Sakhr and the others split up to find the other assemblers, although he made sure that everyone stayed within Sibyl’s Empath range.
Alex found a pair on his own. Before heading back, he sat down in the hall with Winnie and Helena. Alone here, he held Helena up to look her in the eyes. Winnie would have tried slipping away again while he was distracted, except that Alex had set her on the floor upside down. Every time she got close to righting herself, he’d casually pushed her back over. She had just about resigned herself to this dizzying position when Alex set Helena down and picked her up. He studied her just as he had Helena.
Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.
“Ooh,” Alex said. “I saw that. You know what’s going on, don’t you?”
Winnie pulled into her shell and covered her face with her feet.
He shook her. “Come on. Open up. Let’s have a look at you.”
She didn’t respond. Suddenly, she was falling. Startled, she opened her eyes and jolted. Alex caught her just before she hit the ground. His gaze immediately locked onto hers.
She covered up again.
So Alex dropped her again. This time she kept her face covered, trusting her flair to see. Alex was keeping his arms poised to catch her each time, hence she was in no real danger, even if her heart leaped each time he did it.
Then the light on the assemblers changed. Their hum stopped, then started again sounding differently. Lights around the edges were pale red. Noticing this, Alex collected Helena and Winnie and returned to the others.
Quentin, who’d remained by the first machines, was swearing and stabbing his fingers on their touch screens. All but a few buttons were gone from the menu.
“Stop.” Quentin stabbed another button. A padlock symbol in the upper right flashed.
“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”
Another button, another flashing padlock.
“Damnit!” He banged the machine.
The others returned.
“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.
“The machines are reclamating.”
“They’re reclaiming assembled resources, destroying what they were making. Someone accessed the machines remotely.”
“Is there anything you can do to stop it?” asked Christof.
“Good idea. I should do that instead of banging on it uselessly. Is that what you’re saying?”
“If people are controlling this remotely,” Sakhr said, “why can’t you just disconnected it from the network?”
“Oh. My. God. You have no idea how technology works. You think the Lakiran empire would let people use these things offline? If the cloud servers disconnect you, your machine won’t even know how to assemble.”
“And you knew this could happen?” asked Sakhr.
“This is not my fault. There’s no way I could have known they’d lock the machines two minutes after we started using them.”
“You just said they have central control over them. Can’t they see what the machines are doing?”
“Yeah. If they have the server logs open and are actively looking at them. They’d have to already know we were using them first.”
Pausing, Sakhr looked along the ceiling of the hallway. “Then how did they know? I’ve seen no cameras on this floor.”
“She doesn’t need them,” Alex answered. He held up Winnie. “I took some time to look into our tiny friends. I think this little one right here is the explanation.”
“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.
“It’s the little Asian girl who so kindly lent me her body. She has the power to see and hear remotely. Haven’t seen how it works yet, but from what she knows,” he tapped Helena, “Victoria can see anything, anywhere, anytime she wants.”
“So she’s been watching us every step of the way?”
Sakhr pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered something in another language. He eventually looked up. “We need another plan then. And quickly.”
“But she’ll know what it is,” said Christof.
“I know. We’ll just have to move faster than she can react.” He looked around. “Quentin. Do you think you could make explosives from something else? Maybe from things laying about?”
“Depends on what we find.”
“Then we do that. Everyone split up and search. We’re looking for chemicals, electronics, anything that might be useful.” He sighed. “Anything at all.”
Victoria was mulling through strategies. The last time she captured Sakhr, she’d had mercenaries in hazmat suits with her. She could try that again, but if it failed, it would fail spectacularly. It would be safest if she had time to wait for her high exemplars.
Unfortunately, none of them could get here in time. She had ordinary exemplars nearby, but they had no idea who Sakhr was. More importantly, they didn’t have shields.
Victoria considered waking Sara. If that girl could draw up extra shields for her… But no. Even if that was a good idea, Victoria would need to supply Sara with a master glyph, and that just wasn’t possible right now.
That left only non-glyph solutions. It had to be military.
She called Bishop back. It rang four times.
“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.
“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”
“And the orbiters?”
“That’s a little more tricky. Their flight trajectories were set so they’d be over West Europe. They’re redirecting, but it’ll take almost two hours before they can get a reliable overhead window.”
“Why so long?”
“They’re going really quickly in one direction. Now they’ll need to go just as quickly in another. To change that much speed, they’ll need to come into the lower stratosphere. It’s almost as bad as landing and taking back off. But you will have windows before that. One orbiter will pass near the capital in thirty-five minutes. He’ll have a four minute window in which to deploy. Then there’ll be another about forty minutes after that, but that orbiter won’t have old gen wall bots. It’s just a patrolling orbiter.”
