2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years
Winnie stepped off the elevator onto Victoria’s private floor. After months of lessons—two a week—she’d grown accustom to heading straight through to the office. Victoria would be tending to Marzipan and Willow or finishing up a call. Winnie would wait at the table until she finished.
Today, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Tonight was the night of the charity that she and Helena had been preparing for. They would leave shortly after dinner, threatening to cut short today’s lesson, so maybe Victoria wanted to start early, but Winnie doubted it. She’d been at school, eighth period. The front office had paged Winnie to come, where an imperial guard waited to escort her directly to the tower.
“What for?” she’d asked.
“The queen demands your presence,” and that was all he told her.
She still had her backpack and school outfit on, as the shuttle had taken her straight to the tower. When she’d asked Madeline if she were in trouble, Madeline had given her a helpless shrug. “I don’t know, sweetie. She just told us to fetch you as soon as possible. Have you done anything wrong?”
Helena and Winnie had broken into the botanical garden five nights ago. After a day of silence, she figured the guard’s scolding had been enough. Maybe not.
“You’re probably fine,” Madeline said. “With her, everything is a priority. Good luck!” Madeline had shepherded her onto the elevator and sent her up without giving Winnie a chance to reply.
Cautiously, Winnie made her way to Victoria’s office. The window wall was closed with shutters. Willow and Marzipan rested in their respective cage and terrarium. Victoria was not there.
A voice called from deeper within Victoria’s floor. “Come this way, Winnie.”
The queen had sense her aura. Winnie didn’t know its range, but she doubted she’d ever stepped foot onto this floor without Victoria knowing about it. Winnie followed the voice.
Quiet chattering made it easy to find the room. It looked like a workshop. Instead of hardwood or carpet, it had utilitarian tiles for a floor. Large crates filled the room marked with the LakiraLabs logo, each stamped “military property” in red ink. A quick glance with her mind showed machines inside of them that looked as though they were made of spare parts. They were definitely assemblers though, but their internals were strange.
Beyond them was a massive machine that dominated the back of the room. Before it, Victoria and a man sat on stools chatting. The man was perhaps in his late thirties, but well groomed and attractive. He turned on his stool and smiled wholesomely at Winnie. It was the exact same move Mr. Matthews had done when Winnie met him in the principal’s office months ago. That is what made her realize he was an exemplar before she even noticed his stark white attire It had a silver trim along the collar and cuffs that she hadn’t seen on other exemplar uniforms.
Victoria gestured to a stool. “Sit with us.”
Winnie shucked off her backpack and sat by the man.
“Winnie, I’d like you to meet High Exemplar Bishop. Bishop, this is Winnie.”
“How do you do?” Bishop said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” His smile was nonstop. She could feel him staring past her eyes. It must just be her imagination that he was reading her mind, since his plaque was resting untouched on a workbench.
“Hi.” Winnie returned the smile. She glanced over the large machinery before them. Beneath a transparent covering was an assembly line of complicated parts. Though powered on, it was idle. The only parts moving were an internal metal etcher working on a chip the size of a postage stamp, which looked to be made of plastic.
Right by Victoria was a console. On the screen was a glyph and a progress bar. Winnie didn’t recognize the glyph, but it was the same one the etchers inside the machine were making.
“What is this place, Your Majesty?” she asked.
“It’s my room of toys,” Victoria said. “They’re various things I keep out of the public eye for security. This one here…” She gestured to the massive machine behind her. “Is the assembler that creates plaques.”
Winnie looked at the console. “I didn’t know you can draw glyphs on a screen.”
“Yes, Winnie. I hope you don’t think I’ve spent all this time giving you exercises and I never experimented with my own power. Glyphs can exist on many mediums, and drawn with any tool, even electronic ones, so long as the flair I’m making a glyph of is present when I draw the final stroke.”
“Is that why I’m here?”
“Perhaps. Bishop may need it.”
“I thought you said you weren’t going to give my power out.”
“Winnie, this is for an assignment I’ve given him. I will not allow him to keep it afterward. That’s if I give it to him at all. First, Bishop and I would like you to look at something for us. Bishop?”
Nodding, Bishop took his plaque and enabled the screen. After some browsing, he brought up a map and turned it to face Winnie.
Winnie reached for it. Bishop immediately yanked it out of her reach.
“Just look,” Victoria said. “Never touch an exemplar’s plaque unless he tells you.”
He smiled. Already forgiven. “No problem,” he said, holding it out again. The map showed North Africa. Bishop zoomed in. “Are you following mentally?” he asked.
“Good. Right here.” He pointed to Port Harcourt. “Do you see the city?”
