Cheers and applause still sounded through the bridge of the Venezia. Officers had raced to the rest of the ship to tell others the story of Tan’s ridiculous victory. Winnie offhandedly watched them in her mind. Mostly, her attention was back on the Manakin scouring for Victoria.
The exemplar spire was a massacre. All exemplars were dead. The marines had collected in the lobby. Many kneeled by a pair of dead marines, and they seemed angry. One argued with others saying how their orders were to stay in the exemplar tower at all cost.
“Fuck the orders,” another said. “This whole fucking ship is deserted.”
“They told us to stay put. No matter what,” another replied.
“Look at him.” The first gestured to a dead marine. “The captain is dead. Nobody is responding to us. I want to go after that son of a bitch.”
“It wasn’t Rod. He was being controlled.”
“I don’t give a shit. He shot the captain. I’m going after him.”
“We can’t leave!”
“The whole point of us staying was so no one who’s compromised gets away, but I’d say we pretty much sank that fucking boat. I’m going after him. Are you going to stop me?”
Winnie moved on. Someone escaped. It had to be Victoria. She skirted quickly through the citadel. The marines were right; the place was deserted. Only the dead remained. The bays were empty of ships. Glancing outside the citadel, she noticed that the citadel was now many miles from the city and drifting farther away. The deeper depth of the ocean had brought the citadel much closer to the water. Nothing was in its vicinity, save for one shuttle already miles away. She looked inside, and her power failed.
The blind spot was there.
So much had happened since she’d looked away, yet it had only been a few minutes. There was no way to know who, if anyone, was also aboard that ship with Naema. It might be Alexander. His office was deserted.
The bridge was two floors down. The entire crew there was dead save for one marine. He worked the systems console, though he was barely managing to stay on his feet. Blood seeped from a wound in his gut. He’d pass out soon, yet he struggled on, navigating through the engine controls.
“Victoria?” Winnie asked. “Is that you?”
The cheering crowd in the Venezia bridge went quiet as she talked.
“Victoria. Is that you in the bridge? I’m sorry I looked away. Could you say something?”
The marine worked on.
“Please say say something. Please. I’m sorry. Just say anything. Is that you?”
“Yes, Winnie,” Victoria said. “It’s me.”
Despite Winnie being thousands of miles away, she still managed to annoy like a toddler poking for attention.
“Victoria!” Winnie shouted. “What happened to you? Where’s Alex?”
“Alex is taken care of.” Victoria was only partially paying attention to Winnie. She navigated the menu until finding the controls she needed. Since the nuclear warhead two floors above wasn’t displaying a time, she had only Alex’s rough estimate for how much time she had.
After a few options and confirmations, Victoria had every bay door opening along the hull of the Manakin.
“What are you doing?” Winnie asked.
Victoria navigated next to the engines display. She switched the running mode into maintenance. It required a password.
“Have Tan figure this out for me,” she said.
“But what are you trying to do?”
“Just do this, Winnie.”
Winnie pulled Tan away from his celebratory slouch and smoke. Reluctantly, he got to work. As he wrote down each character on a notepad, Victoria would type it in. The moment he leaned back, she hit accept, and a new menu popped up giving her more options with the engines. She selected all three nodes of the repulse tripod and shut them off.
The citadel lurched as thousands of tons of steel dropped twenty feet to the water. Victoria became weightless momentarily. When the citadel struck, she slammed back down, cracking her head against the console.
It must have knocked her out, since she slowly became aware that she was laying on the ground. The world was distant, as though she’d been pulled part way into a bodyswap. Her senses seemed to be working for someone else, but they came back.
The pain came first. The sharp ache in her gut seemed nothing now compared to the searing torture in her head. Blood coursed from her scalp. When she became aware of her hearing, all she heard were sirens. They blended in with the pain. When she finally saw, the bridge looked as though a grenade had gone off. Several consoles had gone black. Every cup of coffee, loose paper, tablet, and pen was now on the floor.
