Victoria called Captain Stephano.
“Inform your men that the targets may potentially be armed.”
“Do you know with what?”
“Explosives most likely. I’ll have more details for you before your men move in.”
“Understood.” He frowned. “Are you… in the tower right now?”
“I recommend you evacuate, ma’am.”
Victoria smiled patiently.
“I see no reason why you should take any such risk remaining there. Especially if this enemy has access to explosives.”
“Thank you for your concern, Captain. I’ll take it into consideration.”
She disconnected him.
Bishop was still on the line. “He’s right, Your Majesty.”
“Oh, don’t you start too.”
“You can coordinate just as well from a shuttle.”
“I will not be run out of my own home by a few ruffians bumbling about in the upper floors. They won’t blow themselves up just to hurt me.”
“This is no time to be brave, ma’am. If anything should happen to you—”
“Fine. Hold on.” She motioned for Captain Gandara. “Have a craft prepared and ready to go in the shuttle bay.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Gandara got to work.
Victoria spoke to Bishop. “I’ll take it if the situation gets out of hand.”
“I suppose that will have to do. Thank you.”
The call ended, and Victoria pondered. Sakhr would have explosives soon. He didn’t know yet that they wouldn’t help him get out of the tower. Even if he managed to destroy some wall bots surrounding the tower, other wall bots would replace them before anyone could move through, but explosives did mean Sakhr might get in this control room.
She checked the time. Twenty-eight minutes until Stephano could deploy marines with old gen wall bots. When that moment came, the first one set up would lock the stairwell down. If Sakhr moved before then, it’s not like he could take Victoria by surprise. She’d be gone before any real threat came her way.
It all depended on what Quentin made with that fuser. She’d forgotten about those prototypes. Once again, Quentin was full of himself. He had not designed them. A team of dedicated scientists developed them using theoretical techniques Quentin once described. He did one percent of the work. At best. And he spoke of that Stiller generator as if it was his idea, as though power plants around the world weren’t already pushing hydrogen together years before she imprisoned him. And obviously they’d be restricted. The empire was already having problems with rebels using hacked Food-Ready assemblers to create everything from explosives to nerve gas.
But no, he thinks she shelved the prototypes because of her greed. It had nothing to with how those machines could build nuclear weapons.
Quentin had been out for only twenty minutes and he was already getting on her nerves. He always had. Her scouts found him in Michigan State College decades ago. To everyone else, he’d been an unremarkable student slowly dropping out, but her scouts saw his flair. When he actually tried, his engineering and science courses came effortlessly to him, but he rarely did. She’d offered him a job to the amazement of everyone—from the LakiraLabs hiring board to Quentin’s parents. Her idea was to give him a lab, a hefty paycheck, and a team of scientists and let him do what he wanted without tying him down with busywork. He might innovate any of endless ideas dormant in his skull.
It worked, barely. After four years of sick days, complaints, pointless projects, and a staggering number of excuses, he finally outlined something worthwhile: repulser fields. He’d claimed it took him all four years, but she saw in his mind that it took him only days.
It’d been worth it. Repulser fields changed LakiraLabs from an obscure private company into a household name. Unfortunately, Quentin’s next twelve years were a waste. He’d claim credit for every improvement on repulser fields LakiraLabs scientists ever developed just because he’d have doodled the idea once. The worst part was that she was stuck with him. A glyph of his flair only marginally affected other engineers.
Over time, he and Victoria argued more over compensation and results. He frequently accused her of stealing his invention, never caring that she had supported him, funded him, and managed the entire business his invention required. It’d nearly came as a relief when he tried to leave to “start his own company and get the credit he deserved.” Putting him in a tortoise was a weight off her mind.
Of course now he finds initiative, now that he was pitted against her.
But then spite always was the best motivator.
“Ma’am?” Captain Gandara approached her cautiously.
“The security staff keep requesting information about our situation. They want to know if they should evacuate. What should I tell them?”
That seemed to her a timid way of asking what was going on. “How many people are in the tower?”
“Just resident staff, ma’am. Forty or fifty people.”
She considered this. “Go ahead and evacuate floors eight and below. No one above that floor.” She paused. “And send people to barricade the eighth floor stairwell door. I expect our intruders may try to use explosives on it.”
He nodded and turned back to the screen. His aura swelled with frustration, but he’d survive.
She turned her thoughts back to Sakhr…
Alex and Sakhr booted up the next two fuser assemblers. The workshop room was awash with packing peanuts by the time they were done. Quentin would pull himself away from his assembler designs long enough to check that the new machines were operating correctly.
Everyone was busy when Sibyl and Christof came in.
“Something is going on outside,” Christof said. “Little things are floating around outside the tower. They’re forming a perimeter.”
“Wall bots.” Quentin spoke without looking up from his work. “They’re supposed to stop us from walking out of here, but we still can. Don’t worry. I expected this. We’ll be fine.”
“What are wall bots?” Sakhr asked.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll see when we get there.”
“There’s more,” Sibyl added. “There are noises in the stairwell. Sounds like construction.”
“They’re reinforcing the doors,” said Sakhr, “buying time.”
