s sudden change in accent. The girl was taken to a holding cell, and someone called for an ambulance. The blow on her head had left her unresponsive. The excitement settled down after twenty minutes. Everyone returned to their posts. Russo pulled one of the other men aside.

“Yes, sir?”

Russo reached for his neck and yanked away the man’s shield. Surprised, the man reached to catch Russo’s wrist.

“Stop,” Russo said. The word was like a force of its own.

The guard’s hand snapped back by his side.

“Good. Listen carefully. I saw something alarming when I read that girl’s mind. I need to go to the HIMS Manakin and report this to the Exemplar Committee, and I will leave immediately. Is this clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Russo handed him back his shield. By the time he’d put it back on, he didn’t remember it falling off at all. He could hardly remember the conversation he’d just had, but he got the gist of it.

Captain Russo was headed to the citadel.

104. A Nightmare Machine

Over three hours, the Venezia plummeted ten kilometers from it’s preferred cruising perch at the top of the stratosphere. The pilots on the bridge knew this only from the dials on their console. The ship portholes provided little more than a pinhole glance of the outside.

For Winnie it was different. Her mind sensed the vacuum-thin air growing thicker. She felt the ship’s repulse fields wedging air out of the way. The compression caused the hull to bake. The ship tilted away from the earth like a reigning horse, and everyone aboard was slightly heavier from the drag force slowing the ship from its blistering speed.

Winnie sat in the launch bay. Of the twelve deployment pods, only one was open. The lights were on inside, and the floor had a circular ring of light, a target for marines rushing in for quick deployment. She’d examined the displays inside. Right now they showed a countdown to launch: eighteen minutes. The harness inside was set up for its classic deployment instead of a seat like it had been when the crew had nearly evacuated. Winnie tried sitting in it. It left her in a half standing position with legs slightly bent. Supposedly marines could eject from the pods quickest like that, but even with all the straps holding her down, Winnie could imagine herself melting through the restraints into a puddle as the pod plummeted to earth. This was a nightmare machine. And Victoria was about to ride it back to Earth. Alone.

She turned her mind to the bridge. Acting Captain Rivera was talking Victoria through some final points.

“We’ll still be over the Atlantic when you’ll launch. Your pod will skirt the surface of the South American grid for about two hundred kilometers losing speed and land you near your destination. We can’t guarantee a high resolution drop. You could be several hundred meters off target. It’s wherever the grid thinks it can place you.”

“There’s no way to increase drop accuracy?” asked Victoria.

“Not at the speeds we’re going. We’re dropping you faster than usual. As it is, you’re going to have one hell of a bumpy ride, but these pods are still cleared for these speeds.”

“So you’re saying I should wear a helmet?”

“Our marines normally wear body armor,” Rivera said. “We could slow down more, but we’re taking one hell of a risk as it is. I already can’t guarantee an intercept squad won’t catch up with us. It’s your call.”

“It’s fine. I need you safe. Once you’re cruising again, stay put, don’t communicate with anyone. Winnie will inform you when it’s okay to come down.”


“Let’s make sure that’s clear, captain. I will not contact this ship in any other way. Until Ms. Cho tells you its safe, you are to stay in the air. She and I will be in constant contact, and she’ll know if something goes wrong.”

“And if something does go wrong?” asked Rivera.

“Then I wish you luck living out the rest of your lives aboard this ship. There won’t be a place on earth safe for you.”

Winnie dwelled on that remark. The ship could never land anywhere without the empire finding out and coming after them, but somehow Winnie didn’t think Victoria was talking about that. Her mind returned to that room in the bowels of the HIMS Manakin where Quentin’s device sat quietly. Engineers had welded the door shut, leaving the room in pitch black. Though there was light inside the water-filled chambers within the device. The metals glowed…

That was the reason the Venezia couldn’t land safely if Victoria failed. Life aboard this ship might be necessary compared to the frozen winter that device would leave behind.

And that device was also the reason there couldn’t be any armed boarding of the Manakin. Not with that bomb and the dozens of safeguards Alex had installed around it. Infrared cameras watched it constantly. Light and sound sensors lined the walls. Alexander had wanted them to automatically detonate the bomb, but Quentin had talked him out of that. Twice since they’d rigged the room, the sound sensors had gone off. Each time Alexander’s wristband alerted him. Each time he’d scurry back to the top floor of his spire, where Winnie still could not see. She guessed he had security feeds up there that showed him the bomb room.

Victoria arrived at the launch bay. Winnie met her eye and brought to mind any new developments she’d seen with Alexander: none. He’d just finished giving a trope speech to visiting leaders from India. They’d walked into that talk planning to demand India be allowed to rebuild their own armies. They’d left after agreeing to reoccupation in select districts. Alex had done this dozens of times in the past week. Winnie had long since dismissed any doubt that his mystery glyph let him warp minds. What amazed her was how no one else seemed to question how easily he swayed people, especially since glyphs were no longer a mystery.

Victoria motioned for Winnie to get out of the pod, then settled herself into the harness.

Victoria worked the straps. “Help me with these.” Winnie did so. It took them minutes to figure it out.

“Are you ready?” asked Victoria.

You’re the one about to drop through the floor.”

“I already know whether I’m ready. I’m asking you. This plan depends upon you more than I’d prefer.”

“Don’t trust me?”

Victoria regarded her cooly

“I’m ready,” Winnie said. “I’ll help you win, and then you’ll hold up your end of our deal.”

“I’m not going to betray you, Winnie. You’ll still be useful to me after this is all done.”


“Would you rather I tell you it’s because I’m an honest woman?”

Winnie considered it. “No. You’re right. That answer fits you.”

“Then let’s get started. Close the hatch.”

Winnie pulled the overhead hatch part way down. “Good luck.”

“We’re not done talking,” said Victoria. “Close the hatch and put your mind in here.”

The hatch shut, hissed, and clicked tight into place. Inside, the console lights illuminated Victoria’s face in eerie green.

“Are you listening to me?” Victoria said. Her voice didn’t penetrate the pod at all, not even a muffle.

“Yes,” replied Winnie.

“Good.” Victoria pressed an interior button. “Captain. Can you hear me?”

