When the pod dropped from the ship, Winnie had expected to see Victoria’s hair lift about her like a halo now that she was in free fall. It didn’t happen. Apart from the initial lurch and some turbulence, the gravity inside the pod remained normal, even as the pod screamed through the atmosphere, building up an aura of burning light around it as it soared. A repulse field in the pod must have been correcting the gravity. Made sense. Winnie had seen those pods touch down on the news. If there wasn’t an internal repulse field manipulating G-force in the pods, the marines would turn to paste upon landing.
“Are you having trouble following me?” Victoria yelled over the rumbling.
“No,” said Winnie from the captain’s ready room. The others glanced at her as she seemingly spoke to no one. Josephine, Christof, and Tan sat across from her, each with glyph cards—awaiting orders, although Tan was watching a show on his tablet.
Victoria’s pod plummeted like a meteor. Already she was over Brazil. The terrain and cities grew close. Seconds before she’d have struck the earth, her pod arced to skate a quarter mile above Brazilian forests. The pod jostled. A beep sound inside, and a light came on.
The grid had picked her up.
The hidden traffic nodes beneath the earth worked in tandem to slow her momentum as much as they could before she skipped past. The timer inside the pod indicated touchdown in seconds, but Winnie still had no idea where to look ahead to. The machines knew though; that’s what mattered.
The pod changed trajectory again and careened into a field. The crash echoed like thunder, sending birds into the sky. Inside, the repulse field kept the landfall down to a shudder. Victoria’s restraints popped free. Lighting came on around a prominent button on the inside of the door. A marine would punch it and immediately be thrown into whatever hostile situation they were deployed to. Victoria took a moment to adjust her clothes and pat herself down.
Satisfied, she pushed the button. The pod hatch blew open. She daintily climbed out and looked around. She was in a field beside a highway road. Of six lanes, only one each way was maintained, the rest were crumbled. A few ancient trucks lumbered along. Overhead the highway, shuttle cars soared through the air along an invisible line.
Winnie checked where Victoria was relative to where she was going. Not too bad.
Victoria saw it too and set off in a direction. About five hundred meters ahead was a border gridport. Air shuttles touched down in lots. Throngs of luggage-toting travelers came out, where guards and signs directed them to customs and border patrol. Inside, they waited in masses for workers in a long row of kiosks to call them up to check their credentials. Brazilian police and soldiers dotted the port, and a barbed wire fence surrounded the land.
“Do you see where I’m going?”
“I see it,” said Winnie.
“Look around. Find any investigators.”
Winnie’s mind swept the area. Everything seemed normal. If anyone was investigating the landed pod, they weren’t coming from there. She widened her search. There was a nearby village. Most of the buildings were dilapidated. She gave a quick glance in a dozen or so empty buildings and determined it was a ghost town. Looking further, she saw dead forests, a few new farms, and several deserted settlements. Basically, a whole lot of nothing. To be expected at the border of the empire. If it weren’t for the grid chute passing through here, this part of the world would be returning to nature.
Winnie’s next check was Alexander. He had been in his meeting with the Indian delegates when an officer interrupted him with an alert. The military picked up an unscheduled deployment drop. A ship had been detected, and a squad sent to intercept.
“Alexander knows,” Winnie said.
“I see. There’s nothing we can do about it. Tell Rivera about the squad.”
Winnie stepped onto the bridge and shared the knowledge. Rivera nodded. The squad was expected, but Winnie didn’t like the worry she sensed in the auras of the bridge crew when she shared their trajectory.
Winnie returned to the ready room. Soon, Victoria reached the edge of the woods. A few steps further and she’d be in view of the gridport security on the landing tarmac.
“It’s time to play a game,” she said. “What gets me inside? I need a time and a direction of approach.”
Winnie nudged Tan. Reproachfully, he paused his show and looked Winnie in the eyes. She mentally pushed along Victoria’s order. From dice scattered before him, he picked several, cleared the rest, and rolled.
“East south-east side. Count to one hundred thirty-two and go.” He resumed his tablet.
