2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years
“How do I look?” Helena asked. She twirled before the mirror. Her green dress flared outward, expanding to show a gradient of blues hidden within. When she stopped, the colors folded out of view. Winnie thought of it as a blooming flower, not that she’d tell Helena that. It would only turn her off the dress.
“You look amazing,” Winnie said. “It came out just the way I imagined.”
Helena practiced her come-hither look in the mirror while running her finger along her bare shoulder. “My mom has never dressed this well, has she? She always in those pantsuits or those god-awful gowns. People will notice this.”
“How could they not?” Winnie checked the time. “It’s eight o’clock. Should we head up?”
“As soon as my mom is ready. Are you?”
“I am.” Winnie checked herself over. Winnie’s dress used the same color scheme as Helena’s, only to a lesser extent. She knew better than to wear anything that might compare to Helena. It wasn’t much different than what the charity staff would be wearing, which in turn, complimented the decor they’d selected for the Starlight auditorium.
“Maybe we should head up anyway,” Winnie said. “We’re already late.”
Helena turned to her. “First of all, no. We are never late. The fundraiser is not going to start when neither I or my mom aren’t there, so how could we ever be late? We could show up tomorrow and everyone would still be be waiting for us. Secondly, we’re not moving until my mom is ready, and she will be late. She’s always at least thirty minutes behind whatever her schedule says. If we go up now, we’ll just be waiting on the roof. Besides…” She tapped at her lower lip. “I feel like we’re forgetting something.”
“Your speech?” Winnie held up index cards.
“It’ll be there. I sent a copy to Madeline yesterday.”
“Do you want to rehearse it?”
“Why would I? It’ll be on the teleprompter.”
“I don’t know. Maybe so you don’t trip up? When I get nervous, I stumble over my words sometimes.”
Helena snorted. “Well, I’m not you. I don’t stumble, and I’m definitely not nervous. Everything is going to go fine, at least on my end. What else do we need to bring?”
“I think that’s it. Your dress looks beautiful. Your hair and makeup are perfect. I think Madeline is taking care of everything else.”
“Then I guess we just wait.” Helena sat beside Winnie on the bed. Winnie burned time on her tablet. Minutes passed.
“What’s taking my mother so long?” Helena said. “She is getting ready, isn’t she? She promised she’d come. You don’t think something came up, do you?”
“Wouldn’t Madeline have told us?”
“Yeah, she would. I guess… ugh.” She flopped back. “I guess she’s just taking forever.”
A light tap came from the door. Helena bolted up. “Yes?”
Madeline’s voice. “Your Highness. We’ll be departing from the roof pad. Your mother will be ready in five minutes.”
“About time,” Helena replied. “I’ll be up momentarily.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Footsteps retreated.
“Okay. Okay.” Helena’s checked her hair over. “I’m fine, right?”
“Okay, let’s go.” She headed toward the door. Half way there, she paused. “You have the flashcards, right? You know… In case I get bored in the shuttle or something. Who knows? Maybe the teleprompter will break.”
Winnie kept her face neutral. “Sure.”
“Incoming shuttle. Identify.”
“This is tail number lima alpha four seven delta returning from Emohua relief, scheduled for an oh one twenty arrival. Submitting clearance now.”
The shuttle pilot dragged an image of his flight clearance onto a tower icon that had opened up. Beneath the icon were the words, “HMC Orinoco flight comm.”
Moments later, communications got back with him. “Acknowledged, lima alpha four seven delta. Flight plan transmitted. Switch to grid and proceed.”
The pilot pressed a button that slaved the shuttle to the local repulser grid. There was a bump. Then the ride smoothed out. The shuttle drifted through the air with flawless precision. The pilot was done piloting. Before the craft landed on the citadel, he would need to submit a manifest, but apparently he decided that could wait. He reclined in his seat and rubbed his temples.
The smoke was giving him a headache.
Twice now he’d had to reset the shuttle’s internal smoke alarm, and he kept coughing, as though hinting to his passengers that smoking was prohibited, though he couldn’t even recall that he had passengers.
Josephine and Tan had stowed away aboard the shuttle when it was making a supply run with a military depot in town, although stowing away was a strong word, since they both sat in plain view, strapped in like any passenger would be.
Whenever the pilot realized he wasn’t supposed to have company, Josephine would wipe his memory. She shouldn’t have to do it often, given their stolen uniforms. Unfortunately, Tan would not stop smoking aboard a smoke-free vessel.