“I can. Launch in forty seconds. Are you strapped in?”

“Yes.” She let go of the button. “Go to the others now. Never break contact with me, clear? Split your attention.”

“Clear.” Winnie put her mind both in the pod, and in the captain’s ready room off the bridge. Josephine, Tan, and Christof were already there. “Can I wish you good luck now?”

“If you must.”

103. Trust

Captain Stephano was a sad sight. The medic had cut away his uniform during surgery, and now he was left with tubes running from his arms and mouth. He looked old, Victoria realized. He had gray hair at the temples and bitter wrinkles about his mouth. Victoria had to check the medical tablet to confirm that he was only in his thirties. He’d served in her army for five and a half years, which meant he was one of the first people to join her army as a soldier, instead of a carried-over mercenary from her company days.

Those first few months had been the toughest times. She’d succeeded in safeguarding most of her privately owned territories. Using her food and mercenaries, she’d become the crux of the locals’ wellbeing, but no one had seen her as anything more than a prominent land owner. Her transition into official control had been the most delicate and awkward stage of her rise to power. She’d hand out currency just to collect it again for food she had given out for free just a week previous. Her men had shown up to people’s houses to collect taxes for the first time, which was always contentious, even when she bore official stamps of old governments. She could pretend to be a servant of a South American coalition as much as she wanted, but if she hadn’t owned the people bearing the guns, she’d have gotten nowhere.

And recruitment hadn’t been easy. Convincing people to join a coalition supervised by one foreign white woman had required an enormous leap of faith from the people. Stephano had been one of those who’d given her a chance. If not for people like him, she’d have failed, despite all her hidden powers. He’d believed in her.

Now here he was, an old man rotten with death. And it was because of her.

The other marines had worked out what had happened. Private Larson had been waiting in a storage housing for forty minutes. Liat, Bishop, Victoria, or anyone with a glyph card should have sensed him. His memories were gone, but Victoria suspected he’d practiced calming himself. Anyone with a glyph card could figure out how to still their aura—another reason to regret its leak.

When Victoria and the others passed, he followed. The rest Victoria knew. She was damn near omnipotent, but one unshielded man had caused so much grief because she locked up.

There was a commotion outside the stateroom door. Victoria visualized it. The guards that Executive Officer Rivera assigned to Victoria were stopping Josephine from entering.

“No one is allowed in,” the guards were saying.

“I know,” said Josephine. “Could you let her know I’m here.”

“You’ll have to come back later. Right now, ma’am, you need to leave.”

“Just. Let. Her. Know.”

“I’m not going to ask you again, ma’am.”

Victoria spoke loud enough to be heard through the door. “Let her in.”

They did.

Victoria didn’t rise from her post beside Stephano.

Josephine stopped before the captain’s bed. “How is he?”

“They say he’ll live.”

“Has he been awake any.”

“Earlier. Yes.”

Josephine nodded and hunkered down. There was no other seat in the stateroom. “And how about you?”

“I was not hurt. I think I have Tan’s power to thank for that. I stumbled in just the right way.”

“But are you okay?”

Victoria regarded her.

“I’m just concerned,” said Josephine. “That’s all. ”

“I’m fine.”


They sat silently a while.

“Do you know why that man attacked you?” Josephine asked. “Everyone has been talking. Some say he was talking about how you were brainwashing everyone. He’d seemed on edge.”

“Yes. Rivera told me. Though how do you know?” Victoria looked at Josephine, and the answer was in her eyes. The flairs had banded together in their own little clique. Winnie watched the soldiers and shared. When they spoke Portugues or Spanish, she’d lock eyes with Christof, who could translate. Even Tan had joined their gossip circle.

“Adorable,” Victoria said.

“They haven’t let me anywhere near the attacker,” said Josephine. “But Winnie says he’s in bad shape. The soldiers say he’s gone mad.” She paused. “How much did you take from him?”

“I wasn’t concentrating on that.”

“They’re saying he doesn’t remember anything in the last six years.”

“I took whatever I could. I guess more related to me than I would have guessed.”

“Everything relates to you now, Victoria. This army serves you. This nation is yours. Everything that happens because of you could be considered your fault.”

Victoria nodded. “You’ve managed to give your power quite a broad definition. Do you still think you couldn’t extend your power to include any possible memory?”

Josephine did not let the conversation steer away. “That man forgot the Collapse. He lost everything that came after it. That means you believe the Collapse, and everything that’s followed, is your fault.”

Victora looked at her, unamused.

“Please, wait,” said Josephine. “Don’t make me forget this. I’ve already known for a while. Winnie knew, and I’ve been in her head all week. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.”

“I do not wish to discuss it. There’s no need for you to know.”

“But I want to know it all the same. Please.”


“Because you shouldn’t have to carry it all by yourself.”

“Don’t give me your therapy, Josephine. There were plenty of people who knew. My high exemplars knew.”

“But now they’re dead. Who else is left? Winnie? Has she accepted it?”

“No, but I don’t need acceptance. I know what I did. I knew the world might see me as a villain, but I still believe what I did was necessary. So did Liat, Bishop, and my other high exemplars. We were trying to make the world a better place in the long run.”

“Why did you trust them?”

“I didn’t. Trust is when you give someone the power to hurt you. My high exemplars were only allowed to know because they were forbidden to keep secrets from me. That was the life-long deal they made when I saved them from their death beds. I owned them. That’s not trust.”

“Is that the only way you’ll ever share with anyone.”

“I learned a long time ago not to trust, Josephine. You should know this.”

“Okay then.” Josephine presented herself. “Own me.”


“You have no high exemplars left. So take me. I’ll accept the role. Whatever it is you do, whatever you have planned, I’ll stand by you. You can scan my entire life if you want.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Liat killed for me. She spent two and a half years in the body of an overweight Russian diplomat disseminating my lies. She didn’t just know about the Collapse. She helped me cause it.”

“Did she know what you would have her do that when you recruited her?”

“Yes. I warned her.”

“Did you tell her why?”


“And she believed in you enough to do it. They thought you served a greater good. Every one of your high exemplars did. And I will too.”

“What if I’m wrong? What if I’m exactly what everyone now thinks I am? A monster—too twisted inside to see the ruin I’m causing.”

