Fourteen hours. That’s how long Winnie had been a tortoise. She knew because it had been near one o’clock when she and Helena had broken into that stupid terrarium, and the clock in her dorm room read three in the afternoon now. She could have checked any clock in the world, yet her mind kept going back there. Despite being so close to where the tower fell, it was empty and clean. If she were there, it would almost be as if this nightmare wasn’t happening, except for the sirens in the distance.
Instead, she was in a maintenance room. At least, she thought it was. It was a small, tiled room lit by buzzing fluorescent lights, and its walls were lined with equipment racks. A lone door led into a landing hangar, where the soldiers had arrived after detaining Christof and Alexander. She’d hoped when she saw the soldiers arresting them, that the end had finally come, but then Alex started telling all those lies. How did they buy that? Didn’t they see how intently he was looking in their eyes before each word he said?
Winnie had squawked and hissed and climbed the edge of her box, but no one had even looked at her. When the soldiers had gotten back to base, they’d taken Alex straight to their general so Alex could spread even more lies, while they stashed Winnie, Helena, and the other tortoise in this room. Cold and tired, Winnie drifted in and out of sleep. After hours, hunger had set in that not even deep seated misery could hide. The most attention anyone gave them was the occasional private who came in, glanced at the box, and asked anyone nearby, “what are these doing here?” or, “should someone do something about these animals?” But the soldiers were too preoccupied watching television in the other room to bother; the news showed the world coming apart.
Dozens had died in the collapse. Rescue workers were being admitted to hospitals for radiation poisoning. Parts of the city were evacuating. The empire was in a state of emergency. Territories on the other side of the world saw this as the end of the Lakiran empire and were already talking about succession. Less stables countries were seeing wide scale riots. The death and destruction grew worse with every hour.
She wondered if it was easier for Helena, who was curled up in her shell at the other end of the box. Without the benefit of Winnie’s power, she couldn’t know about the hell she and Winnie had forced on the world. All she knew was cold and hunger. Time was meaningless for her.
Winnie, meanwhile, soared about with her flair, but nothing she saw made her feel better. The television in the other room had announced Victoria’s death hours ago. Winnie had already known. Her mind had been there when they’d dug her ruined body out of the twisted wreckage of her ship, just as she’d been there when Sakhr had killed General Soto, and the poor exemplar who came to scan the sick, and the doctor who’d treated Quentin. She was there every step of the way to see the ruination her actions had brought. She didn’t know why she bothered watching. What was the point? The one woman who could have fixed all this was dead.
Winnie wished so much she could take it all back that her regret seemed tangible, as though she could exert her will back to that single moment. Just a push perhaps. She could nudge herself so she fell against the birdcage instead of the terrarium, or maybe the cabinet on the other side. Maybe she could force a thought into her past self’s head. Don’t do it. Stop Helena. Stand up to her. You have no idea what hell awaits you, and how many people you’ll hurt. The tiniest change could derail all of this.
The pit in her stomach gnawed at her, but there was no food, and no one around. With nothing left to do, Winnie pulled into her shell. She just needed to shut out the world and try for a moment to forget this living nightmare.
Just for a while.
“I must say. None y’all look very happy this morning.”
The words awoke Winnie. Natural light shone just outside her shell. Using a trick she’d used many mornings while nestled in her bedsheets, she used her power to look around instead of peaking her head out.
She and Helena were still in the shipping crate in a maintenance room. It was morning, and a elderly man with a gentle smile knelt over her crate. The gray, curly fuzz on his head matched the beard outlining his white toothed smile. His limbs were thin and gnarled, like someone who’d spent his long life doing honest work under the sun.
All Winnie knew was that he wasn’t a soldier. He wore a simple pair of khakis and a faded shirt. Given that no one else was around, she wondered whether he’d just walked into the base, completely overlooked. Surely not.
“Don’t worry now,” he said. “I’m here. I haven’t forgot about you. Looks like we lost a few of our brothers and sisters, but you made it out. Y’all lucky devils.” After studying Helena, his brow furrowed. “Never seen you before.”
Helena emerged from her shell and looked back. When he picked her up, she thrashed in alarm.
