116. Time

Oni navigated through the imperial website on his tablet. In a small window in the upper corner of the screen, Helena spoke to the press from behind a podium, but Oni had muted it. Josephine watched over his shoulder. She wished he’d unmute it, but it’s not like she couldn’t watch it herself afterward. Besides, Oni was too preoccupied getting the same thing that millions of citizens were going to that website for. A link on the site led to the assembler public library. Shield stones had gone live, without any security features. Josephine had downloaded one this morning, though it had taken her a while to find it on the website. Oni was having the same trouble. The site had been hastily designed.

Days ago, Helena had announced that she’d make shields publicly available, but it only went live this morning. The delay had a subtle effect. It showed Helena could keep them to herself, but chose to release them. It was crystal clear who the public had to thank. Josephine doubted Helena actually intended that. Everything was on the surface with that girl—no subversion. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe not. Maybe politics would change her. Her reign would be interesting to watch.

Oni found the link to the library. He hit print, and the assembler in the kitchen chimed, although it was still assembling something else.

“You might as well not bother,” Josephine said.

Oni looked at her. Josephine nodded toward Naema. The three of them were all sitting at the same breakfast table.

“But shields stop powers.”

“Not hers.”

Oni tossed the tablet onto the table. “Naema. Go away.”

Naema didn’t look up from her homework. “No.”

“I want to print this.”

“I don’t care.”

“Boy,” Zauna yelled from the kitchen, “leave your sister alone.”

“But I want one.”

“Then go somewhere else.”

Oni snatched his tablet and stormed to the stairs. Moments later, his bedroom door slammed. Neither Zauna nor Naema cared.

“What will you drink, Josephine?” Zauna asked. “We have many things. Water, milk, juice. I have fruits. The market sells hundreds of fruits. You never seen such a thing.”

“No thank you,” Josephine replied. “I can’t stay long. I just came by to see how you all are settling in.”

Zauna entered and set a plate of food before them. “Try this. They are mangos. I haven’t seen any for years. Try them, girl.”

“I’ve had mangos before, Mama,” Naema replied.

“No, you haven’t. Chop.”

Sighing, Naema set down her pencil and took a slice.

Josephine politely took one when offered. “How is school?” she asked Naema.

Naema shrugged. “They put me with a lot of white kids.”

“Her tutors say she is will catch up just fine,” Zauna said. “She is gifted.”

“They just say that, Mama.”

“It is true,” Zauna said simply. “If you are not gifted, then why did they give us all this?” she gestured to the apartment. “You are special.”

“It’s because of my flair, Mama.”

“It is also because you are special.” Zauna sat down. “Eat some peanut butter. It comes from real peanuts.”

“Mama, I’ve got to work.”

“How has that been with your power?” Josephine asked. “Has anyone given you trouble about it?”

“Besides Oni?” Naema asked. “No. People don’t know I break glyphs yet. They aren’t allowed at school though, but I must break a thousand glyphs every day when I walk there. Ms. Montes wants me to move onto the empire campus once they’ve cleaned the place.”

“Are they forcing you to do anything?”

Naema shook her head. “Not yet. That Korean girl wants me to come work for exemplars and train.”



“Is she still heading the Exemplar Committee?”


“And she’s also going to school?”

“I guess so.”

“Hmm,” Josephine said. A strange imperial cabinet. She supposed the empire was short handed as of late. Winnie, at least, was somebody Josephine trusted. She’d take care of Naema, and Tan, wherever he’d disappeared to. Without anyone on his tail, he didn’t need Josephine anymore. Neither did Naema.

Josephine rose. “I’m glad you’re doing well.”

“You’re going now?” Zauna asked.

“I must, but before I do.” She grabbed a pencil from Naema and scribbled information on a piece of notebook paper. “If you ever need me for anything. Reach out. I’ll come. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am.”

“Okay,” Naema said. “Where are you going?”

“Some place quiet.”

“Stay here,” Zauna said. “We have a spare room. I’ll print a bed.”

“Thank you, but I must leave.”

Zauna made several more protests. Josephine turned them down. Naema rose to hug Josephine, despite the cast on her leg and hand.

In the hall outside the apartment, Josephine picked up her shield stone from where she left it beside the door. Three floors down in the lobby, a doorman bid her good day. Outside there weren’t any streets, just walkways. A complex this ritzy was grid only—rooftop shuttle service.

Josephine hadn’t expected something this good when empire discussed relocating the family, but they wanted Naema close to the imperial campus as possible. From here, Josephine could see the construction platforms hovering over the Capital Tower remains.

She headed down the walkway in the other direction. Several blocks away, she sat at a bench. There, she waited as a nearby couple studied their phones together, as though looking for directions. They didn’t speak to each other, but rather glanced into each others eyes. The woman laughed, the man smiled. They tapped away at the phone together as though they were a single organism. Mind-reading. Josephine had never seen a couple like that, but there must be millions like that pair around the world now, discovering a level of intimacy never known before.

What a strange new world this was. Everything seemed the same, yet everyone’s way of life was forever different.

Minutes later, the couple found their way and headed off. Apart from a few distant pedestrians, she was alone.

A flutter, a passing shadow, and something rushed by Josephine’s head. She looked. Perched on the other end of the bench was a hawk—an osprey to be specific.

It turned its head this way and that.

“Thank you,” Josephone said. “I gave her my contact information. I told her I would come back for her if she ever needed me to. I hope that was okay.”

The osprey made no noise.

“I don’t think she’ll use it though. She’ll be fine. Look at this place. Everyone here could have died the other day, but it’s already back to normal. Good for them.”

She rested her eyes. Something prodded her shoulder. The osprey had inched over and was poking her with its talon. Sighing, Josephine took the shield stone from around her neck and placed it on the bench. She held her hand out to the bird.

Her senses yanked away. Staggering, she nearly fell off the back of the bench before buffing her wings to catch her balance. Regaining her composure, she looked at the body she’d possessed moments ago.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on them anyway,” her old body said. “Shall we?” The woman rose.

Josephine fluttered onto the woman’s arm. It was a clumsy effort.

“We’ll need to get another body,” the woman said.

Josephine tilted her head to meet the woman’s eyes. “I’m fine,” she thought. “It just takes getting used to.”

“And you will spend the rest of your life as a hawk? Nonsense. I don’t care how you feel about stealing bodies. We will not keep sharing this one, and I will not draw attention to myself with a bird forever on my shoulder.” She walked. “If we must, we will find someone comfortable with the trade. You’d be surprised how many people would give up their bodies to live as a bird.”

Josephine had to wait a while before the woman met her eye again. “And fifty years from now?” Josephine thought. “No one will want to swap bodies with a pair of old women.”

“They might for the right price.”

“Only a fool would exchange life for money, a soon-to-be regretful fool. I don’t want to live at the expense of others. I don’t want you to either. That was Sakhr’s way of life.”

“We’ll manage, Josephine. I told you I would not live as Sakhr had, and I’m good to my word.”

“You also told Winnie you would never take her memories, yet last I spoke to her, she didn’t recall your climbing up to that osprey’s nest over the bridge balcony. A strange thing to forget…”

The woman regarded Josephine. “She is with Helena now, both in their own body. I upheld the spirit of my agreement with that girl, and I will not tolerate your telling me otherwise.”

“It was still a slip in your word, no matter how justified. Over time—not weeks or months, but centuries, tiny justifications can add up. I’ve been there before. I once swore to myself that I would never live like Sakhr. I said I was only living with them for my protection, but then I justified taking one body because it came from an abhorrent person. Then I justified another, and another. It’s easy to slide with time.”

“Then I suppose you’ll have to keep me in check,” the woman said, “but I will remain in this world, Josephine. I am not done.”

Josephine wasn’t sure how she felt about this. Words like that could have come straight from Sakhr’s mouth. At least this week was a victory—a major one too. Letting go of an empire was no small thing. But many more battles were yet to come. Josephine would always be there for this woman.

“Where are we going?” she thought.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “Some place comfortable. I’d like to establish myself again. It shouldn’t prove so tiresome this time around.”

“Will you be getting involved in politics?”

The woman thought. “I don’t think so. With my daughter in charge and the world the way it is, the less I think about politics, the more relaxed I’ll be. No. I’ll build my own corner of the world, but it will be just for me.”

“No more empires?”

“Not for now. I’m tired of empires. Maybe one day I’ll come back. Slowly this time, more subtly. I have all the time in the world.”

Josephine’s heart sank. “Why? After all the pain and struggle, was it really worth it? Don’t you have regrets?”

“I made mistakes, yes. Maybe I acted too rashly, but I still think I helped the world. People won’t see it that way today. Maybe they never will, but I think I did.” She glanced at Josephine. “Don’t worry. I don’t plan to do anything for a good while. The world will have to survive without me for the time being.”

“It survived millennia without you, Katherine. Isn’t it a little arrogant to think that it might not?”

Katherine grinned. “I never said I wasn’t arrogant.”

115. Just Privileges

All ministers and local regional heads were crammed into the Leguan staff room. They sat shoulder to shoulder along a conference table made from smaller tablecloth-covered plastic tables. Winnie sat by Helena, both because Helena begged for her to be there, and because she was technically the Head of the Exemplar Committee now that she had her body back.

“So pardon me, Your Majesty,” said a general, “If we haven’t been dealing with you these past few weeks, that means the peace work with China… it was this Alexander?”

“It was, but he was using mind control.”

“The same mind control he supposedly used on all us?”

“It’s not supposedly,” Helena said. “He was.”

“Are we still being mind controlled?”

“No. You’re not. I’m not going to use any kind of mind control.”

“Did your mother use mind control?”

“No. I don’t think she did.”

“You don’t know for sure?”

“I don’t think she had the ability. The mind-control showed up after those glyphs got out in the open.”

“But she would have?” asked another.

“I don’t know,” Helena said. “I’m not her.”

