Winnie stepped closer. “Helena? Are you all right?”
Helena stood hunched over the terrarium. In her hands, Marzipan flailed about. He hissed and made strange little cries. Something about picking him up had sent him into a panic.
“I think we should leave him alone. Helena?” Winnie tapped her.
Helena looked about, as though startled that Winnie was in the room.
“Yes?” she asked. How drunk was she?
“I think we should leave Marzipan alone, and tell somebody about this. Your mom is going to find out eventually anyway. She’d be angry if we just left Marzipan alone in a broken cage.”
“No,” Helena said. “No. We’ll take care of this. We’ll put him with Victoria’s other tortoises. That way he won’t wander off.”
“Are you feeling okay? How drunk are you?”
“Drunk?” Helena seemed to take stock of herself. “Oh damn it. I am quite drunk. That does explain it.” She looked at Winnie appraisingly. “Are you drunk?”
“Yeah. I think I might throw up.”
“Well don’t. Come. Tell me. Where are Victoria’s tortoises. We must take Marzipan there.”
“You are so drunk. Why are you calling your mom by her first name?”
Helena blinked. She looked down at herself. After a pause. “Because I’m drunk.” She chuckled. It broke the tension, and Winnie laughed too.
“Now enough dallying,” Helena said. “Let’s get to the tortoises.”
“Dallying? You’re talking like an english professor.” Winnie laughed more. “And listen to yourself. You’ve suddenly got an accent.”
After a pause, Helena slowly smiled. Then in unison, they both broke into peels of drunken laughter. Winnie was relieved that Helena was okay, even if she was acting strangely, and her laughter oddly manic.
Marzipan kept squirming.
“I think he’s gone out of his mind,” Winnie said.
Helena looked at him. “He’ll be fine. We just need to have a place to put him down. Come, now. To the tortoises.”
“Come, now.” Winnie mimicked. She chuckled a little more, but Helena was done laughing. Winnie sobered. “We can’t. Remember? They locked us out of the garden.”
“Then how do we get in?”
“We’d have to ask one of the caretakers.”
Helena looked down at the frantic tortoise in her hands. “Very well. We’ll get the caretakers. Lead the way.”
Winnie did. The relief she felt was profound. Finally, Helena agreed to get adults involved. She and Helena would get in trouble, sure, but at least tonight’s madness would finally end.
“It was an accident,” Winnie said.
“What were you two doing in the queen’s office anyway?”
“We were messing around. I’m sorry. I know. We shouldn’t have been there.”
The caretaker eyed both Winnie and Helena. He’d been asleep before Winnie had knocked on his door. His eyes were bleary, and he wore a wrinkled teeshirt and boxers.
“Didn’t you two just break into the conservatory the other day with Gilles’s card?”
“We’re sorry about that too.”
“I was the one who had to clean the broken glass off the path. The reptile exhibit still smells like tequila.”
“We’re really sorry.”
The caretaker sniffed. “And you’re both drunk right now, aren’t you?”
“That is irrelevant.” Helena held up Marzipan. The tortoise still thrashed and gasped. “He needs someplace to stay for the night.”
The caretaker looked at Marzipan. The tortoise’s distress was obvious.
“I’ll have to tell the queen first,” he said.
“We can’t,” Helena said. “We mustn’t bother her right now.”
“She’s dealing with a crisis,” Winnie added.
“Look.” The caretaker rubbed his eyes. “That’s the queen’s personal pet. I’m not even supposed to go near it. None of the caretakers are. I can’t go sticking him in an enclosure without at least telling her what I’m doing. I could get fired.”
“She must not be disturbed,” Helena replied. “I will accept full responsibility for this decision.”
This startled both Winnie and the caretaker. Never had Winnie heard more mature words escape Helena’s lips.
The caretaker sighed. “Let me get dressed.”
That small ship had crossed several country lines now. Nigeria was long in its wake. Victoria had contacted several aerospace districts to tell them not to shoot down the unregistered craft. It tickled Victoria each time she did this. The people aboard that ship were doing everything they could to avoid Victoria as though she were the evil queen hunting for their hearts, and yet it was she who was saving them from their own ignorance again and again.
