“And when you see anyone. You must remove their shield stone,” Victoria said. “They will resist you. So you must first approach as though nothing is wrong, then jump them as a group. It’s for their own good.”
Her crowd of followers nodded. Already, the memory of Victoria telling them this was gone. All that remained were the instructions and the compelling sense to obey them.
“Then come. Everybody,” Victoria led them down the hall. In the cramped corridor, they moved in a double file line that trailed out of sight.
“Be ready,” Victoria said under her breath.
“What’s the plan?” Winnie asked.
“In a moment, I’m going to swap bodies through the crowd rapidly.”
“That’s going to mix people up.”
“Exactly. Chaos. Alexander will lose track of which one I am. Will you be able to follow?”
“Good. I’m going to order people up the stairs one at a time before I go up myself. If Alex doesn’t know which one I am, he won’t know for which person he needs to detonate his bomb. If he detonates too late, I’ll already be past him. Too early, and he’ll damage the stairwell, but then I can climb up after the fire team clears the room.”
“You’ll kill one of those people doing that.”
“Alex will be the one killing them.”
“Are you going to put these people back in their original bodies after this is done?”
“Winnie, you have eight minutes to live. Prioritize. Now play a game with Tan. How many people should I send before I go myself?”
Winnie and Tan played. “One,” Winnie said.
“Just one? I think I see how this will turn out.”
Victoria reached the stairwell. Turning to her audience, she reached, and the chaos began. Screaming started with the person in Captain Russo’s body. Without Josephine’s mind cleansing, the out-of-body realization struck. Man after man panicked. Others ran, some still in their own bodies, some not. Winnie had trouble following. As quickly as it took for Victoria to brush another, she moved. Near the back of the line, she reversed direction, oscillating between bodies until the panic spread people out of reach from one another.
Victoria was in a random sergeant. She leaned close to a private. “Run to the bridge. Get help.”
The private took off. He raced up two flights of stairs.
And the stairwell exploded. Fire and smoke flooded the first three floors of the bridge spire. Sirens blared throughout the citadel. Winnie couldn’t stop visualizing the ragged body of the guard as he incinerated in the flames.
“Captain?” Alexander said. “Are your men ready?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied Romero.
“Then begin on Deck One. Fore sector.”
“I don’t think you can get through the stairwell,” Winnie said. “There’s just too much fire.”
“It will burn out,” replied Victoria. She was curled up in the corner of a ready room, pretending to have a panic attack like all the other soldiers around her.
“How long will that take?” asked Winnie.
“I don’t know. The fire team will be there soon. However long they take.”
“What about the other stairs?”
“He’ll just blow those charges if I try. We’ll wait for this one.”
Winnie glanced at the countdown. “The intercepters will be here in three minutes. I don’t think we can wait any longer.”
Victoria rocked in her fetal position while she thought. “Fine. I’ll do something about it.” Getting up, she jogged down the corridor. “Have Tan double check the exemplar spire for bombs.”
All the people around her calmed, going from full-blown panic to disconcerted sense that something was wrong.
“Everyone come with me. We must go to the exemplars.”
A crowd formed on her.
“What are you going to do?” Winnie asked.
“The exemplar spire has a control station that monitors all plaques. The shield stones should be hooked up to that. I’ll send a remote wipe to everyone. You and Josephine can handle the interceptors from there.”
“That’ll help you too, won’t it?”
“In theory. I’ll need Tan to start guessing two passwords for me. That console has a—”
Flechettes punched into her chest. Everyone screamed as more people fell and blood splattered others.
An armored marine was at the end of the hall firing into the crowd. Winnie looked around the decks. All over, marines were moving from corridor to corridor, slaughtering air force personnel.
“Victoria!” Winnie shouted.
Victoria lay on the ground, bleeding from her chest. With each breath, bubbles of blood frothed from her mouth. A panicked cadet raced by. Her hand snapped out and brushed his ankle. The cadet continued on and ducked into a nearby room, narrowly dodging a spray of fletchettes from a pursuing marine.
“Ask Tan how I fight,” the cadet said.
