41. Time to be Kings

2038, June 8th
Collapse – 11 years

“Time to be kings,” Alexander said.

Time indeed, Sakhr thought. Having a tower halt everything to greet him was not a pleasure he had ever had before. Money had never been a problem, but this was a life money couldn’t buy. This required fame, something Sakhr had arduously avoided until now.

A small woman approached. She was olive-skinned—a common color here.

“Greetings. My name is Melanie. I’m Victoria’s assistant coordinator. Are you Sakhr?” Her aura was nervous, self-conscious. It put Sakhr at ease.

“I am.”

“And you must be…”

“Alexander.” He bowed.

She greeted Sibyl and Christof, then turned back to Sakhr. “If you will please follow me. I will take you to Victoria.”

She led them to a conference room on the fifty-fifth floor. It had an office feel, complete with a conference phone and a projector at one end with a cable for a computer to connect to. It wasn’t quite what Sakhr was expecting. After preparing them drinks, Madeline assured them Victoria would be right with them, and she left.

They took seats and waited. After Madeline’s aura disappeared off the edge of Sakhr’s Empathy, he realized that no one else was around. No one at all. He knew the building was still under construction, but certainly there would be someone nearby. Or was this building mostly abandoned? Why meet here then?

He sensed her approach long before she entered the room. Four auras came up the elevator. One he recognized as Melanie. She split off once they were on the same floor. The other three approached. Hers was easy to identify. It bled arrogance.

He figured it would, but sensing it didn’t ease him. She would be difficult to work with. There would be many disagreements between her and Sakhr. It wouldn’t take long before one of those disagreements became an irreconcilable problem.

Two auras waited outside.

Victoria entered. She was every bit as beautiful as the news made her out to be. Sakhr didn’t know why, but that put him more ill at ease.

“I’m glad to finally meet you in person,” he said.

She settled into a chair at the head of the table. “Likewise.”

“Are those your guards outside the door?”

“They are.”

“One might think you don’t trust us,” Alex said.

Sakhr cast him a glare.

Victoria replied calmly. “If I felt threatened by you, they would be waiting inside the room with us. They’re for everyone else. In the past decade, I’ve made quite an impact on the local region through LakiraLabs. I’ve brought a lot of jobs and aid to the community. The place has been thriving like it never has before. I’m sure you’ve heard the news refer to me as the baroness of South America. I’m not sure I’d go that far. Unfortunately, not everyone sees my impact as a positive thing. Many see me as a unwelcome capitalistic influence.”

“I can imagine,” Sakhr said. “We passed through Brazil once decades ago, during the first Cold War. It was not a time to be making ripples. I can’t imagine it’s much different now.”

“South America is not as involved as it was before, but it still faces political troubles.”

“It leaves the question,” Sakhr asked. “Why relocate your company’s headquarters here? Why leave the US at all?”

“It’s certainly brought its hassles, but it’s was worth it. The burden of the United States’ latest laws and regulations had been hindering our progress. LakiraLabs already outsourced labor to Brazil and Venezuela. Moving here put us closer to our operations. And I’ve had an easier time shaping the law to my needs. The South American governments are more amenable to my money.”

“When they’re not threatening your life,” Sakhr added.

“Most of that threat actually comes from outside parties. My influence over labor laws here has negatively impacted the bottom line of many American corporations that outsource here. They pressure the US government, who in turn pressure the South American governments to put a stop to my growth. My most dangerous detractor, if you’ll believe it, has been a banana company that exports from here. I’ve caught them working with drug cartels to raise hell on my territory. So far, no government is willing to acknowledge this. Then there are the Russians denouncing me as a capitalistic exploiter. They fund rebel groups in the region. Frankly, if it weren’t for my edge, I would have failed a while ago.”

“Your edge being the powers you’ve stolen from us, right?” Alex said.

“I merely copied, but yes, with yours and others’ powers.”

“And when exactly did you copy our powers?” Alex said. “I’m sure Sakhr merely forgot to tell me.”

“Several months ago.”

“Funny. You only been in contact with us for three weeks.”

“Alexander…” Sakhr warned.

“It’s quite all right. I’m a careful woman. I observed your group as a matter of my own safety. I’ve had bad experiences when reaching out to other such flairs.”

“Others?” Christof perked up. “What other powers have you discovered?”

“A few. Years back, I found a man named Quentin Avery. He has a power which gives him a fundamental understanding of our world’s physical properties. He works with a team of my scientists out of a think tank in Virginia.”

“I see,” Sakhr said. “Hence your repulser field.”

“Hence all of our technologies which have put LakiraLabs decades ahead of its time. Not only do I have Quentin, but with my ability to write glyphs, I’ve hidden glyphs inside the ID badges of all of LakiraLabs scientists, allowing them to be better at their jobs.”

“Very clever,” Sakhr replied, “but why are you hiding the glyphs from your own people? When you first contacted me, you expressed the desire for us to come out of the shadows.”

“Which,” Alex interjected, “not all of us are on board with.”

Both Victoria and Sakhr ignored him.

“I do intend for that, but not on a wholesale level. Flairs are my edge. If I were to reveal that edge, others would try to gain it. I plan to keep both flairs and my technological advantage until I’m done expanding my domain. Only then will I reveal the powers, and only in a manner I can control.”

This constant use of the singular I bothered Sakhr, as was the way she wouldn’t look any of them in the eye. “How much do you intend expand your domain?” he asked.

“As much as possible.”

“So…” Alex said. “You want to conquer the world?”

“Yes.”

Alex laughed. “Wow. You’re for real. You actually think that, don’t you?”

“With the tactical use of your flairs, I can.”

“Of course you can. We could have done that any time we wanted. Maybe you don’t know about Sakhr’s power, but he could be president of the United States by tomorrow. Each one of us could be a world leader.”

“It’s not the same. You would be the world’s figureheads, but you wouldn’t rule it. You’d have to hide behind the bodies you puppeteer.”

“So it’s about arrogance then?”

“No. What I mean is you could not change things the way they are. You’d have the power of the presidents, but that’s it. That power if far from absolute. They have congress’s to appease and elections to run. They cannot change the world with their will, but must compromise with everything they do. Even if you surpassed that obstacle, you could only change the world so much. Your coven does not have real power, not yet.”

“We could stop the cold war resurgence tomorrow if we wanted,” Alex said.

“You could,” she agreed. “Why haven’t you?”

“Because it’s not our concern. I don’t care about saving the world. I care about living in it the way I choose.”

“Does he speak for all of you?” Victoria glanced around. “You don’t care about the world?”

“Of course we care,” Sakhr said. “We live in it, but by taking over important people, we would risk exposing ourselves.”

“And so you choose to stand by and hope that the world fixes itself? Even when you could correct it?”

“We could alleviate the situation between the world’s superpowers for a time,” Sakhr said, “but as you point out, our power would be limited. The amount of effort it would take to wrest the countries out of their own madness would be monumental.”

“Of course it would,” Victoria said, “but I haven’t failed yet, not significantly so.”

“So what then?” Alex said. “You’re going to fix the world? Listen. You’ve only been on this planet a few decades. We’ve been here for centuries. We’ve—”

“And yet you are all exactly where you have always been,” Victoria said. “A group of nomadic travelers who steal what they want and run at the first sign of trouble.”

“Do not accuse us of cowardice, Victoria,” Sakhr said.

“I’m not. I’m accusing you of wasting your potential. I, on the other hand, have worked for fifteen years toward this goal. I own countless tracts of land across South and Central America as well as other parts of the world. My control over the regional politics is near absolute. I’ve made a small business into a dominant international empire using technologies I’ve developed and brought to market—technologies that have shaped every corner of this planet.”

Sakhr was silent. This conversation was going in a direction he hadn’t predicted. She was acting different then the few other times he’d spoken to her. He wondered if Alex had been right. Answering her call may have been a mistake, regardless of any risk from ignoring her.

Alex argued on. “That’s fantastic for you. We don’t want to run businesses and governments. We’re content as we are.”

“No. You’re complacent. You’ve wasted these powerful gifts on worthless indulgence.”

“Oh right,” Alex gestured to the room. “None of this is indulgent. Your own personal tower. Making yourself baroness of the region. Perfectly frugal.”

“Unlike you, I am accomplishing something. I am using my gift to its fullest potential, as well as all other powers I encounter. I explore them, figure out out how they work, what I can make them do. And then I use those powers to accomplish great things. You are content to accept your station in life. I have never stopped asking questions.”

With that remark, Sakhr knew.

An echo of a memory flew into his mind like a key and unlocked the full picture. In one singular moment, every gap filled in. Every question was answered. He understood what she was doing, why he was here, and why none of this felt right. It all made hideous sense.

The other’s kept arguing, yet their voices came to him from miles away. Sakhr reflected on the fatal mistake he’d made. Though his features hid his revelation, he knew Victoria could see his aura. Her own swelled exultantly, even while answering another inane remark of Alex’s. She knew he knew.

What could he do? What could he possibly do that she hadn’t already considered? The trap was sprung hours ago, and the cat was playing with it’s food. If he ran, the guards were beyond the door—guards who’s bodies he knew he wouldn’t be able to steal; he was certain she’d thought of that. Could he leap to his death? He was over fifty floors up. As long as he could shatter the window, he might save himself from whatever fate she had for him, but he couldn’t. After centuries of wandering, never had he realized more than right now how much he wanted to live.

“I’m sure,” Alex said, completely oblivious, “You’re amazingly proud of yourself. I never doubted that for a minute. But you still don’t get it. We don’t care. Why bother ruling the world at all? Apart from the appeal to megalomaniacs such as yourself, that kind of power doesn’t give us anything we don’t already have.”

“It’s about making a difference.”

More auras were coming up the elevator. These ones were tense, ready for combat. The ruse would be up soon.

“Oh, so you’re a humanitarian then,” Alex replied. “You’re pretty damn naive if you think you’ll amount to any positive change in the world. I’ve been around a lot longer than you, woman. I’ve seen a dozen dictators spout words just like yours. You’re just—”

Alex,” snapped Sakhr.

Alex looked at him, already sneering for what he thought was Sakhr coming down on her side. But then he saw into Sakhr’s eyes, and it came together. He startled to his feet, his chair clattering over, as though he’d finally seen the gun pointed at his head this whole time.

“What?” Christof said. “What’s going on?”

Sibyl was frozen like a mouse.

“No, Alexander,” Victoria said. “You do not know patience. In your centuries of life, you have never spent more than a year working toward any endeavor. I, however, have been working towards a goal ever since a very singular event happened to me. You might recall when. It was around same time that all of you found a particular girl in an airport. You took her in. You told her she was special. You treated her like a friend, and when you found out that she could pose a threat to you, you broke into her home and murdered her and her father.”

“…Katherine?” The word came from Christof.

Alexander looked around wildly, frantic for a course of action. It didn’t matter. That girl wouldn’t reveal herself unless there was nothing he could do. Sakhr wanted to try, maybe get to the door, or attack the woman, but his logic told him it would only amount to an undignified struggle—a wild animal fighting against its net.

Victoria kept talking. “You might remember that girl had the ability to copy other powers once she understood them well enough. The first power she took was yours, Alex. It made discovering the secrets to the others easier for her.” She looked at Sakhr. “Do you remember what you thought before giving her to Alex to murder? What a shame. You looked her in the eye when you thought that.”

Alex charged Victoria. Something stopped him. Sakhr felt a burst of air against his face. An unseen wall divided the room—a repulse field. It was probably on even before she entered. Not a single chance taken.

Alex tried to push through it. As though pressing repulsing magnets together, his hands kept veering off to either side. Wind burst each time.

Victoria sat peacefully on her side. “That girl’s story ended that night. But there was a fly that landed on her body before she died, no doubt attracted to the blood. The story of that fly is dull. It flew about aimlessly for hours afterward, until sheer chance would have it land on the arm of a boy who watched as police carried bodies from his neighbor’s house. His story is more interesting. Days later, he ran away from home, only to turn up in a week, behaving just like a dog. Tragic.”

Everyone but Victoria and Sakhr was out of their chairs. Christof and Sibyl both wasted time testing the repulse field. Alex was trying to force open the door to the hall. There was no point. If Sakhr was going to escape, it would not come from scratching the cage’s walls. Victoria would need someone to grab him for whatever she had planned. That would be those auras coming toward the door. That might be a chance. If he could manage to swap bodies, he’d have a chance. To hell with the others.

Or perhaps he could bargain. He could capitulate to her, help her take the others while he served. God, how he would detest serving this little girl, but he could do it, for centuries if he needed. Alex might not know patience, but he did. So long as he didn’t die here.

“There are other stories like that boy’s,” Victoria said, “stories of more important people: business men and politicians. They might encounter a friendly cat or a bird, and their behavior changes wildly. They’d make make drastic changes to their finances, only to break down one day and believe themselves to be animals.” She held out her hands to present herself. “I am the victim of this pattern as well. Me, Victoria Palladino. As an adolescent. I was a bubbly, over-privileged child drifting through her education like a unmanned vessel. I was to inherit my father’s tech company, but I didn’t have shred of ambition. That all changed one day when a bird collided with my pet dog while I was walking on the Princeton campus. My dog acted most peculiarly the rest of the day. Especially that night, when it attacked me as though I were an impostor. The poor thing had to be put down, and I’ve never been the same since.”

No one was listening to her. Christof had joined Alex in breaking down the door. It might as well have been made from brick. Sibyl was weeping in the corner. Her comfort threshold had been crossed. She would be useless now.

“That was the summer I found my drive. I became a woman who deserved the company she would inherit. The only person to ever question this change was my father. He sensed I wasn’t quite the little girl he’d raised. It unfortunately caused a rift in our relationship. Not that it matters now. He had a mental break himself. He lives in Silverside Sanitorium now, though I’m sure he’d be proud of my success. You see, Sakhr, when one is as gifted as we are, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish if only we have the proper drive.”

“Will you shut up, you little bitch,” Alexander said.

The doors burst open. Men poured in, all in hazmat suits and wielding stun batons. One shocked Alex before he could react. Christof rushed them, only to drop when one buried their baton in his chest. Sibyl cowered at their approach. They stunned her anyway.

Then they turned to Sakhr, and his dignity was gone. He was poised like a feral cat. Pouncing, he pulled at masks and tore at fabric, trying desperately to expose any skin.

The batons reached him first. His body failed. On the ground now, he kicked and screamed as they piled onto him, but it was too little, and much too late. With his face pressed against the carpet, he could see the feet of the others as they dragged Alexander, Christof, and Sibyl from the room. It was just him and the people holding him down… and her.

“Put him on the table,” Victoria said. The men dragged Sakhr up where he could see her. She was still reclined in her chair, making a phone call.

