Fortunately for Josephine, Naema knew exactly where her family was. When they reached the right detention center, Naema sprinted ahead while Josephine frantically wiped memories.
“Mama?” Naema pressed against the bars.
“Girl?” Naema’s mother looked up from a crowd of closely packed prisoners. Behind her, a young boy got up from where he slept. Josephine had seen the child briefly in Naema’s tent.
“Mama, come. We’re leaving.”
The woman approached Naema. She eyed Josephine warily. “What are you saying?”
“We’re escaping,” Naema whispered. She looked to Josephine. “Do you have the keys?”
“Hold on.” Josephine said. “Look away a moment.” The other detainees were perking up. She cleansed their minds of whatever they’d heard, and they all lost interest. Only two people were going to be leaving this cell, but for a moment, Josephine imagined what would happen if she let everyone out. It would be chaos. No one would know where to go, and when the soldiers arrived, people would get hurt. It was a foolish idea, but Josephine couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if she could help them all. How many powers would she need on her side in order to stand up to the Lakirans instead of hiding from them?
She opened the cage. Two people exited. She sealed it closed. “Let’s go,” she said.
Together, they hurried to the launch bay. Naema hurriedly explained everything to her family as they went, including Josephine’s and her own power. While her mother understandably looked bewildered, she didn’t argue. She and Oni simply followed.
When they reached the nearest launch bay, something was different. The technicians weren’t preparing for incoming ships. Men weren’t loading or unloading supply shuttles. Instead people were gathered in conversational clumps as though everyone had decided to take a smoke break at once. Tan noticed this too. He made a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl.
Josephine tried taking the group to a grid-ready shuttle anyway. A cadet ran up with his arm extended.
“Hold up,” he yelled.
“We’re scheduled to leave,” Josephine said. She didn’t erase his memory quite yet, since she suspected what he was about to tell her.
“Hope it wasn’t important. The citadel is on partial lockdown. Nobody is coming or going until the higher ups give the all clear.”
The moment the shuttle touched down, Victoria strode out. Soldiers were waiting at attention for her. As she passed, they followed. One reached in the shuttle and fetched Willow. As a procession, they marched off, leaving Winnie and Helena behind. The fanfare was over.
“Bye, mom,” Helena said, long after Victoria could have heard her. Then, under her breath, “God, I hate her.”
The window to the cockpit opened. Melanie looked in. “Shall we return to the charity, Your Highness? I’m certain you’d still have time to make an appearance.”
Helena sniffed and wiped her eyes in an attempt to regain composure. “No. It would be over by the time we showed up. People would be leaving.”
“Are you sure? I’m sure if we call them, they’d keep the bidding going until you arrived.”
“What’s the fucking point? My speech was supposed to start the bidding off. It won’t even make sense if I give it at the end.”
“We’ll have time to rework the speech. I know the benefactors would love to see a royal presence.”
“They can go to hell,” Helena snapped. “I said I don’t want to do it anymore. Will you go away?”
Melanie nodded. The window closed.
After they heard Melanie exit through the pilot door and walk off, Helena finally broke down.
She cried as though there were no one there to see. Winnie sat beside her, still as a deer. She too was disappointed with missing the charity. Though unlike Helena, she at least had the benefit of seeing the results of their hard work. She’d finally found the auditorium in her head. Everything was proceeding just as planned, minus any royal presence. The decorations looked great. The staff and planners wore the outfits Winnie had designed. The style had certainly come together well. Guests chattered as dinner rounded up, and the auction had already gotten underway. Soon the staff would clear the floor for the dance.
Winnie decided it would be better to tell Helena tomorrow that all her planning wasn’t for naught. The sting of missing out would be less.
“I hate her so fucking much.” Helena’s voice was ragged.
Winnie could no longer pretend she wasn’t there. “Yeah. This really sucks. Do you want me to leave?”
Helena’s response was long coming. “No. Stay.”
“It’s confirmed,” Bishop said. “They broke the girl out.”
“Mmhmm.” Victoria had just taken her seat in the communications room of the Capital Tower. She’d commandeered the desk of Captain Gandara, the head of security in the Tower. Now she was finally ready to deal with this crisis.
Before her were several monitors which already tracked the situation aboard the HIMS Orinoco. She was within speaking distance of several officers in contact with the military around the world. And resting beside her in a cage was Willow, resting peacefully on her perch with a hood over her head. Her beak rested upon her breast. Victoria considered having someone carry Willow back up to her room, but her presence provided comfort Victoria appreciated right now.
Before her was the image that had tripped the silent alert. It showed Josephine and the other one in the corridor outside the Orinoco’s brig. They both wore military uniforms, including the cap, but the camera had gotten a good enough look at her for facial recognition software to pick her up.
And it was always her that the cameras caught. Never him. Tan, if Victoria recalled. Even in this image, he was looking to his left, conveniently obscuring his face from the camera. Every image was like that. From what little she and the high exemplars had determined of his powers, he might not be aware he was doing it.
Fortunately, Josephine was not as lucky.
“What are they doing now?” Victoria asked into the phone.
Bishop replied. “Looks like they made a stop in the detention center to break a few people out,” Bishop replied. “Probably the girl’s family.”
“Can you confirm that?”
“Trying to. They were never processed. No photos. Names are Zauna and Oni Madaki. Looking at the footage, they match the descriptions. I’m certain it’s the girl’s family. Do you have the security feed yet?”