“I don’t think she would have,” Winnie interjected. “It wouldn’t have interested her. She wouldn’t have considered it actually ruling people. More controlling them.”

“But she did use mind control to assault the Manakin?”

“Out of necessity,” Helena said. “And it wasn’t an assault. She just snuck aboard to get rid of Alexander. Alexander was the one who sunk the citadel.”

“I thought you said your mother did.”

“I meant he was the one who set the bomb. My mother sank it to contain the blast.”

The men and women in the council chamber still looked confused.

“So how can we be sure that you’re really Helena?” a minister asked.

Helena opened her mouth. Closed it. With a sigh, she unhooked her necklace. Her aura came to life. “Here. Read my mind.”

Everyone reacted. “Ma’am. Put that back on. It’s not safe,” the general said.

“It’s perfectly safe.”

“The enemy can strike from anywhere.”

“I’ve already explained. Just… do you want to read my mind or not?”

She looked each person in the eyes one after another. Many averted their gaze, but most took her up on their offer. Some gaped. Other stared, eyes fixed on Helena with intensity. Others simply glanced, then nodded.

“Do you all believe me now?” she asked.

No one replied.

Eventually, a minister spoke. “Are you going to tell people what happened?”


“I’m not sure that’s wise, ma’am,” said the general. “If people learn how easily the empire was usurped—that you spent two weeks imprisoned in an animal while some maniac ran the country—it could cause panic.”

“And no one will react positively to knowing their minds have been controlled,” said another. “They’re already wary of the Exemplar Committee. This could strain their tolerance to the breaking point.”

“I know,” Helena said. “That’s why I’m going to make some changes. My mother used the exemplars to control people while keeping secrets from everyone, even me. I, however, will not be a hypocrite. I’m dissolving the Exemplar Committee.”

Everyone’s reaction was immediate.

“Your Majesty, you mustn’t do that,” an admiral said. “The Committee holds this empire together. Your mother put a lot of faith into foreign militaries enforcing her reign on their soil. If the exemplars aren’t there to ensure loyalty, rebellion will occur. Parts of this empire would secede the moment they had the chance.”

“Maybe that’s part of the problem,” Helena said. “Maybe we shouldn’t force ourselves in places we’re not welcome.”

“You’re not suggesting we relinquish control?” the admiral asked.

“We’ve already lost control of Northern Europe,” Helena countered. “Asia is in riots right now, and we don’t have any forces in India anymore.”

“But voluntarily give up control? Showing weakness like that would lead to war. Many of these countries would unite against us if they thought that they could get away with it. The exemplars and our control over food supplies are what barely hold this empire together. I understand why you want to disband the Committee. It’s a noble cause, but we just can’t right now.”

“Okay,” Helena said. She donned her shield stone. Her aura was betraying her cool, confident presentation. “But the people don’t deserve to live under the constant threat that we can read their minds while they can’t read ours. They don’t trust us anymore. That needs to change. Maybe from now on, they should have a right to demand screenings from those who control them.”

Again, her audience clambered to respond.

“You want them to read our minds?” one outspoken minister said.

“We’ve spent years reading theirs,” Helena said. “But nobody read ours. And look what happened. We’re the ones that failed them.”

“Your Majesty. Your Majesty,” a minister replied. “That’s lunacy.”

“Of course we can,” Helena replied. “Why not?”

“People would lose faith in the empire.”

“More than they already have?”

“Yes. You are our queen because of who your mother was. That’s it. If people find out that it’s possible to switch bodies, and that Victoria was actually someone else in Victoria’s body, what does that say about your right to rule?”

Helena hesitated.

“And what about state secrets, ma’am? What would happen if the location of our nuclear arsenal became public knowledge? What’s to stop them from taking information about military operations from our head and selling them to another nation? What if they—”

“I get it,” Helena said. “So we won’t open ourselves up that entirely. All I know is that my mother was never checked by anyone, and that’s part of what caused this whole problem. And I still believe if we can read other people’s minds, they should have the right to read ours.”

“A right?” asked the general. “Your mother had a saying about rights. They’re—”

I know what my mother used to say.” Helena stopped and composed herself. “So maybe we don’t dissolve the Exemplar Committee, but there has to be more accountability. The world is changing every day. People have lost trust, and we need to earn it back.” She sighed. “I know I’m… My administration is still getting a handle on things, but I will do what’s best. Will you stand by me?”

There was silence at first. Winnie was worried no one would answer.

Then, “Of course, Your Majesty.”

It was the general. He took his shields stone from around his neck and laid it on the table. His eyes met Helena’s.

“I support you,” said a minister. She too set aside her stone and looked at Helena.

One by one each person at the table pledged their support. Whether by choice or by pressure, they all removed their shields as they did so. There was nothing to hide.

“Good,” Helena said.

“That was horrible,” Helena wailed. “I’m going to be the worst queen in the world.”

She and Winnie were sitting together in her Leguan officer’s quarters.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Winnie said.

“It was. They all think I’m an idiot.”

“No, they don’t. You’ve been in office for less than a day. Nobody expects you to know exactly what to do. It’s their job to help you learn. What’s important is that they all support you.”

“No, they don’t. They just think they do. Their heads are all messed up and they don’t even realize it. Whatever Alex did to them has rolled over onto me. Did you know the Chinese premier called me today? He said he just wanted to make sure I was all right, but I think he wanted to do phone sex with me or something. He wouldn’t stop flirting.”

“So maybe people are a little attached to you,” Winnie admitted. “You could use the advantage.”

“Yeah, because I have no idea what I’m doing. None. Everything I said in there was stupid. I was actually going to say we should stop hoarding food assembly until that guy pointed out that it’s the only thing keeping us from all out war. The biggest thing I’ve ever led was a basketball team.”

“Oh, uh… about that,” Winnie said. “Ms. Montes wants to know when we’re coming back to class.”

“I can’t,” Helena wailed. “I don’t have time for school anymore.”

“We’ll have to make time. The queen should at least have a high school education, but she says the school will work around your schedule.”

Helena thrust her head onto her pillow.

“Ms. Montes will set up tutoring for you,” Winnie continued. “And it sounds like the ministry takes care of most day to day stuff about running the empire. Although maybe not at first. Everything is hectic right now, but it should all calm down soon.”

Helena still had her face buried. “Would you like to be queen? You still have the body swapping glyph, right?”

“I’m not bossy enough, but that reminds me.” She brought out a folder from her bag. Inside were transcribed glyphs. “What are we going to do with these?”

“What are they?”

“Alex’s backup glyphs.”

Helena picked up the one on top. “This is the Sympathy glyph, isn’t it?”


“Is this the only one left?”


Helena started to tear it.

“Wait!” Winnie said. “Are you sure?”

I’m not going to use it. That’s something my mother would have done. I’m trying to prove to the world that they can trust me. I can’t do that and use this.”

“But that’s the last glyph. If it’s gone, the power is gone for good, and that power might be the only reason the ministry is giving you a chance. It might be the only reason we’re not at war right now.”

Helena gazed at the glyph for a long while. “No.” She tore it in two. “I won’t use it, and I can’t think of a reason why I would that’s not wrong. The world is better off without it.” Helena continued tearing it into tiny pieces. Afterward, she stared at the remains. “Did I just make a big mistake?”

“No,” Winnie stared with her. “You’re right. It shouldn’t exist. You’ll give people shields, and that will protect them.”

Helena looked down at the second sheet in the folder. “And this is body swapping, right?”

“It is. It’s the only glyph in existence now.”

“Should I tear it up too?”

“That’s up to you.”

“But I want to know what you think.”

Winnie shrugged. “I don’t know. What you’re holding in your hand is the secret to immortality. Sakhr lived for thousands of years because of that.”

“But we’d have to steal lives to do it. I’d be just like my mom.”

“Maybe you could be open about using it instead. What if you only took lives of people on death row or something?”

“Ew. And live in the body of some slimy, tattooed convict?”

“Maybe one day we could make mindless clones of ourselves, and we take those bodies.”

Helena regarded her.

“I don’t know,” Winnie said. “It just seems like there’s a lot of potential we could be throwing away. I could just see us eighty years from now, swallowing a dozen pills every morning and leaning on our walkers, wishing we still had this around.”

“But maybe that’s why we should destroy it,” Helena said. “Just like with Sympathy, sooner or later we’re going to be tempted. And what if it got out? Could you imagine that? Identity theft would hit a whole new level. Like, an even worse level than it’s already reached with all this mind-reading going on. Some old bad guy could break into someone’s house, tie someone up, read their mind for everything they’d ever have to know, then switch bodies and take over the other person’s life. Or worse. A person could take over a baby. Who would ever know?”

“Everything can be abused,” Winnie said, “but it still might be the most amazing power that’s ever existed. Maybe there are people out there who would want to swap bodies with each other. And I can think of a few ways swapping bodies with someone might be fun, even if just for a while.”

“But I’m still not sure it’s worth the risk.”

“What about Alex?” Winnie asked. “If you get rid of that, he’ll be in a tortoise forever.”

“So? He deserves it.”

“He doesn’t even remember what he did.”


“I’m just saying. It’s not like we’re punishing him. There’s no lesson for him to learn if he can’t remember, and what if someday we want to release him? Or imprison someone else? Every generation, more flairs are going to show up with powers we can’t even imagine. Maybe keeping the glyph around is a bad idea, but maybe one day we’ll need it.”

Helena looked despairingly at the glyph she held between her fingers, poised to tear it. “Oh, I don’t know. Every choice I make seems like it could change the world forever. I don’t want this kind of pressure. Why can’t being an queen be all about fashion like I wanted it to be?”

Winnie put the glyph back in the folder and tucked it away. “Maybe you’ve been queen enough for now. Big decisions can wait until tomorrow.” She her shield stone off from around her neck and set it beside the bed.

“What are you doing?” Helena asked.

