114. Ignorance

A civilian shuttle landed at the Attila military base in Northern Amapá. Soldiers circled about it, and one tapped on the window. It rolled down.

The soldier peered in. “Welcome to Fort Leguan. I need all of you to step out of the shuttle.”

The door opened. Christof stepped out, then Winnie. To the soldiers, they appeared as a general and an exemplar. Christof held a briefcase by his side. Winnie cradled a tortoise.

That drew the soldier’s eyes. “What is your purpose at Leguan?”

“We’re expected,” Christof said.

“This is for security. I need you to answer our questions. What are you doing here?”

“We’re here to see the queen.”

“Identification, please.”

Christof and Winnie handed over IDs. The soldier’s didn’t react at all to Christof’s identity as General Soto, who was one of the most wanted men in the empire. Winnie wasn’t surprised. Both of the men’s aura’s were exposed.

The soldier handed the IDs back. “Come with me. We’ll get you scanned and checked out.”

“A security screening?” asked Christof. “We’re not to be scanned. There should be a note about that.”

“You’re getting scanned.”

“We’re in possession of privileged information.”

“Listen,” the guard said. “There have been three attacks on the queen in the last month. You’re not getting near the queen without a scan.”

Christof’s hands tightened on his briefcase.

“It’s okay, Private.” Josephine approached from the administration building. “Let them through.”

The guard hesitated. “Minister Molyneux, I have instructions to clear everyone without exception.”

“They’ve already been cleared. They just finished passing through security.”

He frowned. He and his fellow soldiers exchanged glances. Their auras hiccuped in a way Winnie had gotten used to seeing.

Josephine waved Christof and Winnie over.

“Wait a moment,” the guard said, then paused as though lost in thought. His partners weren’t any better.

“Just come along,” Josephine said. “They’ll be fine after we leave.” They walked to the administrative building. “Did you find it?” she asked.

Christof held up the suitcase.

Josephine sighed. “Thank God. You don’t know what it’s been like.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s been that bad, Minister,” Winnie said.

“That’s just a harmless white lie. No one will remember after I’m gone. Come on. I can’t leave him alone for long.”

They entered the administrative building. People were collected in the lobby. They flocked at the sight of Josephine. Everyone spoke at once.

“I need a word with you.”

“Madame. Where is the queen?”

“Is she okay?”

“I have the Chinese Prime Minister on the line.”

“She needs to make a press announcement.”

“The Ministery of Aviation needs to speak with Helena.”

Winnie could hardly make out what any of them were saying.

Josephine held up a staying hand. “If everyone will be quiet. Queen Helena will be available just as soon as the medical team clears her. Now please, clear the way.” She led Winnie and Christof past guards and up a flight of stairs.

In an office at the end of a hall, Alexander was sitting at a desk covered with playing cards and a cribbage board. Winnie knew from her spying that Josephine had been his playing partner, and he was waiting for her to return. Sibyl sat nearby. She’d been in no mood to play, since unlike Alexander, she knew what was coming.

Alexander smiled. He didn’t mind that no one else did. “Hello. Ah, good. Two more. Perfect. Everyone, come in. Sit down. Do any of you know how to play cribbage? It’s an older game, but I assure you it’s aged well.” He looked from Winnie to Christof, trying to meet their eyes. “No? I guess we’re going to do something else then. I don’t suppose any of you brought anything to drink.”

Christof set the briefcase on the table and popped it open. Inside a manilla folder were sheets of line paper. They were copies of glyphs Alexander had stored in a government-controlled deposit box in Poro Maná, far away from Naema’s destructive gaze. Not even Sibyl knew exactly bank he’d gone to. Tan’s dice had shortened the search dramatically

“What?” Alex peered at the glyph. “Is that a tribal tattoo? Normally those come after drinking.”

Winnie set Helena on the table.

“A turtle?” Alex asked.

Helena stared directly at him. It was looking into her eyes that Alex’s smile finally faltered. For the first time since he’d lost his memory, Alexander had an idea what was about to happen.

“No.” Winnie replied. “She’s a tortoise.”

113. The Search

“There!” Lieutenant Cardoso shouted.

Captain Santos lurched from the comm bench and hurried over.

Cardoso was pointing into the distance. Nestled in a small clearing between dead trees was the missing hopper-class military shuttle.

“Take us there,” Santos barked at the pilot.

The prowler they rode arced lazily toward the distant ship. Moments ago, Santos had thought their vessel was moving too quickly; his men had too little time to search the woods below as they drifted by. Now, the ship seemed to crawl.

Every soldier, cadet, and volunteer aboard pressed precariously against the platform railing to look at the hopper. Their weight caused the platform to tilt. No one cared.

“Call it in.” Santos said.

A radio cackled behind him. His pilot spoke in english. “This is vessel two five oh four searching in Amapá. We’ve located the missing shuttle.”

“What is the condition of the vessel?” a replying voice asked. “Is there any sign of the queen?”

“It looks as though the shuttle landed safely. We’re closing in now.”

“What is your location?”

The pilot transmitted coordinate information. Santos kept his eyes on the ship. Could she be on board? God, please. Let her be on board. Let her have stayed put. Let some radio malfunction be the reason she’d gone three hours without calling for help.

“What is it doing out here?” Cardoso said.

“No idea, Lieutenant.”

No one had expected to find the ship here, nearly forty miles away from where the Manakin went down. Long range radar had shown an unexplained blip out here—a ship had come and gone from this location hours after the Manakin had gone down. Everyone expected it to be some private pilot ignoring the no-fly directive. Hardly worth checking out, but the military had been getting desperate.

The prowler drifted overhead. Santos, several soldiers, and a medical team repelled down on ropes.

And there she was. Queen Helena was sitting on the boarding ramp of the ship with others as though watching the sunset. Santos felt weight lift from his heart. His queen was okay.

Santos hit the ground and charged up. He switched to english. “Your Majesty, are you okay?”

“Me?” Helena said. “Yes. I’m fine.” She glanced side to side at her companions. A young black girl sat beside her, and sitting in the ship behind them was a white woman in her early forties. Santos had no idea who she might be, but he did recognize the girl on the queen’s other side. She was the new head of the Exemplar Committee, Cho Eun-Yeong.

The medical team inspected Helena. She chuckled and brushed them away. “Look at her, guys.” She motioned to the black girl beside her, who had multiple wounds, including a bad leg injury. Someone had tried bandaging her, but she needed a hospital.

“Ma’am, what happened aboard the Manakin?” Santos asked.

Helena puttered her lips and laughed. “I was hoping you could tell me. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. Did you just call me Your Majesty?”

Santos looked her over. Had she been compromised? He couldn’t see her aura, so her shield was working. But then he couldn’t sense any aura at all, not even nearby animals. Something was off.

“Ma’am, have you had your shield stone with you at all times?”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

Santos and the medical team glanced at one another. Forgetfulness was exactly the sort of sign he’d been warned about. He looked at the queen’s companions: the black girl, the older woman. They weren’t military. Why would they have been on the Manakin? Had that radar blip been an enemy ship?

Santos had to be careful. If the queen was compromised, then she could no longer be trusted.

Trusted to… rule? Trusted to… explain what happened?

He wasn’t sure. There was something he was supposed to do now, but he couldn’t recall what. Was he supposed to report it? Everyone was looking at him now—The medical team, Helena, even that strange woman sitting behind the queen.

He was wasting time. The queen needed help. “Hold on, ma’am. These men will take care of you.”

“If you say so,” Helena said.

Santos stepped away and unfastened his belt radio. “This is Captain Santos. The queen is at the ship.”

“What is her condition?” a radio voice asked.

He paused. There was something important he needed to say. It was just on the tip of his tongue, but whatever it was would come back to him later. Right now there was more important news to share.

“The queen is unharmed. We’re bringing her home.”