“Calm down now,” the man said. “Just giving you the once over. Looks like you’re a uh… Hermann’s Tortoise? Male, hmm?” He grabbed Helena’s tail between two fingers and looked underneath. “Yep, male.”
Startling. Until now, Winnie had never considered the gender of these tortoise bodies. Everything felt foreign. Even thinking about it, she couldn’t tell what equipment she had. She concentrated, wiggled around a little, visualized her rear side. She was a… girl? Alex was a male though, right? It was his tortoise body she’d inherited. Had Victoria not bothered to match gender when putting people inside tortoises?
“You must be the upstairs tortoise,” the man said to Helena. “You’re lucky someone saved you. I heard you were kept under lock and key. Don’t matter to me. I’ll take you in. You can call me Gilles.”
He set Helena down, then examined Winnie and the other tortoise, talking soothingly all the while. “Don’t know what’s goin to happen to you two. In all this commotion, I think everybody done forgot about you lot. But here I am. Not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, but you’re okay today.”
At first, Winnie paid attention to what he said, but there wasn’t much content. Soon she let the words wash over her. It almost made her forget about her hell. The man’s touch was soothing. Given his expertise, she guessed he was one of the tower caretakers. He was lucky not to have been in the tower last night.
Gilles took up the crate and carried them to another building, into a lobby where a private was at attendance behind a desk.
“Ah, you found them,” the soldier said.
“Mmhmm,” said Gilles. “Are these all they saved? There musta been fifty animals in that tower at least.”
“These were all that were in the shuttle last night. If anymore animals survived, I don’t know about it. No offense to those things, but I’m kind of surprised anyone bothered saving them with everything that’s going on.”
“These tortoises meant a lot to the queen.”
The soldier nodded vaguely. “I talked with Major Husher. He doesn’t want them on the base. Are you able to take care of them. W could find a zoo…”
“Nah, I got em.”
“I can’t promise you’ll be reimbursed for your expense.”
Gilles waved him off. “I’ll take them. I’ll take them. Fellas need a proper home, don’t they? We can’t be sending them off to any old zoo. ”
This satisfied the soldier.
Outside in the landing lot, Gilles loaded the crate into a personal shuttle. Before closing the door, he fetched a handful of collard greens from a bag and set them in the box.
Gilles’s home was an apartment on the outskirts of Porto Maná. It only had a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom, each just large enough to serve their function. Decorations included sculptures carved of wood or the remains of animals—mementos one might bring home from a visit to the Amazon or the African homeland back when forests and indigenous tribes existed. The kitchen reeked of powerful spices. His bedroom showed the most living. Laundry littered the floor. Books and magazines buried the bedside table. He clearly lived alone, but the many pictures showing a younger Gilles with a comely woman which implied that had not always been the case.
Currently, the coffee table in his living room had been pushed to one side to make room for a packing crate which had once held a military glider missile. The army had let him take it home to use as a makeshift terrarium.
It was the tortoise’s new home. Gilles spent the afternoon preparing it. That involved reassembling the crate, lining it with a plastic tarp, then filling it with mulch and water. Winnie and Helena were inside now, camped in one corner. The other tortoise was opposite to them, exactly where Gilles first placed him. Only once had Winnie seen him move, and that was for the collard greens earlier. After eating his fill, he’d remained right where he was, too apathetic to return to his corner. How many years would it take until Winnie was like that too?
She had recovered from her emotional slump. Or rather she found she didn’t think about her predicament as much if she spent her time focusing elsewhere. Sometimes she watched the television back on the military base.
Information came out irritatingly slow. Whenever the news learned a tidbit, they would repeat it every thirty minutes while replaying their most relevant footage. They constantly recapped what had been happening, as though someone might actually tuning in now who didn’t already know that the head of the empire had been severed. When they weren’t recapping, they brought on experts to share thoughts and predictions. It was all so vacuous.
So Winnie started searching the military base instead. With the queen dead and no sign of Winnie ever being rescued, she had forgone Victoria’s golden rule of never spying on the empire. It’s not like she’d get in worse trouble.
