“Sir, the squads are deploying their spiders,” said tactical officer Gray.
Admiral Laughlin nodded.
He stood over the central display table in the Manakin bridge. Around him, staff were at stations, even though the battle was thousands of miles away. Beside the admiral, Sakhr watched with hands clasped before his chin. Behind him was Sibyl, head down. On the display, there were six green dots moving toward a red dot. Clusters of tiny dots emitted from the six, and were moving away from the red.
“What are those?” Sakhr asked.
“Spider drones, Your Majesty” Laughlin answered. “Unmanned vessels equipped with repulse shears. They will be our primary weapon in this fight. All they have to do is get within range of the target for a few seconds, and they’ll tear it apart.”
“But why are they falling behind?”
“They’re not falling behind, ma’am. They’re actually getting into better position. Our ships and the target are moving at extreme velocities relative to each other. All our ships are currently accelerating away from the target in order to better synchronize with them. Think of it like bandits who ride away from the train as it approaches so they can more easily hop aboard once it’s next to them.”
“The spider drones are able to accelerate a little faster at this altitude. They’ll stay much closer to the target than our orbiters before their relative trajectories carry them away.”
“They can’t match speeds?”
“Not at this altitude, ma’am. Both the orbiters and the spider drones are using wide repulse fields to surf the atmosphere, but it’s so thin up there that only so much acceleration is possible, and at the speeds we’re talking about, only brief windows can happen.”
“That was our entire reason for flying this high,” Stephano said. “As long as we saw ships coming, we could change our trajectory to avoid them, or accelerate towards them and make the intercept window so small they couldn’t meaningfully attack. It was because we came down to pick up your friends that they’re catching up to us. Even then, those planes must have already been in the air.”
“They were after Josephine,” Victoria said. “They knew she would break into one of their bases.”
“Well, they’ve changed trajectories and they’re on us. We’ve already changed course to an optimal counter trajectory, but their spider drones will still be within our range for twelve seconds.”
“How bad is that?”
“It’s eleven seconds longer than they need to cut this ship to ribbons.”
“Is there no way to escape?”
“Any change in trajectory we make now, they’ll adjust to, and it will only widen their window.”
“What can we do?”
“We’ll have to knock out as many spider drones as we can before they come into range. We have our own fleet of spiders, which we’ll launch in about forty seconds. Unfortunately, their fleet vastly outnumbers ours. I don’t expect our drones to destroy more than a handful of theirs before being obliterated. We also have an onboard repulse shear with a range six times greater than the spiders. That will knock out a few before they come into range, and we have a cache of missiles, but again, not nearly enough to destroy them all. The chances of us eliminating all enemy drones before they get into range is slim.”
“Why not fire the missiles at the orbiters? Destroy those and the spider drones have no controllers.”
Stephano shook his head. “No. That won’t work for the same reason they’re not firing their missiles at us.”
“Orbiters are equipped with reflex fields,” Admiral Laughlin said. “Any missiles that come near will get knocked out of the way.”
“So this is what we’re reduced to?” Sakhr asked, “sending hundreds of spider drones to crawl toward them while hoping we don’t lose too many along the way? None of our ships have jets for faster maneuvering?”
“Orbiters were designed for artillery and rapid deployment. Aerial combat was an afterthought. Actually, this will be the first time in military history orbiters will engage each other. Don’t worry, Your Majesty, we’ll win. The strike window is too large and we have more than enough drones to get through.”
“Which is why we need to discuss evacuation, Your Majesty. If we change our course slightly, we can situation ourselves over the TransAtlantic chute. It will pick up any deployment pods we launch and carry them to safety.”
“A course change will widen the engagement window, won’t it?” Victoria asked.
“To twenty-six seconds, yes.”
“No. You said a twelve second window was bad enough. A twenty-six second window will be certain death, would it not?”
“Your safety is more important than this ship, Your Majesty. If you launch from a pod, the spiders can’t catch up. The grid will catch you.”
“Are there enough pods for the crew.”
“We’re still short since our loss during the Capital Bombing, but if we double up, there would be enough for you and your people and a few others. Flight crew will remain to man battle stations.”
“Flight crew meaning you and everyone else in this room.”