111. Like Old Times

The citadel shifted. Victoria only noticed because the sunlight streaming in the port windows now crawled along the floor. She checked in her mind. The citadel was slowly turning toward the ocean, and it was already accelerating. She looked in the bridge, only to find the blind spot had moved there from Alex’s office. So Alex was there then. There was only one reason why the citadel would start moving before it was facing in the right direction. There was no destination. It was just getting away from where it currently was: city of Porto Maná.

Her plan had been to keep impersonating a marine until Alex was satisfied she was dead. He’d had the marines check each other’s shield, something Victoria had managed to dodge, but it seemed Alex had decided on more extreme precautionary measures. Of course Alex would do something like this.

She headed to the stairwell.

At the door, a marine stopped her. “We’re not allowed to leave.”

“A porthole has been pried open,” Victoria said. “I think someone might have jumped out. We need to tell the captain.”

“We’ll radio it in then. We can’t leave.”

“I’m not leaving the spire,” Victoria said. “Just going to tell the captain downstairs.”

“No.” The marine noticed the gash in Victoria’s armor. “What happened here?”

“Someone stabbed me.”

“Did it damage your shield stone?”


“Are you sure? That looks like exactly where it would be.”

“It’s not.” Victoria pointed above the gash. “My shield is here. Isn’t yours?”

“No. Mine is right here.” The marine pointed on his own chest.

“Right there?” Victoria stabbed him with knife. The shield glyph within popped when it ruptured.

The marine yelped, but he immediately forgot why.

Downstairs, all the marines looked up. Everyone sensed an aura appear. Victora had to act quickly.

“They’re keeping us in here because they’re going to kill us just as they made us kill them,” Victoria gestured at the dead. “And now they’re coming for you. Get to the roof. Shoot anyone who comes after you. Now go.”

The marine ran into the stairwell and bolted up the stairs. Two marines in the lobby took after him. Another two stayed behind. Victoria waited for the men to pass, then slipped down two flights to the lobby floor. She took aim at the two remaining marines through the door and kicked it open.

She was emptying the rifle’s clip before the door even hit the wall. The rifle’s recoil had flechettes flying all over the lobby, but both the guarding marine and the captain collapsed.

Victoria swapped her rifle for one of theirs and escaped to the Deck floors.

The bridge spire wasn’t far. Of it’s two stairwells, one was ablaze, the other was still rigged with a bomb. However, Alex was not in his office anymore. She could see the detonator on his unattended desk.

Victoria halted.

He wasn’t in the bridge anymore either. No one was, because the bridge crew was dead. Officers lay sprawled over bridge steps. The strike room was just as gruesome.

Victoria scanned the citadel for the blindspot. It was moving toward the flight bay in the citadel’s portside aft, where a single military shuttle awaited.

She sprinted down corridors. The bay was ahead, the blindspot was nearly there.

Turning the corner, she saw them—Alex and Sibyl, in the bodies of Helena and Winnie, were dragging Naema along. Alex aimed a gun at Victoria. She stumbled. A flechette narrowly missed her as she fell behind a stack of plastic-wrapped supplies.

She scurried closer to her cover. It seemed Tan’s power had tripped her up, saving her life from walking into a flechette. That power had proved far more useful than she had anticipated. She raised her rifle over the crate and fired blindly toward Alex, trusting in Tan’s power to guide her shot.

She glanced around the corner. Nothing. Alex and Sibyl had taken cover behind a shipping crate. There had been no targets to hit. The flechettes could not penetrate the crates.

“I knew it!” Alex yelled. “I knew you were still alive.”

Victoria could see the crate they were hiding behind, but that’s it. She hadn’t realized how dependent she’d become of Winnie’s power. It was like being blind.

“I guess since you’re here,” Alex said, “you’ve probably guessed why I’m stepping out. So we get to play a game. How much time do you think I set that bomb for? I’ll give you a hint. It’s about forty seconds before the really big one is supposed to go off. Do you remember what that timer was at?”

Another bomb. What was it with this man and bombs?

“You’ve also got to remember to subtract however long it takes for this hopper to get clear,” Alex continued. “I forgot to ask Quentin how large the blast would be, so your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re not getting on that hopper,” Victoria yelled. “Go back and disarm the bomb.”

“Nah. You can do that. It’s in my office. I’ll even tell you the code. It’s… 18060513. I know you’re not supposed to use your birthday as a password, but I did. So go ahead, but you’ll only be letting the bigger bomb go off then.”

“Then we die together, Alexander.”

“You’d do that? I don’t think so. You might not like me very much, but you won’t sacrifice yourself just to get rid of me.”

“Why not? You told the world what I did. I might never rule again.”

“Sure you could, Katherine. The world is filled with idiots. Make up a story. Tell them I was lying. Make them forget. You love doing that! Better yet. Just find another poor girl to steal a body from and start all over. Let this bomb go off and the world will be in such chaos, it’ll be ripe for the taking. With all your new powers, it’ll be child’s play.”

Victoria glanced around the supplies crates. She glimpsed Alexander pointing a repulse pistol at her and ducked away just as a flechette punched into the crate by her head.

“What you lack is determination,” Alex said. “You had such a good start. You were taking over minds. Replacing your enemies. You blew up half the world, and it worked like a charm. But then what? Six years of shit: taking over countries one at a time, diplomacy, Humanitarian Projects. I thought you must have had an attack of nerves, as if you suddenly forgot you’re the monster, but no. You actually cared about what people think about you. You actually wanted to help them.” He scoffed. “You have no idea how to rule.”

“And you know better? You couldn’t rule without warping the minds of every last person in the world.”

“Because it works, Katherine. I brought China together in three days. Three days. No wars. No struggle. It’s the rational way. You, on the other hand, destroyed the world. Then, before you could do any good at all, a teenage girl had a hissy fit, and you lost everything. That’s pathetic. Just give up. All you’ve ever caused is pain and suffering, because that’s all you know. It’s time for the little girls to go home. Let Daddy tuck them in.”

Victoria fired a few shots toward Alex. No hits. He was still locked down behind the same crates.

“Sooner or later,” she said. “You’ll have to turn around and go back.”

“With you just around the corner waiting for the all clear? No thank you.”

“Then we wait.”

“Then we do.” Alex agreed.

For a long while, they did. Each sat behind their respective covers.

Eventually, Alex broke the silence. “So, again, not wanting to spoil this for you, but we’re getting very close to zero hour.”

“Then go disarm the bomb.”

“That’s not going to happen, Katherine, but I’ll tell you what. I’m going to leave my wrist monitor right here. Then I’m going to get on that ship and leave. After I’m gone, you can disarm both bombs, and we’ll take a raincheck on this fight of ours.”


“Now you’re just being stubborn. Neither of us wants to die today.”

“Once you’re on the shuttle, you’ll have no reason to leave that monitor.”

“Okay. Fine. Look.”

Something slid across the floor. Victoria spared a glance. Alex’s wrist monitor now lay in open view. It was in the opposite direction from the ship for him. “There you go. You can get it once I’m gone. Remember. 18060513. Now I’m going.”

They shuffled around behind their protection. Footsteps moved cautiously toward the escape ship. Alex was clearly hoping Victoria wouldn’t hurt him in Helena’s body. He was wrong. Victoria ducked out and aimed.

Naema’s wide eyes stared at Victoria from inside her helmet. Alex was hiding behind her with the gun aimed over Naema’s shoulder, and Sibyl right behind him. Victoria aimed.

…But she couldn’t bring herself to pull the trigger. Did she really need to kill him? Alexander had done a lot of awful things in the world, and awful things to her. But he was the only telepath flair that existed.

Alex fired at her. A flechette punched into her shoulder. She fell back.

Scurrying behind her cover, she realized her shield had dropped. She hadn’t even felt it. Whatever glyph it was Alex had been using for Sympathy, he’d just used it on her.

Of course he would. Why not? She was here to kill him. He was just defending himself.

No. Those aren’t her thoughts. Alexander murdered her father. He murdered her.

…But still.

NO! No “but still”. She had to act now.

She lunged around the crate and fired wildly, aiming low. Flechettes punched into Naema. Her leg. Her neck. Her helmet. She collapsed. Alex dove for the escape ship, firing back. Victoria’s gut erupted in pain. She crumpled.