It didn’t seem like she’d been out for more than a second. She visualized the citadel. The bottom three decks had crumpled like foil. Water was rushing in. With all the rents and open ports, the citadel was sinking alarmingly fast. Good.
The Manakin was headed to the ocean floor. When the nuclear bomb goes off, incompressible water would mitigate the shockwave and absorb radiation. There’d be a massive spray when the gasses break the surface, and the Porto Maná beaches would get one hell of a wave, but that was it. The world-destroyer would disintegrate along with the rest of the ship. The world would be safe.
Victoria turned her mind back to Winnie.
The girl was shrill. “Talk to me! Say anything! Please!”
Victoria pushed herself up to a sitting position. With all her blood loss, it nearly knocked her out. “Yes, Winnie. I’m still here.”
“What were you thinking?”
“I’m sinking the ship.”
“Look above me, Winnie, in Alex’s office.”
“At what? … Oh.”
Bit by bit, Victoria got on her feet. She lurched toward the bridge exit.
“Can’t you disarm it?” Winnie asked. “Tan could figure out the password.”
“Winnie…” Victoria took out the broken wrist monitor and dropped it.
Winnie was a bright enough girl. It only took her seconds to put everything together. Victoria was climbing the stairwell when dismay came over Winnie’s face.
“But how are you suppose to get away?”
Victoria reached the top floor. The exertion had her clutching her wounded gut. It took all she had not to drop right there and never get back up.
“Victoria. How are you suppose to get away?” Winnie asked more persistently.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she stumbled into the office. She opened the top of the warhead and turned on the screen to check the time.
And now Winnie understood why Victoria wasn’t answering her question.
Victoria wasn’t going to get away.
It should have been obvious before. The water was seeping through the citadel. In moments, it would reach the top deck. The spires would follow quickly. The citadel would be deep underwater long before that bomb exploded, but seeing that timer drove home the finality of it.
“Winnie,” Victoria slumped against the wall and slid down to a seat. It didn’t look like she ever planned to get back up. “Listen to me carefully. I sent Naema and Alex away on a hopper. Help Rivera track it down. You must get to it as soon as possible.”
“Don’t do this, Victoria,” Winnie pleaded. “You’re going to get out of there. If we sent a ship now—”
“No one can get to me in time. Get to the hopper. Alexander doesn’t have his memories anymore. He should be harmless, but there’s a woman with him named Sibyl. She’ll know—”
“You could tread water! Just find something that floats and wait. People must see the citadel sinking. Rescuers will come.”
“No, Winnie. The citadel is going to pull everything down with it. Sibyl will know where Alexander kept backups of his glyphs. You have to use his body-swapping glyph for yourself and Helena. I’m not going to be there to do it myself, but I’m not one to break my word.”
“No. Don’t just give up. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen.” Victoria wasn’t supposed to sacrifice herself like this. She was supposed to be selfish, not noble. A noble person didn’t deserve to die. “Try, Victoria! Please. Try trying. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”
“If you have any respect left for me at all, you will do as I say. Go to Rivera now. Tell him to descend. Help them track down that hopper. You must get to Alexander before the army does. Go.”
“I’m ordering you. Do this now.”
“Victoria…” Winnie didn’t know what else to say, nor did Victoria respond. Everyone in the Venezia bridge was staring at her. Her mind kept running over possible ideas for how Victoria might still escape, but it was fruitless.
“Ms. Cho?” Rivera asked carefully. “What is happening with the queen?”
“She—” Winnie paused. “She needs us to track down a ship. It’s safe for us to come down now.”
Winnie explained to the others what had happened, and then about the hopper still racing along the ocean. Since she couldn’t look inside of it, she could only describe it’s trajectory. The last that she recalled looking back at the Manakin, she saw water flooding through corridors. The spires descended into the water. By the time she’d finished helping Rivera plot a course, the citadel was entirely under water.
Her mind followed its descent into the abyss. Everything grew dark. The corridor lights flickered off as the power plants flooded. Soon there was nothing the human eye could see.
And then, light.