69. Your Session Has Expired

Mind clear.

Nothing.

All Winnie knew of was what her natural senses told her. The air was cool and dry. Wind whispered from the car’s air conditioning vents. Children shrieked and giggled in the park outside. The leather seats crinkled beneath her with every shift she made. She was sitting in a rental car that Victoria had picked up after they got off the repulse grid, and they’d stopped at a market in Mexico. Victoria was picking up supplies while Winnie was supposed to be practicing.

First, her warmup exercise. Winnie visualized the kitchenette where Alex had kept her and Winnie. No trouble. She didn’t even know whether the citadel had moved or not; her mind went straight there.

Next, she visualized the moon landing. There were the footprints and the bleached American flag. Everything looked the same, except for being dark. The earth glowed high above in the moon’s sky. Asia was facing the moon right now.

Next, she visualized a hopper that had been traveling ahead of her and Victoria during the South American leg of their trip. It had originally contained a young couple who’d argued in Portugese. It seemed like they were on a vacation. When Winnie visualized that hopper, she didn’t look at it as a whole, but rather she looked inside of it to see if the couple were still there. They weren’t. When Winnie pulled her focus away, she saw the the hopper was parked in a lot in Honduras. That was progress. Yesterday, she would not have been able to pull that hopper into mind without first knowing where it was, but this was progress she’d made hours ago.

Her next goal was to visualize Victoria’s tattoo. She was somewhere in the market across the street from where they’d landed, but where she was exactly didn’t matter. Her current teenage body had a tattoo around her belly button. Winnie visualized her mind right against Victoria’s belly, staring down at her naval ash though it were a crater upon a landscape. It worked. Winnie saw it, which of course she did, Winnie thought. Winnie knew exactly where Victoria’s naval was relative to her body, just as she knew where the moon landing was relative to the moon. Only now she needed to expand her view and see the world outside this torso landscape.

She saw Victoria’s baggy T-shirt. Other tattoos lined her arms. Her hair was pulled back in a pony tail. Then Winnie looked into the “sky”. Victoria was looking over dried and withered mangos. She was picking from a selection, watched over by a merchant who ignored her upturned disgust to favor other customers. More details washed in. Around her were other bins of equally frail fruits. It was the southeast corner of the market, where naturally grown foods were sold at astronomical prices.

Winnie checked that she wasn’t imagining any of this. She wasn’t. Victoria was in the same place when Winnie visualized the market separately.

That technically meant Winnie had just made a breakthrough. Victoria’s idea had been to imagine people more like astral bodies, and to instead locate something on them instead of them themselves. And it had worked.

She located Victoria. It had been that simple—underwhelming given the months of practice leading up to this. Victoria had said that when it finally happened, it would be as simple as something clicking into place—just a subtle change that made it right.

She tried it again on her mother by focusing upon her mother’s nose. Upon seeing it, she pulled away with much less careful mental preparation. Her mother was sitting on the couch at home. It didn’t seem like she was doing anything at all—another space out. Winnie had written her a message, but it looked like her mother hadn’t read it yet. She was notoriously slow about that. It was frustrating that she could have proof that her daughter was alive if she’d just grab the tablet on the side table right there. What mattered was that Winnie had succeeded once again in locating someone.

She tried yet again. This time, she focused on the naval of her original body, the one Alex had stolen from her. She hardly had to focus on it at all before taking all of the surrounding scene into mind. Alex was seated on a bed with legs curled beneath him as though fitting into the preteen girl persona.

But the bed he was on was… her bed?

Details flooded in quickly. Alex was in her dorm room on the Lakiran campus, looking through her tablet. Why? The campus was still evacuated. He shouldn’t be there. No one should. He was alone apart from the security team and the shuttle that brought him here.

He was paging through her contact list. With each entry, he opened the page and studied their info. One was Ray Mackerson, a boy she knew from Seattle. Alex paged down to look at what screen names, email addresses, and personal info was available. Every person Winnie knew would be on that list. Page after page of hostages.

Winnie snatched up Victoria’s tablet. She browsed to the same website. Her frantic hands failed the login password twice before she got in. Alex meanwhile had moved onto the next contact—a girl Winnie hardly knew from highschool. Alex only had to check her comment history to see who she was closest with. He’d know every person she even remotely cared about.

A message popped up warning her that this device had never been used with this account before. She had to type in more information before getting in. Her hands raced over the touch pad.

The next contact: Nava. She’d been on the cheerleading team with Winnie. With interest, Alex studied a picture containing both Nava and Winnie.

Winnie got in. She scanned for a “Change Password” page, filled out the form, and submitted.

When Alex tabbed back to the contact list, he was greeted by a new page.

Your session has expired.

A smile crept onto Alex’s face. “Someone’s watching, aren’t they? Thought you might.”

