“…We have several eye witness reports saying there’s been some kind of explosion in the Capital Tower. We’ve heard from Marcel Acosta, who says that he was awoken by a loud bang. From his window, he saw a cloud of smoke drifting over the campus. Smoking debris was raining down. We’ve just heard Mairin who was working on walkway sanitation when she saw an explosion near the bottom of the tower. She says the tower collapsed moments later.”
“That’s right, Oscar. What we’re seeing right now is from our skyline cam. It’s dark right now, but we can see that a blanket of smoke has covered the Lakiran Campus. We’re hearing right now that the Porto Maná grid system is shutting down except for emergency and military vehicles.”
“And we’re trying… we’re trying to find out if the queen was in the Capital Tower when this happened. There’s no word yet as to what caused the explosion. Or whether this was some kind of attack. We’re trying to get someone on the ground now.”
“That’s right. There’s a lot of confusion right now. We’re trying to find out more. You can see in the footage both the military and the fire department shuttles arriving. They’re touching down at the edge of the campus. We’re not sure if they’re landing there as a security precaution, or if the grid nodes in the campus are offline.”
“We’ll try to get more information soon.”
“Sergeant Cohen, respond.”
The radio hissed white noise.
“Sergeant Cohen, are you there?”
Captain Stephano and his Executive Officer Rivera stood behind the orbiter’s Communications officer, Lieutenant Ruiz, as he tried to get in contact with the marines on the ground.
They’d all heard the same thing. The marines had secured the queen’s daughter and cornered other hostiles. Victoria had instructed them to proceed into the building to find two more. The marines had captured them and were escorting them back to the pods.
That was when things went wrong, though no one knew for sure how.
Victoria called for an evacuation. She didn’t specify if that was for Stephano’s men. Earlier, she had told him that under no circumstances were his marines to leave without her consent. Had this been a change of plan? Unfortunately, Victoria was no longer on the line to clarify.
His marines had reported an explosion. Then something about how the tower was shaking. Stephano ordered them to get out of there.
…and that was it.
“Can you reach the queen?” Rivera asked Stephano.
He hadn’t, but to make sure, Stephano took the orbiter phone and called her again. It went straight to voicemail.
“Sir?” It was his intelligence officer. “The Porto Maná grid picked up four unregistered crafts in that area. Three deployment pods which were taken to Leguan military base. The fourth is a craft registered in the queen’s name.”
“Do you know if the queen was aboard?”
“I don’t, sir. The craft was in emergency touchdown mode. The grid picked it up and transported it to a public landing zone within the city.”
Stephano glanced at the orbital map. Their ship was already outside of deployment range for that area. He turned to Ruiz. “Get me in contact with Leguan now.”
“Leguan has already sent people to intercept,” his intelligence officer said. “Someone is arriving right now.”
“Keep trying to contact them,” he said. He prayed that Victoria was aboard that ship, but if she wasn’t, then hostages were—hostages who needed to be quarantined.
Two military shuttles glided by city skyscrapers. Their flashing lights reflected off the steel buildings. It would have woken the city at this hour, but Sergeant Caulson knew everyone was already up.
Everyone already knew.
The Capital Tower had just collapsed.
Radio chatter had reported an explosion, but no one knew whether it was from a bomb or a missile strike. Sergeant Caulson knew a little more than most. At Camp Leguan, strange orders had been coming in from one of the high exemplars. There had been some kind of invasion in the Capital Tower. If deployment pods were to arrive from there, Leguan soldiers were to keep those pods sealed until more orders came. Unfortunately, no orders ever did.
Through gaps in the city skyscrapers, the soldiers could see the empty space in the imperial campus where the tower was supposed to be. The campus itself was eerily dark. What little Caulson could see looked like a war zone. This catastrophe was the worst thing to happen since the Collapse. Though no one knew whether it was terrorists, or rebels, or some kind of horrible mistake. All Caulson really knew was that he was afraid.
Other military and municipal emergency vehicles swarmed the campus—first responders. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he’d complained about how his orders kept him from responding himself. Internally, he was glad he didn’t have a choice. Already, there were reports of radiation coming from the wreckage. People there were expected to get sick.
The shuttles slowed as they swooped down onto the landing pads at a Porto Maná grid station. There was a ritzy-looking shuttle already there, definitely the one they were here for. The doors were open. A young asian girl and a man were stepping out. The man carried a large cardboard box.
