72. Ripples

Osgur sat alone in his bedroom. His homework lay out before him, but his eyes were on the small card of plastic in his hands. Like every other internet savvy teenager with an assembler, he’d gotten that plaque the Sunday before school, then came in this morning for the most interesting school day.

  • Period 1: No one paid attention to class. Those who didn’t have plaques marveled at those who did. Everyone was reading everyone else’s minds, mostly the teachers’.
  • Period 2: Class was effectively canceled as faculty scurried about informing the teachers what was going on.
  • Period 3: Confiscation.
  • Period 4: Redistribution. Many of the students had the foresight to bring multiple glyphs. They handed out glyphs scrawled on notebook paper. An announcement went out stating that possessing such glyphs was grounds for suspension. No one cared.
  • Period 5: Some teachers fought back. With confiscated glyphs in hand, they took to scanning students’ minds as though exemplars themselves. Parents started arriving to take their children home.
  • Period 6: Never happened. Half the faculty were in emergency conferences. The students lounged in the halls conversing and playing with the hundreds of hand written glyphs.

All anyone knew for sure was that school was canceled tomorrow while the school board figured out what to do. It would have made this an amazing day were it not for the ride home. When his father had picked him up, his gaze was evasive, but just after his dad parked the car at home, their eyes met briefly. Everything his father was afraid of his son learning about had been right on the surface.

Osgur would have to leave home. It was the only way. How could he ever go on living in this family? It’s not like he could ever sit at the same table with his parents and act as though he didn’t know.

Those ropes in his parents closet were not for mountain climbing. The image had been right there in dad’s head. Of Mom. Tied up. And… those other things which he now knew were kept in the gun safe. Knowing that his parents even possessed such things was far more than an child should know, but to see a mental image of those things in use. On mom.

These glyphs had ruined his life.

“Pardon me, sir,” Arnaud approached a stranger standing outside a shopping mart. He was a Chinaman—had no business being in France. Probably didn’t even know french, so Auraud would open with… ugh… english. Men like these deserved to be robbed. But there was something in particular about this man that stood out to Arnaud, though he would be damned if he could put his finger on it.

The asian man glanced toward Arnaud, but made no eye contact.

“Pardon me, but could I trouble you for a cigarette? I only just got here from Marseille. My boy and I haven’t a place to stay, and I smoked my last cigarette on the shuttle ride.”

The part about a son usually got their attention a little more, just enough for eye contact. Then came credit info, or extra marital affairs, Bank PINs, or anything useful. Arnaud had only procured his hacked exemplar plaque last night, but already it had proved far more valuable than the seventy cent credits he paid to assemble it. Twice on his way from the bus station, he got two adulterers to pay him twenty francs. He fancied himself a mental pickpocket. Grab a secret here, or maybe a name or address. The rest Arnaud could bluff. One mark paid him just for asking if his wife knew about “Natalie”.

The foreigner took out a pack of cigarettes and helped himself to one. He glanced at Arnaud, then up and down the street as though looking for Arnaud’s aforementioned son. He lit his own without handing one over. Oh, how Arnaud was going to enjoy taking this foreigner’s money, the arrogant prick.

“Please, sir. I can pay you a franc if that’s what you wish.”

At a meandering pace, the asian man finally popped out a cigarette for Arnaud.

“Thank you, sir.” Still no eye contact. How rude was this man?

“You uh… come from China?” No response. “I’m from Cameroon. Came here after the war. What brings you out so far from home?”

Finally, the asian man looked Arnaud in the eye. “I do not speak good english.”

It was enough. Arnaud saw far more than he expected.

A flair? Other powers? This man could… know the future somehow, but only slightly. His power allowed his own unconscious movements to decide for him. Understanding this, Arnaud finally managed to place what strange detail led him to “Tan”. He could somehow sense this man’s power. So this was what the mystery “flair” glyph was for.

Tan hadn’t learned yet about the glyph cards flooding the world, but he certainly knew a lot about flairs. There was Josephine, a woman who could make you forget about her; and a girl, Naema, who could break glyphs. Most importantly, him and his friends were on the run from the empire.

There was too much to take in. The man, Tan was his name, hardly noticed Arnaud’s shock and kept right on smoking. Without a word, Arnaud walked away. There was profit here. Somewhere. He just had to think.

Liu Fen’s shift at the greenhouse ended at eight each night, but she never got home before ten. The glass farms in Hangzhou were nearly an hour subway ride from where she lived, then a bus ride, and she had to wait in line at the RepMarts to get her daily ration of food before getting on the subway. By the time she was home, she had less than an hour to herself if she wanted a full eight hours of sleep before starting the trip in reverse.

Despite a three hour commute to spend twelve hours a day pollenating genetically dwarfed orange blossoms, she counted her blessings that she had a job at all, much less a high paying job as a greenhouse botanist, especially considering she was a woman living on her own. Best of all, her annual review was last week. After hearing of her crippling commute, her superiors had given her a raise. Not much, but enough that she could afford to live in Hangzhou, within biking distance of work. She’d have three hours to herself every day, plus her day off.

Today, however, left her troubled. Everywhere she went, it seemed people were staring at her. On the bus, a crowd by the door kept glancing. On the subway, a man stared openly. At lunch, several coworkers collected and murmured among each other. When she wasn’t looking, they’d steal glanced at her. She’d frantically checked the mirror in the work bathroom, but nothing was wrong with her appearance.

As she approached the plaza of her apartment complex, a group of children who lived in the building were gathered at a table. They were frequently there, and always courteous when she passed. She suspected a few were attracted to her from the way they scrambled to help her move in last year. Ever since then, they always showed her their utmost manners. Their stuttered words and red faces were flattering too.

Yet today, they stared like everyone else had.

Mrs. Liu!” One waved her over, a boy named Heng.

Hesitantly, she approached.

He held up a black card, which looked like a credit card, except instead of numbers, it had four calligraphic drawings in gold on the front. “Have you seen these yet?”

“No.” Her body was pointed toward the apartment door. Hopefully the boys would get the hint. Two hours of commute and she was within a minute of being home.

“They let you read minds. Look. I can read yours. You are wondering why everyone is staring at you today. Also, you’re planning to move soon. Is this true? We will miss you.”

She hadn’t told anyone about that. She’d hoped to slip away without causing a scene, as her neighbors would want to do. Ever since they discovered months ago that she was living on her own because her fiancé had died in the Collapse, she’d become the neighborhood darling. Everyone was always checking in to see how she was doing. She wished they’d just leave her alone sometimes. Now these children, who must have gone through her mail, would tell everyone.

“That’s not true. I did not look at your mail.”

The boys chittered.

Liu turned and hurried off.

Heng called out. “I’m sorry. Please. I was rude. But please, look at this.” He held out the card. Liu eyed it. She didn’t know what trick this was, but she just wanted to go home.

“Please,” he said. “Take it. It’s not a trick. I promise.”

Reluctantly, she did.

Moments passed in silence. Everyone excitement was practically palpable.

She frowned.

Their excitement was palpable. She could feel it, like their excitement was hers. More than that, there were people in the complex who didn’t care either way. It felt like wires were connecting their emotions to her own.

She could count the connections if she wanted, like counting orange blossoms on a tree. There were so many she’d lose count before she finished.

“Please,” Heng said. “Look me in the eye.”

She did so, and she knew she was seeing his thoughts, because he knew it, and his thoughts were hers. If not for that, she might not have noticed.

Then, in his mind, she saw why everyone was staring.

“Do you see, Mrs. Fen?”

She did.

Later, standing in her bathroom, she stared at her reflection like so many others had stared at her. Heng had given her his card. After their talk, she knew everything he knew, including that there was something about her—something everyone, including her, could see, but not with eyes. When she looked at her own reflection, thoughts filled her head. She had a gift, though she couldn’t explain for the world how she knew that. It somehow connected her to other people. It affected them somehow. It played on their… humanity? Their compassion? Even now she could push it out toward others in the buildings, whose auras shined through the walls. They resonated in response to her push. It tied them to her somehow, but she didn’t know how.

This all had to be impossible, yet the thoughts that flooded her mind while she held the card told her otherwise. Frustrated, she sat at her computer and opened a browser. Others had to be experiencing the same thing. Right?

The public assembler beeped. Victoria opened the dispenser tray and drew out the small card. Winnie wasn’t sure what it was. Or why Victoria had suddenly detoured their car to the nearest assembler station to create it. The menu screen had said ‘hacked exemplar plaque’, but it didn’t look anything like the massive steel plaques the exemplars used. It looked more like a credit card.

“What is it?” Winnie asked.

Victoria sneered. “It’s the end of my empire.”

And this is the end of Part 2. An updated kindle book is available, and Part 3 will begin with the next release.

Thank you once again to all who’ve kept up with the story so far.

71. Imperial Open-Use License

Flair Plaque
By Paul1234
9 Customer reviews

Uploaded: Nov 21st, 2055
Category: Games & Toys
Item Tags:
Assembly Time: 9 minutes 44 seconds
Assembler Requirements: Airprint; PolyPrint M3 or greater

Item Description: This uses the technique that exemplars use. Anyone who holds this will have the same powers of the exemplars. Each marking on the plaque gives you a power. I put notes on the card for each. I wasn’t able to get all of the exemplar powers though, but this should be enough.

This is not a prank. I know it doesn’t look like much, but please believe me that this is the real thing. The power is in the glyphs. It doesn’t matter what they’re on. As long as you have this plaque, you could draw your own plaque on a post-it note, just as long as you’re holding one to begin with. I don’t know how it works, or what the science is. Just please. Download this. It’s free, and it won’t be here long. The empire will take this down as soon as they find out.

If they do take it down. Please, someone. Put it back up. The empire should not be the only people who have this power.

Item Details: Four glyphs.

* Mind reading, requires eye contact. It can be tricky to realize it’s working at first. It’s easier to clear your mind before trying.
* Aura-sensing. This one is easy to detect.
* Flair sensing. You can sense other flairs, but not people using glyphs.
* Glyph writing. This last one will let you draw your own glyphs. Any medium will do. It just has to be legible.

License: This product is available under the Imperial Open-Use License.

The build file for this product is available here.

Listed Price: Free to Download.
This contributor does not have a donation account set up.

Customer Reviews

4.2 stars out of 5

Most Helpful

★★★★★ It’s for real.

By Austin Ramsay on Nov 21th, 2055

Don’t know why I downloaded it. It looks like (and is) a piece of plastic. Not sure why or how it works, but it does. Didn’t notice at first after taking it out of the tray. But it made me feel really weird. It’s hard to explain. SO and I did test and yes, you can read minds, but only when you’re holding it. Printed another one for her. Don’t know how it works. Just does. Uploader is probably right. I don’t think this will be available for long, so prolly download it now.

★★★★★ What the f***?

By Nicole Clayton on Nov 21st, 2055

omg it actually works. download it. Try it. ima use my superpowers now. :3

★★★★☆ Works

By Jeremy Battner on Nov 21st, 2055

Yeah, this does work. But I didn’t expect it to.

For those commenters saying it doesn’t work. You need to hold onto it for a while. At first, I thought it was just my imagination. I would have thought that you’d see some difference when you hold it, but you just get this feeling sort of that its working. I had to confirm with my gf that I was actually reading her mind. It was hard to tell at first that what I was thinking when I looked her in the eyes was actually what she was thinking too. But you get used to it really fast.

It doesn’t have any markings or anything. On the surface, there are some raised ridges, which you can kind of see if you hold it up to the light. It looks like they were drawn by hand.

PROS: It lets you read minds and sense when people are near you. I haven’t tried the “glyph writing” thing yet. Not sure how writing something on a piece of paper could make powers. That seems kind of unlikely. Also, I don’t know what the flair sensing does, or what that even means.

CONS: It looks and feels really cheap. Looks like something a 5 five year old made in 2 minutes. Whoever made this forgot to put any colorant in it, so its this ugly translucent brick. Its dimensions are awkward. It’s a little larger than a phone. Doesn’t fit in the pocket. I don’t know how it works since it just looks like it’s plastic, but I think the user should make it more portable.

OVERALL: Get it. I don’t know how it works. But get it. I’m really surprised this isn’t on the front page yet.


By Tyrone Myers on Nov 21st, 2055

I saw the other reviews and download count on this and decided to try it. The only reason I bothered is because I’ve heard that the plaques that the exemplars have work more through mysticism than technology.

I printed it, tried it out, and can confirm that THIS IS FOR REAL. It took me a lot of tests to confirm that it is not just a placebo. But as long as this piece of plastic is in your hands you can read minds and sense people around you and I HAVE NO IDEA HOW. It did take me a while to figure out that it was actually working, so don’t just throw it away.

I cracked open the source file and can confirm that it’s just a block of uncolored polypropylene. There is no other material. There is not even a microchip. There are only some designs written on one side that someone obviously hand-drew with the swell tool. They’re some kind of weird line art that look kind of like tattoo designs. And there are some written instructions that are basically the same thing in the product description, but they’re REALLY hard to read since the author used the same swell tool to write them.

