Winnie, Josephine, and Oni sat together in the Venezia mess deck. Oni fiddled with a tablet he’d printed out on the onboard assembler. He sometimes glanced at the television the other soldiers watched. Josephine and Winnie sat across from each other, staring into on another’s eyes. To an outsider, they probably seemed to be in a staring contest lasting hours.
Mentally, Winnie was watching Christof enter a grid terminal in Fortaleza, Brazil. It bustled with traffic. Families struggled to keep themselves together. Solo travelers hurried. Police manned all the exits and security points. Exemplars watched idly over traffic. Wanted posters were on the walls in every security office, as well as covering the odd pillar.
Except Josephine and Winnie had already mentally passed through the station before Christof and Zauna even parked outside. To everyone there, none of them had seen those posters before. Yet Winnie kept an eye out. All it would take was a glance and a good eye. Anyone could still spot him.
Christof got into a long line to purchase tickets. There weren’t any bulletins near him. Winnie risked looking away for a moment. Her mind was now in Fort Alston, a military base north of Sao Paulo. Hundreds of unshielded soldiers went about their duty. Winnie sought out a group she hadn’t seen before and held them in mind while staring down Josephine.
Josephine closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “How about we stop for now? Let me know if Christof needs us.”
“Victoria wants us to do this.”
“Those soldiers don’t know anything.”
Josephine gave her a pained glance. “Those men are exercising. How are pushups going to threaten us?”
“It can’t hurt.”
“It’s starting to.”
“We’re supposed to be buying time.”
“And if you find any soldiers doing something remotely related to us, let me know.” Josephine rested back.
Winnie scanned through the HIMS Manakin again. Thousands of people manned that ship. She didn’t bother Josephine to work their memories. A quick check showed everyone had a small stone around their neck or buried in their pocket. One briefing at a time, they were all relearning about “the terrorists in the sky” and Winnie couldn’t do a thing about it. Soon the entire army would be mentally untouchable. The Venezia could not come out of the sky again.
She brought her mind back to the travelers she was watching over. Zauna waited in a car in the parking lot. In the back seat, sitting on top of a pile of stolen goods, was Helena. She was active for once, and poking at a piece of beef jerky, not an approved tortoise diet. Winnie wanted to call and tell Zauna to stop that, but Christof had the phone. Not that it mattered, as soon as they got to a safe place in Europe, the Venezia would pick them up and Winnie would make Victoria uphold her bargain and give Helena a human body. Besides, it was good to see Helena eating again.
She returned her attention to Christof just as he stepped up to the ticket counter. Winnie got Josephine’s attention.
Christof requested tickets. The seller asked a few questions, then for ID. Christof handed one over. It was of a balding middle-aged Venezuelan that Zauna pick-pocketed yesterday. It looked like Christof only to the most glaucoma-ridden senior. The ticket man looked repeatedly from it to Christof. Winnie could sense Josephine peeling his memories away. The seller’s expression never changed, nor did Christof’s, yet the exchange took an awkward ten seconds. Finally the man handed it back as though nothing was amiss. Christof got the tickets and headed back to the parking lot.
He dialed the Venezia as he got into the car. Winnie answered part way through the first ring.
“What now?” he asked, switching the phone to speaker.
“Go. They’re already boarding.”
“No, but all the guards have glyph cards.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“There are posters of us everywhere.”
“I know. Just don’t look at anyone too closely. Now go.”
“Okay.” Christof moved to hang up.
“And don’t forget Helena,” Winnie yelled.
Within minutes, the three were in the station making their way to the security checkpoint. Winnie suspected they could have walked through it without stopping, but Josephine had warned against that. As it was, Christof and Zauna waited in line like everyone else. People glanced at the tortoise in Zauna’s hands. The guards eyed Christof from across the checkpoint.
Winnie didn’t dare take them out of her view. To everyone with glyph cards, Christof was practically glowing since he was a genuine flair. Several times, guards moved to intercept them. Josephine would pull memories away, and they would putter to a stop. A moment later, another would move. Josephine would repeat.
Christof and Zauna reached their shuttle, found seats, and settled in just as the doors were closing. Josephine broke eye contact, yet Winnie continued watching until the shuttle began its trip along the TransAtlantic chute. They were as good as free now.