Someone answered immediately.

“I’m ready for Mr. Bishop now.” She hung up without waiting for a reply.

Sakhr tried to remember anything about the name Bishop, but he’d never heard of it. “Wait,” he stammered. “Just wait. Don’t kill me. We can talk about this.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. You’re much too valuable to waste.”

“What?” Sakhr struggled helplessly. “What are you talking about? What are you going to do?”

She got up and came around too look at him as though he were a specimen. “Where’s Josephine?”

“…What?”

“Josephine. I had expected her to be with you, but apparently not. You must have some idea where she is.”

Sakhr’s mind raced. This non-sequitur had no meaning to him. He’d never heard that name before. Was she someone close to Victoria? Did she think Sakhr had done something to someone named Josephine? Something she blamed him for?

Victoria frowned. “You really don’t know that name at all, do you? I’ll find her eventually. I have patience, and you’ll be waiting right along with me.”

The door opened again, and a woman dressed as an orderly entered, pushing along a geriatric old man in a wheelchair. He looked as frail as old parchment and had not a single hair on his gaunt body. Oxygen tubes snaked around his ears and wrapped under his nose, yet his breaths still took heaving effort. An antiseptic hospital smell wafted in with him.

This must be Mr. Bishop, and Mr. Bishop looked at Sakhr with lively, hopeful eyes unbefitting of his dying body.

No,” Sakhr yelled. He struggled anew. “Don’t put me in that body. Please, Victoria. Katherine. I’ll do what you want. I’ll serve you if that’s what you wish. For however long. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Just please! Don’t put me in that body.”

“I won’t.” Victoria smiled at him. “I have promised Mr. Bishop your body, but I wouldn’t dare leave you in a body on death’s door.”

Sakhr looked at her with wild, confused eyes as Victoria took a box from the orderly.

From inside, she took out a tortoise and set it on Sakhr’s chest. “Meet Marzipan.”

This marks the end of Part 1. Thank you all who’ve been reading so far.

I’d love to hear from you, whatever your thoughts or critiques may be.

40. Unstoppered

“Admiral, has the drilling stopped?” Victoria asked knowing full well it had. “Admiral?”

“Yes, I’m here, ma’am. The drilling has stopped.”

“Is everyone away from the door?”

“They should be, ma’am, but if they’re drilling then they’ll eventually get through.”

“How long?”

“If they know what they’re doing, a few minutes.”

“Are your marines ready?”

“Standing by, ma’am.”

Victoria was half inclined to send them right now. No cameras could see the intruders where they were, but Josephine had to be doing worse. Possibly, she’d already passed out.

If she sent marines now and Josephine hadn’t passed out, then those marines would become more than just useless. They’d become obstacles. Victoria might send only a few marines, but without their rifles, they’d be no contest to Tan’s lucky nunchucks. It would need to be all of them.

“Admiral.” she said.

No response.

“Admiral?”

She projected her mind into the bridge. There was the layout. The officers were all at their stations. The admiral was… somewhere? She didn’t see him. And now that she thought about it, she wasn’t entirely sure what the other officers were doing either.

She she wasn’t actually seeing the room. This was just what she imagined it looked like.

Admiral,” she shouted.

No response.


“You’re not hearing me, Major?” Admiral Medina said to Tan. “You’re not taking that woman anywhere until the medics arrive. Why did you even bring her here?”

Tan continued to Not Hear Him as he scrutinized the control panels across the bridge. The other officers watched from the side where Tan had shooed them off to, although two now worked with Naema to staunch Josephine’s bleeding. No one remembered what was going on, only what they were currently doing. And people in motion tend to stay in motion.

“Are you ignoring me, Major?” Medina said.

“Jose,” Tan mumbled without glancing up.

Josephine forced her eyes to focus. She looked at the Admiral and concentrated. The angry scowl he was directing at Tan grew distant. In a minute, he would restart the same cycle of figuring everything out. It would be the third time.

“Admiral,” she said. Words were a struggle. “You need to lift… the lockdown.”

The admiral stared sternly at her, as though wondering whether to berate a bleeding captain for forgetting her rank.

“I need to get… to a hospital,” she muttered.

“We’re taking you to the medical bay. Lieutenant Cross…” he turned to address his operations officer only to find him standing in the corner with all the other officers. He frowned at them all.

Naema took over. “The doctors can’t treat her there,” she said. “They said we have to take her to the ground, so you lift the lockdown.”

Medina studied her. “Are you a civilian? What are you doing on the bridge?”

“I’m a… doctor. With the humanitarian league. Why do you have the ship on lockdown?”

“I…” He thought, though he would not remember.

“Lift it,” Naema urged. “We need to get her on a ship.”

The admiral looked at her doubtfully. He turned to his XO. “Why is this ship in lockdown?”

“I’m not sure, sir. It may be a malfunction.”

“Then lift it.”

“Hold on, sir.” That came from the communications officer. He was still in the corner, but his hand was against the ear of his headset. “We’re getting a call request direct from the queen.”

“The queen?” The admiral looked distance, as though something about that rang a bell. “Put her on.”

The operations officer approached the radio console. He hardly touched a button before Tan yanked off his headset and pushed him away. Before the officer could protest, Tan drew his revolver and fired several shots into the radio console. Its screen went black.

The report of his gun startled everyone. Two men grabbed Tan, including the communications officer, but by then it was too late. They’d already forgotten. Tan pulled away and moved to join the rest.

Naema turned back to the Admiral. “Have you stopped the lockdown yet?”


Josephine finally appeared on a security feed in Fore Sector deck 1. It was hard to miss her. Not only was Tan and Naema’s family with her, they’d recruited several other officers along the way, including two medics. Where had they come from? Who knew? Bishop had yet to recontact the bridge, or anyone, despite there being multiple means of contacting a citadel. The most frustrating part about this was that she wouldn’t be able to yell at anyone about this failure. Everyone who’d failed her would have no idea what she was talking about. She supposed this spared her from having to deal with Admiral Medina’s knowing too much—a small silver lining.

“Of course…” she muttered as she watched them select a craft in which to fly away. It was a self piloting one, not a grid ship, which trashed the idea of trapping them in a grid holding pattern.

A pity. Josephine looked barely conscious. If Victoria could only contact the marines on board, she’d win.

Bishop spoke. “I got a hold of them.”

“The bridge?”

“No. Strike room. I’ve told them to get up to the bridge and tell them to close the bay doors.”

Victoria shook her head. Bishop must not be watching the footage. Even if all the bay doors started closing right now, it’d only serve to make Josephine’s escape more thrilling.

“Bishop?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Look at the cameras for Fore Sector Deck One. Do you see that ship?”

“Give me a second… yes.”

“That’s them. Get the military to track it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“When they land, I want wall bots ready to deploy.”

“That’s a C-300 Corsair. They could be in the air all day.”

“Then we have time. Make arrangements. I’m giving you whatever authority you need.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This isn’t over, Bishop. Not by a long shot.”


In Victoria’s office, the lights were off and window panels covered the missing wall. It made the place a very different room, foreign and uninviting.

Helena stumbled into the dark, feeling along the wall for a switch. She thumped something. Delicate-sounding things rattled, and Winnie waited for a crash, but none came. Finally, the lights popped on.

And it was an office again, though no less inviting to Winnie.

“Come on.” Helena motioned, and Winnie stepped in. It shouldn’t have been such a momentous step, but it was. Helena was already prancing around Victoria’s desk and searching drawers. Items rolled inside each as she’d open and slam them. Helena didn’t seem to care about how much noise she was making, but then this was Victoria’s private floor. There were no cameras, nor staff, nor security—unless summoned.

“Ah hah!” Helena ducked and reemerged with a bottle. “It was at the very back, like she thinks somebody would fire her if they find it. Did you bring the glasses?”

“I thought we were taking it back to your room?”

“Nah, we’d just have to put it back later.” She reclined over the desk like a starlet upon a piano. Unstoppering the cap, she took a swig, then coughed voraciously.

“Oh God, it’s like… What is this?” She scrutinized the bottle.

Winnie laughed despite of herself. She came over to sit on Victoria’s chair, but thought better of it and perched on the edge of the desk. “Let me try.”

Helena handed her the bottle. Winnie took a whiff. “Oh, God.”

“How the hell does she drink it, right?”

“It smells like someone juiced a Christmas Tree.”

“Try it.”

Careful not to put her lips on the bottle, she poured some into her mouth. It did not taste like a Christmas tree. She coughed, spraying gin over the desk and onto Helena. Helena cackled.

“Noooo.” Winnie mopped up frantically.

“Leave it. It’s fine.”

“No. I have to clean up. This is the queen’s desk.”

“So?” Helena poured gin on its surface.

“Stop. What are you doing?” Winnie caught her. “She’s going to know we were here?”

“Are you serious?”

Winnie realized how stupid a concern that was. Of course Victoria would know. She could read minds. “No. I mean, yeah. I know she’ll know, but let’s not ruin anything.”

“And what’s she going to do about it? You’re too important to her.”

“We can still get in more trouble.” Without anything to mop up the spill, Winnie bent and sipped the gin off the table, then buffed the remainder away with her wrist.

Helena laughed again. “Did you just slurp that up? Are you going to do that will all the spilled gin?” She poured more on the desk.

“No. Stop.” She caught Helena’s hand.

“Are you going to drink that up too?”

“Do you promise to stop?”

“Okay. I’ll stop if you drink it.”

“Okay.” Winnie sipped up the gin puddle. More spilled beside her face. “No! That’s not funny.”

Helena was beside herself with laughter.

“No, seriously. I can’t drink any more,” She tried to be serious, but she was infected with Helena’s laughter. That only encouraged Helena, so the only recourse was the wrest the bottle away. They struggled, both laughing. With a yelp, Helena rolled off the table onto Winnie. They stumbled back together and crashed into the terrarium behind the desk.

A loud pop sobered them both.

On the front panel of the terrarium, a cluster of white cracks fanned out from where Winnie’s hip had struck it.

“Oh shit oh no oh no.” Winnie examined the glass panel. It was loose in its frame. Inside, Marzipan came out of his shell to peer around as though someone had just run his doorbell.

Helena snorted, then broke into peels of laughter. “Oh my God,” she said. “My mom is going to be so pissed.”

“What are we going to do?” Winnie asked.

“Nothing.”

“We should go.”

“What? Why? Because we upset poor Marzipan? Don’t worry. It’s happy. Look at it.” Her voice took on a babying tone. “Look at you. You’re such a dumb little shit, aren’t you? Yes, you are. Yes, you are.”

Winnie forced a chuckle, but her mood was gone. “Come on. We should go now.”

“You know my mom talks to it like that. Baby talk and everything. She dotes on this thing like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Yeah. I know. I’ve seen it.”

“No.” Helena chortled. “You haven’t seen anything. I once saw her take this tortoise with her to the Founding Day’s Parade. She kept it in her lap, and I had to listen to her the whole time. Look at that crowd, Marzipan. All these people are here to see their queen. Isn’t that wonderful? Oh, look at that float. That’s supposed to be me. Oh, how special, Marzipan.

“That…” did not fit Winnie’s image of Victoria at all. “She actually talked like that?”

“It was disgusting. She smothers the little guy. Look. Look at this.” Helena pointed to the latch where the top of the terrarium would open. A padlock sealed it. “She’s paranoid of something happening to him, like rebels would take Marzipan hostage. Vacate Europe or the tortoise gets it.” She laughed. “She’d probably rather they took me.”

Winnie tried to think of something to say while Helena stared down Marzipan. If the conversation continued, she was going to fall into her funk again. And nothing Winnie said seemed to get her to leave.

But as Winnie was thinking, Helena banged on the broken pane with her fist. The web of cracks grew.

“Don’t do that,” Winnie yelled.

“What? The glass is already broken.”

“Are you trying to get in there?”

“Yeah. We’re going to break the little guy out.”

“No. Just leave him. Please, Helena. Let’s just go. Your mother is going to throw a fit.”

“She already will. Might as well let the little guy have a taste of freedom while it lasts.” She banged it a few more times.

Winnie kept expecting the pane to shatter, and for Helena to bleed profusely, but instead it crumpled inward like a fractured windshield. When it was loose enough in its frame, Helena pried it out.

“Please, Helena. Stop.”

“I’m not going to hurt him.” Helena set the pane aside. “We’re just going to have some fun.”

She reached in and grabbed Marzipan.

39. Screeching Metal

“Sometimes I wish I could run away.” Helena was lying on her bed staring at the ceiling. Her legs dangled over the side. “But I can’t. There’s no where in the world I could go. I’m trapped here.”

“Yeah,” Winnie replied.

Winnie sat beside Helena with her legs tucked under herself as best as her body-hugging dress would allow. Her cheeks burned from the bottle of vodka Helena had stashed under her bed. She could only imagine how dizzy Helena must feel. She must have take two shots for every one of Winnie’s. At least the bottle was empty.

“She wouldn’t even care that I ran away,” Helena continued. “She’d just hunt me down like a jaguar escaped from her zoo. As soon as I was home, she’d go right back to ignoring me. Except she’s not even ignoring me. She goes out of her way to avoid me. The only times she pretends to care are when she has some politician over for dinner and she needs to act like a human being. I can’t talk to her then because I have to put on a good face for the guests. As soon as the politicians are gone, so is she.”

“Yeah.”

“And what the fuck was her problem about tonight? Almost there, then something suddenly comes up. The wars are over. My mom owns the world. What could possibly be so important that she needed to backtrack all the way home? It’s not like she’s any closer to Nigeria now. She probably just blew whatever it was out of proportion. She was probably relieved when it came up. It’s bullshit.”

“Yeah.” If Winnie weren’t as drunk, she might be a better listener.

Helena sniffed. “What time is it?”

Winnie visualized the bedside clock in her dorm. “It’s after one.”

“I guess that’s… what? Ten o’clock at the charity?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“What are they doing?”

Winnie visualized. “The music is still playing, but it looks like a lot of guests have gone.”

“How much did the charity make?”

This took Winnie some scouting. She found the raffle ledger in the organizer’s room. It was closed, but that didn’t stop her anymore.

“About fourteen million.”

“Seriously?” Helena sat up. “That’s pathetic. It probably cost that much just to host the stupid thing.”

“Do you think it would have made a difference if we had decided to come late?”

“Of course not. We would have only gotten there, like, half an hour ago, and nobody cares about the queen’s daughter. My mom probably did all this on purpose to make that abundantly clear.”

“Yeah…,” said Winnie. Victoria obviously hadn’t. Whatever had come up had clearly been important. If Winnie were allowed, she would check Victoria to no doubt find her involved with some frantic situation. “It must be tough being her daughter. I wish I could help.” After weighing the idea, Winnie placed her hand on Helena’s shoulder.

