“Sir.” A lieutenant shouldered his way through the Leguan headquarters floor to General Soto. He waved a piece of paper. Soto, however, was still on the phone with the Air Force National Grid Control. He motioned for the lieutenant to hand over the paper.
Do not approach the deployment pods. Keep them isolated. Do not let anyone near them until High Exemplars arrive. These are Victoria’s orders.
-High Exemplar Bishop.
The officer who was chatting in his ear kept talking about the air traffic lockdown, but General Soto wasn’t listening. When there was a lull, he interrupted the speaker.
“I’ll need to call you back,” he said.
Off the phone, he faced the lieutenant. “When did this come in?”
“Just now, sir. Off the Satellite relay comm. It had imperial clearance.”
“Was there any more to the message?”
“Send a reply back. Ask him why.”
“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant skipped off.
That exemplar had been sending bizarre orders for the last hour: prepare for incoming deployment pods; do not go near them; keep them isolated; do not interfere. All the while, Bishop was in a shuttle thousands of miles away.
Exemplars didn’t officially have authority over Soto, or any military for that matter. All they ever did was ask and forget to say please. Soto could ignore them, but then they might run off and tell Mother. Every request they gave was understood to be the queen’s direct wishes. Usually, they didn’t state that fact so blatantly, yet this time Bishop had. These are Victoria’s orders.
He glanced out the headquarters windows into the Leguan landing zone. It had gone from deserted to packed within twenty-five minutes. Camp administrators were commandeering civilian landing zones across the river from Leguan. Meanwhile, fire shuttles couldn’t land at ground zero because the grid was damaged, and the city was just as overloaded, leaving rescue workers to walk as much as five miles with equipment to get to the zone. Queued ships circled overhead like vultures. Without a place to land, the grid held them in landing patterns, but now the grid’s in-air limit was maxed out. Overflow was causing emergency shuttles to ground as far out as Georgetown, which helped no one.
And right there, in the middle of the crowded landing zone lot, was a bare circle with three deployment pods launched in by one Captain Stephano. A ring of soldiers stood guard around them. These are Victoria’s orders. The pods were in detainment mode. Only someone from the outside could open them, so who was locked inside? The enemy? Whoever set off that explosion? Is that why Victoria had those pods quarantined? For all he knew, Victoria herself might be in one. He could only hope. Forty minutes ago, a shuttle left the base which was standing by to transport the queen. That same ship had just been identified in the wreckage.
A sergeant burst into the headquarters. Soto knew it would concern him even before the man beelined over.
“Sir.” He saluted. “Sergeant Caulson.”
“What is it, sergeant?”
“We’ve recovered the occupants of the escaped shuttle. There were two civilians aboard.”
“Not the queen?”
“No, sir, but one of the civilians has information about what happened. I think you need to hear this.”
Caulson led him to a mess hall where a slew of soldiers watched over a young Korean girl and a Brazilian man in his twenties.
“What’s this information?” Soto asked.
The Korean girl spoke. “It was marines, sir.”
“Marines? Lakiran Marines?”
“Yes, sir. I don’t know where they came from, but they took me and Princess Helena captive. They kept us in that shuttle. They were talking with the queen. Negotiating, I think. Then more marines showed up in those pods, and they—”
“Slow down. You’re saying Lakiran Marines took you hostage?”
Soto looked at the other civilian. “Is this true. Is this what you saw?”
The civilian nodded. “That’s right. I didn’t see much. I just remember a marine shooting me with one of those electrical gizmos, but it was absolutely a marine.”
Soto turned to order a private to locate one of the camp’s two onsite exemplars. Then he remembered both were at ground zero right now, using their aura sense to locate survivors beneath the rubble. A scanning would have to wait. Everything this girl said until then was suspect, or at least he hoped it was. If Lakiran marines were behind this, then his problems were only just getting started.
He faced the girl again. “Do you have any idea what caused the explosion?”
The girl stared back earnestly. “I’m not sure. I overheard someone say something about a bomb in the elevators. I don’t know who they were though. I think they were using code names. Chess pieces or something.”
Soto’s train of thought caught. “Chess pieces?”
“I think so. They called someone uh… Bishop, I think.”
The silence in the mess hall stretched on. Outside in the hall, people ran by.
“Who were they calling Bishop?” he asked.
“Someone on their radios. I’m not sure. I just remember hearing them say things like, ‘Bishop said not to hurt the princess’, or ‘Bishop wants us to stay here.'”
“Did they say anything about exemplars?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What about the princess? Where is she?”
“They took her.”
“They shot her and put her in a pod. It took off just before the explosion.”
“They shot her?” So she was in one of those pods, and possibly bleeding out. Those same pods that High Exemplar Bishop ordered him to stay away from no matter the circumstances.
Soto didn’t have to obey a high exemplar. They might report him to the queen for insubordination, but if Victoria was dead, which seemed more likely with every passing minute, then that unspoken threat just became a pile of shit.
“Put these two in lockup,” he said.
“What?” replied the girl, shocked.
“It’s just a precaution until we can get to the bottom of this,” Soto told her. “We need to help the princess.” He motioned for the men to take them and headed away.
