89. Bargaining Chips

It took nearly an hour to get the remaining spider drones back onboard. From what Winnie could tell spying on the bridge, none of them expected that they’d have to bother. They’d optimized the spider drones’ flight path for a maximum engagement window with the enemy. The Venezia had had to slow down to get the drones back before they’d start dropping to earth with dead batteries.

Fortunately, the enemy orbiters never adjusted their course to take advantage of the Venezia’s drop in velocity. Actually they hadn’t adjusted their course at all. Onboard those ships, the crew lived out a sci-fi thriller: two dozen men were on a ship. No one knew why they were there. The disappointing ending came when ground control admitted that they didn’t know either and told them all to come home to check the mission logs.

After the spiders were aboard the Venezia, the Marines went about ship duty. The mess hall filled up. Victoria returned to the bridge. Winnie had taken to camping out in the corner of the mess hall to spy on the world while the Venezia surfed along the sky. Everything was exactly as it was before.

Though Tan was here now. He strolled in before things settled down, nodded once to Winnie as though to say, yes, we do happen to be in the same room, then settled into his own corner that gave him a good view of the break room television. He played cards with himself until the soldiers came. They all started a communal game as though Tan hadn’t spent the last few hours in the ship’s brig. Victoria must have decided he was harmless. It wasn’t as if they’d cause trouble now that they know they’re in the safest place they could possibly be.

Just an hour ago, they’d come within whispering range of death, but everything was calm now. It bothered Winnie more than the risk itself had. Marines joked while Winnie’s hands still trembled. These people were used to it. Winnie just wanted to go home.

But home was empty. The lights were off. The curtains were closed. Her mother was sitting alone at a tiki bar in Bermuda. Her colorful drink had multiple little umbrellas. Her floppy sun hat only underscored her diminutive stature. Her tropical dress matched the local fashion. Yet she couldn’t look more awkward. How could she enjoy herself when she didn’t even know the fate of her own daughter? Winnie could have died today, and her mother would never have known. She’d eventually have gone back home once her funds ran up, and she’d spend the rest of her life always wondering.

She was surrounded by beautiful beaches and happy people, and she’d never looked so lonely. Winnie wanted to call her so badly.

“Hey, You.”

Winnie looked up. Josephine stood over her.

“Hi,” said Winnie.

“We never met properly. My name is Josephine.”

“Cho Eun-Yeong, or Winnie.”

Josephine blinked. She looked over Winnie’s reddish brown hair and freckled, pale skin.

“I used to be Korean,” said Winnie.

“Oh.” Josephine sat. “Bodyswapping?”

Winnie nodded.

“You still are Korean. The body doesn’t mean much. Josephine looked herself over. “This one was Italian I think, but I’m not. Though truthfully, I’m not French anymore either. I used to have an accent. It followed me from body to body, but it faded over the years. Nowadays, everyone thinks I’m from Ohio or some place. I’m just me now. I don’t have a sense of belonging anywhere, but if you still feel that you’re Korean, then you are.”

“You knew Sakhr, then?”

“I traveled with his group for decades. Never liked them though, especially Alexander.”

“How many bodies have you had?”

Josephine counted off on her fingers. “Seven.”

“How old are you?”

“Sakhr found me in nineteen fourteen, I think. I was maybe twenty, so I’m about a hundred and fifty.”

“So you stuck with them for the immortality.”

“It was more than that. Back then, someone with a gift like ours would have been shunned, or worse. We stuck together to survive. Sakhr looked after us.”

“Oh.”

The conversation lapsed into silence. Winnie turned her vision back to her mother.

“You’re power is to see other places, right?” asked Josephine.

“Yeah.”

“You just close your eyes and imagine it?”

“I don’t have to close my eyes, but yeah.”

“Do you think you could look into a place for me?”

Ah. This had been the classic smalltalk before the favor. “What place?”

“Sakhr captured a girl I was looking after. I think he might have taken her to a place called Ascension Island. Do you think you could see if she’s actually there?”

“I don’t know where that is.”

Josephine took out a phone. It was already showing the Atlantic ocean. “There.”

Winnie looked. “Okay, I see it,” she said.

“There’s supposed to be a military base…” she zoomed on the phone, “right there.”

“Yeah.”

“So it’s there? It’s active?”

“Yeah.” Winnie was already pouring through the buildings looking for anything like holding cells. “What does she look like?”

“She’s Nigerian. Teenager. You might have trouble seeing her though. Her power breaks glyphs when people use them near her.”

“Oh, her? She’s on the Manakin.”

“Where?”

“It’s the citadel where Sakhr was.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. There’s a big blindspot in the citadel’s detainment wing. She’s the only one who does that to me.”

“Can you tell if they have her mother too? She’s also Nigerian. I don’t think she’d be far.”

