41. Time to be Kings

2038, June 8th
Collapse – 11 years

“Time to be kings,” Alexander said.

Time indeed, Sakhr thought. Having a tower halt everything to greet him was not a pleasure he had ever had before. Money had never been a problem, but this was a life money couldn’t buy. This required fame, something Sakhr had arduously avoided until now.

A small woman approached. She was olive-skinned—a common color here.

“Greetings. My name is Melanie. I’m Victoria’s assistant coordinator. Are you Sakhr?” Her aura was nervous, self-conscious. It put Sakhr at ease.

“I am.”

“And you must be…”

“Alexander.” He bowed.

She greeted Sibyl and Christof, then turned back to Sakhr. “If you will please follow me. I will take you to Victoria.”

She led them to a conference room on the fifty-fifth floor. It had an office feel, complete with a conference phone and a projector at one end with a cable for a computer to connect to. It wasn’t quite what Sakhr was expecting. After preparing them drinks, Madeline assured them Victoria would be right with them, and she left.

They took seats and waited. After Madeline’s aura disappeared off the edge of Sakhr’s Empathy, he realized that no one else was around. No one at all. He knew the building was still under construction, but certainly there would be someone nearby. Or was this building mostly abandoned? Why meet here then?

He sensed her approach long before she entered the room. Four auras came up the elevator. One he recognized as Melanie. She split off once they were on the same floor. The other three approached. Hers was easy to identify. It bled arrogance.

He figured it would, but sensing it didn’t ease him. She would be difficult to work with. There would be many disagreements between her and Sakhr. It wouldn’t take long before one of those disagreements became an irreconcilable problem.

Two auras waited outside.

Victoria entered. She was every bit as beautiful as the news made her out to be. Sakhr didn’t know why, but that put him more ill at ease.

“I’m glad to finally meet you in person,” he said.

She settled into a chair at the head of the table. “Likewise.”

“Are those your guards outside the door?”

“They are.”

“One might think you don’t trust us,” Alex said.

Sakhr cast him a glare.

Victoria replied calmly. “If I felt threatened by you, they would be waiting inside the room with us. They’re for everyone else. In the past decade, I’ve made quite an impact on the local region through LakiraLabs. I’ve brought a lot of jobs and aid to the community. The place has been thriving like it never has before. I’m sure you’ve heard the news refer to me as the baroness of South America. I’m not sure I’d go that far. Unfortunately, not everyone sees my impact as a positive thing. Many see me as a unwelcome capitalistic influence.”

“I can imagine,” Sakhr said. “We passed through Brazil once decades ago, during the first Cold War. It was not a time to be making ripples. I can’t imagine it’s much different now.”

“South America is not as involved as it was before, but it still faces political troubles.”

“It leaves the question,” Sakhr asked. “Why relocate your company’s headquarters here? Why leave the US at all?”

“It’s certainly brought its hassles, but it’s was worth it. The burden of the United States’ latest laws and regulations had been hindering our progress. LakiraLabs already outsourced labor to Brazil and Venezuela. Moving here put us closer to our operations. And I’ve had an easier time shaping the law to my needs. The South American governments are more amenable to my money.”

“When they’re not threatening your life,” Sakhr added.

“Most of that threat actually comes from outside parties. My influence over labor laws here has negatively impacted the bottom line of many American corporations that outsource here. They pressure the US government, who in turn pressure the South American governments to put a stop to my growth. My most dangerous detractor, if you’ll believe it, has been a banana company that exports from here. I’ve caught them working with drug cartels to raise hell on my territory. So far, no government is willing to acknowledge this. Then there are the Russians denouncing me as a capitalistic exploiter. They fund rebel groups in the region. Frankly, if it weren’t for my edge, I would have failed a while ago.”

“Your edge being the powers you’ve stolen from us, right?” Alex said.

“I merely copied, but yes, with yours and others’ powers.”

“And when exactly did you copy our powers?” Alex said. “I’m sure Sakhr merely forgot to tell me.”

“Several months ago.”

“Funny. You only been in contact with us for three weeks.”

“Alexander…” Sakhr warned.

“It’s quite all right. I’m a careful woman. I observed your group as a matter of my own safety. I’ve had bad experiences when reaching out to other such flairs.”

“Others?” Christof perked up. “What other powers have you discovered?”