“Ma’am, please do this.” He looked intently at her. Eye contact was met, and Victoria saw what he wasn’t saying.
Twelve seconds or twenty-six, it wouldn’t make a difference. No matter what they did, Stephano and his crew were going to die.
She nodded to him. Stephano turned the flight officer and directed him to make the change.
“Ah!” Laughlin said. “Course change. We expected this.”
“Why? What’s happening?”
“The target has just changed course to put themselves over the TransAtlantic. They’re planning to evacuate.”
“They can get deployment pods into the grid, yes, but we can redirect any intercepted pods to a secure location. We’ll send people to pick them—”
“Don’t send people. Send missiles.”
“Kill the evacuees?”
“They’re flairs, General. They’re too dangerous. They were able to walk into the Capital Tower without arousing any suspicion. My mother has spent years trying unsuccessfully to kill the people aboard that ship. We cannot risk anyone getting near them. Destroy those pods before they’re ever opened.”
Red lights were on throughout the ship. Air Force personnel rushed about the Venezia preparing for a fight Winnie knew was fruitless. Bishop and Liat weren’t letting her on the bridge, but it didn’t stop her from following everything that happened in there. She was in the corridor just outside as Victoria barged out. Striding by, Victoria motioned with her finger for Winnie and her exemplars to follow.
“We can’t use the pods,” Winnie said, scampering to keep up. “I’ve been watching the bridge on the Manakin. Sakhr wants—”
“I know what he’s planning, Winnie. I’m watching too. The pods will work. Bishop, Liat. Go to the launch bay and reserve pods for me and the flairs.”
“Yes, ma’am.” They took a ladderwell down while Victoria climbed up. Winnie followed her.
Rapid fire thunks sounded throughout the ship. Putting her mind outside, Winnie saw the Venezia ejecting spider drones like a fish spawning eggs. The drones hovered into formation, then as a single mass, they accelerated forward relative to the ship. There were a hundred in total, sending off to fight against six hundred of their own. To the human eye, there was no threat out there to fight, just the curving earth below and stars above. Only through her feeling senses could she detect the enemy ships still miles away. They wouldn’t even be specks if she looked out a port window.
She and Victoria reached the holding cells. Two marines were posted on guard. Beyond them was a tight room partitioned into six miniscule cells each no larger than a phone booth. The man Victoria had called Tan was stretched out on the floor of one, half laying, half reclining against the bars. Across from him, the small boy they brought in sat with his legs folded to his chest. Both looked up at Victoria’s approach.
“You’re not supposed to be here, ma’am,” one marine said. “This area is for military personnel—”
“Shut it,” Victoria pointed out Tan. “I want that man in the launch bay in two minutes.”
Winnie expected the marines to hop to it, but when one instead smirked at Victoria, Winnie remembered that the Captain never announced to his crew who she was. To these marines, she was just a lanky teenager in a borrowed exemplar uniform.
“I’m not sure who you think you are—” the marine said.
“I’m a high exemplar. I’m responsible for these prisoners. Under the Captain’s orders, that man is coming with me.”
“Until we hear that from the captain, he’s staying right where he is.”
Rising tall, Victoria faced the marines. “You will do as I say.” Her words carried Weight.
Startled, the marines jerked, but then their expressions glazed over. When they moved, it was haltingly, as though unsure what they were doing.
“What… are we..?” the first one asked, partly to her, partly to his partner. It’s as though they’d just awoken to find themselves standing before an audience.
Victoria was tampering with their memories, Winnie realized. Between that and the strange weight of her words, the marines couldn’t resist.
She pointed again at Tan, who watched this exchange with intrigue. “You’re taking him to the launch bay immediately.”
“…Right.” They moved to comply. Victoria spun to leave.
“And the boy,” Winnie said. The marines looked uncertain. Victoria looked at Winnie, expecting an explanation.
Winnie looked Victoria in the eyes. “The boy too.” He did not deserve to die aboard this ship because of someone else’s war. Winnie wouldn’t stand for that. Besides, what would Josephine think? Or this boy’s sister? If Victoria ever wanted either of their cooperation, she had to save the boy.