He always smoked before doing anything nerve wracking, but he should have done so before the flight. No matter how many times Josephine motioned for him to put it out, he just kept right on smoking. She suspected it was his own little protest about this trip.
Rescuing Naema had been Josephine’s idea, not his. After the fighting had settled down at the market, she had looked around for Naema, but there was too much confusion. When the wall bots started locking the place down, she knew they had to leave. For hours, Josephine fretted. She just knew they’d captured her, but Tan had told her to wait, that Naema’s power would protect her. But then Josephine had gone to check Naema’s home. The Lakirans were there. Two prowlers drifted overhead while soldiers questioned neighbors. Naema’s shack had been torn down. That decided it.
“We’re going,” she’d told Tan.
“Yes. We are.”
“Too dangerous. They catch her. They catch us too.”
“You already know what it means for us if they get her power.”
“They can’t. Her power break theirs. No good for them.”
“So you want to just leave her?”
He’d shrugged so casually that she’d wanted to sock him. “We save her if we could, but she is on Citadel now. Not safe. They will see us. High exemplars will find us. Not a chance. Will.”
“That’s not for certain.”
“Every time we go onto military base, Bishop come. Every time.”
“If it was you they caught, I’d come save you. I did once.”
This silenced him.
“You can stay if you want. I’m going,” she said. “I could use your help though. If they catch me, how long do you think you’ll last on your own?”
The look he’d given her was withering, but that had settled it. Two hours later found them aboard this shuttle. Josephine tried not to dwell on the argument. Tan should have wanted to come in the first place, but threatening to withdraw her protection like that, even implying it… that was something Sakhr would have done.
A popup appeared on the pilot’s screen. He needed to submit a manifest now. Josephine unfastened her seat, stepped to the cockpit, and reached over the pilot’s shoulder to fill it out.
“Hey!” he shouted.
“I’ll do this,” she said while clearing his memory. She filled out the form. Three passengers: the pilot and the names of the officers from whom Josephine had stolen the uniforms. The rest was cargo information. She submitted it and sat down in the copilot’s seat. Whenever the pilot started to ask her a question, she pulled from his memory. Any time he glanced back to see Tan, she performed her mental exercise.
Tan and I work toward the same goal right now. We act as one.
And she’d pull.
Pretty soon, he just accepted his mysterious crew. The grid system guided the shuttle into one of many bay doors along the citadel’s hull. Like a feather, it touched down on a landing pad. The doors opened, and soldiers gathered in to unload supplies.
Josephine and Tan walked past them. She cleared the soldiers’ memories as they went. Outside the landing was a narrow corridor. Soldiers sidled by to get around them. None paid them attention.
Tan and Josephine weren’t intruders. They were just in the way.
Her Majesty the Queen was not on the roof when Winnie and Helena arrived, but their ride was. The shuttle was Victoria’s personal hopper. It looked a giant, chrome beetle. One of its wings was up, and a red carpet led into its exposed flank. Wind whipped at Winnie and Helena’s dresses. A few service men were scouring the landing pad and all the other corners of the roof for security. Other guards waited by the door. It was all a bit much for Winnie, but she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the fanfare. Tonight, she was part of the royal procession.
She and Helena boarded the hopper.
The inside was small for a royal vehicle, but it didn’t lack for luxuries. Seats lined the walls like a limousine and it had the same accommodations. The ice compartment had fresh ice. The bar bay had chilled drinks. No sign of wear and tear. At the front was a little window showing into a cockpit. This shuttle could fly on its own. The charity was in Cuba, and while Cuba had acted as a fantastic neutral ground during the war between the empire and many North American factions, it didn’t have a repulse grid.
Helena sat in the seat near the door, where she could see anyone approaching. Madeline emerged on the roof holding a box covered with a blanket. Helena rolled her eyes and scooted to make room. Madeline loaded the item in beside them. Winnie’s quick mental glance inside revealed Willow, Victoria’s pet hawk, sleeping soundly on a perch.
“Sure,” Helena said. “Let’s bring the bird. Why not?”
“Your mother will be right up,” Madeline said. “She’s just had a quick delay.”
Madeline ducked out and scurried back to the roof exit.
“Why are we bringing Willow?” Winnie asked.
