When Christof first saw the display mounted behind Sakhr’s desk, he mistook it for a collection of smaller screens, though it was actually a single surface spanning from waist to ceiling and wide enough for several to stand before it. It just happened to be displaying several small windows, each either Mobile Security drone footage or an overhead map display. Christof stepped up beside Sakhr and Sibyl and studied its displays.
They showed a building complex in Lyons, France. Glowing dots on the overhead map indicated a person. Other screens showed still images of people through apartment windows: a black family, an asian man, and a white woman with black hair. She was familiar, as though Christof had passed her on the street ages ago.
“Who is she?” Christof pointed the woman out.
“A flair.” Sakhr replied. “Victoria was tracking her before we escaped. Her name is Josephine.”
“Just Josephine. No records. The military lost track of her in all the chaos, but a few days ago someone reported her. From what I gather, the military has tried several times to bring her in.”
Sakhr offered Christof a tablet displaying the woman’s profile. It was sparse. Her physical description was the longest section. The rest was list of her known crimes, mostly break-ins of Lakiran facilities. Then there was a brief mention about her ability to manipulate minds. No one was to approach her directly.
“This is all you know?”
“A few soldiers knew more. She makes people forget about her. It limited Victoria’s knowledge base.”
“What do you want from me?”
“With her? Nothing.” Sakhr enlarged two windows. One showed a handcuffed girl waiting in a detention room somewhere else in the citadel. The other was of a woman, probably the girl’s mother, kept in a different room. They were the same family shown in the apartment photos. “Alex caught them away from the others. They arrived here last night. Apparently, the girl is some kind of glyph breaker, a major reason Victoria couldn’t catch this Josephine. And she’s possibly the answer to our prayers for these runaway glyphs.” He turned to Christof. “I want you to interrogate her?”
“Why don’t you get Alex? Isn’t he your resident thumb screw tightener?”
“Alex left last night for China to do God-knows-what. Talk to her. Look at her power if you can.”
“When you say she breaks glyphs, do you mean breaks breaks them. Do they come back?”
“No. The glyphs remain broken.”
“So you want me to risk my power—”
Sakhr turned to Sibyl. “Tell him.”
Sibyl spoke. “She’s been on the outskirts of my range all afternoon. Every time she gets within it, my power stutters. I can’t sense anyone. But it’s fine as soon as she’s out of range again.”
“Okay, but why should my power work if yours doesn’t?”
“Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t,” Sakhr said. “I’d do it myself, except I’m carrying my master glyph. So either you do this interview, or Alex does when he gets back.” Sakhr pointed out the girl, who now fiddled with her handcuffs. She was nearly the same age as Helena, the poor girl Christof kept in his shower because there was no safer place for her.
“You or Alex,” Sakhr said. “Your choice.”
Christof had an internet glyph card with him. It failed bit by bit. Empathy shut down in the elevator down to the holding area. Auras faded away like afterimages.
Flair-vision failed in the observation room adjacent to the girl’s room. He hardly noticed since his own flair-seeing ability failed simultaneously, and that one he felt. Looking at her was like biting into an apple only to discover it was a rock. It made his teeth clench. He averted his eyes and felt the comforting sense of his own power returning. The rigid, inferior mockery of his power that his glyphs provided didn’t return.
Since getting the card, it was a pleasure discovering no one else benefited from his power quite like he did.
When Christof entered the room with the girl, she looked up, and his mind reading glyph broke, though he didn’t feel that one. He was still occupied by the rock-biting sense his own power failure.
He sat. “Naema Madaki, right?”
“Ya. Who are you?”
Soldiers were watching. It took him a moment to remember his disguise. “General Soto.”
“Yes. Do you know why the empire has brought you here?”
“You tell me.”
“I could list the crimes you’ve committed over the past month. They just filled me in. Theft. Escaping detainment. Disruption of exemplar duties. But, I won’t pretend we actually care about any of that. You are a flair.”
“So, what? Are you going to steal my power now?”
“No. We were hoping you would like to work with us.”
“Are you serious?” She laughed. “You attacked me. That stupid girl said she would leave my mama if I came. Then she shot me with that thing.” She lifted her shirt to show a large purplish burn. “Now you took my mama anyway. Go die.”
She crossed her arms and glowered. Christof didn’t need an empathy to see what she was hiding. Her crossed arms hid trembling hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know about the circumstances of your arrest. I first heard about you thirty minutes ago, but I answer directly to the queen, and I’m going to do everything I can to help you. Okay?”
“Listen. You need my help, because no one else here is going to care what happens to you as much as I do.”
Did her smile falter? He wasn’t sure, but he hoped so. She might sense that he being genuine.
He pressed on. “Queen Victoria searched for flairs such as yourself. In return for cooperation, she provided them with citizenship, higher education, financial compensation… whatever she could do. She looked after them. Queen Helena wants to do the same.”
“Then let my mama go.”
“I’ll see what I can do, but we can do more than that. You were living in Nigeria, right? Recently occupied. Must be poor living conditions. We can help you, and your mother, and your brother gain citizenship in this country. We’d waive your past infractions. You’d have financial security. That means no more stealing food or looking over your shoulder. You and your brother would spend your time worrying about grades and college applications.”
“And I give you my power, right?”
“This isn’t a trade, Naema. We’d be on the same side. There’d be no hostages.”
“You have my mama right now. That girl threatened to kill her.”
God damnit, Alex. “I know he… she did. That’s why she’s been taken off your case. It’s me now. No more threats.”
“So I can say no? What happens to me then?”
Christof thought back two days ago. He’d spotted a crowd of airmen and medics on the top deck carting away an unrecognizable suicide victim. He’d only found out later it was Paul.