The thing also says that you can copy the drawings onto something else and that those too will give you the same powers. I can confirm that this works as long as you’re holding this plastic thing in your hand while you do it. I’ve created a set of index cards that each have the same power as long as you’re holding them. But it took me a lot of tries. The description says you only have to make them legible, but they didn’t work for me until I drew them perfectly. And if you even smudge the ink, it will stop working.

As far as I can tell. This is proof of magic. Because there is no other way this thing can work. I THINK this is the same kind of thing that the exemplars use, which explains why no one has ever explained how their telepathy and stuff works.

Download this now.

★★★★★ Genuine hacked exemplar plaque

By Mary Chang on Nov 21st 2055

Tried it. It works for real. I guess somebody in the exemplar committee leaked this. I’ve got my assembler running non stop making these things.

★☆☆☆☆ Worthless

By Samantha Boeng on Nov 21st, 2055

Downloaded by accident. This is just a piece of plastic.

Nov 21st 6:57 A.M.
This product is no longer available.

Hacked Exemplar Plaque V2
By TMoney4545
2 Customer reviews

Uploaded: Nov 21st, 2055
Category: Misc
Item Tags:
Assembly Time: 1 minute 43 seconds
Assembler Requirements: PolyPrint M2 or greater

Item Description: The library admins took down the previous exemplar plaque hack, so I’ve put up one of my own.

I cleaned it up and shrunk it down to credit card size. Since it doesn’t actually matter what the plaque is made of, I swapped out the polypropylene for a CFRP lattice, which feels nicer, is tougher, and should let people with earlier model assemblers print this. The drawings (where the power seems to be) are made using colorants instead of displacement. You can specify the color scheme through the customization tab. As long as the drawing color and background colors are different, it should work although I haven’t tested them all. I put the original instructions on the back of the card explaining which drawing does what.

It works. Download it fast because it’ll probably be taken down in a few hours like the original was.

Item Details:

* Durable CFRP (carbon reinforced polymer)
* Convenient size
* Fast rep time

License: This product is available under the Imperial Open-Use Public License.

The build file for this product is available here.

Listed Price: Free to Download.

Donate here

Customer Reviews

5 stars out of 5

Most Helpful

★★★★★ It’s for real.

By Sara Guardia on Nov 21st, 2055

Found this one and a few others. Most don’t work, but this one does and is by far the nicest of the hacked exemplar plaques. The others just looks like reposts of the first which I was too late to download since I was asleep the whole time it was available. Definitely get this one. I also would like to know how it works, but I can’t figure it out. This one looks like it might have an RFID or something, but the other ones don’t. Don’t care. This works. I like it. I’d rate it higher if I could since it literally gives you mental powers.

★★★★★ Best of the hacks

By Jeremy Battner on Nov 21st, 2055

Since the original was taken down. A lot of reposts of been cropping up. Most of them are just the same file of the first, but this is the first one that fixed up the problems.

This design fits nicely in my wallet, which still seems to grant the powers. It definitely does look nicer. I like the color scheme options. Definitely an improvement. Five stars.

Nov 21st 1:22 P.M.
This product is no longer available.

Online Forum Topic: Hacked Plates Download?

Does anyone know where to download the hacked exemplar plates now that the public library has been taken down? I can’t find any links that don’t lead to something that’s been removed.

Same here.

If you have a friend who has the plaque, they can draw you one.

I don’t 🙁 I didn’t hear about this whole plaque stuff until today. Nobody I know has a copy. But what do you mean draw? With what?

Download here. This is the source file that was on the library. You have to set your assembler to dev mode and download the designer studio, then you can load it up in that and print locally.

That file doesn’t work for me. I printed it but it doesn’t do anything.

Yeah, same. It doesn’t work for me.

Sorry. Try this one. I guess I have to hold my plaque when I resave it.

Yea that one works. What do you mean by that? You mean holding the plaque in your hand? How does that make a difference?

Dunno. But it does.

Does anybody know how it works? All the ones I downloaded look like they’re just plastic. What is actually causing the mind reading?

Nobody knows. The best theory I’ve heard so far is that its some kind of totemology, where some ordinary item ends up having some otherworldly power that we put into it with our belief.

That doesn’t make sense. I believe that these plaques make no ****ing sense. Why would it give me power?

It’s not that. There’s no reason the plastic would have any power. The powers have to be coming from ourselves. Like Obi-Wan said. “The force was with you all along.” The symbols just key into our brains somehow.

Obi-Wan never said that…

They’ve got a talk about this on this thread.

Is it safe to download these things? The empire shut down the public library and everyone is saying it’s because peopl kept uploading these plaques. Every link I found for these things has been removed. Are people going to show up at my door if I download this?

Probably. The glyph things were leaked. I don’t think anyone was supposed to have these powers except for the empire.

I’m probably on every empire watch list now if I wasn’t already. I’ve downloaded every link I find. I handed these things out at school. I was going to upload my source copy onto the library but it was only there for like 10 minutes. No one’s come for me yet.

Ya. You gon disappear.

Nah. The empire doesn’t have the manpower to arrest anyone. I’m in New Zealand, and the empire has about as much control here as they do on Mars. Everyone here is getting these plaques and no one is stopping us.

If the empire arrests everyone who has one of these, they’ll need a lot more detention camps.

Now that I have the plaque, I feel like everybody is watching me. I can only hold it for a few seconds before I get creeped out. Is that right. Is my plaque broken.

That’s right. That’s the empathy thing. I got that too at first but you get used to it.

Ya. The power is really sensitive. They can’t actually see you (unless they have a card themselves). You’ll get used to it.

The world is going to hell from this. My brother and his gf broke up today when he found out she was cheating by using his plaque.

A lot of people walked out of work today when they asked our manager what his plan was for our department. Turns out the restructuring he talked about was more like laying off half our department right after product release.

Nobody is going to be able to lie to anyone anymore. We’re all going to be able to read minds. If you don’t look someone in the eye, they’ll think you’re lying to them. If you do, they can see every thought you have. I can’t even imagine what the world is going to be like.

I know I’m never looking anyone in the eye again. I don’t want people knowing what I fap to.

Yeah, but you’ll know what they fap to too. The world is going to become one giant gentlemen’s agreement not to bring up our late Tuesday nights on the computer.

It’ll be weird at first, but then it’ll be awesome. No more lies. No more politicians or big business. We can just ask them if they’re actually going to do what we’re electing them to do. No one is going to get away with crime anymore since the police can read the criminals’ minds. If Queen Victoria actually cared about the world, she would have released these plaques long ago, but no. They wanted to hold onto it so they could run the world and spy on us, but not anymore. We all have the power now, and we can use it on them. This is going to be new era.

@Heart_Clog, what’s probably going to happen is NO ONE is going to look anyone in the eye anymore. So it won’t mean nobody will lie anymore. Just that everyone wants to keep their privacy.

Everybody is going to be so afraid about looking anyone in the eye. There’s no way to tell who has a plaque and who doesn’t. Pretty soon, everyone will. I’m totally excited about all this, but at the same time, I wonder how the world is possibly going to function. Society needs lies.

70. The Paintbrush

“Here you go.” The exemplars thrust Paul onto his bed. “Enjoy yourself now.”

Without waiting for a response, they left the room. The hatch closed and sealed. Two pairs of footfalls walked off. Their fun was over.

They’d won.

He had drawn his own glyph.

He’d done so staring into a mirror at his foreign face. All his previous bodies were destroyed, their victim owners killed. His current body hadn’t a scratch on it, and yet he trembled so badly it took him three times to draw his glyph, and the exemplars had practically carried him back. The things they’d done had seeped into his soul. No matter what body he was in, he was broken.

Paul looked at his room. It was the same one they’d kept him in before his imprisonment had taken its dark turn. His painting set up was still on the balcony. The easel still had oil paint on it, and some of the paint tubes were still open. It’d all be brittle now. The painting itself was unfinished, and always would be. It had rained during his absence, and now it was ruined. Paul would have to re-assemble everything and start over, except he just didn’t feel like painting anymore.

Paul had watched as Alex gleefully drew his own flair while looking in the very mirror that Paul had used to betray his oath. He’d wondered whether Alex would force him to explain how it’s done, but of course Alex already knew. Alex had pried around in his mind long enough to know every detail of glyph writing. They had everything they needed now. With one master glyph, they could make more, so long as they kept Paul around to model his own flair.

He got to his feet slowly like an old man on his last legs. This room was his locked and guarded retirement home. He had to remind himself that his current body was no older than twenty. The weight he felt was not actually there. One foot after another, he reached the balcony, and looked over the citadel. Steel and sky. Gray and black. And dotted lights of a city far away. He was miles away from anything green. This room was to be the peace and quiet Sakhr promised him, where he could look out over the world Sakhr owned, and Sakhr could look over him.

Cautiously, he reached over the edge. No resistance. No puff of air. The rail didn’t have any repulse guards. It made sense on a citadel where soldier’s were entrusted not to walk over the edge of the deck, but what about prisoners?

It would be cheating though. Paul had just inflicted his power upon the world once again, and now he was considering leaving before facing the consequences of his own actions. It would be a coward’s finish, but perhaps best after all. Sakhr’s promised peace would last just as long as they didn’t want anything else from him. When would they begin wondering what Paul could do for them if he just tried to evolve his power? Victoria had told him about how many self imposed restrictions he’s convinced himself he has, such as the need to look at his subject when he draws, instead of drawing from memory. It was a habit probably born from decades of painting what he saw. Paul was sure she was right, but by that time in their relationship, he was done helping her. He’d seen her for what she was, and she was not the selfless humanitarian who’d once filled him with hope of changing the world.

He’d always been a naive rebel. His high school years had been a wash of drinking and acting out. His college years were drinking and protesting, probably landing himself on a watch list or two. He’d genuinely believed in that rubbish he and his fellow hippie friends spouted. He’d idolized their group-favorite philosophy teacher, Mr. Riggs, who had taught him all he believed about society. The government had been the source of all evils back then, with its classes and armies and oil and corporate interests—a self maintaining status quo. The world would be better off if we were all equal.


Idealistic rubbish.

He’d been so sure he’d grown out of all that nonsense, and then Victoria had come along. She’d convinced him she could create a utopia out of the world, and he’d believed her. This broken war-torn world was the result of that. The government controlled the people with mind reading powers, and he had enabled it.

With Victoria’s death, he’d had a chance to undo his contribution. If he’d only held out, the world would never have to worry about people violating their minds and bodies again, but he’d caved. Alexander had been creative—cruel in ways Paul had never thought possible. But it was nothing compared to the shame of having betrayed the world again.

Sighing, he rested his head and arms against the rail. His eyes drew to his paintbrushes. A thought occurred to him. It was the kind of thought his old rebellious self would have had—a naive thought. After everything that had happened, he should know better.

Yet he kept staring at that brush.

Absently, he took it up and a rag which still rested on the paint bench. He wipe the brush clean. After days exposed to the elements, it would never be quite right again, but it could still paint.

He walked back inside. His legs had lost their tremble. At the assembler, he navigated its menus. At first he looked only at paints, but other things would work much better. For nearly an hour, he followed links and read instructions. The assembler hummed away building items all the while. Paint first, then pencils—like he used in the old days of training with Victoria. Many mediums worked: pencils, pens, brushes, finger paints. Victoria even taught him to use a rake and sand for practice, and then came her metal etcher for those plaques of hers. He’d grown wise to her soon after, before he could expand into other mediums, but in theory, he’d only scratched the surface. Flairs were about how people interpreted them. As long as a glyph was made in a way another human could comprehend and possess, it would work.

As the pencils printed, Paul took his canvas and brush into the bathroom. He propped the canvas on the sink, squeezed gray paint into a soap holder, and stared at his reflection. The face was strange to him, but it was still there, even if he couldn’t pinpoint it, like a hidden detail that made a painting seem off.

He painted that detail. Soon, he had a master glyph—an intricate mapping of geometric lines and curves that appeared nowhere in the mirror.

The next step would make him feel dirty. Paul had always scoffed at those who sketched from other pictures. It was a representation of a representation. The artist might as well lay paper over what he was copying and trace it, but Paul had already given up on his standards earlier today.

He drew another master glyph by looking at the first. It worked, as he and Victoria always knew it would. He’d been on the verge of that breakthrough for so long, but never took that last step for Victoria.

The next part was trickier. He drew his glyph again while referencing the mirror. He botched it the first time. Since his power had just changed, so had the glyph. Minutes went by as he experimented to figure out what it now was. Oddly, it was a simpler design than before.

He returned to the assembler. With the pencils in hand, he sketched out every glyph he could remember. Alex’s was easy. Paul must have practiced on him a thousand times decades ago. Christof’s was harder. Sakhr’s he couldn’t recall. Victoria had never let Paul practice on him, but it didn’t matter, not for what Paul had in mind.

Who else? Sibyl? He thought back to the last time he’d seen her. It was right after Sakhr had released him from the tortoise, but he’d hardly paid attention to her. It took Paul forty minutes of trial and error before the glyph upon the paper finally came to life.

The shield was another he wished he could draw, but he’d never actually seen Sara’s power. She always drew her own glyph using a glyph of Paul’s power. Paul prayed the girl wouldn’t give Sakhr any trouble. It wouldn’t be worth what they’d do to her.