“Because my mother is borderline insane, and this is not a quick delay. Where the hell is she?”
Winnie remained quiet.
Helena looked square at her. “Well?”
“Where is she? Use your power.”
“I’m never supposed to use my power on her.”
“Oh, Christ. Don’t search her bedroom. Just check the stairwell or something. Is she coming?”
“No.” Winnie hadn’t use her power, but the absence of any commotion outside the shuttle was enough to tell.
“I wonder if she’s doing this on purpose?” Helena said. “I had to remind her about this a thousand times. It’s probably a power play. She wants me to wait.”
“She’s never on time for my tutoring sessions… except when she’s really really early.”
“Yeah, but that’s different. She sees you every week, and you’re just a flair. You’d think she’d care more about her own daughter.” Helena sighed and slumped back. “She doesn’t even want to do this.”
Winnie didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Helena didn’t look to her this time.
“What now?” Tan asked. For this trip, he was placing all the burden on Josephine. Back when they were suiting up, she’d wondered whether she’d have to tie his shoelaces for him.
“We have to find Naema,” she replied. That was obvious, but she was thinking out loud. Her prearranged plan ended here. “She’s probably wherever they keep all the other prisoners.”
How to find it? Simple.
Josephine caught the next soldier hurrying by. “Do you know where they hold the prisoners?”
He looked perplexed.
“This is my first time aboard,” she explained.
“Do you mean the detention center, ma’am?”
Josephine had forgotten she’d stolen her uniform from an off-duty captain.
“Yes, that’s what I meant.”
“It’s on Deck six in the Fore Sector.” He pointed down a corridor and issued several directions. From the sound of it, Josephine would have to walk a good ten or twenty minutes. The one part of his instructions that were clear was this: go down, and go toward the front.
She thanked him. He saluted and continued on. She yanked away his memories of the conversation.
They only got lost a few times looking for the detention center. Once they got near, it was impossible to miss. The yells echoed down the corridors. The stench wafted. The center was a hallway with an L-bend in it. Along the walls on both sides were cells, each large and filled with a dozen or so people. Despite the crowding, Josephine got the sense this was a quiet hour. The refuse covering the floors was from many more people than this.
Josephine walked up and down the hall looking at each inmate. Naema wasn’t among them.
“There might be more cells,” she said. “I think there’s another block on the other side of the ship just like this.” It was infuriating how few signs there were pointing to anything.
“She not here,” Tan said.
“Not here here, but in another cell. Come on.”
“Not in cells. If they take her family, then they know her. She not here. She will be different. Eh… separate.”
He had a good point. She felt silly for not realizing it herself. But then where was she supposed to look?
Josephine cornered another soldier.
“Is there another detention center?” she asked.
Another puzzled expression. “Sir?”
“I’m looking for a detainee. They’re not here.”
“Have you tried processing?”
“What’s processing?” he asked, as though clarifying that she was asking an obvious question.
“I just transferred here.” Her words were harsher than she’d intended.
“It’s where we put civilians into the system before sending them home.”
“No. That’s not what I want. The person I’m looking for is being held, probably apart from the others.”
“Oh. Then you probably want the brig.”
The brig. Yes. That does sound like a place Lakirans would put an innocent teenaged girl.
“Where is that?” she asked.
Winnie could tell when Her Majesty Queen Victoria was about to show. Guards outside the shuttle lifted a hand to their earbuds. Their stances became rigid. Others hurried through scanning high and low for last minute threats. Some peeked into the hopper as though Helena and Winnie wouldn’t have noticed an assassin sitting with them.
“About time,” Helena said. She scooted farther into the shuttle to make room. “I bet she didn’t even try to match the color scheme we made.”
“I guess we’ll see soon.” Winnie always felt uncomfortable with Helena’s reproachful remarks toward the queen. It couldn’t be wise to talk poorly about a dictator who could read your mind.
Victoria emerged from the roof access door with Melanie at her heel. Helena was right. Victoria wore one of her own formal dresses: white blouse and a cream skirt with a matching vest. Beautiful attire, but it wouldn’t match the scheme arranged for the charity ball. She must have known; Helena reminded her endlessly, yet she chose to ignore it. Victoria may have thought Helena’s micromanaging of the scheme was childish, but even Winnie’s mother would have played along.
Victoria took the seat next to Willow. She looked her daughter up and down. Helena pretended to gaze out the window. When Victoria looked at Winnie, Winnie waved.
