“This is Fort Leguan. State the purpose of your call.”
High Exemplar Bishop practically stumbled over himself lunging for the phone. After hours of call waiting and redirections, he’d nearly given up on ever getting through to someone. Apart from a single request for clarification, all of the message he’d sent to Leguan had resulted in an eerily silent response.
His phone danced in his fumbling hands as he took it off speakerphone. For one gut-wrenching second, he thought he’d hit the disconnect button.
“Hello? Yes. This is High Exemplar Bishop. I have urgent information for General Soto.”
Bishop listened in dread to what he worried was a dead line.
“I’m sorry,” the voice said. “I’m seeing here that you’re calling from an airspace reserved line.”
Still connected. Thank God. “Yes. That’s right. I was grounded at the Madrid Barajas Airport. I wasn’t able to get through on the exemplar voice channel, and this is an emergency.”
Bishop was able to contact the other exemplars without trouble, yet his private line was unable to get through to Leguan. Perhaps if the world weren’t ending all over again, someone could puzzle out why the exemplar’s supposedly priority access to military lines broke down the one time it was actually a priority. “I still need to speak with the General.”
“The General is busy. Call back on the proper networks for verification.”
“I just explained that I can’t. The exemplar channel isn’t working, and I need to speak with the general urgently.”
“We’ve had over two hundred people call during the last hour. All of them have said it’s an emergency.”
“Just tell General Soto that High Exemplar Bishop needs to speak with him urgently concerning…” He glanced at the television. Minutes ago, it had announced the safety of Princess Helena. That meant Sakhr was out of his pod. “… Concerning Princess Helena. That’s all I’m asking.”
The officer hesitated. “Wait a minute.” He put Bishop on hold. This time, Bishop kept the phone to his ear. The window of the private office the airport authority had lent him showed an airport lounge. It was packed due to the international air traffic ban. Pilots and attendants had collected about a television. The news was interviewing someone just a few blocks from the Imperial campus. Bishop couldn’t hear it from here, but it wasn’t information he needed anyway. What mattered was the story going on at Fort Leguan. That was going to decide the future of the empire. That would be what decided, God forbid, Victoria’s legacy.
It still hadn’t sunk in. Victoria—the woman he’d dedicated his life to serving and protecting—was dead. It had never occurred to him that this might happen some day. Technically, he was a free man now. Death was the only way to sever his contract with her, but he’d always figured it would be his death. If there were some way for him to switch places with her, so that it was his life and not hers, he’d take it. What did his life mean anyway? In the natural order of things, he should have died decades ago on a hospital bed. He was supposed to leave his son and daughter with the medical bill for months of fruitless chemotherapy. They, in turn, should have died when the Collapse came.
But none of these things happened because a handsome and powerful woman had walked into his hospital room on the last day of his old life. He had died legally—his kids had a body to mourn—but there were no burdening medical bills. These days, they lived safely in Porto Maná. The last time Bishop checked on them, he was a great grandfather now. Did this turn of events effect them? Maybe, but that was still another life. He lived for Victoria now, even if she was gone.
There was a click on the phone. “This is Soto. Who is this?”
“This is High Exemplar Bishop. I’ve been trying to get through. Have any other high exemplars contacted you yet?”
“No. Have they been trying?”
“Yes. What is the current state of the pods which deployed from the Capital Tower before the explosion?”
“They’ve been opened. The occupants have been taken to the Leguan infirmary for treatment.”
“General, you need to isolate those people from others. I understand that one of them is the queen’s daughters—”
“Yes. Something you neglected to mention in your message.”
So Soto did get that letter.
“Yes,” Bishop said. “However, the people who attacked the tower were using… exemplar technology. It’s similar to the mind-reading tech we employ. Anyone who came in contact with them will be under their control, this includes the people in those pods. This includes the queen’s daughter.”
There was a long pause. “And what are you proposing I do?”
That was a fantastic question. If Victoria was dead, then the only body-swapper remaining was Sakhr. Would he fix this? Of course not. There wouldn’t be any master glyphs laying around either; Victoria would never take such a chance.
There might not be a way of fixing this. Victoria and her daughter were gone. Sakhr would be in whatever body he pleased. Only Bishop and the other High exemplars even knew who Sakhr was. So if this problem couldn’t be fixed, then what? Should he just tell the general the truth? As unbelievable as it may be?
