“And then we look at this one?” The imperial marshal pointed to another camera feed. It showed hundreds of civilians walking through the Fortaleza grid terminal. Crowds weaved through each other as everyone headed to their destinations.
Alex recognized two who walked past the view like any other traveling pair. Christof had changed from his military uniform. The woman wore the same ratty clothes, because why bother changing? The police were looking out for her skin.
“And, here. This is where it happens.” The marshal switched to a feed showing the security checkpoint. Christof and Zauna got into a security line. Several guards looked right at Christof. A few moved closer, but all lost momentum. By the time the two were through, several guards were clustered close enough to snatch them, but half weren’t even watching. Only one seemed to notice; he raised his hand helplessly to catch them, but as though his depth perception were off, he didn’t come close. Afterward, he and the guards returned to work.
“And you’re saying all those guards had glyph cards?”
“In some form or another. A lot of agencies have been encouraging them, at least until regulation comes down from above.”
“And yet none of the guards stopped them…”
The marshal spoke casually. “Looks like a slip up with administration. This was pretty far from our search area. The guards weren’t on high alert for the fugitives.”
“No. Look, right there. Right. There.” Alex zoomed the feed in on a bulletin by the security checkpoint. The resolution was low, but Alex had seen enough of the wanted posters to recognize Christof and Zauna’s face. “Those are the alerts.”
“Yes.” The marshal shook his head as though he couldn’t believe it himself. “Terminal security claim they did alert them, but the guards all insist that they were never informed about the manhunt.”
“Of course they did,” because they all had their god damn memories erased. “What flight did they take?”
“They took the night shuttle to Lisbon Airport. We’re not sure where they went from there. We’re still trying to get footage sent over. Nobody remembers seeing them.” The marshal straightened. “We still got a good shot at catching them. Spain is on high alert now. Actually, the fugitives may have screwed themselves by going there. The grid only extends to Madrid. After that, they’re on roads, and our military presence is still strong there. All they’ve done is hopped to a much smaller haystack.”
The marshal continued listing possible ways Christof could try to escape. Car. Plane. Boat. Ferry. Even swimming. He never mentioned that damn orbiter plane that landed in Austria last night. Christof could have gotten there in time. Maybe the marshal had caught the same forgetful flu that was going around, or if he was just trying to mollify Alexander. The man had a shield now, so Alex couldn’t rely on his usual method of sensing bullshit.
The marshal continued. “We’ve got men headed out to Portugal now who should be there in few hours. We’ll know for sure how they left. Unless they took a connecting flight immediately, which we’re pretty sure they didn’t, then—”
“Get out,” Alex said.
“Just get the fuck out of my office.”
The marshal hesitated. It was disgusting how obviously the man wanted so much to stay and make this right. With as much Sympathy as Alex had basted him in, Alex could probably shoot him, and he’d thank Alex for the opportunity to make amends. It took all the fun out of it.
“Yes, ma’am.” The marshal headed for the door.
Four people remained in Alex’s office. Sibyl stood behind him, Wyatt had escorted the marshal here, and one other.
“So,” said Wyatt, “looks like that memory chick got to them.”
Alex smiled thinly. Wyatt had just come closer to dying than the marshal had.
“You think she’s with Victoria now?” Wyatt asked.
“No, Wyatt. I think the memory chick helped lead them to a holiday in the Spanish countryside.”
Wyatt frowned. He wouldn’t parse the sarcasm on his own.
“Yes,” Alex snapped. “She’s with Victoria.”
He’d hoped that Christof wouldn’t stoop to making a deal with that bitch, Katherine. Everything else could have been forgivable. Trying to run away with that glyph breaker girl was typical Christof, always sentimental. Even trying to kill Alex was understandable. God knows how many times they’d all wanted to kill each other over the centuries. Alex would have still executed Christof if he ever caught him, but he wouldn’t have enjoyed it much.
“If they’re all on that one ship though,” Wyatt said, “just means they’ll all die at once.”
“Wyatt. Shut up.”
Except Wyatt was right. If one ship blew up, all his problems would go away, but it just wouldn’t happen. His ministry hemmed and hawed every time he mentioned nuclear weapons. They insisted on looking into non-nuclear ways of destroying the orbiter, except such a way didn’t readily exist. Repulse-propelled rockets would suffer the same problem of catching up to an orbiter that the interceptors had, and all the older jet-fuel rockets laying around weren’t sophisticated enough to stand any chance bypassing an orbiter’s defenses, so they were no good either.
It was enough to drive Alex ballistic. He’d usurped Sakhr only three days ago, and he’d already inherited the man’s same hangups.
Alex had to calm down and think. He was in control. He owned this empire. Everyone within a square mile would give their life for him. All other problems were solving themselves. Take the threats of succession from the PRC: the Chinese leaders was visiting tomorrow. Those problems would evaporate as soon as Alex saw them face to face. Those riots in India? It just happened that key players from New Delhi were arriving next week. After Victoria was gone, he’d visit all the unstable countries, one after another. He’d stand on the deck of his citadel and look down on them all with his own eyes. How could anyone riot when they adored their world leader?
