“Is she? Or isn’t she?” Alexander mused. He looked at security feeds of the exemplar spire. Each one showed a horror movie massacre. Some cameras even had blood splattered across the lens. Marines patrolled through quiet halls looking for survivors.
A call came in. Captain Romero. He was in the exemplar lobby holding a radio piece to his ear. Alex could see him through a camera.
“The spire is secure, Your Majesty. Are we still in lockdown?”
“Yes. Absolutely no one leaves that spire until I give the word.”
Alex hung up. He returned to pondering the million dollar question: Was Katherine among the bodies? Or the marines?
In retrospect, weaponizing the exemplars may have been foolish. Six marines had died in the fight. That left eighteen alive. But were there eighteen shield stone still functioning? He’d call down to the exemplar operations room and have them check, but oops, they’re dead now. Not that it would be surefire anyway. Katherine might have separated a marine from his shield for a moment, but left the shield intact. That seemed incredibly unlikely given how those shields were underneath their armor, but not impossible.
What to do? What to do?
Kill them all? It was the only way to be really sure, and hundreds of people had died already. Why stop now? The citadel was mostly evacuated, so at least Alex wouldn’t have to kill everyone, but who would kill the marines? Super marines? A larger number of marines? Then who would kill them? He’d be swallowing a bird to kill the spider, and he wasn’t even sure if the spider had killed the fly yet.
He checked the dial on his wrist. Twenty-one minutes.
His path was clear.
Alex got up and crossed the room. In the corner was the second box Quentin had delivered, small enough to fit in the office. Alex pried open the lid and looked down at the slick, chrome surface of a factory-standard nuclear bomb. Beside the control panel was a PostIt note with Quentin’s scrawled instructions. Following them, Alex turn on the panel display. He typed in the security code and authenticated with a thumb print scan. The display then prompted for a time.
Alex checked his wrist dial again. 20:26 and counting.
He typed in 19:30. After several confirmation screens, a red light came on and the countdown began. Alex turned off the screen. No one looking at it would have any idea it was armed.
“Time to go, Sib. Bring the girl.”
Two flights down was the bridge floor. He nearly passed by, but changed his mind.
“How’d the strike go?” Alex asked as he stepped down to the center. Admiral Laughlin nearly spoke when he stopped to stare at Sibyl. Everyone did.
She stood silently by the door as she always had, but her arms were around a young black girl that none had seen before. Ropes bound the girl’s arms behind her. They wrapped about her torso several times. A motorcycle helmet was on her head. The visor was spray painted an opaque silver, and a brace around her neck prevented her from moving her head.
“Look at me, Admiral.” Alex snapped his fingers before Laughlin’s face. “The strike?”
“I… unfortunately, Your Majesty, I’m sorry to report that our intercepters were unable to destroy the rogue orbiter before it reached maximum orbital speed. Their spiders collided with our ships. However, the enemy have no more drones at all. If they should come down into—”
“Great. Never mind. Has the citadel been fully evacuated?”
“Everyone except for vital staff and the marines, ma’am.”
“And how many ships are left on board?”
“Pods? Ships? How did people evacuate the citadel? How many more can escape?”
Laughlin gestured to an officer who brought up a list of ships. “There’s one hopper left in the hangar. It can carry six people at maximum capacity.”
“That’s it?” asked Alex.
“The citadel was over capacity, ma’am. Why do you ask? Has the situation in the exemplar spire been contained?”
Alex winced and gestured. “Sort of, but I’m going to have to blow up the citadel to be sure.”
Cries of alarm sounded around the bridge.
“Destroy the— what?” Laughlin sputtered. “There is no means to do that.”
“Don’t worry, I brought my own bomb.”
“Your Majesty! That’s insanity! We can’t destroy this ship, it’s the flagship of your empire.”
“Let me rephrase. I’ve already armed a nuclear warhead. This ship is going to explode in… eighteen minutes. We need to escape.”