As she watched in her mind, the ship curved gently.
“They’re shifting direction again, Your Majesty,” said a lieutenant in the control room with her.
“They’re heading into Algerian airspace. Shall I notify the local air traffic?”
She nodded again. Their constant change in direction must have something to do with Tan. No one else aboard that ship would pilot it so aimlessly.
Her phone chimed.
She picked it up. One notification. She started unlocking it.
“Your Majesty.” Bishop spoke over their open connection. “The orbiters with early generation wall bots have just launched. They’ll be surfing in about an hour. Their flight paths will mean any one of them will be coasting over East Europe.”
She set her phone down. “And they can launch those wall bots remotely?”
“No, but they can put them in deployment pods with marines. They configure the wall bots on the ground. From launch, they can have the wall bots up and running within three minutes.”
“And then the marines will evacuate?”
“And then the marines will leave in the pods, yes.”
“All we need is for Josephine to stay airborne for about the forty minutes it’ll take for the orbiters to reach their flight paths. Think that’ll happen?”
She looked at the ship again in her mind. They were over the Sahara Desert right now. There wasn’t much Lakiran presence there, plenty of places for them to land and disappear, or so they’d think. That territory was practically uninhabited after six years of nuclear winter: no crowds, no obstacles, no one to get in the way. The army could quarantine entire swaths of land with wall bots and capture only their targets. Josephine would be a fool to land there.
“They will,” Victoria said. “They’ll be airborne for another few hours at least.” France? Spain? Is that where they were going?
“That’s a few hours you could use to sleep, Your Majesty.”
“It’s a few hours I could lay in bed and wonder what’s happening,” she corrected. “You’re not getting rid of me, Bishop.”
“I didn’t think I could.”
The caretaker’s flashlight emitted a dull red light. It wasn’t much to see by, but he seemed to know his way around the conservatory as though it was his own bedroom. Winnie was carrying the light however. The caretaker had taken over holding Marzipan.
“There should be one free enclosure near the back,” the caretaker was saying. “It’s supposed to be for some iguanas, but they’re not showing up until next week. We’ll put the queen’s pet in that one, give it some water, and then you two are going to tell the queen first thing tomorrow what happened.”
“We will,” Winnie said.
“And you will tell her that this was all your idea. This way.”
He guided Winnie down a path. The familiar nitrate smell filled the air. The red light revealed the enclosures.
Helena paused to look in one. “Are all of my mother’s tortoises here?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Does she keep any others privately like she does Marzipan?”
“No. These are all of them.”
“How many are here?”
“How long have they been here?”
The caretaker shrugged impatiently. “I don’t know. A while.”
“Decades, would you say?”
Helena asked no other questions. The caretaker led Winnie to an empty enclosure near the back. He stepped in and set Marzipan down. The tortoise did not calm down at all.
“Is he going to be okay?” Winnie asked.
“He’s scared right now,” the caretaker replied. “Crazy night. New environment. He should calm down in a bit.” He fetched a hose from nearby and filled a rubber-lined depression inside the enclosure to create a pool. Marzipan still thrashed as though in the throes of a seizure. He seemed like he was trying to crawl toward Winnie, but his legs weren’t working right.
“Jesus,” the caretaker said. “What’d you guys do to him?”
“Excuse me.” Helena approached. Winnie hadn’t noticed her wander off. “Could you look at these for a moment?”
She was holding two tortoises.
“What are you doing?” the caretaker yelled. “Put them back immediately.”
“But there’s something you need to see about them. Look.” Helena set one at her feet, then handed the other toward the caretaker. He tried to snatch the tortoise away from her, but when he did, it was as though an electric shock hit him. He froze. His eyes became distant.
It was exactly how Helena had acted when she first touched Marzipan. Something had happened—something that changed Helena. Victoria had kept Marzipan separate for a reason.
Winnie had only just realized this when Helena thrust the other tortoise into her arms.
Then everything changed.