In the ship now, Alex had left Sibyl and Naema behind, The hatch was closing. He was safe. No weapons could reach him.

But that didn’t matter anymore.

Alex slammed the hatch switch with all his weight. The hydraulic motor kicked in. He dropped low and aimed out the ship. No Katherine. No flechettes. Sibyl lay toppled from where he’d shoved her. He was clear.

Then he glimpsed her. Naema had rolled to her side. She looked right at him for a single moment before disappearing behind the closing door.

“No! You bitch. Don’t look at…”

Me? That was how he was going to finish the sentence, but what sentence was that? The hatch door sealed. He looked around. It seemed he was alone.

“Huh,” he said. The word echoed off the hull.

“Huh.” He said it again. Neat echo.

It must be a military ship. The walls were steel, and it was cramped as hell. Nobody would want to be in here unless their country demanded it.

So why was he?

He thought hard, but he couldn’t recall the chain of events that led to him here. He had been on a plane, and he’d been playing with the seat controls. Sakhr had been angry at him again. Because…

Right! Because Alex had been teasing him about his fear of planes. That man was afraid of everything.

Jesus. Why did this seem so long ago? At least a month. Everything since was a blank. Was he on drugs again? Sakhr would be pissed, but fuck him. Then again, maybe Sakhr had a point.

Alex had no idea where he was.

And holy shit! He was holding a gun! And he was a woman. A hot woman. It must have been a wild night.


The voice came from outside the ship. It was strong, masculine, and angry.

“Open the hatch door.”

Ah. Authority. Alex was already climbing to his feet. Anton must really be angry if he’s using that. Alex hoped he hadn’t fucked up too badly, whatever it was he’d done.

The door lever was in the first place he looked. Strange, considering he’d never been on this ship before. The hatch eased open, revealing an interesting sight.

A bleeding black girl, an asian girl, and a hispanic space marine who must be Anton.

Sure. Why not.

For some reason, he couldn’t read anyone’s mind. That was troubling. He’d have to figure the situation out for himself. Did he shoot the black girl? Maybe. And that asian girl sure looked like someone had hurt her feelings. Was all this his fault? Was that why Anton was glaring at him?

Well, Alex couldn’t feel bad for something he couldn’t remember. Might as well own it. He put on his signature grin.

“Drop your weapon and kick it over,” Anton said.

Alex shrugged, still grinning. It must have been one hell of a drug-fueled rampage. He complied. He wanted to say something witty as he did it, but he couldn’t think of anything good.

And from the look in Anton’s eye, it didn’t look like anything would go over well anyway. He looked really pissed, so much so that Alex dropped his grin. Was this serious? Had he gone too far? He hoped this was something they could put behind them. He’d hate to lose his only friend.

Victoria pulled off Naema’s helmet. The girl flailed. Victoria settled her down and checked her wounds. A solid leg shot. It looked like it damaged the bone. The helmet deflected the head shot though, and the neck wound, despite all the blood, was just a graze.

She removed Naema’s earbuds. Music blasted from them. Between those and the blinders, her sensory awareness must have been nothing. When she removed the gag. The girl gasped for breath.

“You’re going to be fine,” Victoria said.

Naema’s eyes were wild. She struggled again.

Victoria calmed her. “Settle down. I know you’re in pain, but I need you to concentrate on me.”

“Who are you?” Naema asked.

“Don’t concern yourself with that. I’m working with Josephine, and I need you to do exactly as I tell you. Understand?”

Naema glanced at Alexander.

“Don’t worry about him anymore. He’s harmless.”

Harmless?” said Alex.

Victoria ignored him. “I need you to close your eyes for a moment.”

Naema did. Victoria looked at Sibyl. “Come here and look me in the eye.”

Hesitantly, Sibyl approached. Victoria pilfered her mind for everything she could. The bomb was upstairs like Alex said. Password is as he said. The timer was forty seconds before the main bomb, and—

…And Alexander broke the wrist monitor. That son of a bitch. Victoria glanced at it. Even from here, she could make out the cracks running across its blank screen.

The time had said eight minutes.

In eight minutes, that world destroyer would go off. If Alexander had left her here as he planned, she would have had let the nuclear bomb go off, or else the world-destroyer would send everyone back into the dark ages.

She looked at him. He stared back innocently, as though genuinely concerned. She yearned to switch bodies with him and kill him now, but no. He may have been the monster a minute ago. Now, he was just a man, lost and confused. To kill him now would be like putting down a dog that had bit a child in confusion. Maybe it was the effect of his Sympathy glyph on her mind, but she couldn’t do it.

She pulled Sibyl toward Naema. “Unbind her. Get her on the ship. Keep Alexander from running off. I’ll be watching both of you.”

Sibyl nodded vigorously and snapped to work. Victoria collected the damaged monitor. It wouldn’t even turn on.

She might disarm the warhead, then find lesser explosives to destroy the world-destroyer. That depended on whether such munitions existed onboard, which she doubted.

Of course, she could just leave. Millions of lives of the still-reeling human race would snuff out. The world might blame her, or the terrorists. Either way, society would take another massive step backward. But she would still be alive. She had Alex under control now, and Helena’s body. She could drag the world back to order.

She’d just have to do everything all over again. Wage wars. Conquer. Cause suffering and death. It might be more difficult now that the world knew what Victoria had done, even if she hid in another body. And it would take years.

Years of pain.

Could she really go through it all over again? Maybe Alex was right. Or maybe it was just because she was so damn tired of being the monster. She’d always wanted to help, yet somewhere during this exile she’d started to wonder: maybe the world would have been better if she hadn’t existed at all.

Victoria fetched two fallen flechettes from the floor and moved to where Naema couldn’t see her. In her head, she formulated every plan she could think of. Her goal? She wanted to be able to look back on this moment and say, “yes. That’s what I wanted. I’m happy with how this turned out, and I wouldn’t change it even if I could.”

And then she tossed the flechettes into the air.

They landed and rolled to a stop. Both pointed to her left. She knew which plan that corresponded to. Somehow, she’d known they would fall that way even before she tossed the dice. Yet she had to toss them again just to make sure.

Same result.

So that was her path of least regret.

Her happy ending.

She hated so much that it was true, but she knew it was.

Victoria headed back toward the others. They’d gotten into the shuttle. Alex took the pilot’s chair, although he wasn’t taking advantage of it. Naema had limped to a passenger seat. Victoria knelt by her. 

“I need you to listen to me very carefully…”

110. Drastic Measures

“Is she? Or isn’t she?” Alexander mused. He looked at security feeds of the exemplar spire. Each one showed a horror movie massacre. Some cameras even had blood splattered across the lens. Marines patrolled through quiet halls looking for survivors.

A call came in. Captain Romero. He was in the exemplar lobby holding a radio piece to his ear. Alex could see him through a camera.

“The spire is secure, Your Majesty. Are we still in lockdown?”

“Yes. Absolutely no one leaves that spire until I give the word.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He returned to pondering the million dollar question: Was Katherine among the bodies? Or the marines?

In retrospect, weaponizing the exemplars may have been foolish. Six marines had died in the fight. That left eighteen alive. But were there eighteen shield stone still functioning? He’d call down to the exemplar operations room and have them check, but oops, they’re dead now. Not that it would be surefire anyway. Katherine might have separated a marine from his shield for a moment, but left the shield intact. That seemed incredibly unlikely given how those shields were underneath their armor, but not impossible.

What to do? What to do?

Kill them all? It was the only way to be really sure, and hundreds of people had died already. Why stop now? The citadel was mostly evacuated, so at least Alex wouldn’t have to kill everyone, but who would kill the marines? Super marines? A larger number of marines? Then who would kill them? He’d be swallowing a bird to kill the spider, and he wasn’t even sure if the spider had killed the fly yet.

He checked the dial on his wrist. Twenty-one minutes.

His path was clear.

