“No. Not there,” Sakhr said. “The grid station. Look there.”
Winnie flew her mind’s view from the guard post in Northern England to a grid station farther south, from where swarms of shuttles were taking off and landing. The station was small though—maybe a hundred commuters and a dozen staff. Winnie quickly looked at each of the people working there. One of them was supposed to be an exemplar, but none were. And records indicated that the exemplar posted here hadn’t checked in for his flight back to Porto Maná.
Sakhr sighed. He took his hand off Sibyl’s plaque and added a note to the exemplar’s record on his computer. Tabbing back to the exemplar management software, he issued a remote wipe for that exemplar’s plaque. Remote wipe confirmed.
“Next one,” Sakhr said. “Exemplar Reynolds. Here’s his address.” Sakhr handed his tablet Winnie. It showed a map. This address was in Korea. Seeing it brought a pang of homesickness. Without thought, her mind sought out her mother in California, who was in the kitchen of their home. She was cooking. Circles of dumpling dough were laid out before her, but she wasn’t stuffing them. She just stood there, staring into nothing. It seemed like every time Winnie looked home, her mother was doing that, like a machine that was breaking down. Some day, she’d just freeze altogether, perpetually stopped in the middle of some chore. She’d gather dust.
“Focus,” Sakhr said.
Winnie zoomed in on the tablet, but her mind found the location before it finished loading. After several hours, the process of tracking down missing exemplars had become streamlined. It sped things up considerably when Sakhr, aggravated at their slow progress, had finally given Winnie a human body—Sibyl’s specifically. Meanwhile, Sibyl sat camped on top of the plaque which lay between Winnie and Sakhr. That woman took being a tortoise in stride. She didn’t flounder once or fail to use her legs correctly, nor had she complained. She slept while Sakhr frequently laid a hand on the plaque to read Winnie’s mind as she saw what Sakhr told her to see.
And she’d seen so much. All day, Sakhr had her standing by to look in one place or another. He’d had her eavesdrop on conversations between officers, diplomats, and ministers. Most had said nothing interesting, but occasionally one said something unpatriotic, sometimes about the failing empire, or sometimes about the strange rumors going around about Queen Helena. Winnie had also helped Sakhr locate over a hundred exemplars, and thereby condemn them to being hunted.
Winnie felt sick helping him like this. She’d tried slowing down, doing just enough work so that Sakhr didn’t consider her slacking, but since Sakhr was looking in her mind constantly, he saw what she was doing.
She thought of yanking the battery pack on the high exemplar plaque. It would be quick; Sakhr couldn’t possibly react fast enough to stop, but she knew if she considered the idea seriously, Sakhr would put her back in the tortoise. And what’s the point? He’d lose a single shield. And only until Paul gave in. In the meantime, Helena would suffer for it.
“Are you done yet?” Sakhr asked.
“Yeah, I see it. He’s not home.”
“Look at me.”
Winnie did so.
If Sakhr had any upset over her considered rebellions, he didn’t show it. “Look at his place of work. He’s stationed here.” He indicated an airport named “Incheon International” on his tablet.
Winnie pulled up the map. She zeroed in and began searching. The airport was a large place. It took her some time to search out all the security terminals where an exemplar might be posted, and then to check for any work logs in offices. She and Sakhr stared at each other the entire time.
During this search, there was a long moment of silence.
“Why don’t you and Alex get along?” she asked.
Sakhr kept his eyes locked on hers.
“I mean, it seems like you two argue all the time. Do you put up with him because of his power? Because—”
“No? No… that’s not the only reason you—”
“No. Stop talking. Focus.”
And that was that. In the many following hours, she and Sakhr didn’t say anything else that wasn’t directly related to his work. The repetition was exhausting, yet Sakhr kept her working right up to the point someone knocked on the door. Alexander.
Sakhr called him in, and Winnie was brought face to face with her own body once again. Only this time she was human too. He was within reach, and the only person in the world who could set it straight was sitting two feet from her. It was infuriating that there was nothing she could do.
Alex approached. “Your advisor is too afraid to come in here and tell you that your plane had been sitting on the landing pad for over twenty minutes.”
“Damnit.” Sakhr looked at the time. Half standing, he closed down the exemplar app.
“I’m surprised you’re okay with leaving,” said Alex.
“They’re not giving me much of a choice, are they?”
“You could just say fuck it. If the minister really needed to talk, he’d come to you.”
Sakhr grunted. He wasn’t interested in discussing it. Alex glanced at the tortoise.
“How’d she behave?” Alexander asked.