He minimized the browser. On the tablet’s desktop were many social media apps, all connected with friends or family in some way. Winnie would have to change the passwords on all of them. No. She’d have to delete them.

Alex clicked on her phone app, and Winnie immediately browsed for that app’s website. As she was logging on, Alex perused through her call history. Page after page of calls to the same number: her mother. She was the only person Winnie used this app for. All of her friends used something more modern, but her mother was slow to adopt. Alex pressed redial.

Winnie’s mind was already there when her mother’s tablet jingled. Her mother glanced at the caller ID, then explosively snatched the tablet up.

“Eun-Yeon?”

“Hi, Mom,” Alex said.

“Eun-Yeon? It’s you? I thought you were dead. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“What’s been going on? I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“I know. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to call until now. Security and all, you know?”

Winnie listened as she navigated through the phone app’s website. Alex wasn’t speaking like Winnie. He had an accent which he couldn’t quite hide. His word choices were wrong. He called her Mom. Until now, Alex hadn’t spoken to anyone who’d notice, but her mother might. Winnie could hope.

“What’s happening over there?”

“Oh, you know… Terrorist attacks.”

“Were you there? Where were you? Where are you now?”

“I was on the campus. There were a lot of soldiers, but everything is fine now. Security is still really high though.”

“Do you want to come home?” Her mother held her breath in hope. Winnie hit the submit button on the password change form. It confirmed.

“No, mom. I can’t come home right now, but I want to see you. Do you think you could visit me here?”

“Of course, sweetie. Would that be allowed? When should I come?”

The call wasn’t ending. Was it because it was already connected? Then what was Winnie supposed to do? The damage was being done now, not in a future call. She had to interrupt this one. But how? Call her mother while she was still on the phone with Alex? It might work, but Victoria had forbidden that.

Screw it. Winnie wasn’t going to let Alex get her mother just because of Victoria’s selfish rules.

As Alex and her mother worked out travel details, Winnie downloaded the app and logged on, hoping it might boot Alex.

It didn’t. She hovered her finger over the call button. Should she call right now? Alex might convince her mother not to pick up. The conversation seemed like it was ending anyway.

“I’ll be on the next flight out,” her mother said. “I just need to check my passport. It might be expired.”

“You don’t need a passport, mom. It’s the same empire.”

“Oh right.”

“I’ll make sure someone is there to meet you at Piaco airport. Just email me once you know your flight.”

“Oh! I’ll need to let Mary know I won’t be free this weekend.”

Alex shrugged carelessly, having no idea who Mary was. “Okay. I’ll see you soon then.”

Winnie’s mother rose and hurried toward the bedroom.

Hanging up, Alex looked up and addressed the empty air. “You get the idea, don’t you? Mumsy is on her way. How pleasant that visit will be is entirely up to you.”

Winnie pressed the dial button. The tablet chimed at her mother’s house. Her mother caught her step and turned back, confused.

“All I want you to do,” Alex continued, “is tell us where you are.”

Her mother accepted the call. “Did you forget something?”

Winnie’s voice caught. She hadn’t thought about how to approach this.

Alex kept addressing no one. “We want Victoria. Not you. Help us get her and everyone you know will be okay forever more. You have my word.”

“Hello?” her mother asked.

Eomeoni?” she said.

Mother frowned. “Who is this?”

“It’s me, eomma.” She spoke Korean. “Listen, I know you think we just talked on the phone, but it wasn’t me.”

“What?”

“There’s been a takeover in the empire. The person you just talked to… I know it sounded just like me, but it wasn’t. You can’t come to the empire. They’re going to take you hostage.”

“Hostage? Who is this?”

“It’s me.”

“You don’t sound like my daughter. What is this about?”

“Please, eomma. I can prove its me. Ask me anything that only I would know.”

Mother stared at her tablet, then tapped the camera button. Winnie’s tablet prompted her to start a video call.

“No. I’m sorry. I can’t… I don’t have a camera on this tablet. I can see you though. I have my flair.”

Mother hung up. Winnie kept her mind on her, but split her attention to check Alex. He was still busy talking to an empty room, outlining exactly how Winnie was supposed to help him, and what would happen if she didn’t. Her mother was staring bewilderedly at her tablet. She moved to call Winnie, but hesitated.

Winnie redialed. She couldn’t risk that call going through to Alex.

Mother answered.

“It’s me again. Please don’t hang up.”

“Stop this,” she said. “I want to talk to my daughter.”

“It is me. I can see you with my flair. You’re wearing a green blouse and your black skirt, the one you replaced after you spilled sauté over it at Mary’s. You bought those bracelets from before the war when you and dad got lost that one time upstate. You always joke about how they didn’t use money there. All the antique stores just traded antiques back and forth like currency. Remember?”