Winnie met her gaze. Her mind returned to a place in the universe where their solar system was just speck far behind. Before her were untold galaxies of all different shapes and size, all unimaginably far away, and whatever lay beyond.

“Where do you want to go?” Winnie thought.

Helena removed her own shield stone and looked back. “Far away,” she thought.

114. Ignorance

A civilian shuttle landed at the Attila military base in Northern Amapá. Soldiers circled about it, and one tapped on the window. It rolled down.

The soldier peered in. “Welcome to Fort Leguan. I need all of you to step out of the shuttle.”

The door opened. Christof stepped out, then Winnie. To the soldiers, they appeared as a general and an exemplar. Christof held a briefcase by his side. Winnie cradled a tortoise.

That drew the soldier’s eyes. “What is your purpose at Leguan?”

“We’re expected,” Christof said.

“This is for security. I need you to answer our questions. What are you doing here?”

“We’re here to see the queen.”

“Identification, please.”

Christof and Winnie handed over IDs. The soldier’s didn’t react at all to Christof’s identity as General Soto, who was one of the most wanted men in the empire. Winnie wasn’t surprised. Both of the men’s aura’s were exposed.

The soldier handed the IDs back. “Come with me. We’ll get you scanned and checked out.”

“A security screening?” asked Christof. “We’re not to be scanned. There should be a note about that.”

“You’re getting scanned.”

“We’re in possession of privileged information.”

“Listen,” the guard said. “There have been three attacks on the queen in the last month. You’re not getting near the queen without a scan.”

Christof’s hands tightened on his briefcase.

“It’s okay, Private.” Josephine approached from the administration building. “Let them through.”

The guard hesitated. “Minister Molyneux, I have instructions to clear everyone without exception.”

“They’ve already been cleared. They just finished passing through security.”

He frowned. He and his fellow soldiers exchanged glances. Their auras hiccuped in a way Winnie had gotten used to seeing.

Josephine waved Christof and Winnie over.

“Wait a moment,” the guard said, then paused as though lost in thought. His partners weren’t any better.

“Just come along,” Josephine said. “They’ll be fine after we leave.” They walked to the administrative building. “Did you find it?” she asked.

Christof held up the suitcase.

Josephine sighed. “Thank God. You don’t know what it’s been like.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s been that bad, Minister,” Winnie said.

“That’s just a harmless white lie. No one will remember after I’m gone. Come on. I can’t leave him alone for long.”

They entered the administrative building. People were collected in the lobby. They flocked at the sight of Josephine. Everyone spoke at once.

“I need a word with you.”

“Madame. Where is the queen?”

“Is she okay?”

“I have the Chinese Prime Minister on the line.”

“She needs to make a press announcement.”

“The Ministery of Aviation needs to speak with Helena.”

Winnie could hardly make out what any of them were saying.

Josephine held up a staying hand. “If everyone will be quiet. Queen Helena will be available just as soon as the medical team clears her. Now please, clear the way.” She led Winnie and Christof past guards and up a flight of stairs.

In an office at the end of a hall, Alexander was sitting at a desk covered with playing cards and a cribbage board. Winnie knew from her spying that Josephine had been his playing partner, and he was waiting for her to return. Sibyl sat nearby. She’d been in no mood to play, since unlike Alexander, she knew what was coming.

Alexander smiled. He didn’t mind that no one else did. “Hello. Ah, good. Two more. Perfect. Everyone, come in. Sit down. Do any of you know how to play cribbage? It’s an older game, but I assure you it’s aged well.” He looked from Winnie to Christof, trying to meet their eyes. “No? I guess we’re going to do something else then. I don’t suppose any of you brought anything to drink.”

Christof set the briefcase on the table and popped it open. Inside a manilla folder were sheets of line paper. They were copies of glyphs Alexander had stored in a government-controlled deposit box in Poro Maná, far away from Naema’s destructive gaze. Not even Sibyl knew exactly bank he’d gone to. Tan’s dice had shortened the search dramatically

“What?” Alex peered at the glyph. “Is that a tribal tattoo? Normally those come after drinking.”

Winnie set Helena on the table.

“A turtle?” Alex asked.

Helena stared directly at him. It was looking into her eyes that Alex’s smile finally faltered. For the first time since he’d lost his memory, Alexander had an idea what was about to happen.

“No.” Winnie replied. “She’s a tortoise.”

113. The Search

“There!” Lieutenant Cardoso shouted.

Captain Santos lurched from the comm bench and hurried over.

Cardoso was pointing into the distance. Nestled in a small clearing between dead trees was the missing hopper-class military shuttle.

“Take us there,” Santos barked at the pilot.

The prowler they rode arced lazily toward the distant ship. Moments ago, Santos had thought their vessel was moving too quickly; his men had too little time to search the woods below as they drifted by. Now, the ship seemed to crawl.

Every soldier, cadet, and volunteer aboard pressed precariously against the platform railing to look at the hopper. Their weight caused the platform to tilt. No one cared.

“Call it in.” Santos said.

A radio cackled behind him. His pilot spoke in english. “This is vessel two five oh four searching in Amapá. We’ve located the missing shuttle.”

“What is the condition of the vessel?” a replying voice asked. “Is there any sign of the queen?”

“It looks as though the shuttle landed safely. We’re closing in now.”

“What is your location?”

The pilot transmitted coordinate information. Santos kept his eyes on the ship. Could she be on board? God, please. Let her be on board. Let her have stayed put. Let some radio malfunction be the reason she’d gone three hours without calling for help.

“What is it doing out here?” Cardoso said.

“No idea, Lieutenant.”

No one had expected to find the ship here, nearly forty miles away from where the Manakin went down. Long range radar had shown an unexplained blip out here—a ship had come and gone from this location hours after the Manakin had gone down. Everyone expected it to be some private pilot ignoring the no-fly directive. Hardly worth checking out, but the military had been getting desperate.

The prowler drifted overhead. Santos, several soldiers, and a medical team repelled down on ropes.

And there she was. Queen Helena was sitting on the boarding ramp of the ship with others as though watching the sunset. Santos felt weight lift from his heart. His queen was okay.

Santos hit the ground and charged up. He switched to english. “Your Majesty, are you okay?”

“Me?” Helena said. “Yes. I’m fine.” She glanced side to side at her companions. A young black girl sat beside her, and sitting in the ship behind them was a white woman in her early forties. Santos had no idea who she might be, but he did recognize the girl on the queen’s other side. She was the new head of the Exemplar Committee, Cho Eun-Yeong.

The medical team inspected Helena. She chuckled and brushed them away. “Look at her, guys.” She motioned to the black girl beside her, who had multiple wounds, including a bad leg injury. Someone had tried bandaging her, but she needed a hospital.

“Ma’am, what happened aboard the Manakin?” Santos asked.

Helena puttered her lips and laughed. “I was hoping you could tell me. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. Did you just call me Your Majesty?”

Santos looked her over. Had she been compromised? He couldn’t see her aura, so her shield was working. But then he couldn’t sense any aura at all, not even nearby animals. Something was off.

“Ma’am, have you had your shield stone with you at all times?”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

Santos and the medical team glanced at one another. Forgetfulness was exactly the sort of sign he’d been warned about. He looked at the queen’s companions: the black girl, the older woman. They weren’t military. Why would they have been on the Manakin? Had that radar blip been an enemy ship?

Santos had to be careful. If the queen was compromised, then she could no longer be trusted.

Trusted to… rule? Trusted to… explain what happened?

He wasn’t sure. There was something he was supposed to do now, but he couldn’t recall what. Was he supposed to report it? Everyone was looking at him now—The medical team, Helena, even that strange woman sitting behind the queen.

He was wasting time. The queen needed help. “Hold on, ma’am. These men will take care of you.”

“If you say so,” Helena said.

Santos stepped away and unfastened his belt radio. “This is Captain Santos. The queen is at the ship.”

“What is her condition?” a radio voice asked.

He paused. There was something important he needed to say. It was just on the tip of his tongue, but whatever it was would come back to him later. Right now there was more important news to share.

“The queen is unharmed. We’re bringing her home.”

112. The Empress

Cheers and applause still sounded through the bridge of the Venezia. Officers had raced to the rest of the ship to tell others the story of Tan’s ridiculous victory. Winnie offhandedly watched them in her mind. Mostly, her attention was back on the Manakin scouring for Victoria.

The exemplar spire was a massacre. All exemplars were dead. The marines had collected in the lobby. Many kneeled by a pair of dead marines, and they seemed angry. One argued with others saying how their orders were to stay in the exemplar tower at all cost.

“Fuck the orders,” another said. “This whole fucking ship is deserted.”

“They told us to stay put. No matter what,” another replied.

“Look at him.” The first gestured to a dead marine. “The captain is dead. Nobody is responding to us. I want to go after that son of a bitch.”

“It wasn’t Rod. He was being controlled.”

“I don’t give a shit. He shot the captain. I’m going after him.”

“We can’t leave!”

“The whole point of us staying was so no one who’s compromised gets away, but I’d say we pretty much sank that fucking boat. I’m going after him. Are you going to stop me?”

Winnie moved on. Someone escaped. It had to be Victoria. She skirted quickly through the citadel. The marines were right; the place was deserted. Only the dead remained. The bays were empty of ships. Glancing outside the citadel, she noticed that the citadel was now many miles from the city and drifting farther away. The deeper depth of the ocean had brought the citadel much closer to the water. Nothing was in its vicinity, save for one shuttle already miles away. She looked inside, and her power failed.

The blind spot was there.

So much had happened since she’d looked away, yet it had only been a few minutes. There was no way to know who, if anyone, was also aboard that ship with Naema. It might be Alexander. His office was deserted.

The bridge was two floors down. The entire crew there was dead save for one marine. He worked the systems console, though he was barely managing to stay on his feet. Blood seeped from a wound in his gut. He’d pass out soon, yet he struggled on, navigating through the engine controls.

“Victoria?” Winnie asked. “Is that you?”