“Winnie,” Victoria nodded. She looked at her daughter. “Are we ready to go?”
“We’ve been ready to go for a while. Just waiting on you.”
Victoria didn’t rise to it. She turned to Madeline. “Let’s go then.”
Madeline climbed into the cockpit with a pilot. A guard closed the hopper door, and they took off. The world outside the windows dropped away.
“Have you tried any of the new exercises I’ve given you?” Victoria asked. She was studying a tablet she’d brought with her, but she could only be speaking to Winnie.
“A couple,” Winnie said. “I was busy getting ready.”
“How so?” She looked up. Winnie stared off as though recalling. Eye contact would reveal how little “a little” was. Victoria would find out eventually, but why now?
“I was able to see in the dark without pretending there was a light,” Winnie said.
“Can you distinguish colors yet?”
“Not in the dark, no.”
“How about your point of view exercises? Can you be aware of all sides of an object?”
Victoria tilted her head. “Kind of?”
“I can see it from all sides, but it’s like I’m using a lot of cameras.”
“You could already do that.”
“Uh, yeah. I guess I mean I’m able to do it more easily now.”
“I don’t want you to do it wrong more easily. It’s a crutch. You should know what something looks like inside and out without having to look at it. Stop practicing it with your flair for now. Just try to imagine a fictional object. Practice knowing it inside and out without relying on visualizing it from different angles. Once you can do that. Then we’ll see if you’re ready to start projecting again?”
“Hmm.” Victoria eyed her. “And how about locating people? Any progress on that?”
“Oh, come on,” Helena said. “Why are you doing this now? We’re going to the charity concert.”
Victoria turned her gaze to her daughter, her expression cool, but to Winnie’s surprise, she did stop. For Victoria, ruling the world came second to training flairs. This charity would fall even lower on the list. Winnie was still glad for the interruption. Otherwise the trip would become another lesson.
Helena spoke. “So I’m ready for my speech. I thought what we’d do, Mother, is enter together. For pictures. You’re not dressed in the scheme, but that’s okay. The queen should stand out. It’s supposed to be just food and drinks to start. No dancing until later. Then we give our speeches to start the auction. Madeline forgot to give me a copy of your speech, but as long as it covers—”
“I didn’t prepare one.”
“You…? Then you’re just going to say a few short words then? That’s fine. People will be tired by then, it might be—.”
“I’m not making a speech.”
“Oh. What? Oh. Are you sure? I mean, aren’t people going to expect one?”
“But I just assumed you would. You always do. It’s on the program that you are.”
“We’ll change the program.”
Silence. Helena stared at her lap. Her jaw was clenched.
Victoria sighed and looked from her tablet. “I’m not giving a speech because this is your night, Helena. You organized it, and now you’re hosting it.”
“But it was your idea.”
“Yes. I know it was, but the audience doesn’t. The point of this charity is to build your presence. You need to stop being a nameless daughter and start being a political figure. So yes, I’m not giving a speech. You are. You’ll be meeting the guests. You’ll be posing for pictures. You’ll make connections.”
“If you don’t want to be a part of this, then why’d you even come?”
Victoria threw her hands up in exasperation. “I’m coming to support you, Helena. Nobody has any idea who you are, so I’m lending credibility to your cause, but I only plan to mingle. The world needs to see that this was your initiative. Soon you’ll have enough status to draw media attention yourself.”
“Then you won’t have to deal with me anymore.”
Victoria regarded her. “Are we going to start this now? This is your night. Let’s not ruin the mood before we’re even there.”
“You should review your speech. There won’t be a teleprompter.”
“I know that. I said I reviewed my speech, didn’t I?”
“If you say so. As long as you’re sure you’re not going to make a fool of yourself.”
Winnie sat still, acting as though she hadn’t even heard the conversation, but she wondered about Victoria’s mention of the teleprompter. It’s as though Victoria had been listening in to her conversation with Helena earlier using her own power, or perhaps Victoria had seen it from her head when she’d waved at the queen just now.
Either way, it was unsettling, but there wasn’t anything to do about it.
In her lap, she held the index cards prominently. She knew better than to offer them to Helena now; that would be siding with Victoria, but Helena could easily snatch them if she wanted.
She gazed out the window. Sure enough, after a minute, Helena yanked the index cards from her hand.