“A few. Years back, I found a man named Quentin Avery. He has a power which gives him a fundamental understanding of our world’s physical properties. He works with a team of my scientists out of a think tank in Virginia.”

“I see,” Sakhr said. “Hence your repulser field.”

“Hence all of our technologies which have put LakiraLabs decades ahead of its time. Not only do I have Quentin, but with my ability to write glyphs, I’ve hidden glyphs inside the ID badges of all of LakiraLabs scientists, allowing them to be better at their jobs.”

“Very clever,” Sakhr replied, “but why are you hiding the glyphs from your own people? When you first contacted me, you expressed the desire for us to come out of the shadows.”

“Which,” Alex interjected, “not all of us are on board with.”

Both Victoria and Sakhr ignored him.

“I do intend for that, but not on a wholesale level. Flairs are my edge. If I were to reveal that edge, others would try to gain it. I plan to keep both flairs and my technological advantage until I’m done expanding my domain. Only then will I reveal the powers, and only in a manner I can control.”

This constant use of the singular I bothered Sakhr, as was the way she wouldn’t look any of them in the eye. “How much do you intend expand your domain?” he asked.

“As much as possible.”

“So…” Alex said. “You want to conquer the world?”

“Yes.”

Alex laughed. “Wow. You’re for real. You actually think that, don’t you?”

“With the tactical use of your flairs, I can.”

“Of course you can. We could have done that any time we wanted. Maybe you don’t know about Sakhr’s power, but he could be president of the United States by tomorrow. Each one of us could be a world leader.”

“It’s not the same. You would be the world’s figureheads, but you wouldn’t rule it. You’d have to hide behind the bodies you puppeteer.”

“So it’s about arrogance then?”

“No. What I mean is you could not change things the way they are. You’d have the power of the presidents, but that’s it. That power if far from absolute. They have congress’s to appease and elections to run. They cannot change the world with their will, but must compromise with everything they do. Even if you surpassed that obstacle, you could only change the world so much. Your coven does not have real power, not yet.”

“We could stop the cold war resurgence tomorrow if we wanted,” Alex said.

“You could,” she agreed. “Why haven’t you?”

“Because it’s not our concern. I don’t care about saving the world. I care about living in it the way I choose.”

“Does he speak for all of you?” Victoria glanced around. “You don’t care about the world?”

“Of course we care,” Sakhr said. “We live in it, but by taking over important people, we would risk exposing ourselves.”

“And so you choose to stand by and hope that the world fixes itself? Even when you could correct it?”

“We could alleviate the situation between the world’s superpowers for a time,” Sakhr said, “but as you point out, our power would be limited. The amount of effort it would take to wrest the countries out of their own madness would be monumental.”

“Of course it would,” Victoria said, “but I haven’t failed yet, not significantly so.”

“So what then?” Alex said. “You’re going to fix the world? Listen. You’ve only been on this planet a few decades. We’ve been here for centuries. We’ve—”

“And yet you are all exactly where you have always been,” Victoria said. “A group of nomadic travelers who steal what they want and run at the first sign of trouble.”

“Do not accuse us of cowardice, Victoria,” Sakhr said.

“I’m not. I’m accusing you of wasting your potential. I, on the other hand, have worked for fifteen years toward this goal. I own countless tracts of land across South and Central America as well as other parts of the world. My control over the regional politics is near absolute. I’ve made a small business into a dominant international empire using technologies I’ve developed and brought to market—technologies that have shaped every corner of this planet.”

Sakhr was silent. This conversation was going in a direction he hadn’t predicted. She was acting different then the few other times he’d spoken to her. He wondered if Alex had been right. Answering her call may have been a mistake, regardless of any risk from ignoring her.

Alex argued on. “That’s fantastic for you. We don’t want to run businesses and governments. We’re content as we are.”

“No. You’re complacent. You’ve wasted these powerful gifts on worthless indulgence.”

“Oh right,” Alex gestured to the room. “None of this is indulgent. Your own personal tower. Making yourself baroness of the region. Perfectly frugal.”

“Unlike you, I am accomplishing something. I am using my gift to its fullest potential, as well as all other powers I encounter. I explore them, figure out out how they work, what I can make them do. And then I use those powers to accomplish great things. You are content to accept your station in life. I have never stopped asking questions.”