“I don’t know,” he said. “At the end of the day, you are charged with several crimes. Unless we waive those, you’d be looking at a prison sentence. But I can’t emphasize this enough. You have something we want. Use that. Bargain with us.”
“I told you, Bonga head. Let my mama go! You think you know what I want? Must be poor living conditions in Nigeria. You people showed up and took the place over. You went to each town, lining people up, dragging them away. Then you go and arrest anyone getting more food. Now you bring tiny bits of food for us to eat and tell us to be happy. We have less now. You make us fight over fake cassava. Look how you help.”
“I know. I know, truly. But I do want to help you.”
“You’re only here cause your queen girl wants my power.”
“That is why they sent me, yes, but that’s not why I’m here.” He leaned in. “I’m here because I’m afraid of what will happen to you if you don’t cooperate.”
That reached her; he could tell. She seemed to recede into her chair. And she had no quip to follow up. For a first interview, that was all he needed, just to convey the direness of her situation.
Christof rose. “We’ll talk later. I’ll see what I can do about your mother. Have you eaten?”
She didn’t answer.
“I’ll have them bring you some food.” He looked around. “And better conditions.”
“That won’t make me believe you.”
“Wouldn’t have expected it to.”
Back in Sakhr’s office. Alexander’s young female face was prominent on the display. No matter what body he was in, Christof always recognized that same smirk.
“Interesting tactic.” Alex’s voice came over the speakers. “If you wanted a friend, I wish you’d have told me. We don’t spend time together anymore.”
“You watched that, did you?”
Sakhr interjected. “Alex contacted me while you were with the girl. I’ve brought him up to speed.”
“And then we watched the tail end of your scholarship program,” said Alex. “She’s too set against us. You’ll never get her to play nice. Give her to me, and I’ll get you that glyph.”
“No,” Christof said plainly. Both Sakhr and Sibyl glanced at him. His aura was betraying how strongly he felt about that. He needed a damn shield. “Just give me time with her.”
“My way is quicker,” Alex replied.
“I don’t think her power can even be made into a glyph. It’ll just break itself. If that’s the case, you need the girl’s cooperation if you ever want her help.”
“Not necessarily…” Alex mused.
“Let me do this my way. Let’s talk about her mother.”
“We’re not releasing her,” Sakhr said.
“She’s useless to us,” Christof argued. “and she’s not guilty of anything.”
“We’re not releasing her. She could come in useful.”
“We could always find her again,” Christof said. “The mother isn’t like this Josephine. She can’t hide.”
“Unless she’s with Josephine,” Alex said. “They’re not going to fall for my trick again. Frankly, I don’t see why we need this girl at all,” Alex said. “All she does is gum up glyphs. That’ll hurt us more than more than anyone else.”
“I want her for Victoria,” Sakhr said.
“You don’t need her. You really want a girl walking around that’ll break your master glyphs?”
Sakhr considered this.
“Hold on,” said Christof. “Let’s not damn this girl just yet. Give me time with her. What’s the harm?” He looked at Sakhr, knowing full well he was letting Sakhr reading his mind. “Please.”
Sakhr relented. “Fine. She’s yours. Any promises you make you’ll run by me first, understood.”
“Waste of time if you ask me,” Alex said.
“It won’t be your time wasted,” Sakhr said. “But I’ll need you to make Christof a plaque with a shield. You’ve got that plaque assembler up and running now, yes?”
“I guess I can,” said Alex, “but he’ll just break it if he’s going to interview the girl again.”
“That’s the idea. I want to confirm whether she’s a shield breaker.”
“Okay. I just got back. Christof, swing by the imperial spire. I’ll take you to see the assembler. It’s neat.”
“I’d rather not.”
“I need you to come.” Alex pointed to the back of his own neck. “You’ll need one of those exemplar microchips.”
“The plaque doesn’t need that security feature.”
“Let’s not get sloppy.”
“I’m not coming, Alex. Just have it sent to me.”
Alex frowned at Christof like an exasperated parent. “Are you still upset about Paul?”
Christof stared back at him.
Sakhr broke the silence. “Just have one of your men send it over, Alex.”
“You want those shady guys holding a shield? Very sloppy.”
Sakhr’s tolerance was waning. “Sibyl will pick it up. Is that acceptable?” He looked around at her.
Alex shrugged. “I still think Christof is being childish.”
“It’s fine,” Sakhr said. “And you’ll make a shield for me as well.”
Sakhr dismissed the call. He turned to Sibyl “Head over there. And be quick.”
She nodded and left.
Sakhr was alone with Christof now. He took a calming breath, then motioned for Christof to sit.
Christof did so. “Did you say Alex was in China?”
“He was following up on a possible lead regarding a flair.”
“Did he find one?”
“No. Says it was a hoax.”
“Do you believe him?”
Sakhr didn’t reply.
Christof continued. “I’m concerned about Alex. He’s been acting more and more on his own. Those exemplars of his are downright hostile to everyone else. He’s isolating himself.”
“He’s a problem, Sakhr. He never was before because he needed you to stay alive, but that might not be true anymore. You’ve let him on too loose of a leash.”
“And this whole business with—”
“I know, Christof. I don’t need you to tell me all the ways Alexander is a growing liability.”
“Then why am I here?”
Sakhr stared Christof down. “Look at me.”
After centuries of living around Alex, doing so was against Christof’s habit, but he did so. Eye contact lasted until Sakhr satisfied himself with whatever he saw in Christof’s mind.
“I kept you here because I want to discuss what we’re going to do with this liability.”
“Ah,” said Christof. He understood now. The scan was a loyalty check. It was time for intrigue and politics.
Christof hated intrigue and politics