94. Zero Sum

The assembler open library had nearly four hundred different edible pastes and crackers. Each had their own flavor and varied nutritional content. The highest rated ones provided a complete diet for the average human being. Other choices were customized for infants, allergies, and sensitivities. Dietary options ranged from paleo to gluten-free. It was all technically vegetarian, since even the meat pastes didn’t come from animals, but there were still options for those who considered meat unethical or unhealthy.

The premium gallery is where people ate if they could afford it. Posted by corporations and food manufacturers, these foods actually resembled foods from before the famine, mostly. Assembled fruits had flesh you’d never know was made from billions of small bits pressure-fused together. Meats were marbled with fat. Vegetables came with unique flaws and variations with each download.

Years ago, the user-submitted gallery had a plethora of choices. Most were crap, but there were enough high-rated submissions to dwarf both the open and premium galleries. Unfortunately, user-submitted edibles was eventually shut down. Nearly all of them were untested. Some could make you sick—a few deliberately so.

That still left countless choices for Winnie. As long as she didn’t compare it to real, earth-grown food, it wasn’t bad.

But there was only a single option for tortoise food. One.

Parrots had a wider selection.

The tortoise food was little tasteless pellets with mild color variations, like dog biscuit crumbs. These were the same kind soldiers had given Winnie on her first night as a tortoise.

She tasted one. Exactly as bad as she remembered.

Winnie returned to her bunkbed. Helena was perched near the pillow. Her aura was of utter despondence, but she was out of her shell now—which was something.

Winnie sat next to Helena. “I’m sorry. These are literally the only thing they have for you.” She emptied a handful on the rack. Helena’s tortoise eyes were expressionless as always, but from her aura, Winnie could practically hear her sigh. Helena bit one and chewed.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get another body soon. I made a deal with Victoria.”

Helena looked at Winnie. Eyes met. Her mind hardly comprehended words. Winnie remembered what it was like. As a tortoise, Winnie’s mind had been slow. Thoughts came slowly, and listening to conversations took all her concentration. But she hadn’t realized just how slow her mind had been at the time. It had been too simple to notice its own simplicity. Looking in Helena’s tortoise mind, she saw just how slow it was. Helena hardly understood a word Winnie had said, but hearing her mother’s name had summoned forth cold loathing. She stopped eating.

“I’m sorry,” Winnie said. “I won’t talk about her, but you should eat. You haven’t had anything except junk for days.”

Helena was trying to listen, but she couldn’t understand.

It was her ears, Winnie realized. She recalled trying to use them as a tortoise before utterly disregarding her hearing in favor of her own power. Everything had sounded as though she was hearing from underwater.

“Eat,” Winnie said slowly. “Keep your strength.”

Helena’s mental response was simple.

“Why?”

“You’ll have your own body—” She stopped herself. “New body. For you. Soon.”

“How?”

“I made a deal with Victoria… I help her… You get a body.”

“She’s still alive?”

“Yes.”

Helena’s stir of emotions was mixed. “How?”

“Long story… Tell you when you have a body.”

“But not my body?”

“No. Sorry.”

They sat together in silence. Helena stared at her food, but ate no more.

“Hold on,” said Winnie. On her tablet, she expanded the user page for the ship’s assembler. If Helena was only going to have her tortoise body for a while longer, then there was no harm in her eating something tastier. There were some foods humans and tortoises ate: leafy greens, fruits… nuts? Winnie hesitated. Was there anything that might make Helena sick, like a dog with chocolate?

Research might be worthwhile, but she didn’t feel like wrangling with the ship’s flaky satellite internet right now. Not that it mattered. The onboard assembler queue was flooded with jobs from the soldiers. Half the queued items were hacked exemplar plaques, because apparently they didn’t understand that they could just copy glyphs with pen and paper. It’d take hours to get food.

Winnie lay on the rack. “Nevermind,” she said. “We’ll get you a body.” Just as soon as Winnie could talk with Victoria. She’d tried several times to see her, but either Liat or Bishop would stop her at the bridge. Victoria was busy, they’d say. Sure. Winnie could see Victoria chatting with either Stephano or Christof, but it had gone on and on for hours.

Her mind focused once again on Victoria, and she bolted upright.

Victoria was rounding up her conversation with Stephano. He was getting up to return to the bridge.

Victoria would only be free for a few minutes at most.

“Wait here,” Winnie said. Hopping up, she raced through the berthing quarters, past the mess hall, down the corridor, and to the bridge door. Bishop blocked her way.

“She’s still busy, Winnie.”

“No, she’s not.” Winnie checked mentally. Stephano left the small ready room and returned to the bridge. Victoria was alone, resting back and rubbing her eyes, doing nothing. “I can see her. I just need to talk to her for a minute.”

“Unless the queen calls for you, I cannot grant you an audience.”

“We’re not in court. She’s literally ten feet away from us.”

“I’m sorry, Winnie. I’ll let Her Majesty know you wish to speak with her.”

“Okay, then go. Do it.”

“…Once she is free.”

“Oh, come on.” Winnie considered yelling. Victoria would certainly hear, but she suspected Victoria was already well aware of her. It had been seven hours since they took back off. “Would you just ask her right now? She’s not doing anything right now. I can see her.”

“I understand you are forbidden from doing that,” Bishop replied.

In the captain’s ready room, Victoria leaned and knocked on the door. High Exemplar Liat, who was stationed just outside, opened it and peeked inside.

“Go tell Bishop to let her in,” Victoria said.

Finally.

Seconds later, Liat stepped out of the bridge and ushered Winnie to Victoria’s cramped ready room. She closed the door and took guard outside.

“You have two minutes before Stephano returns,” Victoria said.

“I want to talk to you about Helena.”

“What about her?”

“You promised that once we got her back, that you would give her a body.”

“No.”

“You said you would.”

“I did, but this is not the time to give her a body. This will wait until I’m back in control.”

“That wasn’t our deal. I agreed to help you, so that when—”

“Winnie, I know what the agreement was, but you’re forgetting. In order to give Helena a body, I have to steal a body from someone else. We are currently drifting through the stratosphere. So whose body should I use? There are twenty soldiers aboard this craft. All of them are loyal to me. Am I supposed to reward them by giving their body to a spoiled little girl? Or how about Tan? Or Christof? Or Naema’s family? Who, Winnie?”

“We’ve landed before. We can do it again.”

“Every time at greater risk. Alexander is outfitting the Air Force with shields as we speak. And even then? Do we steal a stranger’s body?”

“You didn’t care when you stole one for yourself.”

“Yes. Winnie. I fully understood that I was effectively killing someone for my own survival. When you made this deal, you knew that it would come to this.”

“There are bad people in this world. Why not one of them?”

“Okay then,” said Victoria. “Here’s what we’ll do. You’re the one who wants Helena back so much, so you’ll find this bad person who deserves to die, and I’ll swap them. Of course, this will wait until after I’m back in power, but whoever you decide on—no matter who they are in the world—I’ll send soldiers to collect them. And you’ll watch as I condemn them to be an animal while Helena gets a body. All you have to do is choose.” Victoria peered at Winnie inquiringly. “Is that fair?”

Winnie glared at her.

Victoria nodded. “I thought so. Now is there anything else?”

There wasn’t. And Stephano knocked on the door. Her time was up.

Winnie returned to the berthing quarters. Helena was withdrawn into her shell. Her aura was just as dark. Winnie curled up on the bed and wrapped her arms around Helena. There was no reaction. Winnie wasn’t sure Helena even knew she was there.

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