101. Head Duty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No she didn’t. She just told us—”

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

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

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

“Hey, why don’t you calm down?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And suddenly it became clear.

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

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