104. A Nightmare Machine

Over three hours, the Venezia plummeted ten kilometers from it’s preferred cruising perch at the top of the stratosphere. The pilots on the bridge knew this only from the dials on their console. The ship portholes provided little more than a pinhole glance of the outside.

For Winnie it was different. Her mind sensed the vacuum-thin air growing thicker. She felt the ship’s repulse fields wedging air out of the way. The compression caused the hull to bake. The ship tilted away from the earth like a reigning horse, and everyone aboard was slightly heavier from the drag force slowing the ship from its blistering speed.

Winnie sat in the launch bay. Of the twelve deployment pods, only one was open. The lights were on inside, and the floor had a circular ring of light, a target for marines rushing in for quick deployment. She’d examined the displays inside. Right now they showed a countdown to launch: eighteen minutes. The harness inside was set up for its classic deployment instead of a seat like it had been when the crew had nearly evacuated. Winnie tried sitting in it. It left her in a half standing position with legs slightly bent. Supposedly marines could eject from the pods quickest like that, but even with all the straps holding her down, Winnie could imagine herself melting through the restraints into a puddle as the pod plummeted to earth. This was a nightmare machine. And Victoria was about to ride it back to Earth. Alone.

She turned her mind to the bridge. Acting Captain Rivera was talking Victoria through some final points.

“We’ll still be over the Atlantic when you’ll launch. Your pod will skirt the surface of the South American grid for about two hundred kilometers losing speed and land you near your destination. We can’t guarantee a high resolution drop. You could be several hundred meters off target. It’s wherever the grid thinks it can place you.”

“There’s no way to increase drop accuracy?” asked Victoria.

“Not at the speeds we’re going. We’re dropping you faster than usual. As it is, you’re going to have one hell of a bumpy ride, but these pods are still cleared for these speeds.”

“So you’re saying I should wear a helmet?”

“Our marines normally wear body armor,” Rivera said. “We could slow down more, but we’re taking one hell of a risk as it is. I already can’t guarantee an intercept squad won’t catch up with us. It’s your call.”

“It’s fine. I need you safe. Once you’re cruising again, stay put, don’t communicate with anyone. Winnie will inform you when it’s okay to come down.”

“Understood.”

“Let’s make sure that’s clear, captain. I will not contact this ship in any other way. Until Ms. Cho tells you its safe, you are to stay in the air. She and I will be in constant contact, and she’ll know if something goes wrong.”

“And if something does go wrong?” asked Rivera.

“Then I wish you luck living out the rest of your lives aboard this ship. There won’t be a place on earth safe for you.”

Winnie dwelled on that remark. The ship could never land anywhere without the empire finding out and coming after them, but somehow Winnie didn’t think Victoria was talking about that. Her mind returned to that room in the bowels of the HIMS Manakin where Quentin’s device sat quietly. Engineers had welded the door shut, leaving the room in pitch black. Though there was light inside the water-filled chambers within the device. The metals glowed…

That was the reason the Venezia couldn’t land safely if Victoria failed. Life aboard this ship might be necessary compared to the frozen winter that device would leave behind.

And that device was also the reason there couldn’t be any armed boarding of the Manakin. Not with that bomb and the dozens of safeguards Alex had installed around it. Infrared cameras watched it constantly. Light and sound sensors lined the walls. Alexander had wanted them to automatically detonate the bomb, but Quentin had talked him out of that. Twice since they’d rigged the room, the sound sensors had gone off. Each time Alexander’s wristband alerted him. Each time he’d scurry back to the top floor of his spire, where Winnie still could not see. She guessed he had security feeds up there that showed him the bomb room.

Victoria arrived at the launch bay. Winnie met her eye and brought to mind any new developments she’d seen with Alexander: none. He’d just finished giving a trope speech to visiting leaders from India. They’d walked into that talk planning to demand India be allowed to rebuild their own armies. They’d left after agreeing to reoccupation in select districts. Alex had done this dozens of times in the past week. Winnie had long since dismissed any doubt that his mystery glyph let him warp minds. What amazed her was how no one else seemed to question how easily he swayed people, especially since glyphs were no longer a mystery.

Victoria motioned for Winnie to get out of the pod, then settled herself into the harness.

Victoria worked the straps. “Help me with these.” Winnie did so. It took them minutes to figure it out.

“Are you ready?” asked Victoria.

You’re the one about to drop through the floor.”

“I already know whether I’m ready. I’m asking you. This plan depends upon you more than I’d prefer.”

“Don’t trust me?”

Victoria regarded her cooly

“I’m ready,” Winnie said. “I’ll help you win, and then you’ll hold up your end of our deal.”

“I’m not going to betray you, Winnie. You’ll still be useful to me after this is all done.”

“Heartwarming.”

“Would you rather I tell you it’s because I’m an honest woman?”

Winnie considered it. “No. You’re right. That answer fits you.”

“Then let’s get started. Close the hatch.”

Winnie pulled the overhead hatch part way down. “Good luck.”

“We’re not done talking,” said Victoria. “Close the hatch and put your mind in here.”

The hatch shut, hissed, and clicked tight into place. Inside, the console lights illuminated Victoria’s face in eerie green.

“Are you listening to me?” Victoria said. Her voice didn’t penetrate the pod at all, not even a muffle.

“Yes,” replied Winnie.

“Good.” Victoria pressed an interior button. “Captain. Can you hear me?”

“I can. Launch in forty seconds. Are you strapped in?”

“Yes.” She let go of the button. “Go to the others now. Never break contact with me, clear? Split your attention.”

“Clear.” Winnie put her mind both in the pod, and in the captain’s ready room off the bridge. Josephine, Tan, and Christof were already there. “Can I wish you good luck now?”

“If you must.”

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