“I can’t really see down there that well.” Though Winnie gave it a cursory glance. She could see most of the detainment cells housing hundreds of people. No one stood out. It would take her a while to find one particular person among them, but Winnie would. She knew what it was like to have someone you care about held captive. The thought made her think of Helena.

Oh.

Helena was not in that shower anymore. She was…

“I have to go.” Winnie stood and left before Josephine could reply.

Victoria had to know.


“Stop moving,” Zauna said.

“I’m trying. Egh!” Christof flinched away.

“I’m not even stitching yet. You are a child.” Zauna pulled Christof until his head was in her lap. Her grip on him was both stern yet mothering. It was a strange feeling for a five-hundred-year-old man.

Her needle broke skin on his scalp. He winced.

Her grip tightened. “Lucky man. It is only a graze. You are bleeding bad, but only blood.”

“Right…”

“When are these people going to call you?”

“Five minutes. Five days. No telling.”

It wasn’t the answer Zauna wanted to hear. On the flying citadel miles away, people had her daughter. From the moment that shuttle emergency landed on the beach, it was all Christof could do to convince her not to turn herself in. He’d said that Naema was better off if they didn’t have her mother to control her. Zauna hated the implication of that, and he didn’t blame her.

An hour later found them here, in the bathroom of a diner, using stolen medical supplies from a drugstore to patch up Christof’s wounds. A tortoise sat a few feet ahead of them watching their every move. Scrawled on her shell was the phone number to a prepaid assembler-produced phone Christof had procured.

His entire plan hinged on the assumption that Winnie checked back on Helena from time to time. If she didn’t, or Victoria discouraged it, then he didn’t know what to do next. The exemplars were already hunting them. They had no money and no weapons. Zauna wore the same clothes she had when she was captured, now several days overdue for a wash. Christof was obviously military, and the blood caking his hair and staining his white undershirt must be attracting attention. They’d gotten strange looks just coming into the restaurant. As soon as the news posted a bulletin on them, their problems would compound.

This is the kind of situation intrigue and politics gets you into.

The phone rang from its perch on the sink. Christof jerked. Pain seared his scalp.

“Stay still.” Zauna said

“I need to get that.”

“I finish first, then you get.”

“That phone call is our lifeline.”

“And they see us, yes? They will wait ten seconds.”

She was right that whoever it was could see them, whether Winnie or Victoria, but Zauna didn’t know what kind of woman Victoria was. Christof could imagine her hanging up the phone after two rings just because he made her wait. After all these years, he actually wasn’t sure how she would treat him. He maintained an air of urgency right up until Zauma took her hands off his head. The caller was watching after all.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hello, Christof.”

He’d never heard that voice, but he knew that tone. “Victoria.”

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Asylum.”

“Asylum…”

“Sakhr is dead. Alexander is in control.”

“I know.”

“Do you know who I have with me?”

“Yes.”

“I want to make a deal.”

“Yes?”

“I bring your daughter and this woman to you, and you don’t put me back in an animal, or prison, or anything like that.”

“I am not your chip!” said Zauna. “Was this your plan?”

“I see,” Victoria paused, “and you would trust me just like that.”

“Are you saying I shouldn’t?”

“No, but you don’t have a choice, do you? The hounds are coming. You’re a smart-enough fox to know they will corner you eventually, thus you are already cornered.”

Zauna was still snapping at him. “Answer me. What do you want me for?”

Christof put the phone down a moment. “You want to go to her. Trust me.”

“I want to find Josephine. I said this a thousand times. She’ll get my daughter.”

“This woman is your best chance of ever seeing your daughter again, so just hold on,” he said to her. To the phone, “Do we have a deal?”

“Hmm…” said Victoria

“Does your daughter mean that little to you?”

“I’m not saying I don’t want my daughter, or that woman. I’m just wondering why I should accept your offer at all. I could land this ship and take them from you, and neither you nor Alex could do a thing to stop me. He might shield his soldiers soon, but you’re lost and drowning. Why should I pull you up at all?” She mused upon it.

“You kept me as a pet for nearly two decades, and I wasn’t even there that night. You know damn well I tried to talk Sakhr out of it.”

“Yes. You voted no to murdering a child, but the vote passed anyway. Oh well. You did your best.”

“I could have done more. I know. I’m not innocent of what happened. But seventeen years, Victoria. Are you really not satisfied?”

“Calm down, Christof. I will give you asylum. Bring those two to me and you are forgiven.”

He gritted his teeth. It was always a goddamn power play with her. She was forgiving him. “Fine,” he said. “Where do we go from here?”

No response. It sounded as though the phone was shuffling around on their end.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hi.”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Winnie. I’m going to help you, but first can you put the woman on? Josephine wants to talk to her.”

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