“And the orbiters are in position,” Bishop said.
Victoria nodded. “Good.”
They were now more prepared to capture Josephine when she did inevitably land. The old model wall bots those orbiters carried probably wouldn’t come up. The newer models could still deploy faster and without human interaction, but it was nice to have the alternative. Wherever Josephine landed, whether in open field or a covered building complex, the military would be ready.
Between all options at Victoria’s disposal, she couldn’t think of a way that Josephine could outwit her. Even with Tan and his erratic flying, Victoria had already won.
…or Victoria just hadn’t figured out what they were doing yet. Her mind was admittedly foggy. She glanced over at Willow. The hawk was sound asleep.
She really should do the same. Even if just to lay down for an hour, it would help. Nothing else was going on. Bishop would notify her the moment Josephine’s ship started descending, that’s if Victoria wasn’t already aware through her own constant tracking. More importantly, she couldn’t afford to be drowsy.
“I think, Bishop, I might actually turn in for a bit.”
“A good choice, Your Majesty. I will watch them. You’ll have your phone on you?”
“Yes. Regardless of whether they do something, I want you to wake me in…” She brought up her phone’s screen. There was the notification. She vaguely recalled it coming up before. Unlocking her phone, she read the message.
"Office terrarium 00:12, Nov 13th 2055: Fault detected."
For a second, her mind couldn’t make sense of those words. It just puzzled them, even though she recognized it as a warning she’d typed long ago, for a threat she hadn’t considered in ages.
She snapped into focus. Her mind was in her office at the tower top. The lights were off, but she still saw the cage. The front was caved in. Marzipan was missing. Who? Who in the hell would have let him free?
The answer came immediately, and as much as she wanted to choke the life out Helena’s skinny little neck, this wasn’t the time. That notification came almost forty minutes ago. That’s a hell of a head start. Where would Sakhr go?
Her mind jumped to the conservatory reptile section. One dead tortoise was on the walkway. Several were missing from their enclosure.
Damn it all.
Her mind raced about.
The lobby. The grounds. The shuttle bay. The rooftop. The security suites. The elevators.
There they were.
“Your Majesty?” Bishop asked. “When should I wake you?”
She spun to Captain Gandara. “Shut down the elevators now.”
“In… this building, Your Majesty?”
Sakhr and all his fellow escapees were in the elevator sliding down the side of the Capital Tower. It stopped, smoothly and without any jarring, and then nothing. Sibyl pressed buttons. Still nothing.
Winnie’s relief was profound. Somewhere, someone had found out. If it wasn’t Victoria, she would know soon enough.
“Well, there you go,” Alex said. “What twenty more seconds would have gotten us.”
“We should probably get out of the elevator,” Christof said.
“Yes. Help me.” Sakhr handed Helena to Sibyl and pried at the elevator door. Christof joined, but it wouldn’t budge. Quentin shouldered to the button panel and opened a small compartment. He flicked a switch, and the doors popped. Sakhr and Christof easily slid them open.
“Did your power tell you that?” asked Christof.
“No. My rudimentary knowledge of elevators did. How come none of you knew?”
“I don’t remember elevators having switches like that.”
“All repulse elevators do. How long were you all in tortoises?”
“Long enough,” Sakhr’s tone ended the conversation. The elevator was stopped midway between two floors. One by one, each climbed out into an office hallway.
Sakhr led them to the stairs. He started heading down.
Christof hesitated. “They’re going to have people waiting for us.”
“They may, but they won’t hurt us. Not in these bodies.”
“But they can apprehend us.”
“They won’t come near me. Victoria knows I’d just swap bodies. Therefore, they can’t come near any of us.”
Alex spoke. “Perhaps you’re forgetting about the hazmat suits they wore when they put us in tortoises in the first place.”
“I’m not forgetting,” Sakhr replied testily, “but we don’t have a choice. If we stay here, we will encounter those hazmat suits again, but they only just shut down the elevators. That means they’ve only now realized we’re loose. Our best chance of escaping is if we move right now before she organizes. Now, come along.”
He resumed down the stairs. The others followed.
Six floors down, the stairwell ended on floor eight. Sakhr tried the door. It didn’t budge.
He turned to Quentin. “Do you know this building? Is there another stairwell?”
“Yeah, but it’ll end on this floor too. It’s the security floor. Everyone coming and going gets screened here.”
“Are the doors normally locked?”
Quentin shrugged. “I don’t know. I never used the stairs before, but I wouldn’t think so. Seems like a fire hazard.”
“Can we can break this down?”
