Quentin opened his eyes. The effort drained him. He tried lifting his head, but pain lanced through his skull. He could only roll his head along his pillow to look about.
It was the same place as all the other times he’d drifted into consciousness—a spartan infirmary. Beds lined the long room on either side. All were made except for the one directly across from Quentin, where one other patient lay. Sunlight streamed in several windows. Birds chirped distantly. Farther away was occasional yelling, or echoed bangs of what might be construction.
He tried moving, but handcuffs secured him to the bed. Looking down, he saw his hands wrapped in bandages. Angry blisters peaked out where the bandages ended near his elbows. They throbbed with each heartbeat.
Quentin didn’t know how long he’d been suffering this fever-ridden nightmare of endless sweat and vomit. It seemed like eternity, but it couldn’t be. By his estimate, he had twenty-four hours to live. For the first time, his fever was less. His mind could hold a coherent thought. Someone ignorant of the progression of radiation sickness might think they were recovering. Quentin knew better.
He finally noticed his two guests. One was an exemplar woman. She stood back near the corner of the room. The other was a young woman standing by his bed. She was sneering at the stench Quentin’s senses had long since adapted to. Her platinum blonde hair was neatly done up in a bun. Designs were embroidered on her formal sleeveless dress. It was as though she stopped here on her way to a banquet.
“Can you hear me, Quentin?” she asked.
“Sakhr?” he muttered.
“…You got away?”
“Did you… sneak in here?” Talking was taking a lot out of him. With every word, his urge to vomit grew.
“There was a guard… by the door.”
“I ordered him away.”
Quentin stared at Sakhr with the most discerning look he could muster. “You ordered?”
“Yes. I ordered. Much has happened in the few hours you’ve been asleep. Perhaps no one has explained. It seems a raving lunatic detonated a low-grade nuclear bomb inside the Capital Tower. Even now responders clamber over the ruins searching for survivors, but they doubt they’ll find any. The queen was in the building at the time. She will soon be confirmed dead.”
“Victoria? So you’re in charge?”
“Yes. I’ll be addressing the public soon, where I’ll be explaining that much of the city is being evacuated due to fallout risk. There are already over four dozen confirmed cases of radiation poisoning, but no one has a case as bad as you and the other man who was brought in with you. The military wants to know about your involvement with the explosion. They’ve brought in an exemplar to scan your mind.”
At Sakhr’s prompting, the exemplar in the corner came forward to stand at the other side of the bed. She looked down at Quentin. He avoided her gaze.
“A scanning?” Quentin asked. “Are you serious? But… they can’t, right? Sakhr?” He said the name, as though to point out the secrets he knew.
“I am serious. Exemplar Serrao was able to pull herself away from the rescue effort. We’ve just concluded her scan of the other man.” Sakhr indicated the other bedridden patient in the room who was hooked up to an IV and a monitor just the same as Quentin was. It was the body occupied by the flair named Sibyl. They were sleeping soundly.
“Unfortunately,” Sakhr continued, “they knew nothing of value, and we have since had to sedate him when his pain caused him to become unruly. Just like you, he has a severe case of radiation poisoning. It is unlikely he will wake again.”
“Ah… I get it.” Quentin craned to look at the exemplar by the bed. “Sibyl? Right?” An exemplar coming to inspect her mind was a prime opportunity for Sibyl to get that female body she’d asked for. It probably came as a hell of a shock to the exemplar.
“Did Alex survive?” Quentin asked.
“He did. Apparently, all ships will autopilot to a nearby default location if they detect they’re not safely landed. They’ll do this even if they’re locked. Was that part of your plan?”
“Clever. I suppose that’s more sane than flying away on a makeshift plane.”
“But did… you talk to him?”
“Then he told you… the promise.”
“The promise he made… on your behalf. You’re supposed to get me a new body because I knew I’d get radiation poisoning.”
“You and Alex came to this agreement.”
Quentin’s hoarse voice picked up. “Alex said you’d honor it.”
“I honor the promises I make. I have no obligation to unspoken exchanges between other people.”