“Then at least you’ll have somebody to let you know.”

Victoria grunted.

“So. What’s the plan?” asked Josephine. “We’re going to retake your empire. Right?”

“If there’s anything left to salvage. And if the people will ever let me. I don’t know if the empire can ever be restored now, unless I go the same route as Alex and control the the masses, which I refuse to do. The world has crumbled again. If I want to bring it back together, it will require another war, and I’m not sure I have the will anymore.”

“Then don’t. Fixing the world is not your responsibility.”

“It’s not my responsibility, but if I don’t, who will?”

“Everyone else will just have to figure it out. It’s their world too. They’re living in it. The powers that you had are in their hands now.”

“And what would you suggest I do instead?”

“Why don’t you try living? You’ve been in such a rush to make a difference that you forgot about that. Go out and see the world you’ve tried so hard to control. Grow. Enjoy your life. Cut out your own little corner of the world for yourself. Don’t concern yourself with the wellbeing of everyone else.”

“Sounds dull.”

“It’s not. You went from being a child to a conquerer. There should have been a whole lot more in between that you missed.”

Victoria gazed upon Stephano. She was silent a long while. It was strange to her to think of a life where she wasn’t a ruler. In so many decades, she’d never considered such a thing.

“No,” she said, “I can’t do that, even if that’s what I wanted. Not with Alex where he is. Maybe the world is not my responsibility, but if I left now, I’d be leaving the world worse off because of it. He has to be stopped—him, and his mind control, and that thing he had Quentin build.”

“And this is what you want?”

“It’s what I need to do.”

Josephine nodded. “Then what do we do next?”

102. A Mottled Egg

“British authorities have declared a state of emergency after rioters stormed the Lakiran embassy in London last night” the reporter said. “These attacks come in the wake of Queen Helena’s announcement that her late mother, Victoria, may have instigated the nuclear war.”

The television switched to a shaky view of people outside a granite building. The windows were knocked out. Men and women ran in and out the front. Some climbed through broken windows. Police were on the scene, driving people away from the building with a phalanx of riot shields.

“The embassy building was not the only target. Rioters set fire to the aid stations in downtown Cambridge and other local establishments. Firefighters were unable to get through the crowds.”

Images showed burning remains of tents as rescue workers dug through the wreckage.

“Police are advising citizens to stay indoors, saying these attacks are only the beginning. Debates on Britain’s continued involvement with the Lakiran empire are expected to renew, with many ministers now arguing that Britain should secede.”

The images switched back to the newsroom. “Turmoil continues as people around the world demand that Helena reveal her sources implicating her mother’s involvement, saying that she should subject herself to a mental scan. Many are saying that the Lakiran empire has no right to remain as head of the Global Coalition, with many countries threatening to withdraw. In India, people took to the streets, burning effigies of the Queen Victoria, claiming that her crimes against humanity are the worst this world has ever seen. Even the capital city of Porto—”

Victoria shut off the television. She was alone in the wardroom apart from Liat, who guarded the door. Occasionally, an officer entered. Seeing Victoria, they’d salute, look around as though they might have left something in there, and leave. Victoria didn’t need her powers to sense their awkwardness. Despite her speech, nothing had gone back to normal. The soldiers didn’t trust her. She’d considered wiping the talk from everyone’s memory. It’d be simple. Call everyone back for another meeting, then hand-pick apart their memories, while scanning minds for any physical evidence onboard the ship she’d need to dispose of, but what was the point? She couldn’t hide world news from them, and she wouldn’t be aboard much longer.

Soon, the Venezia would pass over the South American grid. Thus would begin her operation. If all went well, she’d have her empire back come South American nightfall. As Helena, she could let Victoria take the rap for all past crimes. Only the people aboard this craft would know she was the same woman. They could not be allowed to remember that, but she would not forsake them. They’d be rewarded, even if they didn’t remember why. And she could get on with fixing this damn empire.

“Your Majesty,” said Liat. “The Captain.”

Victoria looked up as Stephano entered the wardroom.

He saluted. “We’ve made our final course adjustments, Your Majesty. We’ll be over the target location in five hours.”

Victoria nodded. She already knew.

“Have you picked a landing spot?” he asked.

“I have.” While Victoria dealt with all this announcement nonsense, she’d tasked Winnie with finding a landing spot for her, and Winnie had settled on an isolated outpost outside of Boa Vista, south of Porto Maná. Victoria had checked it over herself and was pleased. Winnie had done well.

“Then we should make final preparations.” Stephano motioned for her to come. She followed. That crisp conversation had lacked any acknowledgement of Victoria’s speech or its result, and he avoided her eyes. Was it that bad?

Soldiers throughout the ship carried on their duties. Before, they’d stare as she’d pass. Now she was invisible.

Up two floors, they reached the officer’s deck. Relative privacy from the rest of the crew.

“I’d like to readdress your plan, Your Majesty.”


“It’s foolish to go alone. My men will follow your orders. I’d be more comfortable if even two of them were going.”

“This is not an excursion that benefits from more people. I’ve already explained what Alexander has set up in the citadel’s lower levels. If he believes we’re closing in on him, he will allow it go off, hence why I will go alone. I can get close to him. A group cannot.”

“Ma’am. The marines aboard this ship are trained for this exact sort of procedure.”

“It’s not a matter of their training, Captain. I’m going to be swapping bodies. Do your men want to swap bodies with me?”

“My men have discussed it. Would they get their bodies back?”

“There’s no guarantee.”

The walked further.

“Your exemplars then.” Stephano motioned to Liat and Bishop, who walked paces behind them. “Bishop told me that’s not his original body.” He turned to Bishop. “You have no attachment to it do you?” To Victoria: “If you swapped your exemplars out for the marines on this ship, then the marines would be guaranteed to have their bodies safe once they returned to the ship. You could only take two men with you, but it would still make me feel a hell of a lot better.”

“No, Captain. I will go alone.”

“This is foolishness, ma’am.”

“Your men don’t trust me.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“Is it?” Victoria stopped in the hall outside the bridge. “Look me in the eye and tell me your crew trusts me.”