“Satisfactorily. You’ll take her back to her box. You won’t persuade her in any way.”
“Gotcha.” Alex approached.
For one baffling moment, Winnie thought Sakhr was going to let Alex take Sibyl away, but Sakhr stopped him. He took Sibyl off the plaque, rousing her from her sleep, and looked to Winnie.
Winnie hadn’t been her own body, but it had still been nice being human again. Sighing, she placed a hand on the tortoise. Sakhr placed his on top of hers. Her senses yanked away.
For one brief, brief moment, she thought she was looking out of Helena’s eyes, but no. She was in the tortoise. Her mind was noticeably sluggish once again. Alex picked her up none too gently. He carried her down several floors to the spire base, and then to the kitchenette. Helena was there in the box.
Alex approached, but he didn’t put Winnie down yet. He turned her around and looked at her face to face, except Winnie didn’t have to answer to him, so into her shell she went, covering her face with her stubby little legs.
“Don’t be like that,” Alex said. “Look me in the eyes.”
Winnie stayed as she was.
“Just because Sakhr is happy doesn’t mean you’re safe. Sooner or later, we’re going to have a master glyph. That means he won’t need you anymore.” Alex got closer to her. “Do you think he’ll care what happens to you then?” He said those last words slowly, as though making sure even tortoise ears could understand him. “So maybe you should be a little friendlier to me. Now open your eyes.”
“Open your eyes for her sake.”
Of course he was playing that same trick.
Moving her front feet aside, she looked back.
He studied her eyes. “Hmm. Interesting conversation you tried to start with him. I’ll remember that.” He studied her mind until satisfied, then set her down in the box. Helena was out and watching him.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “if Sakhr wants to pull you out again, you’re going to be a good girl and do what he wants. You don’t want him to bother me again.”
Helena was staring right at him. Alex noticed this.
“Well, look at you,” he said. “Still angry I see.”
Alex stared her down silently. Whatever Helena conveyed made him snort derisively.
“And what are you going to do about it?” he asked.
“Is that a promise?”
“Tall threats coming from a tiny tortoise. You really just don’t get it, do you? We’ve already won. No one can help you, and even if someone could, they wouldn’t, because no one cares about you, Helena. Not even your own mother.”
He paused. “Oh come now. Do you honestly still believe she might swoop in and rescue you? That she’ll make everything right, and you’ll go on being heir to the throne?” He patted her shell. Helena backpedaled and opened her mouth, ready to snap should his fingers get close enough. “Believe it or not, little girl, you’re actually better off. Haven’t you figured out yet why she always treated you so poorly? Your mother was just as capable of swapping bodies as we are. Victoria wasn’t her first body, and it wasn’t going to be her last. That’s what you were to her—a body—a receptacle for her when her current one got old. She never loved you. She never let herself, because you were just… a spare part.”
“I don’t have to,” he continued. “I figured it just from what I’ve seen in your head. Why do you think she never bothered teaching you how to rule? Most heirs spend their entire childhoods learning about politics and rulership. You spent it shopping. The only thing you ever had to work for was your body. All that basketball and jogging was to keep Victoria’s future body nice and tight for her while her own ass grew bigger every day. I knew her as a child, kiddo. Your mother was obsessed with her own looks, and this is just like her. And the clever part about choosing her own daughter is that you’re already the heir. She never has to explain bodyswapping to the rest of the world.”
Alex stood. “You should be glad we killed her for you. What she did to you is more cruel than anything I could ever do. So how about you cut the attitude.”
He headed to the door. “Anyway, goodnight. Sleep tight.” He switched off the lights and left.
Helena remained staring straight at where Alex had been as though his words had petrified her. After a long pause, she rested down, and withdrew entirely into her shell.
Winnie wished she could say something, but she didn’t what she’d say. Nothing would make Alex’s words hurt less, because there was one irrefutable fact about them: they were true. Winnie saw that. Helena saw that. It explained too much too well.
There were so many times Helena had bragged to Winnie about their future together, so many times Helena talked about what she’d do once she became queen. Her entire life had been looking forward to that moment, but it wasn’t there anymore. It never had been. For the first time Helena saw her life for what it had always been: a tragic lie.
Winnie plodded over and tried to peek into Helena’s shell. She tried edging Helena’s feet out of the way of her face, but Helena resisted. Winnie only got a glance at her. Helena had pulled into her shell as far as she could. Whatever defiance—whatever fire—Helena had mustered was gone. She was just a tortoise now, defeated and helpless.
There was nothing Winnie could do. Helena simply wasn’t there.