Winnie saw the battle of the spider drones. It lasted less than a second. A firework of explosions rocked through the spider swarm as the Venezia missiles struck. Many missiles exploded a split second before hitting their target, but others hit home. Scores of drones detonated. Their shrapnel tore into their neighbors. Twisted metal plummeted toward the earth.
Simultaneously, the Venezia spider swarm came within combat range. Winnie noticed no exchange of fire. Just that spiders on both sides dropped from the sky in droves, like bugs gassed with poison. There wasn’t anything visibly wrong with the husks hurling back to the planet, but when she looked inside, she saw clean holes cut through their interiors, shattering circuitry. Their armored chassis had a dent at worst.
The enemy swarms passed each other. About thirty of the Venezia’s drones dropped. More than a hundred enemy drones failed. According to the displays in the Venezia strike room. The two swarms would collide once more before the enemy drones descended upon the Venezia. Without the missiles, the next strike wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Over four hundred drones would attack the Venezia in under two minutes.
The launch room was in madness when Winnie, Victoria, and Josephine arrived. Marines were cramming into pods. One would buckle into the seat. Another would practically sitting on their lap.
“Ma’am. Here,” Bishop called out. Two pods were standing by. Tan was already buckled into one. He watched the commotion with passing interest. Oni was crammed in beside him. Tan had not allowed him to sit on his lap. The other pod was empty.
Victoria stepped into the pod with Tan. To her exemplars, she pointed out Winnie and Josephine. “Put those two in the other pod. And you,” she said to Tan. “Get up. I’m sitting.”
Tan didn’t move.
Liat and Bishop pulled Winnie and Josephine along and secured them down, Winnie in Josephine’s lap. They then crammed into a remaining pod for themselves.
Victoria addressed the room. “Listen closely. Everyone.” The launch room went quiet. “They’re going to destroy our pods the moment we’ve landed. Watch your GPS. As soon as you’re one mile from land, eject. If you stay in your pod, you will die. You’ll need to swim to safety.”
One marine spoke up. “We’d be over four hundred feet up. We’d die.”
“Not if you jump out when you’re a mile away. The TransAtlantic skirts traffic just above the water. A hundred feet at most.”
“At the speeds we’ll be traveling, it’d be a bitch.”
“Your alternative is death. Do this or die.”
The words reverberated. No one spoke up after that. Victoria sat on Tan’s lap. She spoke to Winnie, who sat in another pod. “Keep an eye on me. I will say when you should jump.”
Winnie nodded. She put her mind once again outside the ship. The enemy swarm still couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, but it was only ninety seconds away. The Venezia would be over the TransAtlantic chute soon.
“All pods prepare for launch in sixty seconds.” It was the intercom voice of Lieutenant Ruiz from the bridge. By now, every pod was full. Winnie was settled in Josephine’s lap. Tan and Victoria were intimately closer than either preferred, and Oni was crammed in with them. Anyone who could be saved would have their chance.
Winnie and Victoria would be on the run again. At least they’d have company this time. Josephine and Tan might stick around, assuming Victoria didn’t treat them like enemies. But given that she now had Josephine’s power, she didn’t need Josephine anymore. And Tan… Winnie still didn’t even know what his power was.
Though once Victoria had his power, why keep him either? Winnie would have to convince her they were worth keeping around. That meant convincing Victoria they were useful. It was always about power to her. All the queen cared about was hoarding flairs, but even with all that power combined, flairs weren’t going to save this ship.
An idea occurred to Winnie. She kicked Josephine’s shin. Josephine looked, opened her mouth to speak, but upon looking into Winnie’s eyes, she stopped. She still held the glyph card she’d taken from Winnie and could see exactly what Winnie was thinking. There were six ships controlling that spider swarm from nearly two hundred miles away. That put them outside the range of all their powers, except for Winnie. She could see them. She could even see the pilots of all six ships at once.
Sight. That is how Josephine’s power worked, right? Victoria had brought her into the Venezia with a bag over her head. If Josephine saw you, your mind was hers to pilfer. So since Winnie could see the enemy ships, and Josephine could see in Winnie’s head. Why shouldn’t that be enough? It’s not as though their powers required working eyeballs, it was just about awareness. Or so Winnie hoped.
Yet the soldiers she spied continued to work. In each ship, the comms officers chattered quick confirmations with other ships. The captains oversaw their respective display tables. The strike controllers maintained focus on their swarms. Their hands flew over their controls, making micro adjustments to the spider drones’ flight paths.
Was Josephine even trying? Maybe this wasn’t how her power worked. Victoria had mentioned that Josephine could only erase memories related to her. But Josephine certainly had an intense gaze as she looked into Winnie’s mind. All Winnie could do was keep eye contact and maintain her visions.