“The boy too,” Victoria said. The marines moved again. Victoria motioned for Winnie to come, and they left. Winnie expected Victoria to chide her for insubordination, but it never came. Victoria was either too rushed, or she realized Winnie was right. For her part, Winnie was glad. Maybe it didn’t mean anything, and maybe Victoria just did it because she saw the utility of keeping the boy alive, but given what Winnie had learned about Victoria in the last hour, it seemed important—like a fresh start. Though the idea that Victoria might somehow be redeemable was such a new and foreign thought to Winnie, it seemed hardly possible.
Outside, the spider drones were just specks of their own now. They raced away to meet their impending doom. Alongside the Venezia, ports opened. Inside were missiles lined up to launch. Their chemical jets would catch up in time to strike the enemy spiders just as the opposing swarms met. A coordinated attack would mean more of the enemy drones would drop. The Venezia would fight to its last resource, no matter how little difference it was going to make.
Winnie recognized the wing Victoria was leading them toward. Josephine was at the end of the hall.
“Wait here and watch,” Victoria said. “Don’t come until I say, and do not let her see you… And don’t wander off.” She strode ahead. Another two marines at guard. Victoria’s conversation with them was just as disjointed as with the others. She took a pair of their handcuffs and shooed them away.
Victoria stepped into the suspect-end of the interrogation room. She tossed the handcuffs to Josephine.
“Why?” Josephine asked.
“I need to get you out of here, and I don’t have time to explain why. Right now, just take my word for it that I’m saving your life. Hurry up.”
“Who are you?”
“I will tell you later. This ship will be destroyed in three minutes.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Victoria snatched the cuffs and yanked Josephine from her chair. Pulling the woman’s hands behind her back, Victoria started cuffing her wrists.
Josephine snapped her head back, cracking it against Victoria’s face. Spinning, she kneed Victoria in the belly. Victoria crumpled.
“Sorry,” Josephine stammered. She bolted for the door, slamming it behind her.
“Damnit, Josephine,” Victoria roared. “The ship is under attack.” Clutching her bleeding nose, she tried the door. Locked.
Josephine glanced down both ends of the hall, judging where to go. Winnie remained out of sight. She would stop Josephine if she could. They all had to get off this ship, but if Josephine saw her, there’s no telling how befuddled she’d get.
Outside the ship, missiles fired. Two per second, they each took slightly different paths in order to arrive at the same time, giving the enemy spiders less opportunity to knock them out. The last ditch battle would begin in moments.
Josephine took off straight toward Winnie. They’d see each other in seconds, so Winnie did the first thing that came to mind. She crouched down by the wall and made herself as unthreatening as possible. When Josephine came around, she was so caught up searching the corridors that she nearly tripped over Winnie.
Winnie stammered, “Josephine please don’t I want to help.”
“Where’s the brig?” Josephine demanded. So far, Winnie could still recall what was going on. No memory erasure yet. She pulled out her glyph card and thrust it toward Josephine. “Take it take it take it.”
Confused, Josephine took the card, and Winnie looked in her eyes. She might have been expecting information on the brig, but Winnie sent so much more.
She thought of the battle outside, how the Venezia was destined to fall, how Victoria was here to save Josephine from death, how Tan was already headed to evacuation, how Sakhr was trying to kill them all. Josephine’s eyes widened. Winnie continued: The rebellion, Sakhr and Alexander, herself and her gift, her relationship to Victoria, her time as a tortoise, the conversation she overheard between Josephine and the queen, the one she had with Victoria afterward. Winnie sent everything she could to convince Josephine that Victoria wasn’t the enemy, at least not right now. There shouldn’t be a need for cuffs because they’re all in the same predicament. They should be working together.
The exchange only took seconds. Winnie hoped she’d done it correctly. She’d conveyed so quickly that she wasn’t sure it hadn’t all jumbled together. After she was done, Josephine kept her gaze on Winnie, though Winnie didn’t know why. Was Josephine erasing anything? Winnie checked her mind for gaps. It all seemed right.
Josephine reached her hand out. Winnie flinched before realizing she was offering her hand.
“Are we okay?” Winnie asked.
Josephine pulled her up. “No cuffs.”