Helena leaned into her until Winnie found herself hugging Helena. Helena sniffled. She leaned to fetch the Vodka bottle. It’s emptiness was another woe for her.

“Do you want to go steal some more?” Winnie asked. Against her orders, she checked the route to the restaurant on floor fifty. “It looks like nobody would stop us. Whatever’s going on has all the guards busy.”

“No, I don’t want to go downstairs.” She said despondently, but then her head lifted. “Let’s go upstairs instead.”

“To your mom’s suite?”

“To her office. I happen to know she keeps some gin in her desk. It’s her favorite bottle.”

“Your mom drinks?”

“A lot. Let’s do this. You know, since she’s so busy.”

Helena got up with surprising energy.

Winnie had little choice but to follow.


“…Wow,” Bishop said. Victoria had forgotten he was still on the line, watching the same feed as her, but her sentiment was the same.

That was fascinating. She wished she could rewind the surveillance footage to watch again. That man had deflected every single flechette. And here she was thinking his power was some nonsense about card playing or statistically significant luck, but if his power was that blatant… Good heavens, the things he should be able to do.

The sentinel might have failed, but learning that might have made it worthwhile. Josephine would soon discover that the armory was locked away. And that’s not to say that the sentinel was for nothing. It wounded Josephine. The Nigerian family wasn’t bothering to treat her wounds, but rather hoisting her along. Her head rocked from side to side, and when they found the armory locked, Josephine hardly reacted. She was barely conscious.

“Admiral,” she said.

Admiral Medina got back on the line. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I think it’s time to get your marines ready. The woman who was shot is the one who can erase memories. If she passes out, I want your men there.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re apprehending them, not hurting them. For her, all they need to do is put a bag over her head. If she can’t see someone, she can’t affect their mind. And I want the medical bay to prepare for her, because I will not have her die.

“Yes, ma’am.”

On screen, the fugitives talked with one another. The surveillance had no audio. The urge to project her mind to right where they were was tantalizing, but impossible so long as Naema was there. The group turned to leave when Josephine halfheartedly pointed toward a supply locker. They carried here there and put her down. The others searched inside. The camera couldn’t see, but they took something. Naema showed it to Josephine, and Josephine nodded. Was it a crate? A case? Victoria couldn’t tell. Whatever it was, Tan tucked it into his pack before she could get a good look at it. The group headed off once again.

“What was that, Admiral? What did they take?”

“We don’t know, ma’am, but that was an equipment hold. Cleaning supplies and such.”

“They’re not going to clean the deck, Admiral. As soon as they’re out of there, have somebody find out what’s missing.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Victoria watched on…


The way Naema and her mother finally settled on carrying Josephine was between them. While her mother held Josephine’s shoulders, Naema held her by her thighs so her bleeding calfs were elevated above Josephine’s head. It was awkward, but in order for their plan to work, they had to act now before the Lakirans realized what they were up to.

There were other soldiers’ about now, which made encountering another sentinel unlikely, yet Tan peeked about each corner as they went.

Unfortunately, soldiers kept interfering, most trying to help. They argued with Tan that they were going the wrong direction for the medical bay. It wouldn’t be a problem, except that Josephine was having a harder time staying focused enough to wipe their memories.

Their trek through the corridors was blending together for her. Her collar was wet with sweat. Her head ached more and more. Each minute she noted more symptoms. By now, she could hardly close her fists. Her breath was coming out in huffs, as though her lungs were going limp to push out the air, and she was certain she would vomit soon.

They arrived back at the door leading up the bridge spire. Naema and her mother set Josephine down and her mother tended to her wounds. Using torn strips from Josephine’s ruined uniform, she created gauze and applied pressure.

Tan glanced around for cameras, then set up the tool they’d taken next to the wall beside the door. It was an inner wall—likely steel or aluminum. Perhaps he’d ruin some drill bits, but oh well.

Tan got to work. The screech of tearing metal was deafening. Hopefully this would be quick.


Victoria’s mind had been visualizing the bridge, and the drilling was reverberating up from several floors below. She’d had to watch as the executive officer informed the Admiral, and the Admiral to finally put his earpiece back in before she could speak to him.

“They took a power drill, ma’am,” said Admiral Medina.

“Then send someone downstairs right now and get everyone away from that door.”

Even after her command, he hesitated, as though he hadn’t yet realized the intruders’ amazingly obvious plan. He finally issued the order, but not before wasting time to say, “Yes, ma’am.”


The Admiral sent down Lieutenant Harris, a soldier who’d happened to be in the bridge when the spire locked down. From the bridge floor, he had to descend past the Admiral’s bridge, the strike room, the air operations room, a VIP deck, and the first wardroom to finally reach the staging floor of the operations spire. With each passing floor, the reverberating screech of the power tool grew louder.

On the staging floor, two guards were posted by the door. He could hardly hear himself think with the noise.

He approached the men. “Orders from the Admiral,” he yelled. “You’re to come upstairs immediately.”

“What, sir?”

“Come upstairs.”

“We’re on post.”

“What? No. Admiral’s calling you off. He wants you out of this room.” He gestured for them to follow him.

They motioned that they couldn’t hear him. “Sorry, sir. We can’t leave,” the other said. “Captain wants us to guard this door. No one passes.”

“The admiral is calling you up. Hurry your asses.”

“The admiral?”

“What?”

“What about the admiral?”

To Lieutenant Harris’s profound relief. The drilling stopped.

“The admiral is ordering you out of this room. Now move, soldiers.”

This time, they nodded and followed.

“Wait a moment,” someone said. “Don’t leave just yet.”

Harris glanced around for the voice. It sounded like a woman who was out of breath.

“Come back here,” she said.

Harris hesitated, as did the other guards. They were just going somewhere, but now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure where. Like walking into a room to fetch something and forgetting what it was.

“Who’s speaking?” he asked.

“I am,” the voice said. He looked, but did not see the small hole next to the door. It was no thicker than a pencil. “I’m… Captain Janice, and I need you to open the door.”

“The spire main door?”

“That one, yes.”

It was indeed closed, as was the side door by the auxiliary ladderwell. He knew they were closed, sealed too. But for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why.

38. The Gargoyle

Of course the door would be sealed, Josephine thought.

She and the others had headed straight toward the bridge as soon as they’d discovered the lockdown, but they’d only gotten as far as the door leading to the spire stairwell. All alternate doors were likewise sealed. When she waved their stolen card over the reader, it beeped angrily and a flashed a tiny red light.

“Is the card bad?” Naema asked.

“I think every card is going to be bad,” Josephine replied. She took a stairwell leading up to the top deck. All around her, spires rose like skyscrapers, but the one she was wanted into was the one right next to her. The admiral’s perch was near the top, but they couldn’t possibly climb the spire’s smooth steel surface.

“So what now?” Naema looked at her, eyes earnest, as did Naema’s mother and brother. Tan watched her flatly.

“I’m not sure,” Josephine said. “But we have to get into that bridge. Unless someone has some other idea.”

Everyone looked around.

Tan motioned behind himself as though he had something on his back. “We jump.” He moved as though ripping something off his chest.

Parachutes?” Josephine asked.

He shrugged. “It work.”

“We’re not far enough off the ground.”

Oni spoke. “It could still work. It’s called base jumping. We do it.”

“I am not jumping,” said Naema’s mother. She faced Josephine. “You have powers. You can use them, no?”

“I do, but I need to see my target.”

Naema pointed up the spire. “Look. There are windows.” Small hatches lined the bridge spire. “If you can look in those, you can make them forget to keep the door closed.”

“How am I supposed to get up there.”

Naema pointed to a spire across from the bridge. “We go up there and you look across.”

Josephine looked. None of the other spires were as tall as the bridge spire, but some came close. The distance between them made a wide enough gap for planes to fly though. The top deck had once been a runway before the Lakiran Air Force retired all non grid-compatible planes.

Even if Josephine could see in the spire windows through the bright blue sky reflecting off the pane, she’d be looking through two small hatch windows hundreds of feet apart. She could maybe spot one or two people before the crew caught on.

But the idea wasn’t meritless.

“It won’t work,” Josephine said, “but I think I know what will. Come on.”

“Where?” Tan asked.

“To wherever they keep guns.”


“I see them,” Bishop said.

“Which screen?” Victoria asked.

“Camera F-4C.”

Victoria tabbed through the list. That camera was in Fore Sector, Deck 4. They were headed down into the ship, and they clearly had a goal. This was near an auxiliary bay for shipping and supplies. Civilians were never allowed down there. The surveillance was because of the nature of what the citadel stored down there.

“Admiral? Do you see them?”

A click indicated Admiral Medina’s return. “Yes, Your Majesty. We see them. We think they’re heading toward the armory.”

“We can’t have them access the explosives. Have your men set up a sentinel on the armory main room and get out of there.”

“Yes, ma’am. They’re already doing that.”

“And if they can fully lock down any armaments, have them do so.”

“Yes, ma’am. Already done.”

“Good.”

Over the comm, the admiral was issuing orders that Victoria could barely hear. She was projecting her mind into the bridge when it occurred to her that she might be micromanaging the situation. The admiral and his men had more combat experience than her, and he understood the risks now. Should she back off?

Victoria chuckled.

She should. She wouldn’t.


The armory was simple to track down. The Air Force personnel around them didn’t seem to know there were intruders aboard. So even while the bridge was no doubt trying to figure how to capture Josephine, she was still able to stop others and ask for directions.

However, the crowd got thinner the closer they got to the armory. They were in the aft sector of this ship now, four floors below. This section was the general coming and going for supplies on and off the citadel—always busy, but each passing corridor was more deserted.

When they passed an empty mess hall with trays still covering the tables, Josephine knew the crew was up to something.

It could be a trap, but whatever the trap was, it couldn’t be lethal. The queen would not take a chance with killing her; she was certain of that. And every minute she hesitated was another minute the Lakirans had to put their own plans into action. If there was a trap, she’d deal with it.

The moment they rounded the corner to the armory, she regretted that choice.

She saw it. Even as she skidded to jump out of the way she knew it was too late. The machine had already spun its barrel toward her. She yelled to the others to get back. Then there was a click. It felt as though someone tugged at her pant leg. Her momentum carried her forward another step, bringing her weight down on that foot. That’s when the pain registered. Another click, and something tugged her other pant leg. She had already been shifting her weight onto it to ease the first pain. Now neither foot supported her weight. She hit the ground hard. Agony blossomed in both legs.

“Josephine!” Naema yelled.

Even in her pain, Josephine yelled, “Don’t come. Stay back.” She heard the other’s scuttling behind her. From the corner of her eye, it looked as though Tan had yanked Naema back, but she didn’t dare turn to confirm. Before Josephine was a sentinel drone. It hovered at shoulder height. Like wall bots, it was mostly spherical except for a few bulges, such as the three nodes along the bottom it used to remotely mount itself to the ground. Unlike wall bots, one end had a thin barrel pointing out which was trained on Josephine.

The Lakirans used to deploy these things in abandoned towns and other such restricted areas where they couldn’t afford manpower to patrol. Locals often had their own names for these devices: devil eyes, death eyes, gargoyles. People who stumble into one of these usually never knew what killed them. If they were lucky, the sentinels were calibrated to give a warning message first: get on the ground now or some such. People who didn’t comply were either dead or phenomenally lucky. These things didn’t miss.

This one had struck both her legs, shots to maim. Blood was soaking into her pant legs. In each calf, there would be a triangular hole where the flechettes had torn into her.

“Are you okay?” Naema asked. Josephine still didn’t turn. Motion set these things off. Or so she’d heard.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll live.” That was the idea, but, Lord, this pain was blinding. It creeped up her legs, filling her body. In her century and a half of life, she’d never been shot before. Were all gunshots this bad?

“Just stay back,” she said. “Don’t let it see you.”

“What do we do? We have to get you out of there.”

“No,” replied Josephine. “It’ll shoot you too.” Ever so slowly, she turned to look at them. They were crowded around the corner from the sentinel. Tan had moved in front of them to keep anyone from getting past him.

“We can’t leave you there,” Naema said. “We’ll find a rope.”

“No good,” Josephine said. It wasn’t that it would shoot the rope. It was that it would shoot her again if she started sliding along the ground, and she had two more limbs it could maim.

Though Josephine and Tan did have a prearranged plan.

“Tan…” Josephine looked at him. He gave her a flat look, knowing exactly what she wanted from him. He’d come on this trip because she’d forced him, and now she was asking him to go above and beyond. It would take months to make this up to him.

“We have to,” she said. “None of you can get me out of here. If we all stay, then we get caught. If you leave me, then they’ve separated us.”

“New plan,” he said. “We pull you out. You get shot more, but you live.”

He looked like he meant it.

“Tan, we still need to get into the armory. We can’t move past that sentinel unless you do it. I’m sorry, Tan. I know. I’m sorry, but you have to, or we lose.”

His response was long coming. He finally reached into his jacket—not for his gun, but for his cigarettes. As he smoked, Naema and the others grew anxious, but Josephine didn’t rush him. Even though she lay there bleeding, cigarettes come before stress.

When the cigarette was half done, he acted. From his pack, he brought out two pairs of steel nunchucks. After several preparatory breaths, he crouched low and stepped around the corner. Immediately, he started swinging the nunchucks before him with wild abandon. His cigarette was pursed between his lips. His head was leaned away. His eyes were squinted as though he were facing down a wind tunnel.

The sentinel spun and fired at him, three shots per second, each directed at one limb or another. Every single shot deflected off the flailing nunchucks.

Only once had Tan done this before, and that was against a soldier, not a perfectly aimed turret, but he and Josephine had practiced. Because of how radically the slight movements in his wrists translated to the spinning nunchucks, it gave his power plenty of room to work its magic. The nunchucks worked even better than a shield, so long as he didn’t think hard about how he was flailing them.

Step by step, Tan crept closer to the sentinel. His nunchucks spun haphazardly. Sometimes they tangled with each other. Sometimes Tan struck himself, but so far, he’d knocked every flechette away. They littered the floor.

Next to the sentinel now, Tan narrowed his flailing toward its general location. One nunchuck struck its spherical body. It physically shifted as though its invisible mounts bent. Another strike hit its underside. The shift upward was much more pronounced. Its repulsers could not pull it back toward the ground. A final strike landed across the barrel, denting it. It shot one more time. The flechette didn’t escape the end. Sensing the backfire, the sentinel emitted a low tone, and was still. Somewhere in the world, an email inbox just received an automated damage report.