“No. They’re afraid of you, but that’s no reason to discard them. My men will follow orders. It would be a show of faith for you to—”

“Ma’am!” It was Bishop. He was looking down the corridor at a marine whose aura was all wrong. It shone with glaring anticipation. Already Bishop was putting himself between Victoria and that man.

“This is the officer’s deck, Private,” said Stephano. He wasn’t aware yet. He didn’t have a glyph card, or he would have seen the danger. Liat was pulling Victoria back when the marine made an underhanded toss.

The world slowed down. For that moment, there was only Victoria, and the small object flying through the air toward her. Everyone and everything else was just background. She knew it was a grenade even before it struck the ground, yet she watched as it bounced, rolled, and came to a stop a step from her.

It was such a small thing, like an egg, though mottled and gray. As queen, she knew of most of the weapons and equipment her military used. Maybe once or twice she’d seen a weapons demonstration where they were used, but that was as much as she knew. The wars she waged were distant things she heard of through reports—victories and losses, deaths and injuries. She only heard of these things when they mattered on a grand scale.

But here was a small piece that had gotten through for her to witness in person. For all of her powers, for all the people she commanded and all the guards who protected her, none of it meant anything in the face of this small little egg.

“Victoria!” Stephano yelled. He yanked open a side door. He and Bishop shoved her through. Liat stumbled on top of her. No, that wasn’t correct. Liat was shielding Victoria with her own body.

For such a little thing, its explosion caused every bone in Victoria’s body to rattle. Pain wracked her head. Stars filled her vision. All sound muffled. Over the ringing in her ears, she could hear yelling. And something was clicking faintly. A repulse pistol. Her mind she saw the soldier firing down the hall at them from cover.

She imagined one of those tiny flechettes piercing her legs and gut. Tearing flesh. Snapping tendons. Scraping bone. It could hit her head. Pop through her skull and every hope she’d ever had for this world would drift away.

In her mind, the soldier peered down the hall. Seeing everyone on the ground, he rushed out from cover and hurried toward Victoria, firing his weapon.

And here Victoria was cowering, waiting for someone else to fix this. In five hours she was going to take back her own empire, and this was her response to what? A single soldier?

She was acting like that girl again, the one holding that gun in quivering hands as Anton crept up the stairs toward her. That girl died that day, and she died for a reason.

“Stop,” she yelled.

It was as though a collar around the soldier’s neck snapped taut. No one disobeyed that voice. Victoria envisioned him clearly, and then she groped for memories. Carving and hacking, she took anything she could, no matter how little it related to her. There was no mercy or consideration. She disemboweled the carcass of her prey.

His gun clattered. The marine looked down at the crumpled forms before him.

Victoria kept tearing until she no longer felt the visceral sensation of taking something away. She was scraping bone now. Everything else in his mind was out of her reach.

Other soldiers charged in from farther down. They tackled the assassin. Others were at Victoria’s side, pulling Liat off her.

Blood was everywhere, the floor, her hands, the wall. It had splattered Victoria’s face and soaked into her clothes, but it wasn’t her own. Liat was staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Other men surrounded Stephano and Bishop, blocking her view. In her mind, she saw their wounds. It looked as though Bishop had thrown himself toward the grenade, the fool. Stephano at least moved, even as blood poured. In his chest, she saw his heart. Faint, but beating.

She could save him. There was a body right there. Her assassin was untouched, but men were lifting Victoria, carrying her away. She struggled with them, but they held her back. Why couldn’t they see she wasn’t hurt? Why wouldn’t they just put her on her feet? She wasn’t weak.

…She’d just froze.

The crew got the queen and their captain to the medical ward. They pieced together what happened within moments and apprehended Private Larson. He didn’t struggle as they frisked him, or when they dragged him down the corridor.

“What?” he mumbled. “What happened?” No one listened.

In the brig, they tossed him into a cell and slammed the door. A soldier who attacks his own captain and ruler, no matter the reason, was no soldier to them. He was less than human.

Yet Larson didn’t see their hatred. He stared at his own hands as though foreign and strange. He turned to them. “What just happened?” he asked. “Am I on a ship? What is this?”

The soldiers’ glares faltered.

“Why am I dressed like this?” He looked at his own uniform. The questions came quickly.

“What is this?” he yelled. He pressed against the bars. The others backed away.

“What was I doing up there? Did I hurt someone? For God sakes. Who are you people? Why won’t you talk to me? Why won’t somebody tell me what the hell is going on?!”

101. Head Duty

Showers. Toilets. Sinks. Floors. Walls. For three hours, Private Larson had scrubbed the ship head upside and down. The stainless steel now glimmered under fluorescent lights. Already, other shipmen would come in, walk across the mopped floor, use the freshly cleaned toilets, and leave. The mess was building. In a few hours. Larson would have to start all over.

Until Victoria’s mystery operation was complete, this head was his responsibility, along with all the other jobs the marines did to keep themselves busy between deployment. This was his punishment for having the gall to ask hard questions after Victoria’s little bullshit spoon-feeding session.

At least the captain didn’t give him hull duty—the only job worse. After flying in the stratosphere for so long, orbiters ships collected grit which baked onto the hull thanks to high atmospheric radiation. Six years ago, high flying ships never had to worry about grit. Then the nuclear war put all that soot into the air. Even today grit caked on so strongly it took a power tool to remove. Maybe the only reason he didn’t get it was because the Venezia wasn’t about to land anytime soon. They were stuck up here.

Larson stowed the equipment, cleaned his hands, and headed toward the exercise room. He had only twenty minutes before midday meal, but he still had his full allotment of exercises to do. He considered skipping and just saying he had. He could instead shower, change, and eat. If anyone caught him, what the fuck were they going to do about it? Put him in the brig? They wouldn’t waste resources like that. And the only worse punishment available was execution. It was reserved for traitors, but oh yeah, everybody here already was.

Two other marines were in the weight room. They occupied one bench, but neither used it. They were too busy talking. Larson couldn’t help but listen as he got into his own routine.

“Probably,” said the one standing over the bar. “Even if she didn’t have body swapping back then, she probably had the others, mind reading and stuff. How else could she have done it?”

