The leg room situation in the captain’s ready room only accommodated one and a half people, and Victoria was not the sort who accepted anything less than a full share of anything, which left Josephine struggling for space. After some awkward squirming, she’d settled on draping her legs over her chair arms.
Victoria sketched in her notepad while glancing at Josephine. Her page was filled with partially completed glyphs.
“Is that all you brought me in here for?” asked Josephine.
Victoria held up a finger for silence.
Earlier, High Exemplar Liat had appeared in the berthing quarters and informed Josephine that Victoria required her presence. Josephine had been thrilled. After a day of Victoria ignoring her, she was ready to barge in and grapple Victoria for attention, regardless of her body guards. But instead, she got twenty minutes of this.
She was considering what Victoria would do if she just left when Victoria finally held up the pad.
“There,” Victoria pointed out the only glyph on the yellow page that wasn’t scribbled out. “Your power.”
“Who are you going to give it to?”
“Then why’d you make it?”
“So I know how.”
“Do you know what would happen to the world if that got out?”
“Of course I do.” Victoria darted a line through the symbol. “I like to make a glyph of my students’ power at the start of every lesson. It helps them see what progress they’ve made today.”
“This is a lesson?”
“More of an evaluation. You’ve come a long way with your power. Yesterday, those pilots forgot a lot more than just you. You could never have done that when we first met.”
“I thought you brought me here to discuss what’s going to happen next.”
“An evaluation is next.”
“With Alex. With your empire. With us being on board.”
“You and your friends are welcome to remain so long as you obey my rules and cause no trouble. As for Alex, I will deal with him.”
“And you and me? You hunted me for years over something I didn’t do.”
“Do you expect an apology?”
“No, I… Don’t you even want to talk about it?”
“What I want to talk about is your progress. Are you still convinced that your power can only erase memories related to you? Or have you moved beyond that?”
“You’re unbelievable. Can you put away the lesson and just talk to me? Human to human?”
“Josephine. I’m busy. Alexander is working around the clock devising a way to kill us. He has the advantage with resources, military, and authority. The only advantage we have is us flairs, so I must utilize that as much as possible. I don’t have time to reminisce.”
“And if I say no?”
“You’re going to force me?”
“If I must. Just because I now know you never meant me harm doesn’t mean you’re exempt from my command. You’ll do as I say for the same reason the rest of the world does. I have the power to control you. I’ve already described how I could alter your memories until you’re absolutely loyal to me. Maybe I don’t deserve this power, but I have it, and you don’t. I hope you don’t force me to exercise my power against you, but I will. The stakes are too high for me. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that our relationship is something it’s not just because we were friends for one week almost thirty years ago.”
“You’ve turned into a pleasant lady.”
“It’s how the world works.”
“It’s how your world works.”
“It’s the world I learned.” Victoria folded her hands before her. “If you want to dwell on the past, fine, but not today. Perhaps once I’m back on the throne.”
“And what will you do with my power then?”
“I will use it as little as possible. I plan to rule a world of humans, not automatons.”
“Are you going to give my power to your secret agents?”
“Unlikely. Some powers are not worth risking falling into public hands. Your power is one. Body-swapping is another. Satisfied?”
“Are you just saying this to placate me?”
“It’s no less true.”
There was no point to arguing; Josephine didn’t have a choice. She just wished Victoria wasn’t so damn cold about it. If Victoria had asked for her help nicely, Josephine would have readily agreed. She’d already been planning to offer. It had to be this though—the ultimatum. Her help had to be an act of servitude.
“Fine. I wiped those pilots minds by stretching what I consider part of myself. I’m in this orbiter. I’m part of its crew, sort of, so this ship is an extension of me. Their mission was to destroy this ship, so their mission was about me. It’s the same logic you told me when you were a child.”
“Have you made any other progress?”
“It’s been enough. I look after Tan and the others, so they’re part of my group. Therefore part of me.”
“Have you tried any other techniques?”
“Like, say, you and your target have both witnessed the same event, therefore it is related to you.”
“That’s a stretch.”
“How about erasing any memory a person has ever had since first meeting you, because you’ve influenced everything they’ll do since. Causality.”
“That’s an even bigger stretch.”
“Stretching flairs is what I do. With proper guidance, you should be able to drop the necessity that a memory must relate to you.”
“I can already take so much when I try. It’s like amnesia.”
“But not total amnesia. I want you able to remove any memory you want.”
“Why? That could only be used for evil.”
“Nonsense. You could remove traumatic experiences. Or remove empire secrets from someone who either mistakenly learned them, or lost clearance to know them. Total amnesia could be used in leu of a death penalty.”
“That doesn’t outweigh the dangers.”
“No, it doesn’t. Which is why I’ll never release your power to the public, but stretching your power would also help us deal with Alexander.”
“All right. So what are we going to do? Exercises?”
“Not right now. This is an evaluation. I have something more important for you. I need to know if you’re able remove memories of us from any soldier or imperial official, even if they’re not directly involved like those pilots were yesterday?”
“Good. Then you’re going to work with Winnie to erase us from as many government minds as possible before Alexander gets them all shielded. I don’t know how much good it will do, but we need to slow Alex down as much as possible. The next squadron he sends against us will not fall for the same trick.”
“But I’m helping Winnie with Zauna and Christof.”
“You will do both. I expect you’ll only have a few days to do this before Alexander has everyone shielded.”
“Okay. I’ll do it, but only if you sit down and talk to me like a person.”
“Fine, but later. I’m much to busy to do that now. Speaking of which, on your way out, let Liat know that I’m ready for Winnie.”
Winnie’s lesson started out more as a practice in sketching than using her power. She’d copied glyphs again and again. Usually, glyphs were simple to copy. Just lay a piece of paper over a glyph and trace it.
