Victoria wasn’t in the ready room when Stephano arrived, which meant she would still be in his stateroom—the other room aboard this ship she’d commandeered as her own. Between there and the ready room, she was out of sight from the crew. Her exemplars brought her her meals and sent for anyone she wished to speak to.
They had not sent for Stephano, which meant Victoria did not desire an audience. It had been improper for him to send Liat to inform the queen that he needed to speak with her, but this discussion had to be made, regardless of customs.
He waited for arrival. He didn’t mind. It gave him time to work out how best to phrase his questions. No approach seemed tactful, but then there isn’t an easy way to ask your superior if they’re responsible for mass murder.
He heard her footsteps long before she entered, giving him time to stop fidgeting. The door opened. Bishop leaned in and glanced about for a security check. Stephano made eye contact, and Bishop nodded his thanks for not making him ask. Though now he knew what Stephano wanted to discuss, and so would Victoria. Whatever tact he used, she’d see through it.
Nothing could be done about that.
Bishop ducked out. Victoria entered. In the cramped space, she sidled into her usual seat. “You wanted to see me, Captain.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for accepting my request.”
“What is this about?”
“I’m sure you’re aware that Alexander held a press conference where he made several allegations against you.”
“I am aware. Yes.”
“It’s my belief he leveled these allegations in order to undermine the chain of command aboard this ship.”
“That is my belief as well. It was an incredibly reckless move which will bring further instability to the empire.”
“You said he has a means of ensuring people’s loyalty now.”
“He does, but it does nothing for the many riots now breaking out over the globe. He’s made these allegations caring nothing for the damage it will cause the people in the meantime.”
“That may be the case,” Stephano said, “but it’s still an attack on the crew of this ship. The rumor mill has started turning. The men are asking questions. We need to address what damage his accusations may cause. So let me ask. Is there any truth to his allegations?”
“Why?” she asked.
“Why what? Why am I asking? I need to know.”
“But why? Are you going to resign if they’re true?”
“Are you going to carry out your duties differently?”
“It would affect how we handle this matter. If Alexander’s accusations are groundless, then we can inform the crew and put this matter to rest. If they’re not groundless, and he has any way of proving they’re true, then he may use that against you. If we deny the accusations, but he later provides this evidence, it would worsen the scandal. So,” he paused. “Can Alexander provide such evidence?”
“He will provide plenty of evidence. I’m sure it would all be a fabrication.”
“But could he provide actual evidence?”
“How culpable would it make you out to be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you provide any evidence in your defense?”
“I have none with me.”
“Would you allow your exemplars to be scanned in order to put these rumors to rest with the crew?”
“No. My exemplars know too much privileged information. Simply inform your men that the rumors are false. I don’t see why they need more than that.”
“Because they deserve it.”
“Every man and woman aboard this ship is an exile from their own country. They’re alone up here because you and I decided so. They know only what we’ve told them, which isn’t much. We’ve said nothing about our enemies, or our preparation, or even the people we risked our lives fetching for you. Half of them doubt that you even are the queen. Some are even afraid of you. Yet they still fight for you—not the empire they signed up to serve, or the people they swore to protect, but you. They deserve the truth, and not just another dismissal. So is there truth behind Alexander’s accusations?”
“Did you withhold Food-Ready assemblers like he says?”
“I did. I knew the war was coming. I produced as many machines as I could and hoarded them for my own people.”
“Is that all you did?”
“I also accelerated tensions between America and Russia by placing my people into the bodies of political figureheads.”
“And I ordered the first missile launch.”
“I see.” Stephano had told himself beforehand that it wouldn’t matter what her answer would be. He was wrong. “So you caused everything…”
“Alexander will paint it that way.”
“So the Collapse wasn’t your plan B. It wasn’t because of failed peace talks. It was because you set out to deliberately scorch the world…”
“The Russians, Americans, and Chinese scorched the world.”
“But you provoked them.”
“I thought I was doing the right thing. I still think I did.”
“Your Majesty. Please explain to me how it could possibly have been the right thing.”