“Okay, okay. Help me!” Josephine waved at the others. They rushed out and lifted her up. From the calf and down, her uniform pants were bloody. Just the act of lifting her to a seated position caused excruciating pain.

“Get me up,” she panted.

“You are bleeding bad,” Naema’s mother said. “You can’t move.”

“I’m sure not staying here. We’ll take care of me later.”

Between Naema and her mother, they hoisted her up. She cried out. For a moment, all the sounds in the room seemed like they were coming from far away. Her vision faded from the corners of her eyes inward. Someone was talking. It took her a moment to realize they were talking to her.

“You with us?”

“Yeah. Let’s keep moving. Take me to the armory.”

They carried her along. The door to the armory wasn’t far. It was closed. Tan tried the stolen card. Angry beeps.

Of course, she thought. If they had the foresight to know she was coming here, they’d have the foresight to seal the doors. This room was just as inaccessible as the bridge.

This trip was for nothing.

37. Strategies

Fortunately for Josephine, Naema knew exactly where her family was. When they reached the right detention center, Naema sprinted ahead while Josephine frantically wiped memories.

“Mama?” Naema pressed against the bars.

“Girl?” Naema’s mother looked up from a crowd of closely packed prisoners. Behind her, a young boy got up from where he slept. Josephine had seen the child briefly in Naema’s tent.

“Mama, come. We’re leaving.”

The woman approached Naema. She eyed Josephine warily. “What are you saying?”

“We’re escaping,” Naema whispered. She looked to Josephine. “Do you have the keys?”

“Hold on.” Josephine said. “Look away a moment.” The other detainees were perking up. She cleansed their minds of whatever they’d heard, and they all lost interest. Only two people were going to be leaving this cell, but for a moment, Josephine imagined what would happen if she let everyone out. It would be chaos. No one would know where to go, and when the soldiers arrived, people would get hurt. It was a foolish idea, but Josephine couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if she could help them all. How many powers would she need on her side in order to stand up to the Lakirans instead of hiding from them?

She opened the cage. Two people exited. She sealed it closed. “Let’s go,” she said.

Together, they hurried to the launch bay. Naema hurriedly explained everything to her family as they went, including Josephine’s and her own power. While her mother understandably looked bewildered, she didn’t argue. She and Oni simply followed.

When they reached the nearest launch bay, something was different. The technicians weren’t preparing for incoming ships. Men weren’t loading or unloading supply shuttles. Instead people were gathered in conversational clumps as though everyone had decided to take a smoke break at once. Tan noticed this too. He made a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl.

Josephine tried taking the group to a grid-ready shuttle anyway. A cadet ran up with his arm extended.

“Hold up,” he yelled.

“We’re scheduled to leave,” Josephine said. She didn’t erase his memory quite yet, since she suspected what he was about to tell her.

“Hope it wasn’t important. The citadel is on partial lockdown. Nobody is coming or going until the higher ups give the all clear.”


The moment the shuttle touched down, Victoria strode out. Soldiers were waiting at attention for her. As she passed, they followed. One reached in the shuttle and fetched Willow. As a procession, they marched off, leaving Winnie and Helena behind. The fanfare was over.

“Bye, mom,” Helena said, long after Victoria could have heard her. Then, under her breath, “God, I hate her.”

The window to the cockpit opened. Melanie looked in. “Shall we return to the charity, Your Highness? I’m certain you’d still have time to make an appearance.”

Helena sniffed and wiped her eyes in an attempt to regain composure. “No. It would be over by the time we showed up. People would be leaving.”

“Are you sure? I’m sure if we call them, they’d keep the bidding going until you arrived.”

“What’s the fucking point? My speech was supposed to start the bidding off. It won’t even make sense if I give it at the end.”

“We’ll have time to rework the speech. I know the benefactors would love to see a royal presence.”

“They can go to hell,” Helena snapped. “I said I don’t want to do it anymore. Will you go away?”

Melanie nodded. The window closed.

After they heard Melanie exit through the pilot door and walk off, Helena finally broke down.

She cried as though there were no one there to see. Winnie sat beside her, still as a deer. She too was disappointed with missing the charity. Though unlike Helena, she at least had the benefit of seeing the results of their hard work. She’d finally found the auditorium in her head. Everything was proceeding just as planned, minus any royal presence. The decorations looked great. The staff and planners wore the outfits Winnie had designed. The style had certainly come together well. Guests chattered as dinner rounded up, and the auction had already gotten underway. Soon the staff would clear the floor for the dance.

Winnie decided it would be better to tell Helena tomorrow that all her planning wasn’t for naught. The sting of missing out would be less.

“I hate her so fucking much.” Helena’s voice was ragged.

Winnie could no longer pretend she wasn’t there. “Yeah. This really sucks. Do you want me to leave?”

Helena’s response was long coming. “No. Stay.”


“It’s confirmed,” Bishop said. “They broke the girl out.”

“Mmhmm.” Victoria had just taken her seat in the communications room of the Capital Tower. She’d commandeered the desk of Captain Gandara, the head of security in the Tower. Now she was finally ready to deal with this crisis.

Before her were several monitors which already tracked the situation aboard the HIMS Orinoco. She was within speaking distance of several officers in contact with the military around the world. And resting beside her in a cage was Willow, resting peacefully on her perch with a hood over her head. Her beak rested upon her breast. Victoria considered having someone carry Willow back up to her room, but her presence provided comfort Victoria appreciated right now.

Before her was the image that had tripped the silent alert. It showed Josephine and the other one in the corridor outside the Orinoco’s brig. They both wore military uniforms, including the cap, but the camera had gotten a good enough look at her for facial recognition software to pick her up.

And it was always her that the cameras caught. Never him. Tan, if Victoria recalled. Even in this image, he was looking to his left, conveniently obscuring his face from the camera. Every image was like that. From what little she and the high exemplars had determined of his powers, he might not be aware he was doing it.

Fortunately, Josephine was not as lucky.

“What are they doing now?” Victoria asked into the phone.

Bishop replied. “Looks like they made a stop in the detention center to break a few people out,” Bishop replied. “Probably the girl’s family.”

“Can you confirm that?”

“Trying to. They were never processed. No photos. Names are Zauna and Oni Madaki. Looking at the footage, they match the descriptions. I’m certain it’s the girl’s family. Do you have the security feed yet?”

Victoria looked over the grid of windows on one of her screens. “Yes, but I’m not seeing them anywhere.”

“That’s because they’re in Starboard Hangar, Deck One. There’s no camera in there.”

“They’re not escaping, are they?”

“No. Lockdown. No one is coming or going.”

“Is there any way for them to get out?”

“I talked to the XO. According to him, bay doors are closed. Unless they jump off the top deck, there’s no way off.”

“XO? Who’s the Commanding officer? It’s Medina something, right?”

“Admiral Nelson Medina, yes.”

“Why are you talking to his XO?”

“Medina wasn’t on the bridge when I called. He should be now.”

Victoria motioned to an officer near her. In a quick exchange, she ordered the man to get Medina on the same line. As he worked, she considered what to say. There were intruders aboard his ship, and he would have no idea how much of a threat they posed. Sharing information about their flairs would be more than she’d told anyone else in the military. In theory, if Victoria succeeded in capturing Josephine, it wouldn’t matter.

Briefly, she daydreamed about her reign once she would have the ability to prune memories. So many complications would vanish. Until now, Victoria had counted on Winnie being the key to catching Josephine, but that Naema girl complicated matters.

If Josephine escaped that ship, finding her would become even more impossible. Josephine would never leave Naema’s side.

“Bishop, Stay on the line while I talk with Medina. Bishop?”

There was a clatter on his end as he hastily put back on a headset. “I’m here. I’ll be on the line.”

“Are you still in the air? How close are you to the Orinoco?”

“A couple hours.”

“Are any other high exemplars in the area?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ll check.”

Victoria flapped her hand, even though no one could see. “No. Don’t bother. Not with that blasted girl.”

“We don’t know yet whether she’ll break our shields. She might not.”

“She will.” Victoria had never met the girl, but she had a good sense of her flair already.

There was a click on the line. “This is Admiral Medina.”

“Admiral, this is your queen. You have intruders aboard your citadel—very unusual, very dangerous intruders.”

“So I’ve heard, Your Majesty. The ship is in partial lockdown. Our marines are suiting up now.”

“Have them stand down.”

“Your Majesty?”

“They’ll be no use to you. No one can come near these intruders. You need to seal the doors to the bridge spire right now. Under no circumstances can anyone be allowed to enter. If any of your men come within visual range of the targets, they will be rendered useless.”

“I see. Hold on, ma’am.”

He barked orders in the background.

“The doors are being sealed now, ma’am.”

“Good. They must stay sealed until this situation is resolved.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now listen to me carefully. I’m going to tell you what you need to know about your intruders. It will sound unbelievable, but it will be the truth. I am also telling you this under the strictest confidence.”

“Understood.”

She described Josephine’s abilities, as well as what she knew of Tan’s and Naema’s. Though she did glaze over the technicals of how exactly they had such abilities. Admiral Medina never questioned her claims.

“So now you understand,” she finally said, “why it will be so difficult to capture this group.”

“I do.” The statement was simple and impossible to read. Victoria had her mind projected into the bridge room at the time, but even his expression was unreadable. She wished she could read his aura through Winnie’s power. As it was, she couldn’t tell whether the Admiral believed her without question, or whether he wondered if this was some elaborate lie. Either way, Victoria needed to capture Josephine today. This knowledge would eventually lead him to dangerous questions. He’d need to forget after this was done.

“If these people are as dangerous as you say,” the Admiral asked, “is it worth the risk of capturing them alive?”

She nearly answered yes, but paused. Did she need all of them alive? Naema’s family was of no use to her. Of course killing them would make controlling the girl difficult. If her family were alive, offering them hospitality might still sway them over, although Victoria doubted if Naema would be as simple to coerce as Winnie was. In that carrot and stick routine, the stick never had to come out for Winnie. Winnie only suspected a stick might even exist. This Naema girl wouldn’t be so naive. Her family would be crucial for her cooperation.

Then another thought occurred. Why bother with Naema at all? What could her power possibly be useful for if it broke glyphs? Maybe it couldn’t even be made into a glyph. In which case, her power was only useful for being used against Victoria. Josephine was the one she really wanted. If she had Naema killed, capturing Josephine would be simpler.

“Ma’am?”

“Yes. We must capture them all alive.” Let’s not do anything irreversible. Not yet. “This means you cannot have anyone approach them directly. What kind of remote equipment do you have on board? Do you have wall bots?”

“No ma’am. We deploy those from orbiters.”

“Are there any nearby?”

“Are you suggesting we deploy wall bots into the citadel?”

“Surely that can be done, can’t it. Don’t we deploy wall bots inside buildings?”

“No ma’am. Their fields cause structural damage.”

“But that’s only if their fields intersect with walls. Actually, I remember years ago we used wall bots to lock down buildings.”

“Those were the earlier models, ma’am. They can’t be deployed remotely, we’d have to manually set them up.”

“That’s fine. We have time.”

“No, ma’am. I mean the orbitals won’t have them stocked for that reason. I’ll have my men see if we still have some in any military stockpiles nearby, but it’ll take time.”

“I don’t care if we have to ship them across the globe. Get them there.”

“Understood.” There was a pause before he came back.

“There’s something else we might try in the meantime, ma’am. We have sentinel drones onboard.”

“No good,” Victoria said. “Those are lethal.”

“They don’t have to be, ma’am.”

36. Cameras

The door to the brig was locked, and it wasn’t a tumbler lock that Tan could aptly bypass. There was a keycard reader. Authorized personnel only.

“You know what this means?” Josephine asked.

“We go home?” Tan asked hopefully.

“We steal a card.”

To his credit, he didn’t look too disappointed. Together, he and Josephine wandered around the citadel like a pair of tourists. Without knowing who would have access, they aimed for as high a rank as they could find. After proceeding up several floors into the more spacious decks beneath the spires, they found a major walking down a hall while discussing with a lower ranking officer. Tan passed, bumped into him, apologized and kept going. Picking pockets came naturally to him. His power smoothed his hand’s movements.

If the major noticed his card was missing, he would not remember this encounter.

Back at the door. Josephine waved the card, and the door opened. The first area inside was a security control room. A long desk with rows of monitors bisected the area. Behind it were three men. One guard sat at the desk, and behind him were two men at a table: another guard and an exemplar.

The guard at the desk looked at Josephine attentively. “How can I help you, sir.”

Behind him, the exemplar’s eyes widened.

“Alarm!” he yelled. He lunged toward the security desk, arm outstretched.

Josephine yanked anything he might know about her, but he was already in motion. Even if he didn’t know why he was scrabbling for the panic button, he was still doing so.

Tan,” Josephine yelled.

Tan was already moving. From his uniform, he drew a revolver—an old piece which worked with bullets and gunpowder. Tan insisted on bringing it, even if such antiquated tech immediately marked him as an impostor. Josephine moved to stop him. Besides the noise, no one was supposed to get hurt.

But Tan didn’t aim the gun. He tossed it. It struck the exemplar square on the forehead.

The exemplar yelled, staggered, and clutched his head. The crisis was averted, but Tan wasn’t done. Charging, he leapt over the desk with all the grace of a drunk man cannonballing into a swimming pool. Somehow, it worked. His foot connected with the exemplar’s chin. His fist struck the guard at the desk. Together, they all fell backward toward the table, toppling into the last guard. In one move, Tan floored them all.

He stood. Around him, the others groaned and rolled. He looked so proud of himself that Josephine decided to omit how unnecessary it was. Hitting the exemplar once was enough, but Tan’s power worked better the less he thought about it. His amateur flailing left plenty of room for his unconscious movement. Josephine sometimes pondered whether he’d actually become a worse fighter if he trained professionally. Possibly, but at least he’d look like less of an idiot.

“Good work,” Josephine hopped the desk. “Are you all okay.”

“What the hell?” One guard got to his feet and looked around. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over.”

“Huh?” said the other guard.

The exemplar was still in too much pain to pay attention. His plaque had tumbled off the table. Josephine snatched it up. That got his attention. Confused as he was, no one touches an exemplar’s plaque. He lunged. She darted out of the way and wiped his memory again.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You lent it to me.”

“What?” He looked, lunged again. Another dodge.

“You told me I could hold this.” Another mind wipe. After enough times, he’ll be left with the impression that it might be true, at least long enough that his knee jerk reaction would settle down.

That was until she realized she wasn’t sensing his aura, or anyone’s. She examined the plaque. The green light was on, meaning it should be working, but nothing. She turned and addressed a guard. “Look at me.”

Rubbing his chin, the guard did. There was no stream of thought in her head besides her own.