The cheering crowd in the Venezia bridge went quiet as she talked.

“Victoria. Is that you in the bridge? I’m sorry I looked away. Could you say something?”

The marine worked on.

“Please say say something. Please. I’m sorry. Just say anything. Is that you?”

“Yes, Winnie,” Victoria said. “It’s me.”

Despite Winnie being thousands of miles away, she still managed to annoy like a toddler poking for attention.

“Victoria!” Winnie shouted. “What happened to you? Where’s Alex?”

“Alex is taken care of.” Victoria was only partially paying attention to Winnie. She navigated the menu until finding the controls she needed. Since the nuclear warhead two floors above wasn’t displaying a time, she had only Alex’s rough estimate for how much time she had.

After a few options and confirmations, Victoria had every bay door opening along the hull of the Manakin.

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked.

Victoria navigated next to the engines display. She switched the running mode into maintenance. It required a password.

“Have Tan figure this out for me,” she said.

“But what are you trying to do?”

“Just do this, Winnie.”

Winnie pulled Tan away from his celebratory slouch and smoke. Reluctantly, he got to work. As he wrote down each character on a notepad, Victoria would type it in. The moment he leaned back, she hit accept, and a new menu popped up giving her more options with the engines. She selected all three nodes of the repulse tripod and shut them off.

The citadel lurched as thousands of tons of steel dropped twenty feet to the water. Victoria became weightless momentarily. When the citadel struck, she slammed back down, cracking her head against the console.

It must have knocked her out, since she slowly became aware that she was laying on the ground. The world was distant, as though she’d been pulled part way into a bodyswap. Her senses seemed to be working for someone else, but they came back.

The pain came first. The sharp ache in her gut seemed nothing now compared to the searing torture in her head. Blood coursed from her scalp. When she became aware of her hearing, all she heard were sirens. They blended in with the pain. When she finally saw, the bridge looked as though a grenade had gone off. Several consoles had gone black. Every cup of coffee, loose paper, tablet, and pen was now on the floor.

It didn’t seem like she’d been out for more than a second. She visualized the citadel. The bottom three decks had crumpled like foil. Water was rushing in. With all the rents and open ports, the citadel was sinking alarmingly fast. Good.

The Manakin was headed to the ocean floor. When the nuclear bomb goes off, incompressible water would mitigate the shockwave and absorb radiation. There’d be a massive spray when the gasses break the surface, and the Porto Maná beaches would get one hell of a wave, but that was it. The world-destroyer would disintegrate along with the rest of the ship. The world would be safe.

Victoria turned her mind back to Winnie.

The girl was shrill. “Talk to me! Say anything! Please!”

Victoria pushed herself up to a sitting position. With all her blood loss, it nearly knocked her out. “Yes, Winnie. I’m still here.”

“What were you thinking?”

“I’m sinking the ship.”


“Look above me, Winnie, in Alex’s office.”

At what? … Oh.”

Bit by bit, Victoria got on her feet. She lurched toward the bridge exit.

“Can’t you disarm it?” Winnie asked. “Tan could figure out the password.”

“Winnie…” Victoria took out the broken wrist monitor and dropped it.

Winnie was a bright enough girl. It only took her seconds to put everything together. Victoria was climbing the stairwell when dismay came over Winnie’s face.

“But how are you suppose to get away?”

Victoria reached the top floor. The exertion had her clutching her wounded gut. It took all she had not to drop right there and never get back up.

“Victoria. How are you suppose to get away?” Winnie asked more persistently.

She didn’t answer. Instead, she stumbled into the office. She opened the top of the warhead and turned on the screen to check the time.

Four minutes.

And now Winnie understood why Victoria wasn’t answering her question.

Victoria wasn’t going to get away.

It should have been obvious before. The water was seeping through the citadel. In moments, it would reach the top deck. The spires would follow quickly. The citadel would be deep underwater long before that bomb exploded, but seeing that timer drove home the finality of it.

“Winnie,” Victoria slumped against the wall and slid down to a seat. It didn’t look like she ever planned to get back up. “Listen to me carefully. I sent Naema and Alex away on a hopper. Help Rivera track it down. You must get to it as soon as possible.”

“Don’t do this, Victoria,” Winnie pleaded. “You’re going to get out of there. If we sent a ship now—”

“No one can get to me in time. Get to the hopper. Alexander doesn’t have his memories anymore. He should be harmless, but there’s a woman with him named Sibyl. She’ll know—”

“You could tread water! Just find something that floats and wait. People must see the citadel sinking. Rescuers will come.”

“No, Winnie. The citadel is going to pull everything down with it. Sibyl will know where Alexander kept backups of his glyphs. You have to use his body-swapping glyph for yourself and Helena. I’m not going to be there to do it myself, but I’m not one to break my word.”

“No. Don’t just give up. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen.” Victoria wasn’t supposed to sacrifice herself like this. She was supposed to be selfish, not noble. A noble person didn’t deserve to die. “Try, Victoria! Please. Try trying. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”

“If you have any respect left for me at all, you will do as I say. Go to Rivera now. Tell him to descend. Help them track down that hopper. You must get to Alexander before the army does. Go.”

“Victoria, don’t—”

“I’m ordering you. Do this now.”

“Victoria…” Winnie didn’t know what else to say, nor did Victoria respond. Everyone in the Venezia bridge was staring at her. Her mind kept running over possible ideas for how Victoria might still escape, but it was fruitless.

“Ms. Cho?” Rivera asked carefully. “What is happening with the queen?”

“She—” Winnie paused. “She needs us to track down a ship. It’s safe for us to come down now.”

Winnie explained to the others what had happened, and then about the hopper still racing along the ocean. Since she couldn’t look inside of it, she could only describe it’s trajectory. The last that she recalled looking back at the Manakin, she saw water flooding through corridors. The spires descended into the water. By the time she’d finished helping Rivera plot a course, the citadel was entirely under water.

Her mind followed its descent into the abyss. Everything grew dark. The corridor lights flickered off as the power plants flooded. Soon there was nothing the human eye could see.

And then, light.

111. Like Old Times

The citadel shifted. Victoria only noticed because the sunlight streaming in the port windows now crawled along the floor. She checked in her mind. The citadel was slowly turning toward the ocean, and it was already accelerating. She looked in the bridge, only to find the blind spot had moved there from Alex’s office. So Alex was there then. There was only one reason why the citadel would start moving before it was facing in the right direction. There was no destination. It was just getting away from where it currently was: city of Porto Maná.

Her plan had been to keep impersonating a marine until Alex was satisfied she was dead. He’d had the marines check each other’s shield, something Victoria had managed to dodge, but it seemed Alex had decided on more extreme precautionary measures. Of course Alex would do something like this.

She headed to the stairwell.

At the door, a marine stopped her. “We’re not allowed to leave.”

“A porthole has been pried open,” Victoria said. “I think someone might have jumped out. We need to tell the captain.”

“We’ll radio it in then. We can’t leave.”

“I’m not leaving the spire,” Victoria said. “Just going to tell the captain downstairs.”

“No.” The marine noticed the gash in Victoria’s armor. “What happened here?”

“Someone stabbed me.”

“Did it damage your shield stone?”


“Are you sure? That looks like exactly where it would be.”

“It’s not.” Victoria pointed above the gash. “My shield is here. Isn’t yours?”

“No. Mine is right here.” The marine pointed on his own chest.

“Right there?” Victoria stabbed him with knife. The shield glyph within popped when it ruptured.

The marine yelped, but he immediately forgot why.

Downstairs, all the marines looked up. Everyone sensed an aura appear. Victora had to act quickly.

“They’re keeping us in here because they’re going to kill us just as they made us kill them,” Victoria gestured at the dead. “And now they’re coming for you. Get to the roof. Shoot anyone who comes after you. Now go.”

The marine ran into the stairwell and bolted up the stairs. Two marines in the lobby took after him. Another two stayed behind. Victoria waited for the men to pass, then slipped down two flights to the lobby floor. She took aim at the two remaining marines through the door and kicked it open.

She was emptying the rifle’s clip before the door even hit the wall. The rifle’s recoil had flechettes flying all over the lobby, but both the guarding marine and the captain collapsed.

Victoria swapped her rifle for one of theirs and escaped to the Deck floors.

The bridge spire wasn’t far. Of it’s two stairwells, one was ablaze, the other was still rigged with a bomb. However, Alex was not in his office anymore. She could see the detonator on his unattended desk.

Victoria halted.

He wasn’t in the bridge anymore either. No one was, because the bridge crew was dead. Officers lay sprawled over bridge steps. The strike room was just as gruesome.

Victoria scanned the citadel for the blindspot. It was moving toward the flight bay in the citadel’s portside aft, where a single military shuttle awaited.

She sprinted down corridors. The bay was ahead, the blindspot was nearly there.

Turning the corner, she saw them—Alex and Sibyl, in the bodies of Helena and Winnie, were dragging Naema along. Alex aimed a gun at Victoria. She stumbled. A flechette narrowly missed her as she fell behind a stack of plastic-wrapped supplies.

She scurried closer to her cover. It seemed Tan’s power had tripped her up, saving her life from walking into a flechette. That power had proved far more useful than she had anticipated. She raised her rifle over the crate and fired blindly toward Alex, trusting in Tan’s power to guide her shot.

She glanced around the corner. Nothing. Alex and Sibyl had taken cover behind a shipping crate. There had been no targets to hit. The flechettes could not penetrate the crates.

“I knew it!” Alex yelled. “I knew you were still alive.”

Victoria could see the crate they were hiding behind, but that’s it. She hadn’t realized how dependent she’d become of Winnie’s power. It was like being blind.

“I guess since you’re here,” Alex said, “you’ve probably guessed why I’m stepping out. So we get to play a game. How much time do you think I set that bomb for? I’ll give you a hint. It’s about forty seconds before the really big one is supposed to go off. Do you remember what that timer was at?”