Victoria tramped through the woods without any attempt at stealth. After circling the property, she waited. “Play a game of Spotters.”
Winnie got Tan’s attention again, and pushed the situation. Sighing, he slid some dice to Josephine while keeping a set for himself. Josephine rolled first. She studied her results, then looked Winnie in the eye. Winnie wouldn’t have known how to interpret the dice herself, but she saw in Josephine’s mind where to look—about forty feet up in the air. It was a complete dud of a roll, but that was expected from her.
Tan’s turn. His roll had Winnie looking deep into the gridport. She followed as best she could, and ended up in a communications room. Guards waited around a desk where a man on a phone wrote instructions down. Tan’s roll couldn’t have been random. Unfortunately, the security officer was not speaking English.
Winnie got Christof’s attention. They locked eyes, and he listened to them. Part of his contribution to this was his centuries-worth of lingual skills.
“Oh, dear,” he said.
“What is it?” Victoria said as she crunched through dead foliage.
“I have no idea what they’re saying.”
“What who is saying?” asked Victoria.
“We found some guards on a phone. They look like they’re getting new orders,” said Winnie, “but they’re speaking Spanish.”
“They’re speaking Portuguese,” Christof corrected.
“Which is a language you knew,” said Victoria.
“I did. Once. Almost a hundred and fifty years ago. They didn’t have words for airplanes or phones or repulsers. I’m not sure if… no, hold on. Okay. They’re supposed to leave and look for something. No. Someone. People. Something fell down. Yes. They’re looking for the pod.”
“Winnie,” said Victoria. “Are they soldiers or security guards?”
“They’re just guards, I think.”
“Are they shielded?”
Winnie checked over their bodies. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I want you to—”
“Hold on. Wait until they’re gotten their orders. Then do so.”
Winnie waited. Once the man on the phone hung up, he shared his new orders to the others. Winnie mentally linked with Josephine, and he trailed off. After studying his notes, he restarted, only to trail off again. The other guards shuffled. Eventually, the man gave up and returned to work. Everyone else trickled away as though their water cooler chitchat had ended.
“Done,” said Josephine.
Prodding Tan, Winnie returned to playing Spotters. Tan won the last round, but this time Josephine and Tan found nothing. Draw.
“The place should be safe now,” Winnie said.
Victoria finished counting down and strode toward the gridport. A barbed wire fence barred her way. With no way around, Victoria climbed. At the top, she deftly stepped over the curled razor wire, getting several slashes for her effort. A security camera was trained on Victoria. Frantically, Winnie looked for the associated security room.
It was nested inside the gridport. An army officer was on duty, but someone else had come into the room to talk with him. The motion detection feature of the security system had made Victoria prominent on his screen, but neither paid attention. When Victoria’s pants snagged, she spent nearly a minute decoupling herself, rattling the chain links with every move.
Winnie held her breath. The officer’s conversation was ending. Already he was turning back to his screen. Just a glance and she’d be spotted, and like all soldiers, this man was shielded.
“Hurry,” said Winnie. “You’re on a camera.”
“I’m fine,” Victoria muttered. Victoria cleared the razor wire and climbed down the other side. The officer turned to his desk. His eyes were on his tea. After a sip, he glanced at the screen. Victoria had moved on.
“Do you know how close you just came to getting caught?” Winnie said.
“Nonsense. Trust the dice, Winnie. They’re not telling me what to do to succeed, they’re telling me whatever I need to hear so that I succeed anyway.”
“It’s still nerve wracking. What now?”
“Just keep an eye out.”
Victoria marched across tarmac and entered the gridport through a service door. She was in a terminal. Families and commuters waited for shuttles. Flight announcements sounded over speakers. Restaurants and convenience stores lined the walls, though most were closed. This gridport had been built before the Collapse. There was more traffic then.