Would it be time consuming? Sure. But he would only have to do it once. Soon, crowds would come from around the world to bask in his splendor. They’d bring their children. It’d become self perpetuating after a while. No more wars. No conflicts. No rebellions. There’d only be Alexander.
And it’s not like Victoria could easily attack him. Nearly everyone was shielded now. Christof had failed to take Alex’s glyph breaker, and now no one could. He kept her close now, all bundled up like a Christmas present. Not only that, but Quentin’s little project was coming along down in the lower decks. Things were far from lost. All he needed to do was to destroy Victoria as absolutely as he could. And the army boys promised those missiles would be ready in a few days at most. Orbiters were standing by with all their pilots shielded. There was one more thing he could do though. A small thing, but every edge would count.
“Wyatt,” he said.
“Who’s the guy I talk to in order to make an announcement to the world? Is it one of those ministers?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Go find out.”
All the flairs onboard had lessons with Victoria today. Christof was with her right now. Last Winnie checked, Victoria was trying to convince him that he could recognize people with glyphs just as easily as he recognized people with flairs. It was slow going.
Winnie was in the ship’s mess hall, sitting with Tan as he watched the news. Before him were dice and pads of paper. He’d squint at the screen, write numbers down, watch more, roll dice, then write down more numbers. Winnie had figured out that he was paying attention to the stock prices on the news ticker rather than the actual news. She’d asked what sort of exercises Victoria had given him. His answer had been a shrug.
Winnie was also preoccupied with her own homework. Mentally, her mind was floating above the Manakin, just over the bridge spire. She could see it in its entirety, from the doorway at its base, to the cluster of antennae at its top. She floated down until her perspective was within the cluster. It was filthy here, dust and bird droppings everywhere. An osprey had built a nest out of a mix of sticks and plastic garbage. The bird seemed as much as a fixture as the antennae. Wind ruffled its feathers as it sat guarding its eggs while staring over the citadel.
Her mind moved along an access ladder toward the top floor balcony of the bridge spire. She paused before coming into view of its windows. Doing so would force her to acknowledge its interior, which she was struggling not to do. Inside the spire was nothing, she told herself. Nothing at all. She imagined a dense, opaque fog past the glass that not even she could penetrate, then floated down to the balcony.
Her power locked up. The vision lost consistency.
“You’re doing it again,” Helena thought. She sat on the table before Winnie’s meal tray.
“Yeah, I know.”
“You’re still aware of what’s past the fog. You have to learn to not think about something at all if you’re ever going to see Alex in there.”
“I know. I know.”
“Sorry, but you’ve been messing up the same way for hours. It’s frustrating to watch.”
“You don’t have to,” thought Winnie. “You can go bug Tan again.”
Helena glanced at him, then back. “No thanks. He reeks of cigarettes. Why don’t you take a break?”
“Your mother will know.”
Helena suppressed her first thought, which was “she can go fuck herself”, and composed a more reasonable response. “If you overwork yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. Take ten minutes off. Don’t even use your power. Just relax.”
“Victoria wants me practicing as much as I can.”
“She doesn’t realize that not everyone is an unfeeling robot like she is. You need to take a break.”
Winnie let her mind go. Relaxing, she turned her mind back to Christof’s lesson.
“No. I said stop,” thought Helena.
“I can’t even use my power?”
“No. I am forbidding you from doing anything. Or your not going to let yourself relax. Ten minutes. Go.”
With nothing to do, Winnie resorted to using her eyes. Tan was still practicing. When marines came in for their break, one sneered at the news and changed the channel. Tan calmly took a remote from his lap and changed back. It changed back and forth several times until the marine faced Tan.
“Who the fuck watches the news? Change the channel.”
“No.” Tan shook his head. He flipped back.
Glowering, the marine stepped toward him.
“He needs the news,” Winnie said. “Victoria’s orders. It’s part of his practice.”
The marine studied both of them. Tan casually watched the television. Winnie paid attention to Helena.
The soldier muttered and rejoined his group.
The news was currently on a political story.
“…Is scheduled to give an announcement in a few minutes, she’s expected to discuss her meeting yesterday with the Chinese Premier, Guo Jié.” the news anchor was saying. “Jié has already held a press conference, where he expressed his optimism for the continued Pacific coalition. He stated that while the change in Lakiran political rule may have set their alliance onto a rocky path, he’s confident in Queen Helena’s ability to lead the coalition forward.”
Winnie found herself listening out of morbid curiosity. As the anchor spoke, the screen showed Alexander shaking hands with the Chinese Premier in a press room aboard the Manakin. During the shake, they both faced toward the audience as cameras clicked. Sensing pain from Helena, she met her eyes. Helena had heard her own name. She could tell the news was talking about her impostor.
“Do you want to leave?” Winnie asked.
“No. Keep watching,” said Helena.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve been hidden from reality too long. I’m not going to hide now just because it hurts. What are they saying?”