“Look around at a high view. What your looking for is the Lakiran citadel stationed there. It should be easy to find.”
It was, and Winnie didn’t need a description. She’d heard enough over the years about the legendary Lakiran floating cities. It was there, above the bay, looming near acres of ramshackle houses. Compared to the glimmering, chrome citadel, the city looked like a trash heap. It was filled with mud browns and assorted spots of color: whites for clothes lines, colored dots for beat up cars and trucks winding down broken roads, and aqua green for plastic paneling patching holes in tin can buildings.
The citadel was as though a piece of Porto Maná had been cut out and put here. Clouds of shuttles buzzed to and from it. They would disappear into slips along its hull.
“Go to the holding area on Deck 6.”
“It’ll be in the hull, seven down from the top.”
Winnie tried. Her mind found a holding area of some kind. The hallways were wide. Cells along the walls were crammed with people. Nearly every person had coal black skin. Just like with the city, these people didn’t fit in compared to the citadel. Their clothes were nearly rags. Their skin was filthy. Even without a sense of smell, Winnie could only imagine the stench. These people were sick and starved. Some lingered by bars looking about for passing soldiers. They looked scared, or worried. Others sat in the back of the cells, no longer interested in the world around them. They just seemed resigned.
“What am I supposed to be looking for. When you say top, do you mean the top floor of the hull? Or the tarmac above where the towers are?”
“Here, look at me.”
He meant in the eyes—for mind reading. She didn’t want to; Winnie didn’t know this man. Yet both he and Victoria waited for her to comply. Resigned, she looked Bishop in the eye.
He perused her mind. “Go up one.”
She did so. Up here, the halls were narrow. Soldiers walked through the corridors. Some escorted cuffed prisoners.
“This is the right floor,” he said, “but you’re on the wrong side of the citadel. “There’s a detention section R. It’s the mirror of this one but on the starboard… uh, right side.”
Winnie’s mind shot through a labyrinth of tight corridors. She tried not to pay attention to what she saw. At the other end, she was in the mirror reflection of the same hallways.”
“Good,” said Bishop. “Go down the hall. Take a right. Good. Now keep going until you find cell block 5-7B.”
Winnie continued along. His instructions led her through a security checkpoint, complete with guards behind a reinforced window. They guarded a pair of doors, one after another, that they would buzz open as soldiers escorted prisoners into or out of this secure area. Past those guards were rows and rows of cell containing more inmates of similar gauntness and ethnicity.
She turned a corner and proceeded several paces down the hall, when she realized she couldn’t distinguish the numbers on the cells, or the people. Everything was there, but it was nebulous. She concentrated, but the details didn’t come. What she saw was not from her flair, but her imagination. It’s what she expected to see.
She backed up to the checkpoint. Details flooded her mind. She proceeded forward again. By the time she was in the same corridor, she had nothing but her imagination. Her power failed, and suddenly she was walking over a chasm. Like a cartoon animal, it had taken her a moment to realize it the first time, but now she recognized exactly when it happened. It was when she turned the corner.
Bishop leaned back. He looked at Victoria and nodded. Whatever was happening, they’d expected it.
“What’s going on?” Winnie asked.
Bishop turned back to her. “I’ll explain in a moment. I need you to check one other thing first. Can you clear your mind?”
Winnie played along.
“I want you to visualize the citadel again,” said Bishop, “but I want you to look at the bottom floor, near the center.”
Winnie did so. It was practically a different ship there. The halls were suffocatingly narrow. The doors were hatches. The stairs leading up and down were so steep they were more like ladders. If her mind wasn’t aware of the empty sky directly beneath the floor, she might have guessed she was looking inside a submarine. Only soldiers were down here. Grease covered and sweaty, they carried supplies, cleaned floors, and worked at panels with a dizzying number of pipes leading from them.
“What now?” she asked.
He leaned back again. “That’s it. That’s all I need.”
“She can see?” Victoria asked.
“What do you mean?” Winnie asked.
Bishop spoke. “We think we found another flair. She’s being held in a containment room down that corridor you can’t see.”
“Why is she there?”
“Soldiers brought her in for theft.”
“Are all those people thieves?”
“Most are just there for processing.”
Processing. He said the word as though they’d just seen rows of bored functionaries working through a rush hour line of customers renewing their passports, not the caged human beings huddled together for comfort.
Victoria spoke. “So far, every exemplar who’s come near her has had their plaque malfunction. I needed to see what affect she had on a real flair before we bring her here.”
“And you had her test it on me?”
“Don’t worry. I was nearly certain the effect would be temporary.”
“I’m very good at what I do.”