Unfortunately, Winnie couldn’t trace the glyph she was drawing because Victoria was sitting on it. Her power was no worse than her eyes at this point, but it still meant properly sizing each line and curve, and there were so many. Again and again, she ended up cramping parts together causing the resulting glyph to look half melted.
At least her latest one was coming out all right. It was an Empathy glyph, the simplest one. After a few final pen strokes, she handed it to Victoria.
Victoria confirmed it was correct and handed it back. “Well? Does it work?”
Winnie concentrated. “No.”
“Then try again.”
“The glyph is fine. It’s not working.”
Victoria held up one of Winnie’s lopsided glyphs. “I’m not convinced your drawing skills aren’t the problem.”
“How do you even know it works when you don’t trace them. Why don’t you try it?”
“Because I’m not the one who needs to expand my power. But that does give me an idea.”
Victoria took the glyph out from under her. Setting a paper over it, she traced it. “I suppose I should have tried this earlier. My plaque replicator used to render nearly all of the glyph except for the last line. That one I would draw myself. It’s the only one that matters.” She’d finished all but one line. Tucking the aura glyph away, she handed her drawing to Winnie. “Draw that line there.”
Winnie did so.
“Does it work?” Victoria asked.
“And you do have your master glyph on you?”
Winnie took hers out and placed it on the table.
Victoria sighed. “I suppose it was a long shot. Damn Paul. That man was always so difficult. Even when he gives glyphs to the world, he only trained his power just barely enough to do so.” After a pause. “I want you to keep trying though.”
Winnie resisted her impulse to complain. If there was any chance at all that she could remotely copy glyphs, she had to try. Both her and Victoria had seen that unknown glyph strapped tight around Alexander’s neck, just as they could see the beguiling effect it had on people. Winnie wasn’t too keen on Victoria having that power as well, but if Winnie could copy glyphs, it would mean she could copy shields too. The crew would be safe from whatever Alex was doing. And Winnie would have something besides Victoria’s word to safeguard her own memories. She took another sheet of paper and started again.
“Continue on your own time,” Victoria said. “I have something else I want to cover.”
“Look at Alexander right now.”
“Did you try trying?”
Sighing, Winnie visualized him. Nothing came up. She tried visualizing his office instead, where she knew he was, only to suffer the mental bite as something shut her power down..
“Nothing,” she said.
“Which doesn’t make sense,” Victoria replied. “He doesn’t have Naema’s power.”
“But he must have her right next to him.”
“And by now you should already know what lesson I have planned.”
“You’re going to have my narrow my focus so that I’m only looking at him and I’m not seeing her at all.”
“See? You’re learning how to learn. I wonder why you haven’t been practicing this already.”
“Because I’ve been on the run from the law.”
“Fortunately you’re perfectly safe up here. So you’ll have plenty of time to practice all your lessons. Hours.”
“You said you only wanted to see me for a few minutes.”
“I did. We’re done. You’ll practice on your own. Tell Tan to come see me.”
“This is your power.” Victoria held up her legal pad and pointed out the working glyph among a page of errors.
Tan nodded so slightly that it may have just been his breathing. All during Victoria’s sketching, he never asked why he was there or what she was doing, but merely watched, arms crossed.
“You’ve made progress on your own,” said Victoria. “It normally doesn’t take me so long to sketch one for the first time. Tell me about your power.”
Tan didn’t respond.
“I understand you use it by defining games with rules and winning conditions.”
“Is this the only way you’ve had success? Do you need to construct games around everything you do? Say… combat. Or does your power assume that the winning condition then is to survive the fight?”
More staring. Eye contact.
“Yes, I can read your mind, but wouldn’t you rather have a conversation? No? Is this because I tasered you when we first met? I would have convinced you to come with me if I could, but would any argument have worked? And you realize that you have no one to blame but yourself for being here. It was your game after all. At every intersection, you rolled your die to select which road to take. Your winning condition was to get out of town without falling into the hands of the empire. What you hadn’t known was that the empire had mobilized to capture you the moment Josephine accessed that file on Naema. No matter what path you took, they would have caught up to you eventually. If I hadn’t caught you, they would. And as it happens, you sent yourself down a road that gave me plenty of time to get in your way. You practically handed yourself over to me.”
“It’s funny, really. All these years I’ve failed to capture you, I thought it was Josephine that kept eluding me, but it was you, tossing your dice like a seer tossing chicken bones. Not even Josephine realizes how critical you were. All those little dice rolls and maps and solitaire games. You always went to the right place. I caught you now is because your goal was to avoid the empire. Only I’m not the empire anymore. I’m on the run. Just like you.”
Still, Tan only stared.
“And it might even have been worth it just to meet you. Because, unlike any other power I’ve known, you can see the future… in a matter of speaking. My intuition tells me your power does not give you any knowledge, but it guides you. You’ll always be forced to let your power act through your unconscious actions, but that might be enough. You’ve already learned how games can let your power express itself, but you could do so much more. Make your games to play the stock market. Flip a coin to decide long or short. Run a company using a magic eight-ball for corporate decisions. Wage a war. Get more points for clean victories. Go for the high score. You could have been ruling this world just as easily as I have.”
“But not anymore. You’ve waited too long, and now you’re here on a ship surfing the atmosphere, waiting for our enemies to destroy us. Shortly, every person working for Alexander will have a shield, and neither Josephine nor I can do anything to help. But you might turn all of this around. All you need is to expand your power, and I can help you.”
He finally moved, only to utter one word. “How?”
Victoria took many item from her case: A pack of cards, coins, her tablet, a sleeping mask, pens and index cards, and set after set of colored dice with varying sides.
Victoria looked at him. “By playing games, of course.”