Another bomb. What was it with this man and bombs?

“You’ve also got to remember to subtract however long it takes for this hopper to get clear,” Alex continued. “I forgot to ask Quentin how large the blast would be, so your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re not getting on that hopper,” Victoria yelled. “Go back and disarm the bomb.”

“Nah. You can do that. It’s in my office. I’ll even tell you the code. It’s… 18060513. I know you’re not supposed to use your birthday as a password, but I did. So go ahead, but you’ll only be letting the bigger bomb go off then.”

“Then we die together, Alexander.”

“You’d do that? I don’t think so. You might not like me very much, but you won’t sacrifice yourself just to get rid of me.”

“Why not? You told the world what I did. I might never rule again.”

“Sure you could, Katherine. The world is filled with idiots. Make up a story. Tell them I was lying. Make them forget. You love doing that! Better yet. Just find another poor girl to steal a body from and start all over. Let this bomb go off and the world will be in such chaos, it’ll be ripe for the taking. With all your new powers, it’ll be child’s play.”

Victoria glanced around the supplies crates. She glimpsed Alexander pointing a repulse pistol at her and ducked away just as a flechette punched into the crate by her head.

“What you lack is determination,” Alex said. “You had such a good start. You were taking over minds. Replacing your enemies. You blew up half the world, and it worked like a charm. But then what? Six years of shit: taking over countries one at a time, diplomacy, Humanitarian Projects. I thought you must have had an attack of nerves, as if you suddenly forgot you’re the monster, but no. You actually cared about what people think about you. You actually wanted to help them.” He scoffed. “You have no idea how to rule.”

“And you know better? You couldn’t rule without warping the minds of every last person in the world.”

“Because it works, Katherine. I brought China together in three days. Three days. No wars. No struggle. It’s the rational way. You, on the other hand, destroyed the world. Then, before you could do any good at all, a teenage girl had a hissy fit, and you lost everything. That’s pathetic. Just give up. All you’ve ever caused is pain and suffering, because that’s all you know. It’s time for the little girls to go home. Let Daddy tuck them in.”

Victoria fired a few shots toward Alex. No hits. He was still locked down behind the same crates.

“Sooner or later,” she said. “You’ll have to turn around and go back.”

“With you just around the corner waiting for the all clear? No thank you.”

“Then we wait.”

“Then we do.” Alex agreed.

For a long while, they did. Each sat behind their respective covers.

Eventually, Alex broke the silence. “So, again, not wanting to spoil this for you, but we’re getting very close to zero hour.”

“Then go disarm the bomb.”

“That’s not going to happen, Katherine, but I’ll tell you what. I’m going to leave my wrist monitor right here. Then I’m going to get on that ship and leave. After I’m gone, you can disarm both bombs, and we’ll take a raincheck on this fight of ours.”


“Now you’re just being stubborn. Neither of us wants to die today.”

“Once you’re on the shuttle, you’ll have no reason to leave that monitor.”

“Okay. Fine. Look.”

Something slid across the floor. Victoria spared a glance. Alex’s wrist monitor now lay in open view. It was in the opposite direction from the ship for him. “There you go. You can get it once I’m gone. Remember. 18060513. Now I’m going.”

They shuffled around behind their protection. Footsteps moved cautiously toward the escape ship. Alex was clearly hoping Victoria wouldn’t hurt him in Helena’s body. He was wrong. Victoria ducked out and aimed.

Naema’s wide eyes stared at Victoria from inside her helmet. Alex was hiding behind her with the gun aimed over Naema’s shoulder, and Sibyl right behind him. Victoria aimed.

…But she couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger. Did she really need to kill him? Alexander had done a lot of awful things in the world, and awful things to her. But he was the only telepath flair that existed.

Alex fired at her. A flechette punched into her shoulder. She fell back.

Scurrying behind her cover, she realized her shield had dropped. She hadn’t even felt it. Whatever glyph it was Alex had been using for Sympathy, he’d just used it on her.

Of course he would. Why not? She was here to kill him. He was just defending himself.

No. Those aren’t her thoughts. Alexander murdered her father. He murdered her.

…But still.

NO! No “but still”. She had to act now.

She lunged around the crate and fired wildly, aiming low. Flechettes punched into Naema. Her leg. Her neck. Her helmet. She collapsed. Alex dove for the escape ship, firing back. Victoria’s gut erupted in pain. She crumpled.

In the ship now, Alex had left Sibyl and Naema behind, The hatch was closing. He was safe. No weapons could reach him.

But that didn’t matter anymore.

Alex slammed the hatch switch with all his weight. The hydraulic motor kicked in. He dropped low and aimed out the ship. No Katherine. No flechettes. Sibyl lay toppled from where he’d shoved her. He was clear.

Then he glimpsed her. Naema had rolled to her side. She looked right at him for a single moment before disappearing behind the closing door.

“No! You bitch. Don’t look at…”

Me? That was how he was going to finish the sentence, but what sentence was that? The hatch door sealed. He looked around. It seemed he was alone.

“Huh,” he said. The word echoed off the hull.

“Huh.” He said it again. Neat echo.

It must be a military ship. The walls were steel, and it was cramped as hell. Nobody would want to be in here unless their country demanded it.

So why was he?

He thought hard, but he couldn’t recall the chain of events that led to him here. He had been on a plane, and he’d been playing with the seat controls. Sakhr had been angry at him again. Because…

Right! Because Alex had been teasing him about his fear of planes. That man was afraid of everything.

Jesus. Why did this seem so long ago? At least a month. Everything since was a blank. Was he on drugs again? Sakhr would be pissed, but fuck him. Then again, maybe Sakhr had a point.

Alex had no idea where he was.

And holy shit! He was holding a gun! And he was a woman. A hot woman. It must have been a wild night.


The voice came from outside the ship. It was strong, masculine, and angry.

“Open the hatch door.”

Ah. Authority. Alex was already climbing to his feet. Anton must really be angry if he’s using that. Alex hoped he hadn’t fucked up too badly, whatever it was he’d done.

The door lever was in the first place he looked. Strange, considering he’d never been on this ship before. The hatch eased open, revealing an interesting sight.

A bleeding black girl, an asian girl, and a hispanic space marine who must be Anton.

Sure. Why not.

For some reason, he couldn’t read anyone’s mind. That was troubling. He’d have to figure the situation out for himself. Did he shoot the black girl? Maybe. And that asian girl sure looked like someone had hurt her feelings. Was all this his fault? Was that why Anton was glaring at him?

Well, Alex couldn’t feel bad for something he couldn’t remember. Might as well own it. He put on his signature grin.

“Drop your weapon and kick it over,” Anton said.

Alex shrugged, still grinning. It must have been one hell of a drug-fueled rampage. He complied. He wanted to say something witty as he did it, but he couldn’t think of anything good.

And from the look in Anton’s eye, it didn’t look like anything would go over well anyway. He looked really pissed, so much so that Alex dropped his grin. Was this serious? Had he gone too far? He hoped this was something they could put behind them. He’d hate to lose his only friend.

Victoria pulled off Naema’s helmet. The girl flailed. Victoria settled her down and checked her wounds. A solid leg shot. It looked like it damaged the bone. The helmet deflected the head shot though, and the neck wound, despite all the blood, was just a graze.

She removed Naema’s earbuds. Music blasted from them. Between those and the blinders, her sensory awareness must have been nothing. When she removed the gag. The girl gasped for breath.

“You’re going to be fine,” Victoria said.

Naema’s eyes were wild. She struggled again.

Victoria calmed her. “Settle down. I know you’re in pain, but I need you to concentrate on me.”

“Who are you?” Naema asked.

“Don’t concern yourself with that. I’m working with Josephine, and I need you to do exactly as I tell you. Understand?”

Naema glanced at Alexander.

“Don’t worry about him anymore. He’s harmless.”

Harmless?” said Alex.

Victoria ignored him. “I need you to close your eyes for a moment.”

Naema did. Victoria looked at Sibyl. “Come here and look me in the eye.”

Hesitantly, Sibyl approached. Victoria pilfered her mind for everything she could. The bomb was upstairs like Alex said. Password is as he said. The timer was forty seconds before the main bomb, and—

…And Alexander broke the wrist monitor. That son of a bitch. Victoria glanced at it. Even from here, she could make out the cracks running across its blank screen.

The time had said eight minutes.

In eight minutes, that world destroyer would go off. If Alexander had left her here as he planned, she would have had let the nuclear bomb go off, or else the world-destroyer would send everyone back into the dark ages.

She looked at him. He stared back innocently, as though genuinely concerned. She yearned to switch bodies with him and kill him now, but no. He may have been the monster a minute ago. Now, he was just a man, lost and confused. To kill him now would be like putting down a dog that had bit a child in confusion. Maybe it was the effect of his Sympathy glyph on her mind, but she couldn’t do it.

She pulled Sibyl toward Naema. “Unbind her. Get her on the ship. Keep Alexander from running off. I’ll be watching both of you.”

Sibyl nodded vigorously and snapped to work. Victoria collected the damaged monitor. It wouldn’t even turn on.

She might disarm the warhead, then find lesser explosives to destroy the world-destroyer. That depended on whether such munitions existed onboard, which she doubted.

Of course, she could just leave. Millions of lives of the still-reeling human race would snuff out. The world might blame her, or the terrorists. Either way, society would take another massive step backward. But she would still be alive. She had Alex under control now, and Helena’s body. She could drag the world back to order.

She’d just have to do everything all over again. Wage wars. Conquer. Cause suffering and death. It might be more difficult now that the world knew what Victoria had done, even if she hid in another body. And it would take years.

Years of pain.

Could she really go through it all over again? Maybe Alex was right. Or maybe it was just because she was so damn tired of being the monster. She’d always wanted to help, yet somewhere during this exile she’d started to wonder: maybe the world would have been better if she hadn’t existed at all.

