“Has anyone asked her?” a marine private asked.
“Naw. No one’s seen her. She’s holed up in the captain’s quarters,” answered another.
Oni lay on his rack listening in on the soldiers’ conversation. In the last few hours, he’d heard many like it. The soldiers didn’t talk with him or his family, but they ignored him enough that they didn’t watch their words around him. By now, he knew everything they knew.
“Has the captain talked to her?” the marines continued
“I don’t think the captain knows yet.”
“He knows. He knows everything that happens on his ship.”
“Then why hasn’t he talked to her?”
A soldier tossed a few chips into the pile to call. “I think he hasn’t talked to any of us because he knows it’s true. ”
“You sound pretty sure of yourself,” said the dealer. Another soldier called.
“Come on. Everybody already knows it’s true. Nuclear war broke out. Victoria just happened to have the one piece of technology that let her feed her people. Everybody starves but her. She takes over the world. That’s some Bond villain shit right there.”
“So she saw the Collapse coming. A lot of people did. Doesn’t mean she caused it.”
“No. She caused it. Everybody outside of the empire already knows this.”
“Bullshit. If Victoria caused the war, then she planned it like shit. Were you in Porto Maná after everything went down? LakiraLabs had to rush construction on those assemblers. We were eating canned food for almost a year. A lot of people starved.”
Turn went to Tan. Tossing in some chips, he passed the turn to the next. The soldiers let him play with them, but never as the dealer. Unlike the others, he focused on the game.
“She had to do that,” another said. “What would it look like if she already had all the assemblers she needed? Bombs drop. Winter sets in. Oh look, everybody. I just happen to have a warehouse full of these food makers.”
“She couldn’t have cause the Collapse even if she wanted. She’s just one person. Espionage on that level would have taken a huge team of people. And you think nobody on that team would have leaked that they were trying to destroy the world?”
“She could have done it easily. Look. She’s on board now in the body of some teenager. She can swap bodies. Nobody knew about that, and you can bet your ass she had that power before the Collapse. Are her exemplar pets swapped out too? We don’t know. No one knows anything about her.”
“The exemplar’s, man. The exemplars,” said another. “Who knows how long she had glyphs before she made the exemplars. She could have been mind reading everybody, and killing off anyone who wanted to talk. She had body swapping. Who knows what secrets she still keeps?”
“I don’t buy it. We’ve all met her. Does she seem like a killer to you? A tough lady, sure. But not a killer. Not a mass murderer.”
“She wages wars, man. She’s already a mass murderer.”
“You know what I mean.”
“What I don’t get is why did this fake queen or whatever tell us all this.”
“It’s a ploy,” said the other lieutenant. Both were on duty monitoring the status of the ship’s nuclear reactor. Everything was nominal. They paid more attention to the video playing on a tablet between them.
“Look.” One soldier backed the video up.
“I would demand answers from her,” said Alexander in the video.
“See? She looks directly at the camera when she says that. It’s meant for us. Then she says that Victoria shouldn’t be heading this empire, as though she’s still alive. She meant this message for us.”
“It’s a he, by the way.”
“Alex is short for Alexander. It’s a guy.”
“Whatever. He’s trying to talk to us.”
“But it was political suicide.” The soldier took the tablet and did a search on the speech. “Look at this. Everybody on the internet is freaking out. People are asking for Helena to step down.”
“Since when does what the people want ever mattered? She’s got the armies. The Chinese have already said they’re going to stay in the empire. Everyone else is too. The only thing standing in her way is—”
“…His way is us. He knows Victoria is here. He knows we’ll ask her if this is true.”
“Has anyone asked her?”
“What’s the point?” asked Second Lieutenant Marco, the ship co-pilot. “Isn’t that woman we caught supposed to be able to erase memories? We could ask her. She could tell us she caused the war single handedly, and killed Santa Claus while she was at it. Next minute: pop. We know nothing.”
“There’s no way she’d get away with that,” replied Barnes, the pilot. “I mean, just listen to this chatter.” He raised the volume on the shortwave radio momentarily. The language was in Arabic, but the word ‘Victoria’ jumped out several times. “Nobody is not talking about it. Every time she’d take it from our memories, it’d just restart the rumor mill as soon as someone read their internet feed. But then we’d all be asking why we’re only hearing about this now.”
“Maybe she’ll erase everyone’s mind.”
“The whole world’s? I don’t think that’s how it works. If it’s true, it’s going to come out.”
“If it is true,” asked Marco. “What would you do about it?”
“I don’t know. Haven’t thought about it. Not sure I want to.” Barnes lapsed into silence a while. “I had a wife, you know. Maria. We were in Panama during the Collapse. Bombs didn’t hit there, but you know… the winter. We couldn’t get out. I mean, where’d you go, right? The starvation hit everywhere, except south, but everyone going that way was sent back.”
He shook his head. “Didn’t get the chance. Bunch of teenagers thought she might have something they wanted. Stabbed her to death for an aid pack of assembled shit. Broad Daylight. Hundreds of witnesses. When I found her the next day. Her body was right where she fell. Lakira moved in two weeks later and restored order.”
“You’d blame Victoria?”
“I don’t know. I know I never would have joined the army if Maria were still alive.” He shrugged, shaking off the story. “How about you? Did you lose anyone from the war?”