“She was here,” Josephine told Tan. “The plaque is broken.” A shame really. Having a plaque would be crucial right now, even if it meant dragging along the exemplar. She learned long ago that the awareness granted to her by Empathy was enough for her to pull memories. Line of vision not required.

“Who was here?” the exemplar asked. “Are you talking about the thief girl?”

Josephine faced him. “Yes. The thief girl. Where is she?”

“Who are you again?”

Josephine thrust his broken plaque into his hands and blanked his memory. Time to start over. “Are you okay?” She helped him up.

“I… I think so.” He rubbed his chin. “What just happened?”

“You all fell over. It was a stooge act.”

“Did we?” The exemplar looked at the other guards. They looked equally perplexed.

“I don’t think so…” one said.

“Here,” said Josephine. “Everybody sit down.”

They corrected chairs and fetched fallen items. All evidence of the tumble was gone. Josephine cleared their minds again.

“Exemplar?” she said, as though expecting something from him.

“What?”

“You were telling me about the thief girl.”

“I was?” He rubbed his temple where the gun had stuck him. His jaw worked left to right as though it felt loose.

“Yes. Please go on.”

“Uh… where did I leave off?”

“You were telling where she is.”

He pointed to the row of monitors on the security desk. “We’re keeping her in interview room three until the queen’s escort team gets here.”

Josephine looked at the screens. Among a grid of tiny camera feeds, one showed Naema in a plain white room. She sat across from nobody. If the queen had sent an escort team, then the Lakirans must have known exactly what she was capable of. In just a few hours, they would have taken her away, and then she might as well have been in a different world for all the good Josephine could have done for her.

“Tan, you want to get her?” she asked.

Thankfully, he didn’t argue. Holstering his weapon, he yanked a security card off a guard, who protested, but only for a second before suffering a lapse in memory. Tan disappeared down the hall. Josephine watched through the camera.

Naema looked up. She must have heard someone stop before the door. It opened. When she saw who it was, she startled to her feet. Tan gestured from the door. Come on, his motion said. Naema didn’t move, and he gestured again more impatiently. She reached over the table toward him. Her palms wobbled against an invisible force which kept her from falling any further forward. I can’t, her response seemed to be, you’re at the wrong door.

Tan gave the most elaborate gesture of exasperation. Shutting the door, he moved to the next. When he opened it, Naema rushed to hug him. He tolerated that for a moment before decoupling and pulling her along.

While waiting, Josephine worked on the minds of the people here. She couldn’t remove every trace of Naema. A lot of what happened between Naema and her captors had nothing to do with Josephine, no matter how much Josephine tried to convince herself. Hopefully they were befuddled enough to lay off any alarms until Josephine got the others out of here.

Naema and Tan appeared. Naema broke from Tan and hugged Josephine exuberantly. She was crying.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Josephine said.

“My family,” Naema said. “They have my mama and brother. We have to get them.”

Behind her, Tan drooped his head.

“Do you know where they are?” Josephine asked.

“In the big cells with everybody else.”

The detainment center. Josephine didn’t recall seeing Naema’s mother, but then she hadn’t been looking. Obviously the Lakirans must have them if they raided Naema’s home. Josephine had been too preoccupied with Naema to think about them, or about the hundreds of detainees the Lakiran’s might be shipping off to indefinite imprisonment. Naema was the only one with powers that could help Josephine.

Once again, she thought about Sakhr.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll save them.”

She led them from the brig back toward the detention center, passing once again beneath a security camera which both she and Tan had failed to notice.


The sun took a while to set this evening since the imperial shuttle had been chasing it over two time zones. They were over the Gulf of Mexico by the time it finally ducked behind the horizon. Now the world outside the windows was pitch black. Since the shuttle had a built-in repulse field nullifying turbulence in the cabin, Winnie wouldn’t even know they were moving if not for her mind showing her the little shuttle soaring along like a dot in a void.

Helena whispered her speech to herself while Victoria worked on her tablet. Winnie passed the time with her visualizations. The shuttle was nearly to Cuba, judging from her satellite-eye view. Far ahead, dots of light marked the start of the coast. Cuba a small province compared to the others in the empire, with a minuscule population, but Winnie still hadn’t located the Starlight Auditorium. 

A light tap came on the divider leading to the cockpit. It rolled down to reveal Madeline. “Your Majesty, a priority alert just came in.”

She handed a phone to Victoria.

After the queen scrolled through the messages, she looked to Melanie. “Reverse course. I need to return to the tower.”

“What? No.” Helena sat up. “We can’t go back. We’re almost there.”

“We must. This is an emergency. Melanie, turn us around.”

“No. You can’t. You can’t back out now. You promised you’d come.”

Victoria ignored her. “Inform Intermil to connect the control room at the tower with the Orinoco as soon as possible.”

“The Orinoco?” asked Helena.

Again, Victoria talked over her. “And keep me posted on any more messages coming in from Admiral…” She glanced at the phone. “…Medina. No. Call him. I want to talk to him.”

“Understood,” said Melanie.

Victoria pressed a button to raise the divider, but half way. “Oh. And Bishop. Get him on the line. No. Never mind. I’ll call him. Is this phone secure?” She held up the phone bearing the message. Melanie nodded.

“Good.” Victoria closed the divider.

“What’s going on?” asked Helena. “Is there a rebellion?”

“No.”

“What is it, then?”

Victoria tapped through the phone. “It’s classified.”

Helena erupted. “Classified? What the hell, mom? What could be so important that you have to put this off? We’ve had this planned for months. You can’t just bail out now.”

Victoria held up a silencing finger as she spoke into the phone. “Bishop? This is Victoria. Where are you?… It’s Josephine… Yes… The Orinoco?… Yes, she has… Is it nighttime there? What time is it in Nigeria?… Then yes, do it now. You’ll have clearance before you land…Right… I’m headed back now… No. Just keep your phone near you… Very good.” She hung up.

“The Orinoco?” Helena said. “The citadel? What the hell is so important in Nigeria?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“This is bullshit, mom.”

“Watch your language.” Victoria words were an automatic response. Her attention was on her phone.

“I’m supposed to host the charity.”

“As soon as we drop me off at the tower, you can head straight back.”

“That will take hours. We’re already late.”

“Then cancel it.”

“The charity? Of course we can’t cancel it. I’ve been planning this for months. It was your stupid, fucking idea. We have to go.”

“Then we call the auditorium and tell them you’ll be late. I do this all the time. They’ll understand.”

“No they won’t. We’ll be hours late.”

Victoria’s attention was on a message she was typing.

“Why don’t we just go to the charity first,” Helena said. “We’re only twenty minutes away. You’d still have to fly for hours, anyway. It’s not going to make a difference for you.”

“No.”

“Are you trying to ruin this for me? Because you’ve won. The whole charity is ruined. People will be going home by the time I arrive, and nobody is going to donate any money if neither of us are there.”

Victoria breathed sharply through her nostrils. Her patience was running low, though her focus remained adamantly fixed on the phone. “I’m not trying to ruin anything,” she said “An emergency has come up. I had no control over this. If you want to make a fuss and let it ruin the charity for you, then go ahead. I can’t stop you.”

“I’m not ruining anything. You are. You never wanted to do this in the first place. Admit it. You don’t care at all about this charity. Do you? Do you even care about how what this event meant to me, about how much time I put into preparing it?”

The shuttle phone mounted beside Victoria rang. Before answering, Victoria looked at her daughter. “Frankly, Helena, your right. I don’t care.”

She then answered the phone.

35. Shuttles and Hoppers

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“How do I look?” Helena asked. She twirled before the mirror. Her green dress flared outward, expanding to show a gradient of blues hidden within. When she stopped, the colors folded out of view. Winnie thought of it as a blooming flower, not that she’d tell Helena that. It would only turn her off the dress.

“You look amazing,” Winnie said. “It came out just the way I imagined.”

Helena practiced her come-hither look in the mirror while running her finger along her bare shoulder. “My mom has never dressed this well, has she? She always in those pantsuits or those god-awful gowns. People will notice this.”

“How could they not?” Winnie checked the time. “It’s eight o’clock. Should we head up?”

“As soon as my mom is ready. Are you?”

“I am.” Winnie checked herself over. Winnie’s dress used the same color scheme as Helena’s, only to a lesser extent. She knew better than to wear anything that might compare to Helena. It wasn’t much different than what the charity staff would be wearing, which in turn, complimented the decor they’d selected for the Starlight auditorium.

“Maybe we should head up anyway,” Winnie said. “We’re already late.”

Helena turned to her. “First of all, no. We are never late. The fundraiser is not going to start when neither I or my mom aren’t there, so how could we ever be late? We could show up tomorrow and everyone would still be be waiting for us. Secondly, we’re not moving until my mom is ready, and she will be late. She’s always at least thirty minutes behind whatever her schedule says. If we go up now, we’ll just be waiting on the roof. Besides…” She tapped at her lower lip. “I feel like we’re forgetting something.”

“Your speech?” Winnie held up index cards.

“It’ll be there. I sent a copy to Madeline yesterday.”

“Do you want to rehearse it?”

“Why would I? It’ll be on the teleprompter.”

“I don’t know. Maybe so you don’t trip up? When I get nervous, I stumble over my words sometimes.”

Helena snorted. “Well, I’m not you. I don’t stumble, and I’m definitely not nervous. Everything is going to go fine, at least on my end. What else do we need to bring?”

“I think that’s it. Your dress looks beautiful. Your hair and makeup are perfect. I think Madeline is taking care of everything else.”

“Then I guess we just wait.” Helena sat beside Winnie on the bed. Winnie burned time on her tablet. Minutes passed.

“What’s taking my mother so long?” Helena said. “She is getting ready, isn’t she? She promised she’d come. You don’t think something came up, do you?”

“Wouldn’t Madeline have told us?”

“Yeah, she would. I guess… ugh.” She flopped back. “I guess she’s just taking forever.”

A light tap came from the door. Helena bolted up. “Yes?”

Madeline’s voice. “Your Highness. We’ll be departing from the roof pad. Your mother will be ready in five minutes.”

“About time,” Helena replied. “I’ll be up momentarily.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Footsteps retreated.

“Okay. Okay.” Helena’s checked her hair over. “I’m fine, right?”

“You’re fine.”

“Okay, let’s go.” She headed toward the door. Half way there, she paused. “You have the flashcards, right? You know… In case I get bored in the shuttle or something. Who knows? Maybe the teleprompter will break.”

Winnie kept her face neutral. “Sure.”


“Incoming shuttle. Identify.”

“This is tail number lima alpha four seven delta returning from Emohua relief, scheduled for an oh one twenty arrival. Submitting clearance now.”

The shuttle pilot dragged an image of his flight clearance onto a tower icon that had opened up. Beneath the icon were the words, “HMC Orinoco flight comm.”

Moments later, communications got back with him. “Acknowledged, lima alpha four seven delta. Flight plan transmitted. Switch to grid and proceed.”

The pilot pressed a button that slaved the shuttle to the local repulser grid. There was a bump. Then the ride smoothed out. The shuttle drifted through the air with flawless precision. The pilot was done piloting. Before the craft landed on the citadel, he would need to submit a manifest, but apparently he decided that could wait. He reclined in his seat and rubbed his temples.

The smoke was giving him a headache.

Twice now he’d had to reset the shuttle’s internal smoke alarm, and he kept coughing, as though hinting to his passengers that smoking was prohibited, though he couldn’t even recall that he had passengers.

Josephine and Tan had stowed away aboard the shuttle when it was making a supply run with a military depot in town, although stowing away was a strong word, since they both sat in plain view, strapped in like any passenger would be.

Whenever the pilot realized he wasn’t supposed to have company, Josephine would wipe his memory. She shouldn’t have to do it often, given their stolen uniforms. Unfortunately, Tan would not stop smoking aboard a smoke-free vessel.

He always smoked before doing anything nerve wracking, but he should have done so before the flight. No matter how many times Josephine motioned for him to put it out, he just kept right on smoking. She suspected it was his own little protest about this trip.

Rescuing Naema had been Josephine’s idea, not his. After the fighting had settled down at the market, she had looked around for Naema, but there was too much confusion. When the wall bots started locking the place down, she knew they had to leave. For hours, Josephine fretted. She just knew they’d captured her, but Tan had told her to wait, that Naema’s power would protect her. But then Josephine had gone to check Naema’s home. The Lakirans were there. Two prowlers drifted overhead while soldiers questioned neighbors. Naema’s shack had been torn down. That decided it.

“We’re going,” she’d told Tan.

“No.”

“Yes. We are.”

“Too dangerous. They catch her. They catch us too.”

“You already know what it means for us if they get her power.”

“They can’t. Her power break theirs. No good for them.”

“So you want to just leave her?”

He’d shrugged so casually that she’d wanted to sock him. “We save her if we could, but she is on Citadel now. Not safe. They will see us. High exemplars will find us. Not a chance. Will.”

“That’s not for certain.”

“Every time we go onto military base, Bishop come. Every time.”

“If it was you they caught, I’d come save you. I did once.”

This silenced him.

“You can stay if you want. I’m going,” she said. “I could use your help though. If they catch me, how long do you think you’ll last on your own?”

The look he’d given her was withering, but that had settled it. Two hours later found them aboard this shuttle. Josephine tried not to dwell on the argument. Tan should have wanted to come in the first place, but threatening to withdraw her protection like that, even implying it… that was something Sakhr would have done.

A popup appeared on the pilot’s screen. He needed to submit a manifest now. Josephine unfastened her seat, stepped to the cockpit, and reached over the pilot’s shoulder to fill it out.

“Hey!” he shouted.

“I’ll do this,” she said while clearing his memory. She filled out the form. Three passengers: the pilot and the names of the officers from whom Josephine had stolen the uniforms. The rest was cargo information. She submitted it and sat down in the copilot’s seat. Whenever the pilot started to ask her a question, she pulled from his memory. Any time he glanced back to see Tan, she performed her mental exercise.

Tan and I work toward the same goal right now. We act as one.

And she’d pull.

Pretty soon, he just accepted his mysterious crew. The grid system guided the shuttle into one of many bay doors along the citadel’s hull. Like a feather, it touched down on a landing pad. The doors opened, and soldiers gathered in to unload supplies.

Josephine and Tan walked past them. She cleared the soldiers’ memories as they went. Outside the landing was a narrow corridor. Soldiers sidled by to get around them. None paid them attention.

Tan and Josephine weren’t intruders. They were just in the way.