Alex got up and crossed the room. In the corner was the second box Quentin had delivered, small enough to fit in the office. Alex pried open the lid and looked down at the slick, chrome surface of a factory-standard nuclear bomb. Beside the control panel was a PostIt note with Quentin’s scrawled instructions. Following them, Alex turn on the panel display. He typed in the security code and authenticated with a thumb print scan. The display then prompted for a time.

Alex checked his wrist dial again. 20:26 and counting.

He typed in 19:30. After several confirmation screens, a red light came on and the countdown began. Alex turned off the screen. No one looking at it would have any idea it was armed.

“Time to go, Sib. Bring the girl.”

Two flights down was the bridge floor. He nearly passed by, but changed his mind.

“How’d the strike go?” Alex asked as he stepped down to the center. Admiral Laughlin nearly spoke when he stopped to stare at Sibyl. Everyone did.

She stood silently by the door as she always had, but her arms were around a young black girl that none had seen before. Ropes bound the girl’s arms behind her. They wrapped about her torso several times. A motorcycle helmet was on her head. The visor was spray painted an opaque silver, and a brace around her neck prevented her from moving her head.

“Look at me, Admiral.” Alex snapped his fingers before Laughlin’s face. “The strike?”

“I… unfortunately, Your Majesty, I’m sorry to report that our intercepters were unable to destroy the rogue orbiter before it reached maximum orbital speed. Their spiders collided with our ships. However, the enemy have no more drones at all. If they should come down into—”

“Great. Never mind. Has the citadel been fully evacuated?”

“Everyone except for vital staff and the marines, ma’am.”

“And how many ships are left on board?”


“Pods? Ships? How did people evacuate the citadel? How many more can escape?”

Laughlin gestured to an officer who brought up a list of ships. “There’s one hopper left in the hangar. It can carry six people at maximum capacity.”

“That’s it?” asked Alex.

“The citadel was over capacity, ma’am. Why do you ask? Has the situation in the exemplar spire been contained?”

Alex winced and gestured. “Sort of, but I’m going to have to blow up the citadel to be sure.”

Cries of alarm sounded around the bridge.

“Destroy the— what?” Laughlin sputtered. “There is no means to do that.”

“Don’t worry, I brought my own bomb.”

“Your Majesty! That’s insanity! We can’t destroy this ship, it’s the flagship of your empire.”

“Let me rephrase. I’ve already armed a nuclear warhead. This ship is going to explode in… eighteen minutes. We need to escape.”

Nuclear warhead? Your Majesty! We’re a mile off the coast of Porto Maná!”

“Ooh.” Alex hissed through his teeth. “That’s… unfortunate.” In hindsight, maybe Alex should have asked Quentin for a smaller bomb.

“We have to disarm it, ma’am.”

“We could, but I’d rather not. This may be our only chance to get rid of this infectious terrorist problem once and for all. So come on. Is that ship ready for flight? Do you guys have to make a flight plan?”

“Where is the bomb?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Where is the bomb, Helena?” His voice carried a warning tone. Everyone looked at Alex.

He didn’t need to be a telepath to see where this was going. “Hold that thought,” Alex skipped up the bridge steps to where Sibyl waited with Naema. “I’d like you all to meet my fun little friend.”

From behind, Alex reached around Naema and flipped up the spray-painted visor on her helmet. Naema’s mouth was gagged, and earbuds were in her ears blasting music. Naema blinked in the light. With bloodshot eyes, she looked back at everyone she saw.

“Move her around a little, will you,” said Alex. “Make sure she meets everyone.” Sibyl swiveled, rotating Naema to face everyone in the bridge. The crew stared back, perplexed. Alex sidestepped to remain behind Naema as she turned. He reached again and flipped the visor back down. When he returned to the admiral, Laughlin’s mind opened to him. Alexander basked everyone in Sympathy.

“Now, Admiral, do you think you guys could prep the last ship for evacuation?”

“We need to think about the people in the city,” Laughlin said. “Whatever this terrorist infection is, it can’t be worth sacrificing the capital. I’m telling you this for your own good, Your Majesty. We must find another way.”

Alex held up a stopping hand. “Do you think I want to do this? I didn’t come to this decision lightly, but you don’t understand how dangerous these terrorists are. No matter how many people I send after them, they will just infect more. They can turn entire crowds into terrorists. If I don’t stop them now, they will bring about the destruction of our civilized world, but right now—right now—I have the chance to end this. The death toll will be monumental, and I’ll live with that for the rest of my life, but I must do this.”

He leaned on his Sympathy harder. Laughlin looked at him severely. “At least, let us send the citadel out as far into the ocean as we can. We might give the people a better chance.”


Laughlin turned to his flight controller. “Do it. Take us away from the city. Maximum acceleration.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

“Now,” said Alex, “about that ship.”

“Have you considered a smaller bomb, Your Majesty?” Laughlin said. “If we contact munitions at—”

“No time. We only have for as long as Captain Romero can contain his own men, and he doesn’t understand what he’s up against. We have… fifteen minutes now.”

“Perhaps if we—”

“No! Prepare the final ship. Tell me where it is. Then we will discuss this.”

“Your Majesty, if there is any way—”

“Are you loyal to me, Admiral? Or do you want to see this empire fall like the terrorists do?”

“Of course not, ma’am. I would do anything to serve you. I would lay down my life to keep you safe, but setting off that bomb may destroy the empire. If people found out it was on your order, it doesn’t matter for what reason, they’ll—”

Then we’ll blame the terrorists. That’s what we always do. Prep the ship.”

Reluctantly, Laughlin nodded toward the flight controller, who got to work.

Moments later, the controller responded. “The ship had a flight plan coded. Bay doors are open.”

“Where is it?” asked Alex.

“Portside aft sector, Deck 1.”

“Thank you.”

“We’ll need to call back another ship,” Laughlin said. “Between the bridge and the strike room, it’s not going to be enough.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Alex.

“Why not?”

“Well…” Alex glanced around. Twelve people here. Six more would be downstairs. “The more ships we bring back, the more likely the terrorist agent can escape. We’ll just have the one.”

“You… want us to stay?”

“No, Admiral. If you stayed, the agent could come up here and take control of you.”

“So what then?”

“Do you remember a moment ago when you said you’d lay down your life for me? It’s funny you should say that…”

Alex drew his gun.

108. The Cascade Strategy

“And when you see anyone. You must remove their shield stone,” Victoria said. “They will resist you. So you must first approach as though nothing is wrong, then jump them as a group. It’s for their own good.”

Her crowd of followers nodded. Already, the memory of Victoria telling them this was gone. All that remained were the instructions and the compelling sense to obey them.

“Then come. Everybody,” Victoria led them down the hall. In the cramped corridor, they moved in a double file line that trailed out of sight.

“Be ready,” Victoria said under her breath.

“What’s the plan?” Winnie asked.

“In a moment, I’m going to swap bodies through the crowd rapidly.”

“That’s going to mix people up.”

“Exactly. Chaos. Alexander will lose track of which one I am. Will you be able to follow?”

“I’ll try.”

“Good. I’m going to order people up the stairs one at a time before I go up myself. If Alex doesn’t know which one I am, he won’t know for which person he needs to detonate his bomb. If he detonates too late, I’ll already be past him. Too early, and he’ll damage the stairwell, but then I can climb up after the fire team clears the room.”

“You’ll kill one of those people doing that.”

“Alex will be the one killing them.”

“Are you going to put these people back in their original bodies after this is done?”

“Winnie, you have eight minutes to live. Prioritize. Now play a game with Tan. How many people should I send before I go myself?”

Winnie and Tan played. “One,” Winnie said.

“Just one? I think I see how this will turn out.”

Victoria reached the stairwell. Turning to her audience, she reached, and the chaos began. Screaming started with the person in Captain Russo’s body. Without Josephine’s mind cleansing, the out-of-body realization struck. Man after man panicked. Others ran, some still in their own bodies, some not. Winnie had trouble following. As quickly as it took for Victoria to brush another, she moved. Near the back of the line, she reversed direction, oscillating between bodies until the panic spread people out of reach from one another.

