Victoria catapulted from her chair. “Everyone evacuate the building now!” She snatched her bird’s cage and ran to the door.
“Your Majesty?” said Captain Gandara.
“Now! There’s a bomb in the building. Get moving.”
Everyone startled, but Victoria did not stick around to see who followed. If they didn’t obey her order, then too bad for them. She was out the door and headed toward the stairs. Two floors down. The military shuttle would be right there.
The very second Quentin said those words, she knew exactly what his plan was. She’d been an idiot for not seeing it earlier. Fuser assemblers. They can produce any element under the sun. Metals. Rare elements…
That was half the reason she had confiscated those machines in the first place.
She reached the stairwell and leapt from landing to landing. In her mind, she checked where Quentin was. He was on the fifty-eight floor with the second machine, already prying open the doors.
What had he made? An alloy of Thorium? Uranium? Maybe even plutonium for all she knew. No doubt Quentin’s flair told him exactly which one—or what alloy of materials—to use. Whatever fissile material he had was no doubt subcritical when distributed across three separate floors, but when they all came together at the bottom of that elevator shaft…
The notches along the poles and the conversations about gliders had just been a feint to distract her, and it had worked. Goddamn that man.
She ascended to the eighth floor and charged into the hall. The guards at the security checkpoint had already been evacuated. Good. If someone were here, they’d slow her down. She visualized upstairs as she ran. The marines were racing through her personal floor toward the service lobby. Quentin and Sibyl tossed another set of bars down the shaft. At the bottom, the fissile bars were starting to glow.
It was a race to see who reached that last assembler first. She hoped it was the marines, because she would still be in the tower when that moment came.
Quentin burst into the lobby on the sixtieth floor.
“They’re here.” Sibyl said. “They’re coming.”
“Just do the last one, damnit.” Quentin flipped the latch for the elevator and pulled the door open. Sibyl grabbed the bundled rods. These ones had the reflexors wrapped about them. As she moved toward the elevator, marines charged in.
They fired. Sibyl screamed and collapsed. The bundle rolled toward Quentin. In a mad hope, he let go of the door and dove for the rods. As the door slid closed, he tossed them. A dart struck his side, and he went down.
The bundle glided horizontally through the closing door. The reflexors caught the door and its frame as it passed, causing it to launch through like a squeezed grape. It struck the far side of the shaft, twirled, descended like a snowflake, and then caught on a steel beam.
It lingered. The reflexors kept it from sliding off immediately, but eventually it did. From there it continued its lazy decent.
The marines saw none of this as they lugged Sibyl and Quentin toward the stairs.
Victoria saw the transport shuttle ahead. A soldier stood at attention outside the door.
“Get this moving,” she yelled as she ran towards them. “We need to evacuate now.”
The soldier hopped into action, yanking open the passenger door and running around to the pilot side.
Victoria climbed in and set her bird’s cage on the seat. Others were coming, though they were far behind. No one understood the urgency. They couldn’t see the bundle of rods slowly drifting down the shaft toward the eighth floor—the very floor she was on.
She slammed the hatch closed. The other evacuees could take other ships if they had time, but they didn’t.
Victoria looked in the cockpit with her mind. The pilot was powering up the system. Was this security’s idea of “standing by”?
“Move faster,” she ordered.
“Yes, ma’am.” The system booted up. He switched into manual and put his hands on the controls. On the comm he spoke. “This is the transport in tower bay four alpha. I have the queen on board. We require immediate clearance to evacuate.”
At least the pilot did not wait to hear back. They were lifting. The craft was turning. The bundle of rods drifted closer. The ones already at the bottom glowed hot. They were scattered like a pile of matches.
There was no way Quentin could have known how they’d fall. Meaning he had no idea what the explosion’s payload would ultimately be. It might destroy this floor. It might destroy the city. There were too many variables, the largest being how desperate Quentin was.
Her shuttle moved forward. The wide open exit neared. The bundled rods began glowing like the rods beneath them.
Then, whether because of heat or radiation, the reflexors around the bundle failed. It plummeted the remaining few feet.
For a fraction of a second, all the rods merely brightened, as though their approach toward super-critical might take time.
They exploded before the new rods hit the ground.
The ship lurched. Victoria tumbled from her seat. Her head stuck something. Pain lanced through her mind. Another crash. Already on the ground, she rolled into the transport’s stern.
The cockpit was making incessant beeps. Did she smell smoke?
It was dust.
She coughed, put a hand to her scalp. Her fingers came away with blood. She focused her mind on the tower. From the eighth floor and up, the building was a mess. Multiple floors were wrecked. Chunks were missing, choking black smoke billowed out. Flaming debris rained over the campus. Every window in the tower’s bottom half had shattered.
Her own ears heard a screech echoing through the shuttle bay. Metal was tearing. To her horror, the upper half of the tower was sagging like melting wax. The movement was imperceptible, but the slant was unmistakable.
The tower was collapsing.
