“Is this what you’re looking for?” asked the lieutenant.
Josephine squinted at the screen. Fourteen suspects detained at French border trying to violate border lockdown. Subjects released.
“No. I didn’t say border. I said Lyons. An operation in Lyons.”
The lieutenant craned to look at her. “But we don’t have any soldiers in Lyons. We evacuated the region.”
He glanced over the computer screen to where Tan lounged at a coffee desk. Tan chewed food bars he had found in a break room. Since Josephine started carrying a glyph card, it’d grown harder to get angry at him for acting so damn flippant during these excursions. He was tense. He just hid it well. The food, the cigarettes, and fidgeting were all to distract himself. They were in the heart of a Lakiran military base after all.
“What I’m looking for,” she said, “won’t be in the usual lists. This was special forces. They were using orbital pods. Would that be in here?”
“It would, but you need permission to see that? Where did you say you came from again?”
She wiped his memory. It took a few tries until all the suspicion drained from his aura. Now he was just confused. This was useless.
She wiped his mind of everything about herself. “Why are you sitting in my chair, Lieutenant?”
Startled, the lieutenant glanced up, saw the rank of Colonel on her sleeve, and hopped from the seat. “I’m sorry, sir.”
As he hurried away, she pulsed him again. He’d wander the halls with a lingering sense of having done something wrong.
Josephine tabbed through the database. The Lieutenant had been right. All she saw was a slew of arrests made during the evacuation. The only action in France now was along the border. Everyone detained for crossing illegally was released. No more arrests. They’d run out of places to hold people lately.
“Tan. You think you could help me?”
Tan tossed aside his food wrapper and meandered over. He grabbed the touch screen and laid it face up on the desk. Taking out a single cent euro, he flipped it in the air. It clinked onto the screen. He carefully plucked the coin, then tapped the screen where it had landed.
This took them to the main database menu.
He flipped again: Department list.
Again: Civil Protection Records.
That made no sense. Civil Protection wasn’t military. It protected political gatherings and oversaw places like embassies. Josephine said nothing though. That penny was landing with purpose. It’s next two flips landed on the same button: page down.
Next flip, Imperial domain. Now it made sense. Imperial domain was protection of the queen, but it might also involve assignments passed down by the queen directly—those led by exemplars.
After that, it entered a list of project code names. Most were obscure, but the last was blatantly clear.
Tan flipped the coin again; it landed on that project. Josephine took over, but a password screen came up as soon as she tapped it. With a sigh, she handed it back to Tan.
This time, he pulled out his bag of dice. He picked a twelve, an eight, and two six-sided ones. The system he had was complicated. Josephine had helped him form it through countless trial and error. Back when they started this, it only ever failed when the password contained characters his system couldn’t account for. Capital letters were the first stumbling block, then numbers, then special characters… It once failed them completely at a security console in India. Studying a keyboard later, Tan figured out it must have had a tilda, the corner keyboard button he’d overlooked until then. Nowadays, Tan’s system even incorporated potential unicode characters. Josephine lost track of the rules a while ago.
The password here was strong. The dice had him press a few function keys, but when he finally pressed the enter key, the filed opened.
Sakhr was in a conference about the state of the empire’s transportation infrastructure when his tablet vibrated. While the minister kept talking, Sakhr opened the alert.
Someone had just accessed the Naema file. It came from a terminal in West Spain apparently. Sakhr checked a map. It was farther away from Lyons than he had expected.
Josephine must have played it safe and not gone to the nearest military installation. Wise, perhaps, but not wise enough. Sakhr had no idea how Victoria had so much trouble catching this woman. This trap would have been obvious to him: a single file in a database that’s easy to find, but not too easy. The password protection was hard, but not harder than anything that Asian had proven capable of hacking.
He closed his tablet and turned his attention back to the ministers. If he got the alert, so did the response team.
“Ascension Island?” asked Oni.
“That’s what it said,” Josephine got in the car. Oni had been waiting three blocks away. He was in the driver’s seat as though he was the getaway driver, but when Tan opened the door and shooed him off, he crawled into the backseat without argument. Tan drove out of the parking lot. At the road, he flipped a coin. Heads. He turned right.
“Where is Ascension Island?” Oni asked.
“Off of Brazil, I think.”
Oni took out his phone. After some research, he spoke. “It’s in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”
“How big is it?” asked Josephine
“Five miles long, maybe? Why did they take my family there?”
“I don’t know,” Josephine replied.
“I thought you said they’d take my sister to the capital.”
“That’s what I thought. I guess not.”
“Maybe they’re getting rid of her. Her power ruins plaques. So they’re putting her far away.”
“Maybe,” Josephine said. “Or maybe they expect us to come after them. If we go there, we’d have a tough time getting away. They might have put her on that island just to trap us.”
“But we’re still going to save them, right?” Oni asked.
“Yes. We are.”
“I will not.” Tan had his eyes on the road. Reaching an intersection, he rolled a die on the dashboard, then kept straight. He didn’t say anything else.
“Tan,” Josephine said. “You know what happens if they keep Naema.”
“They won’t make glyph of her power? Her power break glyphs.”
“We need her. You know this.”
“No. She bring us trouble. Since you find her, Lakirans no leave us alone. She is trouble. All trouble.”
“That’s because the Lakiran’s know how much of a danger she could be to them.”
“I no care about danger to Lakirans,” said Tan. “She supposed to keep us safe, but she is only danger to us. Now we go to tiny island to save her again? Second time we save her. And it is a trap. They will catch us if we go. I will not.”