“Wait.” The girl was looking right at him. “She’s here? You have to take me with you.”
“No.” Soto resumed walking away.
“She’s going to think you’re with the other marines,” the girl yelled. “I thought you were. I tried to run when you guys found me. Helena was fighting for her life before they put her that pod. She might fight you. Let me be there to calm her down so she doesn’t hurt herself anymore.”
This, Soto agreed, did make sense.
There were computer screens in this strange coffin, though all but one were turned off, and Sakhr couldn’t figure out how to interact with the remaining one. It had a logo on it: ORF. Beneath it in tiny letters: Orbital Response Force. Underneath that was a paragraph explaining that he had been detained and was in transport, that he should remain calm. Farther down were the same words, but in different languages. Touching the screen did nothing, nor did banging on it, or yelling, or kicking the hatch.
It was a perfect trap for him. Complete containment without any hope of physical contact, and they could take him wherever they wanted.
He could only hope the others hadn’t been caught to. Alexander had abandoned him and locked him out of the shuttle just as the marines closed in, but he supposed it was his only choice. Sakhr had been too debilitated to do anything, much less get onboard. Alex had tried at least, which was honestly more than Sakhr would have expected from him.
Sakhr’s body ached from the electric shock. And having been forced to sit still for so long, the alcohol in his system was finally making him drowsy, despite his predicament.
After ages, he finally heard approaching voices. He sat back in the seat and pretended to be unconscious. The ruse almost certainly wouldn’t work, but why not?
A cranked handle echoed in the chamber. With a pressure equalizing pop, the hatch pulled open. Daylight poured in. Had he really been trapped in there that long?
People were near. He would wait until someone was near before grasping out. All he needed was a fingertip against a bare wrist, or a brush of a cheek.
“Helena?” someone yelled. “Helena? Are you okay?”
Someone touched him. Bare flesh, but he had recognized that voice just a moment before. It was Alexander, or rather the small Asian body he was in. Sakhr opened his eyes.
Two men dressed as medics were examining him while soldiers stood by. No weapons were pointed at him, nor was anyone restraining him.
A medic gently stopped him. “Don’t try to get up, Your Highness.”
Your Highness? Sakhr looked around for Alexander. There he was, behind a few soldiers. He had called for Sakhr immediately upon the hatch opening, and he called him by the princess’s name. The implication was clear. These people didn’t know who he really was. Alexander was warning him to stay in his current body.
Alexander nodded in confirmation. Only Sakhr noticed. Ordinarily, he hated it when Alexander was in his head, but he was too many questions. For instance, did he need to be careful about what he said out loud?
Again, Alexander nodded.
The medics were searching over his body. Another shined a light in her eyes. “Are you hurt, ma’am?”
“No. Get off me.” Despite their insistence, Sakhr struggled to his feet and studied his surroundings.
Soldiers surrounded him in what seemed at first to be a parking lot, but it wasn’t. The markings on the pavement more resembled those on a helicopter pad, and the vehicles were strange to him. They had pegs instead of wheels, and their markings were military.
The soldiers were unloading two other pods like his which contained Sibyl and Quentin. Something was wrong with them. Both quivered and sweated. Sibyl had vomit down her front. The soldiers transported them onto stretchers.
Sakhr walked toward Alexander.
“Please, ma’am. Just come with us. We need to examine you.”
“I said I’m fine.”
This time, the medics were forceful. They pulled her toward a shuttle with medical markings. He tried to shake them off, but they wouldn’t stop.
“It’s okay, Helena,” Alexander shouted. “They’re not with the other marines. They’re not with Bishop. These people are trying to help us.”
Huh? Bishop? God damn it. What story was Sakhr supposed to go along with? What the hell was going on? Where was Victoria?
“I want to talk to my friend,” Sakhr said to the medics. Alexander ducked under the guards and darted over. They tried catching him, but a high ranking officer signaled for them to let him though. Sakhr didn’t know these foreign ranks, but the officer had to be a general or an admiral judging from his pips.
Alex hugged Sakhr. “Thank God you’re okay.”
That certainly was an act. “Yes, I’m fine. I’m fine. But what is going on here? Where’s my mother?”
Alex pulled back and looked him solemnly in the eye. “Helena. Just after Bishop’s men dragged you away, there was an explosion.”
“An explosion?” He vaguely recalled hearing it. More importantly, who the hell was Bishop? Was this someone he knew?
Alexander’s gave a minuscule headshake. So he didn’t know Bishop? Yet Alexander said the name like it should mean something.
Alex’s hidden nod was hesitant, so maybe? This must be the game he used to play with Anton, but God damn was it frustrating. So Bishop was someone Sakhr has never heard of, but this person was… what? A supposed enemy?
“Your Highness,” this was the officer. “I’m General Soto. We need to take you to safety and look after you.”
“What happened to my mother?”
“The tower was destroyed by what we believe was a failed nuclear detonation. Her shuttle crashed trying to evacuate.”
“I’m afraid so, ma’am. Go with these men to the hospital. We need to make sure you’re okay. As of now, you’re now the acting queen, and the empire is in a state of emergency. Your safety is our top priority.”