When they saw the incoming military shuttles, they ran, but there was only one staircase off the landing pad, and the military shuttles touched down in their way. Soldiers streamed out, and the two surrendered, but why did they run at all?
The soldiers pushed them to the ground. Others ran into the shuttle and cleared it.
“Is the queen in there?” he called.
Damn it. This was the last ship that got away that was still unaccounted for.
Caulson looked in the box the man had been holding. Tortoises. Later on, he would reflect at how odd that was.
He turned to the two detainees. “Where’s the queen?”
Both were too stunned to respond. The little asian girl just stared him at him, eyes wide.
He asked again. “Where is the queen?”
The girl answered. “I… we don’t know. Did she not escape?”
“This is the only ship that got out.”
Some emotion flickered over the girl’s face. “What about the other pods? The princess? What about princess Helena? Is she safe?”
“We don’t know. Who are you?”
“I’m Winnie. I live on the campus.” She gestured to the man with her. “This is… this man worked in the conservatory.”
What happened in there?”
She hesitated. “Marines. There were marines. They were making demands to the queen.”
“If something’s happened to the queen, then you need to make sure Princess Helena is okay. The marines sent her away in a pod. She’s not safe.”
“If she was sent away by in an orbital pod, then she’ll be okay.”
“No.” The girl shook her head. “You don’t understand. It was marines taking us hostage. It was a military coup.”
The girl had to be mistaken. A military coup was the most unthinkable cause of this catastrophe, but there were bizarre things going on in the tower before the explosion. Leguan was in the dark about most of it. What orders they had were cryptic.
Whether it was a coup or not, his superiors would need to hear this as soon as possible.
“Any luck getting through?” Stephano asked Ruiz.
“No, sir. I’m just reaching the automated system. All lines are full.”
“I will, sir, but pretty soon we’ll be out of range for a direct connection.”
“Unresponsive. They’re flooded with traffic. We might not be able to get through to Lakira until we come back around the planet.”
Stephano stood before the orbital map. The period for their current flight was fifteen hours per orbit. That meant nearly fourteen hours before they’d be within direct range of the capital again.
“Understood,” he said. “Keep trying.” His voice was level, but he wanted to tear the orbital map from its mounts and hurl it at someone. The intelligence officer had confirmed the worst: the Capital Tower had fallen, but he’d gotten that news over the military satellite feed, which meant every single Lakiran outpost and officer in the world found out at the same time. Leguan military base was now waist deep in a state of emergency since it was the nearest base to the capital. Even as one of the largest military bases, it was desperately understaffed for this. Military around the world was radioing in, querying about for a status report. Meanwhile Leguan was trying to organize a rescue effort.
The whole world was talking now, and no one could hear a thing—certainly not from one little orbiter currently twenty-eight miles over the Atlantic ocean. He tried several more times to contact Victoria. Voicemail every time. Intelligence coming from the military feed stated that she was not onboard that runaway ship.
How long before the people at Leguan forgot about their order to keep those hostages isolated?
“We could send a message,” Executive Officer Rivera said. “It probably stands a better chance of getting through than a voice call.”
“No one would read it,” Stephano replied. “Not in time.”
“What else can we do?”
Rivera continued. “If we send a message to all officers at Leguan, maybe one of them will get it and pass it on. It might be worth a try.”
It might be.
Stephano straightened. He faced Ruiz. “Keep trying. Get me the moment you get through to anyone.”
With that, Stephano departed to his ready room off the bridge to draft a letter he knew no one would read in time.
“We’re being told we have to get back. There are reportedly high levels of radiation coming from the wreckage. Anyone not part of the rescue effort is being told to leave. All buildings adjacent to the Imperial campus have been evacuated. This stream of people that you see to my right are people leaving the scene, but no one knows where to go. People standing around in the streets. Others are crying. Nobody here knows what’s going on, Maria.”
“You say radiation? I’m not sure if we should speculate here, but is it sounds like there was some some sort of nuclear explosion. Is that… am I right? Is that possible? From what we’re hearing, the explosion was limited to the tower.”
“What military personnel I was able to talk to don’t think this was a nuclear explosion, but nobody is quite sure what to make of it. We talked to a few witnesses who say they saw military deployment pods land on the roof of the tower just moments before the explosion went off.”
“Hold on. We’re going to have to cut you off. We’re hearing now that there is a broadcast on military channels saying that the queen was aboard a shuttle that was trying to evacuate the building, but it crashed. No word yet as to whether Her Majesty Queen Victoria or her daughter are safe. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear more.”