90. Perseverance and Sacrifice

The hangar bay was a crowded mess. Ships had been cleared out of the way. In their place, a sea of folding chairs pointed toward a raised platform where Queen Helena was supposed to make an appearance, but she was twenty minutes late. Defense Minister Lowden checked his phone again.

Other ministers were here too. Helena had summoned the entire cabinet, all generals and admirals posted near South America, and several lower ranking military personnel. Also, there were the ministers of several Lakiran districts. Lowden recognized the current head of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, and a few representatives from North and Central America. All these people were supposed to be maintaining the empire. Instead, they had taken red-eye flights here, where they could get frisked and scanned by exemplars because Helena had seen fit to order everyone to come. The child ruler had decided she has something important to say. Lowden had no idea what, but this was blatant mismanagement of power. What had been so important about the recent assassination attempt that she needed to summon everyone?

She survived, didn’t she? Unharmed. What’s the big deal?

Of course, what if Helena had been killed? Victoria never outlined contingency plans beyond her own family. The ministry had discussed the idea of electing a prime minister for the indefinite future, but that wasn’t an official plan. The military might accept this decision, or not. Lowden worked with top ranking generals. He knew they talked among themselves, especially in the wake of Victoria’s demise. As of yet, neither the civilian or military camp had strayed into what might be considered ambitious plans, not with exemplars around. By design, exemplars only had soft power. If they detected trouble, they’d tattle to the queen. If the queen wasn’t there, then they might as well write about it in their diaries for all the good they can do. At the end of the day, when systems failed, hard power was all that mattered. It would be interesting if anything ever did happen to Helena. That’s for sure.

Not that Lowden hoped for that. He didn’t like her, but he wasn’t a traitor.

He glanced toward the exemplars standing by at elevator. Their eyes remained forward.

Though he swore, if she announced sweeping changes at a time like this, he’d resign. Maybe she was stepping down. That’d be nice. Victoria, difficult as she was, at least knew what she was doing. He recalled something Helena had told him once years ago. When I’m queen, I’m going to make my birthday the first global holiday. Disgusting. She’s been queen for three weeks. In that time, if she wasn’t ordering him to withdraw humanitarian support from locations across the globe or torch farms, she was renovating this citadel to be her personal playhouse. She’d recalled all of exemplars from their posts, and wasting time hunting deserters so unimportant that Lowden couldn’t even recall who they were.

Everyone knew what Helena was like. No one had the balls to say anything… as though they should have to. Didn’t Victoria read minds? How much of a doting mother must she have been to ignore the obvious? Helena was not fit to rule.

A spokesman came onto the stage. He tapped the mic and told everyone to take a seat. About God damn time. Ministers and military alike shuffled into the nest of chairs. Lowden could see strained patience in their eyes. He wasn’t alone in finding this affair ridiculous.

Once everyone was seated, they waited another five or so minutes before an elevator finally descended from the upper levels. Helena emerged and took to the podium. Right behind her was the asian, high-school girl that Helena had assigned to head the Exemplar Committee. Can anyone say nepotism? Not around Helena.

“Good evening, everyone.” Helena smiled at the audience. Something about it made Lowden’s skin crawl. Ever since she’d taken the throne, she’d only been severe or sulky. Somehow, this was worse. It was as though she were about to sell everyone vacation time-share estates.

“Thank you all for coming. I know this was short notice. And many of you are probably wondering why you had to come in person. As you all know, there was an attempt on my life. Luckly, I’m all right. This, however, was the second such assassination attempt this month. The first took my mother from us. That attack was carried out by one of my most trusted members of the Committee.”

There were murmurs through the crowd.

“I’m here to share with you what we’ve learned about these attacks. Both were carried out by the same unnamed terrorist group. And both carried out by members of our staff that had previously been scanned for disloyalty. What we’ve learned is that this terrorist group has multiple flairs working for them capable of altering the will and memory of targeted individuals, and turning them against the empire. They can do this from anywhere, and target anyone. They killed my mother by turning her own guards against her, and they did the same to me with my own exemplar body guard.”