Her mother looked around the room as though someone were over her shoulder.

“Please, listen. The bombing that happened last week was part of a coup. They’re making it seem like Queen Helena is in control, but she’s not.” Winnie stopped. If she kept on this track, she’d have to explain everything, from being a tortoise to being on the run with the queen, who wore the body of a teenage girl with a tattoo addiction. The more she’d explain, the less believable the story would sound. “I’m with people loyal to the queen right now. But the people who took over are trying to get to you because they want to control me. And if you don’t come to them, then they might come get you. That’s why you need to go into hiding.”

“Hiding?”

“Yeah.” This call was one hell of an unprepared mess. “With one of your friends that I don’t know about. Or go farther. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. I’ll know where you go though. I’ll find you with my power once everything is okay.”

“Why are you doing this? I want to speak to my daughter.”

“This is me.”

“No, it’s not. You sound nothing like her. This is not funny. Please, stop or I’ll call the police.”

“Please, eomma. I can prove it.”

“No. Stop this.”

“Just ask me—”

The car door opened. Victoria glared at Winnie.

“I have to go.” Winnie stabbed the end call button. She set the tablet back onto Victoria’s seat, remembered she was still logged on, and hurriedly began logging off. Victoria watched with piercing disappointment. Once Winnie finished, Victoria climbed in, set down a bag of groceries, and shut the door.

“I’m sorry,” said Winnie.

Victoria stared back, lips tight.

“Actually, No.” Winnie met Victoria’s eye. “I’m not sorry. Did you see what Alex was threatening to do to my mom? I don’t care where you’re taking me, but I’m not going to stand by and let them get her.”

Victoria’s silence was nearly more than Winnie could bear, yet she held her ground, looking right at Victoria to show her all that had transpired. If Victoria had a problem with it, then Winnie could get out and walk.

Victoria set the car to self-drive. Once they were back on the road, Victoria took up her tablet, pulled up a different communication app and typed in Winnie’s mother’s contact number.

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked.

Victoria made the call. Mother was still on her couch back home staring at her tablet when the call popped up on the screen.

“Why are you calling her?” Winnie asked more forcefully. Victoria held up a finger for silence.

Her mother let the call ring. The caller listed on her phone was only a series of numbers, no screen name. Finally she accepted.

“Hello?”

“Is this Kim Hye-jun?” Victoria said.

“Yes?”

Winnie was ready to snap the tablet from Victoria the moment the conversation went sour.

“This is High Exemplar Liat Delacroix. It’s come to my attention that you received a call from your daughter moments ago.”

“Yes. Ehh… Someone else called me too. I’m not sure who they were.”

“Indeed. I’m afraid the first call you received was not your daughter.”

“What?”

“The terrorist agents who we believe were responsible for the Capital bombing have been contacting family members of several personnel closely associated with the queen. They’re using voice modulation to mimic voice patterns. This has happened to several people already.”

“I… I want to speak with my daughter.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible. We currently have a lockdown on all outside communication. She broke protocol contacting you.”

“Was that my daughter? It didn’t sound like her.”

“Winnie is suffering from a respiratory illness brought on by dust from the Capital bombing.”

“Oh. Is she going to be okay?”

Winnie wondered why her mother was buying all this. Victoria certainly sounded official, but didn’t her mother wonder why Victoria sounded like a teenager?

“She’ll be fine. What’s important right now is that under no circumstances are you to travel to the capital.”

“…Okay.”

“These agents are targeting your daughter because of her gift. There is a chance that they may come after you directly. If you ever planned to take a vacation, take it now. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going. No one. Your daughter will know where you are and we’ll contact you once this situation is resolved.”

“What? You want me to leave? I must speak with my daughter, please. How do I know you are who you say you are?”

“Kim Hye-jun-ssi, I am High Exemplar Liat. I work directly for the queen and am assisting in the resolution of this crisis. Do as I say.”

All of Winnie’s mother’s uncertainty washed away. “Yes. Of course. I’ll leave tonight.”

“Good. You will hear from us.”

Victoria hung up.

Winnie saw in her head as her mother practically lunged toward the bedroom. Her suitcase was out in seconds. She lined clothes and toiletries up on the bed. Winnie had no doubt it was to this vacation she was traveling to, not the capital. That final command from Victoria still lingered in the air like a bubble refusing to pop. It had weight that seemed to smother doubt. Even recalling the sound of Victoria’s voice caused the hair’s on Winnie’s neck to stand.

“Thank you,” Winnie said.

“Hmm. Next time use your head. I’m not going to do that for all your friends. Now…” Victoria leaned in and peered into Winnie’s eyes. Her head tilted in curiosity. “You just had a break through with your power, didn’t you?”

“Uh, I think?”

“Show me.”

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