66. A Grid Station

“Margot Baudin.”

That was the name on the card inside Winnie’s chest pocket. It was her only picture ID, and unfortunately, it stated that she was an exemplar, which was why Winnie had to wait on a bench at a grid station while Victoria managed their travel affairs. It left Winnie with time to look over her new body.

Beside the ID, there was also a credit card, a grid pass, About eighty dollars, a few Argentinian pesos, and a punch card for a local grocery store. Margot had been two sandwiches away from a free one. Tucked away behind the dollars was a blank check, a health insurance card, and another credit card which didn’t look like it got much use. She must have been a responsible woman. It was a backup card for when she got in trouble, but nothing had prepared Margot for this.

Realistically, Winnie knew that Margot had already been dead for days when Victoria stole the body for Winnie. Some detainee or prisoner had been masquerading in it. That didn’t make Winnie feel better though. She turned her mind to check other pockets. Apart from a pen and some lip balm, Margot had nothing else. The previous body thief probably hadn’t had time to fill her pockets when Alexander called the exemplars out of bed. Only her phone and wallet, and Victoria had made Winnie throw away the phone.

With her possessions checked over, Winnie turned her mind once again to look at herself. She was a white woman. Twenty-six according to her ID. She was healthy and objectively attractive, though not nearly as athletic as Winnie’s original body. Victoria had stolen a few items from laundry lines and demanded Winnie change out of her exemplar uniform. Winnie had been self conscious about getting naked in front of Victoria, even though the body wasn’t hers.

The resulting hodgepodge of clothing fit poorly, but it was decent enough. Anyone glancing would see a bored woman waiting on a bench. Nothing more. Winnie checked again what Victoria was up to. She wasn’t buying grid tickets like Winnie had first thought, but rather renting a hopper. That made sense; it would be more private.

Victoria clearly had a plan. It was comforting to an extent, but given everything Winnie had learned about her, she wondered if Victoria’s plan was meant to help anyone except herself. A woman capable of using her own daughter for spare parts was not someone who rescued Winnie for Winnie’s benefit.

Victoria finished. She return and marched past Winnie. “Come.”

Winnie hurried after.

They reached the rental area. A central platform overlooked a lot filled with rows of hopper carriages, varying in color and design. In the early morning dark, the shuttles were little more than shapes to Winnie’s eyes, but after a week stuck with inferior tortoise vision, she’d taken to reflexively supplementing her own vision with her flair. As a result, she saw each hopper in perfect detail, despite the platform’s glaring fluorescents blinding her. She supposed Victoria would be proud under other circumstances.

At an automated kiosk, Victoria held a card against a scanner. It beeped, and a single coach lifted from the others and arced to the valet pad as though a hand had plucked it and carried it over.

They climbed inside. It was a four seater, arranged so that the two pairs of seats faced each other over a wall-mounted table. The leather reeked of freshener. With the doors closed, Victoria tapped a panel mounted beside the table, which lit up with a navigation menu. Winnie watched Victoria input a destination.

“Panama City?” Winnie asked.

“At first. We’ll travel by car from there.”

“But why so far?”

“Because Sakhr knows I’m here now. He’ll be looking for me.”

“Okay, but what about Helena? Are we going to rescue her too?”

“No. Too much risk.”

“Or is it because you don’t care?”

Victoria regarded her. “Whether I care or not, it would be suicidal. I couldn’t rescue you either until you escaped. All it would take is a single exemplar, or a bundle of wall bots, and they’d have me. And that was when Sakhr was only suspicious that I was alive. Now he knows for sure.”

“But you don’t care, right? He has your daughter, but it’s just her body you care about?”

“Is this a discussion you want to have now?”

“What discussion? The one on how you were raising your daughter just to steal her body? It’s true, isn’t it? That is what you were going to do?”

“Yes.”

She answered so matter-of-factly, as though confirming her own name. The neutrality of it made Winnie want to attack her.

“How could you possibly do something like that? She’s your own daughter.”

“I was going to need another body eventually. Her being a physical heir would provide an ideal body to rule from that the public would not question.”

“But that’s the most evil thing I’ve ever heard of! You let her believe that she had a future, but she was like cattle to you. You’re worse than Sakhr.”

“And you are neglecting the scope of the situation. What I was doing would cause the suffering of a single person. Sakhr and Alex have stolen the bodies of dozens of innocents in just this week. The only reason you’re weighing my choices regarding Helena as worse is because you know her personally.”

“No. It’s because she’s your own daughter.”

“I birthed her for the explicit purpose of creating a body. I didn’t decide this after she was alive, when I might have loved her.”

“That makes it worse.”

“It is only your bias that makes it seem so. Helena is one person—one person who happens to be physically related to the body I was occupying at the time. Look at the bigger scale, Winnie.”

