“There!” Lieutenant Cardoso shouted.
Captain Santos lurched from the comm bench and hurried over.
Cardoso was pointing into the distance. Nestled in a small clearing between dead trees was the missing hopper-class military shuttle.
“Take us there,” Santos barked at the pilot.
The prowler they rode arced lazily toward the distant ship. Moments ago, Santos had thought their vessel was moving too quickly; his men had too little time to search the woods below as they drifted by. Now, the ship seemed to crawl.
Every soldier, cadet, and volunteer aboard pressed precariously against the platform railing to look at the hopper. Their weight caused the platform to tilt. No one cared.
“Call it in.” Santos said.
A radio cackled behind him. His pilot spoke in english. “This is vessel two five oh four searching in Amapá. We’ve located the missing shuttle.”
“What is the condition of the vessel?” a replying voice asked. “Is there any sign of the queen?”
“It looks as though the shuttle landed safely. We’re closing in now.”
“What is your location?”
The pilot transmitted coordinate information. Santos kept his eyes on the ship. Could she be on board? God, please. Let her be on board. Let her have stayed put. Let some radio malfunction be the reason she’d gone three hours without calling for help.
“What is it doing out here?” Cardoso said.
“No idea, Lieutenant.”
No one had expected to find the ship here, nearly forty miles away from where the Manakin went down. Long range radar had shown an unexplained blip out here—a ship had come and gone from this location hours after the Manakin had gone down. Everyone expected it to be some private pilot ignoring the no-fly directive. Hardly worth checking out, but the military had been getting desperate.
The prowler drifted overhead. Santos, several soldiers, and a medical team repelled down on ropes.
And there she was. Queen Helena was sitting on the boarding ramp of the ship with others as though watching the sunset. Santos felt weight lift from his heart. His queen was okay.
Santos hit the ground and charged up. He switched to english. “Your Majesty, are you okay?”
“Me?” Helena said. “Yes. I’m fine.” She glanced side to side at her companions. A young black girl sat beside her, and sitting in the ship behind them was a white woman in her early forties. Santos had no idea who she might be, but he did recognize the girl on the queen’s other side. She was the new head of the Exemplar Committee, Cho Eun-Yeong.
The medical team inspected Helena. She chuckled and brushed them away. “Look at her, guys.” She motioned to the black girl beside her, who had multiple wounds, including a bad leg injury. Someone had tried bandaging her, but she needed a hospital.
“Ma’am, what happened aboard the Manakin?” Santos asked.
Helena puttered her lips and laughed. “I was hoping you could tell me. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. Did you just call me Your Majesty?”
Santos looked her over. Had she been compromised? He couldn’t see her aura, so her shield was working. But then he couldn’t sense any aura at all, not even nearby animals. Something was off.
“Ma’am, have you had your shield stone with you at all times?”
“I don’t even know what that is.”
Santos and the medical team glanced at one another. Forgetfulness was exactly the sort of sign he’d been warned about. He looked at the queen’s companions: the black girl, the older woman. They weren’t military. Why would they have been on the Manakin? Had that radar blip been an enemy ship?
Santos had to be careful. If the queen was compromised, then she could no longer be trusted.
Trusted to… rule? Trusted to… explain what happened?
He wasn’t sure. There was something he was supposed to do now, but he couldn’t recall what. Was he supposed to report it? Everyone was looking at him now—The medical team, Helena, even that strange woman sitting behind the queen.
He was wasting time. The queen needed help. “Hold on, ma’am. These men will take care of you.”
“If you say so,” Helena said.
Santos stepped away and unfastened his belt radio. “This is Captain Santos. The queen is at the ship.”
“What is her condition?” a radio voice asked.
He paused. There was something important he needed to say. It was just on the tip of his tongue, but whatever it was would come back to him later. Right now there was more important news to share.
“The queen is unharmed. We’re bringing her home.”