Victoria was in a random sergeant. She leaned close to a private. “Run to the bridge. Get help.”

The private took off. He raced up two flights of stairs.

And the stairwell exploded. Fire and smoke flooded the first three floors of the bridge spire. Sirens blared throughout the citadel. Winnie couldn’t stop visualizing the ragged body of the guard as he incinerated in the flames.

“Captain?” Alexander said. “Are your men ready?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied Romero.

“Then begin on Deck One. Fore sector.”

“…Understood, ma’am.”

“I don’t think you can get through the stairwell,” Winnie said. “There’s just too much fire.”

“It will burn out,” replied Victoria. She was curled up in the corner of a ready room, pretending to have a panic attack like all the other soldiers around her.

“How long will that take?” asked Winnie.

“I don’t know. The fire team will be there soon. However long they take.”

“What about the other stairs?”

“He’ll just blow those charges if I try. We’ll wait for this one.”

Winnie glanced at the countdown. “The intercepters will be here in three minutes. I don’t think we can wait any longer.”

Victoria rocked in her fetal position while she thought. “Fine. I’ll do something about it.” Getting up, she jogged down the corridor. “Have Tan double check the exemplar spire for bombs.”

All the people around her calmed, going from full-blown panic to disconcerted sense that something was wrong.

“Everyone come with me. We must go to the exemplars.”

A crowd formed on her.

“What are you going to do?” Winnie asked.

“The exemplar spire has a control station that monitors all plaques. The shield stones should be hooked up to that. I’ll send a remote wipe to everyone. You and Josephine can handle the interceptors from there.”

“That’ll help you too, won’t it?”

“In theory. I’ll need Tan to start guessing two passwords for me. That console has a—”

Flechettes punched into her chest. Everyone screamed as more people fell and blood splattered others.

An armored marine was at the end of the hall firing into the crowd. Winnie looked around the decks. All over, marines were moving from corridor to corridor, slaughtering air force personnel.

“Victoria!” Winnie shouted.

Victoria lay on the ground, bleeding from her chest. With each breath, bubbles of blood frothed from her mouth. A panicked cadet raced by. Her hand snapped out and brushed his ankle. The cadet continued on and ducked into a nearby room, narrowly dodging a spray of fletchettes from a pursuing marine.

“Ask Tan how I fight,” the cadet said.

“Is that you? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. That marine is coming. I never talked to Tan about fighting.”

Winnie locked eyes with Tan and conveyed the question.

He was nonplussed. “I no think about it.”

“Is that all you’ve got?” asked Victoria.

“Be wild. Move more. Think less. Shoot from hip.”

There was no more time to talk. The marine came to the door. Victoria lunged. He spun his rifle around, knocking her off balance. She accidentally pulled him down with her. The rifle clattered aside. Victoria tumbled beside it. The marine clambered toward her. In a panic, Victoria grabbed the gun and fired blindly.

The second flechette just happened to punch into a weak joint between the marine’s helmet and body armor.

Clutching his neck, the marine toppled. Blood pooled on the ground.

“There you go,” said Tan.

Is that what all your fights are like?” Victoria snapped. “Just accidents and drunken stumbling?”


Grumbling, Victoria shouldered the rifle and hurried on. Her crowd was mostly dead. What few remained had scattered. She ran alone now, moving quickly and without notice.

“Will there be any surprises?” she asked hurrying to the stairs up the exemplar spire.

“No,” said Winnie. “It’s clear. Will you get there in time?”

“We’ll see.” Victoria climbed two floors to the spire lobby. Bursting in, she blindly sprayed the area with a burst of flechettes. The receptionist and three exemplars by the security station all dropped dead.

At the internal stairwell, she ran up another two flights, which brought her to the server and operations room for the Exemplar Committee. Three exemplars at computer terminals turned to look at her.

“What the hell are you doing here?” one asked.

Victoria yanked his shield stone from his neck. The other two stood abruptly. Victoria killed them both with two quickly aimed flechettes.

She turned back to the defenseless one. “You will log into the remote monitoring system for the shield stones.”

He sat and worked.

“Tan, I still need those passwords. Winnie, keep watching for marines.”

Tan rolled his dice. This game was convoluted as always. With each roll, he consulted the keyboard on Josephine’s tablet and wrote down the corresponding character. Winnie couldn’t follow.

“They’ve deployed their spiders,” said Tactical Operator Lucero in the Venezia bridge. “They’re keeping the swarms close to their ships.”

“Deploy our swarm,” Rivera said. “Calculate an optimal defense trajectory.”

Winnie looked outside the ship. The incoming orbiters had launched their spider swarms. The drones formed a cloud around the ships instead of moving toward the Venezia. The enemy ships would have such a long intercept window that they didn’t have to separate. The orbiters would soon come so close they could wave out the port windows at each other, except that the Venezia would be destroyed long before that could happen.

Rivera looked to Winnie. “How close is she?”

The exemplar in the Manakin operation’s room was loading an application on the computer. The loading icon spun round and round, and nothing seemed to happen.

“Soon,” Winnie said, “but not yet. How much time do we have?”

Rivera turned to Lucero.

Lucero replied. “Their swarm will be within sheering range of us in one hundred sixty seconds. Our swarm will have three passes at them before then.”

Winnie glanced outside the ship. The Venezia’s own swarm had already ejected and formed up. They were breaking off to pursue their vain mission.

“Did you hear that time?” Winnie asked Victoria.

Victoria didn’t answer. The exemplar she was with logged onto the system and pulled up a massive list: the shield stone database. Thousands of serial numbers corresponded to names, designations, and indicator flags for status.

“That’s odd.” The exemplar studied the list, oblivious of the bodies behind him. “There’ve been a lot of failures. Is something going on?”

“Never mind that,” said Victoria. “Access the remote manager.”

“I can’t. That needs the queen’s clearance code.”

“Go to the corner.”

Without question, the man went and stood in the corner like a punished school child. Victoria sat in his place. For Winnie, watching her work was agonizing. She checked each menu, read each onscreen button. She made a wrong click, then slowly searched for a back button.

“What are you doing?” Winnie asked shrilly.

“They’ve changed the layout since I last used it.”

“But you have used this before, right?”

“About four years ago.”

“Just get that guy to find the menu!” Winnie checked the incoming ships. Fighting against the monumental wind resistance, they drifted inexorably closer. “We’re dead in two minutes.”

“I know what I’m doing, Winnie. I just… here we go.” A password prompt appeared on screen. “Tan?”

Tan had written down two passwords of random characters onto his note pad. Two plays of the game had given him the same result.

Victoria typed the password in. The system accepted it. She selected all shield plaques, then chose ‘remote wipe’ from the menu. A confirmation popped up. She accepted, and the system went to work.

A second popup appeared.

Internal Server Error: 0x05D84ED9
The process could not complete the request.
RuntimeException (/usr/bin/libexec/plaqserv_proxy:145:23)
Message: NOPE!!

Yelling, Victoria slammed the desk. She shoved the screen back, causing equipment to tumble and crash.

“I really hope this system recorded that,” Alex said.

“What are we supposed to do now?” asked Winnie.

“I’m sorry, Winnie. You’re on your own.”

Victoria snatched up her rifle and bolted toward the door. Winnie wondered why until she noticed nearly a dozen marines heading up the stairs into the exemplar spire. Of course Alex sent them that way. He was probably watching Victoria’s every move.

In the lobby, exemplars examined the dead security team Victoria shot earlier. Marines burst in, immediately gunned the men down, then took up positions to secure the area. They were preparing to come up the internal spire stairs. Confrontation was inevitable.

Winnie checked outside the Venezia again. Enemy orbiters were visible from the ship now. Their spider swarms had split into two groups. Three hundred drifted toward the Venezia. Another three hundred stayed close to their orbiters as guards.

“Is this it?” Winnie asked. “Have we lost?”