“But surely we expected this,” said Christof. “If anything, this just proves that whatever she’s planning, we’ll at least have time to use the explosives first.”
“We can’t assume that,” said Sakhr. “She’s just being careful.”
“Doesn’t matter what they’re doing down there,” Quentin said. “Won’t work. Not against these explosives.” He looked up in thought. “Unless of course they’re fixing the doors with repulse bracers…” He chewed at his lip, then shrugged. “Hell. They can reinforce them all they want. We’ll just blow a hole in the floor somewhere on the ninth floor.”
“Don’t say that out loud,” Christof said. “Now she knows.”
“What’s she going to do? Reinforce the entire ceiling?”
“She can plan for that though.”
“Yeah? So?” said Quentin. “Just get used to her knowing our plans. I’m not taking a vow of silence.”
Christof considered this. He turned to the others. “He’s right. Even if we get out of here, what are we going to do? We can’t hide. Can we outrun her?”
“We have hostages,” Sakhr said. “We have her daughter. We have many of her… flairs.” He seemed to dislike that word. “She can’t risk losing them, or she loses her damned glyphs.”
“But she will be watching,” replied Christof. “She’ll always be watching. Sooner or later, we’ll slip up.”
“Then we’ll find some place to go where she can’t follow.”
“Does such a place exist? You said she’s queen of the world now.”
“Nah,” said Quentin. “She just calls herself that. Half the world still fights her. There are plenty of places to go.”
Alex shook his head. “Not anymore! She owns the world now.”
“How do you know?”
He tapped his forehead. “I skimmed glimpses from our caretakers.”
“Then what do we do?” Christof said. “If she’s all powerful, do we stand a chance?”
“She’s not all powerful,” Sakhr replied. “We’ll figure something out. We’ll… keep moving. We’ll get a ship and fly. How long can a ship fly for?”
“Actually,” Quentin patted the assember, “If we get a ship with a Stiller generator, we could fly forever. ”
“Well, we can’t anymore,” Alex said, “now that you said it out loud. She’ll make sure we never get one. We need to stop talking.”
Sakhr spoke. “We can’t avoid discussing our plans.”
“We communicate in other ways. Say… how about telepathy?”
“You’re the only telepath here.'”
“Yes, but it can work. Let’s say you come up with an idea. Instead of saying it, you convey it to me mentally. I can communicate to the others by telling them stray details. They can imagine what the plan is, and I’ll adjust their thinking by saying Yes or No. They’ll figure it out eventually. Anton and I used to do this. It takes practice, but it works, and nobody except me and the person I’m reading has any idea what I’m talking about.”
“So every plan must pass through you?” Sakhr said. “I must trust you to convey our plans to everyone? No.”
Christof pointed to the unknown tortoise in Sibyl’s hand. “Maybe he can help.”
“Who is he?” asked Sakhr.
“He’s the man Victoria stole glyph writing from. If he can make glyphs of Alex’s power, then we can all communicate telepathically.”
Alex sat up. “Wait just a minute—”
Sakhr cut him off. “We have the original glyph maker?”
“I’m certain it’s him,” said Christof.
Sakhr looked at Alex. “And you thought he wouldn’t be helpful?”
“I never said that,” replied Alex. “I said he’d be a liability. He won’t want to help us. Not on short notice anyway.”
“I see…” said Sakhr.
“Listen,” Quentin said. He chewed at his nail thoughtfully. “What if I had a plan? Would you all trust me enough to do it?”
“Do you have one?”
“I might. It’s kind of a long shot, but it might work.”
“What is it?”
Quentin didn’t answer. Instead he stared directly at Alex. They shared eye contact.
Alex burst out laughing. “Yes! I love it. We’re doing it.”
Sakhr looked from one to the other. “What? What is the plan?”
Quentin ignored Sakhr and maintained eye contact. “But answer my questions.”
Alex stared back and answered Quentin’s unspoken queries. “Yes… Yes… No, I’m pretty sure of that…” He smiled “Yes. Sakhr can promise that.”
“Promise what?” Sakhr asked, annoyed. “What is this plan?”
Alex looked at him. “It’s a plan that will work, but it’ll work better if we keep it to ourselves. We’ll talk about the promise later, but you would agree to it.”
“And I’m supposed to be content with that? Letting you make promises on my behalf? Putting my life on the line for a plan I don’t know?
“You will if you want to get out of here. I’ve seen the plan. Trust me.”
“I don’t trust you.”
Christof spoke. “And I’m not sure I’m comfortable with any plan that makes Alex laugh like that.”
“We don’t have time to be picky,” answered Alex. “I’ve seen this plan. It’s a good one. Regardless of what you all think of me, I want to get out of here too. So for once in your lives, trust that I’m right. And if not me, trust that our new friend here knows what he’s doing. Okay?”
Sakhr’s expression was somewhere between suspicion and contemplation, but he nodded. Christof and Sibyl gave their consent.
“So what do we do?” asked Sakhr.
After Alex and Quentin shared eye contact, Alex said, “First, we get these machines downstairs.”
“No questions. Let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do, and no telling how much time to do it.”