He turned back to the assembler. His next item had finished assembling: a designer tablet. A bottom line, free-to-use device for prototyping, creating, and uploading your own ideas into the assembler network’s public library. It’s interface was overwhelming. Materials. Patterns. Temperatures. Purity levels. Compounds vs. Alloys vs. Micropatterns vs. Polymers. At first, it seemed the device expected him to describe his item in terms of mathematical formulae. Another setting would let him individually assemble items with microparts at near atomic levels, piece by piece, bond by bond. Eventually he found a toolset that allowed for for both additive and subtractive modification of solid matter. That seemed more his style, although he still could barely figure out how to use it.

Eventually he designed a simple plastic plate the size of a playing card. He didn’t bother trying to bevel the edges. With an additive brush tool, he drew glyphs upon it—mind reading, flair detection, aura sensing, and finally his own new and improved master glyph that he’d sketched in the bathroom. His power had probably evolved even more since now that he’d written glyphs from memory, but that wasn’t important for what he was doing.

As an afterthought, he scribbled a few notes beneath each one. After saving the file, he sent it to the assembler. It took a full nine minutes, but when the plate came out, he looked it over. Each glyph functioned, but would it work when someone else downloaded the file? For that, he’d just have to hope.

He filled out out a quick description and uploaded the file to the public library.

And that was that. It was in the wild.

He took his tablet and canvas and fed them into the reclamator. For a long time, he stared at the glowing light indicating disassembly. By morning, no evidence would remain, though of course Sakhr would find out eventually.

Paul returned to the assembler and checked his submission. Zero downloads. He refreshed the page, but the number didn’t change. To pass the time, he browsed through the library and picked an item to assemble. Fifteen minutes later he had in his hand a double shot of single malt scotch, whatever the hell single malt meant for an assembled drink. It certainly didn’t taste single malt, but what more could he expect for a drink made out of thin air? It would do.

As he sipped, he did the math in his head. He was a tortoise for seven years. And it was twenty-five years before that since his last drink. Or twenty-six? It didn’t matter. He’d been sober at least thirty. Somehow, it didn’t bother him to fall off the wagon now. If there was ever a time he “deserved it”, it was now.

He refreshed the page again. Three downloads, which meant somewhere in the world, three people now held forbidden power. Paul imagined a North American teenager in a basement, or a housewife in Europe using a public library machine. Maybe there was an off duty soldier in a remote corner of the world. It didn’t matter who. More would come.

As Paul returned to the balcony, he saw the table of paints, and the same dangerous thought as before came to his mind. Power to the people. It was a clichéd term his adolescent self might have yelled. He’d been naive then, and maybe he was being naive now to think he had somehow leveled the playing field.

As he climbed over the rail, he realized he would never get to know how his actions would affect the world. There’d be chaos for sure, but surely it would recover. He wasn’t deluded enough to think the world would become equal. Such a lofty ambition was a foolishness reserved for his younger self, but it might reach equilibrium, and he felt proud of that. In a single night, he’d accomplished a dream his younger self had given up on.

His whiskey glass spun from his hand.

His clothes whipped.

The world would be different tomorrow. He had hope.

69. Your Session Has Expired

Mind clear.


All Winnie knew of was what her natural senses told her. The air was cool and dry. Wind whispered from the car’s air conditioning vents. Children shrieked and giggled in the park outside. The leather seats crinkled beneath her with every shift she made. She was sitting in a rental car that Victoria had picked up after they got off the repulse grid, and they’d stopped at a market in Mexico. Victoria was picking up supplies while Winnie was supposed to be practicing.

First, her warmup exercise. Winnie visualized the kitchenette where Alex had kept her and Winnie. No trouble. She didn’t even know whether the citadel had moved or not; her mind went straight there.

Next, she visualized the moon landing. There were the footprints and the bleached American flag. Everything looked the same, except for being dark. The earth glowed high above in the moon’s sky. Asia was facing the moon right now.

Next, she visualized a hopper that had been traveling ahead of her and Victoria during the South American leg of their trip. It had originally contained a young couple who’d argued in Portugese. It seemed like they were on a vacation. When Winnie visualized that hopper, she didn’t look at it as a whole, but rather she looked inside of it to see if the couple were still there. They weren’t. When Winnie pulled her focus away, she saw the the hopper was parked in a lot in Honduras. That was progress. Yesterday, she would not have been able to pull that hopper into mind without first knowing where it was, but this was progress she’d made hours ago.

Her next goal was to visualize Victoria’s tattoo. She was somewhere in the market across the street from where they’d landed, but where she was exactly didn’t matter. Her current teenage body had a tattoo around her belly button. Winnie visualized her mind right against Victoria’s belly, staring down at her naval ash though it were a crater upon a landscape. It worked. Winnie saw it, which of course she did, Winnie thought. Winnie knew exactly where Victoria’s naval was relative to her body, just as she knew where the moon landing was relative to the moon. Only now she needed to expand her view and see the world outside this torso landscape.

She saw Victoria’s baggy T-shirt. Other tattoos lined her arms. Her hair was pulled back in a pony tail. Then Winnie looked into the “sky”. Victoria was looking over dried and withered mangos. She was picking from a selection, watched over by a merchant who ignored her upturned disgust to favor other customers. More details washed in. Around her were other bins of equally frail fruits. It was the southeast corner of the market, where naturally grown foods were sold at astronomical prices.

Winnie checked that she wasn’t imagining any of this. She wasn’t. Victoria was in the same place when Winnie visualized the market separately.

That technically meant Winnie had just made a breakthrough. Victoria’s idea had been to imagine people more like astral bodies, and to instead locate something on them instead of them themselves. And it had worked.

She located Victoria. It had been that simple—underwhelming given the months of practice leading up to this. Victoria had said that when it finally happened, it would be as simple as something clicking into place—just a subtle change that made it right.

She tried it again on her mother by focusing upon her mother’s nose. Upon seeing it, she pulled away with much less careful mental preparation. Her mother was sitting on the couch at home. It didn’t seem like she was doing anything at all—another space out. Winnie had written her a message, but it looked like her mother hadn’t read it yet. She was notoriously slow about that. It was frustrating that she could have proof that her daughter was alive if she’d just grab the tablet on the side table right there. What mattered was that Winnie had succeeded once again in locating someone.

She tried yet again. This time, she focused on the naval of her original body, the one Alex had stolen from her. She hardly had to focus on it at all before taking all of the surrounding scene into mind. Alex was seated on a bed with legs curled beneath him as though fitting into the preteen girl persona.

But the bed he was on was… her bed?

Details flooded in quickly. Alex was in her dorm room on the Lakiran campus, looking through her tablet. Why? The campus was still evacuated. He shouldn’t be there. No one should. He was alone apart from the security team and the shuttle that brought him here.

He was paging through her contact list. With each entry, he opened the page and studied their info. One was Ray Mackerson, a boy she knew from Seattle. Alex paged down to look at what screen names, email addresses, and personal info was available. Every person Winnie knew would be on that list. Page after page of hostages.

Winnie snatched up Victoria’s tablet. She browsed to the same website. Her frantic hands failed the login password twice before she got in. Alex meanwhile had moved onto the next contact—a girl Winnie hardly knew from highschool. Alex only had to check her comment history to see who she was closest with. He’d know every person she even remotely cared about.

A message popped up warning her that this device had never been used with this account before. She had to type in more information before getting in. Her hands raced over the touch pad.

The next contact: Nava. She’d been on the cheerleading team with Winnie. With interest, Alex studied a picture containing both Nava and Winnie.

Winnie got in. She scanned for a “Change Password” page, filled out the form, and submitted.

When Alex tabbed back to the contact list, he was greeted by a new page.

Your session has expired.

A smile crept onto Alex’s face. “Someone’s watching, aren’t they? Thought you might.”

He minimized the browser. On the tablet’s desktop were many social media apps, all connected with friends or family in some way. Winnie would have to change the passwords on all of them. No. She’d have to delete them.

Alex clicked on her phone app, and Winnie immediately browsed for that app’s website. As she was logging on, Alex perused through her call history. Page after page of calls to the same number: her mother. She was the only person Winnie used this app for. All of her friends used something more modern, but her mother was slow to adopt. Alex pressed redial.

Winnie’s mind was already there when her mother’s tablet jingled. Her mother glanced at the caller ID, then explosively snatched the tablet up.


“Hi, Mom,” Alex said.

“Eun-Yeon? It’s you? I thought you were dead. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“What’s been going on? I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“I know. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to call until now. Security and all, you know?”

Winnie listened as she navigated through the phone app’s website. Alex wasn’t speaking like Winnie. He had an accent which he couldn’t quite hide. His word choices were wrong. He called her Mom. Until now, Alex hadn’t spoken to anyone who’d notice, but her mother might. Winnie could hope.

“What’s happening over there?”

“Oh, you know… Terrorist attacks.”

“Were you there? Where were you? Where are you now?”

“I was on the campus. There were a lot of soldiers, but everything is fine now. Security is still really high though.”

“Do you want to come home?” Her mother held her breath in hope. Winnie hit the submit button on the password change form. It confirmed.

“No, mom. I can’t come home right now, but I want to see you. Do you think you could visit me here?”

“Of course, sweetie. Would that be allowed? When should I come?”

The call wasn’t ending. Was it because it was already connected? Then what was Winnie supposed to do? The damage was being done now, not in a future call. She had to interrupt this one. But how? Call her mother while she was still on the phone with Alex? It might work, but Victoria had forbidden that.

Screw it. Winnie wasn’t going to let Alex get her mother just because of Victoria’s selfish rules.

As Alex and her mother worked out travel details, Winnie downloaded the app and logged on, hoping it might boot Alex.

It didn’t. She hovered her finger over the call button. Should she call right now? Alex might convince her mother not to pick up. The conversation seemed like it was ending anyway.

“I’ll be on the next flight out,” her mother said. “I just need to check my passport. It might be expired.”

“You don’t need a passport, mom. It’s the same empire.”

“Oh right.”

“I’ll make sure someone is there to meet you at Piaco airport. Just email me once you know your flight.”

“Oh! I’ll need to let Mary know I won’t be free this weekend.”

Alex shrugged carelessly, having no idea who Mary was. “Okay. I’ll see you soon then.”

Winnie’s mother rose and hurried toward the bedroom.

Hanging up, Alex looked up and addressed the empty air. “You get the idea, don’t you? Mumsy is on her way. How pleasant that visit will be is entirely up to you.”

Winnie pressed the dial button. The tablet chimed at her mother’s house. Her mother caught her step and turned back, confused.

“All I want you to do,” Alex continued, “is tell us where you are.”

Her mother accepted the call. “Did you forget something?”

Winnie’s voice caught. She hadn’t thought about how to approach this.

Alex kept addressing no one. “We want Victoria. Not you. Help us get her and everyone you know will be okay forever more. You have my word.”

“Hello?” her mother asked.

Eomeoni?” she said.

Mother frowned. “Who is this?”

“It’s me, eomma.” She spoke Korean. “Listen, I know you think we just talked on the phone, but it wasn’t me.”


“There’s been a takeover in the empire. The person you just talked to… I know it sounded just like me, but it wasn’t. You can’t come to the empire. They’re going to take you hostage.”

“Hostage? Who is this?”

“It’s me.”

“You don’t sound like my daughter. What is this about?”

“Please, eomma. I can prove its me. Ask me anything that only I would know.”

Mother stared at her tablet, then tapped the camera button. Winnie’s tablet prompted her to start a video call.

“No. I’m sorry. I can’t… I don’t have a camera on this tablet. I can see you though. I have my flair.”

Mother hung up. Winnie kept her mind on her, but split her attention to check Alex. He was still busy talking to an empty room, outlining exactly how Winnie was supposed to help him, and what would happen if she didn’t. Her mother was staring bewilderedly at her tablet. She moved to call Winnie, but hesitated.

Winnie redialed. She couldn’t risk that call going through to Alex.

Mother answered.

“It’s me again. Please don’t hang up.”

“Stop this,” she said. “I want to talk to my daughter.”

“It is me. I can see you with my flair. You’re wearing a green blouse and your black skirt, the one you replaced after you spilled sauté over it at Mary’s. You bought those bracelets from before the war when you and dad got lost that one time upstate. You always joke about how they didn’t use money there. All the antique stores just traded antiques back and forth like currency. Remember?”

Her mother looked around the room as though someone were over her shoulder.

“Please, listen. The bombing that happened last week was part of a coup. They’re making it seem like Queen Helena is in control, but she’s not.” Winnie stopped. If she kept on this track, she’d have to explain everything, from being a tortoise to being on the run with the queen, who wore the body of a teenage girl with a tattoo addiction. The more she’d explain, the less believable the story would sound. “I’m with people loyal to the queen right now. But the people who took over are trying to get to you because they want to control me. And if you don’t come to them, then they might come get you. That’s why you need to go into hiding.”


“Yeah.” This call was one hell of an unprepared mess. “With one of your friends that I don’t know about. Or go farther. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. I’ll know where you go though. I’ll find you with my power once everything is okay.”

“Why are you doing this? I want to speak to my daughter.”

“This is me.”

“No, it’s not. You sound nothing like her. This is not funny. Please, stop or I’ll call the police.”

