2055, September 1st
Collapse + 6 years
The plane ride was eerily silent. The loudest noise Winnie could discern was wind whistling outside and tapping as Mr. Matthews typed on his plaque. She recalled flying on planes before the collapse, but those were louder than this. This plane had two sets of wings. They were short and flimsy, and had no jets or propellers. The plane had to be moving forward using repulse technology, though she wasn’t sure how it worked.
The interior was more like a small room than an airplane cabin. It had twelve plush leather seats, each with plenty of legroom. Winnie sat near Matthews. By her leg was her backpack. Despite hours of flight, she hadn’t gotten any homework done. She was too busy marveling at all this. Meanwhile, Matthews hardly glanced up from his plaque.
After four hours, the whining noise of a motor filled the cabin. Out the window, the wings were folding into the plane.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
“We’ve entered the grid,” Matthews said. “The plane is no longer flying itself.”
“Oh right.” Winnie had a rough understanding of how the repulse grid worked. Throughout Lakiran prime territory, a grid of massive repulse nodes mapped the land. Most were underground. There were no roads inside the capital. To travel, you got into a hopper carriage, which was nothing more than a glorified box registered with the repulse network. You’d input your destination, and the repulser nodes would work in synchrony to push the hopper through the air to your destination. It was all automatic, and countless commuters used it every day. The empire considered the repulser grid to be the first world wonder of the post-Collapse era.
It made sense that the grid would take over the plane. Having a plane fly itself among thousands of automated hoppers might spell disaster.
They descended into Porto Maná—the Lakiran capital. Winnie watched out the window. City buildings covered the landscape from suburbs to industrial parks. They were packed close together, without roads between them, though many had lush, green foliage filling the gaps like narrow parks.
Darting over the buildings were hopper carriages, small specks that moved in all different directions and elevations. They came and went from rooftops and vertical garages. The hoppers grew denser as the plane moved toward downtown. Glimmering skyscrapers with novel architecture were clustered together. The hoppers were like a cloud of gnats around the buildings. At this density, Winnie saw how they traveled in identical channels between the buildings, as though invisible roads were in the sky. Those were the chutes—designated pathways used by whatever servers guided the grid system. The hoppers split and merged from these chutes as seamlessly as flowing water.
The plane descended further, merging with the hoppers. Skyscrapers rushed past the window. Everything looked like a near collision to Winnie.
Then the buildings and hoppers disappeared. The plane was in open air. They were over the imperial campus.
It was a park with open grass fields, dense trees, and a large shimmering lake. Walking paths crisscrossed the park, leading between ivy-covered buildings. Winnie hadn’t seen so much green since before the Collapse. In the center of campus was a skyscraper. Its curved, sleek surface reflected the green campus beneath it. Winnie had seen the building countless times in news articles. It was the Capital Tower.
Her stomach twisted. This was actually happening. She was going to meet the queen. This morning, the most exciting thing she thought would happen today would be wearing her new dress.
Oh God. She was still wearing it. It was grossly inappropriate, but she hadn’t thought to change when they stopped by her house. People were supposed to dress formally when meeting the queen, not wear some cheap, trampy outfit they threw together themselves. She’d just have to wear her coat.
The plane landed in a multi-floor hangar at the base of the Capital Tower. It looked like a gigantic chrome shelf with airplanes and shuttles on each layer as though a child had posed his toys.
A row of imperial guards waited for them as they stepped from the plane. Their uniforms were military.
Mr. Matthews approached them. “Exemplar Matthews, here with Ms. Cho Eun-Yeong.”
A guard led them to a security terminal, just like in airports she remembered as a child, though in leu of an X-ray machine, guards scoured through every item in her backpack. They flipped through her school books and powered on her tablet. A female soldier frisked her, then led her into a windowless room along the side. After Winnie entered, they shut her in alone.
A glass wall divided the room. A metal table was in the middle such that half of it was on either side. A woman sat beyond the divider. Her stark-white coat was double breasted, with a V neck and a wide folded collar. She was an exemplar. Her plaque was on the table with her hands resting over it.
“Sit down,” the woman ordered. Her voice carried over an intercom. Winnie sat across from her and gazed about the room.
“Look me in the eyes,” the woman said.
No one had told Winnie that someone was going to read her mind. After Matthews had told her about the eye contact requirement, she’d avoided looking right at him. Even though this was just procedure, she met the woman’s eyes reluctantly. Her mind immediately drifted back to that night six years ago when the Lakirans took over her settlement. She’d held a rifle that day, and was ready to use it, but she hadn’t touched a gun since. The Lakirans took them away.
