There was a formal introduction, an image of the exemplar logo, and a string of numbers that Sakhr assumed had something to do with cryptography.
Then there were seven long paragraphs that outlined everything. Well, almost. It didn’t say anything about how Victoria was not actually Victoria but a fat little girl from Wisconsin, nor did it mention her involvement in the Collapse, but it did discuss how Sakhr was a captive of Victoria’s, how he could switch bodies, and how he had taken over Helena. It explained what he and his fellow coven members were capable of, how they could be dealt with, and what they were probably trying to do right now.
Then at the very bottom was High Exemplar Bishop’s digital signature.
Sakhr hadn’t even reached that point in the email before he wanted to scream at Alexander. When he did speak, it took remarkable will to keep his voice level. “You knew about this,” he said, “before I went to talk with the defense minister?”
“He seemed in a rush.”
“And you didn’t—” Sakhr caught himself. Alex was baiting him again, and he wouldn’t do that if this was actually as bad as it seemed. “Who received this announcement?”
“All of the exemplars.”
“All of them?”
“All three hundred something.”
“And…?” He prompted Alex to get to the points he was clearly hiding.
“And I redacted the email ten minutes after it was sent out. It was a good thing I promoted myself. If I hadn’t spent the morning studying the high exemplar admin tools, I wouldn’t even have known about this.”
“You said you and Christof would deal with these high exemplars.”
“And we did. Mostly. Do you remember the marines who manhandled you on the tower roof? Apparently their sky captain swooped Bishop off his feet before we could get to him. They’re flying around the world right now.”
“Then shoot them down.”
“About that… Apparently they’re flying in a plane traveling about six times the speed of sound or some such. I’ve been informed that hitting something moving that fast is really hard, especially when it can change course and launch decoys. But don’t worry! I’ve cut them from all official channels. And the exemplar left his plaque behind, so no more damage there. When they land, we’ll be ready.”
“It’s too late, Alexander. How many people have seen that email?”
“Oh, come on. It was in their inboxes for ten minutes, and it’s a huge email. I bet most of them skimmed it and thought, ‘I’ll read this later.’ Now it’s gone.”
“Don’t be coy with me.”
“Look, we all knew we’d have to deal with the exemplars at some point. Don’t worry. I redacted the email, now I’ve shut down all the exemplars ability to contact each other, and I’ve called for widespread loyalty scanning. Every exemplar will be coming aboard this citadel.”
“It only makes sense. We just had to terminate our high exemplars for treason. We can’t let the others go around without checking them over again. Over the next few days, every exemplar will be coming to this citadel. Those that don’t report in will be considered traitors. Their plaques will be wiped, and arrest warrants will be issued.”
Alex was doing it again, saying things to get a rise out of Sakhr. After two centuries, Sakhr would have thought the man would show some maturity regarding grave situations, but no.
Sakhr maintained his calm. “What is your plan?”
If Alex was disappointed at that reaction, he didn’t show it. “For that, come with me.”
Alexander led him down the imperial spire. From its lobby, they took considerably more cramped ladderwells below the top deck of the citadel. The people down here were not reporters or ministers, but soldiers and mechanics. Sakhr garnered startled glances and salutes.
“Where are we going, Winnie?” he said.
“Just a little farther,” Alex said.
Sibyl caught Sakhr by the arm. She leaned close. “The exemplars are ahead. We’re almost in their range.”
In response, Sakhr placed his hand upon her plaque. Information flooded his mind. Hundreds of people were within his immediate vicinity, and hundreds more blinking in and out along his Empathy’s periphery. He could not make sense of any of them, much less point out two and recognize them as the two exemplars aboard this ship he had been avoiding. Despite how meek Sibyl might be, she was helpful, even with glyphs of her power freely available. Alexander on the other hand…
“Where are you taking us?” Sakhr asked. “The exemplars are ahead.”
“Not much farther,” he said.
He led them down two more levels, through a corridor. They headed into a detainment area. An unmistakable stench filled the air. Hundreds of people were crammed together in squaller. The rabble was deafening. A few yelled at guards or made nuisances of themselves by rattling the bars of their cells. Most though were huddled in the back. They hardly reacted to anything, even their queen appearing before them. It brought back memories of slave pits from centuries ago.
“Why are we here?” Sakhr asked.
“This is just on our way,” Alex said. “These people are holdovers from when the Manakin was peacekeeping in North America. We called the citadel down here on such short notice that they didn’t have time to do anything about their detainees, so here they are. The onboard exemplars have been working to get these people processed, but until you lift the flight ban, we can’t send them out.”
“I thought this citadel was secured.”
“Oh it is. These people are locked up. General Whats-his-face and I came through here ourselves yesterday. Perfectly safe… even if it is a little smelly.”
“Why are we here, Winnie?”
“Okay, okay! Here. This is it.” Alex led Sakhr and Sibyl through a door past the detainment facility. It led to an observation room showing into an interrogation room containing two men handcuffed to the table. Both were clearly from the detainment facility. It struck Sakhr as odd to have two people on the same side of an interrogation table.
“Meet Wyatt and Ben,” Alex said. “The citadel picked them up in Virginia.” He pointed to one, a gaunt man who stared down at his clasped hands. He was more filthy than a few days in lockup could explain, as though he were only vaguely familiar with baths. To Sakhr, everything about him spoke of drugs, from his unkempt look to his frantic rocking. “Wyatt is a suspect in several gang muggings.” Alex then pointed to the other, a larger man—just as unkempt, who stared at the viewing window with narrowed eyes, as though guessing where to look—trying intimidate whoever was behind it. He was guessing wrong. “As for Ben, Lakiran forces picked him up at a checkpoint when an exemplar noticed how nervous his aura was. A scan showed he was part of a raider gang called the Novo Puro. It gained power during the post Collapse rationings. They’re your standard rape and pillage type.”
“And I care about them why?”
“The two exemplars aboard this citadel are about to scan them to determine whether they pose any risk to the empire. If they’re found guilty, which they are, they’ll go into permanent detainment in one of the empire’s camps. Tough for Wyatt. I don’t think they have much heroine there.” Alex faced Sakhr. “Anyway, I thought you’d like to sit in on their interrogation.”
Sakhr finally saw the point.
“These two? Of all the people you could have found? These two?”
“They were in gangs. That means loyalty. And no, not just these two. We have over three hundred exemplars coming.”
“And we’re going to replace them with those refugees? This is your solution?”
“This is my temporary solution. Like I said, we don’t know how many exemplars read that email. Even if they didn’t. Do you really want a bunch of mind-reading munchkins running about?”
Sakhr was scowling.
“Look, I know you don’t like this. It’s a bad situation, but we have to do something. Ben and Wyatt will work, for a while. I vetted them myself. I can manage them. They have to play along, because if our secret is out, so are they.”
“I don’t like this.”
“Because there’s nothing about it to like, but it’s not like we’re going to replace all the exemplars. Just the ones who are suspicious. And we just have to keep this up until we get a master glyph, then we can raise our hiring standards. Until then, we’re in a fix.”
Sibyl tugged on Sakhr’s sleeves. “The exemplars are coming,” she whispered.
“Looks like it’s time to decide,” Alex said. After a pause he added, “If it helps, I’ve already talked to Wyatt and Ben about this, and they’re in. But this does mean that if we don’t swap out the exemplars, they’re going to see one hell of a conversation in Ben and Wyatt’s mind.”
Sakhr gave him a withering look. Alex shrugged innocently. A knock came at the door.
Alexander was going to be the death of him some day.