Victoria paused in the stairwell. Only a door stood between her and the marines. She ran up the stairs, past the operation room toward the sleeping quarters for the exemplars. She seemed to have a plan, but clearly it was only for herself. She never answered Winnie’s question, as though she’d already chalked Winnie and the others up for dead.

Fine then. Winnie banished Victoria from her thoughts and faced the people before her. “She can’t help.”

“Are you talking to us?” Rivera asked.

“Yeah. We’re on our own.”

There was silence on the bridge. Every shred of hope in the crew’s auras bled away.

“Very well,” Rivera replied. “Lieutenant Lucero, redirect the swarm to attack the enemy orbiters.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Lucero did so. Outside, the swarm’s parabolic trajectory changed slightly. Their course gave up any pretense of defending the Venezia, leaving the incoming swarm free reign to destroy them. It was a hopeless maneuver however. The enemies’ defensive swarms broke away to intercept. They would completely destroy the Venezia’s swarm long before it could threaten the enemy orbiters. This was Rivera’s last ditch strategy. Forfeit defense in the vain hope of destroying the enemy, but it was far too little. Winnie knew they were just going through the motions.

But she didn’t accept that. There had to be something. She just had to think.

Josephine. Her power could make people forget, but only if they weren’t shielded, and everyone aboard the intercepting orbiters was shielded. She couldn’t do anything. Same with Christof.

Tan. His power could work on shielded people since it didn’t affect their minds, but how could his micro-movements help one ship fight another? Everything was automated, but he could determine a course of action. Winnie considered every possible way they could get out of this. Fighting would fail. The deployment pods wouldn’t work at this speed. The enemy orbiters would not accept surrender, but maybe they could buy some—

Tan rolled a die. He stared at the result, then stood.

Josephine looked at him “What?”

Tan glanced at her.

“Oh,” Josephine said.

“What is is he doing?” asked Winnie. Josephine met her eye, and Winnie saw what she’d just seen in Tan’s mind.

Tan was playing a game. The object was for him to live. He started by thinking of all the things he might do:

  1. Escape via deployment tube.
  2. Contact the intercepters and make a deal.
  3. Shoot the captain and everyone else, then defect.
  4. Do something to help Victoria.
  5. Take over the controls for fighting.
  6. Take over the controls for steering.

He rolled a five.

Tan shouldered through the crowded bridge to Lucero and shooed him from his chair.

“Captain?” Lucero said.

“Let him,” Rivera ordered.

Lucero let Tan take his place.

“Now…” Tan looked over the console. “Show me controls.”

107. Security Failures

“Do you have any idea what she’s doing?” Alexander asked.

“No, Your Majesty,” Sibyl replied.

Alex sighed and leaned toward his screen. He and Sibyl were seated behind his desk in the high office, watching Katherine through the security feeds, or Victoria as she liked to call herself.

So far, it had been immensely entertaining. He’d watched the altercation between an exemplar and the unremarkable Captain Russo. The struggle had been so quick, Alex could have glanced away and missed Russo’s swiping of the exemplar’s shield. What followed was clearly a memory trick, or else that exemplar was entirely too forgiving.

But after getting through security, her plan became… a little too obtuse for him to follow. She’d gone up floors and down, into closets and bunks and bathrooms.

“Is she… lost?” he asked. No. That made no sense. She must know how to get to him. Go up.

As entertaining as this was, it was also nerve wracking. He wasn’t even sure that was Katherine. She could have given glyphs to anyone, and that deployment pod could have contained more than one person.

“Maybe it’s a distraction,” he said. “Has anything happened over there?”

“Not yet.” Sibyl was watching the feeds for the security bay. “Maybe she’s looking for someone.”

Alex shook his head. “If she was, she’d already know where he was.”

He was tempted to call the onboard marines and tell them to suit up, just to have them ready. But if he did, Katherine or the Korean girl might see it. They’d know he knew.

Maybe he could have someone with a gun and a shield stone go down there alone, act like nothing was amiss right up to the point they shot her, but he’d have to bring them up to speed first. He could just imagine giving them abridged instructions: There’s a visiting soldier in the docking bay levels wandering around like he’s looking for the bathroom. Could you go down there and shoot him for me? I’ll explain later.

With a healthy dose of Sympathy, it might work, but that wasn’t great either. If it failed, he’d lose his advantage.

What he’d like is if she’d just go up the damn stairs. She’d already come so close. Alex had had his hand on the transmitter, but then she’d turned around. It’s like she knew about the bombs, but she didn’t act like it at all.

A muffled grunt diverted Alex’s attention. He glanced at his trump card. She was struggling to move.

“Would you hush?” he said, not that she could hear him.

He turned back to his console. Katherine was pacing circuits again, and it looked like she was mumbling to herself? Ah. He realized the significants of that. She’s talking to the Korean. Or that wasn’t her, but someone with the Korean’s glyph. Either way, whoever was wandering around down there was in contact with the ship

Then they must know that it was about to be destroyed in… he glanced at dashboard notification on his screen… twelve minutes. He then checked his other countdown, the timer on his wrist. Forty minutes until boom. The reset button was below the numbers, but he didn’t press it.

He was setting the pace here. Not her. Whatever she was up to, she was wasting her time. The longer this went on, the more this went in his favor.

Resting his elbows on the table, he steepled his fingers before his eyes and watched. Katherine finished her circuit and headed toward Deck 1, right back toward security, as though she were about to leave.

Alex threw his hands out. “What the fuck is she doing?”

“I’m going back to the security bay,” Victoria said, “and we’re going to play a new game.”

“Okay…” Winnie said. “What do I do?”

“Use Tan and find any more bombs. I need to know where all of them are, and any other traps Alex set up.”

“Okay.” She and Tan got started. “What are you going to do?”

“Something more elaborate,” Victoria said. “If Alexander is watching me, then there’s no point in being subtle anymore.”

Once Victoria was two corridors away from the bay, she paused. When a marine came by, she walked toward him. Just as they passed, Victoria stumbled. As he caught her from falling, her hand slipped under his collar and yanked off a necklace with his shield stone.

He glazed over.

“Come with me,” she said. Her voice resonated with Authority. With a nod, the man followed her toward the security bay. Another man passed them. Victoria pulled the same trick. Now two soldiers followed.

There was still a line at security. Guards lazily moved packs through scanners and escorted people to rooms. Others waited by the side, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.

“Distract them,” Victoria said, pointed to the supervisors. Her dumbfounded followers walked over and started a conversation with them. Meanwhile, Victoria moved toward another lingering guard. Slip, bump, swipe, and he was hers. As was the next, and the next. Some guards were noticing. They whispered to each other. Despite how normal everyone acted, unshielded aura’s were appearing. Each one would hiccup with alarm or confusion before returning to normal. Even incomers in line who had yet to relinquish their glyph cards were growing concerned.

From the scan rooms, a female exemplar emerged. She looked sternly at everyone, then called to the guards. “What’s going on?”

Victoria whispered to a converted guard near her. “The shields are malfunctioning. No reason to be alarmed. Calm everyone down. Tell them.”

The guard stepped forward, holding out a staying hand. “Everyone remain calm. It looks like we’re experiencing an issues with the shield glyphs. We’ll sort this out as soon as we can.”

“Approach the exemplar,” Victoria murmured to him, “and Winnie, I’m about to swap bodies. You and Josephine get ready to blank whoever I leave behind.”

“Got it,” said Winnie.

The guard approached the exemplar.

“Stop.” The exemplar backed away. “Don’t come any closer! Not until we sort this out.”

“It’s just a malfunction,” the guard said. “Why are you getting your panties bunched up about it?”

“This is exactly the sort of situation we’ve been warned about,” the exemplar snapped. “Everyone stay away from each other until we contact the Committee. No one leaves. Now, everyone with a broken shield stone needs to get against the far wall there. That means you, and you, and you.” She pointed out anyone with a visible aura.

