88. High Alert

“Sibyl, why are you here?” yelled Christof. “Why are you in that body?”

Sibyl remained on the floor, cowering from Christof’s pointed gun. Her body was Winnie’s—which had been Alex’s. That begged the question.

“Where is Alexander?” he yelled.

“Why?” she wailed.

“Where is he?”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“What do you think?”

“You can’t hurt him.”

“He’s out of control, Sibyl. Don’t you know what he’s been doing, here, in this tower alone. The man is psychotic.”

“He knew you’d do this. He knew you’d all come after him. He’s only doing what you make him do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s just trying to hold the empire together. He doesn’t deserve to die for that. It’s you and Sakhr who keep making him do the horrible things you don’t want to.”

“Why are you defending him? You hate Alex. You’ve always hated Alex.”

“No, I haven’t. Nobody ever trusts him, and it’s not his fault. It’s his power. He’s a good person, we just never—”

“Are we talking about the same Alex? Just tell me where he is. Is he in your other body? Is that it? Is he planning to do something to Sakhr? Tell me.”

“No! I can’t.” Sibyl cringed away as though expecting him to shoot her.

Christof lowered his weapon. “God, Sibyl. I’m not… did Alexander threaten you? Is that it?”

“No. I just can’t.”

“Tell me where—” He cut himself off. This was getting nowhere. Kneeling by her, he grabbed her chin. “Look at me. Look at me.

Her eyes dodged his at first, but she slipped up. He saw her mind only for a moment before she clenched her eyes. It was enough.

Sibyl was downright infatuated with Alex. She’d been feeling guilty about how she’d treated him all these years, which as far as Christof knew, was absolute indifference. Now Alex was in her every thought.

He’d done something to her. Christof didn’t know what, but it had left her obsessed, and now she’d helped him get close to Sakhr without even considering why. However, Christof was not so juvenile. Alex had a body-swapping glyph—something Sakhr would never knowingly let him have.

“God damn it, Sibyl.” He bolted from the room, over the dead exemplars, and to the stairwell. He got as far as the security checkpoint lobby when the exemplar on guard stopped him.

“Hey,” he yelled. His hand rested on his holster. It was the man who’d flipped him off before.

“I can’t,” Christof said. “The queen is in danger.”

“What happened to you?”

Christof looked down at himself. He had forgotten that blood stained his front. “I was attacked.”

“By who?”

“I need to get to the queen right now. Let me through. This is…” He thought quickly. “As General, I’m ordering you to stand down or I will have you brought up on charges for aiding an assassination attempt against our queen.” He was sure he had his terminology wrong. This imbecile wouldn’t notice.

“Chill the fuck out,” said the exemplar.

“Let me through.”

“They know. They already caught the assassin.”

“…What?”

“The whole citadel is on alert. The exemplars have secured the area.”

“The exemplars?”

“The queen is fine. Now what the fuck happened to you?”

“I’m fine. I… need to go.”

“Hold on there. What happened upstairs?”

“No,” Christof said distantly. He walked around the man.

“Hey,” the exemplar called. “Hey!”

Christof was already out the door. The man would certainly report him—a blood-spattered General walking around during high alert. Christof didn’t care. Either everything would be just fine, or…

Christof ducked out of view, as up ahead two exemplars on deck were carrying a body between them from the bridge spire. They’d wrapped it in plastic. Red seeped out.

It didn’t matter what body that was. What mattered was who had possessed it when it died, and it wasn’t Alex. If Sakhr had figured out what Alex was up to, the last thing he’d do is surround himself with crooked exemplars.

Which meant Sakhr was gone.

The thought felt hollow, lacking impact. Maybe in time he could think about how his oldest friend had just died. Right now, he was in mortal danger. He’d killed two men, and Sibyl could attest to what he was doing, that’s assuming Alexander didn’t already know.

All at once, he had a plan. It spanned days. There were details to fill out, but that could come later. He started with step one.

Calmly, Christof walked to the stateroom spire. Officers in the common area saluted, even as they eyed the blood on his uniform. No one questioned it. He was a general with somewhere to go.

In his quarters, he threw off his uniform and scrubbed his hands in his miniature steel sink. The faucet pressure was on par with any flying craft with limited resources. It took ages before the water stopped running red. Blood still covered his arms and chest, but he made do wiping himself with a towel. Any minute, someone would be at his door. He mustn’t be here when that happened.

After putting on a clean uniform, he reentered his bathroom. Fenced off inside his shower was Helena, where he’d been feeding and caring for her for the past week. She was sleeping, head in her shell. Poor girl. Tyrants were fighting over her body, and the worst had won. Nothing would stop Alex from getting his hands on her now. Every time a woman got the better of him, he could never let it go. This poor girl would pay the price for what Winnie had done.

Christof picked her up and tucked her into his uniform alongside his plaque, resting her on it so that it protected her aura. Poking her head out, she looked at him. He couldn’t read her mind, and her tortoise expression was as unreadable as ever.

“It’s time for us to leave,” he said. “Stay out of sight.”