“The Collapse was inevitable. Tensions had been growing ever since the nineteen sixties. It never got better. All those years of disarmament were a farce. Time and time again we came within a single judgement call of apocalypse. I tried at first to help, but by then, the arms race had stopped being about protection. It had become an irreconcilable clash of ideals. So I jump-started it, in a controlled fashion. I went to great lengths to make sure only a limited number of missiles fired so as to ensure humanities survival.”
“For what? So you could take over? Was it just a power grab?”
“Of course not. I did it because I believed it was best for the world in the long run.”
“The world was living under the shadows of giants who brandished annihilation at one another. More than just that, Captain, society was moving backwards. Before the missiles launched, the Russians were starving from their broken government long before the winter set it. The Chinese were building dozens of new coal power plants every year while crops failed globally from runaway raising temperatures. The middle east and Africa belonged to religious extremists who reduced more and more of our civilization to a dark age. Women were nothing more than objects. Executions were vicious and public. Drug lords owned more of South America than the governments did. Slavery was reinvented under the guise of free trade. North America had devolved into a police state, controlled by its own paranoia. Its corporations were exhausting the world faster even than a world war ever could. And nearly two thirds of the worlds’ ecosystem had gone extinct. The world wasn’t just rotting, Captain, it was stuck. Society was locked in place. It’s own self-consuming machination had become self-sustaining, and every person in it either didn’t care or felt too powerless to do anything about it. Something drastic had to happen if we were to ever break course.”
“So… what? You see what you did as… tearing down the foundation to rebuild the house?”
“Essentially. I know you think what I did was wrong—”
“I think what you did was insanity. You talk like the world was a hellhole. That somehow, this constant winter starvation nightmare we’ve all been living is in some way better.”
“It’s not better yet. It’s only been six years since the Collapse. Look at how much as improved. Now that I’m in control, I can do so much more for of humanity.”
“How can you believe that? The world was not a lost cause. It had it’s problems, certainly. Thousands of them. Some got solved. Some didn’t. But what you did made everything unbelievably worse. You talk about how the ecosystem was in danger, but you destroyed it entirely. Nearly everything is extinct now. You talk about corrupt governments? The anarchy you caused paved the way for bloodthirsty warlords around the world.”
“We overthrew them.”
“And millions of innocent people suffered. Billions are dead. So what if you fix the world? There’s hardly anyone left to enjoy it.”
“I’m thinking about the endless generations to come, Captain. I know you don’t believe the world was broken, but you grew up in one of the richest neighborhoods in France. You lived in the first world everyone liked to believe in. I spent twenty years in the recesses of the world, trying to fix the problems everyone else ignored. Perhaps somewhere along the line I became jaded. Maybe it was the first time the US government tried to assassinate me because I was raising wage levels in Central America. Maybe it was when I discovered China was sending weapons to rebels in my lands just so they’d cause chaos. Or maybe it was when the drug cartels torched and butchered eight villages I helped restore, just to spite me. I saw the worst, Captain, and I saw it growing. For every piece of good I did, the world snapped back.”
“It was wrong, Victoria.”
“Maybe it was, but what’s done is done. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss where we go from here. If I don’t get my throne back from that lunatic, then all the suffering I’ve caused will be for nothing. Do you still support me?”
“If I say no, do you take this conversation out of my mind?”
“I don’t want to, Captain.”
“But you could…”
“Of course I could, but I want you to help me because you believe in me, not because I’ve programmed you. But the lunatic who sits on the throne right now wouldn’t hesitate. He is a megalomaniac who cares for nothing except himself. He’s already programming the world, but that’s not how I want to rule. I truly am trying to make this world a better place, even if I have made unforgivable mistakes. So choose, Captain. I’m not going to take your free will from you no matter how convenient that would be. Will you help me?”
No matter how earnest she was, the threat was still there. Victoria didn’t want to take Stephano’s memories, but what else could happen if he said no? It’s not like they could politely ask her to leave the ship. Certainly she wouldn’t stand to be arrested. And their lives would still be in danger from Alex all the same. His answer was clear. How he felt about it was something he would come to terms with on his time.
“I’ll help you get him off the throne.”
“I suppose that will have to do. What shall we tell your men?”
Stephano knew his crew well. Some had lost family and friends in the war. For many, their losses were what led them to join the army in the first place. They thought they were on the side that was fixing the world.
Victoria would have to tell the men something, but it couldn’t be the truth.