“Is that you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. That marine is coming. I never talked to Tan about fighting.”
Winnie locked eyes with Tan and conveyed the question.
He was nonplussed. “I no think about it.”
“Is that all you’ve got?” asked Victoria.
“Be wild. Move more. Think less. Shoot from hip.”
There was no more time to talk. The marine came to the door. Victoria lunged. He spun his rifle around, knocking her off balance. She accidentally pulled him down with her. The rifle clattered aside. Victoria tumbled beside it. The marine clambered toward her. In a panic, Victoria grabbed the gun and fired blindly.
The second flechette just happened to punch into a weak joint between the marine’s helmet and body armor.
Clutching his neck, the marine toppled. Blood pooled on the ground.
“There you go,” said Tan.
“Is that what all your fights are like?” Victoria snapped. “Just accidents and drunken stumbling?”
Grumbling, Victoria shouldered the rifle and hurried on. Her crowd was mostly dead. What few remained had scattered. She ran alone now, moving quickly and without notice.
“Will there be any surprises?” she asked hurrying to the stairs up the exemplar spire.
“No,” said Winnie. “It’s clear. Will you get there in time?”
“We’ll see.” Victoria climbed two floors to the spire lobby. Bursting in, she blindly sprayed the area with a burst of flechettes. The receptionist and three exemplars by the security station all dropped dead.
At the internal stairwell, she ran up another two flights, which brought her to the server and operations room for the Exemplar Committee. Three exemplars at computer terminals turned to look at her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” one asked.
Victoria yanked his shield stone from his neck. The other two stood abruptly. Victoria killed them both with two quickly aimed flechettes.
She turned back to the defenseless one. “You will log into the remote monitoring system for the shield stones.”
He sat and worked.
“Tan, I still need those passwords. Winnie, keep watching for marines.”
Tan rolled his dice. This game was convoluted as always. With each roll, he consulted the keyboard on Josephine’s tablet and wrote down the corresponding character. Winnie couldn’t follow.
“They’ve deployed their spiders,” said Tactical Operator Lucero in the Venezia bridge. “They’re keeping the swarms close to their ships.”
“Deploy our swarm,” Rivera said. “Calculate an optimal defense trajectory.”
Winnie looked outside the ship. The incoming orbiters had launched their spider swarms. The drones formed a cloud around the ships instead of moving toward the Venezia. The enemy ships would have such a long intercept window that they didn’t have to separate. The orbiters would soon come so close they could wave out the port windows at each other, except that the Venezia would be destroyed long before that could happen.
Rivera looked to Winnie. “How close is she?”
The exemplar in the Manakin operation’s room was loading an application on the computer. The loading icon spun round and round, and nothing seemed to happen.
“Soon,” Winnie said, “but not yet. How much time do we have?”
Rivera turned to Lucero.
Lucero replied. “Their swarm will be within sheering range of us in one hundred sixty seconds. Our swarm will have three passes at them before then.”
Winnie glanced outside the ship. The Venezia’s own swarm had already ejected and formed up. They were breaking off to pursue their vain mission.
“Did you hear that time?” Winnie asked Victoria.
Victoria didn’t answer. The exemplar she was with logged onto the system and pulled up a massive list: the shield stone database. Thousands of serial numbers corresponded to names, designations, and indicator flags for status.
“That’s odd.” The exemplar studied the list, oblivious of the bodies behind him. “There’ve been a lot of failures. Is something going on?”
“Never mind that,” said Victoria. “Access the remote manager.”
“I can’t. That needs the queen’s clearance code.”
“Go to the corner.”
Without question, the man went and stood in the corner like a punished school child. Victoria sat in his place. For Winnie, watching her work was agonizing. She checked each menu, read each onscreen button. She made a wrong click, then slowly searched for a back button.
“What are you doing?” Winnie asked shrilly.
“They’ve changed the layout since I last used it.”
“But you have used this before, right?”
“About four years ago.”
“Just get that guy to find the menu!” Winnie checked the incoming ships. Fighting against the monumental wind resistance, they drifted inexorably closer. “We’re dead in two minutes.”