“High Exemplar?” Soto prompted.
“Keep them isolated. That includes anyone she or the other survivers have been in contact with. Don’t let them know you’re doing it. Don’t lock them up. Just leave them alone where they are.”
“You’ll need to give me a little more to work with than that, High Exemplar. In a short while, the princess will be addressing the public. Are you suggesting I cancel that?”
Jesus, Bishop thought. How much contact have people had with Sakhr? “No. Don’t cancel that.”
“Then what do you mean she’s being controlled? Is the princess a threat or not? Do you know what happened in that tower?”
“The tower was attacked by someone capable of supplanting his mind into other people. I was in contact with Victoria leading up to the explosion. She told me that this person had targeted her daughter, and that she was no longer herself.”
Just like that, the truth was out. It felt like a betrayal, even though Victoria was dead, even though the general would have to know eventually.
“Are you saying someone has taken over the princess’s mind?”
“That is what I’m saying, yes. And this person can supplant himself into others if they come near to him. I cannot stress enough how dangerous this man is.”
“…And what do you want me to do?”
“Unfortunately he’s already out of the pod. The best thing to do is to let him think you know nothing is wrong until the high exemplars can get there. We’ll need you to arrange clearance for us. Don’t let Helena know that we’re coming. And don’t come near her. She and the others in those pods are capable of reading minds just like an exemplar.”
“The other two who were in those pods were suffering from lethal cases of radiation poisoning. I don’t think they’ll be reading any minds at all.”
“But anyone they’ve been in contact with may.”
“That’s a lot of people, High Exemplar.”
“I know, General. Just avoid them if you can. Don’t come into physical contact with anyone. High Exemplar Stone will be there soon. He’ll know who is and isn’t affected. Liat, Dosia, and I will be there tonight.”
“How many high exemplars are coming?”
“I… all four of us, General. We’ll send along our flight plans.”
“Good. Keep in contact.”
“I will. And remember. Don’t go near her or anyone else who has.”
“I understand, High Exemplar.”
The call ended.
Bishop set the phone down and stared at the desk.
General Soto had not known that there were only four High Exemplars.
Everybody knew that.
Well, everybody in the military. Or anyone who knew anything about their empire’s government. Basically, everyone who’d been around for the last six years should. They’d have to have been living under a rock to miss that fact… or in a terrarium.
And Bishop just outlined everything he knew to the general. He hoped he’d hidden his surprise when Soto made his slip, or whoever that was. Was it Sakhr? No. From what Bishop knew of him, he would still be in Helena. Sibyl? Of course not; no guile. So he was just talking to Christof or Alexander.
If General Soto was already one of them, then what hope did the high exemplars have?
He had to contact the other exemplars immediately. They were arranging flights to return to Porto Maná, but there was no chance in hell they could risk being on those planes.
He picked up his plaque and accessed the exemplar private network. Internally at least, it still worked.
Christof disconnected the phone and set it down. For a while he stared at it, avoiding glancing to where Alex sat in a leather chair opposite the desk Christof had just inherited. Not that it mattered. As agreed, he’d been looking Alex in the eyes through most of that talk. He might as well get it over with. He looked.
The feet of Alex’s teenage body barely reached the floor. It was as though Christof had brought him in under some bring-your-daughter-to-work premise.
“I only said what you told me,” Christof said.
“You did…” Alex replied, “I suppose I should have mentioned there were only four high exemplars.”
“He might not have caught it,” Christof said.
Alex smiled and shook his head at how incorrigible Christof could be. Of course Bishop had caught it. Christof knew it. Alex knew it. It didn’t even deserve a response.
“You know what this really means, right?” Alex said.
“The conspiracy runs much deeper than we ever thought. It’s a shame, really. Victoria depended on her high exemplars so much. And now it turns out all four of them were involved in the coup.”
Christof said nothing.
“How deep do you think it’ll go?” Alex asked. “How many do you think were involved?”
Christof still said nothing.
“Come on, Christof. You know what we have to do. So go ahead.”
Christof picked up the phone again and dialed an internal number. It contacted an officer a few rooms away.
“Track down the exact locations of all high exemplars.”