Victoria fetched two fallen flechettes from the floor and moved to where Naema couldn’t see her. In her head, she formulated every plan she could think of. Her goal? She wanted to be able to look back on this moment and say, “yes. That’s what I wanted. I’m happy with how this turned out, and I wouldn’t change it even if I could.”

And then she tossed the flechettes into the air.

They landed and rolled to a stop. Both pointed to her left. She knew which plan that corresponded to. Somehow, she’d known they would fall that way even before she tossed the dice. Yet she had to toss them again just to make sure.

Same result.

So that was her path of least regret.

Her happy ending.

She hated so much that it was true, but she knew it was.

Victoria headed back toward the others. They’d gotten into the shuttle. Alex took the pilot’s chair, although he wasn’t taking advantage of it. Naema had limped to a passenger seat. Victoria knelt by her. 

“I need you to listen to me very carefully…”

110. Drastic Measures

“Is she? Or isn’t she?” Alexander mused. He looked at security feeds of the exemplar spire. Each one showed a horror movie massacre. Some cameras even had blood splattered across the lens. Marines patrolled through quiet halls looking for survivors.

A call came in. Captain Romero. He was in the exemplar lobby holding a radio piece to his ear. Alex could see him through a camera.

“The spire is secure, Your Majesty. Are we still in lockdown?”

“Yes. Absolutely no one leaves that spire until I give the word.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He returned to pondering the million dollar question: Was Katherine among the bodies? Or the marines?

In retrospect, weaponizing the exemplars may have been foolish. Six marines had died in the fight. That left eighteen alive. But were there eighteen shield stone still functioning? He’d call down to the exemplar operations room and have them check, but oops, they’re dead now. Not that it would be surefire anyway. Katherine might have separated a marine from his shield for a moment, but left the shield intact. That seemed incredibly unlikely given how those shields were underneath their armor, but not impossible.

What to do? What to do?

Kill them all? It was the only way to be really sure, and hundreds of people had died already. Why stop now? The citadel was mostly evacuated, so at least Alex wouldn’t have to kill everyone, but who would kill the marines? Super marines? A larger number of marines? Then who would kill them? He’d be swallowing a bird to kill the spider, and he wasn’t even sure if the spider had killed the fly yet.

He checked the dial on his wrist. Twenty-one minutes.

His path was clear.

Alex got up and crossed the room. In the corner was the second box Quentin had delivered, small enough to fit in the office. Alex pried open the lid and looked down at the slick, chrome surface of a factory-standard nuclear bomb. Beside the control panel was a PostIt note with Quentin’s scrawled instructions. Following them, Alex turn on the panel display. He typed in the security code and authenticated with a thumb print scan. The display then prompted for a time.

Alex checked his wrist dial again. 20:26 and counting.

He typed in 19:30. After several confirmation screens, a red light came on and the countdown began. Alex turned off the screen. No one looking at it would have any idea it was armed.

“Time to go, Sib. Bring the girl.”

Two flights down was the bridge floor. He nearly passed by, but changed his mind.

“How’d the strike go?” Alex asked as he stepped down to the center. Admiral Laughlin nearly spoke when he stopped to stare at Sibyl. Everyone did.

She stood silently by the door as she always had, but her arms were around a young black girl that none had seen before. Ropes bound the girl’s arms behind her. They wrapped about her torso several times. A motorcycle helmet was on her head. The visor was spray painted an opaque silver, and a brace around her neck prevented her from moving her head.

“Look at me, Admiral.” Alex snapped his fingers before Laughlin’s face. “The strike?”

“I… unfortunately, Your Majesty, I’m sorry to report that our intercepters were unable to destroy the rogue orbiter before it reached maximum orbital speed. Their spiders collided with our ships. However, the enemy have no more drones at all. If they should come down into—”

“Great. Never mind. Has the citadel been fully evacuated?”

“Everyone except for vital staff and the marines, ma’am.”

“And how many ships are left on board?”


“Pods? Ships? How did people evacuate the citadel? How many more can escape?”

Laughlin gestured to an officer who brought up a list of ships. “There’s one hopper left in the hangar. It can carry six people at maximum capacity.”

“That’s it?” asked Alex.

“The citadel was over capacity, ma’am. Why do you ask? Has the situation in the exemplar spire been contained?”

Alex winced and gestured. “Sort of, but I’m going to have to blow up the citadel to be sure.”

Cries of alarm sounded around the bridge.

“Destroy the— what?” Laughlin sputtered. “There is no means to do that.”

“Don’t worry, I brought my own bomb.”

“Your Majesty! That’s insanity! We can’t destroy this ship, it’s the flagship of your empire.”

“Let me rephrase. I’ve already armed a nuclear warhead. This ship is going to explode in… eighteen minutes. We need to escape.”

Nuclear warhead? Your Majesty! We’re a mile off the coast of Porto Maná!”

“Ooh.” Alex hissed through his teeth. “That’s… unfortunate.” In hindsight, maybe Alex should have asked Quentin for a smaller bomb.

“We have to disarm it, ma’am.”

“We could, but I’d rather not. This may be our only chance to get rid of this infectious terrorist problem once and for all. So come on. Is that ship ready for flight? Do you guys have to make a flight plan?”

“Where is the bomb?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Where is the bomb, Helena?” His voice carried a warning tone. Everyone looked at Alex.

He didn’t need to be a telepath to see where this was going. “Hold that thought,” Alex skipped up the bridge steps to where Sibyl waited with Naema. “I’d like you all to meet my fun little friend.”

From behind, Alex reached around Naema and flipped up the spray-painted visor on her helmet. Naema’s mouth was gagged, and earbuds were in her ears blasting music. Naema blinked in the light. With bloodshot eyes, she looked back at everyone she saw.

“Move her around a little, will you,” said Alex. “Make sure she meets everyone.” Sibyl swiveled, rotating Naema to face everyone in the bridge. The crew stared back, perplexed. Alex sidestepped to remain behind Naema as she turned. He reached again and flipped the visor back down. When he returned to the admiral, Laughlin’s mind opened to him. Alexander basked everyone in Sympathy.

“Now, Admiral, do you think you guys could prep the last ship for evacuation?”

“We need to think about the people in the city,” Laughlin said. “Whatever this terrorist infection is, it can’t be worth sacrificing the capital. I’m telling you this for your own good, Your Majesty. We must find another way.”

Alex held up a stopping hand. “Do you think I want to do this? I didn’t come to this decision lightly, but you don’t understand how dangerous these terrorists are. No matter how many people I send after them, they will just infect more. They can turn entire crowds into terrorists. If I don’t stop them now, they will bring about the destruction of our civilized world, but right now—right now—I have the chance to end this. The death toll will be monumental, and I’ll live with that for the rest of my life, but I must do this.”

He leaned on his Sympathy harder. Laughlin looked at him severely. “At least, let us send the citadel out as far into the ocean as we can. We might give the people a better chance.”


Laughlin turned to his flight controller. “Do it. Take us away from the city. Maximum acceleration.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

“Now,” said Alex, “about that ship.”

“Have you considered a smaller bomb, Your Majesty?” Laughlin said. “If we contact munitions at—”

“No time. We only have for as long as Captain Romero can contain his own men, and he doesn’t understand what he’s up against. We have… fifteen minutes now.”

“Perhaps if we—”

“No! Prepare the final ship. Tell me where it is. Then we will discuss this.”

“Your Majesty, if there is any way—”

“Are you loyal to me, Admiral? Or do you want to see this empire fall like the terrorists do?”

“Of course not, ma’am. I would do anything to serve you. I would lay down my life to keep you safe, but setting off that bomb may destroy the empire. If people found out it was on your order, it doesn’t matter for what reason, they’ll—”

Then we’ll blame the terrorists. That’s what we always do. Prep the ship.”

Reluctantly, Laughlin nodded toward the flight controller, who got to work.

Moments later, the controller responded. “The ship had a flight plan coded. Bay doors are open.”

“Where is it?” asked Alex.

“Portside aft sector, Deck 1.”

“Thank you.”

“We’ll need to call back another ship,” Laughlin said. “Between the bridge and the strike room, it’s not going to be enough.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Alex.

“Why not?”

“Well…” Alex glanced around. Twelve people here. Six more would be downstairs. “The more ships we bring back, the more likely the terrorist agent can escape. We’ll just have the one.”

“You… want us to stay?”

“No, Admiral. If you stayed, the agent could come up here and take control of you.”

“So what then?”

“Do you remember a moment ago when you said you’d lay down your life for me? It’s funny you should say that…”

Alex drew his gun.

109. Astronomical Odds

Unknown to Winnie, Victoria was still watching. She was just preoccupied, and it wasn’t as though she could have helped, and Tan had the right idea. Victoria doubted it would work, but why not?

The marines were coming up the stairs, clearing each floor. They stormed, shot every person they saw, and moved on. From many floors up, Victoria heard screaming.

At least they were saving her the trouble after she retook her throne. The floor she was on was clear indication of the trash with which Alex had been replacing her honest exemplars. She could smell the hard drugs. There was even graffiti along the walls as though the citadel dormitory was a backstreet alley.

An alarm sounded. A robotic voice announced a citadel-wide evacuation. In all spires, civilians were getting up from their desks while asking each other what was going on. The Deck levels were already in motion from the firefight aboard the ship. Everyone headed toward the bays to evacuate. The bridge staff would remain to run the ship. The exemplars also would not evacuate, because they would soon be dead.

But they didn’t know that yet. At the sound of the siren, they turned off their blaring musics and stopped their conversations. Some wandered into the hall as Victoria hurried by. They asked each other if anyone knew what was happening. No one did. Without ever having been trained for life aboard a citadel, none had any idea what they were supposed to do. As a mass, the exemplars moved hesitantly toward the stairwell.