Victoria looked over the grid of windows on one of her screens. “Yes, but I’m not seeing them anywhere.”
“That’s because they’re in Starboard Hangar, Deck One. There’s no camera in there.”
“They’re not escaping, are they?”
“No. Lockdown. No one is coming or going.”
“Is there any way for them to get out?”
“I talked to the XO. According to him, bay doors are closed. Unless they jump off the top deck, there’s no way off.”
“XO? Who’s the Commanding officer? It’s Medina something, right?”
“Admiral Nelson Medina, yes.”
“Why are you talking to his XO?”
“Medina wasn’t on the bridge when I called. He should be now.”
Victoria motioned to an officer near her. In a quick exchange, she ordered the man to get Medina on the same line. As he worked, she considered what to say. There were intruders aboard his ship, and he would have no idea how much of a threat they posed. Sharing information about their flairs would be more than she’d told anyone else in the military. In theory, if Victoria succeeded in capturing Josephine, it wouldn’t matter.
Briefly, she daydreamed about her reign once she would have the ability to prune memories. So many complications would vanish. Until now, Victoria had counted on Winnie being the key to catching Josephine, but that Naema girl complicated matters.
If Josephine escaped that ship, finding her would become even more impossible. Josephine would never leave Naema’s side.
“Bishop, Stay on the line while I talk with Medina. Bishop?”
There was a clatter on his end as he hastily put back on a headset. “I’m here. I’ll be on the line.”
“Are you still in the air? How close are you to the Orinoco?”
“A couple hours.”
“Are any other high exemplars in the area?”
“I don’t think so, but I’ll check.”
Victoria flapped her hand, even though no one could see. “No. Don’t bother. Not with that blasted girl.”
“We don’t know yet whether she’ll break our shields. She might not.”
“She will.” Victoria had never met the girl, but she had a good sense of her flair already.
There was a click on the line. “This is Admiral Medina.”
“Admiral, this is your queen. You have intruders aboard your citadel—very unusual, very dangerous intruders.”
“So I’ve heard, Your Majesty. The ship is in partial lockdown. Our marines are suiting up now.”
“Have them stand down.”
“They’ll be no use to you. No one can come near these intruders. You need to seal the doors to the bridge spire right now. Under no circumstances can anyone be allowed to enter. If any of your men come within visual range of the targets, they will be rendered useless.”
“I see. Hold on, ma’am.”
He barked orders in the background.
“The doors are being sealed now, ma’am.”
“Good. They must stay sealed until this situation is resolved.”
“Good. Now listen to me carefully. I’m going to tell you what you need to know about your intruders. It will sound unbelievable, but it will be the truth. I am also telling you this under the strictest confidence.”
She described Josephine’s abilities, as well as what she knew of Tan’s and Naema’s. Though she did glaze over the technicals of how exactly they had such abilities. Admiral Medina never questioned her claims.
“So now you understand,” she finally said, “why it will be so difficult to capture this group.”
“I do.” The statement was simple and impossible to read. Victoria had her mind projected into the bridge room at the time, but even his expression was unreadable. She wished she could read his aura through Winnie’s power. As it was, she couldn’t tell whether the Admiral believed her without question, or whether he wondered if this was some elaborate lie. Either way, Victoria needed to capture Josephine today. This knowledge would eventually lead him to dangerous questions. He’d need to forget after this was done.
“If these people are as dangerous as you say,” the Admiral asked, “is it worth the risk of capturing them alive?”
She nearly answered yes, but paused. Did she need all of them alive? Naema’s family was of no use to her. Of course killing them would make controlling the girl difficult. If her family were alive, offering them hospitality might still sway them over, although Victoria doubted if Naema would be as simple to coerce as Winnie was. In that carrot and stick routine, the stick never had to come out for Winnie. Winnie only suspected a stick might even exist. This Naema girl wouldn’t be so naive. Her family would be crucial for her cooperation.
Then another thought occurred. Why bother with Naema at all? What could her power possibly be useful for if it broke glyphs? Maybe it couldn’t even be made into a glyph. In which case, her power was only useful for being used against Victoria. Josephine was the one she really wanted. If she had Naema killed, capturing Josephine would be simpler.
“Yes. We must capture them all alive.” Let’s not do anything irreversible. Not yet. “This means you cannot have anyone approach them directly. What kind of remote equipment do you have on board? Do you have wall bots?”
“No ma’am. We deploy those from orbiters.”
“Are there any nearby?”
“Are you suggesting we deploy wall bots into the citadel?”
“Surely that can be done, can’t it. Don’t we deploy wall bots inside buildings?”
“No ma’am. Their fields cause structural damage.”
“But that’s only if their fields intersect with walls. Actually, I remember years ago we used wall bots to lock down buildings.”
“Those were the earlier models, ma’am. They can’t be deployed remotely, we’d have to manually set them up.”
“That’s fine. We have time.”
“No, ma’am. I mean the orbitals won’t have them stocked for that reason. I’ll have my men see if we still have some in any military stockpiles nearby, but it’ll take time.”
“I don’t care if we have to ship them across the globe. Get them there.”
“Understood.” There was a pause before he came back.
“There’s something else we might try in the meantime, ma’am. We have sentinel drones onboard.”
“No good,” Victoria said. “Those are lethal.”
“They don’t have to be, ma’am.”