Winnie turned her mind back to the military base and found another group of soldiers. She caught Josephine’s attention. Josephine gave her a sour look, though despite her exhaustion, they continued to work.
The rendevous point was in Austria. Getting there took Christof and Zauna over twenty-four hours aboard a drifter they stole in Portugal. Winnie was with them every step of the way. At a designated spot on a highway, she told them to pull over and walk into the dead woods.
Timing was important for this pickup. Though the imperial air force was not yet shielded, every touch down was a risk, and every minute counted. Winnie gave Captain Stephano an estimate for when the two would arrive, and he’d planned the ship’s descent, which involved circling the globe another time to lose enough speed. In the end, the ship’s loading ramp crunched into frozen mud the moment Christof came into view of the clearing. Winnie was proud of herself.
Though she might have had to hassle Christof to move faster several times so he’d arrive when he did.
A squad of marines poured out and secured the area. Winnie, Oni, Josephine, and High Exemplar Liat waited on the ramp for Christof and Zauna to approach. Victoria waited farther back inside the bay. When Zauna came through the woods and spotted her son, she rushed.
“Oni, boy.” She constricted him in a breath-stealing hug.
Liat approached and smiled at Zauna, looking her in the eye.
“Who are you?” Zauna asked. “Are you the queen?”
“Me? No.” Liat stared at her a moment longer, then stepped passed her to confront Christof.
Victoria came down the ramp. “Welcome, Ms. Madaki. We will meet more formally later. Come aboard now.”
Zauna and Oni walked up the ramp together. Victoria turned her attention to Christof and Liat, who were staring each other down. Liat’s scan of Christof took longer than with Zauna. Concerned, she turned and looked at Victoria. Something passed between them telepathically, then Victoria came down the ramp to meet Christof while Liat shepherded everyone else into the Venezia.
Others couldn’t hear Victoria’s interaction with Christof, but Winnie could. Victoria stared Christof in the eye just as Liat had. Christof obligingly stared back.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
“Hardly. I can see why Liat was reluctant to let you near me. You’re harboring far too many feelings of—”
“Yes. Under other circumstances, an exemplar would have you shipped off to a detention facility.”
“Well, there’s not much we can do about it, so how about we just go aboard.”
“Actually, I can do something. I can remove those seventeen year of imprisonment if you’d like.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“So you want the memories?”
“I don’t want you messing with my mind.”
“Would you remove the memories yourself if you could?”
“So you think you’re better off with them. I agree. They’re an excellent lesson in humility, a reminder that you are not above answering for your sins.”
“This coming from the woman who’s murdered more of humanity that I ever could.”
Victoria glanced to see what soldiers were near. None overheard save for Winnie.
“I will leave your memories as they are, Christof,” Victoria said, “but if wish to step aboard this vessel, you will obey my word. Never mention something like that again, even if it’s just to me, or I will take those secrets from you.”
“This means you may not make eye contact with anyone onboard this ship. Can you manage that?”
“I put up with Alexander longer than you’ve been alive.”
“Good, because I’m trusting you.”
“It’s not really trust if you’re threatening to muddle my memory.”
“It is if you knew me. I said I’d forgive you, and I meant it. I know what kind of person you are, and the loyalty you showed Sakhr. You chose to come to me, which shows you have a head on your shoulders, so I’m giving you a chance. Your resentment toward me is understandable, and I will show you the courtesy of not forcing your forgiveness through memory tricks.”
“Nor will you ask for it, it seems.”
“I punished you far long enough for what little involvement you’ve had. Longer perhaps than you deserved.” She paused. “I was angry. That, Christof, is the closest to an apology you’ll get.”
“Again, if you knew me better, you’d know that it was. Come now, we’ve dallied for too long.” Victoria turned and headed up the ramp.
Christof followed. When he came to Winnie, he paused. She got her first good look at him without the use of her power. She’d missed how haggard he looked. He’d been on the run for over thirty hours.
“Winnie?” he asked.
Christof handed her a bag and marched past her into the ship.
Winnie looked inside. At the bottom, tucked into her shell and away from the world, was Helena.