Quentin’s eyebrows raised. “Does it look like you can?”
A mere glance at its steel frame was enough to answer that.
“What about any—”
“Who’s there?” a voice yelled through the door.
Sakhr yelled back. “This is Princess Helena. Is this door supposed to be locked?” His accent was less pronounced.
“Tower’s just gone into lockdown, Your Highness. I can’t let anyone through.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Don’t know, but something. You should probably wait upstairs. It’ll be over soon.”
“But I need to get out now. Surely the lockdown doesn’t apply to me.”
“Sorry, ma’am, but the lockdown came from the queen herself. Nobody is passing, not even you.”
Sakhr glanced at the others. “Is my mother in the building?”
“She’s in the security headquarters downstairs.”
“Good to know,” Sakhr muttered. He looked at the corners of the stairwell ceiling. “Let’s assume her eyes are on us through every camera in the building.”
Winnie knew Victoria didn’t need cameras, but there was no reason to correct them.
“Quentin,” he continued, “are you sure there is no other way to the lower floors?”
“Nope. Each security floor has separate stairs and elevators. Everyone goes through the lobbies.”
“How many security floors are there?”
Quentin considered. “Just two, I think. This one, and the ground floor one.”
Christof spoke. “I remember when we first came here, we landed in some kind of garage on a higher floor.”
“The docking bay, yeah. Floor eight. That’s why security is on this floor, but now that I think about it, Victoria has a personal bay on the roof.”
“Is somebody with you?” said the voice through the door. Everyone ignored it.
“Will there be a ship we can use?”
“Maybe,” replied Quentin.
“Then let’s go.”
“Captain, is my personal hopper still on the roof?”
Victoria had already confirmed with her mind that it was, but not asking would raise questions. Winnie’s power was not public knowledge.
A guard seated at a security terminal pulled up a view of the roof. Captain Gandara peered over his shoulder. “Yes, it is, Your Majesty.”
“Is it possible for someone to steal it?”
He frowned. “I’m not sure, ma’am. Are there intruders inside the building?”
“Then we should contact the police?”
“Just answer my question. Can someone steal it?”
“I’m, uh…” Gandara looked at the officer seated at the console. “Do you know?”
The officer answered. “Possibly, Your Majesty. If someone got inside, they could boot up the craft’s systems, but it won’t let them fly anywhere without the key fob.”
“Is such a key on the imperial floors?”
“Possibly, but even if they found one, they’d be restricted to grid travel unless they had remote clearance to use the engines.”
“And who can grant clearance?”
“That’s us, ma’am. We register all non-grid flights with the military and the Lakiran Airspace Division.”
“Is there anyway around that?”
“No, ma’am. Clearance has to come through us—me, actually.”
“Very well.” That answered that concern. If Sakhr managed to get inside, at least they couldn’t fly anywhere, unless they were dumb enough to try grid travel. Then she could have LAD flag that craft and keep it indefinitely suspended in the air until she was ready to deal with them. Too bad Quentin would know better.
All this imperial hopper business did was buy her time—time she should be using.
She grabbed her phone and strode from the communications room. In a closed office, she put it to her ear.
“I’m here, ma’am. What’s going on over there?”
“Sakhr is loose.”
“I don’t know. We’ll sort it out later. This takes priority over Josephine.”
“Right now they’re wasting time getting to my hopper. Where are the other high exemplars? Get them back here.”
“I’ll tell them, but they won’t get there for hours.”
“How are you so sure?”
“I checked when you asked earlier. Stone is in Argentina. Dosia left for Denver. Liat had to—”
“Forget it.” The timing of this unfortunate accident was infuriating. She envisioned Josephine’s craft floating miles above the Sahara. There might still be time for her afterward, but this came first.
“Get a swarm of wall bots surrounding the Capital Tower,” she said, “and have the orbiters change route. I want them over the tower as soon as possible.”
“For the old generation wall bots, ma’am?”
“They’re already at full speed in the stratosphere. It might take time before any of them can redirect enough to get over the tower.”
“Well, do it. I’ll call you back.”
She returned to the control room. The people there stood about.
“Captain,” she said. “The military will be deploying wall bots around the tower. No one will be coming or leaving. Inform whoever needs to know.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He jumped to the phone. His aura was tense and confused. She could sense how badly he wanted to ask what this was all about. Too bad for him, there was no need for him to know about Sakhr. She visualized the stairwell once again.