“Influence?” said the sitting marine. “LakiraLabs was a pretty big deal before the war. They were the Google of assemblers. Four hundred dollars for a box. Fifty dollar a month subscription. And whatever fee they got whenever someone used the premium library. I’m pretty sure if Victoria had wanted to assassinate some South American president, she could have just drowned the guy in her mountains of money.”

“Yeah, money helps, but there’s still no way she got where she was without the glyphs. She was probably using mind reading all the time to learn government secrets and stuff. And if she had body swapping, think about it. She doesn’t have to lobby in politics anymore. She’d just replaces whoever wins the election with her own loyalists. Same with enemies. She just replaces them with allies.”

The sitting marine looked doubtful. “Mind-reading, sure, but taking over people’s lives? That’s some stone cold shit. I don’t think she’d do that.”

“Of course she would,” said Larson. Both men glanced over. Larson was powering through a set of machine squats. “She would do whatever she wanted to get ahead.”

“I don’t know,” said the sitter. “I just don’t think she would. I mean, she’s a tough woman, but that would be replacing civilians. She works pretty hard making sure military doesn’t hit civ targets. Usually costs her a hell of a lot with all the protocols and stuff we have to do. She’s got her code.”

Larson let the weights slam down. “Are we talking about the same fucking woman? The one who withholds food supplies from humanitarian projects when its government doesn’t give in with her demands? The one who ran her fucking army over the world to make it all her own? She caused the fucking war in the first place so she could take over.”

“No she didn’t. She just told us—”

“A whole lot of bullshit, exactly what you wanted to hear.”

“She just admitted to messing up South American politics during the second cold war. I sure as hell didn’t want to hear that.”

“No, but it’s what you’d believe. Has nobody else stopped to think about her story? It doesn’t make any fucking sense. If she was just doing what every other politician was doing, then why’s it such a big deal? Why would Alexander make that announcement if she could just brush away the accusations? She lied to us to get us back to work.”

“Hey, why don’t you calm down?”

“Why don’t you open your fucking eyes. Am I the only one who noticed how the Captain stopped the meeting as soon as I demanded she let us read her servants’ minds?”

The men hesitated. “Those two are high exemplars. They have clearance levels that we don’t.”

“Is that what you’re all telling yourself?”

“What the fuck do you want, Larson? You want the queen to lay her life out for a bunch of marines to comb over? She’s got secrets. She’s fucked up. She didn’t single-handedly cause the Goddamn Collapse. The middle east was bombing stadiums. They were shooting nerve gas into airports. The fucking Russians took over Ukraine and were flying planes into American territories. They launched the first damn missiles. But it was one fucking businesswoman who caused it all. Sure.”

Larson stood. “Are you kidding me? You actually think she’s innocent? You just said she could have swapped her own people into politics. She’s been using those flair witches to control people. She’s training more right the fuck on this ship.”

“Shut the fuck up, Larson. Think before you talk any more shit. Think hard. Then, after you’ve thought about it. Don’t say it, because it’s fucking retarded.”

Larson bodily faced the man. Both marines stood to face him back. Larson turned away. “Fuck both of you.” He stormed from the gym.

It was that woman’s mind tricks, he realized. Who knew what other powers she had. For all anyone knew, the crew sat in that launch bay for hours while she erased their minds and told the same story over and over until people finally bought it. She only ever told people exactly what they needed to hear. It’s why she hid her body swapping and those exemplar powers until she didn’t have a choice, because if people knew how powerful she really was, they’d know she could have easily stopped the Collapse, but she didn’t. She wanted it. She caused it. That woman killed more people than anyone else in the world ever had, possibly combined. Larson lost his little sister. Everyone onboard had lost someone. Yet they were so damn quick to buy her story.

Everyone was so goddamn gullible. This teenager came aboard, told everyone she’s the dead queen, And everyone just went apeshit insane and turned against the empire. This woman was poison, and she was going to get them killed.

Larson returned to the berthing quarters. He rifled through his crate for his shower supplies. Through the hatch to the mess hall, he spotted a crowd of soldiers laughing and chatting as though nothing was wrong. In between them was that black woman, the mother with the kid. And that memory-erasing woman. They weren’t marines or Air Force, but the others accepted them like they belonged.

And suddenly it became clear.

Alexander wasn’t the monster everyone here thought he was. All he’d done so far was promise to clean up the mess Victoria had made of the world. He hunted her, yes, but not because he vied for power, but because he was another one of her victims. He knew she had to go. If she were gone, there would be no more hunt. He could forgive the soldiers Victoria had dragged into exile with her. All they had to do was show Alexander they were on the right side.

100. Dead Man’s Switch

“Pretty nifty, huh?” said Quentin. “I guess this makes a me a mad scientist now.”

He, Alexander, and Sibyl stood around a contraption Quentin had been assembling. The final parts had come in, and crew men worked to fasten the results into place. Sparks flew as welding torches meshed lines of gooey metal together. The work noises echoed through the bowels of the Manakin engine floor.

For Alexander, this was like a trip to a foreign country. All he’d ever seen of the Manakin was its chrome spires. After years inside a dull terrarium, he felt like he was living in a fantasy novel, ruling from his cloud city. Down in the cramped bowels of the ship, the air stank of sweat and oil. Everyone was in constant turmoil. It was as though he’d traveled to the Dwarven underground.

The device itself was disappointingly plain. He’d hoped for something menacing, but what Quentin brought him looked like a repurposed septic tank.

“Was there any way you could have made this smaller?” asked Alexander.

“Yeah, sure,” Quentin replied. “Give me a larger team and a few months, and I could have given you a doomsday device that fits in your pocket.” He spoke in a whisper. The ship engineers didn’t know what this mystery box was for, not that it would matter if they did. Like everyone else here, those men would probably offer to sit on the bomb and pull the trigger if they thought it would make Alex happy.

“Fact is, though,” Quentin said, “you gave me a couple days. So be happy with what you got: a three stage nuclear bomb mostly cliffed from Russian designs plus my own personal touches. The first two stages are the same, but I tweaked the fusion in the third stage for some extra fun times.”

“The antimatter?”

“Ah… I decided against the antimatter route. Too many problems, but don’t worry. This’ll be big enough for you.

“What’s it’s yield?”