Gah. Don’t think about that.
Ocean. Ocean. Song. Song. Think of a song. Feel the rhythm. Do the maomao bounce with me. Did this help? Was it keeping her thoughts private? She wasn’t thinking about that night anymo—
Bounce to the rhythm, baby. Moamao dance with me. My maomao girls are all—
“What is your name?” the woman asked.
“I uh… I’m… My name is Cho Eun-Yeong.”
“Where are you from?”
“Redding, from California. Can I look away?”
“No. What is your purpose here?”
“I’m, uh… I’m here to see the queen.”
“I might have… Mr. Matthews says I might have a uh… flair, and he wants me to see her.”
“Do you have any other reason for being here?”
“Do you intend to break any laws while you are here?”
“Do you pose any threat to the queen or anyone else who resides in the Lakiran capital or campus residence?”
A still moment passed.
“You’re clear.” The exemplar sat back. Her severe expression lessened. “Welcome to the Capital, Ms. Cho. Proceed through that door.”
Winnie’s knees were weak when she stood. She thanked the woman, but unsure whether she was supposed to. Outside, the soldiers returned her backpack. Matthews was emerging from a similar room opposite from hers.
He approached. “Are you ready?”
“They searched you too?”
“Did they read your mind?”
“Don’t they trust you?”
Matthews smiled. “The queen didn’t get where she is today by trusting people. Shall we?”
Past the security terminal, a woman in a tight black business dress was sitting on a hallway bench with legs crossed. She rose when they approached.
“Madeline,” Mr. Matthews said, “I’d like you to meet Winnie. Winnie, this is Madeline Castillo.”
Madeline extended her hand and smiled. “Welcome to the Capital Tower, Winnie. I’m the queen’s assistant coordinator, and I’ll be escorting you to your appointment today. Did you have a pleasant flight?”
“It was okay.”
“I’m glad. Come with me. Ordinarily I’d give you a full tour of the tower, but I’m afraid we’re behind schedule. I’ll have to give you an abridged tour for now. The queen is nearly free.” She led Winnie down the hall. Matthew stayed behind.
“You’re not coming with me?” Winnie asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t have clearance, but I’ll see you tomorrow.” He headed off another direction.
Winnie wanted to call out, but then what? It’s not like she could change his mind, but the idea of heading on without him was daunting. He’d been her guide. Now she was alone to face the high queen.
Madeline was oblivious to Winnie’s anxiety. “The Capital Tower has acted as the heart of the empire since it’s inception five years ago. Originally, the building was commissioned to act as the new international headquarters for LakiraLabs, which was the company our queen owned and operated as CEO. They were relocating here from Tampa, Florida when the Collapse occurred. The tower wasn’t finished, and because of the infrastructural upsets, construction was halted for two years. The remaining floors were redesigned to transform this building into the Capital for Her Majesty’s empire.”
They reached a set of elevators. Madeline summoned one. The inside had curved glass walls which presented a dazzling view of the campus. It showed the lake mirroring the red evening sky. Beyond the campus, the city skyline stretched across the horizon, disappearing around the Capital Tower on either side. Around the globe, people were lucky to get any trees or plants to grow to any meaningful health, but it was as though the Collapse had forgotten to ruin this small corner of the world.
“There are sixty floors to the building,” Madeline said. “The first four are open to the public. The eighth floor, where we just were, is the security floor that attaches to the grid bay. From that floor up, you need special clearance. Floors five through thirty still house the headquarters for LakiraLabs. The floors above that were constructed later. They are the imperial ministry offices. All diplomats and ambassadors who stay with us stay there. The fifty-seventh floor, which we’re going to now, are where the queen conducts most of her public business. Press meetings are held here, and it’s where you’ll be meeting with her. The last two floors are the queen’s private quarters for her and her daughter.”
“Yes. Princess Helena.” Madeline steamrolled on. “There are some notable attractions. You’ve already seen the campus. Hundreds of thousands of man-hours have gone into creating it. The cold climate is a challenge even this far south, but thanks to state of the art engineering and biotechnology, the campus is the most verdant park on the continent. It houses all the natural Brazilian wildlife from the pre-collapse era. Also, the thirty-first through thirty-fifth floor house an indoor conservatory which fosters endangered wildlife from around the world as part of our efforts to restore the environment. If you have time after your meeting, I can take you to see it. It’s a breathtaking experience.”
