It was breakfast time in the Gilles’s residence. Morning light from the windows flickered as hoppers silently shot along a grid chute outside Gille’s fourth floor apartment. Winnie found that more than a little annoying, but the sun would move, while the chute remained immobile, determined by whatever computer servers guided the hoppers. Gilles must put up with it every day. He certainly ignored it well enough when he emerged from his bedroom dressed in boxer shorts and a sleeveless undershirt. Scratching his chest, he plodded into the kitchen and rinsed some flowers and weeds he’d collected after a late night walk yesterday. Kneeling over the missile crate, he tore the vegetation and distributed it among the tortoises, talking all the while.
“Now these might be a little cold still. I know how some y’all don’t like that. Just give them a minute or two.”
Winnie’s pile of collard greens remained from yesterday. She’d tried to eat. Even now she felt weak from starving, but the misery in her gut left little room for an appetite.
“Hmm,” said Gilles. He took the old greens out. “I get it. Y’all had a stressful few days. Your home’s been blown up. You’re in a strange place. It’s gone and ruin your appetites. Wish I could say things are going to settle down now.”
After replacing the food, he cleaned the crate. Winnie ignored him, until suddenly feeling gentle pressure along her back. In her mind, she saw Gilles stroking her shell. It was soothing, but she wished he’d stop. It made her feel like a pet.
She tried to cringe. From her mind’s view, her intent didn’t come across, but to her surprise, he stopped. “I’ll leave you be. Just promise you’ll eat something. You’ll feel a mighty bit better if you do.”
Oh fine. Winnie bit off a piece of dandelion. It tasted just as she expected it would: bitter and bland. She figured it might at least taste better in this body, but no. Ordinary tortoises must eat this stuff because they’ve never found anything better.
Whatever. She ate. The act was a chore. Gilles coaxed both Helena and the other tortoise into eating as well, then disappeared to the kitchen to fry up something for himself. Winnie had to admit she felt a little better, as unpleasant as the greens were.
When Gilles returned from the kitchen, he had a plate of fried plantains and a bowl of orange melon. “Don’t go telling anyone, but how about today I give y’all something special.” He placed a piece of balled melon before each of them, then settled back to eat his plantains. Winnie stepped forward to try the food when someone knocked on the door.
She visualized the outside hallway. Any hope that things couldn’t get any worse evaporated at the sight of Gilles’s visitors.
Gilles answered the door. “Your Majesty?”
“It’s still just Your Highness,” Sakhr said.
Flabbergasted, Gilles welcomed him. Sakhr strode into the room, followed by Alexander and Sibyl. Entirely ignoring Gilles, they scrutinized the tortoises in the missile crate. Gilles shut the door and hurried to pick loose articles around the apartment. “Please. Anywhere you’d like to sit. If I’d known you wanted to see me, I could have come to you. Might’a saved you a trip.”
Sakhr pointed at the tortoises. “You stole these.”
“Stole? No, Your Highness. I was just—”
“It took the military all day to track down who took these animals. You had no right to take them from the military base. They don’t belong to you.”
“I left my information with the private at the front. Nobody was taking care of them at the base. I was the animals’ primary caretaker in the tower, and I—”
“I know exactly who you are, Mr. Gilles. My mother hired you to feed and treat the animals. That is all. You had no authority to take these tortoises into your own home as though you have some special claim over them. These tortoises belong to me.”
“I meant no trouble, Your Majesty. I didn’t—”
“Your Highness,” Sakhr corrected.
“Your Highness. I’m sorry. I thought I’d just take care of them until you got some time to decide.”
“Enough.” Sakhr pointed to a couch. “Sit down.”
Gilles obliged. Sakhr nodded to the others. Sibyl studied the tortoises and pointed out the one Winnie knew nothing about. Alexander picked it up and handed it to Gilles. Winnie knew exactly what was about to happen to the poor man, but there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
As soon as Gilles took the tortoise, Sakhr placed one hand on his shoulder and the other on the animal. There was that shudder. Gilles’s body jolted. The tortoise gasped and writhed.
The man now occupying Gilles’s body startled. His limbs moved in jerks, as though his body were undergoing a reset. After gaining some semblance of control, he dropped his face into his hands and shuddered.