Her attention, however, was on a group of guards far from Victoria, and so the exemplar missed when Victoria lightly brushed the hand of another guard. There was the telltale spasm. Josephine immediately pried out his immediate memories, and the man now in Captain Russo’s body stood eyes wide, frequently looking down at his foreign hands, but never getting around to yelling.

As a guard, Victoria joined the others still shielded. The exemplar never considered that the threat could hide in a seemingly shielded body. Her shepherding allowed Victoria to convert others. Auras popped up as she tore shields away. Within seconds, half the group was compromised.

The exemplars from the other scanning rooms came out, looking just as upset as the first.

The female exemplar pointed to one. “You, get on the phone with the Committee. Tell them what’s happening.”

“No,” Victoria yelled out. “You said everyone is to stay right here.”

“Do not contradict me,” the woman snapped back. “I’m taking charge here. You will keep your mouth shut.”

“What? Why should we trust you?” Victoria said. “How do we know you’re not causing this?”

Be quiet,” the woman yelled. She spun to the other exemplar. “Why are you still here? Go.”

“It’s them,” Victoria yelled to everyone, her voice thick with Authority. “They’re the impostors. Capture them now!”

The crowd charged as a riot. Even some who still had their shields followed along. The exemplars ran, but they didn’t get far. The crowd pinned them. Victoria caught up and wrested away their plaques. After that, the whole maneuver lost steam. A few shielded individuals asked about what to do next, but they joined the shieldless moments later. Everyone calmed down, even the exemplars. Victoria was back in Russo’s body. It was as though nothing had happened at all.

“I really wish this system had sound,” Alex said.

On screen, the occupants of the security bay were crowded together in a huddle. Whether guest or guard or exemplar, they were all equal now. Freaky. Alex had nearly forgotten about her power of Authority. She’d stolen that trick moments before shooting Anton in the head. At least he knew for certain that it was Katherine down there. A body swap and Authority. She was laying all her cards on the table, wasn’t she? Might as well. She only had ten minutes before all her friends died. Or maybe she cold enough that she’s wouldn’t let that rush her. Nah, he thought. She’s cold, but there’s still a little too much sentimentalism in her for that. She would rush.

Either way, there was no more pretending anymore. Alex tapped a call button on his screen.

“Marine deck,” said a gruff voice. “This is Captain Romero.”

“Captain, this is your queen.”

“What can I do for you, Your Majesty.”

“Suit your men up for combat. That triage scenario we discussed? It’s happening.”

Romero was silent a moment. “Understood, ma’am. What is your confirmation?”

The code. Right. “Project Cornered Falcon is a go. Get ready and await orders.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex hung up. He was a glutton for drama.

106. The Labyrinth

An officer announced Alexander’s arrival on the bridge, and the buzz of activity halted for formalities. Alex waved people back to work. Any other day, he’d wallow in the attention, but right now it was idiotic. He stepped up to a display table beside Admiral Laughlin.

“What’s happening?” Alex asked. The display showed an overhead view of South America.

“We picked up a deployment drop twenty minutes ago, Your Majesty. It skirted in from the Atlantic side of Brazil and landed near the Guyana border. The ship that deployed it came in hot, nearly two thousand kilometers per hour. It has to be them.”

He pointed toward a single dot pinpointed under Central America, “They’re accelerating back to cruising speed. In fifty minutes, they’ll be untouchable again. Fortunately though…” He pointed to a nest of dots over Honduras. “Our squads scrambled as soon as they got the alarm, and luck was on our side. No matter their course, our boys will synchronize with them for at least six minutes before the target reaches cruising speed. After—”

The map updated. A line extending from the target dot flickered and now curved downward over the antarctic.

“They’ve changed course, sir,” said an officer behind them. “Southward arc, at two point four two meters per second per second. Predicted change.”

“And the window?”

“Six minutes twenty-seven seconds. Their course is optimal, sir.”

“Excellent.” Laughlin turned to Alex. “Any course change they make now will only benefit us.

“Can they evacuate?” Alex asked.

“They can try. We’ve already made arrangements to shut down the local grid if they do. The evacuees will make one hell of a crater.”

“And just to confirm, all pilots have shield stones with them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex turned to the bridge. “And is there anyone here who is not shielded? Anyone at all?”

No one responded. He couldn’t sense any auras anyway, but he was coming down a case of Sakhr’s paranoia.

“You won’t be in trouble if you speak up now,” he said, “but you will if you don’t.”

“Everyone here is equipped, as ordered,” said Laughlin.

“Fantastic. What about the deployment pod?”

“We’ve sent a team to investigate. It’s touchdown area was directly next to a gridport.”

Laughlin tapped controls on the display table. A small window popped up overtop of the orbital chase. It was a topographical map of a region. An arrow indicated where the pod landed. Next to it was a dot labeled “Cantá Gridway” with lines spraying from it. They were grid chutes which led to ports all over South America.

“But there was only one pod?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How many people could have been in it?”

“They’re meant for one soldier, but in a pinch, they can hold two.”

“Have we heard back from the gridport?”

“Not yet.”

“Are they all equipped with shield stones?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Probably not entirely. No region is fully equipped yet.”

“All right then.” Alex turned to leave.

“You’re not staying, Your Majesty?”

“You’ve got this under control, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then there’s no need, is there? Destroy them all and keep me posted.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

Any other day, Alex would have stayed, but he knew who was in that pod. He now had preparations to make. A good host should be ready for guests.

“New trajectory confirmed.” Navigator Tremont checked his readout. “Time to optimal cruising speed: fifty-eight minutes.”

“What’s the window?” asked Rivera.

Tremont fiddled with his onscreen numbers. “Six minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”

Rivera nodded slowly. Winnie didn’t bother asking how bad it was. That window was several times larger than the one they had faced before.

“Are you sure about those ships?” Rivera asked Winnie. She too wished she were wrong. The onboard radar hadn’t yet picked up the incoming interceptors. They had only Winnie’s word, and if she was wrong, they might yet live, but it wasn’t the case.

“Yes,” she said. “The people in the Manakin came up with the same intercept window.”

“Hmm.” Rivera faced Tremont again. “How quickly can we course change over a grid?”

The officer got to work.

Winnie spoke up. “For evacuation?”

“Why?” Rivera asked.

“They’re going to shut off the grid wherever our pods are going to land.”

“…I see. Are you sure about th… nevermind. Of course you’re sure. Disregard my last query, Lieutenant.” Rivera returned to the display board. Dots were shown in exactly the same configuration as aboard the Manakin. Six ships were coming. Same as last time, only the crews were shielded, the attack window was minutes long, and the Venezia only had two-thirds of the spider drones it had before. Death was certain. From the auras on the bridge, everyone else knew it too.

“What’s the status of the queen?” Rivera asked.

Winnie brought Victoria to mind. She was still in the body of Captain Russo, sitting in a shuttle on its way to the Manakin. She was in the back, away from the other soldiers in transit. They kept glancing at her as she mumbled to herself.

“Answer me, Winnie. Pay attention,” Victoria murmured. “Look at me, Winnie. Answer me.”

“Sorry,” Winnie said. “I’m here.”

“Don’t look away again. I’m about to land.”

“Have you been watching what’s happening to us?”


“Any ideas?”

“As long as I can get to Alex in time, it won’t matter. I’ll call them off.”

“And if you can’t?”

“Then you’re on your own. Stephano and Rivera knew what was at stake, but those ships aren’t going to reach you for fifty minutes, and I don’t plan on failing.”

“Okay.” Winnie relayed this to Rivera. He seemed as concerned with the idea as she was. Their lives were in the queen’s hands. To live, Winnie would have to help Victoria however she could. She wondered if this had been part of Victoria’s plan, but chose not to dwell on that.

“What do you want me to do,” Winnie asked.

“Just look ahead,” murmured Victoria. “Use Tan.”

Winnie returned to the ready room and stood in the door frame, keeping her in view of the bridge crew. Tan was still cramped into his seat, and he’d finally put his tablet away, as though he’d finally decided to invest himself in this fight for their lives.