Her Majesty the Queen was not on the roof when Winnie and Helena arrived, but their ride was. The shuttle was Victoria’s personal hopper. It looked a giant, chrome beetle. One of its wings was up, and a red carpet led into its exposed flank. Wind whipped at Winnie and Helena’s dresses. A few service men were scouring the landing pad and all the other corners of the roof for security. Other guards waited by the door. It was all a bit much for Winnie, but she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the fanfare. Tonight, she was part of the royal procession.

She and Helena boarded the hopper.

The inside was small for a royal vehicle, but it didn’t lack for luxuries. Seats lined the walls like a limousine and it had the same accommodations. The ice compartment had fresh ice. The bar bay had chilled drinks. No sign of wear and tear. At the front was a little window showing into a cockpit. This shuttle could fly on its own. The charity was in Cuba, and while Cuba had acted as a fantastic neutral ground during the war between the empire and many North American factions, it didn’t have a repulse grid.

Helena sat in the seat near the door, where she could see anyone approaching. Madeline emerged on the roof holding a box covered with a blanket. Helena rolled her eyes and scooted to make room. Madeline loaded the item in beside them. Winnie’s quick mental glance inside revealed Willow, Victoria’s pet hawk, sleeping soundly on a perch.

“Sure,” Helena said. “Let’s bring the bird. Why not?”

“Your mother will be right up,” Madeline said. “She’s just had a quick delay.”

“Figures.”

Madeline ducked out and scurried back to the roof exit.

“Why are we bringing Willow?” Winnie asked.

“Because my mother is borderline insane, and this is not a quick delay. Where the hell is she?”

Winnie remained quiet.

Helena looked square at her. “Well?”

“What?”

“Where is she? Use your power.”

“I’m never supposed to use my power on her.”

“Oh, Christ. Don’t search her bedroom. Just check the stairwell or something. Is she coming?”

“No.” Winnie hadn’t use her power, but the absence of any commotion outside the shuttle was enough to tell.

“I wonder if she’s doing this on purpose?” Helena said. “I had to remind her about this a thousand times. It’s probably a power play. She wants me to wait.”

“She’s never on time for my tutoring sessions… except when she’s really really early.”

“Yeah, but that’s different. She sees you every week, and you’re just a flair. You’d think she’d care more about her own daughter.” Helena sighed and slumped back. “She doesn’t even want to do this.”

Winnie didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Helena didn’t look to her this time.


“What now?” Tan asked. For this trip, he was placing all the burden on Josephine. Back when they were suiting up, she’d wondered whether she’d have to tie his shoelaces for him.

“We have to find Naema,” she replied. That was obvious, but she was thinking out loud. Her prearranged plan ended here. “She’s probably wherever they keep all the other prisoners.”

How to find it? Simple.

Josephine caught the next soldier hurrying by. “Do you know where they hold the prisoners?”

He looked perplexed.

“This is my first time aboard,” she explained.

“Do you mean the detention center, ma’am?”

Josephine had forgotten she’d stolen her uniform from an off-duty captain.

“Yes, that’s what I meant.”

“It’s on Deck six in the Fore Sector.” He pointed down a corridor and issued several directions. From the sound of it, Josephine would have to walk a good ten or twenty minutes. The one part of his instructions that were clear was this: go down, and go toward the front.

She thanked him. He saluted and continued on. She yanked away his memories of the conversation.

They only got lost a few times looking for the detention center. Once they got near, it was impossible to miss. The yells echoed down the corridors. The stench wafted. The center was a hallway with an L-bend in it. Along the walls on both sides were cells, each large and filled with a dozen or so people. Despite the crowding, Josephine got the sense this was a quiet hour. The refuse covering the floors was from many more people than this.

Josephine walked up and down the hall looking at each inmate. Naema wasn’t among them.

“There might be more cells,” she said. “I think there’s another block on the other side of the ship just like this.” It was infuriating how few signs there were pointing to anything.

“She not here,” Tan said.

“Not here here, but in another cell. Come on.”

“Not in cells. If they take her family, then they know her. She not here. She will be different. Eh… separate.”

He had a good point. She felt silly for not realizing it herself. But then where was she supposed to look?

Josephine cornered another soldier.

“Is there another detention center?” she asked.

Another puzzled expression. “Sir?”

“I’m looking for a detainee. They’re not here.”

“Have you tried processing?”

“What’s that?”

“What’s processing?” he asked, as though clarifying that she was asking an obvious question.

I just transferred here.” Her words were harsher than she’d intended.

“It’s where we put civilians into the system before sending them home.”

“No. That’s not what I want. The person I’m looking for is being held, probably apart from the others.”

“Oh. Then you probably want the brig.”

The brig. Yes. That does sound like a place Lakirans would put an innocent teenaged girl.

“Where is that?” she asked.


Winnie could tell when Her Majesty Queen Victoria was about to show. Guards outside the shuttle lifted a hand to their earbuds. Their stances became rigid. Others hurried through scanning high and low for last minute threats. Some peeked into the hopper as though Helena and Winnie wouldn’t have noticed an assassin sitting with them.

“About time,” Helena said. She scooted farther into the shuttle to make room. “I bet she didn’t even try to match the color scheme we made.”

“I guess we’ll see soon.” Winnie always felt uncomfortable with Helena’s reproachful remarks toward the queen. It couldn’t be wise to talk poorly about a dictator who could read your mind.

Victoria emerged from the roof access door with Melanie at her heel. Helena was right. Victoria wore one of her own formal dresses: white blouse and a cream skirt with a matching vest. Beautiful attire, but it wouldn’t match the scheme arranged for the charity ball. She must have known; Helena reminded her endlessly, yet she chose to ignore it. Victoria may have thought Helena’s micromanaging of the scheme was childish, but even Winnie’s mother would have played along.

Victoria took the seat next to Willow. She looked her daughter up and down. Helena pretended to gaze out the window. When Victoria looked at Winnie, Winnie waved.

“Winnie,” Victoria nodded. She looked at her daughter. “Are we ready to go?”

We’ve been ready to go for a while. Just waiting on you.”

Victoria didn’t rise to it. She turned to Madeline. “Let’s go then.”

Madeline climbed into the cockpit with a pilot. A guard closed the hopper door, and they took off. The world outside the windows dropped away.

“Have you tried any of the new exercises I’ve given you?” Victoria asked. She was studying a tablet she’d brought with her, but she could only be speaking to Winnie.

“A couple,” Winnie said. “I was busy getting ready.”

“Any progress?”

“A little.”

“How so?” She looked up. Winnie stared off as though recalling. Eye contact would reveal how little “a little” was. Victoria would find out eventually, but why now?

“I was able to see in the dark without pretending there was a light,” Winnie said.

“Can you distinguish colors yet?”

“Not in the dark, no.”

“How about your point of view exercises? Can you be aware of all sides of an object?”

“Kind of.”

Victoria tilted her head. “Kind of?”

“I can see it from all sides, but it’s like I’m using a lot of cameras.”

“You could already do that.”

“Uh, yeah. I guess I mean I’m able to do it more easily now.”

“I don’t want you to do it wrong more easily. It’s a crutch. You should know what something looks like inside and out without having to look at it. Stop practicing it with your flair for now. Just try to imagine a fictional object. Practice knowing it inside and out without relying on visualizing it from different angles. Once you can do that. Then we’ll see if you’re ready to start projecting again?”

“Okay.”

“Hmm.” Victoria eyed her. “And how about locating people? Any progress on that?”

“Oh, come on,” Helena said. “Why are you doing this now? We’re going to the charity concert.”

Victoria turned her gaze to her daughter, her expression cool, but to Winnie’s surprise, she did stop. For Victoria, ruling the world came second to training flairs. This charity would fall even lower on the list. Winnie was still glad for the interruption. Otherwise the trip would become another lesson.

Helena spoke. “So I’m ready for my speech. I thought what we’d do, Mother, is enter together. For pictures. You’re not dressed in the scheme, but that’s okay. The queen should stand out. It’s supposed to be just food and drinks to start. No dancing until later. Then we give our speeches to start the auction. Madeline forgot to give me a copy of your speech, but as long as it covers—”

“I didn’t prepare one.”

“You…? Then you’re just going to say a few short words then? That’s fine. People will be tired by then, it might be—.”

“I’m not making a speech.”

“Oh. What? Oh. Are you sure? I mean, aren’t people going to expect one?”

“No.”

“But I just assumed you would. You always do. It’s on the program that you are.”

“We’ll change the program.”

Silence. Helena stared at her lap. Her jaw was clenched.

Victoria sighed and looked from her tablet. “I’m not giving a speech because this is your night, Helena. You organized it, and now you’re hosting it.”

“But it was your idea.”

“Yes. I know it was, but the audience doesn’t. The point of this charity is to build your presence. You need to stop being a nameless daughter and start being a political figure. So yes, I’m not giving a speech. You are. You’ll be meeting the guests. You’ll be posing for pictures. You’ll make connections.”

“If you don’t want to be a part of this, then why’d you even come?”

Victoria threw her hands up in exasperation. “I’m coming to support you, Helena. Nobody has any idea who you are, so I’m lending credibility to your cause, but I only plan to mingle. The world needs to see that this was your initiative. Soon you’ll have enough status to draw media attention yourself.”

“Then you won’t have to deal with me anymore.”

Victoria regarded her. “Are we going to start this now? This is your night. Let’s not ruin the mood before we’re even there.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“And Helena?”

“What?”

“You should review your speech. There won’t be a teleprompter.”

I know that. I said I reviewed my speech, didn’t I?”

“If you say so. As long as you’re sure you’re not going to make a fool of yourself.”

Winnie sat still, acting as though she hadn’t even heard the conversation, but she wondered about Victoria’s mention of the teleprompter. It’s as though Victoria had been listening in to her conversation with Helena earlier using her own power, or perhaps Victoria had seen it from her head when she’d waved at the queen just now.

Either way, it was unsettling, but there wasn’t anything to do about it.

In her lap, she held the index cards prominently. She knew better than to offer them to Helena now; that would be siding with Victoria, but Helena could easily snatch them if she wanted.

She gazed out the window. Sure enough, after a minute, Helena yanked the index cards from her hand.

34. Time for a Change

2038, June 8th
Collapse – 11 years

Alexander pressed a button on his armrest. His seat moved forward. Another button, and it reversed direction. Like all seats on the airplane, it had a staggering number of buttons available. Sakhr had also enjoyed experimenting. One set of buttons had puzzled him, until he figured out it moved a lump in the lower back of his seat. Lumbar support, he supposed. How amusing. But unlike Alex, Sakhr and the others eventually settled down and behaved like adults. Alexander was still goofing around four hours into the flight.

Alexander pressed another button and watched as his chair stretched into a fully-reclined bed. “It’s the sedan of private airplanes,” he said.

No one answered.

A flight attendant entered from behind a small curtain separating the cabin from the cockpit. “We’ll be landing in a few minutes. If everyone would please fasten their seat belts.” She stepped through the cabin, checking on Sibyl, Christof, Sakhr, and finally Alexander. “Sir, You need to return your seat to its upright position.”

He looked into her eyes and grinned. “Can we can make an exception? I think I prefer the bed to the chair.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s for safety.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s regulation.”

“Very well. I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.” He corrected his chair. The attendant smiled and moved on.

Alexander eyed her backside as she retreated to the curtain. His aura was saturated with a disgusting shade of lust. No, thought Sakhr. It was different than that. Lust was desire. This aura was of someone who couldn’t wait to claim a prize they’d already won. It was revolting.

Sakhr was beginning to understand how Sibyl always felt. He’d only had the power of Empathy for a week, and it had given him more insight into Alexander’s psyche than he ever wanted to know. At least he could turn the power off by removing a small card from his wallet and setting it aside. It had the look and feel of a credit card, except with no numbers or microchips, just designs on it’s surface. It reminded Sakhr of a celtic knot or a middle eastern tapestry, a meaningless cluster of lines and curves that represented nothing.

“You don’t suppose she’s included in the accommodations, do you?” Alexander said. His aura stood poised, waiting for any of them to react. “I might need her on my other flights to make sure I’m in an upright position when I need to be.”

“Will you settle down?” Sakhr said.

Alexander’s aura swelled with satisfaction. “What? She wants me.”

Sakhr ignored him, until Alex reclined his seat back into a bed. “Put your seat back and behave yourself.”

“She just said those things because its her job. This is a private flight. If we want to have a dance while the plane lands, there’s nothing she can do about it.”

“Put it back up.”

“What? For safety? What are the odds this plane is going to crash?”

Sakhr didn’t answer.

Alex leaned and peered at him. “No, honestly. What are the odds?”

The question brought numbers to Sakhr’s mind. 0.06 accidents per 100,000 traveler hours. Casualty rate was about a tenth that. With full engine failure, this jet could still coast to a rough but safe landing. Once they were over Brazil, the LakiraLabs repulse grid would pick up the plane. Apart from a few unfortunate incidences in its cutting edge days, the grid had a phenomenal safety record.

Alexander’s grin widened, and Sakhr realized he’d mistakenly made eye contact. Alexander had his answer, but thanks to the second symbol on the reverse side of that little card, Sakhr glimpsed inside Alexander’s mind too—his own power used against him.

Alex glanced away, still grinning, but his aura betrayed his annoyance. Finally, the immature mood faded.

“You’re having fun now,” he said. “but you realize this whole thing is a mistake, right?”

“It’s not a mistake. You’ll understand that soon enough.”

Alex nearly laughed. “Why can’t you, of all people, see this? You’ve spent millennia playing it safe, and now you’re throwing in with this woman? She found us before we knew about her. She’s been watching us. She copied our powers. She copied yours. You know she must have. Now you want to dine with her? She’s a threat, Sakhr.”

“Of course she’s a threat. You think I’m an imbecile?”

“Then why are we entertaining her invitation.”

“Do you think we should ignore her instead? This woman could be a dangerous enemy. And who knows, Alex, maybe she is our answer.”

“Right,” Alex said. “Our answer. To all of our nonexistent problems.”

“Are you so foolish that you can’t see the world changing around you, Alex? Our ways aren’t going to work much longer. We need to change.”

“But we don’t need some fat-assed, white woman to do that.”

“No. We don’t, but we will hear her out. It is not wise to ignore her.”

Sibyl chimed in. “I, for one, think this is a grand idea.”

“Of course you would,” Alex said. “It would mean spending the rest of our time sitting on our asses, eating, and riding horses, and all those other rich people things.”

“It’s not about that,” she replied. “It’s about how I’m sick and tired of constantly moving around. I think this woman is right. We should embrace who we are, not run and hide. The world is ready for us.”

“To be clear,” Christof said. “Victoria never said we would reveal ourselves.”

“No,” agreed Sakhr. “We’ll still be hidden… for a while. This is just about pooling our resources, building a foundation.”