Winnie kept eyes with Helena while she listened.
“This news was met with mixed support from Beijing,” the anchor said. “Only last week, Guo Jié had been a leading supporter for independence. Having met with the queen, he says he now has full confidence in her abilities. Many have voiced their disapproval at Jié change in policy, saying the Chinese people would be better off if China withdrew from the Pacific coalition.”
The view shifted to a Chinese woman speaking rapid Mandarin before a green-screen image of Hong Kong. “The people want independence,” an accented voice-over said. “They’re in the streets. They’re marching on our cities. Retaking government buildings. And they are right. This coalition is nothing more than the Lakiran empire’s attempt to control us. We do not need it. The Lakiran’s know this. In the the past, they have done everything they could to increase dependence on them, but the we are stronger than that. We are proud.”
The news switched back to the anchor. “The queen will be meeting with members of the Chinese Republic later today. She hopes to convince them to move forward with restructuring the coalition, but many officials remain skeptical. We go now to the press conference, which is about to begin.” The screen panned to another display location. Winnie recognized it as being aboard the Manakin. Alexander was taking the podium as cameras flashed.
“Thank you all for coming today. As many of you know, the Chinese premier and I met yesterday to discuss where we go from here. I’m glad to say we share the same vision of a joint Chinese and South American union, but the coalition does need work. The Chinese people have taken issue with the current arrangement, saying that it unfairly benefits the Lakiran empire, and they’re right. When my mother established this alliance, she did so with her country’s future in mind, not the world’s. So we’ll work together to rebuild a fair coalition—one that paves the way for a better future for everyone, not just the Lakiran people.”
He continued. “My mother set out to unite the world, and she succeeded, until terrorist groups assassinated her. They struck not only at her, but at the world. That blow caused this empire to stumble. My goal is not only to reunite us, but to do so in a way she never could, because her motives were for herself. She made choices she should not have, more so than I ever realized until I took the throne.
“I will do better. I am not hoarding the powers used by the Exemplar Committee as my mother did, but have embraced introducing them to the world in a safe and secure fashion. And there will be no more lies or conspiracies.” Alex prepared himself. “I’ve recently learned of one such lie my mother perpetuated, and the people have the right to know the truth.”
The soldiers in the mess hall stopped talking. All eyes turned to the television.
“In the years leading up to the Collapse, most people feared the possibility of nuclear war. World leaders were working together to diffuse tensions between the West, Russia and the Middle East. My mother was among these leaders. She facilitated peace talks and worked hard to prevent South America from becoming embroiled in global tensions. But all the while she was preparing for the war. Her company had already designed food-ready assemblers, but she chose to withhold them from the public, knowing they would give her a greater advantage in the aftermath.”
Winnie split her attention to see if Victoria was aware of this. Victoria was still in lesson with Christof, but she abruptly silenced him. From the expression on her face, she was aware.
The speech continued. “There have been rumors that Victoria was actively encouraging the war. I don’t know if these are true. I know my mother was a driven woman, but to believe this is to believe that she was responsible for the five billion lives lost from the Collapse. Growing up, she taught me to think for the world first, and never for personal gain, which is why I don’t believe these rumors, but I must accept that she did firmly believe the war would occur, and prepared as such. If Victoria were around today, I would demand answers from her. If these allegations are true, then I think I speak on behalf of the world when I say that she should not be the one heading this empire.”
“He’s insane,” Victoria uttered under her breath.
“Who is?” Christof asked.
“But she’s not here,” Alex continued. “I am, and I am not my mother. Whoever she was, whatever her purpose, she did good in building this empire. It put the world back on its feet. I plan to continue on, but no longer will the empire engage in aggressive imperialism. No longer will our soldiers be where they’re not wanted.”
This was met with applause.
“No longer will we hoard food,” he continued. “It was Victoria’s means of controlling other nations. It will not be mine.
“And no longer will we hoard glyphs. It was with those that she exacted complete control over her people through her exemplars. The glyphs will belong to everyone now.”
And even more applause. The audience seemed exuberant about that announcement, especially since Alex never released the glyphs. They were leaked, and the empire tried to cover it up.
Alexander held up his hands to quiet them. “I hope the empire will give me a chance to prove myself. Whether I am working to fix Victoria’s mistakes, or rebuilding this empire, I will do better. Thank you.”
Alex stepped off the stage. The audience applauded. The feed switched back to the anchors, who discussed what the queen had just revealed, but no one in the mess hall paid attention. They all discussed with each other.
“Is everything okay?” Christof asked.
“We’re done for now,” Victoria replied.
“I thought you said we had hours lef—”
“I said we’re done. Leave.”
It was clear that Christof was annoyed by that dismissal, especially without explanation, but Winnie knew he’d understand soon enough. The marines in the mess hall were already talking. As they returned to work, news of the announcement spread about the ship. Soon everyone would have the same questions.
What had Alexander been insinuating? What exactly did Victoria do?