Victoria crawled to the cockpit. The pilot sat limp, his chin against his chest. His hand was delicately touching a gushing wound where his skull struck the side window.
“Get us moving now!” she yelled.
Dazed, the pilot took seconds to respond. He grabbed the control stick. His eyes skirted the dashboard warning lights. Flipping several switches, he attempted to move the vessel. It swerved. Victoria nearly fell again.
She visualized the transporter. Chunks of concrete had fallen from the bay ceiling and struck the craft. It’s right wing had buckled. The repulse engine was running, but it was askew.
Could the ship fly? Maybe. Land? Probably not, but if this pilot could stop wasting time and just get out of the bay, the reflex grid should catch them.
And then she realized the significants of debris raining on the campus. It was falling freely. The campus grid must be down.
The city grid though. That might still catch them.
The pilot finally got the craft airborne. It drifted toward the far bay wall. He adjusted, and the ship teetered the other direction.
The pilot spoke into the comm as he steered. “This is transport in Bay area four.”
He repeated himself.
The pilot gave up and focused on steering.
“Just get us out of the bay,” Victoria shouted.
“I’m trying, ma’am” he said. “The ship is damaged.”
He got the craft to drift toward the lip of the bay. The wing scraped the floor.
Victoria checked the tower again. Debris rained more freely. Floors below twenty were collapsing. The tower was descending.
“Move faster,” she shouted.
The pilot hunched over the control stick. His eyes darted from viewport to viewport. Victoria’s eyes were fixed on the wide, night sky before them.
Finally, the transport cleared the bay. The vessel dropped several feet as the right wing no longer had a floor to drag upon, but the pilot stabilized the craft, and they drifted sideways away from the tower.
They were clear.
Victoria visualized the tower again. It was fully collapsing now. Floor after floor crumbled. The top leaned more as it plummeted. The damage to the campus would be severe. She wondered vaguely whether Gandara had evacuated the campus as well.
Then she saw one particular piece of debris. By the time she acknowledged it, it was too late. She hadn’t time even to open her mouth and warn the pilot.
It slammed into the shuttle, tearing the hull open like paper. The jolt threw her into the cabin. The pilot struggled with the controls as the craft spun wildly. In seconds it would crash. It would be fatal, and Victoria could not prevent it.
With her head spinning, and with blood matted to her face, she pulled herself into the cabin. The roof was torn open. The stars in the sky spun by. There, wedged under a seat was what she needed.
She lunged, grabbed Willow’s cage, and tore open the small door. Her fingers cut open against the warping metal bars. Willow flapped wildly inside, bumping against the cage wall with each swerve the transport took.
She grabbed her bird with a bloody fist.
Moments later, transport crashed into the campus grounds. Everyone aboard died instantly.
Winnie felt like a basketball on the floor of a boat. When Christof had tossed the box onto the shuttle, the tortoises had spilled out. The others had landed upright. Winnie had not been so lucky. Once she’d stopped spinning, she tried moving her limbs, but got nowhere. So she closed her eyes, pulled into her shell, and concentrated on her flair.
She watched the marines dragged Sakhr away. After he was gone, many had charged down the stairs, leaving only a few to cover the shuttle. Winnie kept her eyes on the ones traveling down.
They had raced through Victoria’s private floor to where Quentin and Sibyl were tossing more bars into the elevator. The marines stunned them and dragged them back, but just as the marines returned to the roof, an explosion rocked the tower.
Winnie’s shuttle shook, causing her to spin and slide. The cockpit beeped. Alexander clutched the pilot seat as the dashboard took on a life of its own.
The tower seemed to drift away from them, yet the hopper remained floating in the air. The marines on the roof scrabbled for their deployment pods. Despite the quaking ground, the pods remained upright.
Alarmed, Winnie focused on the tower as a whole and saw what a ruined wreck it had become.
What had caused this? Was this part of Quentin’s plan? How many people had he just killed?
The world would suffer for this, and it was all because of her—her and Helena.
Back home, Winnie’s mother would hear about this on the radio. She’d turn on the news and see the smoldering tower, and she’d try to call Winnie. She would never get through—not to the real Winnie anyway.
The hopper began flying itself. It lifted higher into the air and took a trajectory over the the campus. Winnie didn’t know where. Her mind was still watching the marines struggle. They crammed their hostages into their remaining pods just as the building quaked again.
And then the tower started collapsing.
It happened slowly, as though something so catastrophic couldn’t happen all at once. The world needed time to witness itself change. Each floor crumbled into the next. Soon, the tower fell into a bed of smoke and dust. A cloud spread outward, filling the campus like a bowl until it reached the edge of the city.
Lights were coming on throughout Porto Maná; the city was waking up.
And what about the queen? Did she make it out? Winnie hoped so. Victoria would be her best chance of fixing all of this. Though somehow Winnie knew that everything would not work itself out as she hoped it would.
This affair was a prelude to a dark, bleak future.