Of course the door would be sealed, Josephine thought.
She and the others had headed straight toward the bridge as soon as they’d discovered the lockdown, but they’d only gotten as far as the door leading to the spire stairwell. All alternate doors were likewise sealed. When she waved their stolen card over the reader, it beeped angrily and a flashed a tiny red light.
“Is the card bad?” Naema asked.
“I think every card is going to be bad,” Josephine replied. She took a stairwell leading up to the top deck. All around her, spires rose like skyscrapers, but the one she was wanted into was the one right next to her. The admiral’s perch was near the top, but they couldn’t possibly climb the spire’s smooth steel surface.
“So what now?” Naema looked at her, eyes earnest, as did Naema’s mother and brother. Tan watched her flatly.
“I’m not sure,” Josephine said. “But we have to get into that bridge. Unless someone has some other idea.”
Everyone looked around.
Tan motioned behind himself as though he had something on his back. “We jump.” He moved as though ripping something off his chest.
“Parachutes?” Josephine asked.
He shrugged. “It work.”
“We’re not far enough off the ground.”
Oni spoke. “It could still work. It’s called base jumping. We do it.”
“I am not jumping,” said Naema’s mother. She faced Josephine. “You have powers. You can use them, no?”
“I do, but I need to see my target.”
Naema pointed up the spire. “Look. There are windows.” Small hatches lined the bridge spire. “If you can look in those, you can make them forget to keep the door closed.”
“How am I supposed to get up there.”
Naema pointed to a spire across from the bridge. “We go up there and you look across.”
Josephine looked. None of the other spires were as tall as the bridge spire, but some came close. The distance between them made a wide enough gap for planes to fly though. The top deck had once been a runway before the Lakiran Air Force retired all non grid-compatible planes.
Even if Josephine could see in the spire windows through the bright blue sky reflecting off the pane, she’d be looking through two small hatch windows hundreds of feet apart. She could maybe spot one or two people before the crew caught on.
But the idea wasn’t meritless.
“It won’t work,” Josephine said, “but I think I know what will. Come on.”
“Where?” Tan asked.
“To wherever they keep guns.”
“I see them,” Bishop said.
“Which screen?” Victoria asked.
Victoria tabbed through the list. That camera was in Fore Sector, Deck 4. They were headed down into the ship, and they clearly had a goal. This was near an auxiliary bay for shipping and supplies. Civilians were never allowed down there. The surveillance was because of the nature of what the citadel stored down there.
“Admiral? Do you see them?”
A click indicated Admiral Medina’s return. “Yes, Your Majesty. We see them. We think they’re heading toward the armory.”
“We can’t have them access the explosives. Have your men set up a sentinel on the armory main room and get out of there.”
“Yes, ma’am. They’re already doing that.”
“And if they can fully lock down any armaments, have them do so.”
“Yes, ma’am. Already done.”
Over the comm, the admiral was issuing orders that Victoria could barely hear. She was projecting her mind into the bridge when it occurred to her that she might be micromanaging the situation. The admiral and his men had more combat experience than her, and he understood the risks now. Should she back off?
She should. She wouldn’t.
The armory was simple to track down. The Air Force personnel around them didn’t seem to know there were intruders aboard. So even while the bridge was no doubt trying to figure how to capture Josephine, she was still able to stop others and ask for directions.
However, the crowd got thinner the closer they got to the armory. They were in the aft sector of this ship now, four floors below. This section was the general coming and going for supplies on and off the citadel—always busy, but each passing corridor was more deserted.
When they passed an empty mess hall with trays still covering the tables, Josephine knew the crew was up to something.
It could be a trap, but whatever the trap was, it couldn’t be lethal. The queen would not take a chance with killing her; she was certain of that. And every minute she hesitated was another minute the Lakirans had to put their own plans into action. If there was a trap, she’d deal with it.
The moment they rounded the corner to the armory, she regretted that choice.
She saw it. Even as she skidded to jump out of the way she knew it was too late. The machine had already spun its barrel toward her. She yelled to the others to get back. Then there was a click. It felt as though someone tugged at her pant leg. Her momentum carried her forward another step, bringing her weight down on that foot. That’s when the pain registered. Another click, and something tugged her other pant leg. She had already been shifting her weight onto it to ease the first pain. Now neither foot supported her weight. She hit the ground hard. Agony blossomed in both legs.
“Josephine!” Naema yelled.
Even in her pain, Josephine yelled, “Don’t come. Stay back.” She heard the other’s scuttling behind her. From the corner of her eye, it looked as though Tan had yanked Naema back, but she didn’t dare turn to confirm. Before Josephine was a sentinel drone. It hovered at shoulder height. Like wall bots, it was mostly spherical except for a few bulges, such as the three nodes along the bottom it used to remotely mount itself to the ground. Unlike wall bots, one end had a thin barrel pointing out which was trained on Josephine.