The group stumbled onto the roof of the Capital Tower. The sky was a dark, mud brown—polluted from city lights occupying the horizon. A steel canopy overhung the landing pad, hiding most of the sky from them. It left the roof in near shadow. Only white light from the open stairwell door outlined the hulking shadow of the queen’s personal hopper. It lay straight ahead on a raised platform. Winnie had to rely on her flair to see it in this dark. Tortoise eyes were awful.
Sakhr and Alex breathed heavily, but they were better off compared to the others. Sibyl came up clutching the handle rail with white knuckles. Quentin and Christof came moments later supporting each other. Christof had the other tortoise tucked in his shirt.
“You took your time,” Alex said.
“You’re the ones who put me in a fat-ass,” Quentin replied, wheezing, “…leave yourselves in the teenage coeds.”
“Enough.” Sakhr pointed to the ship. “Can we escape in this?”
“We need to get inside first.”
Everyone paused before the hopper. Sakhr slid his hand along the surface, feeling for something. Alex did the same farther along, so did Sibyl on the other side.
“How do you…” asked Sakhr. “Where’s the handle?”
“Are you serious?” Quentin disentangled himself from Christof, reached under the frame, and squeezed a release hatch. The shuttle yawned open. “You guys are incredible.”
It was strange for Winnie to be back here again tonight, under such incredibly different circumstances. Her own body even took the same seat as before. Only now she was sitting its lap.
Quentin and Sakhr got in the cockpit. “Are you a pilot?” Sakhr asked.
“I know the theory.” Quentin pressed a prominent button, and the cockpit lit up. A dashboard touch screen showed several options. Quentin tried to access a menuscreen named Autonav. Each time it prompted him to select a flight plan from a list, but the displayed list was empty. “Hmm.”
“Can we fly?” asked Sakhr.
“But on the other menu, it said ‘pick destination’.”
“That was Telenav. We don’t want that.”
“Telenav is the grid system. The repulse nodes through the city would fly us instead of the ship’s own repulse engines.”
“What’s wrong with that? We just need to get off this tower.”
Quentin took a calming breath. “Except that they know we’re escaping. If we use Telenav, they can override our destination remotely and put us anywhere they want. Including right back on this tower.”
“Can you hotwire it somehow?”
Quentin turned to him. “Does this ship look like a Ford pickup? Maybe if we pop it into neutral and push it off the tower, the momentum will get the engines started before we hit the ground.”
“So that’s a no…”
Alex called from the back. “Did we just waste our time coming up here?”
“Have any other ideas?” Sakhr asked Quentin.
“Hey, why is this all on me? It’s not like I had time to think this out. I didn’t even know I’d be escaping today.”
“We let you out because Alex thought you could help us. Now can you, or not? We can always give your body to him.” Sakhr pointed to the mystery tortoise in Christof’s lap. “Perhaps he’ll have a better plan.”
“Jesus Christ, guys. I don’t hear any of you suggesting anything.”
Christof intervened before Sakhr could respond. “We don’t know this world like you do. Repulsers, Telenav systems… That all means nothing to us. We would have used the Telenav system if you hadn’t warned us. That’s if we weren’t still outside looking for the handle. We need you. That is why we’re turning to you.”
“Okay. Fine.” Quentin sighed. “Let’s head back down a floor. I think I’ve got an idea.”
“Then let’s go.” Sakhr stood.
Everyone headed downstairs. One floor down was Victoria’s personal suite. This brought them into her foyer, near the office containing the terrarium that started this whole mess. Sakhr gave it a lingering glance as they passed by.
“You do have an idea, yes?” he asked.
“Yes, yes.” Quentin led them to a pair of assemblers installed in the wall outside the kitchen. “Yesss. This is what I hoped for.” He brought the first out of standby and paged through the menu. “Perfect.”
“What is this?” asked Sakhr. “Some kind of computer?”
“It’s an assembler.”
“Like a 3D printer?” asked Christof.
This caused Quentin to gape at him. “Good God. You’re all a bunch of grandparents, aren’t you?”
“Will you just focus?” Sakhr replied shortly. “What can you do with this?”
“Can you make weapons?” Alex asked.
“We can’t make a gun if that’s what your asking, but a lot of things can be weapons with a little knowhow. Maybe we can blow open those security doors.”
He queued a few chemicals from the Home Improvement section, then moved to the other assembler. Here he picked items from the Hobbies section, then navigated to a list of all connected assemblers nearby.
“All right. I’ve got these machines going. Looks like there are a few others downstairs. I’ll just send some items to those aaand… that should be it. Give it about ten minutes and we should have ourselves some decent grenades.”