Sakhr watched the dots on the displays. They crawled, despite the ships they represented traveling at supersonic speeds. The odds were six on one. The general was exuding an aura of calm. That’s how much he thought this fight was in the bag. Of course he didn’t know what was at stake. For Sakhr, he’d felt as though he’d bet his life savings on a turtle race. Every inching minute built upon the tight ball of stress in his stomach. Even if this succeeded, that didn’t mean it was over. Pods would launch. Missiles would follow. Then an eternity of uncertainty would follow. Did she die? Or was there another goddamn bird? He missed the days when seeing your enemy’s body was proof enough.
He watched the next stage of this glacial fight. The swarm of spider drones were about to intersect a second time. A few more would drop, and then it was on to the enemy orbiter. Sakhr found himself clenching the handrail as the dots mixed.
Then a moment later, they separated. Exactly as expected. He relaxed.
Admiral Laughlin frowned. “Hmm.”
Sakhr’s tension returned. “Is something wrong?”
“Hmm? No, ma’am. They just… hold on a moment. Lieutenant Diaz?” He addressed his comm officer. “Is there any chatter from the orbiters about that engagement?”
“No, sir. None of them are talking.”
“Contact the fleet commander. I want to know why they didn’t return fire on the enemy swarm.”
“They didn’t return fire?” Sakhr asked.
The admiral waved it off. “The commander may have opted not to. Attacking the swarm makes no difference. It won’t swing back in time to fight again,” but the admiral’s aura was not as calm as he acted. When the comm officer got through, both he and Sakhr listened.
“Squad fourteen. This is the Manakin bridge. Report your current situation… You’re free to engage the target… Aye… The HIMS Venezia… Affirmative… Affirmative… Yes, that is your target… Hold.”
Diaz looked to the Admiral. “They’re requesting confirmation on their orders, sir.”
Laughlin frowned. “Put it on my console.”
The call transferred.
“This is Admiral Laughlin.”
“This is squad fourteen,” a tinny voice came from the speakers. “Requesting confirmation on our orders, sir.”
“You’re to destroy the rogue orbiter vessel, the HIMS Venezia.”
Pause. “That’s a Lakiran vessel, sir.”
“Yes, Captain. We know. It’s been commandeered. Take it out.”
Radio silence stretched on for moments. The spider drones continued their arc toward their target. The enemy swarm was circling back, but it would never get there in time. Everything was on course.
“Requesting a copy on our orders,” the radio voice said.
“I just told you your orders, Captain. Destroy the damn ship.”
“Yes, sir. Which ship? The… the Venezia?”
“Yes, Captain. The Venezia.”
“That’s… understood, sir. Destroying the Venezia.”
The radio clicked out. The flight continued. One minute left until the spiders could open fire on the target.
The radio clicked back in. “This is squad fourteen. Requesting copy on our orders.”
“Shoot the goddamn ship!” the admiral screamed into the mic.
The admiral glared at his mic as though daring the console to click back on.
It did. “This is squad fourteen. Requesting copy on our—”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“Admiral,” Sakhr said. “It’s not them. Those blasted flairs aboard the enemy vessel are fiddling with your mens’ minds. Can you take control of the swarms?”
“What? What flairs?”
“I’ll explain later. Treat those soldiers as useless. Is there any way your men can take over?”
“There… there should be,” Laughlin turned to his flight operator. “We can remotely control those spiders, isn’t that correct?”
“We can,” the strike commander said. “If we can slave the orbiters to—”
“Don’t explain. Just do it,” Sakhr said. He didn’t know how Victoria was doing this. Records indicated that that Josephine woman needed to see her targets. Could she work over radio contact? Or…
The moment he thought it he knew it was true. It was that farseeing girl.
Everyone was going to need shields now.
“I’m in, Your Majesty” the strike commander said. His console layout changed to reflect the controls aboard the orbiter flagship.
“Do you understand the mission?” Laughlin said.
“Yes, sir. Destroy the Venezia.”
“Then carry it out.”
Sakhr held his shield plaque out to the strike commander. “And keep your hand on this while you work.”
“Humor me,” he said. This mission was not going to fail.
There was no doubt. It was working. Winnie had just watched six tactical operations officers aboard six ships stare blankly at a confirmation popup on their screen. “Confirm live fire command”. It had disappeared seconds after the opposing spider swarms made their second pass at each other. The rest of the crews weren’t much better. The comms officers backed their hands away from their controls as though their radio was an angry cat. The captains acted nonchalant, but half were secretly looking up their flight mission. The pilots and co-pilots kept glancing at each other as though too shy to talk. And now the commander aboard the main ship was having an embarrassing conversation with headquarters.
“Victoria!” Winnie turned to look looked the queen in the eyes.