The Lakirans used to deploy these things in abandoned towns and other such restricted areas where they couldn’t afford manpower to patrol. Locals often had their own names for these devices: devil eyes, death eyes, gargoyles. People who stumble into one of these usually never knew what killed them. If they were lucky, the sentinels were calibrated to give a warning message first: get on the ground now or some such. People who didn’t comply were either dead or phenomenally lucky. These things didn’t miss.
This one had struck both her legs, shots to maim. Blood was soaking into her pant legs. In each calf, there would be a triangular hole where the flechettes had torn into her.
“Are you okay?” Naema asked. Josephine still didn’t turn. Motion set these things off. Or so she’d heard.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll live.” That was the idea, but, Lord, this pain was blinding. It creeped up her legs, filling her body. In her century and a half of life, she’d never been shot before. Were all gunshots this bad?
“Just stay back,” she said. “Don’t let it see you.”
“What do we do? We have to get you out of there.”
“No,” replied Josephine. “It’ll shoot you too.” Ever so slowly, she turned to look at them. They were crowded around the corner from the sentinel. Tan had moved in front of them to keep anyone from getting past him.
“We can’t leave you there,” Naema said. “We’ll find a rope.”
“No good,” Josephine said. It wasn’t that it would shoot the rope. It was that it would shoot her again if she started sliding along the ground, and she had two more limbs it could maim.
Though Josephine and Tan did have a prearranged plan.
“Tan…” Josephine looked at him. He gave her a flat look, knowing exactly what she wanted from him. He’d come on this trip because she’d forced him, and now she was asking him to go above and beyond. It would take months to make this up to him.
“We have to,” she said. “None of you can get me out of here. If we all stay, then we get caught. If you leave me, then they’ve separated us.”
“New plan,” he said. “We pull you out. You get shot more, but you live.”
He looked like he meant it.
“Tan, we still need to get into the armory. We can’t move past that sentinel unless you do it. I’m sorry, Tan. I know. I’m sorry, but you have to, or we lose.”
His response was long coming. He finally reached into his jacket—not for his gun, but for his cigarettes. As he smoked, Naema and the others grew anxious, but Josephine didn’t rush him. Even though she lay there bleeding, cigarettes come before stress.
When the cigarette was half done, he acted. From his pack, he brought out two pairs of steel nunchucks. After several preparatory breaths, he crouched low and stepped around the corner. Immediately, he started swinging the nunchucks before him with wild abandon. His cigarette was pursed between his lips. His head was leaned away. His eyes were squinted as though he were facing down a wind tunnel.
The sentinel spun and fired at him, three shots per second, each directed at one limb or another. Every single shot deflected off the flailing nunchucks.
Only once had Tan done this before, and that was against a soldier, not a perfectly aimed turret, but he and Josephine had practiced. Because of how radically the slight movements in his wrists translated to the spinning nunchucks, it gave his power plenty of room to work its magic. The nunchucks worked even better than a shield, so long as he didn’t think hard about how he was flailing them.
Step by step, Tan crept closer to the sentinel. His nunchucks spun haphazardly. Sometimes they tangled with each other. Sometimes Tan struck himself, but so far, he’d knocked every flechette away. They littered the floor.
Next to the sentinel now, Tan narrowed his flailing toward its general location. One nunchuck struck its spherical body. It physically shifted as though its invisible mounts bent. Another strike hit its underside. The shift upward was much more pronounced. Its repulsers could not pull it back toward the ground. A final strike landed across the barrel, denting it. It shot one more time. The flechette didn’t escape the end. Sensing the backfire, the sentinel emitted a low tone, and was still. Somewhere in the world, an email inbox just received an automated damage report.
“Okay, okay. Help me!” Josephine waved at the others. They rushed out and lifted her up. From the calf and down, her uniform pants were bloody. Just the act of lifting her to a seated position caused excruciating pain.
“Get me up,” she panted.
“You are bleeding bad,” Naema’s mother said. “You can’t move.”
“I’m sure not staying here. We’ll take care of me later.”
Between Naema and her mother, they hoisted her up. She cried out. For a moment, all the sounds in the room seemed like they were coming from far away. Her vision faded from the corners of her eyes inward. Someone was talking. It took her a moment to realize they were talking to her.
“You with us?”
“Yeah. Let’s keep moving. Take me to the armory.”
They carried her along. The door to the armory wasn’t far. It was closed. Tan tried the stolen card. Angry beeps.
Of course, she thought. If they had the foresight to know she was coming here, they’d have the foresight to seal the doors. This room was just as inaccessible as the bridge.
This trip was for nothing.