“But what if it hadn’t come back?”
“It did, Winnie. My glyphs are notoriously easy to break. Even smudging the ink can break them permanently. At the very worst, I expected your power might have been muted for a short while.”
“You still could have warned me.”
“Would that have made you any happier when I still made you do it? Winnie, I plan to bring that girl here. Her flair would have affected you eventually, as it will me. Okay?”
“Okay…” Winnie wasn’t mollified. If she had permanently lost her power, she doubted this new flair would be coming here.
Behind Victoria, the console beeped. Victoria and Bishop turned to the machine. The progress bar had completed.
“Ah, and here we go,” Victoria said. “Winnie, you should watch this. It’s neat.”
The small chip with the glyph rolled into view on a conveyor. It entered a glass chamber. A robotic arm sprayed a thin layer of paste onto it. Another arm placed it onto a steel plate shaped to fit various installable components. Several glass tubes were already built in. The set then rolled into a covered chamber.
Victoria said. “The glyph is on a small silicon wafer. Very fragile. The paste is an explosive gel that reacts to oxygen. Now the chip goes on the plaque frame, along with a few pressure sensitive bulbs. Both have to be installed in this vacuum chamber. In there it will install a few light sensitive diodes with their own charges. Then internal radio batteries go in before sealing the whole thing and putting it inside the tablet frame.”
Moments later, a plaque rolled out. Victoria hefted it and looked it over. “The tablet part itself has several security features too. It can destroy the internal glyphs under all sorts of circumstances, such as remote wipe, battery failure, lost signal, and since each plaque is encoded to a microchip implanted in my exemplars, they can’t get too far away from it either. So you see, Winnie. I take security of my glyphs very seriously. If I gave your power to Bishop, I would maintain full control of it until it was returned.”
“Will you be giving me her power, ma’am?” Bishop asked.
“I think not,” Victoria replied. “If this girl’s power affects Winnie too, there’s no point. It’d break in two minutes. You’ve no idea how easy it is to accidentally look at something just by thinking of it.”
Winnie had never thought about Victoria having the same problems Winnie did. The idea of Victoria accidentally seeing someone naked was a strange thought, but logically, she must struggle with it too.
“Go now,” Victoria picked up the new plaque and another nearby. She handed them to Bishop. “At least we know for certain we’re dealing with a flair. I want you on your way now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Bishop rose.
“Make sure you deliver those plaques before you go to the girl.”
“Of course.” Bishop faced Winnie. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
They shook hands, and he departed.
After waiting until he was out of earshot, Winnie turned to Victoria.
“Is Bishop a flair?” Winnie asked.
Victoria paused. “What makes you think that?” She looked at Winnie, but Winnie did not meet her gaze.
“You had to have a flair here in order to sign that glyph right? Sara told me about how you bring her here every time you need to make a glyph of her shield flair, so the flair for that glyph must have just been here.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s him. The flair could have left before you arrived.”
“How come I’ve never met them?”
“Maybe they’re busy.”
“…busy working for you,” Winnie said, “as high exemplars. It just makes sense. Besides Sara, who’s too young to work for you, there must be at least three other flairs: telepathy, empathy, and flair sense. Mr. Matthews said you have four high exemplars, and they come here all the time, so it fits.”
“Wouldn’t that mean there should be a fourth power?” Victoria asked.
“Maybe there is. Maybe it’s one like mine that you don’t want to hand out.”
“So am I right?”
“Your reasoning is sound.”
“Oh, come on. Tell me.”
“Why? It sounds like you’ve already figured it out.”
Victoria considered it. “Very well. Yes, he is a flair.”
“I thought so. What’s Bishop’s power?”
“Don’t concern yourself with that.”
“He’s the telepath, isn’t he? I could sense it.”
“I said don’t worry about it.”
“Are you going to make me a high exemplar when I’m older?”
“High exemplar? No. The current high exemplars are people I knew from before I started my empire.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“It’s not a matter of trust. I’ve read every corner of my high exemplars’ minds. It’s not trust if I don’t give them an opportunity to betray me. The problem is that you don’t trust me.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“…Said the girl who’s been avoiding eye contact with me this entire time.”
Of course she’d have noticed that. Winnie still didn’t meet her eyes.
“Is this about your botanical break and entry? I already know.”
“Yeah, I figured. I’m sorry about that.”
“Do you understand that what you did was wrong?”
“Do you plan to do it again?”
“Then that’s that. I know the guards have already scolded you.” She studied Winnie. “But that isn’t really what’s bothering you, is it?”
Winnie didn’t answer at first. She’d had something on her mind ever since she’d designed clothes with Helena days ago. Victoria was going to find out one way or another.