“Please, eomma. I can prove it.”

“No. Stop this.”

“Just ask me—”

The car door opened. Victoria glared at Winnie.

“I have to go.” Winnie stabbed the end call button. She set the tablet back onto Victoria’s seat, remembered she was still logged on, and hurriedly began logging off. Victoria watched with piercing disappointment. Once Winnie finished, Victoria climbed in, set down a bag of groceries, and shut the door.

“I’m sorry,” said Winnie.

Victoria stared back, lips tight.

“Actually, No.” Winnie met Victoria’s eye. “I’m not sorry. Did you see what Alex was threatening to do to my mom? I don’t care where you’re taking me, but I’m not going to stand by and let them get her.”

Victoria’s silence was nearly more than Winnie could bear, yet she held her ground, looking right at Victoria to show her all that had transpired. If Victoria had a problem with it, then Winnie could get out and walk.

Victoria set the car to self-drive. Once they were back on the road, Victoria took up her tablet, pulled up a different communication app and typed in Winnie’s mother’s contact number.

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked.

Victoria made the call. Mother was still on her couch back home staring at her tablet when the call popped up on the screen.

“Why are you calling her?” Winnie asked more forcefully. Victoria held up a finger for silence.

Her mother let the call ring. The caller listed on her phone was only a series of numbers, no screen name. Finally she accepted.


“Is this Kim Hye-jun?” Victoria said.


Winnie was ready to snap the tablet from Victoria the moment the conversation went sour.

“This is High Exemplar Liat Delacroix. It’s come to my attention that you received a call from your daughter moments ago.”

“Yes. Ehh… Someone else called me too. I’m not sure who they were.”

“Indeed. I’m afraid the first call you received was not your daughter.”


“The terrorist agents who we believe were responsible for the Capital bombing have been contacting family members of several personnel closely associated with the queen. They’re using voice modulation to mimic voice patterns. This has happened to several people already.”

“I… I want to speak with my daughter.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible. We currently have a lockdown on all outside communication. She broke protocol contacting you.”

“Was that my daughter? It didn’t sound like her.”

“Winnie is suffering from a respiratory illness brought on by dust from the Capital bombing.”

“Oh. Is she going to be okay?”

Winnie wondered why her mother was buying all this. Victoria certainly sounded official, but didn’t her mother wonder why Victoria sounded like a teenager?

“She’ll be fine. What’s important right now is that under no circumstances are you to travel to the capital.”


“These agents are targeting your daughter because of her gift. There is a chance that they may come after you directly. If you ever planned to take a vacation, take it now. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. No one. Your daughter will know where you are and we’ll contact you once this situation is resolved.”

“What? You want me to leave? I must speak with my daughter, please. How do I know you are who you say you are?”

“Kim Hye-jun-ssi, I am High Exemplar Liat. I work directly for the queen and am assisting in the resolution of this crisis. Do as I say.”

All of Winnie’s mother’s uncertainty washed away. “Yes. Of course. I’ll leave tonight.”

“Good. You will hear from us.”

Victoria hung up.

Winnie saw in her head as her mother practically lunged toward the bedroom. Her suitcase was out in seconds. She lined clothes and toiletries up on the bed. Winnie had no doubt it was to this vacation she was traveling to, not the capital. That final command from Victoria still lingered in the air like a bubble refusing to pop. It had weight that seemed to smother doubt. Even recalling the sound of Victoria’s voice caused the hair’s on Winnie’s neck to stand.

“Thank you,” Winnie said.

“Hmm. Next time use your head. I’m not going to do that for all your friends. Now…” Victoria leaned in and peered into Winnie’s eyes. Her head tilted in curiosity. “You just had a break through with your power, didn’t you?”

“Uh, I think?”

“Show me.”

68. Sleep and Study

The repulse grid relied upon large nodes spaced along the terrain. It used the same tripod method as any other ship, only the tripod was reversed. The nodes pushed the shuttles up from the ground, instead of pushing down on the ground from the shuttles. Because of limited range, that meant no hopper traveled more than about five hundred feet off the ground.

So as Victoria and Winnie traveled along the northern coast of South America, the view out the shuttle window showed beautiful stretches of beach. Winnie watched, though she opted to follow along in her mind. The details her flair provided were almost as vivid as what her eyes told her. One day, she might close her eyes and forget to ever open them again.

Winnie went between watching the passing scenery to envisioning Helena, who was still trapped in a shower. Christof had put in some leafy foods from a mess hall salad bar, but Helena wasn’t eating. At least Alex didn’t have her.

Winnie visited her mother occasionally. It was still night time in California, so Winnie had yet to see her awake, yet somehow, even in her sleep, her mother looked tense, as though in a fever. It wasn’t just Winnie’s imagination. Her mother had been trying to reach Winnie ever since the Capital Tower fell. Winnie’s phone lay in her dorm on the campus, which was still evacuated.

She brought her attention on herself. After nearly a week as a tortoise, she’d have thought she’d be used to being in another body, yet she still startled to see a blonde-haired, white, twenty-something woman resting her eyes.

Across from her, Victoria was staring directly at Winnie. Winnie opened her eyes to give Victoria a narrowed glare.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Victoria asked.

“I’m not tired.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I can’t sleep. This body is weird.”

“Did you try trying?”

“I don’t feel like sleeping, okay?”

“You’re too worried. Relax. Your mother will understand once all this is over.”

For the hundredth time, Winnie promised herself to never make accidental eye contact again.

“I could just call her,” Winnie said.

“Absolutely not.”

“Why? What if she tries to reach me and gets Alex instead? If I could just tell her I’m all right, she’d stop worrying.”

“How would you explain why you sound completely different? You can’t explain to her that you’ve swapped bodies.”

“Why not? I could prove who I am.”

“Let me clarify. I won’t let you reveal body swapping to others.”

“Don’t you think the secret is already out?”

“No.” Victoria leaned in. “And it will stay that way because neither Sakhr nor I will allow it to become common knowledge.”

“He’s swapped out at least two dozen exemplars.”

“And he’s threatened each of them with death if they so much as utter a word about body swapping.”

“…Because you both want to keep it to yourselves.”

“Can you imagine what would happen if the public knew that swapping bodies was possible?”

Winnie considered it. Hell would certainly break loose, but she doubted Victoria actually cared. If people knew about body swapping, they might figure out she was planning to steal her own daughter’s life to continue her reign.

“Okay, then I won’t tell my mom that,” Winnie said. “I just want to let her know I’m okay.”

“I’m sure you do, but calling her while in another body will only confuse her. You can contact her after I retake the throne.”

“Will I have my own body back then?”

“If you work with me, then yes, assuming we can.”

“In the meantime, my mom has to live wondering what happened to her only daughter.”

Victoria regarded her coolly. “If you absolutely must, you can write your mother an email after we’re off the grid. Explain that you haven’t been able to reach out because of increased security, but that you’re okay. Then tell her you probably won’t be able to contact her for a while. I will read this email before you send it. Satisfactory?”

“I guess.”

“Good. Now go to sleep. I need you rested.”


“I need to keep my eye on Sakhr constantly now, and sooner or later, my body is going to need sleep. I need you rested so we can swap bodies. I’ll watch Sakhr. You’ll sleep for both of us.”

“…You can do that?”

“Yes. Sleep is for the brain, not the mind.”

“So we’re all going to be swapping bodies back and forth this whole time? Won’t that be… you know, weird?”

“After a while, you’ll start to see bodies more as accessories.”

Winnie hoped she never got that way, or if ever she got her own body back, it wouldn’t be a part of her anymore. It was just a housing.

Victoria sensed her unease. “We’ll only keep it up until we’re out of secure empire space. Right now, all it would take is one word from Sakhr, and this coach would get stuck in a holding pattern. I need watch him so I can get this hopper on the ground immediately in case he finds us.”

“Do you want help?”

“No thank you.” Victoria turned her gaze back to Winnie. “But there is something you can do though if you’re not going to sleep.”


“How has your practice been coming?”

“You mean my flair? I’ve been using it a lot. I got better at seeing through occlusions when I was in the river.”

“But you’re still seeing with your gift? You’re not simply knowing? Are you still using your ‘camera’ point of view?”


Victoria frowned. “How much time did you spend on your exercises?”

“My exercises? This week?”


“Uh, well, maybe you didn’t notice, but I spent most of the week as a tortoise.”

“It only means you had nothing else to do.”

“Are you serious? I thought you were dead. If I’d practiced, the only person I’d have helped is Sakhr.”

Victoria considered this. “Fair enough. I will accept that excuse for shirking your lessons.”


“Let’s pick up where we left off. I’d like you focus on your locator exercises. I’ve had some thoughts on how we might—”

“You want to have a lesson right now?” Winnie said. “Aren’t there bigger things happening?”

“Which is why I need you to develop your power now more than ever. I’m trying to keep an eye on Sakhr, all of his followers, and the ministers and exemplars he interacts with. It’s difficult for me to do with your limitations.”

“What is your power anyway? I know you’re not the glyph writer. Sakhr said you could do anything.”

“Yes. I learn. All powers are mine, once I understand them. Except all I can do is mimic what others can do, which is why I need you to enhance your flair to improve our chances. Especially if you learn to locate and focus on people.”

“Why that one?”

“Because as it is, if I lose track of anyone, I have to relocate them all over again. It’s why I can’t afford to stop watching. More importantly, we’re headed to Canada to find someone. It would save us time if I didn’t have to search.”


“Develop your power and you’ll get to find out. Are you ready to begin?”

Winnie was unsure. She always knew that training her power ultimately benefited Victoria. Before, she hadn’t cared. Whereas now she wondered why so many flairs ended up as tortoises. If she refused, she was making herself useless to Victoria. She’d only be a liability.

On the other hand, Victoria jeopardized her own position to help Winnie. Winnie’s flair was important. It meant leverage.

“I have one condition,” Winnie said.

Amused, Victoria inclined her head. She stared piercingly at Winnie, which Winnie recognized as a demand for eye contact. There’d be plenty of that during a lesson anyway, so Winnie did so.

“I see.” Victoria pondered, then spoke, “Fine, but she will never rule.”

“Will she’ll get her own body back?”

“No. Her body has always been my property, but I will give her a suitable body, and she will keep her silence. As will you.”

As despicable as Winnie thought it was, it was probably the best she’d get. “Fine, then,” she replied.

67. Custody

“Because they’re mine,” said Alex. “Sakhr gave them to me to make them cooperate.”

“You have nothing to gain from her,” replied Christof. “I don’t see why I should hand her over.”

They were arguing in Sakhr’s office while Sakhr was trying to work. They might as well have been arguing in a supply closet for all the interest Sakhr had in this conversation. Yet they kept turning to him to settle matters as though he was their parent. He was trying to attend to a multitude of issues that had come in, one being a staffing problem involving one of Victoria’s private estates along the Rio Jari down south. It seemed like a nice place: rustic, out of the way, private. He could leave for there and not tell anyone. Not the military. Not the ministers. Not Alex, or Christof, or Quentin, or anyone.

“There is plenty to gain,” Alex argued. “That girl is the far seeing one’s friend. If can get her back—”

“How? What are you going to do? Torture the friend and hope that the girl is looking?”

“That’s exactly it. Trust me. I’ve seen her mind. That girl will be watching Helena constantly.”

…Except disappearing wouldn’t work, Sakhr thought. Victoria was alive. He’d known in his gut that she was, but having Victoria rescue that girl just reasserted that Sakhr would never be safe. She was out there. She was watching. How else could she have known exactly when and where to be last night? In some ways, Sakhr was glad. She’d died too suddenly before. He and Victoria hadn’t… battled. Not to his satisfaction. Now she could witness him taking everything she’d worked so hard to build.

“This is not who we are,” Christof said. “We’ve been back in this world for a week and all we’ve done is prove exactly why Victoria locked us away to begin with.”

“First of all, her name is Katherine. Let’s not play into her make-believe. Secondly, nobody is asking you to do anything you don’t want to do, but Sakhr and I are trying to keep us alive.”

Of course, now Victoria had an edge, thanks to these bumbling cretins. She must have been watching all along, but now without the Korean, he could never stare back. There was no point in going after them. They could be in any place and in any body. Only exemplars could find her, and he sure as hell wouldn’t trust a task like that to the breed of stock Alex had been recruiting. Maybe once he had true loyalists of his own, except that was so far down the line he wouldn’t even waste time thinking about it.

If he could just get her coordinate location. Cruise missiles don’t ask questions.

How he did love having a military at his disposal.

“We don’t have time for your sentimentalism,” Alex said. “Sakhr gave the tortoises to me, not you, because he knew I’d get results.”

“And what do you have to show for it? Paul hasn’t given you his glyph, and now you’ve lost a tortoise.”

“Not my fault.”

“Either way,” Christof turned to Sakhr. “I’m keeping Helena.”

Alex turned to Sakhr too. “I’m not done. Give me the princess, and I can get the other one back.”

Sakhr could no longer pretend they weren’t there. Sibyl sat to his left, quiet, obedient. Why couldn’t the rest be like her? He reached his hand out, and she responded by offering her plaque.

