“British authorities have declared a state of emergency after rioters stormed the Lakiran embassy in London last night” the reporter said. “These attacks come in the wake of Queen Helena’s announcement that her late mother, Victoria, may have instigated the nuclear war.”
The television switched to a shaky view of people outside a granite building. The windows were knocked out. Men and women ran in and out the front. Some climbed through broken windows. Police were on the scene, driving people away from the building with a phalanx of riot shields.
“The embassy building was not the only target. Rioters set fire to the aid stations in downtown Cambridge and other local establishments. Firefighters were unable to get through the crowds.”
Images showed burning remains of tents as rescue workers dug through the wreckage.
“Police are advising citizens to stay indoors, saying these attacks are only the beginning. Debates on Britain’s continued involvement with the Lakiran empire are expected to renew, with many ministers now arguing that Britain should secede.”
The images switched back to the newsroom. “Turmoil continues as people around the world demand that Helena reveal her sources implicating her mother’s involvement, saying that she should subject herself to a mental scan. Many are saying that the Lakiran empire has no right to remain as head of the Global Coalition, with many countries threatening to withdraw. In India, people took to the streets, burning effigies of the Queen Victoria, claiming that her crimes against humanity are the worst this world has ever seen. Even the capital city of Porto—”
Victoria shut off the television. She was alone in the wardroom apart from Liat, who guarded the door. Occasionally, an officer entered. Seeing Victoria, they’d salute, look around as though they might have left something in there, and leave. Victoria didn’t need her powers to sense their awkwardness. Despite her speech, nothing had gone back to normal. The soldiers didn’t trust her. She’d considered wiping the talk from everyone’s memory. It’d be simple. Call everyone back for another meeting, then hand-pick apart their memories, while scanning minds for any physical evidence onboard the ship she’d need to dispose of, but what was the point? She couldn’t hide world news from them, and she wouldn’t be aboard much longer.
Soon, the Venezia would pass over the South American grid. Thus would begin her operation. If all went well, she’d have her empire back come South American nightfall. As Helena, she could let Victoria take the rap for all past crimes. Only the people aboard this craft would know she was the same woman. They could not be allowed to remember that, but she would not forsake them. They’d be rewarded, even if they didn’t remember why. And she could get on with fixing this damn empire.
“Your Majesty,” said Liat. “The Captain.”
Victoria looked up as Stephano entered the wardroom.
He saluted. “We’ve made our final course adjustments, Your Majesty. We’ll be over the target location in five hours.”
Victoria nodded. She already knew.
“Have you picked a landing spot?” he asked.
“I have.” While Victoria dealt with all this announcement nonsense, she’d tasked Winnie with finding a landing spot for her, and Winnie had settled on an isolated outpost outside of Boa Vista, south of Porto Maná. Victoria had checked it over herself and was pleased. Winnie had done well.
“Then we should make final preparations.” Stephano motioned for her to come. She followed. That crisp conversation had lacked any acknowledgement of Victoria’s speech or its result, and he avoided her eyes. Was it that bad?
Soldiers throughout the ship carried on their duties. Before, they’d stare as she’d pass. Now she was invisible.
Up two floors, they reached the officer’s deck. Relative privacy from the rest of the crew.
“I’d like to readdress your plan, Your Majesty.”
“It’s foolish to go alone. My men will follow your orders. I’d be more comfortable if even two of them were going.”
“This is not an excursion that benefits from more people. I’ve already explained what Alexander has set up in the citadel’s lower levels. If he believes we’re closing in on him, he will allow it go off, hence why I will go alone. I can get close to him. A group cannot.”
“Ma’am. The marines aboard this ship are trained for this exact sort of procedure.”
“It’s not a matter of their training, Captain. I’m going to be swapping bodies. Do your men want to swap bodies with me?”
“My men have discussed it. Would they get their bodies back?”
“There’s no guarantee.”
The walked further.
“Your exemplars then.” Stephano motioned to Liat and Bishop, who walked paces behind them. “Bishop told me that’s not his original body.” He turned to Bishop. “You have no attachment to it do you?” To Victoria: “If you swapped your exemplars out for the marines on this ship, then the marines would be guaranteed to have their bodies safe once they returned to the ship. You could only take two men with you, but it would still make me feel a hell of a lot better.”
“No, Captain. I will go alone.”
“This is foolishness, ma’am.”
“Your men don’t trust me.”
“Is it?” Victoria stopped in the hall outside the bridge. “Look me in the eye and tell me your crew trusts me.”
