WaferMesh. On Winnie’s website, several of her dresses used it. Living up north after the Collapse meant year-round winter, so unless people wanted to bundle in mittens and scarves for eternity, they used WaferMesh. Several version came out over the years, and each had its own variations in warmth, texture, and durability, but they all used the same general principle: instead of using thread, it was a lattice of synthetic fiber that created air pockets within waffle like layers. It was kind of like a sponge, but texturing kept it looking like fabric. The advantage was insulation without thick layering, so if anybody wanted to show off their form in the nuclear winter, they needed WaferMesh.
Winnie liked to think that was the reason her website was popular. Her clothes used WaferMesh, which wasn’t popular with designers down south, but vital for people farther north like she was. Also, she’d customized her site so that users could specify a kind of mesh before assembling, or even use standard synthetic cotton for those people in warmer climates.
Her experience also made her particularly apt at selecting outfits for herself and Victoria as their drifter car traveled farther north. She’d wanted to pick things from her own website. The sense of familiarity would be nice, but Victoria forbid it after one glance at her modeled clothes. Instead she picked a few bottom-line no-design long sleeved articles from the core library that not even a nun could complain about.
Then Victoria turned her nose up at the colors Winnie had picked.
“I asked you if you had any preferences,” Winnie said.
“I assumed you’d pick… earth colors.” Victoria held up a pair of bright yellow leggings.
“Color is in right now. We’ll look fine.”
“I suppose it will do.” Victoria peeled off her teeshirt and worked her arms through the sleeves of a green long sleeve shirt. “Change now.”
While Winnie was off collecting the clothes from an assembler station near their current rest stop, Victoria had inputted Ottawa into the car’s guidance system. It might be below freezing outside, but the guidance said they’d be spending another three toasty hours in the car.
“Why now?” Winnie asked.
“Because we’re not taking the car from here. We’re walking the rest of the way.”
Startled, Winnie looked around their vicinity with her mind. They had stopped in a community in upstate New York. It wasn’t much different than Redding—the town the Lakirans relocated Winnie and her mother to. It was large enough to reestablish a complete school and a hospital, and an assembler station where Winnie made the clothes. Also like Redding, the Lakirans had gathered all local holdouts of nuclear winter survivors and put them here to better manage law and resources. Being anywhere else in the region was against the law, at least it had been in Redding. Many people complained about that back home, but it made sense the way the Lakirans explained it. People outside of the city were outside of the empire’s thinly spread control. The empire couldn’t police them or protect them. The only people who’d realistically want that were raiders or warlords. And North America used to have plenty of both.
This meant that the only thing around this settlement were miles of abandoned towns, broken down roads, and forests of dead trees. But if their destination had been in town, they wouldn’t need the clothes. The community was small enough that they could have walked there by now.
“How far are we going?” Winnie asked.
“A few miles. Did you get my other package?”
“This?” Winnie took out a small assembled radio pack. “What’s it for?”
“You’ll see. Change.”
In the warmth of the car, they donned insulating clothes. Victoria opened the door and ushered Winnie out. Before stepping out herself, she instructed the drifter car to begin its trip. Once the door was closed, the car lifted and silently glided out of the parking lot. All drifter cars were capable of driving themselves; it made returning rentals easy. But it was still a spooky sight for Winnie. The purpose was clear. If anyone tracked down the car, they’d be in the wrong country.
Thus began their hike. They climbed on hands and knees over a snowbank alongside the parking lot. Beyond that was a forest with two feet of snow encrusted with ice. With every other step, Winnie would crunch through into soft snow beneath. Powder would clump along the rim of her boots. Five minutes of walking and her red WaferMesh leggings were soaking through. Wet cold was creeping down her ankle.
“My socks are wet,” she said.
“Deal with it.”
“I wish you would have told me we were going to walk through snow.”
“These clothes will do fine. It’s not much farther.”
Or so Victoria said. Winnie scanned ahead. If Victoria was bee lining to their destination, which it seemed like she was, that put at least another three miles of snow slogging ahead of them. After that, an abandoned town.
Winnie occupied herself by darting her mind from building to building looking for wherever they may be going to. It didn’t take her long. Footprints in the snow ambled all about the abandoned town ahead. Some followed circuitous paths back to the community they’d traveled come from. Winnie traced the prints to a cellar door. Inside was a makeshift living arrangement for one: a floor mattress, piled wood, coolers full of assembled food supplies. The resident was a woman who sat on the mattress curled up in blankets. She was reading a book with an electric lantern which rested on a nearby cardboard box. By the bed was a wood stove with a belly full of ash. The woman would only use the stove at night, when no one would see the smoke coming from the chimney. Winnie knew this because this was exactly how she lived years ago when it was just her, her mother, and a handful of famine survivors.