“Thirty-five minutes, and then seventy-five minutes…”
“It’s bad, Your Majesty. I know. The air force doesn’t trail orbiters over the homeland that much.”
“The marines won’t know anything about the situation they’re going into, will they?” she asked.
“I didn’t tell them. What would you like me to say?”
She considered. “Nothing. I want to talk with whoever is in charge of the thirty-five minute orbiter.”
“Yes, ma’am. Here is the contact info.”
A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.
“Stay on the line,” she told him.
She examined the info. Captain Stephano was the CO aboard the HIMS Venezia. She called the number.
“This is Captain Stephano.”
“Captain. This is your queen.”
A pause. “How can I serve you, Your Majesty?”
“You’ve been redirected to pass over Porto Maná. I understand you’ll be ready to deploy in thirty-five minutes.”
“That’s correct, ma’am.”
“And you have old gen wall bots?’
“Do your men know how to use them?”
“And what do you know of your assignment?”
“We’re to be ready to deploy onto the Capital Tower within our window, and await further instructions.”
“And here they are. There are enemy agents inside the Tower. It will be up to your men to apprehend them. Unfortunately, they have hostages, including my daughter.”
“High Exemplar Bishop informs me that you have nonlethal means of incapacitating targets.”
“Yes, ma’am. Our electric flechettes.”
“You’ll be using those. Under no circumstances are your men to kill anyone.”
She paused. Should she issue that order? This problem could be solved much more easily if she had a sniper shoot Sakhr before anyone came in. Then the marines wouldn’t need to do anything special. It was, after all, her refusal to kill him in the first place that allowed this to happen. Was the risk really worth the remote chance his power could be evolved further?
But then he wasn’t about to get out of Helena’s body either, and that she couldn’t kill.
“Anyone. Is that clear?
“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”
“This includes animals.”
“They took my tortoises out of their enclosures. And I don’t…” she sighed, knowing how ridiculous this sounded, “…I don’t want them hurt. They’re important to me.”
“Understood, ma’am. We’ll look out for the tortoises.” He sounded entirely professional about it too. Victoria would remember this man.
“And there’s another complication.” She thought about how to put this. “Your men cannot come into physical contact with anyone.”
“One of the hostiles is using technology similar to that used by exemplars. They are capable of… compromising anyone they touch. Once compromised, the victim must be treated as a hostile. All of the hostages, including my daughter, have been compromised in this way.”
“If we can’t touch anyone, how are we supposed to apprehend them?”
“They require skin to skin contact. Make sure your marines are covered. Use your wall bots to section off the tower floors. Most of the hostages will not be able to compromise your men, and I can tell you which ones are dangerous and which are not, but I won’t be able to do that until the time comes. So I will need to be in contact with you and your men during the strike. Do you understand so far?”
“Will your deployment pods be capable of carrying away hostages after you’ve incapacitated them?”
“Then I’ll arrange for those pods to deliver to a secure location, where everyone will be quarantined and kept separated until we can sort this out. This includes your men.”
“And remember. You must treat the hostages as hostiles. Once compromised, they are effectively mind-controlled. Your men must be ready to incapacitate anyone I tell you to, even if its your own men.”
“Get your men ready. I’ll call you with more details soon.”
Victoria disconnected him. “Bishop? Did you get all that?”
“I did,” Bishop said.
“Then you heard about the need for quarantine. Make it happen.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Bishop stayed on on the line as he worked.
Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…
“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.
“You don’t know that,” Alex said. “This is the glyph maker machine.”
They watched as Quentin worked the console to the plaque assembler. He’d opened a saved file, which displayed a glyph on the screen. The only option was to send it to the assembler, which he’d pressed. The machine hummed. A progress screen was delayed.
“But the glyph will be useless,” Sakhr replied. “If you remember, she always had to finish the glyphs. Look.” He hit the back button, returning to the displayed glyph. Picking up the stylus, he doodled across the image. “See? It’s not done. She kept bringing us up here because she needed to see us before she finished it.”
“Okay,” Quentin said, “but it might not be entirely useless. Look at those. What the hell is going on inside there?” He peered through the glass as a robotic arm applied explosive gel to the back of the silicon glyph wafer. “There’s got to be something useful we can do with this.”
He didn’t recognize what the gel was for. Winnie would have to make sure they didn’t learn that from her. That meant not letting Alex look her in the eyes.