“Of course she would say that,” Alex said. “She’s the one who gains the most from this. She’s the one who’ll get all our powers.”

“She already has our powers,” Christof answered.

“Oh, so then no one else wonders why she wants us then?”

“Not everyone is as selfish as you,” Sibyl said. “Maybe she wants all us witches together because she agrees that we should be in charge, not running around like rabbits.”

“She’s bringing us together,” Sakhr said, “because we can no longer afford to live the way we have, as nomads. And I agree with her. You will all stop bickering about this. We’ve already agreed we’re going to hear her out.”

The group quieted down. The plane jolted as the repulse grid picked it up. Alexander slid and bumped his head against his bed frame. Sakhr savored the comeuppance.

The rest of the flight was eerily silent with the plane’s engines off. They landed at a private pad at Boa Vista International. A swarm of security and airport staff were waiting. A red carpet led from the plane to a shuttle.

“Are you sure we’re not already famous?” Alex asked.

“Our flairs are unknown as of yet,” Sakhr clarified.

“That’s another thing,” Alex said. “Why flairs? A flair is something a child has if they’re talented at the cello. What we have are goddamn powers.”

“I agree with Victoria on this,” said Christof. “Magic powers. Super powers. If we describe ourselves in those terms, it’ll draw unflattering comparisons.”

“But flairs?”

“It’s a matter of appearances,” Sakhr replied, “something she knows about.”

” You’re going to agree with her on everything, aren’t you?”

“On many things.” When Victoria had contacted Sakhr, she had shared with him many concerns that he’d been mulling over for decades. She was suggesting changes he knew would not come easy, but were no less necessary. The others would go along with it, even if they weren’t thrilled. The woman certainly was a change of pace from how they had been living. They were nomads, living from place to place, and body to body, while this woman was on the cover of Time magazine. She was the heiress to her father’s company, and with the world-changing invention of the repulse node, she’d changed it into a multinational corporation with tendrils in governments around the world. Victoria had hinted that flairs were the cause of her success. Sakhr was curious to find out how.

Like Sakhr, she had the marvelous power of foresight. The world was changing. Countries were more connected than ever, and people kept records like never before. The coven could not run away from their problems like they used to. They couldn’t wait for time to erase their past. Mankind had grown more efficient at killing one another, meaning Sakhr could no longer trust in his power to keep him alive. Guns, bombs, even those wretched automobiles—any could kill him before he’d have a chance to swap bodies. And then he watched as the world threatened to destroy itself over utter political nonsense. He and the coven had spent the nineteen sixties sequestered in obscure corners of the world. And now, nearly a century later, the world was threatening to do it again. Watching from the sidelines was not an option anymore. Victoria understood that, and she already had a start in building a solution.

Sakhr didn’t trust this woman. She was a threat he knew too little about, but whether Sakhr liked it or not, she may be the future.

After customs and immigration, their shuttle floated them to the LakiraLabs headquarters. It stood isolated from all the other skyscrapers, half finished but glimmering proudly. This was to be their new home, from where “flairs” would rule.

It might not be that bad.

They landed inside a shuttle bay. Sakhr stepped out to a full staff of security and assistants awaiting him. Auras bubbled with curiosity. They all knew Sakhr was important, even if they didn’t know why. For the first time in his long life, Sakhr was about to live as himself, not masqueraded as a person who’s life he’d stolen.

Alexander stepped up beside him and gave a mighty sigh.

“Time to be kings,” Alexander said.

Time indeed.

33. A Silicon Wafer

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

Winnie stepped off the elevator onto Victoria’s private floor. After months of lessons—two a week—she’d grown accustom to heading straight through to the office. Victoria would be tending to Marzipan and Willow or finishing up a call. Winnie would wait at the table until she finished.

Today, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Tonight was the night of the charity that she and Helena had been preparing for. They would leave shortly after dinner, threatening to cut short today’s lesson, so maybe Victoria wanted to start early, but Winnie doubted it. She’d been at school, eighth period. The front office had paged Winnie to come, where an imperial guard waited to escort her directly to the tower.

“What for?” she’d asked.

“The queen demands your presence,” and that was all he told her.

She still had her backpack and school outfit on, as the shuttle had taken her straight to the tower. When she’d asked Madeline if she were in trouble, Madeline had given her a helpless shrug. “I don’t know, sweetie. She just told us to fetch you as soon as possible. Have you done anything wrong?”

Helena and Winnie had broken into the botanical garden five nights ago. After a day of silence, she figured the guard’s scolding had been enough. Maybe not.

“You’re probably fine,” Madeline said. “With her, everything is a priority. Good luck!” Madeline had shepherded her onto the elevator and sent her up without giving Winnie a chance to reply.

Cautiously, Winnie made her way to Victoria’s office. The window wall was closed with shutters. Willow and Marzipan rested in their respective cage and terrarium. Victoria was not there.

A voice called from deeper within Victoria’s floor. “Come this way, Winnie.”

The queen had sense her aura. Winnie didn’t know its range, but she doubted she’d ever stepped foot onto this floor without Victoria knowing about it. Winnie followed the voice.

Quiet chattering made it easy to find the room. It looked like a workshop. Instead of hardwood or carpet, it had utilitarian tiles for a floor. Large crates filled the room marked with the LakiraLabs logo, each stamped “military property” in red ink. A quick glance with her mind showed machines inside of them that looked as though they were made of spare parts. They were definitely assemblers though, but their internals were strange.

Beyond them was a massive machine that dominated the back of the room. Before it, Victoria and a man sat on stools chatting. The man was perhaps in his late thirties, but well groomed and attractive. He turned on his stool and smiled wholesomely at Winnie. It was the exact same move Mr. Matthews had done when Winnie met him in the principal’s office months ago. That is what made her realize he was an exemplar before she even noticed his stark white attire It had a silver trim along the collar and cuffs that she hadn’t seen on other exemplar uniforms.

Victoria gestured to a stool. “Sit with us.”

Winnie shucked off her backpack and sat by the man.

“Winnie, I’d like you to meet High Exemplar Bishop. Bishop, this is Winnie.”

“How do you do?” Bishop said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” His smile was nonstop. She could feel him staring past her eyes. It must just be her imagination that he was reading her mind, since his plaque was resting untouched on a workbench.

“Hi.” Winnie returned the smile. She glanced over the large machinery before them. Beneath a transparent covering was an assembly line of complicated parts. Though powered on, it was idle. The only parts moving were an internal metal etcher working on a chip the size of a postage stamp, which looked to be made of plastic.

Right by Victoria was a console. On the screen was a glyph and a progress bar. Winnie didn’t recognize the glyph, but it was the same one the etchers inside the machine were making.

“What is this place, Your Majesty?” she asked.

“It’s my room of toys,” Victoria said. “They’re various things I keep out of the public eye for security. This one here…” She gestured to the massive machine behind her. “Is the assembler that creates plaques.”

Winnie looked at the console. “I didn’t know you can draw glyphs on a screen.”

“Yes, Winnie. I hope you don’t think I’ve spent all this time giving you exercises and I never experimented with my own power. Glyphs can exist on many mediums, and drawn with any tool, even electronic ones, so long as the flair I’m making a glyph of is present when I draw the final stroke.”

“Is that why I’m here?”

“Perhaps. Bishop may need it.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to give my power out.”

“Winnie, this is for an assignment I’ve given him. I will not allow him to keep it afterward. That’s if I give it to him at all. First, Bishop and I would like you to look at something for us. Bishop?”

Nodding, Bishop took his plaque and enabled the screen. After some browsing, he brought up a map and turned it to face Winnie.

Winnie reached for it. Bishop immediately yanked it out of her reach.

“Just look,” Victoria said. “Never touch an exemplar’s plaque unless he tells you.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

He smiled. Already forgiven. “No problem,” he said, holding it out again. The map showed North Africa. Bishop zoomed in. “Are you following mentally?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Right here.” He pointed to Port Harcourt. “Do you see the city?”

“Yeah.”

“Look around at a high view. What your looking for is the Lakiran citadel stationed there. It should be easy to find.”

It was, and Winnie didn’t need a description. She’d heard enough over the years about the legendary Lakiran floating cities. It was there, above the bay, looming near acres of ramshackle houses. Compared to the glimmering, chrome citadel, the city looked like a trash heap. It was filled with mud browns and assorted spots of color: whites for clothes lines, colored dots for beat up cars and trucks winding down broken roads, and aqua green for plastic paneling patching holes in tin can buildings.

The citadel was as though a piece of Porto Maná had been cut out and put here. Clouds of shuttles buzzed to and from it. They would disappear into slips along its hull.

“What now?”

“Go to the holding area on Deck 6.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’ll be in the hull, seven down from the top.”

Winnie tried. Her mind found a holding area of some kind. The hallways were wide. Cells along the walls were crammed with people. Nearly every person had coal black skin. Just like with the city, these people didn’t fit in compared to the citadel. Their clothes were nearly rags. Their skin was filthy. Even without a sense of smell, Winnie could only imagine the stench. These people were sick and starved. Some lingered by bars looking about for passing soldiers. They looked scared, or worried. Others sat in the back of the cells, no longer interested in the world around them. They just seemed resigned.

“What am I supposed to be looking for. When you say top, do you mean the top floor of the hull? Or the tarmac above where the towers are?”

“Here, look at me.”

He meant in the eyes—for mind reading. She didn’t want to; Winnie didn’t know this man. Yet both he and Victoria waited for her to comply. Resigned, she looked Bishop in the eye.

He perused her mind. “Go up one.”

She did so. Up here, the halls were narrow. Soldiers walked through the corridors. Some escorted cuffed prisoners.

“This is the right floor,” he said, “but you’re on the wrong side of the citadel. “There’s a detention section R. It’s the mirror of this one but on the starboard… uh, right side.”

Winnie’s mind shot through a labyrinth of tight corridors. She tried not to pay attention to what she saw. At the other end, she was in the mirror reflection of the same hallways.”

“Good,” said Bishop. “Go down the hall. Take a right. Good. Now keep going until you find cell block 5-7B.”

Winnie continued along. His instructions led her through a security checkpoint, complete with guards behind a reinforced window. They guarded a pair of doors, one after another, that they would buzz open as soldiers escorted prisoners into or out of this secure area. Past those guards were rows and rows of cell containing more inmates of similar gauntness and ethnicity.

She turned a corner and proceeded several paces down the hall, when she realized she couldn’t distinguish the numbers on the cells, or the people. Everything was there, but it was nebulous. She concentrated, but the details didn’t come. What she saw was not from her flair, but her imagination. It’s what she expected to see.

She backed up to the checkpoint. Details flooded her mind. She proceeded forward again. By the time she was in the same corridor, she had nothing but her imagination. Her power failed, and suddenly she was walking over a chasm. Like a cartoon animal, it had taken her a moment to realize it the first time, but now she recognized exactly when it happened. It was when she turned the corner.

Bishop leaned back. He looked at Victoria and nodded. Whatever was happening, they’d expected it.

“What’s going on?” Winnie asked.

Bishop turned back to her. “I’ll explain in a moment. I need you to check one other thing first. Can you clear your mind?”

Winnie played along.

“I want you to visualize the citadel again,” said Bishop, “but I want you to look at the bottom floor, near the center.”

Winnie did so. It was practically a different ship there. The halls were suffocatingly narrow. The doors were hatches. The stairs leading up and down were so steep they were more like ladders. If her mind wasn’t aware of the empty sky directly beneath the floor, she might have guessed she was looking inside a submarine. Only soldiers were down here. Grease covered and sweaty, they carried supplies, cleaned floors, and worked at panels with a dizzying number of pipes leading from them.

“What now?” she asked.

He leaned back again. “That’s it. That’s all I need.”

“She can see?” Victoria asked.

He nodded.

“What do you mean?” Winnie asked.

Bishop spoke. “We think we found another flair. She’s being held in a containment room down that corridor you can’t see.”

“Why is she there?”

“Soldiers brought her in for theft.”

“Are all those people thieves?”

“Most are just there for processing.”

Processing. He said the word as though they’d just seen rows of bored functionaries working through a rush hour line of customers renewing their passports, not the caged human beings huddled together for comfort.

Victoria spoke. “So far, every exemplar who’s come near her has had their plaque malfunction. I needed to see what affect she had on a real flair before we bring her here.”

“And you had her test it on me?”

“Don’t worry. I was nearly certain the effect would be temporary.”

Nearly certain?”

“I’m very good at what I do.”

“But what if it hadn’t come back?”

“It did, Winnie. My glyphs are notoriously easy to break. Even smudging the ink can break them permanently. At the very worst, I expected your power might have been muted for a short while.”

“You still could have warned me.”

“Would that have made you any happier when I still made you do it? Winnie, I plan to bring that girl here. Her flair would have affected you eventually, as it will me. Okay?”

“Okay…” Winnie wasn’t mollified. If she had permanently lost her power, she doubted this new flair would be coming here.

Behind Victoria, the console beeped. Victoria and Bishop turned to the machine. The progress bar had completed.

“Ah, and here we go,” Victoria said. “Winnie, you should watch this. It’s neat.”

The small chip with the glyph rolled into view on a conveyor. It entered a glass chamber. A robotic arm sprayed a thin layer of paste onto it. Another arm placed it onto a steel plate shaped to fit various installable components. Several glass tubes were already built in. The set then rolled into a covered chamber.

Victoria said. “The glyph is on a small silicon wafer. Very fragile. The paste is an explosive gel that reacts to oxygen. Now the chip goes on the plaque frame, along with a few pressure sensitive bulbs. Both have to be installed in this vacuum chamber. In there it will install a few light sensitive diodes with their own charges. Then internal radio batteries go in before sealing the whole thing and putting it inside the tablet frame.”

Moments later, a plaque rolled out. Victoria hefted it and looked it over. “The tablet part itself has several security features too. It can destroy the internal glyphs under all sorts of circumstances, such as remote wipe, battery failure, lost signal, and since each plaque is encoded to a microchip implanted in my exemplars, they can’t get too far away from it either. So you see, Winnie. I take security of my glyphs very seriously. If I gave your power to Bishop, I would maintain full control of it until it was returned.”

Will you be giving me her power, ma’am?” Bishop asked.

“I think not,” Victoria replied. “If this girl’s power affects Winnie too, there’s no point. It’d break in two minutes. You’ve no idea how easy it is to accidentally look at something just by thinking of it.”

Winnie had never thought about Victoria having the same problems Winnie did. The idea of Victoria accidentally seeing someone naked was a strange thought, but logically, she must struggle with it too.

“Go now,” Victoria picked up the new plaque and another nearby. She handed them to Bishop. “At least we know for certain we’re dealing with a flair. I want you on your way now.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bishop rose.

