The door to the brig was locked, and it wasn’t a tumbler lock that Tan could aptly bypass. There was a keycard reader. Authorized personnel only.
“You know what this means?” Josephine asked.
“We go home?” Tan asked hopefully.
“We steal a card.”
To his credit, he didn’t look too disappointed. Together, he and Josephine wandered around the citadel like a pair of tourists. Without knowing who would have access, they aimed for as high a rank as they could find. After proceeding up several floors into the more spacious decks beneath the spires, they found a major walking down a hall while discussing with a lower ranking officer. Tan passed, bumped into him, apologized and kept going. Picking pockets came naturally to him. His power smoothed his hand’s movements.
If the major noticed his card was missing, he would not remember this encounter.
Back at the door. Josephine waved the card, and the door opened. The first area inside was a security control room. A long desk with rows of monitors bisected the area. Behind it were three men. One guard sat at the desk, and behind him were two men at a table: another guard and an exemplar.
The guard at the desk looked at Josephine attentively. “How can I help you, sir.”
Behind him, the exemplar’s eyes widened.
“Alarm!” he yelled. He lunged toward the security desk, arm outstretched.
Josephine yanked anything he might know about her, but he was already in motion. Even if he didn’t know why he was scrabbling for the panic button, he was still doing so.
“Tan,” Josephine yelled.
Tan was already moving. From his uniform, he drew a revolver—an old piece which worked with bullets and gunpowder. Tan insisted on bringing it, even if such antiquated tech immediately marked him as an impostor. Josephine moved to stop him. Besides the noise, no one was supposed to get hurt.
But Tan didn’t aim the gun. He tossed it. It struck the exemplar square on the forehead.
The exemplar yelled, staggered, and clutched his head. The crisis was averted, but Tan wasn’t done. Charging, he leapt over the desk with all the grace of a drunk man cannonballing into a swimming pool. Somehow, it worked. His foot connected with the exemplar’s chin. His fist struck the guard at the desk. Together, they all fell backward toward the table, toppling into the last guard. In one move, Tan floored them all.
He stood. Around him, the others groaned and rolled. He looked so proud of himself that Josephine decided to omit how unnecessary it was. Hitting the exemplar once was enough, but Tan’s power worked better the less he thought about it. His amateur flailing left plenty of room for his unconscious movement. Josephine sometimes pondered whether he’d actually become a worse fighter if he trained professionally. Possibly, but at least he’d look like less of an idiot.
“Good work,” Josephine hopped the desk. “Are you all okay.”
“What the hell?” One guard got to his feet and looked around. “What just happened?”
“You all fell over.”
“Huh?” said the other guard.
The exemplar was still in too much pain to pay attention. His plaque had tumbled off the table. Josephine snatched it up. That got his attention. Confused as he was, no one touches an exemplar’s plaque. He lunged. She darted out of the way and wiped his memory again.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You lent it to me.”
“What?” He looked, lunged again. Another dodge.
“You told me I could hold this.” Another mind wipe. After enough times, he’ll be left with the impression that it might be true, at least long enough that his knee jerk reaction would settle down.
That was until she realized she wasn’t sensing his aura, or anyone’s. She examined the plaque. The green light was on, meaning it should be working, but nothing. She turned and addressed a guard. “Look at me.”
Rubbing his chin, the guard did. There was no stream of thought in her head besides her own.
“She was here,” Josephine told Tan. “The plaque is broken.” A shame really. Having a plaque would be crucial right now, even if it meant dragging along the exemplar. She learned long ago that the awareness granted to her by Empathy was enough for her to pull memories. Line of vision not required.
“Who was here?” the exemplar asked. “Are you talking about the thief girl?”
Josephine faced him. “Yes. The thief girl. Where is she?”
“Who are you again?”
Josephine thrust his broken plaque into his hands and blanked his memory. Time to start over. “Are you okay?” She helped him up.
“I… I think so.” He rubbed his chin. “What just happened?”
“You all fell over. It was a stooge act.”
“Did we?” The exemplar looked at the other guards. They looked equally perplexed.
“I don’t think so…” one said.
“Here,” said Josephine. “Everybody sit down.”
They corrected chairs and fetched fallen items. All evidence of the tumble was gone. Josephine cleared their minds again.
“Exemplar?” she said, as though expecting something from him.
“You were telling me about the thief girl.”
“I was?” He rubbed his temple where the gun had stuck him. His jaw worked left to right as though it felt loose.
“Yes. Please go on.”
“Uh… where did I leave off?”
“You were telling where she is.”
He pointed to the row of monitors on the security desk. “We’re keeping her in interview room three until the queen’s escort team gets here.”
Josephine looked at the screens. Among a grid of tiny camera feeds, one showed Naema in a plain white room. She sat across from nobody. If the queen had sent an escort team, then the Lakirans must have known exactly what she was capable of. In just a few hours, they would have taken her away, and then she might as well have been in a different world for all the good Josephine could have done for her.
“Tan, you want to get her?” she asked.
Thankfully, he didn’t argue. Holstering his weapon, he yanked a security card off a guard, who protested, but only for a second before suffering a lapse in memory. Tan disappeared down the hall. Josephine watched through the camera.
Naema looked up. She must have heard someone stop before the door. It opened. When she saw who it was, she startled to her feet. Tan gestured from the door. Come on, his motion said. Naema didn’t move, and he gestured again more impatiently. She reached over the table toward him. Her palms wobbled against an invisible force which kept her from falling any further forward. I can’t, her response seemed to be, you’re at the wrong door.