“No. They’re afraid of you, but that’s no reason to discard them. My men will follow orders. It would be a show of faith for you to—”
“Ma’am!” It was Bishop. He was looking down the corridor at a marine whose aura was all wrong. It shone with glaring anticipation. Already Bishop was putting himself between Victoria and that man.
“This is the officer’s deck, Private,” said Stephano. He wasn’t aware yet. He didn’t have a glyph card, or he would have seen the danger. Liat was pulling Victoria back when the marine made an underhanded toss.
The world slowed down. For that moment, there was only Victoria, and the small object flying through the air toward her. Everyone and everything else was just background. She knew it was a grenade even before it struck the ground, yet she watched as it bounced, rolled, and came to a stop a step from her.
It was such a small thing, like an egg, though mottled and gray. As queen, she knew of most of the weapons and equipment her military used. Maybe once or twice she’d seen a weapons demonstration where they were used, but that was as much as she knew. The wars she waged were distant things she heard of through reports—victories and losses, deaths and injuries. She only heard of these things when they mattered on a grand scale.
But here was a small piece that had gotten through for her to witness in person. For all of her powers, for all the people she commanded and all the guards who protected her, none of it meant anything in the face of this small little egg.
“Victoria!” Stephano yelled. He yanked open a side door. He and Bishop shoved her through. Liat stumbled on top of her. No, that wasn’t correct. Liat was shielding Victoria with her own body.
For such a little thing, its explosion caused every bone in Victoria’s body to rattle. Pain wracked her head. Stars filled her vision. All sound muffled. Over the ringing in her ears, she could hear yelling. And something was clicking faintly. A repulse pistol. Her mind she saw the soldier firing down the hall at them from cover.
She imagined one of those tiny flechettes piercing her legs and gut. Tearing flesh. Snapping tendons. Scraping bone. It could hit her head. Pop through her skull and every hope she’d ever had for this world would drift away.
In her mind, the soldier peered down the hall. Seeing everyone on the ground, he rushed out from cover and hurried toward Victoria, firing his weapon.
And here Victoria was cowering, waiting for someone else to fix this. In five hours she was going to take back her own empire, and this was her response to what? A single soldier?
She was acting like that girl again, the one holding that gun in quivering hands as Anton crept up the stairs toward her. That girl died that day, and she died for a reason.
“Stop,” she yelled.
It was as though a collar around the soldier’s neck snapped taut. No one disobeyed that voice. Victoria envisioned him clearly, and then she groped for memories. Carving and hacking, she took anything she could, no matter how little it related to her. There was no mercy or consideration. She disemboweled the carcass of her prey.
His gun clattered. The marine looked down at the crumpled forms before him.
Victoria kept tearing until she no longer felt the visceral sensation of taking something away. She was scraping bone now. Everything else in his mind was out of her reach.
Other soldiers charged in from farther down. They tackled the assassin. Others were at Victoria’s side, pulling Liat off her.
Blood was everywhere, the floor, her hands, the wall. It had splattered Victoria’s face and soaked into her clothes, but it wasn’t her own. Liat was staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Other men surrounded Stephano and Bishop, blocking her view. In her mind, she saw their wounds. It looked as though Bishop had thrown himself toward the grenade, the fool. Stephano at least moved, even as blood poured. In his chest, she saw his heart. Faint, but beating.
She could save him. There was a body right there. Her assassin was untouched, but men were lifting Victoria, carrying her away. She struggled with them, but they held her back. Why couldn’t they see she wasn’t hurt? Why wouldn’t they just put her on her feet? She wasn’t weak.
…She’d just froze.
The crew got the queen and their captain to the medical ward. They pieced together what happened within moments and apprehended Private Larson. He didn’t struggle as they frisked him, or when they dragged him down the corridor.
“What?” he mumbled. “What happened?” No one listened.
In the brig, they tossed him into a cell and slammed the door. A soldier who attacks his own captain and ruler, no matter the reason, was no soldier to them. He was less than human.
Yet Larson didn’t see their hatred. He stared at his own hands as though foreign and strange. He turned to them. “What just happened?” he asked. “Am I on a ship? What is this?”
The soldiers’ glares faltered.
“Why am I dressed like this?” He looked at his own uniform. The questions came quickly.
“What is this?” he yelled. He pressed against the bars. The others backed away.
“What was I doing up there? Did I hurt someone? For God sakes. Who are you people? Why won’t you talk to me? Why won’t somebody tell me what the hell is going on?!”