The marines burst in. A spray of flechettes tore through the exemplars. Screams rang out. The crowd became a riot struggling to get away. Exemplars trampled fellow exemplars. Some drew weapons and fought back, but their simple guns did little against marine battle armor. Within seconds, all exemplars near the stairwell were dead or dying. The remaining stampeded down the corridor.

Victoria took refuge in a dorm alongside several exemplars who had weapons drawn.

“What the fuck is going on out there?” one said.

Another crept up and glanced out the door. Flechettes ricocheted by.

“Fuck.” The exemplar ducked back in. “It’s the marines, man. They’re fucking wasting everyone.”

“What? What the fuck?”

“Is Alex doing this? She has to be, right?”

“What? Why?” The exemplar looked genuinely hurt at the idea.

“I don’t know. She doesn’t trust us?”

“But… but… that bitch! I was loyal to her. I was loyal as shit.”

“Fuck, guys. They’re coming. Get ready.”

The exemplars clutched their weapons. They toppled their bunks for cover while others hid on either side of the door. None cared that Victoria was huddled with them, clutching her own rifle.

The marines split up by the stairwell. One group remained to ensure no one left, smaller groups set down hallways, breaking off into dorms as they passed. Three marines came toward Victoria.

They rounded the door frame. The exemplars fired first, useless bullets against thick armor. Victoria shot blindly while holding her rifle loosely. Neck shot. One marine dropped. A second marine opened fire on the men behind the bunks. The beds did nothing to stop the flechettes. The exemplars shredded and crumpled. The exemplars by the door jumped the marine, stabbing knives at joints of his armor. They all fell in struggle. The third marine entered, shot both men stabbing his ally, then fired at the barricade.

Victoria shot back. Four flechettes pierced his shoulder and neck, dropping him. Her rifle clicked empty.

The second marine was getting to his feet. Two exemplars fired at him fruitlessly. Victoria charged and tackled the marine back down. She blindly tore and grappled, but the marine’s strength overpowered the body of the young cadet she occupied. He drew his side arm and pointed it at her gut when an exemplar kicked him hard in the head.

The marine sprawled aside. Victoria groped for a weapon. Her hand landed on the handle of a fallen knife. Swinging it around, She plunged it into the marine as hard as she could. It pierced partially through his mesh armor, hardly penetrating any skin.

But his aura bloomed to life.

Grunting, the marine shoved Victoria off him. He shot the exemplar dead, then turned his sidearm on her. She grabbed his wrist. Between his armored glove and sleeve, she touched skin.

And now she was looking out a marine HUD at a very alarmed cadet. He hardly had time to realize his situation when Victoria shot him in the head. Turning her gun at the bed barricade, she fired six more times. Her mental visualization had told her generally where to aim, Tan’s micro-movements took care of the rest. She was the only one left alive in the room.

Victoria collected a rifle and ran to join the other marines. They they were going room to room exterminating the exemplars, and she fit right in.

With her situation taken care of, she turned her mind back to Winnie and the others…

Lieutenant Lucero indicated a touch pad. “And you can make gestures on this to control the swarm, but you have to—”

Tan slapped his hand on the pad and twiddled his fingers about. Outside, the swarm of spider planes jerked and shifted away from the orbiter.

“Right. Don’t do that. If you move the swarm too much that way, they’ll fall behind. At our speed, we have to keep them moving with the orbiter or else—”

Tan rolled a handful of dice, then toggled several console switches.

“Those, uh… don’t actually control the swarm. They—”

Tan rolled more dice and hit more buttons. The swarm outside lurched.

“Stop that. You just turned off the… stop!” Lucero pushed Tan aside and undid several of Tan’s adjustments. Tan ignored him and lit a cigarette.

“There’s no smoking in here,” Captain Rivera said.

“Dice say smoke,” Tan muttered. He didn’t look away from the controls.

“Okay,” said Lucero. “Don’t touch any of these. If you want manual control, just use these two pads. You can—”

Tan rolled dice and flipped switches Lucero just forbid.

Jesus! Do you want the spiders crashing into each other? Leave the Autoform on. Look. The enemy swarm is firing at them now. Just… Leave the Goddamn Autoform on.”

“Captain?” Josephine prompted.

“Lieutenant!” said Rivera. “Let him be.”

“Fine! Just… you’re not even shooting back. Here.” The officer flipped one switch. “Do whatever! It’s only our lives.” He stepped back.

Outside the Venezia, the spider swarms were now engaging one another. Three hundred spider planes moved forward as one, firing upon a swarm of sixty drones that swerved about like drunken bees. Tan was losing planes every second. At least they fired back, but for every enemy spider that dropped, Tan lost six.

He rolled the dice, dropped his hand onto the control pad, and flopped it about like a dying fish. The swarm lurched, moving tangentially from both the opposing swarm and the Venezia. Several spider planes bumped one another. They were now out of range of the enemy swarm.

“What are you doing?” yelled Lucero.

The enemy swarm broke in two. One swarm pursued Tan’s planes, the other continued its push against wind resistance to reach the Venezia. By now, the defending swarm could never catch up in time. Nothing stood between the Venezia and over a hundred enemy spiders.

Tan rolled again, dragging hard on his cigarette. This time, he merely kept one hand laying on the touch pad. His swarm kept moving tangentially, moving up windstream of the enemy ships. The enemy swarm pursuing them moved to get in between.

Lucero had to walk away. Tan’s erratic behavior was too much for him to watch, but the mystery proved worse. He marched back.

Again, Tan rolled with his free hand. As he read the dice, he moved to lift his cigarette from his lips. It slipped into his lap. He jerked, sliding his hand across the control pad as he squirmed, snatching for his smoke.

The spider swarm veered. They hurled directly toward the enemy orbiters. No longer moving against the atmosphere, they accelerated wildly relative to the Venezia. The pursuing swarm easily took advantage of this, adjusting course to speed alongside Tan’s swarm. They synchronized completely. The enemy swarm tore Tan’s to shreds. Dozens of ships fell per second.

“No!” Lucero lunged for the controls. Tan batted him away while fishing for his cigarette. It didn’t matter.

The swarm passed the enemy orbiters. There were only eleven left at that moment, and they shot by so quickly that they didn’t have time to shoot once. Just like that, the swarm careened off into the distance, out of the fight for good.

Except Tan’s drones hadn’t had Autoform on. They had no course correction, making them nothing more than expensive meteors. The spider drones guarding the enemy orbiters easily navigated around the expensive shrapnel. However, the orbiters relied upon their deflection repulsers to push projectiles out of the way, and the spiders were traveling far too fast and had far too much mass for them to deflect them with 100% certainty. As chance would have it, two spider drones had collision courses too direct to be fully deflected.

They each glanced an orbiter. At their speeds, it was enough. Explosions of steel and pressurized gas emitted from both. The ships careened off course. One spiraled toward earth. The other crunched into another ship, causing it to explode outright. The resulting shower of shrapnel was too dense for the other ships to do anything about. One got hit on the nose with debris. It’s hull peeled like a banana skin. The remaining two ships took light damage to their wings, but it was enough for their ships to drop from their course.

The enemy spider drones were now within range of the Venezia. Any of them could have fired, but none did. Winnie saw nothing but chaos inside the surviving three ships as the crews struggled to evacuate. The confirm order for the swarm strike went ignored. Within moments, the enemy swarms drifted passed the Venezia, they would not be catching back up.

“What?” said Lucero. He stared in astonishment. “Three down and… Jesus. You actually managed to—” He checked again. “They’re gone. We’re out.”

Several men cheered. A few clapped Tan on the back.

Tan took out another cigarette, lit it with the butt of his old one, and ignored everyone.

108. The Cascade Strategy

“And when you see anyone. You must remove their shield stone,” Victoria said. “They will resist you. So you must first approach as though nothing is wrong, then jump them as a group. It’s for their own good.”

Her crowd of followers nodded. Already, the memory of Victoria telling them this was gone. All that remained were the instructions and the compelling sense to obey them.

“Then come. Everybody,” Victoria led them down the hall. In the cramped corridor, they moved in a double file line that trailed out of sight.

“Be ready,” Victoria said under her breath.

“What’s the plan?” Winnie asked.

“In a moment, I’m going to swap bodies through the crowd rapidly.”

“That’s going to mix people up.”

“Exactly. Chaos. Alexander will lose track of which one I am. Will you be able to follow?”

“I’ll try.”

“Good. I’m going to order people up the stairs one at a time before I go up myself. If Alex doesn’t know which one I am, he won’t know for which person he needs to detonate his bomb. If he detonates too late, I’ll already be past him. Too early, and he’ll damage the stairwell, but then I can climb up after the fire team clears the room.”

“You’ll kill one of those people doing that.”

“Alex will be the one killing them.”

“Are you going to put these people back in their original bodies after this is done?”

“Winnie, you have eight minutes to live. Prioritize. Now play a game with Tan. How many people should I send before I go myself?”

Winnie and Tan played. “One,” Winnie said.

“Just one? I think I see how this will turn out.”

Victoria reached the stairwell. Turning to her audience, she reached, and the chaos began. Screaming started with the person in Captain Russo’s body. Without Josephine’s mind cleansing, the out-of-body realization struck. Man after man panicked. Others ran, some still in their own bodies, some not. Winnie had trouble following. As quickly as it took for Victoria to brush another, she moved. Near the back of the line, she reversed direction, oscillating between bodies until the panic spread people out of reach from one another.

Victoria was in a random sergeant. She leaned close to a private. “Run to the bridge. Get help.”

The private took off. He raced up two flights of stairs.

And the stairwell exploded. Fire and smoke flooded the first three floors of the bridge spire. Sirens blared throughout the citadel. Winnie couldn’t stop visualizing the ragged body of the guard as he incinerated in the flames.

“Captain?” Alexander said. “Are your men ready?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied Romero.

“Then begin on Deck One. Fore sector.”

“…Understood, ma’am.”

“I don’t think you can get through the stairwell,” Winnie said. “There’s just too much fire.”