“Tan. You can’t leave on your own. We need to stick together.”
“No. Not anymore. We make glyphs of our powers. You give me yours. I give you mine. We say goodbye.”
“I don’t know if that’s how these glyphs work.”
“It is possible. Glyphs come from people. That is why the queen wants us.”
“I don’t know how to copy them.”
“I see my power in a mirror. And yours. I know you do too. We figure it out. It is possible.”
“Even if we could. Even if you had my power, do you really think you’ll be any safer? If you got into trouble, no one would—”
She trailed off when Tan slowed the car. Ahead, five Lakiran deployment pods blocked the road.
“Tan?” asked Josephine. “What was your game? Roll dice to choose your route. Get out of town without running into the empire, right?”
“Why did your power bring us here?”
He didn’t answer.
“Where are the people?” Oni asked.
He was right. No one was around. No soldiers, no cars. Nothing.
“What are they doing here?” asked Oni.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we take pods?” asked Tan.
“That can’t be right,” Josephine said. They could theoretically take the pods wherever they wished. They were in the European grid right now, but that had to be a terrible idea. Whoever’s pods these were would notice. They could contact air control have Josephine and the others put into holding patterns. Game over. But then, they were here. And they were oriented in such a way that Tan couldn’t drive past. The dice led them here for some reason.
“Flip a coin,” she said. “Heads we take them. Tails, we turn around.”
He flipped his coin. “Heads.”
“Really?” Josephine asked. “We’re supposed to steal deployment pods? That’s what your power wants us to do?”
Tan made a not-my-fault motion and indicated the coin.
“Okay then. Come on everybody.”
They got out and walked toward the pods. Josephine didn’t like this at all, but if there was a way out of this city, this was it. If there wasn’t—if they couldn’t win—then they might as well walk into the trap and save everyone time. But this had to be something. If there was genuinely no way to win the “get out of town safely” game, then Tan’s power wouldn’t bother working at all. His rolls would be random, and the chance of randomly finding pods with absent occupants was infinitesimal.
Next to one, Josephine leaned to look inside without stepping in. She tapped the screen. It showed the message, Remote access key not detected. They wouldn’t be able to ride these after all.
“Back to the car,” she said.
Two pops came from the woods. Pain exploded through Josephine’s side. Screaming, she collapsed. Her head struck the asphalt, causing stars to explode in her vision. Recovering, she felt her side. A small barbed flechette was stabbed into her. She yanked it out, but the little electric capacitor on its back had already discharged its payload.
“Get down on the ground,” someone yelled. Josephine’s breath caught. For a second she thought that order was for her. Without thinking, she lay still.
An exemplar woman strode out of the woods brandishing a repulse rifle, though she was much too young to be an exemplar. She’d also shot Tan, and Oni was getting on his knees.
The woman tossed three sets of handcuffs at them. “If any of you move quickly, I will shoot you again. Take the cuffs and secure your hands behind your backs.”
Twice now Josephine had tried to wipe the woman’s memory. No effect. Nor was the girl giving off an aura. So she had to be a high exemplar.
Josephine and Tan exchanged glances. She nodded.
While Tan grabbed his handcuffs with one hand. He drew his gun with the other. It might work. He’d get shocked again, but one lucky shot would drop the exemplar, and he was good with lucky.
“Drop the gun now,” The woman ordered.
Josephine’s hand twitched as though trying to comply. Tan’s fingers opened as though of their own accord. The gun clattered.
It was Authority. Josephine had no idea how. Anton had been dead for over thirty years, long before glyphs existed, but she recognized the familiar jolt that came with the words—the one that sent shivers down your spine and caused a primitive, submissive part of your brain to kick in.
The woman faced Oni. “Cuff Josephine’s hands behind her back.”
Oni moved to do so.
“Don’t.” Josephine said. “She’s controlling you. You just have to—”
The woman shot her with three more electric flechettes. Josephine didn’t speak much after that.
“And there’s no indication of who was aboard that ship?” asked Sakhr.
“None, ma’am,” said the captain. “All we know is that the ship was already waiting nearby when the alert tripped. They had pods waiting at the road to take them the rest of the way.”
Sakhr was reclined at his desk for this phone conversation. “So it was their getaway ship?”
“It might seem like that, ma’am, except our investigation turned up discharged electric flechettes at the escape scene, and blood.”
“On the flechettes points. And some on the asphalt. When a hostile gets hit with a flechette, they often scrape their scalp on the ground.”
“So someone captured them?”
“That’s our theory, ma’am.”
If Sakhr had any doubts that Victoria was involved, that dispelled them. With the recent spur of military desertion, there were several ships equipped with deployment pods that the army couldn’t account for, but none of those would be right there. In his gut, he knew that if he could see aboard that ship, he’d find an ex-exemplar named Bishop and a captain named Stephano. They were the flies that evaded the swatter. Now they flew about the room, only to occasionally be glimpsed.
“Their ship. Are we tracking it?”
“Yes, ma’am. The orbiter is picking up speed and altitude.”
“Can we catch it this time?”
“We’ve already redirected the intercepter team. According to the flight manager, no matter what path the target takes, we’re guaranteed an exchange window of four minutes before the orbiter becomes unreachable again.”
“An exchange window?”
“That’s when the ships are able to exchange fire, ma’am.”
“Tell me. Tell me we outnumber them.”
“Six to one, ma’am. The attack will be coordinated from the strike room in the bridge spire. Admiral Laughlin invites you to join him if you’d like.”
“Yes,” Sakhr said. “I would.”