Hundreds of auras bloomed to life. Officers in nearby spires focused on their duties. Faux exemplars in Sakhr’s own spire procrastinated—all of them handpicked by Alexander. Sakhr could even sense those damn osprey that no one had yet to remove from the bridge spire. He’d have to remember to talk to the admiral about that. With Victoria alive, Sakhr’s no birds policy was more important than ever.

What mattered right now were the two aura’s before him. Like fingerprints, they were wildly different, though both were housed behind bickering mouths. Also, both were being genuine. No hidden agendas today.

“Alex. Let Christof keep the girl.”

“Wait. How about this?” Alex replied. “I promise I won’t do anything to the girl for twenty-four hours. I’ll just put a sign above her threatening what I’ll do if she doesn’t come back.”

“No, Alex.”

“Forty-eight hours. The far seeing girl will come crawling back.”

“No, she won’t. She’s with Victoria, who won’t allow her. Ergo, there is no point.”

“The girl could escape her.”

“She won’t.”

“It’ll at least make it harder for them. Katherine will have to waste time making sure the girl doesn’t slip away. Come on, Sakhr. Since when do you pass up potential advantages?”

Sakhr’s response was delayed. It was a potential edge.

With his hand on Sibyl’s plaque, he could sense the effect his silence had on the two. Alex’s anticipation grew. The effect on Christof was more a pronounced dread. This was important to Christof.

“No,” Sakhr said finally. “Christof keeps the girl. We’re not subjecting a girl to mindless misery for minor gains. And she may come in useful later.”

“Thank you,” said Christof.

“You’re making a mistake,” said Alex. “You’re being weak.”

Enough, Alex.” He turned to Christof. “Do not lose that girl. Keep her alive. Keep her secure.”


“If there’s nothing else, you can go.”

Christof and Alex rose. Sakhr motioned to Alex. “You stay.”

Alex sat back down. Christof glanced at both of them while leaving. His face was neutral, but Sakhr sensed the suspicious shift in his aura. Nothing could be done about that. Alex had been right when he said Christof got caught up in sentimentalism. Sometimes sordid affairs were necessary. And Christof didn’t have the right mindset.

“So,” Alex said after Christof was gone. “You’re hogtying my work so Christof can sleep better?”

“He’s right. We never used to do these sorts of things.”

“We never had the world thrust on us before. We have enemies now.”

“That may be so,” said Sakhr. “Let Christof have this victory. I want to know where you stand with Paul.”


“Are you making progress?”


“Because from where I stand, it looks as though you’re just having your own fun. I gave him to you because I—”

“I know what you want, and I will get it.”

“I see. And once you have gotten this glyph, you plan to bring it straight to me?”

 Sakhr’s hand still rested on Sibyl’s plaque. His gaze was direct at Alex.

This wasn’t lost on Alexander. “Is someone having a case of the paranoids?”

“Do you?”

If not for the plaque, the delay in Alex’s response would have raised Sakhr’s suspicions, but his aura was much too playful, and when he spoke, he returned Sakhr’s burning gaze.

“Yes,” he said. “Once I have the glyph from Paul, I will bring it to you. Do you feel better now?”

“How much longer do you think it will take?”

“He’s on the brink. Twice he’s almost written it while in a daze. Give me another day or two. Is that good enough for you?”

“It will have to do.”

“Anything else?”

“No. No more.”

Alex rose and headed toward the door.

“Oh one last thing,” said Sakhr.

Alex looked back. “Yes?”

“Doesn’t the far seeing girl have a family?”

A smile crept onto Alex’s face. “Yes, she does.”

66. A Grid Station

“Margot Baudin.”

That was the name on the card inside Winnie’s chest pocket. It was her only picture ID, and unfortunately, it stated that she was an exemplar, which was why Winnie had to wait on a bench at a grid station while Victoria managed their travel affairs. It left Winnie with time to look over her new body.

Beside the ID, there was also a credit card, a grid pass, About eighty dollars, a few Argentinian pesos, and a punch card for a local grocery store. Margot had been two sandwiches away from a free one. Tucked away behind the dollars was a blank check, a health insurance card, and another credit card which didn’t look like it got much use. She must have been a responsible woman. It was a backup card for when she got in trouble, but nothing had prepared Margot for this.

Realistically, Winnie knew that Margot had already been dead for days when Victoria stole the body for Winnie. Some detainee or prisoner had been masquerading in it. That didn’t make Winnie feel better though. She turned her mind to check other pockets. Apart from a pen and some lip balm, Margot had nothing else. The previous body thief probably hadn’t had time to fill her pockets when Alexander called the exemplars out of bed. Only her phone and wallet, and Victoria had made Winnie throw away the phone.

With her possessions checked over, Winnie turned her mind once again to look at herself. She was a white woman. Twenty-six according to her ID. She was healthy and objectively attractive, though not nearly as athletic as Winnie’s original body. Victoria had stolen a few items from laundry lines and demanded Winnie change out of her exemplar uniform. Winnie had been self conscious about getting naked in front of Victoria, even though the body wasn’t hers.

The resulting hodgepodge of clothing fit poorly, but it was decent enough. Anyone glancing would see a bored woman waiting on a bench. Nothing more. Winnie checked again what Victoria was up to. She wasn’t buying grid tickets like Winnie had first thought, but rather renting a hopper. That made sense; it would be more private.

Victoria clearly had a plan. It was comforting to an extent, but given everything Winnie had learned about her, she wondered if Victoria’s plan was meant to help anyone except herself. A woman capable of using her own daughter for spare parts was not someone who rescued Winnie for Winnie’s benefit.

Victoria finished. She return and marched past Winnie. “Come.”

Winnie hurried after.

They reached the rental area. A central platform overlooked a lot filled with rows of hopper carriages, varying in color and design. In the early morning dark, the shuttles were little more than shapes to Winnie’s eyes, but after a week stuck with inferior tortoise vision, she’d taken to reflexively supplementing her own vision with her flair. As a result, she saw each hopper in perfect detail, despite the platform’s glaring fluorescents blinding her. She supposed Victoria would be proud under other circumstances.

At an automated kiosk, Victoria held a card against a scanner. It beeped, and a single coach lifted from the others and arced to the valet pad as though a hand had plucked it and carried it over.

They climbed inside. It was a four seater, arranged so that the two pairs of seats faced each other over a wall-mounted table. The leather reeked of freshener. With the doors closed, Victoria tapped a panel mounted beside the table, which lit up with a navigation menu. Winnie watched Victoria input a destination.

“Panama City?” Winnie asked.

“At first. We’ll travel by car from there.”

“But why so far?”

“Because Sakhr knows I’m here now. He’ll be looking for me.”

“Okay, but what about Helena? Are we going to rescue her too?”

“No. Too much risk.”

“Or is it because you don’t care?”

Victoria regarded her. “Whether I care or not, it would be suicidal. I couldn’t rescue you either until you escaped. All it would take is a single exemplar, or a bundle of wall bots, and they’d have me. And that was when Sakhr was only suspicious that I was alive. Now he knows for sure.”

“But you don’t care, right? He has your daughter, but it’s just her body you care about?”

“Is this a discussion you want to have now?”

“What discussion? The one on how you were raising your daughter just to steal her body? It’s true, isn’t it? That is what you were going to do?”


She answered so matter-of-factly, as though confirming her own name. The neutrality of it made Winnie want to attack her.

“How could you possibly do something like that? She’s your own daughter.”

“I was going to need another body eventually. Her being a physical heir would provide an ideal body to rule from that the public would not question.”

“But that’s the most evil thing I’ve ever heard of! You let her believe that she had a future, but she was like cattle to you. You’re worse than Sakhr.”

“And you are neglecting the scope of the situation. What I was doing would cause the suffering of a single person. Sakhr and Alex have stolen the bodies of dozens of innocents in just this week. The only reason you’re weighing my choices regarding Helena as worse is because you know her personally.”

“No. It’s because she’s your own daughter.”

“I birthed her for the explicit purpose of creating a body. I didn’t decide this after she was alive, when I might have loved her.”

“That makes it worse.”

“It is only your bias that makes it seem so. Helena is one person—one person who happens to be physically related to the body I was occupying at the time. Look at the bigger scale, Winnie.”

“Okay. You mean like how you started the war? How you got billions of people killed, including my own dad?”

“That is a more suitable grievance to be angry at me about, but that’s still a matter of scope. I made billions suffer in order to prevent the suffering of trillions.”

“So you have an excuse for every horrible thing you’ve ever done?”

“I have a rationale, yes. I have made hard decisions. Perhaps if I die, I will suffer for them in whatever afterlife there may be, or perhaps I’ll live long enough to see my plans to fruition, and then my contribution to this world will be a net benefit.”

“You’re a monster. You think you had the right to decide that so many people should die?”

“The right? No. There’s no such thing as a right. They’re just privileges a higher power has decided to give people regardless of whether or not they deserve them. I don’t have rights because there is no power higher than me. What I had was the power to do what I did.”

The fact that Victoria’s temper wasn’t rising was the most infuriating part about this argument. She wasn’t defensive, or upset. She genuinely believed she was right. Winnie was just being irrational.

She wondered what would happen if she got out of the hopper and just walked away. Victoria would drag her back, wouldn’t she? Winnie was an asset—one that couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

“Winnie…” Victoria said. Winnie realized she’d been looking the queen in the eyes. “You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to like me. Just realize that right now I’m the lesser of two evils. There’s me, and there’s Sakhr. And whether you like it or not, you have to choose a side, because they’re not going to let you stand on the sidelines.”

“They still have Helena. Maybe you don’t care about her, but I do, and if you’re not going to help her, then I’m better off going my own. Maybe I should turn myself back in.”

“Don’t be idiotic. There’s nothing you can do for her.”

“Not with you, because you don’t care that she’s in the hands of a psychopath.”

“No, she’s not, Winnie. Look. Put your mind in the officer’s quarters in the rear starboard spire. The third floor. Largest quarters.”

Winnie did so, reluctantly. It felt dirty taking orders like that, especially when Victoria maintained eye contact like this were just another lesson. Winnie found the correct floor. It was a dark room with a larger bed than other quarters, nearly luxurious if one ignored the miniature size. Christof was laying in the bed, eyes open, staring up at the ceiling. His military uniform was draped over a work chair.

“Look in his bathroom,” Victoria said.

She did. It was barely large enough for two standing people, but it did have a corner shower with two glass walls. Its door was barricaded closed with a foot locker, because in the shower’s center was Helena. She was fully pulled into her shell again, just as she’d been before Winnie convinced her to try escaping, only now she was completely alone, and escape was impossible.

“But she’s safe,” Victoria said. “If you’d been watching your enemies more closely, you’d know Christof refused to give her back to Alexander.”

“Yeah, but how long will that last? Helena bit Alex. He’s going to want her back.”

“Probably, but if any one of Sakhr’s ilk will take care of her, it’s Christof. He won’t give her up easily. Think rationally. Do you really think turning yourself in will help her?”

It wouldn’t. It had been an empty threat when she said it. “We could save her. I almost managed to save both of us alone, and we were only tortoises then. We can go back in.”

“No, Winnie. You escaped through sheer luck. They’re on alert now, and by this time tomorrow, Sakhr will have addressed the lax behavior of his subordinates—behavior I was planning to exploit for myself, but now we can’t. Believe me, Winnie, if I could safely get in, I would, if only to save Paul. Sakhr is being much, much worse to him than he is to Helena.”

“No. You only want to save Paul because you don’t want Sakhr to have his glyph. If you actually cared about him, you wouldn’t have put him in a tortoise.”

“I consider Paul my friend despite that. He had left me little choice in the matter, and I’d save him anyway, Winnie. I’d save you all, including Helena if it were feasible. Despite whatever you may think of me, I am not Sakhr. I have never once resorted to torture.”

Winnie eyes were turned away from Victoria’s gaze. She was still trying to think of some way to save Helena. They might fly in as birds and swoop Helena out of there, except the windows and doors were closed. The exemplars were all awake. The citadel was still on alert. No matter how much Winnie hated it, she couldn’t do anything for Helena.

“Stay with me,” said Victoria. “I know you’re angry with me. Just understand that if you run off now, they will catch you. Sakhr is a too great a foe. He’s clever. He’s powerful, and above all else, he’s careful. You’ll never beat him. No one has gotten the best of him in thousands of years, except for me. I’m better than him, and I will beat him again. I’ll put an end to this mess—the one that you created—but I need your help, and if you fall into his hands again, he’s going to use you against me. So, are you going to storm off? Or can we get moving?”

Winnie already knew her answer. She just didn’t like it. And if Victoria actually needed Winnie’s help, then maybe Winnie could have some control over Helena’s future. Maybe.

Briefly, she let her gaze meet Victoria’s.

It was all Victoria needed. She confirmed the destination on the menu, and the coach lifted into the air. Panama City was nine hours away.

65. Drifting Towers

The opening of the kitchenette door awoke Winnie. The lights came on. Winnie folded her feet closer over her face. In her mind, she glanced to see what was happening.

An exemplar had wandered into the kitchenette. He was opening drawers and cabinets one after another, seeing empty shelves. “Fucking hell,” he muttered. “The fuck is the point of these kitchens?”

He checked the fridge, nothing but a freezer section with an ice frost inches thick. The exemplar slammed it shut, sighed, and wandered out. Not once did he glance at the tortoise box.