This woman was hiding from the Lakirans.
“Who is she?” Winnie asked.
Victoria kept walking. “High Exemplar Liat.”
By the time they arrived, Winnie remembered what it was like to be truly and miserably cold. It hadn’t been so bad in the woods. The trees had sheltered the wind, but in the ghost town, it cut through every bit of exposed skin she had. Her cheekbones ached. Her boots were soaked through, and her legs felt like two dead slabs of meat.
Victoria stopped one block from the cellar door. She was poised as though stalking a prey. Winnie came up behind her, sniffling and shivering, too cold to care.
“Liat Delacroix!” Victoria yelled.
Inside the cellar, Liat startled. Dropping her book, she pulled a magnum pistol from behind the mattress and took aim at the door. Winnie now understood now why they hadn’t just walked in. Liat scurried to a ladder leading into the house. She was going to run for it.
Victoria sighed. “Stay where you are,” she murmured to Winnie, then proceeded forward. Liat clambered into the kitchen. Ducking low, she scurried through the living room of the dilapidated house, glancing about as though under fire. One peek out the back window revealed the backyard to be clear, so the woman burst out the back door and sprinted toward the woods.
Victoria was right there. The woman spun in surprise. The gun raised.
“Drop your gun and kneel to me, Liat Delacroix.”
The magnum fell into the snow. Liat dropped to her knees. The words Victoria spoke had caused the hairs on Winnie’s neck to stand on end. They were the same words she’d used on Winnie’s mother; they had to be obeyed.
“…Your Majesty?” Liat asked.
Liat fell to her hands and crawled through the snow. She hugged Victoria’s ankles as though she’d never let them go, and she cried hysterically.
“Victoria, I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were dead. I couldn’t reach the others. Bishop said they were killing us, and then the army came after me.” She sobbed. “I didn’t know what to do. I just… I ran. I hid. I was going to—”
“Enough of this, Liat. Behave yourself.” Victoria shook Liat off her feet.
Liat smiled at this. “Sorry, Your Majesty.” She sat back on her haunches and took a deep solid breath, purging any emotional remnants. “I’m just really happy to see you.” Liat looked over Victoria’s teenage body. “How did you survive?”
“I ran out of bad luck at the last moment.”
“And Sakhr? Is he still…?”
“Yes. There is a buffoon on my throne.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“Of course I do.”
Liat nodded. “Good. I am yours if you’ll still have me. After taking orders for so long, I’d forgotten how exhausting life is figuring things out for yourself. Thank God you’re here.” She pressed her forehead to Victoria’s foot.
Victoria shook her off. “I said enough of that. Get up.”
Liat climbed to her feet. Snow caked her leggings. Winnie encroached on their little reunion. Both turned to face her.
“This is great and all,” Winnie said, “but can we go inside?”
The second floor of Liat’s hideout told a story. There were three bedrooms, a master, and two for children. In one, posters lined the walls, and a derelict computer sat at a wooden desk. Karate trophies filled a shelf—all junior level, meaningless accomplishments that would exist forever in attics and cellars after the child left home. The room spoke of a content childhood. The other bedroom was an infant’s, except that the crib had cardboard boxes in it. The room was used for storage. Winnie wondered if the reason for that was morbid, or simply because the infant grew up. Then why wasn’t the room converted to a bedroom? Maybe they didn’t have time before the Collapse.
“You’re procrastinating again,” Victoria said.
Winnie’s attention snapped back to the chore Victoria had given her. It was really just a flair exercise in disguise. Unfortunately, she was with Victoria in the master bedroom of the house, where Victoria and Liat were setting up the radio pack brought from town. Victoria’s aura sense let her know whenever Winnie procrastinated.
“I’m not seeing it,” Winnie said.
That was practically Victoria’s mantra.
“Have you tried?” Winnie asked. “The atmosphere is really freakin big. Try it.”
“I don’t have to. I know where they are. Show me what you’re doing.” Victoria looked at her pointedly.
Resigned, Winnie looked her in the eye and once again put her mind hundreds of miles above them. From up there, the earth’s curves were plain to see. The glowing blue sky was an aura about its surface. She once again began scouring around looking for a single ship supposedly coasting around up there. Even if there were no obstacles to block her view, it was akin to searching for a specific mote of dust on a clean floor.
“First of all,” Victoria said, “you’re looking much too far up. Their elevation is only twenty-eight kilometers, in the ozone layer.”
“I can’t see ozone.”
“Don’t try seeing anything. Sense. You already know how to ignore obstacles in your way. This is the same idea. Looking for a small thing in a big space should not hinder your power. Ignore the distance. That ship is the only thing up here. You should be able to spread your mind over the atmosphere and sense where the ship is.”