With that remark, Sakhr knew.

An echo of a memory flew into his mind like a key and unlocked the full picture. In one singular moment, every gap filled in. Every question was answered. He understood what she was doing, why he was here, and why none of this felt right. It all made hideous sense.

The other’s kept arguing, yet their voices came to him from miles away. Sakhr reflected on the fatal mistake he’d made. Though his features hid his revelation, he knew Victoria could see his aura. Her own swelled exultantly, even while answering another inane remark of Alex’s. She knew he knew.

What could he do? What could he possibly do that she hadn’t already considered? The trap was sprung hours ago, and the cat was playing with it’s food. If he ran, the guards were beyond the door—guards who’s bodies he knew he wouldn’t be able to steal; he was certain she’d thought of that. Could he leap to his death? He was over fifty floors up. As long as he could shatter the window, he might save himself from whatever fate she had for him, but he couldn’t. After centuries of wandering, never had he realized more than right now how much he wanted to live.

“I’m sure,” Alex said, completely oblivious, “You’re amazingly proud of yourself. I never doubted that for a minute. But you still don’t get it. We don’t care. Why bother ruling the world at all? Apart from the appeal to megalomaniacs such as yourself, that kind of power doesn’t give us anything we don’t already have.”

“It’s about making a difference.”

More auras were coming up the elevator. These ones were tense, ready for combat. The ruse would be up soon.

“Oh, so you’re a humanitarian then,” Alex replied. “You’re pretty damn naive if you think you’ll amount to any positive change in the world. I’ve been around a lot longer than you, woman. I’ve seen a dozen dictators spout words just like yours. You’re just—”

Alex,” snapped Sakhr.

Alex looked at him, already sneering for what he thought was Sakhr coming down on her side. But then he saw into Sakhr’s eyes, and it came together. He startled to his feet, his chair clattering over, as though he’d finally seen the gun pointed at his head this whole time.

“What?” Christof said. “What’s going on?”

Sibyl was frozen like a mouse.

“No, Alexander,” Victoria said. “You do not know patience. In your centuries of life, you have never spent more than a year working toward any endeavor. I, however, have been working towards a goal ever since a very singular event happened to me. You might recall when. It was around same time that all of you found a particular girl in an airport. You took her in. You told her she was special. You treated her like a friend, and when you found out that she could pose a threat to you, you broke into her home and murdered her and her father.”

“…Katherine?” The word came from Christof.

Alexander looked around wildly, frantic for a course of action. It didn’t matter. That girl wouldn’t reveal herself unless there was nothing he could do. Sakhr wanted to try, maybe get to the door, or attack the woman, but his logic told him it would only amount to an undignified struggle—a wild animal fighting against its net.

Victoria kept talking. “You might remember that girl had the ability to copy other powers once she understood them well enough. The first power she took was yours, Alex. It made discovering the secrets to the others easier for her.” She looked at Sakhr. “Do you remember what you thought before giving her to Alex to murder? What a shame. You looked her in the eye when you thought that.”

Alex charged Victoria. Something stopped him. Sakhr felt a burst of air against his face. An unseen wall divided the room—a repulse field. It was probably on even before she entered. Not a single chance taken.

Alex tried to push through it. As though pressing repulsing magnets together, his hands kept veering off to either side. Wind burst each time.

Victoria sat peacefully on her side. “That girl’s story ended that night. But there was a fly that landed on her body before she died, no doubt attracted to the blood. The story of that fly is dull. It flew about aimlessly for hours afterward, until sheer chance would have it land on the arm of a boy who watched as police carried bodies from his neighbor’s house. His story is more interesting. Days later, he ran away from home, only to turn up in a week, behaving just like a dog. Tragic.”

Everyone but Victoria and Sakhr was out of their chairs. Christof and Sibyl both wasted time testing the repulse field. Alex was trying to force open the door to the hall. There was no point. If Sakhr was going to escape, it would not come from scratching the cage’s walls. Victoria would need someone to grab him for whatever she had planned. That would be those auras coming toward the door. That might be a chance. If he could manage to swap bodies, he’d have a chance. To hell with the others.

Or perhaps he could bargain. He could capitulate to her, help her take the others while he served. God, how he would detest serving this little girl, but he could do it, for centuries if he needed. Alex might not know patience, but he did. So long as he didn’t die here.