“And if you’d like to eat before you leave, there’s a full restaurant on floor fifty. The menu rotates per day, but everything they make is amazing. We have the finest chefs in Brazil. Do you have any food allergies?”
“Fantastic. I’ll take you there afterward if you like. Oh, looks like we’re here.”
The elevator chimed. The door opened. The decor change was blatant. Art pieces decorated the walls. Targeted lights illuminated them. Drapes hung along the sides of each display as though each were a presentation of their own. She felt as though she were stepping into an art gallery.
Madeline led her through halls to a room with soft, blue carpeting and lounging sofas circling a coffee table. On one wall, flanked by massive windows, was a fireplace.
“Sit anywhere you like. Let me take your coat.”
Winnie froze. She clutched her puffy coat about her as Madeline waited, but it’s not like she could keep it on after Madeline pointed it out. Her red dress came into view. Madeline eyed it, but said nothing as she hung Winnie’s coat in a closet.
“Would you like anything to drink before I leave?” she asked.
“You will be meeting the queen alone. She’ll come here after she finishes with her current engagement.”
“No, I’m fine, but can I call my mom really quick?”
Madeline regarded her. “I can take you to an office with a phone, but you make it as short as possible. The queen will be here soon, and I don’t recommend you waste her time.”
“Oh. I’m fine then.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I’ll call later.” Winnie clutched her hands together in her lap.
Madeline studied Winnie. Her expression softened. “Have you had anything to eat or drink since getting on the plane?”
“Then have something to drink. It will calm you down. Do you like ginger ale?”
Madeline crossed to the bar in the corner. With tongs, she dropped ice cubes into a crystal glass and poured in ginger ale with expert flourish. After inserting a stirring stick, she placed the drink before Winnie on an engraved wooden coaster. It was the fanciest ginger ale Winnie had ever seen.
“You’ll be fine,” Madeline said. “The queen can be intimidating, but don’t worry. She’s looking forward to meeting you.” She left.
Time dragged. Winnie fidgeted and looked about. The coffee table was made of carved wood. As was the bar. Nothing in here looked like it came from an assembler, not even the glass. Did the queen even use assembled products? It was her company that made them so prevalent. Maybe it was a status thing.
She certainly was wealthy. The bar had a tub of ice cubes standing by. Either somebody prepared this room head of time, or the staff kept all rooms stocked at all times.
It also struck her how they actually left her alone. She could wander off if she wanted. It might be nice to find a bathroom. The longer she stewed, the more she thought about it. Maybe there was a guard right outside the door. Could she ask him about the bathroom?
According to her phone, forty minutes passed before voices approached. The door opened suddenly, and Queen Victoria entered.
Winnie recognized her from pictures. Photos showed her before audiences or with politicians. She’d be wearing extravagant clothes which wouldn’t be out of place at any fashion runway, except for how conservative they were. Her presence dominated. Her beauty was famous.
Here, in person, she looked like a mom. She wore a casual gown, her blond hair was let down, and she held a half-empty glass of white wine. Despite this, she strode as though she had the world’s rapt attention.
The queen didn’t look at Winnie. A small man in a business suit followed her in. He was mid sentence.
“…Doing this over and over again. Eventually they’ll stop making any deals at all. We’ll have another North African occupation on our hands.”
The queen crossed to a cabinet. From a shelf, she took some items and set them on the coffee table. They were a sketching book and a tin of pencils.
The man continued. “Why are you bothering at all? Their entire argument is that we’re dismantling their culture. If we just hold them to our export requirements, the party will fall apart on it’s own. Five years maybe.”
“Five years?” The queen kicked off her slippers and lounged on a couch across from Winnie. Her feet laid along its length. “Or ten?”
The man shrugged. “It will happen eventually. Within one generation at most.”
“A generation is twenty years. That’s twenty years for the People’s Liberation Army to recoup, and they’re constructing over five hundred greenhouses every single day. I’ll stick with my plan. Send them.” Victoria turned to Winnie. She studied her closely. Winnie tugged the hem of her dress lower.
The man spoke again. “They’re already threatening to—”
“Thank you, Mr. Fairgrieves. I’ve made my decision.” Her gaze never left Winnie.
The man glared at the back of Victoria’s head. He bowed. “I see you’re busy, ma’am. Perhaps we’ll continue this discussion tomorrow.”
“Perhaps,” Victoria replied loftily. She pulled the sketchbook into her lap and selected a pencil from a neat row inside the tin. Her attention was entirely on Winnie now.
With a clenched jaw, the man marched from the room.
And like that, Winnie was left alone with the queen.