“It’s not tested, but somewhere between two hundred and fifty to five hundred megatons.”

“And what’s that?”

“Take all the bombs launched during the Collapse and multiply them by… five? Or how about five thousand Hiroshimas? The global cooling effect would be worse than what the Collapse caused, but probably not five times worse since this would all go off in one place. Plus, there are a ton of other factors, but you’re still looking at some serious Mutually Assured Destruction.”

Alex nodded.

The engineers finished mounting the device. One man fumbled with a nest of wires trailing from one end.

“Oh, that’s cool, man,” Quentin said. “I’ll take care of that. Thanks, guys.” He ushered them out. Returning, he untangled cables and plugged several together. Others he attached to wall outlets.

“Um, correct me if I’m wrong,” Alex said, “but this bomb can’t be disarmed simply by unplugging it, right?”

“Nah, most of this is grounding.” He pointed out cables. “This, and this are for the monitoring the water chambers and stuff. The actual bomb part runs on its own Stiller Generator. Trust me. This is a bitch to disarm.” He shrugged. “…once it’s armed.”

“How resistant is it?”

He fished a wrist band from his pocket and handed it to Alex. Where a watch face would be was instead a miniature display. “Dead man’s switch, like we talked about. Set a time on it, like a day or two. Then you arm the bomb, and that’s it. It’ll give you warnings at an hour, ten minutes, and one minute. If you don’t reset the timer, the bomb goes off.”

“I see.” Alex explored the wrist band’s menu. “And it can’t be disarmed from this watch. Right?”

“Right. You can only reset the timer. To disarm it once it’s live, you need to disarm it here.”

“How hard is that to do?”

“It’s tricky, but I made a README file explaining how.” Quentin tapped a tablet mounted to the bomb.

“You’re joking, right?”

“No. What if something happened to me? Somebody’d have to stop it.”

Alex smiled thinly. “Perhaps you’re missing the point of this. I’m dealing with an opponent who can steal our bodies and read minds, someone who is probably watching us right now. If any of us can disarm it, so can she.”

“Don’t worry. It takes some power tools and a few hours to pull this apart.”

“Hours?” asked Alex. “More than, say… two?”

“Yeah, about that.”

Alex fiddled with the wrist band. “Two. Zero. Zero… There.” He held it up. “That’s two hours, right? Not two minutes?”

“…Uh…That’s right.”

“Great!” Alex hit a prominent red button on the wrist display. An industrial beep sounded from the massive bomb before them. It began humming. The wrist dial now showed 1:59 with small numbers in the corner counting seconds.

Quentin chuckled. “Maybe uh… maybe I didn’t explain this correctly. That countdown is not a timer to arming the bomb. It’s to detonation. You just armed the bomb.”

“Right, but this is a dead man’s switch, right? I just press this…” Alex pressed an onscreen button showing a circular arrow. The timer jumped back to two hours. “And it resets. Right. This is perfect.”

“I was thinking you’d choose a few days or maybe weeks. You have to push that button every two hours. Every. Two. Hours. Day and night. Do you plan on waking up that much?”

“Ooh, you’re right.” Alex turned to Sibyl. “How about you take over night shifts. You think you can do that?”

“Okay,” she said automatically.

“Hmm.” Alex pondered. “That’s not secure though. You’re a dumb dumb. I guess we’ll have to move you into that room off my bedroom. That way everyone has to go by me to get to you.”


Alex pondered. “Maybe I should get some guys to install a lock on the door, and I’ll have the only key.” He shrugged. “Can’t be too safe. For all we know. Victoria could coax you into leaving somehow. I hope you don’t mind being locked in.”

Sibyl nodded. Her mind was so damn saturated with him, he wondered what else she would agree to. If he told her she shouldn’t risk going to sleep, he was sure she’d do it, but what if he had her chained to the wall, just in case? He probably wouldn’t even have to explain why.

“Okay…” Quentin chuckled again. He was a man laughing at a joke he didn’t get. “Alex… there is riding a lot on that watch. I’m not sure you’re quite getting this. The reset procedure is an encrypted challenge/response using a private key that’s only in that watch. If it breaks, if you lose it, if you lose reception, or anything, then there’s nothing any of us can do. I couldn’t disarm this bomb fast enough.”

“I don’t think I’ll be going far,” said Alex. “And this watch is robust, right?” Alex rapped it against the bomb.

Quentin lunged for it, caught himself, and bit his knuckles. “Don’t joke about that. I’m serious. If something happens to that watch…”

“Oh, relax. This is just until I’m good and sure Victoria is toast. It’s not like I actually want the bomb to go off, right?” Alex laughed in a way that invited Quentin to join him.

Quentin tried. “Yeah. Yeah. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

Alexander peered curiously at the wrist band. “I started this countdown, which I have to reset every two hours. If I don’t. The world gets another ice age, right?”


“Looks like I know exactly what I’m doing. What you meant to say was: I hope this a good idea.”

“Is it?”

“We’ll find out.”

99. Public Support and Land Mines

The largest room on the Venezia was the launch bay. The crew had collected there, excluding the pilots. The marines stood, arms crossed, near the back. The Air Force crew sat along the ground. A few leaned on walls and door frames. Others perched inside or on top of deployment pods. Winnie, Josephine, Tan, Zauna, and Oni collected near the bay door, separate from the crew.

The captain had announced a crew meeting. He didn’t specify what it was about, but Winnie knew. Everyone else could guess. No one was going to miss this. Even the pilots listened in through the intercom.

Victoria waited beside Stephano. Her exemplars stood to either side, putting themselves between her and the crew. It was their job, and even though the crowd showed no hostility. The spotlight was on Victoria even though she ignored everyone while she chatted with the captain.

A few more soldiers trickled in. Stephano nodded to her. She addressed the room.

“Before I founded the Lakiran empire, I was the CEO for LakiraLabs, which owned property in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Guyana, and parts of Central and North America. In order to get around US regulation, I eventually moved the company’s operations to South America at great expense and focused on importing specialists from Europe and North America. As LakiraLabs grew, so did the need to invest myself in local governments. I helped improve living conditions and combat drugs and crime in places I owned. I’d become an unofficial baroness for northern South America.