She paused to allow a discord of murmurs work their way through the audience. Her gaze traveled slowly over the crowd, as though studying reactions. Her gaze fell on Lowden. She still smiled, even as she talked about her mother’s death, but it didn’t seem so sinister. If what she’d said was true, then she was taking a grave risk meeting everyone in person. Was this meeting wise? And why was now the first time he was hearing about this?

“That’s why I’ve brought you all here,” she said. “The people in this room hold this empire together. If these terrorist agents invaded your minds, it could have catastrophic effects. Even putting them aside, the world at large now has access to the same glyphs previously exclusive to the Exemplar Committee. Anyone in the street could pull state secrets from your mind. That is why you’ll all be getting one of these.”

Helena held up an object the size and shape of a robin’s egg, although flatter. It’s black surface gleamed.

“This little stone contains a shield glyph,” she said. “It’s protected with the same technology used in exemplar plaques. Everyone in the military will be getting these, but the first batch goes to you. Until these terrorists are dealt with, you must keep it on yourselves constantly. Sleep with it. Shower with it. Never take it off, except for security screenings of course.” She shrugged and smiled. “Even afterward, the world at large has mind-reading glyphs now. You’ll want to keep this. Congratulations everyone on your promotions in clearance.”

The crowd applauded. Many stood. Ministers chattered with one another. Helena looked over them all with a smile.

Maybe Lowden had the wrong idea about her. Plaque technology was something Victoria would only share if it were pried from her cold dead fingers, but Helena gave it willingly. If what she said was true, then this was absolutely the right move. Doing so showed trust in this crowd that Victoria never had. Perhaps Helena wasn’t as foolish as he took her for.

Good thing too. Only weeks into her reign, the poor girl was facing challenges her mother had never dreamed of.

The queen motioned to everyone. “Come. The exemplars will outfit each of you upstairs. And there’s an open bar.”

Awkwardly, the crowd got up. Many took the elevators. Though like many others, Lowden followed Helena up ladderwells.

The storage deck above the bay was decorated festively. Lining the walls were drink tables manned by stoic waiters with white gloved hands clasped behind their backs. Other waiters meandered through crowds with plates of hors d’oeuvres. When Lowden caught up, Helena was entrenched in conversation with admirals. During their talk, exemplars would appear from a side door and linger nearby. Helena would finish talking with a general or minister, then direct them to follow the exemplar to be outfitted. Someone else filled the person’s spot quickly.

The rest of the audience broke into their own cliques, including Lowden, but he kept his eye on Helena. Every time someone left her group to follow the exemplars, he’d try to excuse himself to join her, but someone else was already sliding in. It took over an hour before he finally joined her conversation. She was speaking with the head of the imperial marshal service.

“…And we’re passing the alert onto the territories,” the chief marshal was saying. “Just in case they manage to escape the homeland by some other means. But I’m telling you, ma’am, they won’t. Every grid station and airport from here to Greenland has their image posted. Every news station broadcasts an alert every half hour.”

“And yet.” Helena held her hands out; one held a gin and tonic. “Nothing. Aren’t you supposed to find fugitives in the first twenty-four hours? After that, they’re practically impossible to find?”

“Those are missing persons, ma’am. Police cases. We’re the imperial marshals, and we’re working with the intelligence ministry. We’ll find them.”

“I don’t know why it’s so hard,” said Helena. “Your looking for tired, middle-aged general traveling with a black woman with skin blacker than night, and she toks like dis.”

A small chitter of laughter.

“Don’t worry, Your Majesty. We will get them. You have my word. They will rot for what they tried to do to you.” The words brought pause to the conversation. Guests sipped their drinks.

Helena grinned at the marshal, then motioned to an exemplar waiting nearby. “It think, Marshal, it’s your turn.”

“Let someone else go,” said the marshal. “I’m afraid I’m not done monopolizing your time.”