“Make sure you deliver those plaques before you go to the girl.”

“Of course.” Bishop faced Winnie. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“Yeah. Same.”

They shook hands, and he departed.

After waiting until he was out of earshot, Winnie turned to Victoria.

“Is Bishop a flair?” Winnie asked.

Victoria paused. “What makes you think that?” She looked at Winnie, but Winnie did not meet her gaze.

“You had to have a flair here in order to sign that glyph right? Sara told me about how you bring her here every time you need to make a glyph of her shield flair, so the flair for that glyph must have just been here.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s him. The flair could have left before you arrived.”

“How come I’ve never met them?”

“Maybe they’re busy.”

“…busy working for you,” Winnie said, “as high exemplars. It just makes sense. Besides Sara, who’s too young to work for you, there must be at least three other flairs: telepathy, empathy, and flair sense. Mr. Matthews said you have four high exemplars, and they come here all the time, so it fits.”

“Wouldn’t that mean there should be a fourth power?” Victoria asked.

“Maybe there is. Maybe it’s one like mine that you don’t want to hand out.”

“Interesting deduction.”

“So am I right?”

“Your reasoning is sound.”

“Oh, come on. Tell me.”

“Why? It sounds like you’ve already figured it out.”

“Please?”

Victoria considered it. “Very well. Yes, he is a flair.”

“I thought so. What’s Bishop’s power?”

“Don’t concern yourself with that.”

“He’s the telepath, isn’t he? I could sense it.”

“I said don’t worry about it.”

“Are you going to make me a high exemplar when I’m older?”

“High exemplar? No. The current high exemplars are people I knew from before I started my empire.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“It’s not a matter of trust. I’ve read every corner of my high exemplars’ minds. It’s not trust if I don’t give them an opportunity to betray me. The problem is that you don’t trust me.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“…Said the girl who’s been avoiding eye contact with me this entire time.”

Of course she’d have noticed that. Winnie still didn’t meet her eyes.

“Is this about your botanical break and entry? I already know.”

“Yeah, I figured. I’m sorry about that.”

“Do you understand that what you did was wrong?”

“Yes.”

“Do you plan to do it again?”

“No.”

“Then that’s that. I know the guards have already scolded you.” She studied Winnie. “But that isn’t really what’s bothering you, is it?”

Winnie didn’t answer at first. She’d had something on her mind ever since she’d designed clothes with Helena days ago. Victoria was going to find out one way or another.

“You said you’ve known the high exemplars since before your empire, right?”

“Yes?”

“So ever since you’ve made the exemplars, they’ve always had the powers your high exemplars have, right?”

“Yes?”

“So back when the Lakirans invaded the settlement my mom and I were living in, the exemplar who scanned everyone must have had flair detection too, right? I mean, it’s not like you’d only give the flair detection to some of your exemplars. You’d want to have the best chance of finding new flairs, but that means you must have known about me years before Mr. Matthews came to Redding.”

“Okay…?” said Victoria, as though Winnie had yet to reach her point.

“That’s it? Okay?” Winnie said. “You already knew about me.”

“Yes. I did.”

“You’re not even denying it?”

“No.”

“Then why didn’t you approach me then? Why’d you wait three years?”

“You’ve pieced it together so far. You tell me.”

Winnie thought again of that rifle she once owned, the one she swore she’d use… until the Lakirans took it away.

“Because I wouldn’t have come. You waited until I didn’t hate the empire so much.”

“There you go.”

“So that’s why the soldiers returned all the people you guys carted off. If I hadn’t been there, those people would still be in a detention camp, wouldn’t they.”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

“From what I’ve heard, we shouldn’t have ever seen them again. You only had them returned because you didn’t want me thinking worse about the empire. Right?”

“Honestly, Winnie, I don’t remember.”

“But it’s not just that though, is it? Northern California got way more attention than it should have. Even I noticed that. We were one of the first places to get an assembler station for the public, even though we were tiny compared to the east coast. We got food supplies right away. People on the internet say they had to wait months before any relief food came to them. Some people starved to death. If I weren’t there, you guys wouldn’t have cared about us.”

“We might have given your district preferential treatment, but it’s not as if we wouldn’t have cared. We’d treat all districts like yours if we had the resources. I am trying to help the lands I control.”

“But that was three years where the whole point was to… manipulate me into liking the empire? Helena says I’m nothing more than a flair to you. Is that true?”

“You’re doing me a disservice, Winnie. Put yourself in my position. One of your exemplars reports to you that, in one of thousands of isolated settlements, he’s found a flair with great potential, only she’s so hard set against the empire that she was prepared to kill imperial soldiers for no other purpose than to rebel. What else is there to do than to give her time to come around? You forget that all my manipulation benefited you and those close to you, and it will continue to do so. And no, you are not just a flair to me. Your flair is what got my attention, but you’re a part of my life now. If you were just a flair, I wouldn’t bother with your education.”

“I thought that was just a perk to get me to say yes.”

“Must you see an ulterior motive in everything I do? This is why you’ll never be a high exemplar.”

“Okay. I’ll stop. It’s just weird to find out you pretended not to know about me all those years.”

“I’ve explained myself, something I don’t normally do.”

“May I ask one last question?”

“Fine.”

“What would have happened if I’d said no to coming here?”

“I would have made a counter offer. There were other ways I could have made coming here more enticing.”

“And if I still said no?”

“Are you asking would I have ever forced you to come here and train by threatening you or your family?”

“… Yeah, I guess.”

“No. I can’t force people to develop their flairs.”

“Why not?”

“Because it just doesn’t work out. Flairs have to want to learn.”

“You’ve tried?”

Victoria showed absolutely no amusement.

“I’m just asking,” Winnie said.

“Well, don’t ask such foolishness.”

“But one way or another, you would have got me here, right?”

“Yes, I would have. But again, Winnie, it’s not as sinister as you’re making it out to be. You’re a flair. The moment that was discovered, your life would change whether you wanted it to or not. There are still splinters of the European Democratic Alliance, and warlords taking advantage in places where my influence is weak. If I had left you there, word might have gotten to them that there was a flair who wasn’t under my protection. They would not have given you a choice. What they know about flairs is limited, mostly what they got from capturing and torturing my exemplars, but it’s enough to make them dangerous. I also doubt they know that forcing flairs doesn’t work. This is part of why I pretended not to know about you until the time was right. It is also why Mr. Matthews instructed you not to tell people about your flair. There are dangerous people in this world who would take advantage of you.”

“Oh…”

“Are you quite through interrogating me?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry.”

“It’s quite all right. Come. Let’s go.” She powered the machine down and ushered Winnie back toward the front of her home. At the door to Victoria’s office, Winnie kept walking toward the elevators.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Victoria asked.

“…Leaving?”

“We have a lesson.”

“But it’s not until four.”

“There’s no point in sending you back to school now, and you’re already here. Would you rather sit around for two hours?”

“But… okay. Can we not run over today? You know… if we’re starting early. I need to help Helena get ready for the charity tonight.”

“I’ll try.”

Victoria and Winnie commenced their Friday lesson. It ran over.

32. Person of Interest

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

“So you have no idea where these came from?” the officer said. “No idea how you came upon four bags of privileged Lakiran food supplies, designated for Humanitarian personnel only?”

Naema didn’t respond.

“I have a theory,” the officer continued. “How ‘bout you stole them?”

Her silence was angering him, but if she so much as opened her mouth, she might vomit. And what would there be to say? That she didn’t steal them? That they were gifts from a wanted fugitive?

“This is what really pisses me off about you people,” the man said. “We come here. We try to bring some order to this medieval anarchy warzone you all live in. We give you free food, protection, and medicine, all while dealing with the euro-rebel fucks you all hide. But it’s never enough for you pidgin trash, is it. You steal. Not from the military, but from the Humanitarian League. What kind of gratitude is that?”

He paused as though expecting an answer.

“We’re going to find out what you know, so unless you want your entire family ending up in permanent internment, I suggest you cooperate. Now, how did you get that food?”

“I… it’s not mine.”

“No. No, no.” He waggled a finger at her. “Don’t pull that bullshit with me. We have witnesses saying you were handing this shit out like Christmas. According to them, you got that food from a job.”

Sonna. That was the story Naema gave to her neighbor. Maybe Sonna volunteered this information, or maybe the exemplars took it from her. Either way, Naema couldn’t even find it in herself to be angry. She just wanted to be home, with her family. She would eat nutrient-enriched cassava paste every day for the rest of her life, and she would enjoy it.

“Look,” said the officer. “We already have you. What you can do is tell us everything you know, and maybe… maybe your family won’t be joining you in camp. Do you want your little brother working at a machine assembly line for sixteen hours a day for the rest of his short life? You want your mother sorting reclamation garbage till she drops from exhaustion? No? Then talk.”

They would pull apart any story she made up. If she told the truth, and gave up Tan and Josephine, they might let her family go, even if she would never be free again. Or if she held out long enough, Josephine might save her, somehow. That’s if Josephine figured out where they were keeping Naema before they shipped her off to wherever. That’s if Josephine even realized they are keeping her. Maybe Josephine was waiting for Naema at home. And this is all assuming Josephine wasn’t dead. She could be one of those bodies that were in the street, cleaved in two by a swipe of a railgun sheer. There may be no help coming.

“It was me,” she murmured.

“What?”

“It was me. I took the food.”

“From where?”

“The CivMan building in North Harcourt.”

“How did you get in?”

“I snuck in.”

Bullshit. How did you get in?”

“I said I snuck in.”

“That building is a goddamn fort. A full security suite and a standby team and a supply lockup opened under military supervision. No one would let a black like you near the building. You’re telling me you snuck past all that?”

“I climbed in a window.”

“…A window. No. You know what? Tell me. First step. You’re standing in front of the building. I’ve been there before. I know the layout, so walk me through it.”

“I snuck around to the side and climbed up the brick.”

“Which side?”

“The left. Facing the building.”

He looked distant as he visualized this. “Okay? Then you climb up to a window. Is it near the front or the back?”

“The front.”

“And what room does that put you in?”

This was already beyond her knowledge. She’d waited outside while Josephine had gone in. “An office.”

“So the second floor?”

“Yeah.”

Wrong.” He yelled it, almost triumphantly. “You’d still be in the atrium. Just admit it. Someone helped you. Who is it?”

“No one.”

“Stop playing this bullshit on me. You could not get into that building alone. If you don’t give me a name now, you and your street trash family are going to be working reclamator lines for the rest of your lives.”

A knock came at the door. It opened. An exemplar stepped in. She was female, not quite white. Maybe Brazilian, but Naema didn’t know her whites very well. Before the exemplar closed the door, Naema saw in the hall the other exemplar who interviewed her earlier.

“Christ. Finally,” the officer said. “Did you just get in?”

The woman nodded. “Exemplar Regina. Like me to take it from here?”

The officer motioned as though to say be my guest. He pulled his seat to the side, making room for Regina.

The exemplar placed down her plaque and sat. Looking at Naema, she said, “Look me in the eye.”

Naema did so.

The silence lasted for many seconds. Regina showed no indication on her face, then she glanced at her plaque in a way Naema was growing familiar with.

“Pardon me, Captain.” She turned to the officer. “Can I have you look me in the eye?”

“Me? What for?”

“Just for a moment.”

“I…”

“Captain.” She only asked to be polite.

The officer conceded. They locked eyes.

“Hmm,” She looked down at her plaque. After consideration, she got up.

“Where are you going?” the officer asked.

“I’m afraid I won’t be any help to you. My plaque has malfunctioned.”

What?”

“I’ll send a request for another exemplar to relieve me.”

You were the relief. What the hell is this? I just need you to read this girl. How is this—”

A speaker system cackled. A voice sounded in the room. “Would you two come in here?”

Both the exemplar and the officer glanced toward the mirror wall. Without a word, they left. Then silence. Naema hadn’t realized anyone had been watching from behind the mirror. How many people were in there? One other? Two. Was there a crowd? Try as she might, the only sound she could hear was the gentle noise of the ventilation shafts overhead and the occasional footsteps outside. It was an awkward wait, knowing that people were scrutinizing her from just a few feet away, but it didn’t come as a relief when several footsteps collected outside the door. It opened, and three people came in. The captain, and both exemplars. They all sat across from her.

Exemplar Regina spoke first. “Are you doing anything to subvert our exemplar privileges?”

“What? I… don’t know what you mean.”

“Do you know what exemplars are capable of?”

“No.”

“We have techniques to detect thoughts of individuals and to sense their presence from afar. For both myself and Exemplar Marcus, these abilities malfunctioned before we were gained any information about you. You’re telling us you have no idea what could be causing that?”

“No.”

“She’s lying,” the officer said.

Regina held up her hand to silence him. “You told Captain Lofthouse that you stole those food supplies from the CivMan building in North Harcourt. Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“When was this?”

“Two days ago, and yesterday.”

“It’s a lie,” Lofthouse said.

Again, she cut him off. “Are you aware that there is an exemplar posted at that building? Exemplar Castillo?”

“No.”

“Well, there is. Part of why Captain Lofthouse is so skeptical about your stealing supplies from there is because we exemplars can sense people around us, and we can sense when people are up to no good. If you actually had broken into that building, Castillo would have sent people to arrest you.”

“That’s why she didn’t do it,” Lofthouse insisted. “She had help.”

“She could have, actually,” said Exemplar Marcus. “Because two days ago, Exemplar Castillo suffered a malfunction with the empathy feature of his plaque. So he wouldn’t have been able to sense her. He’s back in Porto Maná right now getting it replaced.”

Captain Lofthouse paused. Naema could tell he was seeing the same connection the exemplars already had. Josephine had been right. Her power actually drew attention to her.

“But… she wasn’t there,” he said. He was thoughtful now, no longer the ornery tyrant condemning Naema. “She doesn’t even know what the inside looks like.”

“But she might have been nearby,” Marcus said. “My empathy failed around four this evening. Isn’t that about when you brought her aboard?”

Lofthouse nodded slowly.

Regina spoke. “Mine failed in the hall shortly after I came aboard, on Deck 2, the hallway from the starboard sector hangar leading to the detainment center. How far away would you say that is from here?”

“I don’t know. A few hundred feet.”

“Four hundred maybe? That’s about the range of our empathy.”

The captain caught up. “So she’d only have to get near the building to help whoever was stealing that food for her.”

Marcus shrugged. “Possibly. It doesn’t matter anymore.” He rose. The others did the same. Together, they headed for the door like they were breaking for lunch. None acknowledged Naema. “The Exemplar Committee will be taking over her case. Until then, have her moved to maximum confinement. She’s now officially a Person of Interest.”