“I couldn’t ask you because I couldn’t say it out loud. Victoria would have known what I was up to.”
“And what was it you were up to? Setting up a nuclear explosion to detonate a few hundred feet from us?”
“A nuclear fizzle. If I had used that much uranium in a properly constructed bomb… there wouldn’t be a city.”
“Oh. And that makes it better?”
“I killed the queen. I made you ruler. Without me, you would be nowhere.”
Sakhr shrugged. “Perhaps so. Your plan could just as easily have killed us all too.”
“No, but I still don’t like your methods. In fact, there’s hardly anything about you that I do like. You’re arrogant. You’re rude. You show no appreciation when I risked my life to free you. And your actions were damn near suicidal.”
“I was not going back into a tortoise.”
“Of course not. None of us are.”
“Thanks to me.”
“Then help me.”
Sakhr weighed the option. “No. I think not. You took control from me during our escape. You made your own plan without me and executed it without my permission. I don’t appreciate it when others forget their place around me.”
“It was the only way.” Quentin growled. The strain gave him a coughing fit.
“Perhaps. You’ve served your purpose. From here on, you’re more apt to be a liability to us than an asset, just as you were to Victoria, or so I gather.”
“You have to help me. I know who you are. I could tell people.” Though even as the words left his mouth, he realized how wrong he was. He could tattle no better than the drugged-up exemplar across the room could. This conversation would be the last thing he would ever experienced. “You can’t… you can’t fucking do that. I freed you. I got you the fuck out of there. Are you going to kill me? What are you going to do?”
“What we came here to do, Quentin,” Sakhr replied. “We’re here to scan you. Are you ready?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Sakhr held out his hand toward Sibyl. She touched it. A shudder passed between them. Now it was the body of the exemplar who peered at Quentin. Her dark amber eyes held the same severity Helena’s body had moments ago, while the body of Helena stood mutely by.
“Look me in the eyes,” Sakhr said from the body of the exemplar. He held the exemplar plaque in both hands.
Quentin turned his head toward the window.
“Look at me, Quentin.”
“Look at me if you have any desire to live.”
Begrudgingly, Quentin turned and met Sakhr’s eyes.
“Let me make things perfectly clear,” Sakhr said. “I am unfamiliar with this new world. After seventeen years in captivity I have a lot to learn. But I will. The brain I have is young. So never delude yourself into thinking I still need you. I am the ruler now. Any plans or ideas you have, you will clear with me. You will show me respect. You will cease your insults and jibes. And if I ever, ever detect a hint of insurrection from you, I will not even give you a chance to explain yourself. I don’t care for you. I don’t care for your attitude, but I am choosing to tolerate you because of your gift. Push my tolerance, and I will lock you away just as Victoria had. Am I clear?”
Quentin said nothing. No matter how much he hated this, the alternative was death.
“Say it,” Sakhr said. “I want to hear it from you.”
Sakhr eyed him a while longer, then held his hand out to Sibyl. Again they switched bodies.
“Go get the doctor,” Sakhr said.
Sibyl left and returned a minute later with a bespectacled doctor.
“We’re done with the patient. Please administer something to help him sleep.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The doctor already had a zipped up pouch with him containing a vial and a hypodermic needle. They had known these patients were terminally ill. This mercy had been prearranged.
The doctor filled a measured sample into a needle. He came so close to injecting it that Quentin wondered whether Sakhr were going to let the doctor go through with it.
But then, “Stop.”
The doctor looked at Sakhr. “Yes?”
“Put the syringe down.”
Confused, the doctor placed it on the table. The moment his hand moved away, Sakhr’s hand lashed out. The doctor yelped. Sakhr pulled his hand onto Quentin, and then came the switch.
Quentin had braced for it, and yet it still nearly floored him. The sudden relief of being in a healthy body was unbelievable, like finally taking a breath of air after minutes of suffocation.
Meanwhile, the dying man on the bed gasped as though splashed with cold water. “What? What is this?” he stammered.
Sakhr turned to Quentin. “You may finish administering the medication, doctor.”
Quentin gladly did so.