“What about these?” Christof was standing by three crates in the workshop room, the ones labeled as military property. “Military. Might be something good in here.”
“Let’s see.” Sakhr and Christof pried the lid of a crate. After they pulled away the side panels, packing peanuts flooded out. There was the same clunky machine Winnie had seen earlier that day. It seemed so long ago. In the light, she got a better idea of how it looked. It was like something teenagers might throw together in their garage. Its circuitry was housed inside what looked like a retrofitted footlocker. The reception pan stuck out side like an open car door. Every nut and bolt was plain to see.
“Quentin?” Sakhr asked. “Do you know what this is?”
Quentin looked it over. “It looks like an old assembler.”
“Do you know why it this would be military property?”
“No. It looks like it should be in a museum.” He tapped a tablet plugged into the device by USB. It lit. “It’s a modern tablet though, isn’t it.” He opened an app and paged through its menu.
“Is this something that can help us right now?” Sakhr asked.
“Probably not. It doesn’t look like it’s hooked up to the assembler cloud. Either it’s really old…”
He trailed off, frowning at a particular page. Then he grinned. “Oh my God. Seriously?”
“It’s a fuser.” Excitedly, he skirted over the assembler until finding the footlocker circuit box. He popped it open and poked through.
“What’s it do?” asked Christof.
“It’s something I designed before Victoria put me in the zoo. It’s like an assembler, except better.”
Quentin flipped a switch inside the box back and forth. Nothing happened. He left, fetched a power cable from a lamp in the other room, and returned. “So most assemblers work with micro-sems inside of them, right? Once they’ve constructed a molecule, they pass it along to macro-assembly.”
“Micro Assemblers. Look. How much do you know about microfield technolog—oh, right. Grandparents.” He stripped the power cable, exposing bare copper. “Okay. Assemblers work by having billions of tiny, tiny robots that work on individual molecules. Then they push them together or tear them apart to make other molecules. Then they pass them along to bigger robots who take those molecules and make bigger chunks. Who pass them on to bigger robots, and so on, until you have robots the size of your fist that put together the final product.” He patted the assembler’s reception bin. “Got it?”
“This one is a little different. It does everything that other assemblers can do, except it also has robots that are so tiny, and so precise, that they can actually push atoms together to make different atoms.”
He attached the power cable to something inside the circuit box. “It makes the assembler a thousand times more useful. Take ordinary assemblers, right? They can make all sorts of things, literally out of thin air. It pulls its carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen from CO2 and humidity. Then it puts them together to make synthetic fabrics and foods and all sorts of stuff, but that’s it. If you want something made of iron or silicon, or any metal, you need to supply those elements to the assembler with little cartridges. This thing can make all those heavier elements from the same air. It doesn’t need anything.”
He plugged the other end of the cable into the wall. “The best part is this looks like it has a Stiller generator. Assemblers use ungodly amounts of power. This thing even more so, but it should be able to reclaim the power released whenever it pushes molecules together. It basically makes power out of humidity using the same principle that microfusion plants use. But the microassemblers in this fuse a lot more than just hydrogen. All this assembler needs…” He flipped the switch inside the circuit box again. This time, lights came. Cooling fans hummed. “…Is a little jump start.”
Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.
“If this thing is so wonderful, why is it locked in here?” asked Alex.
“Victoria is greedy,” replied Quentin. “She likes to hoard her technology. I’ll bet that even today, no market assembler can make another assembler. Even years after the war, she kept all the food-ready assemblers under contract-only release. Unauthorized use of one was a felony. And this?” Quentin tapped the machine. “She locked all my notes on fuser assemblers away. She didn’t want anyone making these. I’m surprised she built these.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised she figured out how without me. Her scientists aren’t much better than monkeys in lab coats. I made her business empire for her.”
“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.
“I think so. It looks like it’s got a debug build of the designer. Shouldn’t need access to the assembler library. The downside? It doesn’t have access to the assembler library. I’ll have to design everything we use from scratch.”
“What can you make?”
“Sure. I can make better ones now actually.”
“Then do that.”
Quentin got to work on the tablet. He glanced at the other two crates. “Are those other ones? You guys should probably get them booted. Did you all see what I did?”
No one responded.
“Of course not,” Quentin mumbled. “Hey. Telepath girl.”
Alex had been fiddling with his stolen sidearm. “Referring to me?”
“Eye contact right?” He stared Alex in the eye. “You can get the other machines going. Do you see what I need you to do?”
“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”
“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”
Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”