Tan gave the most elaborate gesture of exasperation. Shutting the door, he moved to the next. When he opened it, Naema rushed to hug him. He tolerated that for a moment before decoupling and pulling her along.
While waiting, Josephine worked on the minds of the people here. She couldn’t remove every trace of Naema. A lot of what happened between Naema and her captors had nothing to do with Josephine, no matter how much Josephine tried to convince herself. Hopefully they were befuddled enough to lay off any alarms until Josephine got the others out of here.
Naema and Tan appeared. Naema broke from Tan and hugged Josephine exuberantly. She was crying.
“Let’s get you out of here,” Josephine said.
“My family,” Naema said. “They have my mama and brother. We have to get them.”
Behind her, Tan drooped his head.
“Do you know where they are?” Josephine asked.
“In the big cells with everybody else.”
The detainment center. Josephine didn’t recall seeing Naema’s mother, but then she hadn’t been looking. Obviously the Lakirans must have them if they raided Naema’s home. Josephine had been too preoccupied with Naema to think about them, or about the hundreds of detainees the Lakiran’s might be shipping off to indefinite imprisonment. Naema was the only one with powers that could help Josephine.
Once again, she thought about Sakhr.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll save them.”
She led them from the brig back toward the detention center, passing once again beneath a security camera which both she and Tan had failed to notice.
The sun took a while to set this evening since the imperial shuttle had been chasing it over two time zones. They were over the Gulf of Mexico by the time it finally ducked behind the horizon. Now the world outside the windows was pitch black. Since the shuttle had a built-in repulse field nullifying turbulence in the cabin, Winnie wouldn’t even know they were moving if not for her mind showing her the little shuttle soaring along like a dot in a void.
Helena whispered her speech to herself while Victoria worked on her tablet. Winnie passed the time with her visualizations. The shuttle was nearly to Cuba, judging from her satellite-eye view. Far ahead, dots of light marked the start of the coast. Cuba a small province compared to the others in the empire, with a minuscule population, but Winnie still hadn’t located the Starlight Auditorium.
A light tap came on the divider leading to the cockpit. It rolled down to reveal Madeline. “Your Majesty, a priority alert just came in.”
She handed a phone to Victoria.
After the queen scrolled through the messages, she looked to Melanie. “Reverse course. I need to return to the tower.”
“What? No.” Helena sat up. “We can’t go back. We’re almost there.”
“We must. This is an emergency. Melanie, turn us around.”
“No. You can’t. You can’t back out now. You promised you’d come.”
Victoria ignored her. “Inform Intermil to connect the control room at the tower with the Orinoco as soon as possible.”
“The Orinoco?” asked Helena.
Again, Victoria talked over her. “And keep me posted on any more messages coming in from Admiral…” She glanced at the phone. “…Medina. No. Call him. I want to talk to him.”
“Understood,” said Melanie.
Victoria pressed a button to raise the divider, but half way. “Oh. And Bishop. Get him on the line. No. Never mind. I’ll call him. Is this phone secure?” She held up the phone bearing the message. Melanie nodded.
“Good.” Victoria closed the divider.
“What’s going on?” asked Helena. “Is there a rebellion?”
“What is it, then?”
Victoria tapped through the phone. “It’s classified.”
Helena erupted. “Classified? What the hell, mom? What could be so important that you have to put this off? We’ve had this planned for months. You can’t just bail out now.”
Victoria held up a silencing finger as she spoke into the phone. “Bishop? This is Victoria. Where are you?… It’s Josephine… Yes… The Orinoco?… Yes, she has… Is it nighttime there? What time is it in Nigeria?… Then yes, do it now. You’ll have clearance before you land…Right… I’m headed back now… No. Just keep your phone near you… Very good.” She hung up.
“The Orinoco?” Helena said. “The citadel? What the hell is so important in Nigeria?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“This is bullshit, mom.”
“Watch your language.” Victoria words were an automatic response. Her attention was on her phone.
“I’m supposed to host the charity.”
“As soon as we drop me off at the tower, you can head straight back.”
“That will take hours. We’re already late.”
“Then cancel it.”
“The charity? Of course we can’t cancel it. I’ve been planning this for months. It was your stupid, fucking idea. We have to go.”
“Then we call the auditorium and tell them you’ll be late. I do this all the time. They’ll understand.”
“No they won’t. We’ll be hours late.”
Victoria’s attention was on a message she was typing.
“Why don’t we just go to the charity first,” Helena said. “We’re only twenty minutes away. You’d still have to fly for hours, anyway. It’s not going to make a difference for you.”
“Are you trying to ruin this for me? Because you’ve won. The whole charity is ruined. People will be going home by the time I arrive, and nobody is going to donate any money if neither of us are there.”
Victoria breathed sharply through her nostrils. Her patience was running low, though her focus remained adamantly fixed on the phone. “I’m not trying to ruin anything,” she said “An emergency has come up. I had no control over this. If you want to make a fuss and let it ruin the charity for you, then go ahead. I can’t stop you.”
“I’m not ruining anything. You are. You never wanted to do this in the first place. Admit it. You don’t care at all about this charity. Do you? Do you even care about how what this event meant to me, about how much time I put into preparing it?”
The shuttle phone mounted beside Victoria rang. Before answering, Victoria looked at her daughter. “Frankly, Helena, your right. I don’t care.”
She then answered the phone.