She started first by drifting high above the base and looking down. The sun was setting, but the base was still on high alert. Soldiers drilled. Shuttles drifted along identical trajectories. Shuttles landed in lots outside offices. Larger crafts floated into hangars.
One building was a barracks. Beds neatly lined the long walls. All were empty at this hour. In a civilian office, people in business casual attire worked in cubicles. The only military were the soldiers at guard on the ground floor. Her targets weren’t here; she moved on. It was jarring to refocus her projection instead of flying from building to building, but this was what Victoria had taught her to do. Flying was inefficient. Refocusing was faster. Winnie wasn’t sure why she kept up the practice, but somehow it felt wrong to forgo the lessons the queen had left with her.
Then Winnie found them. Sakhr was in a hangar along with Alexander and Sibyl. Soldiers were unloading crates from a shuttle while they watched. Each crate was filled with twisted, charred items from the ruins of the Capital Tower. A forensics team would take each one and pour through the contents, scanning everything with clicking radiation sensors and bagging them for later study.
Sakhr seemed interested in particular boxes. As the forensics team cleared their contents, Sakhr motioned to a supervising Major, who then directed the boxes to be taken to a private room. It was here, away from the forensics team, that Sakhr examined the contents.
The sole fact that he wanted to look at these privately was reason enough for Winnie to keep watching. Perhaps she would spend the rest of her life spying on him. As painful as it was to watch her own body masquerading around causing mayhem, she might learn crucial information she could somehow use to her advantage. She didn’t know how yet. Maybe such an opportunity would never arise, but if it did, she would be ready.
And so she watched…
“Is this all there was?” Sakhr asked.
“Everything we found near her,” said the major.
Three crates. Each item inside had their own plastic bag. Sakhr examined a few: a phone with a shattered screen, a tablet bent in the middle, and a pair of women’s dress shoes. Each item had blood on them.
“These are your mother’s possessions, aren’t they?” the major asked.
Alexander responded. “Yes. These are the queen’s affects.”
“She wearing a cream-colored dress?”
Sakhr had no idea.
“Yes, she was,” Alex answered. “We were all dressed to go to a charity auction the other day… before everything happened.”
For all Sakhr knew, the story about the charity was just another in the endless stream of lies Alexander had been telling, but the bastard certainly knew what he was doing. He was in people’s minds. He knew what they needed to hear.
At the bottom of a crate, in a bag of its own, was a bloody necklace made of small ivory tiles. Sakhr recognized it. Each little tablet had its own power inscribed upon it. Over seventeen years ago, Victoria had fingered those little tablets while telling of her collection of powers. Sakhr had dreamed of it ever since.
He snatched the bag and removed the necklace. Though blood covered many tiles, he fastened it about his neck. The major shuffled uncomfortably. Sakhr searched his mind for any change. Years ago, he’d had aura sensing. He didn’t recall much, but he remembered that it was easy to identify the sensation when he expected it, but now he felt nothing. He motioned for Sibyl to look him in the eyes. She did so. He sensed… nothing.
Sakhr studied the necklace. There were seven glyphs—one for each member of the coven, and three more. Since only two were damaged, wouldn’t that mean the other five should work?
He tried wiping away the blood and wearing it again. Nothing.
He dug through the other crates.
“Your Highness?” the major asked.
“Are you sure that these are all of her possessions?”
“Is something missing?”
“They aren’t working.”
“The glyphs. They’re not doing anything.”
“Ah.” Alexander interjected. “It’s exemplar tech. He doesn’t know.”
“Know what?” the major asked.
“Never you mind,” Alexander said. “This is an exemplar affair.”
So glyphs were still a secret then. Exemplar-only tech. The longer Sakhr was outside of his tortoise prison, the more he realized Victoria never told people anything. She coveted secrets. It meant no one knew who Sakhr was, which played to his advantage, but it also meant Victoria probably never revealed her true power, which was to learn powers. She didn’t actually need glyphs.
Which meant the necklace was a misdirection. The tiles were fakes. Of course that damn woman wouldn’t keep real glyphs around her neck. Why would she? The only person who’d make use of them was somebody who’d stolen them from her. The fake was only to maintain the lie that she was the glyph writer.