“Okay. You mean like how you started the war? How you got billions of people killed, including my own dad?”

“That is a more suitable grievance to be angry at me about, but that’s still a matter of scope. I made billions suffer in order to prevent the suffering of trillions.”

“So you have an excuse for every horrible thing you’ve ever done?”

“I have a rationale, yes. I have made hard decisions. Perhaps if I die, I will suffer for them in whatever afterlife there may be, or perhaps I’ll live long enough to see my plans to fruition, and then my contribution to this world will be a net benefit.”

“You’re a monster. You think you had the right to decide that so many people should die?”

“The right? No. There’s no such thing as a right. They’re just privileges a higher power has decided to give people regardless of whether or not they deserve them. I don’t have rights because there is no power higher than me. What I had was the power to do what I did.”

The fact that Victoria’s temper wasn’t rising was the most infuriating part about this argument. She wasn’t defensive, or upset. She genuinely believed she was right. Winnie was just being irrational.

She wondered what would happen if she got out of the hopper and just walked away. Victoria would drag her back, wouldn’t she? Winnie was an asset—one that couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

“Winnie…” Victoria said. Winnie realized she’d been looking the queen in the eyes. “You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t even have to like me. Just realize that right now I’m the lesser of two evils. There’s me, and there’s Sakhr. And whether you like it or not, you have to choose a side, because they’re not going to let you stand on the sidelines.”

“They still have Helena. Maybe you don’t care about her, but I do, and if you’re not going to help her, then I’m better off going my own. Maybe I should turn myself back in.”

“Don’t be idiotic. There’s nothing you can do for her.”

“Not with you, because you don’t care that she’s in the hands of a psychopath.”

“No, she’s not, Winnie. Look. Put your mind in the officer’s quarters in the rear starboard spire. The third floor. Largest quarters.”

Winnie did so, reluctantly. It felt dirty taking orders like that, especially when Victoria maintained eye contact like this were just another lesson. Winnie found the correct floor. It was a dark room with a larger bed than other quarters, nearly luxurious if one ignored the miniature size. Christof was laying in the bed, eyes open, staring up at the ceiling. His military uniform was draped over a work chair.

“Look in his bathroom,” Victoria said.

She did. It was barely large enough for two standing people, but it did have a corner shower with two glass walls. Its door was barricaded closed with a foot locker, because in the shower’s center was Helena. She was fully pulled into her shell again, just as she’d been before Winnie convinced her to try escaping, only now she was completely alone, and escape was impossible.

“But she’s safe,” Victoria said. “If you’d been watching your enemies more closely, you’d know Christof refused to give her back to Alexander.”

“Yeah, but how long will that last? Helena bit Alex. He’s going to want her back.”

“Probably, but if any one of Sakhr’s ilk will take care of her, it’s Christof. He won’t give her up easily. Think rationally. Do you really think turning yourself in will help her?”

It wouldn’t. It had been an empty threat when she said it. “We could save her. I almost managed to save both of us alone, and we were only tortoises then. We can go back in.”

“No, Winnie. You escaped through sheer luck. They’re on alert now, and by this time tomorrow, Sakhr will have addressed the lax behavior of his subordinates—behavior I was planning to exploit for myself, but now we can’t. Believe me, Winnie, if I could safely get in, I would, if only to save Paul. Sakhr is being much, much worse to him than he is to Helena.”

“No. You only want to save Paul because you don’t want Sakhr to have his glyph. If you actually cared about him, you wouldn’t have put him in a tortoise.”

“I consider Paul my friend despite that. He had left me little choice in the matter, and I’d save him anyway, Winnie. I’d save you all, including Helena if it were feasible. Despite whatever you may think of me, I am not Sakhr. I have never once resorted to torture.”

Winnie eyes were turned away from Victoria’s gaze. She was still trying to think of some way to save Helena. They might fly in as birds and swoop Helena out of there, except the windows and doors were closed. The exemplars were all awake. The citadel was still on alert. No matter how much Winnie hated it, she couldn’t do anything for Helena.

“Stay with me,” said Victoria. “I know you’re angry with me. Just understand that if you run off now, they will catch you. Sakhr is a too great a foe. He’s clever. He’s powerful, and above all else, he’s careful. You’ll never beat him. No one has gotten the best of him in thousands of years, except for me. I’m better than him, and I will beat him again. I’ll put an end to this mess—the one that you created—but I need your help, and if you fall into his hands again, he’s going to use you against me. So, are you going to storm off? Or can we get moving?”

Winnie already knew her answer. She just didn’t like it. And if Victoria actually needed Winnie’s help, then maybe Winnie could have some control over Helena’s future. Maybe.

Briefly, she let her gaze meet Victoria’s.

It was all Victoria needed. She confirmed the destination on the menu, and the coach lifted into the air. Panama City was nine hours away.

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