The repulse grid relied upon large nodes spaced along the terrain. It used the same tripod method as any other ship, only the tripod was reversed. The nodes pushed the shuttles up from the ground, instead of pushing down on the ground from the shuttles. Because of limited range, that meant no hopper traveled more than about five hundred feet off the ground.
So as Victoria and Winnie traveled along the northern coast of South America, the view out the shuttle window showed beautiful stretches of beach. Winnie watched, though she opted to follow along in her mind. The details her flair provided were almost as vivid as what her eyes told her. One day, she might close her eyes and forget to ever open them again.
Winnie went between watching the passing scenery to envisioning Helena, who was still trapped in a shower. Christof had put in some leafy foods from a mess hall salad bar, but Helena wasn’t eating. At least Alex didn’t have her.
Winnie visited her mother occasionally. It was still night time in California, so Winnie had yet to see her awake, yet somehow, even in her sleep, her mother looked tense, as though in a fever. It wasn’t just Winnie’s imagination. Her mother had been trying to reach Winnie ever since the Capital Tower fell. Winnie’s phone lay in her dorm on the campus, which was still evacuated.
She brought her attention on herself. After nearly a week as a tortoise, she’d have thought she’d be used to being in another body, yet she still startled to see a blonde-haired, white, twenty-something woman resting her eyes.
Across from her, Victoria was staring directly at Winnie. Winnie opened her eyes to give Victoria a narrowed glare.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Victoria asked.
“I’m not tired.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I can’t sleep. This body is weird.”
“Did you try trying?”
“I don’t feel like sleeping, okay?”
“You’re too worried. Relax. Your mother will understand once all this is over.”
For the hundredth time, Winnie promised herself to never make accidental eye contact again.
“I could just call her,” Winnie said.
“Why? What if she tries to reach me and gets Alex instead? If I could just tell her I’m all right, she’d stop worrying.”
“How would you explain why you sound completely different? You can’t explain to her that you’ve swapped bodies.”
“Why not? I could prove who I am.”
“Let me clarify. I won’t let you reveal body swapping to others.”
“Don’t you think the secret is already out?”
“No.” Victoria leaned in. “And it will stay that way because neither Sakhr nor I will allow it to become common knowledge.”
“He’s swapped out at least two dozen exemplars.”
“And he’s threatened each of them with death if they so much as utter a word about body swapping.”
“…Because you both want to keep it to yourselves.”
“Can you imagine what would happen if the public knew that swapping bodies was possible?”
Winnie considered it. Hell would certainly break loose, but she doubted Victoria actually cared. If people knew about body swapping, they might figure out she was planning to steal her own daughter’s life to continue her reign.
“Okay, then I won’t tell my mom that,” Winnie said. “I just want to let her know I’m okay.”
“I’m sure you do, but calling her while in another body will only confuse her. You can contact her after I retake the throne.”
“Will I have my own body back then?”
“If you work with me, then yes, assuming we can.”
“In the meantime, my mom has to live wondering what happened to her only daughter.”
Victoria regarded her coolly. “If you absolutely must, you can write your mother an email after we’re off the grid. Explain that you haven’t been able to reach out because of increased security, but that you’re okay. Then tell her you probably won’t be able to contact her for a while. I will read this email before you send it. Satisfactory?”
“Good. Now go to sleep. I need you rested.”
“I need to keep my eye on Sakhr constantly now, and sooner or later, my body is going to need sleep. I need you rested so we can swap bodies. I’ll watch Sakhr. You’ll sleep for both of us.”
“…You can do that?”
“Yes. Sleep is for the brain, not the mind.”
“So we’re all going to be swapping bodies back and forth this whole time? Won’t that be… you know, weird?”
“After a while, you’ll start to see bodies more as accessories.”
Winnie hoped she never got that way, or if ever she got her own body back, it wouldn’t be a part of her anymore. It was just a housing.
Victoria sensed her unease. “We’ll only keep it up until we’re out of secure empire space. Right now, all it would take is one word from Sakhr, and this coach would get stuck in a holding pattern. I need watch him so I can get this hopper on the ground immediately in case he finds us.”
“Do you want help?”
“No thank you.” Victoria turned her gaze back to Winnie. “But there is something you can do though if you’re not going to sleep.”
“How has your practice been coming?”
“You mean my flair? I’ve been using it a lot. I got better at seeing through occlusions when I was in the river.”
“But you’re still seeing with your gift? You’re not simply knowing? Are you still using your ‘camera’ point of view?”
Victoria frowned. “How much time did you spend on your exercises?”
“My exercises? This week?”
“Uh, well, maybe you didn’t notice, but I spent most of the week as a tortoise.”
“It only means you had nothing else to do.”
“Are you serious? I thought you were dead. If I’d practiced, the only person I’d have helped is Sakhr.”
Victoria considered this. “Fair enough. I will accept that excuse for shirking your lessons.”
“Let’s pick up where we left off. I’d like you focus on your locator exercises. I’ve had some thoughts on how we might—”
“You want to have a lesson right now?” Winnie said. “Aren’t there bigger things happening?”
“Which is why I need you to develop your power now more than ever. I’m trying to keep an eye on Sakhr, all of his followers, and the ministers and exemplars he interacts with. It’s difficult for me to do with your limitations.”
“What is your power anyway? I know you’re not the glyph writer. Sakhr said you could do anything.”
“Yes. I learn. All powers are mine, once I understand them. Except all I can do is mimic what others can do, which is why I need you to enhance your flair to improve our chances. Especially if you learn to locate and focus on people.”
“Why that one?”
“Because as it is, if I lose track of anyone, I have to relocate them all over again. It’s why I can’t afford to stop watching. More importantly, we’re headed to Canada to find someone. It would save us time if I didn’t have to search.”
“Develop your power and you’ll get to find out. Are you ready to begin?”
Winnie was unsure. She always knew that training her power ultimately benefited Victoria. Before, she hadn’t cared. Whereas now she wondered why so many flairs ended up as tortoises. If she refused, she was making herself useless to Victoria. She’d only be a liability.
On the other hand, Victoria jeopardized her own position to help Winnie. Winnie’s flair was important. It meant leverage.
“I have one condition,” Winnie said.
Amused, Victoria inclined her head. She stared piercingly at Winnie, which Winnie recognized as a demand for eye contact. There’d be plenty of that during a lesson anyway, so Winnie did so.
“I see.” Victoria pondered, then spoke, “Fine, but she will never rule.”
“Will she’ll get her own body back?”
“No. Her body has always been my property, but I will give her a suitable body, and she will keep her silence. As will you.”
As despicable as Winnie thought it was, it was probably the best she’d get. “Fine, then,” she replied.