82. The Monster

The orbital craft didn’t have many places where one could go for privacy. The best was the officer’s deck on the top floor, although it was only two rooms—the Captain’s quarters and a small viewing area with curved ceiling windows showing a marvelous panorama of the stars.

It was here Victoria found herself. She came to places like this over the years to think. She often dwelled on that night over thirty years ago when Sakhr broke into her family’s home. Thankfully, she thought of it less and less, but she’d never forget details, such the way her nails pried off as she tried to pull herself up the stairs away from Alexander, or how his nightmarish grin twisted her father’s face, as though deforming it into his own. There were other details—worse ones she tried to pretend never happened.

Sometimes, she’d be in a meeting or a conference call, and someone would say something, maybe, “be quick about it,” or, “shall I do the honors,” and her mind would be right there, replaying the next part as though rehearsing a script.

“Look into my eyes,” took her there the most. That’s what Alex said before venting his hatred. And now she’d created an empire where she and her exemplars said those same words to everyone they scanned. It was an empire crafted from her own nightmare.

She’d fomented a nuclear holocaust out of suspicion and misunderstandings. In the aftermath, she’d waged wars, using food as her weapon by dolling it out to those who submitted and destroying all other sources. None could rise against her, for even the thought of rebellion was a crime in the eyes of her exemplars.

She had no delusions about what she’d become. People around her may bow and smile and speak kindly of her benevolence, but she saw into their minds. She saw how they saw her.

She just didn’t care. So what if she was the villain? Some day, far in the future, she would finish her work, and when she was done, she will have laid a fresh foundation for humanity, instead of the stagnant, self-destructive mess in which it had become mired. Maybe then, when society was once again looking to the stars, and the problems of today were just a dark chapter, people might look back and see what she’d accomplished.

But until that day came, she was the monster. Sakhr taught her that her power would always set her apart. Alexander taught her ruthlessness. Sibyl had taught her how easily people are manipulated. Christof, how little they cared.

Josephine had taught her that to trust was to invite pain. If she cared, she would suffer, and monsters can’t afford to suffer. How else could they live with what they’d done?

And now Josephine had attacked the very thing that made Victoria strong: her reason to hate. Victoria has built her life around Josephine’s betrayal, and now Josephine had the gall to tell her it was just a misunderstanding.

But so what if Josephine actually cared? She failed Victoria; she said so herself. When Katherine had needed her, Josephine hadn’t been there.

Victoria could put an end to this. She could go down to that interrogation room and erase Katherine entirely—tear the pages from the book. But it wouldn’t matter, would it. Victoria would remember.

An aura approached. Winnie. Victoria visualized her, confirming that the girl was indeed climbing the ladderwell into the observation room.

When Winnie entered, Victoria kept her face toward the windows. “What do you want, Winnie?”

Winnie took a seat at the desk behind Victoria. “I uh… I wanted to say I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For the other day when I called you a monster and all that. You’re trying really hard to fix everything Helena and I started.”

“And what exactly brought on this change of heart?” Though Victoria already suspected the answer.

“I just… I was thinking… and I also… watched you with Josephine.”

Despite her bloodshot eyes, Victoria faced her. “I explicitly told you not to.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I threatened to put you inside of a lap dog. Were you that sure I was bluffing?”

“I didn’t think I’d see something so personal.”

“What was the first rule I ever gave you?” said Victoria.

“Don’t spy on you.”

“So why do you disrespect my rules?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me. Never lie to me.”

“Because…” Winnie paused, then huffed. “Because I didn’t care. It’s not like you actually care about me, and you’ve lied to me about so much. I don’t even know if I can trust you to keep your promise about Helena. So, no. I don’t follow the first rule. Besides, if you really don’t want me to know, can’t you just pluck it out of my head now?”

“Do you want me to?”

“No. It… it makes a lot of things about you make sense. I get why you locked Sakhr and the others away. They deserved it. And other stuff: why you caused the war and everything. It at least makes sense now.”

“Because why? I’m just a poor victim all along? Everything I’ve done is okay then?”

“No. It’s—”

“I don’t see how what might have happened to me long ago has any impact on what I choose to do today.” Why was she arguing? Winnie was right, Victoria had the power to just take all of this from Winnie’s head now. The girl wouldn’t remember why she came up here.

But Victoria argued on. “I’m not acting out, Winnie. I was building an empire. If you have a problem with what I’ve done, then have a damn problem. Don’t excuse me because of something that happened thirty years ago.”

“No,” said Winnie. “All I’m saying is I’m sorry. You’re not as inhuman as I thought. I’ll still help you, even after everything you’ve done.”

“Even though you blame me for your father’s death?”

“Yeah… Even so.”

“I could take that away, your knowing that I caused the war. You wouldn’t think I was inhuman at all.”

“I guess you could. You could take away all the bad memories I have of you like you said you’d do to that woman, but that would just be its own kind of prison. I’d rather be in a tortoise actually. And do you really want to be around people you’ve programmed to like you? That’s not friendship.”

“I don’t need friends, Winnie.”

“I know you don’t.” Winnie fiddled with her hands. “But don’t you think you deserve them?”

This was puerile. Victoria did not conquer the world so girls like Winnie would follow her out of sympathy. “No one deserves anything. I’ve explained this before.”

“Yeah. I don’t know if I agree with that though. Either way, will you let me keep my memories? Even the one’s about Josephine?”

“For now, I suppose. I’m sure you understand what happens if you share this with anyone. And don’t fool yourself Winnie. I am your superior. You will follow my rules.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Winnie smiled a little. That gesture made Victoria consider yanking Winnie’s memories more than everything else had. Winnie thought they’d just bonded. Disgusting.

Suddenly, red light bathed the deck walls.

The intercom chimed. “All personnel to combat stations,” boomed the voice of Executive Officer Rivera.

Victoria visualized the bridge. Officers were taking their place. Stephano looked over the navigation display. A nest of red dots were on its periphery.

“I see them,” said Winnie. She met Victoria’s eyes. While Victoria was visualizing the bridge, Winnie had already felt the surrounding sky and found what was incoming: six orbiters, and swarms of spider drones—hundreds of them. This was an assault.

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