After a pause, she tucked herself further into his coat. That was confirmation enough for him. He left, down the stairs to the stateroom commons. From there, a ladderwell led him into the bowels of the citadel. The corridors were cramped. The walls were metal. This was the belly of the great behemoth that civilians never saw. He got several odd glances from soldiers as he continued down the stairs.

Deck One was where grid shuttles waited by the tube bay. He should be bluffing his way aboard a supply shuttle now, but something drove him farther down into the ship. He wasn’t sure why he had to do this. Alexander would have countless victims to come, but this one was important to him.

At Deck five, his empathy winked out.

At Deck eight, he entered the brig. From there, he walked to the same wing he’d been going to for two days now. The cadet on guard saluted when Christof approached.

Christof acknowledge him. “I’m here for her again.”

“Yes, General.” The cadet fumbled for a card key while heading toward a prison cell. “Prisoner,” he yelled. “Stand and put your arms through the slot.”

Christof heard Naema climb to her feet ponderously. Stalling was her little rebellion. He had no way of telling her how little time they had. Finally her arms stuck through the slot. The guard cuffed her, unlocked the cell door, and led her out. She looked bored, and unimpressed.

Christof stopped him as he led her toward the interview room. “I’m transporting her out.”

“What?” The guard blinked. “Nothin in the logs says anything about transfer, sir.”

“Citadel is on alert,” Christof said. “Someone attacked the queen.”

“I know, sir, but I still need clearance to move a prisoner.”

“There isn’t time for clearance. The person who attacked the queen was a flair. For safety, we’re moving all flairs off the citadel.”

“A flair?” The guard glanced at Naema, then at Christof. That was something he hadn’t know about the prisoner. “I still can’t let you take her without hearing something from above.”

“She’s not a military prisoner,” Christof explained. “The Exemplar Committee brought her in, and they’ve given me clearance to transport her out.”

The cadet grew more uncomfortable. “It should still be in the logs, sir. If I could just call up and clear this, then I could let her go. And we’re supposed to have a transport team.”

“I don’t give a shit, soldier. We don’t have time to go through regulation. The queen was just attacked. I’m getting this security risk off the citadel now. If anyone gives you shit about it, tell them to talk to General Soto, but I’m taking her now. Are we going to have a problem?”

The guard hesitated. “No, sir” He handed Christof the keys to her cuffs.

Naema was staring at the tortoise in Christof’s pocket. He yanked her along before she could remark. As they walked to the stairwell, she watched Christof curiously.

“Can you climb with those cuffs?” he asked.

“Why?”

“Because I need you to climb the stairs.”

“What about the elevator?”

“We’re not using it.”

“Why not?”

Because the elevators had security cameras, but this wasn’t a conversation Christof wanted to have right now.

“Just trust me.”

Naema read whatever she needed in Christof’s anxious look. “You’re my only friend, huh?”

“Let’s go.” Christof pulled her.

She held her ground. “What about my mama?”

“We don’t have time.”

“You said you’d get my mama freed.”

“I don’t think I can. All I can do is get you out of here.”

He pulled again. She didn’t budge.

“I could leave without you,” he threatened.

“I’m not leaving her here.”

For one moment, he considered heading up the stairs without her. Somebody had to have found those bodies by now. By all rights, Christof was amazed he’d gotten this far already.

But the mother was only a few rooms away in the public detainment wing. If she was still here once Naema was gone, she’d be the last scapegoat for Alex’s axe. “Fine. Just follow my lead.” He guided her as though his captive.

The detainment wing was just as he’d seen it last week—filled over capacity with masses of defeated people. The smell was worse, as though none of the cells had been cleaned since then, and it seemed more crowded. Several cadets were on guard. One was stationed at a desk before rows of cells.

Christof approached. The men saluted.

“General,” said the one at the desk.

Christof passed Naema off to a cadet. “Watch this detainee for me for a second, will you?” To the man behind the desk, he said, “I need to take one of the detainees out.”

“Sure thing, General. Do you have the paperwork?”

This again.

“No. It’s in connection with the assassination. The Exemplar Committee wants them taken up.”

“Understood, sir.” The cadet came around and headed down the hall of cells. “Just point them out.”

Christof nearly startled at how easy that had been. Though following the man, it occurred to him just how many detainees the Committee must have taken away for interviews recently.

There were several hundred people crammed in here. Christof wouldn’t have bothered looking for Zauna Madaki. Except most of these detainees were from North America, where the Manakin was last stationed. Naema’s mama was the blackest person here.

“Her.” He pointed her out.

“Detainee,” the cadet yelled. “Come forward.”

She hesitated just like her daughter, but for her, it was apprehension. She at least took this more seriously than Naema. The cadet cuffed her and took her out. At the front, Zauna spotted her daughter and moved toward her. Christof held her back.

“I’ll take them from here,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” The cadets saluted. Christof escorted the two women away. Extracting them had been so easy it bothered him. He was using up his luck.

“Who are you?” Zauna asked.

“No. Don’t talk,” he muttered. “Don’t acknowledge each other. Just go up the stairs.”

Naema did so. Christof pushed Zauna to do the same. As confused as she was, she cooperated.

Coming back up took them much longer than coming down. Each deck was a nerve-clenching crawl.