“Of course I did. Everyone did,” said Tactical Officer Lucero. “What I want to know is: are we going to do anything about it even if it is her fault?”
He had several others had collected around the target evaluation console on the bridge. They spoke in a hush since Victoria was only a room away conversing with the Captain.
“It’s not a question of if,” said the flight navigator. “She did it. She started the war.”
“How can you know that?”
“You saw how much Alex hurt his position by saying that. He’d only do it if it hurt Victoria more, and it wouldn’t hurt her if the rumor weren’t true. Victoria has to be guilty.”
“All these rumors already went around years ago. Nobody cared then. Nobody will care now.”
“I care. Those rumors back then were bullshit, but this is real. We’re working for the bad guy. Puts everything I’ve done these last two years into a different light.”
“It doesn’t mean everything we’ve done is bad. We’ve been building an empire.”
“Yeah? For what? If Victoria builds an empire because the world is destroyed, that’s one thing. If she blew up the world to build her empire, that’s completely different. I wouldn’t have joined the army if I’d known this.”
“We don’t know what she did,” said Navigator Tremont. “For all we know. She tried her best to stop the war, all while preparing for it in case it did happen.”
“Then why doesn’t she just say so? Victoria’s been hiding ever since the announcement.”
“We can’t just make assumptions.”
“Can’t we? That woman is not forthright about anything. She kept glyphs to herself. She hid her body snatching ability from everyone. She hasn’t told us anything we don’t absolutely have to know.”
“She has her reasons.”
“Who is Alex anyway? He obviously knows more about her than we do? All we know about him is that Victoria says he’s bad news. She never said why? Maybe he’s the good guy.”
“I think you’re all forgetting there are telepaths aboard this ship,” said Communications Officer Ruiz. “We shouldn’t be having this discussion.”
“All I’m asking is the truth. We deserve that. We’re fighting against the empire because some woman claims to be the dead queen, only she won’t tell us anything.”
The conversation broke as Executive Officer Rivera entered the bridge. Several headed back to their stations.
“What’s all this?” he asked.
“Just talking, sir,” said Lucero. “Have you heard the news?”
“Of course I’ve heard. No one will shut up about it.”
“Is the captain going to ask her?”
Everyone on the bridge looked to the exec. He glanced at everyone else. “What the captain does is none of your concerns. Get back to your work. Now.”
The huddle broke.
“But you always knew,” thought Helena.
“Yeah,” Winnie thought back.
Helena peered through Winnie’s memories, seeing the conversation Winnie had with Victoria about the deal to get Helena a body in exchange for cooperation. Helena dug back further to when Winnie was overhearing the truth from Paul, and the anger Winnie had felt thinking about how Victoria was responsible for her father’s death. Then Helena saw Winnie’s last phone conversation with her dad.
Winnie mentally recoiled.
Helena stopped. “Sorry.”
“No. It’s okay. Look.”
Helena witnessed the memory as though it were her own. She saw the announcement on the news, and Winnie’s mother trying desperately to reach her husband. Winnie shared final words with her father, knowing they would be their last, but not fully understanding why. She’d imagined her father’s final moments, screaming at the phone, then staring at the city when that final flash of white came.
“Were those actually your dad’s final moments?”
“I don’t know. I guess they might actually be.”
“And Victoria did this to you?”
“In a roundabout sort of way, yeah.”
“And you agreed to keep her secret?”
“It was her condition on her giving you a body.”
“But she killed your dad.”
“But what am I going to do about it? If I even think of rebelling, she’d know, and she’d make me forget everything. I’d rather know the truth.”
“Why didn’t she?”
“I guess because I agreed to help her anyway. If she had made me forget and I later found out, I’d probably run away before she could do it again.”
“Yeah. She could just find me and erase my memories again. I thought about ways I might protect myself from her. Maybe I could write down everything on a piece of paper. You know… Victoria caused the war and killed your dad. She promised to give Helena a body once she’s in control again. All the stuff she might make me forget, but then I realized she’d read my mind and see the note. Then she’d just get rid of it first.”
“What if you put it somewhere she couldn’t get to it?”
“I can’t think of anywhere. I thought maybe the admin section of my clothing website, but then she just get the password from my mind. The best plan I came up with was to use one of those ‘Last Wishes’ sites people use for when they die. You know… you send it a bunch of messages. Then if you don’t check in with it once in a while, the server emails the messages to your family. That way you sort of send messages from beyond the grave. I figured I could make an account, give it my secrets, then change the account name and password to something I don’t remember so not even I could stop it.”
“But Victoria could contact the website’s company,” said Helena.
“Exactly, or get into my email. If I were really serious, I could ask Josephine to erase my memory of making the account.”
“I thought the memories she takes have to be related to her.”
“Oh. Right. So see? Not even that works. Besides, Josephine would have to erase her own mind too, so no matter what I do, Victoria could stop it. I can only trust that she’ll keep her word, but now that now that her secret’s out, she doesn’t have a reason to.”
“Don’t worry about it so much. If I don’t get a body, I don’t get a body. Don’t let her control you because of me.”
“I will get you a body, Helena. Stop trying to talk me out of it. Besides, she can always put me in a tortoise, so what choice do I have? I have to help Victoria no matter what she’s done. I’m stuck.”