“I know what I’m doing, Winnie. I just… here we go.” A password prompt appeared on screen. “Tan?”
Tan had written down two passwords of random characters onto his note pad. Two plays of the game had given him the same result.
Victoria typed the password in. The system accepted it. She selected all shield plaques, then chose ‘remote wipe’ from the menu. A confirmation popped up. She accepted, and the system went to work.
A second popup appeared.
Internal Server Error: 0x05D84ED9 The process could not complete the request. RuntimeException (/usr/bin/libexec/plaqserv_proxy:145:23) Message: NOPE!!
Yelling, Victoria slammed the desk. She shoved the screen back, causing equipment to tumble and crash.
“I really hope this system recorded that,” Alex said.
“What are we supposed to do now?” asked Winnie.
“I’m sorry, Winnie. You’re on your own.”
Victoria snatched up her rifle and bolted toward the door. Winnie wondered why until she noticed nearly a dozen marines heading up the stairs into the exemplar spire. Of course Alex sent them that way. He was probably watching Victoria’s every move.
In the lobby, exemplars examined the dead security team Victoria shot earlier. Marines burst in, immediately gunned the men down, then took up positions to secure the area. They were preparing to come up the internal spire stairs. Confrontation was inevitable.
Winnie checked outside the Venezia again. Enemy orbiters were visible from the ship now. Their spider swarms had split into two groups. Three hundred drifted toward the Venezia. Another three hundred stayed close to their orbiters as guards.
“Is this it?” Winnie asked. “Have we lost?”
Victoria paused in the stairwell. Only a door stood between her and the marines. She ran up the stairs, past the operation room toward the sleeping quarters for the exemplars. She seemed to have a plan, but clearly it was only for herself. She never answered Winnie’s question, as though she’d already chalked Winnie and the others up for dead.
Fine then. Winnie banished Victoria from her thoughts and faced the people before her. “She can’t help.”
“Are you talking to us?” Rivera asked.
“Yeah. We’re on our own.”
There was silence on the bridge. Every shred of hope in the crew’s auras bled away.
“Very well,” Rivera replied. “Lieutenant Lucero, redirect the swarm to attack the enemy orbiters.”
Lucero did so. Outside, the swarm’s parabolic trajectory changed slightly. Their course gave up any pretense of defending the Venezia, leaving the incoming swarm free reign to destroy them. It was a hopeless maneuver however. The enemies’ defensive swarms broke away to intercept. They would completely destroy the Venezia’s swarm long before it could threaten the enemy orbiters. This was Rivera’s last ditch strategy. Forfeit defense in the vain hope of destroying the enemy, but it was far too little. Winnie knew they were just going through the motions.
But she didn’t accept that. There had to be something. She just had to think.
Josephine. Her power could make people forget, but only if they weren’t shielded, and everyone aboard the intercepting orbiters was shielded. She couldn’t do anything. Same with Christof.
Tan. His power could work on shielded people since it didn’t affect their minds, but how could his micro-movements help one ship fight another? Everything was automated, but he could determine a course of action. Winnie considered every possible way they could get out of this. Fighting would fail. The deployment pods wouldn’t work at this speed. The enemy orbiters would not accept surrender, but maybe they could buy some—
Tan rolled a die. He stared at the result, then stood.
Josephine looked at him “What?”
Tan glanced at her.
“Oh,” Josephine said.
“What is is he doing?” asked Winnie. Josephine met her eye, and Winnie saw what she’d just seen in Tan’s mind.
Tan was playing a game. The object was for him to live. He started by thinking of all the things he might do:
- Escape via deployment tube.
- Contact the intercepters and make a deal.
- Shoot the captain and everyone else, then defect.
- Do something to help Victoria.
- Take over the controls for fighting.
- Take over the controls for steering.
He rolled a five.
Tan shouldered through the crowded bridge to Lucero and shooed him from his chair.
“Captain?” Lucero said.
“Let him,” Rivera ordered.
Lucero let Tan take his place.
“Now…” Tan looked over the console. “Show me controls.”