But why keep it up?
Sakhr, Alex, Christof, and Sibyl were the only people in the world who knew she was once Katherine, or what her power actually was, and all four of them had been under her lock and key. No one else even knew who Katherine was. So why divorce Victoria and Katherine? Why pretend to be someone else for all these years?
It could have been to hide the true identity of the real glyph maker, but then he was also her prisoner. Or perhaps there was someone else who knew Katherine.
That couldn’t be it, right? Sakhr would obviously know them.
He cast the necklace aside and dug through the other boxes, but he didn’t expect to find anything of value. Another bag contained Victoria’s tattered dress. It was more red than white. Another contained a flight helmet, and a flight suit—items probably found near her body.
The third box contained a piece of twisted metal made of small metal bars. It took him a moment to identify it. “Is this a birdcage?”
“We believe so, ma’am.”
“This was in the wreckage?”
“Ah, what?” Alex perked up. He looked the major in the eyes. “Oh right… The queen had a pet hawk. Everyone knows that.”
A look passed between Alex and Sakhr. Alex grinned sardonically, clearly coming to the same realization Sakhr was. That birdcage had been in the shuttle with Victoria. She’d had that hawk with her.
Sakhr turned to the major. “Was the hawk found?”
“Was the hawk found dead? Did the rescuers find it’s body?”
Of course the major hesitated. It would be too easy for him to say something like, yes, dead as dead can be. It was a bit of a mess, so we left the body there. No. There had to be uncertainty.
“Not that I know of,” the major said.
Sakhr looked around. This hangar’s side room had a roof far above with plenty of beams to perch upon. And there were skylights, though they were sealed. He glanced at Sibyl. She too was looking around, but not frantically. Good. The idea occurred to her too, and she sensed nothing near.
“If you’d like,” the major said, “I can send someone to look.”
“No. Don’t bother. If it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there.” He pushed the crates away. There were no glyphs for him to use. It seemed even in her death, Victoria would continue to hound him. “Thank you for your help, major. You may leave.”
The brusqueness startled the major. “I… Yes, Your Highness.” He left quickly. Sakhr, Alex, and Sibyl were alone.
Sibyl spoke. “Do you think she actually survived?”
Sakhr let out a long sigh. Why should he answer her question when he obviously had no more information than she did? What kind of idiot would even ask?
“I don’t think so,” Alex answered. “She would have acted by now.”
“Not necessarily,” Sakir said. There could be a hundred reasons why she hadn’t struck yet. Her death was only one—a big one, and God how he hoped she was dead, but it was still only one of many reasons. He faced Sibyl. “Can you sense her coming?”
“No…” she replied. “I haven’t been able to sense her ever since she got her shield, but maybe I could know she’s coming because she won’t have an aura.”
“Not good enough,” Alex said. “Katherine could just fly in as a hawk and collide with Sakhr. She’d be in Sakhr’s body before anyone could do anything. What we need are shields of our own.”
“I know,” Sakhr growled. “That’s what this damn necklace was supposed to solve.”
Alex frowned. “Why should the necklace do anything if Katherine could use all the powers by herself?”
“I know this.”
“What you need is a safer place to stay…” Alex trailed off.
“You obviously have a place in mind.”
He grinned. “Do you remember General Soto mentioning the citadels?”
As soldiers continued to test and bag more debris, Sakhr, Alex, and Sibyl headed back to the building Sakhr had commandeered for his imperial work. They spoke little, but Winnie watched anyway.
She had heard their conversation. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out who “Katherine” was.
They believed Victoria might still be alive.
Winnie was almost afraid to hope. Even if Victoria was, a world of things could happen between that shuttle crash and Victoria saving the day.
But Winnie already knew she could never put that thought out of her mind. Ten years from now, she’d still be hoping for Victoria’s return. Hope is all she could do. That, and watch.
Sakhr and the others split off to talk with ministers and officials. Winnie would learn no secrets from public interaction like that, but she watched anyway. Twenty years from now she’d still be spying.
One day she might get the chance to use her knowledge against them.