“I’d be a rude host if I spent all evening with one guest.”

The marshal smiled knowingly. He glanced at an exemplar waiting behind his shoulder, and reluctantly turned from the circle. “I’ll take my leave then, but I’m not done with you yet, Your Majesty. I’ll find you tonight.”

The exemplar led him away. Helena turned to her other listeners, settling on Lowden. His heart skipped, and to think he’d considered her smile unnerving.

“Defense Minister Lowden. How are you?”

“Your uh… Your Majesty.” He cleared his throat. “Tonight was a good move. I must admit. These past few weeks, I’ve had my doubts about you, but I see now they were unfounded. Your mother would be proud.”

“Thank you, minister. Many people have expressed the same sentiment. I think finally meeting everyone face to face has helped.”

“That may be it, Your Majesty,” said General Ramos. “You’ve spent so much time cooped up in this citadel. The last time I met you, you were a little firecracker this tall.” Ramos held his hand at waist height. “You need to get yourself out there. Show the world the empire still has a leader. Show them your strength.”

Others nodded.

“I think that’s a fantastic idea, General. But Minister Vera doesn’t agree, do you?” Helena turned to the Minister of Media, a small woman holding a martini glass with both hands.

Vera smiled mildly. “Your Majesty. I think you should reconsider your plans. If what you’re saying about this terrorist group is true, you shouldn’t be traveling. It’s unsafe.”

“Nonsense,” said Helena. “I’ll bring my citadel with me.”

“What plan is this?” Lowden asked.

“Her Majesty is planning to travel to Europe and Asia to visit all of the destabilizing countries.”

“I figure,” Helena said, “all of these places are falling apart because they think they’ve lost leadership, and I can’t blame them. From the day I took the throne, these terrorists have had me hiding away. I need to go out there and show the world I’m not afraid, so I’m arranging meetings with the leaders of all the countries, face to face.”

“Can’t they all just come to you, ma’am?” Vera said.

“They are, but I want to meet the people too. I want to meet everyone. I want to stand on the citadel terrace and see these protesters for myself.”

“There are a lot of them,” said Lowden. “Tens of millions.”

“And I’ll meet them all. Every one. I don’t care if it takes years. The world saw my mother as an austere woman who put herself above everyone else. I’ll show them I’m different.”

“And these terrorists?”

“Like I said, I’m taking my citadel. I couldn’t be safer.”

“But what were you saying earlier?” ask Lowden. “Didn’t you say they could attack our minds from anywhere at any time? Is this true?”

“That’s why we’re having this shielding party.”

“But if they could do this, why haven’t they been doing it more?”

“Oh, but they have. Yesterday, we launched an orbital squad offensive toward Spain. It ended in an aerial battle. Does this sound familiar to you, Minister?”

“Should it?”

“It should. You signed off on it. We’d located the terrorist cell and sent a squadron after them.”

“Yesterday? I didn’t sign anything.”

“I can show you your signature, Minister. Think hard. What were you doing yesterday morning?”

“I was… I can’t recall off the top of my head. I was in a meeting. It… was with you, wasn’t it? Are you saying they’ve affected me?”

“They’ve affected everyone who wasn’t shielded. And more people are forgetting every moment. Even Admiral Laughlin. If we didn’t have security footage of him from yesterday, he still wouldn’t believe he was leading the offensive. Once I get these shields distributed, I’ll have to remind everyone of the threat.”

“Good heavens.”

“It’s worse. If these terrorists get to you in person, they can bend you to their will. You’ll believe whatever they want. That’s how they’ve convinced previously loyal soldiers to defect for them.”

“Can we rehabilitate those men?”

“Unfortunately, no. So now you understand why I’m moving so quickly with these shields.”

“Absolutely,” said Lowden. “I had no idea this terrorist threat was so dire. I’ll back whatever plan you decide.”

“Actually,” Helena glanced around to see who was present. “I wanted to talk to you about our empire’s nuclear capability.”

“Nuclear?”

“Yes. We have one, of course. Right?”