Meanwhile, Alexander tossed the tortoise back into the missile crate. It skidded. Winnie remembered what it was like when she was first trapped inside a tortoise. All her senses had told different stories. Each felt like a lie. She could only imagine being tossed about at that moment. Winnie plodded over to Gilles. His eyes didn’t even focus on her, just darted back and forth. All she could think to do was put one foot against his and pat it as best she could. Winnie wasn’t fond of Gilles, but he didn’t deserve this.
“Can you hear us?” Sakhr asked.
The man nodded distractedly, as though he’d just woken up.
Alex sat to the side, noticed the dish of fried plantains, and claimed it for himself.
“Your name is Paul, is it not?” Sakhr said.
The man nodded.
“Paul. I need you to focus. I know you’re disoriented right now, but we need to have a discussion, and I don’t have much time. Understood?”
“I hear you.” Paul focused on Sakhr a moment, then returned his head to his hands.
Sakhr spoke on. “Like you, my compatriots and I have been captives of Victoria for years. Two days ago, we escaped, and as a result—”
“Who’s body is this?”
“This body.” Paul held up his dark, worn hands. “It used to belong to Gilles, didn’t it?”
“Is that important?”
“Where is Gilles? He’s not in the tortoise, is he?” Paul craned to peer into the missile crate.
Sakhr leaned to block his view. “Look at me. Don’t worry about who’s body you have. We’re having a discussion now. My brethren and I escaped, but as a consequence we are in a difficult situation. You’re the glyph maker, are you not?”
Paul gaze settled on Sakhr. “I may be. And who are you?”
“I’m the man who freed you.”
“Man?” Paul looked Sakhr up and down, taking in Helena’s form.
“This is not my original body.”
Paul glanced from him to the others. Realization dawned on him. “Sakhr?”
He studied Alex. “So you must be Alexander.”
Alex nodded, his mouth too full to respond.
Paul looked at Sibyl, narrowing his eyes. “And you would be… the aura seer. I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”
She glanced at Sakhr before replying. “Sibyl.”
“So you already know about us,” Sakhr said.
“Victoria told me about you all, yes.”
“I suppose that saves us introductions. How long were you in that tortoise?”
“I don’t know. Years? The last thing that happened was the bombing.”
“The Collapse? That was six years ago.”
“Then six years.”
“A lot has happened since then. Victoria waged a war and conquered the world, although her grasp on many nations is tenuous. She managed to maintain her power with a cadra of loyalists she called exemplars, to whom she granted glyphs created using your power. Each of them is capable of reading minds, and sensing auras, or powers. They were her eyes and ears.”
“So she actually did it, huh?”
“She told you about these plans?”
“She did. It became the wedge in our relationship that led to my imprisonment. Well, that and other things.”
“What other things?”
“We had disagreements about how she’d rule.”
Alexander piped in. “Victoria wanted to cause the Collapse. Paul didn’t agree.”
Everyone turned to look at him. Winnie’s mind jarred upon hearing those words. Her comforting of Gilles stalled as she focused entirely on the conversation.
“And you’re only telling me this now?” Sakhr said.
“You never asked.”
Sakhr glared at him.
“Honest,” Alex replied. “I wasn’t hiding this. It just never came up until now.”
Sakhr turned back to Paul. “Is this true? Was that the reason?”
“Yes…” Paul still eyed Alexander. “She came to believe the world was broken, and it couldn’t be fixed unless the existing world society first collapsed. Are you saying she succeeded?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“How… how bad was it?”
“The current world population is around four hundred million,” Sakhr replied. “That’s almost one twentieth of what it used to be.”
“I uh…. I see.”
“Yes, and in the wake she’s installed herself as world leader. Unfortunately, her power relied—”
“Where is she?”
“Victoria? We think she’s dead.”
“We’re very sure, but there is a chance she survived the accident.”
“In our escape, we detonated a bomb in her tower. She failed to escape in time. Her body was positively identified yesterday.”
“You mean you killed her?”
“No,” Sakhr said. “The bomb was an act of desperation meant to help us escape. Her death was incidental.”
“But you’re glad, aren’t you? You tried to kill her before?”