Mentally, Winnie followed him long enough to see him going to other rooms on the floor looking for anything stored. Whether bored or hungry, he wasn’t finding what he wanted, only bothering the few civilians who now worked on this floor. Little by little, the spire was becoming a populated work center, but it seemed empty now. Her mind checked the sky outside. Night. The clock in her dorm read 11:23.

She tucked her feet closer until her scales pressed against her face. The man thoughtlessly left the light on.

…And the door open.


Winnie stared at it with her mind. Beyond were several halls, doors, tarmac, and a long expanse of ocean.

But still.

In her mind, Winnie plotted a path from her box. She’d have to fall off the table, then the door had a short lip she’d need to climb. Like all doors in this place, it was more of a hatch. This place may be dressed up as an office, but it was still in an aerial vessel.

But if Winnie got past that, she would then walk down the hall, past several civilians working late.

Then came several choices.

An elevator led further up the spire. Nope.

A doorway led out to the top deck. Closed, so no.

A stairwell led both up and down. Perhaps if Winnie and Helena got down to the hangar bays, they could stow away aboard a ship. Who would notice two tortoises nestled behind packages? Anywhere the ship took them would be better than here, but getting to that ship seemed damn near impossible. Multiple hallways. Endless doors. Countless soldiers coming and going in the lower levels. Anyone would stop them.

She nearly dropped the idea when someone opened the front door to the spire. It was one of the civilians. He had a wastebasket, which he used to prop it open. He circled around out of view of the door and took out a cigarette. The door was left unattended.

If the door were to close, he’d need a key card to get in. Propping it must be a minor convenience, even if it meant anyone might get in or out—even a tortoise.

Though suppose she did get out, what then? She’d be on the deck, the only place to go would be into another spire. Or down into another part of the citadel.


Winnie thought of when Alex threw Gilles overboard. It must be at least five hundred feet to the water below, yet she’d seen Gilles flapping his feet after striking the water.

Winnie and Helena were tortoises just as small as he was.

But could she survive from there? It was nearly a quarter mile to land.

A hell of a lot could go wrong, but this was the last time she’d ever have this chance. By tomorrow, either Sakhr or Alex would read her mind, and precautions would be taken. Punishments might be dolled out just for considering it.

So what the hell? If she truly wanted to stop the others from exploiting her power, escape was necessary. She tried not think about what Alex would do to her and Helena if they failed.

Winnie came out of her shell and eyed the cardboard wall of her box. Getting out was step one, and she’d need help.

She approached Helena. The girl was fully withdrawn inside her shell. Winnie nudged her front legs out of the way. Helena pulled in tighter.

Winnie wailed. No response. She nudged and nudged, but still nothing. Helena was wallowing, and she had every right to. After what Alex said, she probably wanted to crawl into a hole and die. But she could wallow in pity later. Winnie needed Helena to be brave like earlier.

Winnie bumped Helena hard. This got her to at least move her legs aside and look out. Winnie wailed, then looked to the wall. Conveying her desire to escape would be tricky.

Helena tucked back away. Winnie wailed again, loudly, causing Helena to wince. Eye to eye, they looked at one another. Helena snapped, pinching Winnie’s nose. Leave me alone it said. The bite smarted, but Winnie didn’t pull away. She wailed again and pushed against box wall. Helena seemed unimpressed, so Winnie pushed her. Helena stumbled. It caused her to bring out her legs to catch herself. This time when Winnie wailed, Helena wailed back. It was an exasperated fine.

This time, when Winnie went to the wall, Helena followed. They both climbed up against the cardboard. The box teetered, but not enough, so Winnie stepped onto Helena to push from higher up. This elicited an irritated hiss from Helena, but it worked. The box toppled. They spilled out. Winnie almost tumbled off the table preemptively.

…Which might have just gotten the fall over with. It was only three feet to carpeted floor, but just looking at it made Winnie imagine the night Sakhr escaped, when that tortoise fell and cracked open, insides like wet slop.

She ignored the thought and braced herself. One. Two. And over the edge she went. The carpet felt a lot harder than it looked. Winnie struck and tumbled. The pain was surprising, like a blow to the head which left her dazed, but amazingly, she landed right side up.

Helena was still at the top, looking down like a cat in a tree. Winnie mewled to her. Helena mewled back. Back and forth they went. The understanding was there. The problem was nerves, and the best coaching Winnie could give was to stand there and stare with her stupid tortoise face. In her mind, she checked on the smoker. He’d returned from his break. The gamble was how long he’d wait until his next one.

Helena moved… to turn away from the ledge. For a second, Winnie thought she was headed back to the box, but then she started backing up. She was trying to… what? Climb down? Her back legs dangled. She edged further. It was like watching a toddler descend stairs. Then all at once, she tipped. A fall, a tumble, a hissed gasp. She landed on her back, and her legs kicked pitifully.

Winnie rolled her over. Both now right side up, Winnie guided her to the door.

Next obstacle. The lip of the door. No problem. Winnie’s hind feet were long enough to push her over, although it was clumsy. She’d been a tortoise for almost a week, and even now she felt as though her limbs were protruding from cutout holes in a cardboard box, as if wearing a terrible robot costume.

They were in the hall now. Next step was to get to the front door, which meant passing offices. Her mind told her that they’d only have to pass one which was occupied. Unfortunately, the occupant was situated such that his open door was in his view. She wondered if it might be best just to wait until he went home… or wherever civilians went on the citadel to sleep. Unfortunately no telling when the smoker will leave either, or if another exemplar might come down from upstairs—

She froze.

The exemplars were upstairs—all of them, just a few stories away. Winnie tried to recall what the range was on their aura sensing. Could they pick up the tension of two souls on the spire ground floor? Her mind went up there, where offices were being converted into bunks. There were dozens of exemplars. Most were asleep. A few were playing on their computers or talked with one another. Only two were in contact with their plaques. If they sensed her, they didn’t care.

Were there any other threats she neglected to think of? Alexander was near the top floor, but he didn’t have a plaque, because for some reason Winnie didn’t care to know, he had kept her body. Sakhr had mentioned he was leaving, taking Sibyl with him. All Winnie could do was keep calm. It seemed a futile effort.

She crept beside the door leading to the office worker. The man seemed engaged in his work.

Helena nudged her and mewed. In the silent office, the noise seemed deafening to Winnie, but the office worker didn’t notice.

Winnie turned. Helena was impatient. There was no way to convey the need to be quiet, but maybe Helena was right. Waiting wasn’t going to make this better. Resolving herself, Winnie got ready. The next time the man leaned toward his screen, she bolted by the door as fast as a tortoise could bolt.

She made it across, and then the man leaned back.

Winnie wanted to yell at Helena to stop, but it was too late. Helena was already crossing, oblivious to the man. Winnie could only watch and pray.

Motion caught the man’s eye. He glanced, leaned to look past the door, but by then Helena was past. Winnie’s heart would need days to recover.

A minute later, they reached the front door, closed at the moment. Winnie had already picked out her hiding spot: the desk where a reception might greet incomers. It would be long dash to the door from there, but it was the best she could do.

Confused, Helena pawed her. Winnie tried to convey her intentions. Staring at the door, she crouched her head low and held her mouth slightly agape, as though panting. It felt like a natural way to convey the idea: wait and get ready, even though logically it made no sense to her. Helena seemed to understand though.

And so they waited. And waited.

Winnie was worrying if a smoker would come around at all when her mind finally saw an office worker get up. Same one as before. Grabbing his cigarette pack, a jacket, and his wastebasket, he headed to the front. He propped the door and disappeared to his same smoking spot.

Winnie moved. After a short dash, she tried inching underneath the hatch door. Her shell caught on the top. Okay then. Moving to where the door met the wastebasket, she tried to push it open. It was like pushing a giant. With every inch of her strength, she barely managed to widen the gap. When she turned to get out, it closed, pinning her shell against the wastebasket.

She wobbled. She pushed. Nothing.

She was stuck. So much for their great escape.

And then Helena started climbing over her. It was uncomfortable, and at the top, Helena had to tilt herself sideways to avoid getting caught herself. The attempt caused her to step all over Winnie, including her head, but she did get through. After tumbling over, she turned and pushed the door, freeing Winnie. They were both through, and now outside.

Winnie led Helena away from the door in the opposite direction of the smoker. They were nearly in the shadows when, “What the hell?”

She froze. Behind her, the smoking man had his hand on the door, but he was looking right at them. Helena stopped as well.

The man stared. Winnie hoped they were hidden, but of course not. They were on a vast, featureless tarmac. He stepped up and crouched by them.

“Huh? How the hell did you get up here?” He leaned closer. “Are you the queen’s turtles?”

No, Winnie thought, we’re tortoises. And no we’re not. Go away.

The man reached. Winnie turned and snapped at his fingers. A miss, but he yelped and recoiled. Helena hissed. Together, they plodded toward him, mouth’s agape and ready to clamp.

The man stumbled away. He hurried back inside and shut the door. Now their time was limited. Winnie scanned around with her mind. The spire they’d emerged from was near the center of the citadel. Any direction would take about the same time to reach the edge, but some edges were closer to the mainland. She picked one, and they were off.

She and Helena were walking across the open deck. Even at night, the citadel had enough light that anyone looking would plainly see them, but there was no point to stealth anymore. In her mind, she saw that civilian talking to the exemplars upstairs. When Alexander heard, he lurched from his chair. He, Christof, and several exemplars raced down the stairs.

Winnie and Helena were half way to the edge once the others got outside. The smoking man pointed out the spot near the door.

“They were here,” he said. “Looks like they walked off.”

“How long ago was this?” asked Christof.

“Two minutes?”

“And they were headed this way?” Alex pointed toward the direction the civilian had seen the tortoises heading. Good. It wasn’t the way Winnie had ultimately chosen.

“I guess so,” the man said. “They looked pretty lost to me.”

“But how did they get out? At all?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know. They were already out here when I stepped out.”

“But someone had to… nevermind. Look at me.” Alex peered at him.

The man looked back, confused. “What?”

Alex threw his hands up. “Oh. My. God. You goddamn imbecile.”

“Hey. Who the hell are you?” the man replied.

“You leave the door to the imperial spire cracked open? Unattended?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I will see you executed.”

“Listen, kid. I told you those tortoises were already out here. I was the one who reported them. They weren’t—”

“Arrest him now.” Alex said to an exemplar. “Take him to a cell upstairs.”

The exemplars seized him.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” the man said.

“I work directly with the queen. Arrest this man for violating security protocol.”

I never violated anything.”

“Let him go,” Christof said.

Alex spun to him. “This man let the tortoises out.”

“He will be reprimanded. He will not be arrested.”

Alex looked like he wanted to yell something back, but instead, “Fine. Just take him back inside.” As they carried him off, Alex turned to the remaining exemplars. “Can any of you sense the tortoises?”

“What?” one asked. “You can sense them?”

Alex gave up and slapped his hand on the man’s plaque. Winnie held her breath as he concentrated. She wasn’t certain they were out of his range.

Fortunately, he didn’t detect them. “Just split up,” he said. Pointing to one exemplar, “You go to the barracks. I want everyone on the deck.”

“You want me to wake the barracks?”

“Yes. Jesus Christ. What is wrong with you people? Get everyone. Find them. The rest of you split up. Search the deck.”

Everyone split off.

“Winnie,” said Christof. “I’d like to speak with you privately.”

“In a minute.” Alex looked around. He made up his mind which direction to check. Whether he followed the same logic as Winnie, or by chance, he headed straight for them.

Winnie just had to circle one last spire and the ledge was would be right ahead. Get over that, and live or die, they’d be free of Alex.

Christof was chasing after him. “We can’t wake the entire base. Those tortoises are supposed to be just tortoises.”

Alex didn’t slow. “We’ll say it’s for sentimental reasons.”

Only a hundred feet to go now. Winnie hurried. From the shadows of the last spire, she raced to the edge, but Helena wasn’t. She didn’t realize how little time they had left, and now Alex was in view.

Of course, Alex spotted her immediately. He sprinted. Winnie charged. He dived. She cleared the ledge.

And his hand hooked her shell.

“Hah! There.” He eased her back in. “Almost had it, didn’t you? Almost had it.” His body—Winnie’s body—was covered in scrapes from diving onto tarmac. Winnie kicked and thrashed, but her limbs reached nothing.

Alex got to his feet and secured his hold on her.

Christof walked up.

Alex held her triumphantly. “She almost got away. Almost.”

“Not quite,” Christof replied, though he didn’t seem nearly as pleased. He frowned and glanced about.

Helena had backed into the shadow of the nearest spire. At a glance, she was hidden, but one good look would spot her. If she sprinted right now…

“Where’s the other, huh?” Alex turned Winnie to look her in the eyes. She snapped them shut and pulled into her shell. Alex pinched her tail, hard. His nails dug between her scales. All she had to do was hold out long enough.

Helena must realize that the plan was. She just saw Winnie try to jump off.

While Alex pinched harder and harder, Helena crept from the shadow toward the ledge, almost into Christof’s view.