“It will burn out,” replied Victoria. She was curled up in the corner of a ready room, pretending to have a panic attack like all the other soldiers around her.

“How long will that take?” asked Winnie.

“I don’t know. The fire team will be there soon. However long they take.”

“What about the other stairs?”

“He’ll just blow those charges if I try. We’ll wait for this one.”

Winnie glanced at the countdown. “The intercepters will be here in three minutes. I don’t think we can wait any longer.”

Victoria rocked in her fetal position while she thought. “Fine. I’ll do something about it.” Getting up, she jogged down the corridor. “Have Tan double check the exemplar spire for bombs.”

All the people around her calmed, going from full-blown panic to disconcerted sense that something was wrong.

“Everyone come with me. We must go to the exemplars.”

A crowd formed on her.

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

“The exemplar spire has a control station that monitors all plaques. The shield stones should be hooked up to that. I’ll send a remote wipe to everyone. You and Josephine can handle the interceptors from there.”

“That’ll help you too, won’t it?”

“In theory. I’ll need Tan to start guessing two passwords for me. That console has a—”

Flechettes punched into her chest. Everyone screamed as more people fell and blood splattered others.

An armored marine was at the end of the hall firing into the crowd. Winnie looked around the decks. All over, marines were moving from corridor to corridor, slaughtering air force personnel.

“Victoria!” Winnie shouted.

Victoria lay on the ground, bleeding from her chest. With each breath, bubbles of blood frothed from her mouth. A panicked cadet raced by. Her hand snapped out and brushed his ankle. The cadet continued on and ducked into a nearby room, narrowly dodging a spray of fletchettes from a pursuing marine.

“Ask Tan how I fight,” the cadet said.

“Is that you? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. That marine is coming. I never talked to Tan about fighting.”

Winnie locked eyes with Tan and conveyed the question.

He was nonplussed. “I no think about it.”

“Is that all you’ve got?” asked Victoria.

“Be wild. Move more. Think less. Shoot from hip.”

There was no more time to talk. The marine came to the door. Victoria lunged. He spun his rifle around, knocking her off balance. She accidentally pulled him down with her. The rifle clattered aside. Victoria tumbled beside it. The marine clambered toward her. In a panic, Victoria grabbed the gun and fired blindly.

The second flechette just happened to punch into a weak joint between the marine’s helmet and body armor.

Clutching his neck, the marine toppled. Blood pooled on the ground.

“There you go,” said Tan.

Is that what all your fights are like?” Victoria snapped. “Just accidents and drunken stumbling?”


Grumbling, Victoria shouldered the rifle and hurried on. Her crowd was mostly dead. What few remained had scattered. She ran alone now, moving quickly and without notice.

“Will there be any surprises?” she asked hurrying to the stairs up the exemplar spire.

“No,” said Winnie. “It’s clear. Will you get there in time?”

“We’ll see.” Victoria climbed two floors to the spire lobby. Bursting in, she blindly sprayed the area with a burst of flechettes. The receptionist and three exemplars by the security station all dropped dead.

At the internal stairwell, she ran up another two flights, which brought her to the server and operations room for the Exemplar Committee. Three exemplars at computer terminals turned to look at her.

“What the hell are you doing here?” one asked.

Victoria yanked his shield stone from his neck. The other two stood abruptly. Victoria killed them both with two quickly aimed flechettes.

She turned back to the defenseless one. “You will log into the remote monitoring system for the shield stones.”

He sat and worked.

“Tan, I still need those passwords. Winnie, keep watching for marines.”

Tan rolled his dice. This game was convoluted as always. With each roll, he consulted the keyboard on Josephine’s tablet and wrote down the corresponding character. Winnie couldn’t follow.

“They’ve deployed their spiders,” said Tactical Operator Lucero in the Venezia bridge. “They’re keeping the swarms close to their ships.”

“Deploy our swarm,” Rivera said. “Calculate an optimal defense trajectory.”

Winnie looked outside the ship. The incoming orbiters had launched their spider swarms. The drones formed a cloud around the ships instead of moving toward the Venezia. The enemy ships would have such a long intercept window that they didn’t have to separate. The orbiters would soon come so close they could wave out the port windows at each other, except that the Venezia would be destroyed long before that could happen.

Rivera looked to Winnie. “How close is she?”

The exemplar in the Manakin operation’s room was loading an application on the computer. The loading icon spun round and round, and nothing seemed to happen.

“Soon,” Winnie said, “but not yet. How much time do we have?”

Rivera turned to Lucero.

Lucero replied. “Their swarm will be within sheering range of us in one hundred sixty seconds. Our swarm will have three passes at them before then.”

Winnie glanced outside the ship. The Venezia’s own swarm had already ejected and formed up. They were breaking off to pursue their vain mission.

“Did you hear that time?” Winnie asked Victoria.

Victoria didn’t answer. The exemplar she was with logged onto the system and pulled up a massive list: the shield stone database. Thousands of serial numbers corresponded to names, designations, and indicator flags for status.

“That’s odd.” The exemplar studied the list, oblivious of the bodies behind him. “There’ve been a lot of failures. Is something going on?”

“Never mind that,” said Victoria. “Access the remote manager.”

“I can’t. That needs the queen’s clearance code.”

“Go to the corner.”

Without question, the man went and stood in the corner like a punished school child. Victoria sat in his place. For Winnie, watching her work was agonizing. She checked each menu, read each onscreen button. She made a wrong click, then slowly searched for a back button.

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked shrilly.

“They’ve changed the layout since I last used it.”

“But you have used this before, right?”

“About four years ago.”

“Just get that guy to find the menu!” Winnie checked the incoming ships. Fighting against the monumental wind resistance, they drifted inexorably closer. “We’re dead in two minutes.”

“I know what I’m doing, Winnie. I just… here we go.” A password prompt appeared on screen. “Tan?”

Tan had written down two passwords of random characters onto his note pad. Two plays of the game had given him the same result.

Victoria typed the password in. The system accepted it. She selected all shield plaques, then chose ‘remote wipe’ from the menu. A confirmation popped up. She accepted, and the system went to work.

A second popup appeared.

Internal Server Error: 0x05D84ED9
The process could not complete the request.
RuntimeException (/usr/bin/libexec/plaqserv_proxy:145:23)
Message: NOPE!!

Yelling, Victoria slammed the desk. She shoved the screen back, causing equipment to tumble and crash.

“I really hope this system recorded that,” Alex said.

“What are we supposed to do now?” asked Winnie.

“I’m sorry, Winnie. You’re on your own.”

Victoria snatched up her rifle and bolted toward the door. Winnie wondered why until she noticed nearly a dozen marines heading up the stairs into the exemplar spire. Of course Alex sent them that way. He was probably watching Victoria’s every move.

In the lobby, exemplars examined the dead security team Victoria shot earlier. Marines burst in, immediately gunned the men down, then took up positions to secure the area. They were preparing to come up the internal spire stairs. Confrontation was inevitable.

Winnie checked outside the Venezia again. Enemy orbiters were visible from the ship now. Their spider swarms had split into two groups. Three hundred drifted toward the Venezia. Another three hundred stayed close to their orbiters as guards.

“Is this it?” Winnie asked. “Have we lost?”

Victoria paused in the stairwell. Only a door stood between her and the marines. She ran up the stairs, past the operation room toward the sleeping quarters for the exemplars. She seemed to have a plan, but clearly it was only for herself. She never answered Winnie’s question, as though she’d already chalked Winnie and the others up for dead.

Fine then. Winnie banished Victoria from her thoughts and faced the people before her. “She can’t help.”

“Are you talking to us?” Rivera asked.

“Yeah. We’re on our own.”

There was silence on the bridge. Every shred of hope in the crew’s auras bled away.

“Very well,” Rivera replied. “Lieutenant Lucero, redirect the swarm to attack the enemy orbiters.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Lucero did so. Outside, the swarm’s parabolic trajectory changed slightly. Their course gave up any pretense of defending the Venezia, leaving the incoming swarm free reign to destroy them. It was a hopeless maneuver however. The enemies’ defensive swarms broke away to intercept. They would completely destroy the Venezia’s swarm long before it could threaten the enemy orbiters. This was Rivera’s last ditch strategy. Forfeit defense in the vain hope of destroying the enemy, but it was far too little. Winnie knew they were just going through the motions.

But she didn’t accept that. There had to be something. She just had to think.

Josephine. Her power could make people forget, but only if they weren’t shielded, and everyone aboard the intercepting orbiters was shielded. She couldn’t do anything. Same with Christof.

Tan. His power could work on shielded people since it didn’t affect their minds, but how could his micro-movements help one ship fight another? Everything was automated, but he could determine a course of action. Winnie considered every possible way they could get out of this. Fighting would fail. The deployment pods wouldn’t work at this speed. The enemy orbiters would not accept surrender, but maybe they could buy some—

Tan rolled a die. He stared at the result, then stood.

Josephine looked at him “What?”

Tan glanced at her.

“Oh,” Josephine said.

“What is is he doing?” asked Winnie. Josephine met her eye, and Winnie saw what she’d just seen in Tan’s mind.

Tan was playing a game. The object was for him to live. He started by thinking of all the things he might do:

  1. Escape via deployment tube.
  2. Contact the intercepters and make a deal.
  3. Shoot the captain and everyone else, then defect.
  4. Do something to help Victoria.
  5. Take over the controls for fighting.
  6. Take over the controls for steering.

He rolled a five.

Tan shouldered through the crowded bridge to Lucero and shooed him from his chair.

“Captain?” Lucero said.

“Let him,” Rivera ordered.

Lucero let Tan take his place.

“Now…” Tan looked over the console. “Show me controls.”

107. Security Failures

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

“No, Your Majesty,” Sibyl replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…” Winnie said. “What do I do?”

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

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

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

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

He glazed over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it,” said Winnie.

The guard approached the exemplar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain, this is your queen.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He was a glutton for drama.