“You’re not suggesting we use a nuclear strike to hit these terrorists,” asked General Ramos.

“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting,” said Helena.

“A bit like striking a nail with truck,” Ramos replied, “Wouldn’t you say, ma’am?”

Lowden spoke. “Your mother pledged to never use nuclear retaliation under any circumstances. She agreed to this with several territories when they joined the empire.”

“But we do have them, right?” said Helena.

Everyone in the circle dawdled.

“Your Majesty,” Lowden said. “The world is just now recovering from a nuclear winter.”

“I’m not talking about striking a country,” said Helena. “The ship I’m after is in the upper stratosphere. I’ve talked with an expert. If we detonated a high-capacity fusion bomb up that high, it wouldn’t eject any material into the air. The fallout would be minimal.”

Lowden considered his words. “I understand, ma’am, but it’s about public perception. No matter how safe or justified a nuclear strike might be, it would cause an uproar. People have a sour taste in their mouths about nuclear weapons ever since the Collapse. We must acknowledge the public’s reaction, even if the reaction is entirely irrational.”

“I see.” Helena frowned.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty. Nuclear strikes are one thing we absolutely must not do.”

“I understand, but I’m worried, Minister. We may reach a point where there isn’t another way. These shields are a protective measure, but they are not foolproof. If they where, my own high exemplars would not have been turned against me the way they were. All they need is for you to put your shield down for a minute, a second. They could yank it from your pocket or demand it at gunpoint. Then you’ll forget that you lost it at all. You won’t even remember meeting them. This is the threat I face, with a faltering army, and a crumbling empire. These terrorists will not stop until they have killed me, just as they killed my mother.”

Lowden caught himself about to tip his glass. He’d been so focused on her he’d started tipping forward. And this was only his second drink.

Helena continued. “Now, add to this the fugitives I’m searching for. This is a man who used to work for me before these terrorists got to him. He tried to kidnap one of my flairs, one capable of destroying shields. What would have happened if he’d succeeded? These terrorists would add this girl to their collection, and then nothing could stop them—not our shields, not our army, nothing. A long range nuclear strike may be the only sure way.”

“But surely…” said a general, but he lost his train of thought.

“We do have long range missile capabilities,” said Lowden. “It doesn’t have to be, uh, nuclear.” He felt woozier by the second.

“I hope you’re right,” Helena said. “For humanity’s sake, these terrorists can’t be allowed to win. What happens if they kill me? Or worse. What happens if they brainwash me like they’ve done to countless soldiers. If they gained control, they could systematically rob everyone of their free will. This world could see a tyranny unlike any in earth’s history. They must be stopped, Minister, at all costs. Even if it means tarnishing this empire’s image, I’ll step down if I must. I’ll let the world hate me. My reign is not important in face of this threat.”

Lowden was hardly concentrating on her words. His eyes were on her lips. She was speaking with power and conviction. When he looked upon her, he saw not a little girl who bragged about her reign, but Victoria’s daughter. She had the old queen’s strength, and courage, and beauty. Yet in another way, they were nothing alike. Victoria had focused on building her empire. She was selfish, albeit to the benefit of the empire.

But here Helena was thinking for her people, not for herself. And by God she was beautiful. Lowden stood before a true tigress—handsome and majestic. This woman was his queen.

“I understand, Your Majesty.” The words came out choked. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and nodded. He was acting like a grade school boy.

Helena smiled in understanding. She craned to catch his downturned gaze. “Please understand. I realize the gravity of what I’m asking. Are we nuclear capable?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If it comes to it, can I count on you to allow me to protect our people.”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Even if I must use nuclear strikes upon ground targets? Knowing it may cost innocent lives? It will be my burden, but will you support me?”

“If it comes to that, ma’am. I’ll will.”

And he knew he would, no matter what came. This woman was facing so much. If she wanted him to give his life, he would. He only wished he could give more.

Helena smiled. “Come, Minister. I think you’re ready to get your shield.”

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