“How many floors?” Naema called down.

“Just keep going.”

On they climbed. All three were panting when Christof finally called up. “Get off here. Wait for me.”

Once he dismounted, she watched him closely. Despite Christof’s warning, Zauna clutched her daughter.

“Come.” He hurried them along. The grid bay was still. No ships glided in or out. Christof could hear their own footsteps echoing off the cavernous walls.

Lock down. Damn. Of course it would happen right after an assassination attempt, but he couldn’t stop now. Hopefully the citadel grid was still coordinating with the Porto Maná. He’d learned enough about this modern world to know that adding and removing nodes from the grid was no simple thing. It involved registration and paperwork, so maybe this lockdown wasn’t hardcoded.

He hurried toward the nearest shuttle. It looked civilian. The hatch unlocked, revealing enough room inside to walk while hunched. He ushered both of them in, handed Helena to Zauna, then turned on the shuttles menu screen. The grid was online.

Thank God. He navigated the menu, trying to figure out how to start it. He’d seen others do this. It just needed a destination, but when he went to destination, it wanted him to type something in.

“God damn it,” he murmured.

“Where are we going?” Naema asked.

“We just have to get off the citadel.”

“Then just take the last destination.”

“Where do I do that?”

She leaned and tapped the screen. On the home menu, she went to Previous, then selected the first option.

“No. That’s no good,” said Christof. “That’s a military base.”

“We won’t go there.” Naema pointed at an emergency button. “After it flies, we hit this. The shuttle will land at the closest place.”

“…Oh.”

Naema confirmed the destination and set it to go. Christof climbed in.

“Hey,” someone yelled.

Two exemplars were running up to him—a men and a woman. “Hey. Stop there.” The man grabbed the shuttle door, keeping it from closing. They both rested their hands on holstered repulse pistols. “You’re coming with us.”

“No,” said Christof. “I’m escorting these prisoners to a safe holding loc—”

“Don’t fuck with us,” said the man. “Alex wants to see you.”

That eliminated any remaining doubt Christof had. “He can wait. I’ll return when I’m—”

The man backhanded Christof across the jaw, then yanked him out.

The woman drew her pistol and brandished it toward Naema and her mother. “Get out.”

Naema shuffled out of the shuttle.

“Ah fuck,” the woman said. “You’re the plaque bitch, aren’t you?” She checked herself. “Yeah, my plaque is broken.”

The man’s face twisted. “Isn’t that just great.” He shoved Christof against the shuttle and punched him. Christof crumpled.

The man kicked him in the side. “What were you doing with her, huh? Where are you going? Alex isn’t done with her yet.”

Christof rolled in pain. Slowly, his hand crept under his coat to his gun.

“Christof, right?” the exemplar said. “That’s your name? Thought you’d kill Alex? Traitor fucks like you sicken me?”

“…Traitor?” Christof was too winded to point out the irony.

The man kicked Christof again.

“Shut your fucking mouth, shithead.” He grabbed Christof and pulled him to his feet. In the same motion, Christof drew his gun. The man caught his hand. They struggled. Within the same moment, the man kneed Christof, pressed him against the shuttle, and slammed his hand against the hatch frame, causing the gun to drop. The man pressed his own gun to the back of Christof’s head.

“You think you’re faster than me? You think you’re going to shoot me?”

Naema swung her cuffed hands at the girl, and toppled her, but the girl pulled Naema down with her.

“Naema!” Zauna move to get out of the shuttle.

“Stay where you are,” the male exemplar yelled.

Christof took advantage of the distraction to swing his arm back, hooking the man’s gun off his head just as it discharged. In older days, a deafening bang would have gone off next to Christof’s head. What he heard sounded like a stapler next to his ear. Pain erupted on the side of his scalp. Blood poured. He shoved the exemplar away. The gun scattered.

From the distance, half a dozen more exemplars were rushing toward them. There was no time to fight.

Naema was struggling on the ground. With her hands cuffed, the woman had easily gotten on top of her. Christof kicked the woman off and dragged Naema toward the shuttle. Zauna caught her too and pulled, but then the man latched onto Christof, and the woman caught Naema. Both Naema and Christof kicked and fought. Christof was in the shuttle now, but Naema was still half outside.

The man punched Christof, sending him reeling into the shuttle, then backhanded Zauna. She keeled over. Helena went flying. The man now yanked Naema away from the shuttle, but she caught the edge of its door with a death grip. They couldn’t pull her away. The shuttle lurched from their strength.

Gathering his wits, Christof clambered to Naema, but it was too late. Even if he could knock the others off of her, the incoming exemplars would catch them before he could get her in.

A look passed between him and Naema, and they both understood. With all her strength, Naema yanked the shuttle door down, and the exemplars grappling her stumbled back as though the tree root they’d been tugging had finally come loose.

Christof caught the door and closed it.

“No!” Zauna yelled. She lurched toward the door. Outside. The exemplars swarmed Naema. Several tried opening the shuttle door, including Zauna, but it was locked. The flight had begun. As the shuttle lifted, Zauna could only watch as Alexander’s henchmen dragged her daughter away.

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