“Come on. Come on.” Alex said, pinching harder. His and Christof’s attention were on her. Helena was by their feet now. All they had to do was look down. All she had to do was take another few steps. Why wasn’t she?

“Give it up,” said Christof. “She probably already jumped.”

“No. She’s still here.” Alex even glanced up and down the edge of the deck. He neglected to look right behind his feet.

Christof didn’t. He seemed to glance right at Helena.

“Why?” Christof said. “All you need is this one. She’s the important one.”

“I need that one for this one.”

“You said it yourself Paul will crack soon. It doesn’t matter. One day without farseeing won’t kill us.”

Alex spun to face him. “Because they’re mine, Christof. They belong to me. I want my things back.”

“Listen to yourself. You sound like a lunatic.”

Don’t tell me—” Alex cut short and screamed in pain. Helena had her jaw clamped about his achilles heel. Alex let go of Winnie with one hand and grabbed Helena, yet she held on like a vice. His grip on Winnie was loose. She managed to find purchase against his arm with her back legs, and she scraped hard. Hollering, he dropped Winnie. She bounced against the railing. The world spun as she tumbled.

She could only await the crack against the tarmac. Thoughts of glistening, red mess filled her mind. But she kept falling, and spinning, and falling, and everything was dark. She must have cleared the ledge. Water waited below. She pulled into her shell and braced for impact.

Then it came. The water struck harder than any blow she’d taken yet. Her entire body jolted. Every inch of her shell felt like it had splintered.

But it all came to a stop. Though her body stung. Her limbs had pins and needles from impacting both the rail and the water, but already her senses were returning. Ice cold water seeped into her as though she were made of cloth. Her body felt stiff and numb. Winnie had been so concerned about whether she could hold her breath during this trial, she’d never even considered she might freeze to death.

Lower and lower she sank. Pressure squeezed her eyes and ears. Both her skull and her shell felt as though they might implode. Death must be certain. Tortoises were never meant to dive to these depths.

Finally, her shell hit sand. She came to a rest. Winnie couldn’t bear to open her eyes, but her mind showed she was about thirty feet deep. Surrounding her were long towers of seaweed. Small fish darted among the tendrils. It was like Porto Maná, she thought—skyscrapers with tiny hoppers drifting in between. With all of their technology, they still weren’t much different from nature.

Winnie realized she was stalling. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been resting here, but it was longer than just a few errant thoughts. Her mind had grown sluggish from the cold.

Placing her legs upon the sand, she checked the direction of the shore and started moving. With her bouyancy, each step had to be a gentle push. That made progress slow going as she waded through pillars of seaweed. It was pitch black down here. Thanks to Victoria’s lessons, her power didn’t rely on light, but she still couldn’t see well. The murky water hindered her vision. She nearly missed a chasm up ahead. If she were to fall into that, she’d never get out. With all the circuitous navigation she’d already have to do, she would be lucky escape at all.

Winnie never would have been able to guide Helena down here. She’d have been blind and scared. Winnie would have had to push her along.

If Winnie hadn’t left her behind, they’d both have died down here.

She visualized the citadel deck. Alex was checking his heel for damage. Christof had gotten Helena from him, and was now holding her securely. She could have gotten away. Even though she would never have made it to shore on her own, she would have escaped from Alexander, but instead she chose to bite the person who’d threatened to put a blowtorch to her feet. Maybe she did it to give Winnie a chance to escape. Or maybe it had been a glimmer of her stubborn spite.

Whatever reason, Helena sacrificed her own freedom for Winnie. Winnie wished she could get back on that deck and be with her, but Helena wouldn’t want her to. This was Helena’s parting gift.

The citadel deck was lit up. Soldiers caught up to Christof and Alex. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, right,” said Alex. “Of course, now you get here.”

“Call off the hunt,” Christof said. “The animals have been found.”

No,” Alex shouted. “We’re not done. One of them fell over.”

The soldiers looked over the lip of the deck. From up there, it was a black void. The lights of the distant city were the only indication there was a world beyond the citadel. “You want people… to go down there?”

“No,” answered Christof. “It’s gone. Tell everyone to stand down.”

“It’s not gone,” growled Alex. “It will come up on the shore.”

One soldier winced in skepticism as he gazed over. “If the fall didn’t kill it, the crocodiles will. It’s lost.”

Winnie’s mind snapped right back to her own surroundings. Were there crocodiles down here? Her mind darted around the dark abyss around her. Even with her power, the murky water could be hiding something just paces away.

She stopped, paused, and thought. The murky water was obscuring her vision for the same reason the darkness was. It was just preventing photons from reaching her mind’s eye, which it didn’t need anyway. Just because sediment was in the water didn’t mean her omniscient power should be hindered. She visualized her surrounding. What she did next wasn’t quite peeling away the murk, but rather acknowledging it was there, and then acknowledging what was past it.

She succeeded after a few tries. It wasn’t hard since it made sense; she could already read a closed book, yet she still felt a small resistance break away as her power evolved.


More importantly. No predators were near her. She walked on. But by now the thought was in her head. Maybe there weren’t crocodiles, but what about sharks, or jellyfish, or barracudas? She was just a tortoise crawling along at a glacial pace. Apart from a few clusters of seaweed to hide in, she was defenseless. For the rest of her trek along the ocean floor, Winnie focused her mind around her surroundings. She’d look back on Helena once she was safe.

The shore before the beach had many hidden features: rocks, tires, and an amazing number of bottles, both plastic and glass. Her mind showed no dangers, but the last stretch of her trek took the longest. She finally broke the surface of the water and gasped. Even for having reptile lungs, her chest had been clenching.

The air froze her scaled skin, but she was still alive, for now. Finally on the beach, she visualized the citadel. The deck was clear, but she didn’t believe for a minute that Alexander had gone back to sleep. She navigated the beach. The tide had created a thick line of garbage and dead seaweed. Climbing past all those obstacles, she reached crab grass beside a paved road. Beyond that was a stretch of Terracotta houses with neglected yards. Mildewy stone walkways led to sliding glass doors. Laundry lines were draped with washcloths and towels.

The neighborhood stretched on for miles. This was a district on the outskirts of Porto Maná. There was no forest or jungle to hide in, just urban sprawl.

Her hopes of escape had been so slim she hadn’t thought about what to do if it worked. Now what? Blend in? Live under a house? She wasn’t even sure what tortoises in the wild ate. Plants? Bugs?

It seemed pointless now. Alexander still had Helena. Whatever twisted plans he had would still happen, only now Winnie wasn’t there to help her anymore. Helena was on her own.

Then a sick thought occurred to her. What if Alex not only tortures her anyway, but does so knowing that Winnie will be keeping an eye on her? He could force Winnie to come back.

It was just another way this whole escape was a failure. Her friend was still captive, and Winnie had no idea how to survive.

With lack of anywhere better to go, she crossed the road to the yard of a duplex house. As soon as she reached the crabgrass on the other side, lights shined from behind her. A shuttle just landed on the beach. It’s lights and markings denoted it as military. Two exemplars got out and hurried toward the shore. One male. One female. Both had plaques.

They were close. Winnie might already have been within range of their empathy, yet their attention remained on the river.

She hurried along a pathway which took her between two connected houses. Her mind was so fixed on the exemplars behind her that she nearly missed the girl in the shadowed alley before her. The girl was young, maybe late teens, and Brazilian judging from her look. Her many tattoos clashed with her conservative summer dress. Already the girl spotted Winnie. She walked over, knelt, and scrutinized her. Winnie didn’t have time for this, so she tried to walk around. The girl merely moved to put herself in Winnie’s way. Hopefully, this girl, who reeked of cigarette smoke, didn’t see Winnie as a potential pet. When the girl got in her way again, Winnie charged with her mouth ready to clamp.

The girl batted Winnie on the nose. “Stop that.”

While Winnie was startled, the girl lifted her up. Once again, Winnie found herself struggling in vain to scrape with her legs, but this girl knew the correct way to hold a tortoise.

“Hey, kid,” came a gruff voice.

The exemplars had approached to the edge of the yard, looking right at the girl, and Winnie. After all this effort. She was going back. It’s not as though she ever had a chance. Exemplars were up and down the coast looking for her. If they hadn’t caught her tonight, they’d probably come into the city looking for her. Maybe they’d put up signs. Have you seen this tortoise? Big reward. Call the empire.

Winnie probably should have let herself get hit by a car. It would have been it’s own kind of freedom.

“You want to hand over that turtle?” the exemplar said. He holstered his plaque and held his hands out guardedly as though dealing with feral animal. The female exemplar circled to get behind the girl.

“It’s a tortoise,” the girl replied.

“Whatever. It belongs to the queen.”

“I know. Here, you can have it back.” The girl held Winnie out to the approaching female exemplar, who reached to take her.

“Wait.” The male exemplar squinted at the girl. “Kid. Look at me.”

The girl didn’t stop approaching the female exemplar.

“I said stop. Girl, are you… shielded?”

Suddenly everything moved quickly. The girl tossed Winnie to the exemplar, who startled and grabbed her. In turn, the girl grabbed the exemplar, sandwiching Winnie between them.

Winnie’s senses yanked away. There was nothing for a second, then she was falling. The world seemed to pull her down like it never had before. She bumped her head on the earth. Her limbs flailed. They had far more freedom of movement, because her shell was gone. Her skin was hot. Her senses were once again telling different stories and none of them agreed.

“What the fuck?” someone yelled. Then came two loud cracks that seemed to shake her brain. Someone gurgled.

Her eyes showed her a night sky glowing with stars. Everything was far brighter, and much more crisp.

She was human again. She would have recognized it sooner if it hadn’t taken her by surprise. She sat up. The male exemplar was laying paces from her. His chest was soaked red with blood. The girl was past him, carrying a tortoise toward the road. It was her tortoise body she’d just been inside.

With one great heave, the girl chucked the tortoise toward the street.

“No!” Winnie yelled, but it was too late. It struck the pavement with a watermelon crack. The poor thing’s limbs waggled helplessly. It’s insides now painted the asphalt. The girl walked back.

“You killed them,” Winnie said.

“I saw their minds, Winnie. There was nothing worth saving. Now get up. Others will know they’re dead.” She pulled a plaque from a holster on Winnie’s thigh and yanked the battery clip out of it. Something inside popped, and the girl tossed it aside. Winnie was still splayed out on the grass, so the girl grabbed her by the chin and looked her in the eye. “Focus, Winnie.”

Winnie recognized the girl’s demeanor. She was someone who expected you to do as she wanted and would tolerate nothing less.

“Your Majesty?” she asked. “Victoria? You’re alive?” That was obvious. Better question: “Where have you been?”

Victoria eyed her as though Winnie had just confessed to neglecting her lessons. “Do not waste our time with questions, Winnie. Get up. It’s time to go now.”

64. Surveillance

“No. Not there,” Sakhr said. “The grid station. Look there.”

Winnie flew her mind’s view from the guard post in Northern England to a grid station farther south, from where swarms of shuttles were taking off and landing. The station was small though—maybe a hundred commuters and a dozen staff. Winnie quickly looked at each of the people working there. One of them was supposed to be an exemplar, but none were. And records indicated that the exemplar posted here hadn’t checked in for his flight back to Porto Maná.

Sakhr sighed. He took his hand off Sibyl’s plaque and added a note to the exemplar’s record on his computer. Tabbing back to the exemplar management software, he issued a remote wipe for that exemplar’s plaque. Remote wipe confirmed.

“Next one,” Sakhr said. “Exemplar Reynolds. Here’s his address.” Sakhr handed his tablet Winnie. It showed a map. This address was in Korea. Seeing it brought a pang of homesickness. Without thought, her mind sought out her mother in California, who was in the kitchen of their home. She was cooking. Circles of dumpling dough were laid out before her, but she wasn’t stuffing them. She just stood there, staring into nothing. It seemed like every time Winnie looked home, her mother was doing that, like a machine that was breaking down. Some day, she’d just freeze altogether, perpetually stopped in the middle of some chore. She’d gather dust.

“Focus,” Sakhr said.

Winnie zoomed in on the tablet, but her mind found the location before it finished loading. After several hours, the process of tracking down missing exemplars had become streamlined. It sped things up considerably when Sakhr, aggravated at their slow progress, had finally given Winnie a human body—Sibyl’s specifically. Meanwhile, Sibyl sat camped on top of the plaque which lay between Winnie and Sakhr. That woman took being a tortoise in stride. She didn’t flounder once or fail to use her legs correctly, nor had she complained. She slept while Sakhr frequently laid a hand on the plaque to read Winnie’s mind as she saw what Sakhr told her to see.

And she’d seen so much. All day, Sakhr had her standing by to look in one place or another. He’d had her eavesdrop on conversations between officers, diplomats, and ministers. Most had said nothing interesting, but occasionally one said something unpatriotic, sometimes about the failing empire, or sometimes about the strange rumors going around about Queen Helena. Winnie had also helped Sakhr locate over a hundred exemplars, and thereby condemn them to being hunted.

Winnie felt sick helping him like this. She’d tried slowing down, doing just enough work so that Sakhr didn’t consider her slacking, but since Sakhr was looking in her mind constantly, he saw what she was doing.