Winnie wasn’t sure what Victoria meant, but she tried something. She’d been advancing her own power to understand it wasn’t limited like a camera. It was awareness, just like her lessons had taught her. Her point of view could be omni directional. It could split up. It could read a closed book. It could both see a wall and see through it. Surely she should be able to see a single ship surrounded by miles of nothing.
She closed her eyes and tried—spread her mind, as Victoria had put it. Why not? She imagined a bubble thirty kilometers up in the air, the same size as a bubble created by a child with a bottle of soap and a bubble wand. She expanded this bubble, slowly at first as she made sure she visualized correctly. It was soon the size of a beach ball, then a house, then a stadium. All the while, she tried to sense anywhere the bubble was disturbed. She didn’t look for it. In fact, she made a point of closing off her “camera”. She felt for it like a spider sensing tremors on its web. Once it was the size of a large island, she started to sense pressure upon the bottom of the bubble. It was the thicker atmosphere, pushing on it with its winds and turbulence. Her bubble fluttered like tissue paper, so she stiffened it and expanded it farther. It became flatter as she stretched it, and it umbrellaed over much of Canada and New England before Winnie felt another disturbance. Just like a mote of dust sticking to a bubble. Something skirting the stratosphere had caught.
It was a small ship emblazoned the HIMS Venezia. Skirting through, she counted twelve airmen, and fifteen or so marines. The captain was standing in a minuscule bridge looking over a display table showing their present course. They’d be directly overhead in about twenty minutes, which would explain Victoria’s timetable.
In a cramped ready room off the bridge was High Exemplar Bishop. Winnie had met him before all of this had started. Here he was without his plaque, though he had an assembler-grade tablet and was paging through news articles about hacked glyphs.
“You’re gathering all of your exemplars,” Winnie said.
“So you found them. Show me. How did you do it?”
Winnie met her eyes.
“By touch. Interesting. That’s not what I meant for you to do.”
“It certainly did. Your power has evolved just now. I can see it.”
“We’re after Bishop, right?”
“I’m after everyone aboard that ship.”
Liat looked up from her wiring work. “Bishop is alive?”
“Yes. Is the radio set up?”
“I think so.”
“Then we’ll get started.” Victoria started tuning the portable radio’s dials.
“If you’re trying to reach them,” Winnie said, “you do see that Bishop is using the internet right now, right?”
Victoria didn’t look up from the dials. “Am I to send them an email to their imperially controlled email addresses? And you expect them to believe me?”
“Put your mind in the bridge, Winnie. Do you see the communications officer?”
Having found the ship once, Winnie was able to return immediately. “Is he the one with the huge headphones?”
“And do you see the short wave receiver frame on his dashboard?”
Winnie did. Victoria set their amateur radio to the same settings.
“Hey, you,” Victoria said. The officer didn’t react.
“Officer Malcolm Ruiz. I am addressing you.”
He hardly blinked. Victoria frowned and fiddled with the scanner.
“No. You got him,” Winnie said. Through eye contact, she conveyed how she’d been listening to the officer’s headphones.
Victoria tried again. “Listen to me, Lieutenant Ruiz. Flag down Exemplar Bishop. Put him on the comm.”
After hesitating, Ruiz opened an editor on his computer and began transcribing an abridged version of Victoria’s words.
“No. Stop that,” said Victoria. “Stop typing.”
“Good. Now turn around in your chair. Do it.”
Hesitantly, Ruiz did so.
“Now call out to Exemplar Bishop. He’s in the other room.”
“Why don’t you just tell him who you are?” asked Winnie.
“They think I’m dead, and the man already thinks this is a trick, but if this idiot would just get me Bishop…” She depressed the broadcast button again. “Call out to the high exemplar now.”
Winnie felt that tingle on her neck. Officer Ruiz instinctively opened his mouth to call, yet paused.
Then, “Captain. I’m picking up a strange message on shortwave.”
Victoria pinched the bridge of her nose. Apparently her mysterious command power wasn’t perfect.
Stephano and his XO moved closer. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“I’m not sure, sir. I think someone is trying to contact High Exemplar Bishop.”
In the other room, Bishop perked up. Thin walls it seemed. He set aside his tablet and came out.
Stephano was studying the comm officer’s console. “Shortwave, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir. A.M. It has to be local.”
“Is it repeating?”
“No, it’s live.”
“Let me hear it.”
“Yes, sir.” Ruiz tapped buttons. A gentle static sounded from the console.
“Was there anything more to the message?”
Victoria spoke. “No, Captain. I simply wish to speak to Bishop.”
Everyone on the bridge turned.
“Are we broadcasting, Lieutenant?”
“How are they hearing us?”
Bishop walked over. “It’s the far seeing glyph, Captain. Be careful. They can see and hear all of us.”