Victoria shot up from Tan’s lap. “Don’t you dare stop!” She sprinted from the launch bay. Winnie glanced with her mind and saw her running back to the bridge. Thirty seconds until evacuation.
Winnie looked back at Josephine and resumed visualizing the other crafts. They were still just as befuddled.
Something changed. Their screens no longer displayed the spider drone swarms or any of its multitude of controls. All it showed was a prompt: Console disabled. System under remote access. Winnie listened to the radio chatter coming out of their ear pieces.
Someone had disabled the orbiter crews’ controls. Who?
With her eyes still locked on Josephine’s, her mind searched about. The radio chatter gave no clues. She checked the prompt again. In its corner, after a string of numbers and letters, was an address: lk-emm.manakin.strk-12.co.
Instantly, Winnie’s mind was in the Manakin. It was floating half a mile out from Porto Maná. She scoured up and down the main spire. The bridge? No one was doing anything related to this. The flag bridge? No. Flight operations? No. The strike room? …Yes. There was Sakhr leaning over an officer who worked at a console with a display identical to what the orbiters had moments ago. They were going to continue the attack from here, and the officer had a hand on Sakhr’s plaque. Josephine wouldn’t be able to touch him.
The attack was going to happen.
Winnie’s mind shot back to Victoria. She was in the Venezia bridge now, yelling at Stephano to hold the evacuation while shoving the comm officer out of the way. Didn’t she see what was happening on those ships? In twenty seconds, this ship would be destroyed. Victoria would not make it back to the bay in time.
“Go back,” Josephine said.
“Go back. Look at Sakhr again.”
Winnie did so. “Why?”
“I wasn’t done.”
“But he’s shielded.”
Without breaking eye contact, Josephine shrugged. “I’m getting them. I can feel it.”
“But…” Winnie kept her gaze. “How?”
The officer worked slower since Sakhr was pressing one of the man’s hands to the plaque. It didn’t matter. The man was already resting.
“Are you done?”
“The spiders already have their flight plan, Your Majesty. I’ll just need to confirm live fire.”
“So it’s… okay?”
“Pretty much, ma’am.”
Sakhr pressed his hand down harder. One slip up and this would all be for nothing. No slip up, and everything would be better. Just fifteen more seconds. He was counting in his head along with the onscreen indicator. At ten seconds, a prompt came up.
The officer didn’t move to press it.
“Is that it?” Sakhr asked.
“Is what it, ma’am?”
“The…” Sakhr wracked his mind. “The thing. You need to do that… to do something.”
“Just do it!”
Sakhr paused. The officer needed to do something—something to do with Victoria. Capture her? No. Kill her. She was… somewhere. And the Air Force was about to… what?
Snapping, Sakhr staggered backwards. He clutched his plaque in his hands like a lifeline. His memory was shot. Josephine was affecting him. But how? He was shielded. Shields worked against her, right? Right. She avoided high exemplars.
But how did he know that?
Did he read it somewhere?
He knew he’d read a record on Josephine, but he couldn’t remember anything in it.
She was… important.
Her name was… ‘J’ something… or something. He knew it a minute ago.
“Your Majesty?” asked the Admiral. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” said Sakhr distantly, but he knew he wasn’t. Something was terribly wrong. He just couldn’t put his finger on what. He couldn’t even recall why he was here. Everyone stared, expecting something from him, because something important was going on. But then something bad started happening.
His mind was being pilfered by something.
His shield was broken.
He dropped his plaque and lunged for Sibyl’s. Startled, she backed up a step as Sakhr stumbled into her. They both clutched her plaque. His old one clattered on the steel floor.
Sakhr’s mind raced. There were so many holes in his memory that he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. He needed time to think.
“I need to go,” he said.
“Your Majesty?” Laughlin said.
“Finish up by yourself, Admiral.” …whatever it was they were doing. Sakhr stalked from the room, pulling Sibyl along with him. Between them, they cradled the plaque like a rescued child.
Winnie took her attention away long enough to watch the spider drones shoot past the Venezia. They came within a hundred meters of the ship. She’d watched as the confirmation screen in the strike room timed out, unnoticed by anyone, but it didn’t make the moment any less heart-clenching.
But it passed. The swarm would never catch up for a second attack. Winnie slumped against the wall and melted to the floor.
Victoria returned. She did not look relieved.
“How were you erasing Sakhr’s memory like that?” she asked Josephine.
“I don’t know. I just was. I hit everyone in that room.”
“No. Not her.”
“So it was a shield failure. You didn’t find a way to work around shields.”
“What?” Winnie asked. “Can’t we just be happy we’re alive? We got lucky.”
“Yes,” Victoria agreed. “We got very lucky.” Troubled, she left the launch bay toward the bridge.
It left Winnie wondering.
What could be so bad about Sakhr not being shielded?