“You said you’ve known the high exemplars since before your empire, right?”
“So ever since you’ve made the exemplars, they’ve always had the powers your high exemplars have, right?”
“So back when the Lakirans invaded the settlement my mom and I were living in, the exemplar who scanned everyone must have had flair detection too, right? I mean, it’s not like you’d only give the flair detection to some of your exemplars. You’d want to have the best chance of finding new flairs, but that means you must have known about me years before Mr. Matthews came to Redding.”
“Okay…?” said Victoria, as though Winnie had yet to reach her point.
“That’s it? Okay?” Winnie said. “You already knew about me.”
“Yes. I did.”
“You’re not even denying it?”
“Then why didn’t you approach me then? Why’d you wait three years?”
“You’ve pieced it together so far. You tell me.”
Winnie thought again of that rifle she once owned, the one she swore she’d use… until the Lakirans took it away.
“Because I wouldn’t have come. You waited until I didn’t hate the empire so much.”
“There you go.”
“So that’s why the soldiers returned all the people you guys carted off. If I hadn’t been there, those people would still be in a detention camp, wouldn’t they.”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“From what I’ve heard, we shouldn’t have ever seen them again. You only had them returned because you didn’t want me thinking worse about the empire. Right?”
“Honestly, Winnie, I don’t remember.”
“But it’s not just that though, is it? Northern California got way more attention than it should have. Even I noticed that. We were one of the first places to get an assembler station for the public, even though we were tiny compared to the east coast. We got food supplies right away. People on the internet say they had to wait months before any relief food came to them. Some people starved to death. If I weren’t there, you guys wouldn’t have cared about us.”
“We might have given your district preferential treatment, but it’s not as if we wouldn’t have cared. We’d treat all districts like yours if we had the resources. I am trying to help the lands I control.”
“But that was three years where the whole point was to… manipulate me into liking the empire? Helena says I’m nothing more than a flair to you. Is that true?”
“You’re doing me a disservice, Winnie. Put yourself in my position. One of your exemplars reports to you that, in one of thousands of isolated settlements, he’s found a flair with great potential, only she’s so hard set against the empire that she was prepared to kill imperial soldiers for no other purpose than to rebel. What else is there to do than to give her time to come around? You forget that all my manipulation benefited you and those close to you, and it will continue to do so. And no, you are not just a flair to me. Your flair is what got my attention, but you’re a part of my life now. If you were just a flair, I wouldn’t bother with your education.”
“I thought that was just a perk to get me to say yes.”
“Must you see an ulterior motive in everything I do? This is why you’ll never be a high exemplar.”
“Okay. I’ll stop. It’s just weird to find out you pretended not to know about me all those years.”
“I’ve explained myself, something I don’t normally do.”
“May I ask one last question?”
“What would have happened if I’d said no to coming here?”
“I would have made a counter offer. There were other ways I could have made coming here more enticing.”
“And if I still said no?”
“Are you asking would I have ever forced you to come here and train by threatening you or your family?”
“… Yeah, I guess.”
“No. I can’t force people to develop their flairs.”
“Because it just doesn’t work out. Flairs have to want to learn.”
Victoria showed absolutely no amusement.
“I’m just asking,” Winnie said.
“Well, don’t ask such foolishness.”
“But one way or another, you would have got me here, right?”
“Yes, I would have. But again, Winnie, it’s not as sinister as you’re making it out to be. You’re a flair. The moment that was discovered, your life would change whether you wanted it to or not. There are still splinters of the European Democratic Alliance, and warlords taking advantage in places where my influence is weak. If I had left you there, word might have gotten to them that there was a flair who wasn’t under my protection. They would not have given you a choice. What they know about flairs is limited, mostly what they got from capturing and torturing my exemplars, but it’s enough to make them dangerous. I also doubt they know that forcing flairs doesn’t work. This is part of why I pretended not to know about you until the time was right. It is also why Mr. Matthews instructed you not to tell people about your flair. There are dangerous people in this world who would take advantage of you.”
“Are you quite through interrogating me?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
“It’s quite all right. Come. Let’s go.” She powered the machine down and ushered Winnie back toward the front of her home. At the door to Victoria’s office, Winnie kept walking toward the elevators.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Victoria asked.
“We have a lesson.”
“But it’s not until four.”
“There’s no point in sending you back to school now, and you’re already here. Would you rather sit around for two hours?”
“But… okay. Can we not run over today? You know… if we’re starting early. I need to help Helena get ready for the charity tonight.”
Victoria and Winnie commenced their Friday lesson. It ran over.