Stephano addressed the air. “Who is this?”
“If you would please put Bishop on the comm, Captain. This is a private conversation.”
Stephano turned to Bishop. “Do you know who they are?”
Bishop shook his head. “They have to be close to Sakhr. He won’t have shared that glyph with many.”
Victoria’s eyes were narrowed. “Sakhr, Bishop? Just how many imperial secrets have you been divulging?”
Bishop stared at the comm with wide eyes. “Give me the headset, Lieutenant.”
Stephano nodded to Ruiz, who passed the headphones over. A few console taps and the conversation was private.
“Who is this?” Bishop asked.
“You know who this is,” said Victoria, and there was that same undertone—the one that yanked at Winnie’s attention.
Bishop couldn’t help himself. He laughed a rich, joyful laugh.
“What have you told your men?”
“We’ve told them that we landed to pick up trusted allies,” replied Stephano. “Most of them haven’t seen you or those with you.”
“You didn’t tell them who I am?”
Stephano took his time answering this. “No, Your Majesty. To be frank, I don’t see why they would believe me. I’m still not sure what I believe myself.”
“I can swap bodies with you again if you like.”
“No! No. That’s fine. All I’m saying is I’ve decided to defer to your judgement regarding what to tell my men.”
“I see,” Victoria said. She and Captain Stephano were speaking in the captain’s ready room off the bridge. It was cramped enough that those two alone had their knees bumping together. Add in Stephano’s executive officer Rivera and High Exemplar Bishop, and the meeting was practically a telephone booth stuffing. Real-estate on a supersonic high-altitude vessel was expensive, and the ready room was only meant as a place for the captain to take calls or work privately.
As such, Winnie was not invited, not that it stopped her from listening in. Victoria’s first rule went out the window the moment Winnie learned Victoria’s plans for her daughter. She listened from her assigned rack. It used to belong to one of the marines who’d died on the Capital Tower, which put Winnie sleeping in the midst of a dozen men. Uncomfortable, but the men left her alone after she showed them her exemplar ID.
“We will tell the men,” Victoria said. “Bishop tells me that even they have those blasted hacked plaques. They’ll find out sooner rather than later. Let’s not let rumor complicate things.”
“They may not believe it?” Rivera said.
“They will. Don’t you two believe I’m the queen?”
“Yes,” Stephano said, “but we’ve been working closely with High Exemplar Bishop. It was good enough for me when he vouched for you. The crew don’t know him that well.”
“We will convince them all the same. We can’t expect them to act against the empire without knowing they’re on the correct side. They need to know that the current queen is not their ruler.”
“And who is this imposter, ma’am?” Stephano asked. “Sakhr, right? Bishop tells me he was someone you kept captive in the body of a tortoise, along with others.”
Victoria leveled a gaze at Bishop.
Bishop shrugged sheepishly. “I thought you were dead, Your Majesty.”
“He didn’t tell us enough,” Stephano added. “We’ve been trying to formulate a plan against this person, but he’s a complete unknown. What can you tell us about him?”
“He’s a two thousand year old flair.”
“He was Nubian, captured at a young age by slavers and sent to Egypt, where he spent years in servitude before discovering his power. Since then, he’s been wandering the earth collecting others like him. He’s careful. He’s paranoid, and he doesn’t like to take chances. At all.”
“Ah. Hmm. And he… if he’s in your daughter’s body, you’re daughter is…”
“So alive then?”
Stephano nodded. “That complicates things.” Winnie wondered if he was taking it at face value. If he dwelled on it, he’d come to the troublesome question of: why let your daughter inherit your throne if you can live forever. If he had, he wasn’t asking, just as Victoria hadn’t volunteered the part where she started the war that caused all these problems in the first place.
“What plans did you have before I contacted you?” Victoria asked.
“We didn’t have much of a plan until recently. I believe these hacked plaques represent an opportunity. If we can get our hands on them, we’d be able to communicate the truth about Sakhr to others. Because of the mind reading, there wouldn’t be any doubt as to the veracity of our claims.”
“You would have told the world about Sakhr and body swapping?” She looked at Bishop. “And you went along with this?”
“I thought you were dead.”
“I take it these are not secrets you wish divulged?” Stephano asked.
“Not unless absolutely necessary.”
“I understand, ma’am. Do you have a plan?”
“Yes, but we’ll need to pick up a few more people.”
“That’ll be a risk,” Rivera said. “Every time we land this craft, the empire might intercept us. As long as we stay at maximum speed up here, they can’t touch us. Is it possible for us to contact these other parties remotely? We have access to satellite internet. It’s spotty, but it’ll work. The empire can’t take that away from us.”
“No. These people I need to see in person. It will be a long overdue meeting.”