“So when tensions between the world’s superpowers escalated. I, like many others, found my corner of the world in danger. Socialist movements threatened to nationalize my lands. The US, who had previously only antagonized me, suddenly became my best friend. They encouraged me to embroil myself in the politics and prevent Socialist parties from gaining control. They offered me everything from public support to land mines. I became a part of this escalation in a way I never wanted to be.

“When peace talks came up, South America become a bargaining chip. I tried to diffuse tensions, but it never worked. The superpowers lent aid and weapons to capitalist and socialist parties in efforts to build relations. All it led to was increased instability. After years of watching tensions grow despite everything I did, I concluded that war was an inevitability. I turned my efforts from preventing it to seeing how I could make my lands survive when it came, and making sure South America would not be targeted in the case of nuclear retaliation.

“To do that, I had to sabotage foreign aid coming into the country. I intercepted shipments, undercut meetings, and even assassinated some political figures. My aim was to keep South America from falling into the pocket of any superpower, which was why when the missiles finally flew, so few targeted the region, but my actions did contribute to the instability. And in doing so, most likely hastened the coming of the war.”

She paused. “That is what Alexander is referring to. I am guilty of what every other politician was doing at the time. I looked after my own land instead of trying to fix the world as a whole. I’ve kept this information private because it would only interfere with keeping the empire together. Alexander, meanwhile, has caused instability around the world in a desperate attempt to cause unrest aboard this vessel. It only shows how little this madman cares about the empire, and seeks only to secure his own position as its ruler. I hope now we can put this rumor behind us and return to our duties. Captain Stephano and I have finalized a plan to retake the Manakin. You’ll receive orders soon. Dismissed.”

Victoria turned and walked toward the side bay door.

“Why is he a madman, Your Majesty?” The voice came from near the back of the crowd.

“Pardon?” said Victoria.

“You said Alexander is a madman. What’s he done?” It was a cadet perched in a deployment tube. The other marines weren’t looking at him, but at Victoria.

“Alexander is a con artist who has hurt many people in his long life,” said Victoria. “He, in collusion with others, detonated the dirty bomb in the Capital Tower. He’s actively mind controlling the ministry and all heads of state, and he’s also stolen the body of my daughter.”

“Where did he come from?”

“He’s been around for centuries, working with others to steal bodies to preserve their own existence.”

“Were you one of them?”

Stephano stepped forward. “That is enough. You will all return to your duties now.”

“No, Captain. It’s all right. The answer is no. I was not one of them.”

“Were you born as Victoria Palladino?”


“Have you been erasing our memories?” asked a lieutenant.


“Has the other girl?” he pointed to Josephine.

“No. I forbid her from doing so.”

“Then how come I have gaps in my memory. I can remember some talks I had recently, but I can’t remember what they were about.”

“I haven’t been erasing anyone’s memories,” said Victoria.

“I have gaps too,” said another. “How can we tell if someone is?”

“You can’t, but no one is tampering with your minds. You’re just more aware of forgetting things.”

“How do we know you’re not the one lying and Alexander is telling the truth?” This voice was much stronger than the others. It came from a marine by the door in the very back. “Alexander is promising to give more power to the people.”

“He’s promising a lot,” said Victoria. “He lies. He’s a master at it.”

“How about you let us read your mind so we know you’re not lying.”

“That’s not possible. I’m shielded permanently.”

“Then let us read their minds?” The marine pointed to Bishop and Liat.


“Why not? What are you hiding?”

“That is enough!” snapped Stephano. “Private Larson, I will speak to you privately. Everyone else is dismissed.”

The crowd broke. Victoria left. Stephano led the marine to a private room to reprimand him. The launch bay cleared within minutes. Victoria had walked a line with her story. If Winnie hadn’t already known the truth, she wouldn’t have been able to pick out the truth from the lies. It was a convincing story though. It painted her as guilty, but not as a villain. Impressive work, Winnie thought, but from the look on the soldier’s faces, it might not have been enough.

98. For the Best

Victoria wasn’t in the ready room when Stephano arrived, which meant she would still be in his stateroom—the other room aboard this ship she’d commandeered as her own. Between there and the ready room, she was out of sight from the crew. Her exemplars brought her her meals and sent for anyone she wished to speak to.

They had not sent for Stephano, which meant Victoria did not desire an audience. It had been improper for him to send Liat to inform the queen that he needed to speak with her, but this discussion had to be made, regardless of customs.

He waited for arrival. He didn’t mind. It gave him time to work out how best to phrase his questions. No approach seemed tactful, but then there isn’t an easy way to ask your superior if they’re responsible for mass murder.

He heard her footsteps long before she entered, giving him time to stop fidgeting. The door opened. Bishop leaned in and glanced about for a security check. Stephano made eye contact, and Bishop nodded his thanks for not making him ask. Though now he knew what Stephano wanted to discuss, and so would Victoria. Whatever tact he used, she’d see through it.

Nothing could be done about that.

Bishop ducked out. Victoria entered. In the cramped space, she sidled into her usual seat. “You wanted to see me, Captain.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for accepting my request.”

“What is this about?”

“I’m sure you’re aware that Alexander held a press conference where he made several allegations against you.”

“I am aware. Yes.”

“It’s my belief he leveled these allegations in order to undermine the chain of command aboard this ship.”

“That is my belief as well. It was an incredibly reckless move which will bring further instability to the empire.”

“You said he has a means of ensuring people’s loyalty now.”

“He does, but it does nothing for the many riots now breaking out over the globe. He’s made these allegations caring nothing for the damage it will cause the people in the meantime.”

“That may be the case,” Stephano said, “but it’s still an attack on the crew of this ship. The rumor mill has started turning. The men are asking questions. We need to address what damage his accusations may cause. So let me ask. Is there any truth to his allegations?”

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what? Why am I asking? I need to know.”

“But why? Are you going to resign if they’re true?”


“Are you going to carry out your duties differently?”

“It would affect how we handle this matter. If Alexander’s accusations are groundless, then we can inform the crew and put this matter to rest. If they’re not groundless, and he has any way of proving they’re true, then he may use that against you. If we deny the accusations, but he later provides this evidence, it would worsen the scandal. So,” he paused. “Can Alexander provide such evidence?”