“Nuclear warhead? Your Majesty! We’re a mile off the coast of Porto Maná!”
“Ooh.” Alex hissed through his teeth. “That’s… unfortunate.” In hindsight, maybe Alex should have asked Quentin for a smaller bomb.
“We have to disarm it, ma’am.”
“We could, but I’d rather not. This may be our only chance to get rid of this infectious terrorist problem once and for all. So come on. Is that ship ready for flight? Do you guys have to make a flight plan?”
“Where is the bomb?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Where is the bomb, Helena?” His voice carried a warning tone. Everyone looked at Alex.
He didn’t need to be a telepath to see where this was going. “Hold that thought,” Alex skipped up the bridge steps to where Sibyl waited with Naema. “I’d like you all to meet my fun little friend.”
From behind, Alex reached around Naema and flipped up the spray-painted visor on her helmet. Naema’s mouth was gagged, and earbuds were in her ears blasting music. Naema blinked in the light. With bloodshot eyes, she looked back at everyone she saw.
“Move her around a little, will you,” said Alex. “Make sure she meets everyone.” Sibyl swiveled, rotating Naema to face everyone in the bridge. The crew stared back, perplexed. Alex sidestepped to remain behind Naema as she turned. He reached again and flipped the visor back down. When he returned to the admiral, Laughlin’s mind opened to him. Alexander basked everyone in Sympathy.
“Now, Admiral, do you think you guys could prep the last ship for evacuation?”
“We need to think about the people in the city,” Laughlin said. “Whatever this terrorist infection is, it can’t be worth sacrificing the capital. I’m telling you this for your own good, Your Majesty. We must find another way.”
Alex held up a stopping hand. “Do you think I want to do this? I didn’t come to this decision lightly, but you don’t understand how dangerous these terrorists are. No matter how many people I send after them, they will just infect more. They can turn entire crowds into terrorists. If I don’t stop them now, they will bring about the destruction of our civilized world, but right now—right now—I have the chance to end this. The death toll will be monumental, and I’ll live with that for the rest of my life, but I must do this.”
He leaned on his Sympathy harder. Laughlin looked at him severely. “At least, let us send the citadel out as far into the ocean as we can. We might give the people a better chance.”
Laughlin turned to his flight controller. “Do it. Take us away from the city. Maximum acceleration.”
“Now,” said Alex, “about that ship.”
“Have you considered a smaller bomb, Your Majesty?” Laughlin said. “If we contact munitions at—”
“No time. We only have for as long as Captain Romero can contain his own men, and he doesn’t understand what he’s up against. We have… fifteen minutes now.”
“Perhaps if we—”
“No! Prepare the final ship. Tell me where it is. Then we will discuss this.”
“Your Majesty, if there is any way—”
“Are you loyal to me, Admiral? Or do you want to see this empire fall like the terrorists do?”
“Of course not, ma’am. I would do anything to serve you. I would lay down my life to keep you safe, but setting off that bomb may destroy the empire. If people found out it was on your order, it doesn’t matter for what reason, they’ll—”
“Then we’ll blame the terrorists. That’s what we always do. Prep the ship.”
Reluctantly, Laughlin nodded toward the flight controller, who got to work.
Moments later, the controller responded. “The ship had a flight plan coded. Bay doors are open.”
“Where is it?” asked Alex.
“Portside aft sector, Deck 1.”
“We’ll need to call back another ship,” Laughlin said. “Between the bridge and the strike room, it’s not going to be enough.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Alex.
“Well…” Alex glanced around. Twelve people here. Six more would be downstairs. “The more ships we bring back, the more likely the terrorist agent can escape. We’ll just have the one.”
“You… want us to stay?”
“No, Admiral. If you stayed, the agent could come up here and take control of you.”
“So what then?”
“Do you remember a moment ago when you said you’d lay down your life for me? It’s funny you should say that…”
Alex drew his gun.