“There are other stories like that boy’s,” Victoria said, “stories of more important people: business men and politicians. They might encounter a friendly cat or a bird, and their behavior changes wildly. They’d make make drastic changes to their finances, only to break down one day and believe themselves to be animals.” She held out her hands to present herself. “I am the victim of this pattern as well. Me, Victoria Palladino. As an adolescent. I was a bubbly, over-privileged child drifting through her education like a unmanned vessel. I was to inherit my father’s tech company, but I didn’t have shred of ambition. That all changed one day when a bird collided with my pet dog while I was walking on the Princeton campus. My dog acted most peculiarly the rest of the day. Especially that night, when it attacked me as though I were an impostor. The poor thing had to be put down, and I’ve never been the same since.”

No one was listening to her. Christof had joined Alex in breaking down the door. It might as well have been made from brick. Sibyl was weeping in the corner. Her comfort threshold had been crossed. She would be useless now.

“That was the summer I found my drive. I became a woman who deserved the company she would inherit. The only person to ever question this change was my father. He sensed I wasn’t quite the little girl he’d raised. It unfortunately caused a rift in our relationship. Not that it matters now. He had a mental break himself. He lives in Silverside Sanitorium now, though I’m sure he’d be proud of my success. You see, Sakhr, when one is as gifted as we are, it’s amazing how much we can accomplish if only we have the proper drive.”

“Will you shut up, you little bitch,” Alexander said.

The doors burst open. Men poured in, all in hazmat suits and wielding stun batons. One shocked Alex before he could react. Christof rushed them, only to drop when one buried their baton in his chest. Sibyl cowered at their approach. They stunned her anyway.

Then they turned to Sakhr, and his dignity was gone. He was poised like a feral cat. Pouncing, he pulled at masks and tore at fabric, trying desperately to expose any skin.

The batons reached him first. His body failed. On the ground now, he kicked and screamed as they piled onto him, but it was too little, and much too late. With his face pressed against the carpet, he could see the feet of the others as they dragged Alexander, Christof, and Sibyl from the room. It was just him and the people holding him down… and her.

“Put him on the table,” Victoria said. The men dragged Sakhr up where he could see her. She was still reclined in her chair, making a phone call.

Someone answered immediately.

“I’m ready for Mr. Bishop now.” She hung up without waiting for a reply.

Sakhr tried to remember anything about the name Bishop, but he’d never heard of it. “Wait,” he stammered. “Just wait. Don’t kill me. We can talk about this.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. You’re much too valuable to waste.”

“What?” Sakhr struggled helplessly. “What are you talking about? What are you going to do?”

She got up and came around too look at him as though he were a specimen. “Where’s Josephine?”

“…What?”

“Josephine. I had expected her to be with you, but apparently not. You must have some idea where she is.”

Sakhr’s mind raced. This non-sequitur had no meaning to him. He’d never heard that name before. Was she someone close to Victoria? Did she think Sakhr had done something to someone named Josephine? Something she blamed him for?

Victoria frowned. “You really don’t know that name at all, do you? I’ll find her eventually. I have patience, and you’ll be waiting right along with me.”

The door opened again, and a woman dressed as an orderly entered, pushing along a geriatric old man in a wheelchair. He looked as frail as old parchment and had not a single hair on his gaunt body. Oxygen tubes snaked around his ears and wrapped under his nose, yet his breaths still took heaving effort. An antiseptic hospital smell wafted in with him.

This must be Mr. Bishop, and Mr. Bishop looked at Sakhr with lively, hopeful eyes unbefitting of his dying body.

No,” Sakhr yelled. He struggled anew. “Don’t put me in that body. Please, Victoria. Katherine. I’ll do what you want. I’ll serve you if that’s what you wish. For however long. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Just please! Don’t put me in that body.”

“I won’t.” Victoria smiled at him. “I have promised Mr. Bishop your body, but I wouldn’t dare leave you in a body on death’s door.”

Sakhr looked at her with wild, confused eyes as Victoria took a box from the orderly.

From inside, she took out a tortoise and set it on Sakhr’s chest. “Meet Marzipan.”

This marks the end of Part 1. Thank you all who’ve been reading so far.

I’d love to hear from you, whatever your thoughts or critiques may be.

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