“He will provide plenty of evidence. I’m sure it would all be a fabrication.”

“But could he provide actual evidence?”


“How culpable would it make you out to be?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you provide any evidence in your defense?”

“I have none with me.”

“Would you allow your exemplars to be scanned in order to put these rumors to rest with the crew?”

“No. My exemplars know too much privileged information. Simply inform your men that the rumors are false. I don’t see why they need more than that.”

“Because they deserve it.”

“Excuse me?”

“Every man and woman aboard this ship is an exile from their own country. They’re alone up here because you and I decided so. They know only what we’ve told them, which isn’t much. We’ve said nothing about our enemies, or our preparation, or even the people we risked our lives fetching for you. Half of them doubt that you even are the queen. Some are even afraid of you. Yet they still fight for you—not the empire they signed up to serve, or the people they swore to protect, but you. They deserve the truth, and not just another dismissal. So is there truth behind Alexander’s accusations?”

“Fine. Yes.”

“Did you withhold Food-Ready assemblers like he says?”

“I did. I knew the war was coming. I produced as many machines as I could and hoarded them for my own people.”

“Is that all you did?”

“I also accelerated tensions between America and Russia by placing my people into the bodies of political figureheads.”


“And I ordered the first missile launch.”

“I see.” Stephano had told himself beforehand that it wouldn’t matter what her answer would be. He was wrong. “So you caused everything…”

“Alexander will paint it that way.”

“So the Collapse wasn’t your plan B. It wasn’t because of failed peace talks. It was because you set out to deliberately scorch the world…”

“The Russians, Americans, and Chinese scorched the world.”

“But you provoked them.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing. I still think I did.”

“Your Majesty. Please explain to me how it could possibly have been the right thing.”

“The Collapse was inevitable. Tensions had been growing ever since the nineteen sixties. It never got better. All those years of disarmament were a farce. Time and time again we came within a single judgement call of apocalypse. I tried at first to help, but by then, the arms race had stopped being about protection. It had become an irreconcilable clash of ideals. So I jump-started it, in a controlled fashion. I went to great lengths to make sure only a limited number of missiles fired so as to ensure humanities survival.”

“For what? So you could take over? Was it just a power grab?”

“Of course not. I did it because I believed it was best for the world in the long run.”


“The world was living under the shadows of giants who brandished annihilation at one another. More than just that, Captain, society was moving backwards. Before the missiles launched, the Russians were starving from their broken government long before the winter set it. The Chinese were building dozens of new coal power plants every year while crops failed globally from runaway raising temperatures. The middle east and Africa belonged to religious extremists who reduced more and more of our civilization to a dark age. Women were nothing more than objects. Executions were vicious and public. Drug lords owned more of South America than the governments did. Slavery was reinvented under the guise of free trade. North America had devolved into a police state, controlled by its own paranoia. Its corporations were exhausting the world faster even than a world war ever could. And nearly two thirds of the worlds’ ecosystem had gone extinct. The world wasn’t just rotting, Captain, it was stuck. Society was locked in place. It’s own self-consuming machination had become self-sustaining, and every person in it either didn’t care or felt too powerless to do anything about it. Something drastic had to happen if we were to ever break course.”

“So… what? You see what you did as… tearing down the foundation to rebuild the house?”

“Essentially. I know you think what I did was wrong—”

“I think what you did was insanity. You talk like the world was a hellhole. That somehow, this constant winter starvation nightmare we’ve all been living is in some way better.”

“It’s not better yet. It’s only been six years since the Collapse. Look at how much as improved. Now that I’m in control, I can do so much more for of humanity.”

“How can you believe that? The world was not a lost cause. It had it’s problems, certainly. Thousands of them. Some got solved. Some didn’t. But what you did made everything unbelievably worse. You talk about how the ecosystem was in danger, but you destroyed it entirely. Nearly everything is extinct now. You talk about corrupt governments? The anarchy you caused paved the way for bloodthirsty warlords around the world.”

“We overthrew them.”

“And millions of innocent people suffered. Billions are dead. So what if you fix the world? There’s hardly anyone left to enjoy it.”

“I’m thinking about the endless generations to come, Captain. I know you don’t believe the world was broken, but you grew up in one of the richest neighborhoods in France. You lived in the first world everyone liked to believe in. I spent twenty years in the recesses of the world, trying to fix the problems everyone else ignored. Perhaps somewhere along the line I became jaded. Maybe it was the first time the US government tried to assassinate me because I was raising wage levels in Central America. Maybe it was when I discovered China was sending weapons to rebels in my lands just so they’d cause chaos. Or maybe it was when the drug cartels torched and butchered eight villages I helped restore, just to spite me. I saw the worst, Captain, and I saw it growing. For every piece of good I did, the world snapped back.”

“It was wrong, Victoria.”

“Maybe it was, but what’s done is done. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss where we go from here. If I don’t get my throne back from that lunatic, then all the suffering I’ve caused will be for nothing. Do you still support me?”

“If I say no, do you take this conversation out of my mind?”

“I don’t want to, Captain.”

“But you could…”

“Of course I could, but I want you to help me because you believe in me, not because I’ve programmed you. But the lunatic who sits on the throne right now wouldn’t hesitate. He is a megalomaniac who cares for nothing except himself. He’s already programming the world, but that’s not how I want to rule. I truly am trying to make this world a better place, even if I have made unforgivable mistakes. So choose, Captain. I’m not going to take your free will from you no matter how convenient that would be. Will you help me?”

No matter how earnest she was, the threat was still there. Victoria didn’t want to take Stephano’s memories, but what else could happen if he said no? It’s not like they could politely ask her to leave the ship. Certainly she wouldn’t stand to be arrested. And their lives would still be in danger from Alex all the same. His answer was clear. How he felt about it was something he would come to terms with on his time.

“I’ll help you get him off the throne.”

“I suppose that will have to do. What shall we tell your men?”

Stephano knew his crew well. Some had lost family and friends in the war. For many, their losses were what led them to join the army in the first place. They thought they were on the side that was fixing the world.

Victoria would have to tell the men something, but it couldn’t be the truth.