“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.”
Alex hung up. He was a glutton for drama.