She thought of yanking the battery pack on the high exemplar plaque. It would be quick; Sakhr couldn’t possibly react fast enough to stop, but she knew if she considered the idea seriously, Sakhr would put her back in the tortoise. And what’s the point? He’d lose a single shield. And only until Paul gave in. In the meantime, Helena would suffer for it.

“Are you done yet?” Sakhr asked.

“Yeah, I see it. He’s not home.”

“Look at me.”

Winnie did so.

If Sakhr had any upset over her considered rebellions, he didn’t show it. “Look at his place of work. He’s stationed here.” He indicated an airport named “Incheon International” on his tablet.

Winnie pulled up the map. She zeroed in and began searching. The airport was a large place. It took her some time to search out all the security terminals where an exemplar might be posted, and then to check for any work logs in offices. She and Sakhr stared at each other the entire time.

During this search, there was a long moment of silence.

“Why don’t you and Alex get along?” she asked.

Sakhr kept his eyes locked on hers.

“I mean, it seems like you two argue all the time. Do you put up with him because of his power? Because—”


“No? No… that’s not the only reason you—”

“No. Stop talking. Focus.”


And that was that. In the many following hours, she and Sakhr didn’t say anything else that wasn’t directly related to his work. The repetition was exhausting, yet Sakhr kept her working right up to the point someone knocked on the door. Alexander.

Sakhr called him in, and Winnie was brought face to face with her own body once again. Only this time she was human too. He was within reach, and the only person in the world who could set it straight was sitting two feet from her. It was infuriating that there was nothing she could do.

Alex approached. “Your advisor is too afraid to come in here and tell you that your plane had been sitting on the landing pad for over twenty minutes.”

“Damnit.” Sakhr looked at the time. Half standing, he closed down the exemplar app.

“I’m surprised you’re okay with leaving,” said Alex.

“They’re not giving me much of a choice, are they?”

“You could just say fuck it. If the minister really needed to talk, he’d come to you.”

Sakhr grunted. He wasn’t interested in discussing it. Alex glanced at the tortoise.

“How’d she behave?” Alexander asked.

“Satisfactorily. You’ll take her back to her box. You won’t persuade her in any way.”

“Gotcha.” Alex approached.

For one baffling moment, Winnie thought Sakhr was going to let Alex take Sibyl away, but Sakhr stopped him. He took Sibyl off the plaque, rousing her from her sleep, and looked to Winnie.

Winnie hadn’t been her own body, but it had still been nice being human again. Sighing, she placed a hand on the tortoise. Sakhr placed his on top of hers. Her senses yanked away.

For one brief, brief moment, she thought she was looking out of Helena’s eyes, but no. She was in the tortoise. Her mind was noticeably sluggish once again. Alex picked her up none too gently. He carried her down several floors to the spire base, and then to the kitchenette. Helena was there in the box.

Alex approached, but he didn’t put Winnie down yet. He turned her around and looked at her face to face, except Winnie didn’t have to answer to him, so into her shell she went, covering her face with her stubby little legs.

“Don’t be like that,” Alex said. “Look me in the eyes.”

Winnie stayed as she was.

“Just because Sakhr is happy doesn’t mean you’re safe. Sooner or later, we’re going to have a master glyph. That means he won’t need you anymore.” Alex got closer to her. “Do you think he’ll care what happens to you then?” He said those last words slowly, as though making sure even tortoise ears could understand him. “So maybe you should be a little friendlier to me. Now open your eyes.”


“Open your eyes for her sake.”

Of course he was playing that same trick.

Moving her front feet aside, she looked back.

He studied her eyes. “Hmm. Interesting conversation you tried to start with him. I’ll remember that.” He studied her mind until satisfied, then set her down in the box. Helena was out and watching him.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “if Sakhr wants to pull you out again, you’re going to be a good girl and do what he wants. You don’t want him to bother me again.”

Helena was staring right at him. Alex noticed this.

“Well, look at you,” he said. “Still angry I see.”

Alex stared her down silently. Whatever Helena conveyed made him snort derisively.

“And what are you going to do about it?” he asked.

A pause.

“Is that a promise?”


“Tall threats coming from a tiny tortoise. You really just don’t get it, do you? We’ve already won. No one can help you, and even if someone could, they wouldn’t, because no one cares about you, Helena. Not even your own mother.”

He paused. “Oh come now. Do you honestly still believe she might swoop in and rescue you? That she’ll make everything right, and you’ll go on being heir to the throne?” He patted her shell. Helena backpedaled and opened her mouth, ready to snap should his fingers get close enough. “Believe it or not, little girl, you’re actually better off. Haven’t you figured out yet why she always treated you so poorly? Your mother was just as capable of swapping bodies as we are. Victoria wasn’t her first body, and it wasn’t going to be her last. That’s what you were to her—a body—a receptacle for her when her current one got old. She never loved you. She never let herself, because you were just… a spare part.”

Helena hissed.

“I don’t have to,” he continued. “I figured it just from what I’ve seen in your head. Why do you think she never bothered teaching you how to rule? Most heirs spend their entire childhoods learning about politics and rulership. You spent it shopping. The only thing you ever had to work for was your body. All that basketball and jogging was to keep Victoria’s future body nice and tight for her while her own ass grew bigger every day. I knew her as a child, kiddo. Your mother was obsessed with her own looks, and this is just like her. And the clever part about choosing her own daughter is that you’re already the heir. She never has to explain bodyswapping to the rest of the world.”

Alex stood. “You should be glad we killed her for you. What she did to you is more cruel than anything I could ever do. So how about you cut the attitude.”

He headed to the door. “Anyway, goodnight. Sleep tight.” He switched off the lights and left.

Helena remained staring straight at where Alex had been as though his words had petrified her. After a long pause, she rested down, and withdrew entirely into her shell.

Winnie wished she could say something, but she didn’t what she’d say. Nothing would make Alex’s words hurt less, because there was one irrefutable fact about them: they were true. Winnie saw that. Helena saw that. It explained too much too well.

There were so many times Helena had bragged to Winnie about their future together, so many times Helena talked about what she’d do once she became queen. Her entire life had been looking forward to that moment, but it wasn’t there anymore. It never had been. For the first time Helena saw her life for what it had always been: a tragic lie.

Winnie plodded over and tried to peek into Helena’s shell. She tried edging Helena’s feet out of the way of her face, but Helena resisted. Winnie only got a glance at her. Helena had pulled into her shell as far as she could. Whatever defiance—whatever fire—Helena had mustered was gone. She was just a tortoise now, defeated and helpless.

There was nothing Winnie could do. Helena simply wasn’t there.

63. Video Games

“I don’t get why I’m still locked up here,” Quentin said. “You all are out there running the empire and I’m here playing video games. Not really using your assets. You know what I mean?”

“What would you want to do?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know. Anything. I’m getting bored. God knows you guys could use my help. I got you all out of that tower. Remember?”

“I remember.”

“Does Sakhr remember?”

“I don’t think he’ll ever forget. I’m surprised you’d want to help him after that ultimatum he gave you. You were dead set on destroying him after that.”

“Who told you that?”

Alex looked away from the game to give Quentin a dead pan expression.

Quentin glanced sidelong back at him. “Oh yeah. Well, of course I was thinking that then. Sakhr’s a total toolbox, but I get what’s at stake here. You guys said Victoria is still around.”

“She may be.”

“Well, I fucked her the worst. It was my bomb. She’ll be coming after me, and you all got me crammed away in this shit hotel.”

Alex glanced around at the high-ceiling architecture and the antique wooden furniture. It was the VIP suite of the Al Carlton, the hotel Victoria rented in Porto Maná, before her personal tower was complete. It was the only hotel that met her standards, and Sakhr had rented out the top four floors to relocate evacuees from the Lakiran campus. Alex had personally overseen security.

And Quentin called it a shit hole.

Alex understood why Victoria put him in that tortoise. Though unlike her, Alex knew how people like Quentin worked.

He kept his attention on the game. “The problem is that Sakhr doesn’t… what’s the word?… trust you.”

“I didn’t get the idea that he trusts you either.”

“Trust isn’t the right word for what Sakhr and I have,” said Alex. “He needs me. Honestly, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“You do?”

“I’ve got a better idea. I’m better at finding solutions than he is.”

“Heey, about that. I’ve got a problem I was wondering if you could help me with.”


Quentin pulled a phone from his pocket. “Sakhr gave me this doctor’s body, which sucks by the way. It’s like Brazilian Mr. Rogers, only extra out of shape. I take the elevator and I still get winded. Anyway, the first day I’m here. I get called.” He held up the phone. “This doctor guy has a wife. She’s not bad either. I had to find out where he lived from his wallet. When I get there, the wife is all worried about the bombing. She’s crying a lot. Anyway, I fucked her. She wasn’t all that into it, and afterward she gets all weird. I had to come here to get away. Now she won’t stop calling me.”

Alex laughed. “Back in our coven days, we learned that it was a bad idea to take advantage of any relationships our new bodies had. Even a telepath like myself has trouble fooling loved ones. My advice is to drop off the grid. Don’t return her calls. Don’t contact her.”

“Yeah, but I already did. And now I think the missus is suspicious. You think maybe we should swap her out with someone else too?”

“Sure. I’ll add her to the list: Random doctor’s wife, right after the exemplars in North Point asking questions about their missing superiors, or the exemplars who just showed up this morning without notice, demanding answers about neglected protocol.”

“Is that a no?”

“That’s a no. I’m running out of good replacements fast. I spent last night cruising prisons.”

“What should I do about her then? Divorce her?”

“No,” Alex sighed. “Give me the phone. I’ll have some people deal with this.”

“You know, you have me, right?”

“Have you for what?”

“If you need to replace someone, I can replace them. They’ve gotta be better than this body.”

“You’d have a job, you know?”

Quentin narrowed his eyes. “Yeah. I can handle a job. What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just that right now it seems like you’ve got it made. If I put you in an exemplar body, you’d need to to travel around and do exemplar things.”

“Eh, I guess you’re right. What about you though?”

“What about me?”

“Why aren’t you in the body of an exemplar? You’ve still got that girl’s body.” Quentin scrutinized Alex. “I mean, Alex is short for Alexander, right?”

“Yes. It is. Look.” He paused the game and addressed Quentin directly. “Let’s make this clear. I’ve been alive for over four hundred years. I can’t even remember how many bodies I’ve had. Sakhr is using Helena’s because it’s the queen’s body. I’m using this body because this girl was friends with Helena, thus I can be close to Sakhr. It serves a purpose. Clear?”

“Yes. Jeez. Sorry. Was just wondering.”

“Really? Look me in the eye and tell me that.”

Hesitantly, Quentin met Alex’s gaze. “I don’t care. Really.”

Alex snorted at what he saw. “It’s all about sex to you people, isn’t it? When you get to be my age, bodies are just tools. It doesn’t matter.”

“Okay.” Quentin resumed the game. “I mean, thinking about it, there’s something kind of cool about the idea. If I’d lived a hundred bodies, why wouldn’t I want to try a female one. I’d do it. I’d want to do it. Just to see, you know?”


“Is that ever going to be a thing?”


“Getting whatever bodies we want? I know you guys only take bodies to survive or whatever, but we’re at the top of the food chain now. Shouldn’t we get top pick of whatever bodies we want?”

“That would involve telling people.”

“So? We keep the power to ourselves. Why bother hiding it?”

“Sakhr doesn’t want to.”

“And it’s his call?”

“It’s his power.”

They played the game for a while.

“So,” Quentin asked. “How long until you break that glyph guy?”

Though Quentin spoke casually, Alex had seen in his mind. This question led to a dangerous topic Quentin had been meaning to address all night.

Alex played along. “Soon,” he said. “He’s starting to rationalize giving in. It’s never long after that.”

“What’s going to happen after you get the glyph?”

“Hand it over to Sakhr.”

“Do you think he’d let us get glyphs of his power first?”

Alex chuckled. “No.”

“Why not? You have to wait for him to show up every time you want to swap exemplars out. If we had a glyph of his power, then you wouldn’t have to.”

“His power is kind of… central to who he is. He’s got to be the only one.”

“Too bad. But you know. When you have that glyph-making glyph, can’t you use that to make a glyph of his power anyway?”

“I suppose I could, but that would be dishonest.”

“Sure, sure. Too bad though. Too bad he wants to keep his power a secret too. Could you imagine if we had his power? I’d have a different body every few weeks.”

“No you wouldn’t. How long did it take you to get used to the one you’re in? You haven’t even had it a week. How many aches and pains does it have? Chronic injuries? Health problems? Changing bodies is like moving to a new home. It takes time to learn its hidden flaws.”

“Okay. Sure. I’d get a good body though. And I’d maintain it. You know? Well, I wouldn’t. I’d give it to some intern to work it out, while I’m in some other body binge eating. Then I’d take it back and enjoy the runner’s high.”

Alex made himself smile. “Interesting idea. If you were public about bodyswapping, you could do that, couldn’t you? You could enjoy an olympic body and never lift a finger.”

“You could take a body from some hollywood chick and give it to your girl. Get tired of her body? Get her another one.”

“Girl?” asked Alex. “Don’t you mean harem?”

“Yeah, I guess I do. Too bad Sakhr is being a tight-ass with his power.”

“Yeah. Too bad.”