“So you know about that too. Yes. I did. And if I had succeeded, then none of us would have been trapped for decades. The apocalypse would never have happened.”
“I suppose so.”
“But she might not be dead. And even if she is, we have other problems. All of her exemplars have the ability to recognize us for who we are. We can’t keep them at bay forever. We’ll need shield glyphs to protect ourselves. You know about the shield glyphs, right?”
“The young girl, Sara, whose power is the Shield is quite happy to draw more for us, but she needs something called a Master Glyph. Apparently, because of her power’s very nature, no one can draw it, not even Victoria. Sara needed a glyph of your power so she could draw her own.”
“I am aware of this. I’ve met Sara.”
“Good. Then you understand my situation. Will you help us?”
Alexander grinned, his mouth full of plantain. It was the grin of a man who had just earned the right to say, I told you so.
“…No,” Sakhr repeated, confirming Paul’s word. “Why not?”
“Your body. It belonged to Helena, right? Six years. I guess she’d be… sixteen? Seventeen? Next in line for the throne, right? Why do you have her body?”
“Her body was the first available to me during my escape.”
“And what became of her?”
“What does it matter? She was Victoria’s daughter.”
“I knew her when she was younger. A tempered little firebrand, but she was innocent. She didn’t deserve to have her body taken from her.”
“I’ve seen inside her mind,” Alex said. “Trust me. We’re doing the world a favor by taking over for her.”
“So, you are taking Victoria’s place?”
“For now, yes. It’s the best hope we have of remaining undetected.”
“Is that what you tell yourself?”
“It’s a fact.” Sakhr’s patience was fraying. “What else am I supposed to do? If I give this body to anyone else, they’ll know we exist. They may come after us. The exemplars will come after us. If I keep this body, at least we can protect ourselves from them, but we can’t do that unless we work together. Will you help us?”
“Why not? We just freed you from the same woman who imprisoned us all. If she is still alive, we need to unite. She is literally as powerful as all of us combined.”
“Perhaps, but I cannot ignore the chance to undo a mistake I made years ago. I didn’t realize what kind of woman Victoria was when she first found me. She encouraged me to train my power, which I did. She told me about how she planned to fix the world, break down existing governments and create one where people were free. I believed her then. By the time I found out what she planned to do with my gift, it was too late to do anything about it. She had already learned the secret of my glyph writing, and now it sounds like she created a world exactly like I feared. Her government uses my power to control the will of the people and to invade their very minds. But now I can correct this. If there are no more glyphs of my power, which I assume must be the case if you’ve come to me, then all I have to do to erase my mistake is nothing. In time, all the existing glyphs will wear down.”
“The world has plunged into chaos,” Sakhr said. “Riots have broken out across Europe. The North American states are talking about seceding and rebuilding the union. Lakiran forces were spread paper thin, and now they’re having to pull out of dozens of countries due to instability. I can’t fix any of this because I have no control over the Exemplar Committee. It’s going to dissolve as soon as they find out who I am, that’s if they don’t decide to oust me, leading to a power vacuum that will only exacerbate the situation. Millions will suffer if I can’t restore order.”
“And I’m sorry to hear that, but humanity will recover. If I give you that glyph, then the world will lose a freedom it will never get back.”
“Victoria kept strict control over the glyphs. I will too. I will not allow them to be abused.”
“Even if I believed you, it’s not worth it.”
“Do you not trust me? I freed you.”
“Victoria told me about what kind of people you all are. And what you did to her out of your own fears. She had a lot to say about you in particular, Alexander.”
“I’m sure.” Alex made a small bow as though just announced. Alexander, ladies and gentlemen.
“Don’t you think her perspective of us was a little biased?” Sakhr said.
“Prove me wrong then. Return the empire to Helena.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“I’m not playing,” Paul replied.
“I’ve already explained why I can’t do that.”
“Then you’re stuck.”
Sakhr leaned back and regarded him. “Do you want to go back in the tortoise?”
“Does that mean Gilles will get his body back?”
“Then it makes no difference to me.”
“Enough of this.” Sakhr stood.
“I told you…” Alex said.
“Get the guards,” Sakhr growled. “We’re leaving. And you,” He faced Paul, “are coming with us.”
“If you say so.”