Victoria walked through like any other traveler, though numerous cuts marred her arms and legs. She arrived at a security checkpoint and was already on the secure side. Kneeling, Victoria took from her pocket a few dice of her own, which she rolled on the floor. Winnie didn’t know the game, but timing must have been part of it, since Victoria took a seat in a nearby bench and waited. Minutes later, she marched abruptly toward the checkpoint, dropping her dice in a waste bin as she passed. After exiting the secure terminal, she turned and got into line to get right back in. A short wait later, it was her turn at the checkpoint.
A guard with a security wand said something to her in Portuguese.
Victoria replied calmly.
“He wants her passport and ticket,” Christof said for Winnie’s benefit. “She’s refusing.”
The guard repeated himself, and so did Victoria. She held out her empty palms. His eyes widened upon seeing her bloody arms. He called others over. They surrounded her. With hands resting on holstered weapons, they barked orders.
“They’re telling her to lie down,” Christof clarified.
Victoria complied. The men searched her and took her to a holding room. They spoke among each other in the other room.
“Are you listening, Christof?” Victoria asked.
Christof still had eye contact with Winnie. “I am,” Christof said. “So far everything is going to plan.”
“Translate everything said for Winnie. Keep her up to date.”
“I will do so.”
A soldier came in and sat across from Victoria. He stared her down a while, looking over the tattoos covering her wrists and neck. Victoria kept her eyes on the table.
“He’s got a glyph card in his wallet, and a shield stone around his neck,” said Winnie. “Do you see it?”
Victoria didn’t answer.
“Hello,” the guard said in Portuguese. Christof translated his words. “I am Captain Russo. I’m going to ask you some questions. First, what is your name?”
“Why have you detained me?” asked Victoria.
“You are trying to cross the border without papers or ID. Where are you trying to go?”
“Where in Colombia?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“It is my business. This is our gridport. You will answer my questions or you will be arrested.”
“On what charges?”
“Illegally crossing the border.”
“That’s nonsense,” Victoria said. “You can’t charge me for that.”
“You will find that we can. This is a serious matter. Now I’ll ask again. What is your name?”
She looked him in the eyes. “I’m not telling.”
He stared back and frowned. “Do you have a shield on you?”
“A shield stone. It is illegal for anyone accept military and security personnel to have a shield.”
“Are you trying read my mind? I never gave you permission.”
“We don’t need it. Do you have one?”
“You cretins already searched me. Did you find one?”
“This is a very serious matter,” he replied, irritated.
“You already said so.”
“I will ask you one more time. Do you have a shield?”
“Go to hell.”
The man stood and turned toward the door. He took one step when Victoria lunged and tackled him. He yelled and struggled, striking Victoria in the face. Blood streamed from her nose, but she kept clawing ferociously.
Suddenly she faltered. Russo shoved her off, took his baton, and clubbed her across the temple.
Other soldiers rushed in and apprehended her, but by then there was nothing to do. She was limp. Blood trickled down her face.
Winnie held her breath and watched. It had been hard to tell what had happened.
“What was that?” asked one of the guards. Christof still translated the conversation for Winnie.
Russo shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know.” Bending, he picked up his shield stone, which had come loose in the fight. The other men yanked the girl to her feet. She couldn’t keep her legs beneath her.
“Get her out of here,” Russo said.
The guards either ignored or didn’t notice Russo’s sudden change in accent. The girl was taken to a holding cell, and someone called for an ambulance. The blow on her head had left her unresponsive. The excitement settled down after twenty minutes. Everyone returned to their posts. Russo pulled one of the other men aside.
Russo reached for his neck and yanked away the man’s shield. Surprised, the man reached to catch Russo’s wrist.
“Stop,” Russo said. The word was like a force of its own.
The guard’s hand snapped back by his side.
“Good. Listen carefully. I saw something alarming when I read that girl’s mind. I need to go to the HIMS Manakin and report this to the Exemplar Committee, and I will leave immediately. Is this clear?”
“Good.” Russo handed him back his shield. By the time he’d put it back on, he didn’t remember it falling off at all. He could hardly remember the conversation he’d just had, but he got the gist of it.
Captain Russo was headed to the citadel.