Winnie transmitted Victoria’s instructions to him, and he rolled dice to come up with locations for Winnie to search. Victoria was entering a docking bay. She would have to pass a security checkpoint—one that would require her to relinquish her “shield”. Tan’s search instructions turned up nothing of interest. His second roll even had her searching empty space outside the citadel. Winnie double-checked his mind to make sure he hadn’t changed his winning conditions to whatever will make Winnie stop bothering me the quickest.

The place Winnie really wished she could see was Alexander’s office in the bridge tower, except that it was still one enormous blind spot. He’d kept Naema in that office for days now, yet somehow his glyphs weren’t breaking when he’d come and go. Winnie tried one last time to creep her awareness inside only to have her power clench like a spasming muscle. A shame. He was there right now, and Winnie knew he was up to something.

The landing nodes aboard the Manakin snagged Victoria’s shuttle. Its invisible hand carried it in and deposited it neatly upon a landing space. Victoria and the others shuffled off. Down the landing stair, armed soldiers cordoned them toward the security bay. Like all citadels, each bay aboard the Manakin had its own dedicated section for security checks and exemplar scans, but traffic had increased since the Capital Bombing. As a result, field tents were set up at the back of the landing bay, extending the security section to twice its size. Even then, a queue had formed containing a dozen soldiers.

Tan rolled. Winnie checked. “Fourteenth,” she said. She scanned the line. “Let one more person go ahead of you.”

Victoria paused to check her pockets. Another soldier filed into the queue, and then Victoria stepped in. Thirteen people were before her. The security bay took soldiers off the queue in twos and threes. Even with the extra tents, it took Victoria twelve minutes to reach the front of the line. Winnie knew because she watched the countdown in the bridge leading to intercept time.

They called Victoria and the soldier before her. The soldier got sent to the dedicated security room while Victoria got sent to a tent. They checked her bag, sent her through a body scanner, then directed her inside.

An exemplar was sitting at the other side of a table. Unlike with the dedicated scanning rooms, there was no shield between her and him. He gestured her to take a seat.

“His shield is in his left coat pocket,” Winnie said. She had Tan throw another set of dice. “Wait eleven seconds,” she added.

The exemplar spoke. “You need to take off your shield for the duration of this interview.”

“I don’t have a shield,” Victoria said.

“Yes, you do. Check your pockets.”

Victoria patted herself down. Winnie’s own count was down to five seconds.

“I swear I don’t have a shield on me.”

The exemplar pointed impatiently toward the door. “Yes, you do. Return to security.”

Winnie’s countdown reached zero. Victoria snatched the exemplar’s extended hand and lunged. Yelling, he pulled away, but he reacted too slowly. Victoria reached into his coat. Either by luck or by the help of Tan’s power, her hand slipped into his pocket and snagged his shield. She tossed it under the desk.

“Sit,” the exemplar said. “Don’t make a sound.”

The words coming from the exemplar’s mouth could not be disobeyed—Victoria’s words. An invisible hand forced the exemplar, now in Captain Russo’s body, into his seat.

A guard rushed in.

“Is everything okay in here?” the guard asked.

“I slipped.” Victoria righted her chair and sat. When the guard lingered, she looked at him again. “We’re fine.”

The guard left. Victoria turned back to the dumbfounded exemplar. Despite being in an unexpected body, he didn’t seem alarmed. Winnie had heard Victoria and Josephine discussing this tactic earlier. Victoria was erasing his immediate memory so constantly he had no time to panic.

“Now listen to me,” she said. “I passed this scan. There was nothing wrong, and you will report nothing once I’ve left. You will obey.”

Hearing the words, even Winnie nodded her head.

Moments later, Victoria exited the tent, once again in Russo’s body. The exemplar was dazed, but not alarmed. In total, the security checkpoint took Victoria fifteen minutes, leaving thirty-five minutes on the countdown clock to intercept.

Soon, Victoria was wandering the cramped lower corridors of the Manakin.

“Play the next game,” she murmured.

“Right.” Winnie sought Tan, who turned ponderously to his dice. Through her eyes, he saw the passageways before Victoria. Ahead, a ladderwell led up and down, but the corridor kept on as well. Doors lined the sides.

He rolled, examined his results, and passed it on mentally to Winnie.

“Keep straight,” Winnie said.

Victoria did so. She arrived at a smaller bay area, where ships were kept in storage. Several doors, ladders, and elevators led from here. Tan rolled again.

“Down the ladderwell.”

“Down?” asked Victoria. “I’m trying to get to Alexander.”

“The dice say down.”

Victoria followed. This brought her to a catering room. The soldiers down here glanced at her. Captain Russo stood out. Only local personnel worked here.

“Where now?”

“Continue through the door before you.”

This brought her into a sleeping quarters.

“Go right.”


“Up a ladder well.”

“Up?” asked Victoria.

“Up, yes.”

Victoria went up. Further instructions led her past a medical ward, a line of military-supply outlets, a few commercial diners, and finally back to the very hallway she started in after leaving the security bay. The whole circuit cost them nine minutes. Twenty-six to go.

“Why am I back here?” Victoria said.

“I don’t know.”

Victoria kept walking, taking turns at random to appear busy. “Is Tan reading the dice correctly?”

“I think so.”

“Winnie. Look into his eyes. Are his goals the same as ours?”

“Yes. They are. He’s going to die too if you don’t get to Alex.”

“Confirm it,” Victoria growled.

“It’s already confirmed. I’ve been looking at his mind this whole time.”

“She think I’m lying?” Tan asked.

“She’s back where she started,” Winnie replied. “Are you sure you’re doing the dice right?”

“I am doing what she say. Roll dice. Give you path.”

“But the dice aren’t doing that,” Winnie said.

Tan shrugged. “If they don’t give path, there is no path. Dice are random.”

“I don’t accept that,” Victoria said. “Alexander is in the bridge tower. There are two stairwells into there, and an elevator. What is Tan’s game specifically? I need to safely get to Alex within the time limit. I can go anywhere. I can swap bodies. I can make anyone do whatever I need so long as I can de-shield them. Is Tan considering all my options when he rolls his dice?”

Winnie locked minds with Tan.

“Yes.” Tan said. “Maybe… Alexander go to her?”

“Can you roll the dice for a yes or no answer?” asked Winnie.

Josephine answered. “It doesn’t work like that. Tan can only steer her toward a winning condition. He can’t tell her what it is.”

“Here’s an idea,” Victoria said. “Have Tan change the game. To win, I need to safely get to Alexander within five minutes. Any longer and we lose. Roll.”

So Tan rolled, Winnie issued instructions, and Victoria followed. Within a minute, the dice took her into a dead-end armory room, and then turned her right around.

“These are random steps,” Victoria said. “Why can’t we win this? What are we missing?”

Tan shrugged.

“Are you rolling the dice enough? Maybe you’re not giving your flair enough time to control your micro-movements.”

“No,” Tan said.

“Winnie,” Victoria said. “You’ve been watching Alex regularly, right? He is on board?”

“I watched him go into the office on top of the bridge spire.”

“But have you been watching closely? Could he have slipped away?”

“No. You know he hasn’t. I can’t pull him to mind, which means he has to be in that blindspot.”

“Then there’s something we’re missing,” Victoria said, “I refuse to believe I cannot get to him at all.”

“What if he knows you’re coming?” Winnie asked. “Wouldn’t that explain it? He knows a pod landed. He’s not going to do nothing about that. He must at least know we’re up to something. Maybe he’s waiting for you.”

“No,” said Victoria. “Not waiting for me. Or else I could get to him. He must be doing something to ensure I can’t reach him.”

“Like what?”

“An escape route? A warning system? He must have something hidden in that blind spot to stop me.”

“That should mean you could at least get close to the blindspot,” Winnie said.

Victoria nodded. “Have Tan set the target destination four floors below the staff bridge.”

Winnie worked with Tan again. He rolled dice. Victoria went from the corridor, down a ladderwell to an engineering room, through a break room, and into an equipment closet.

Victoria growled in frustration. “Does this game even work? Can you even get me to the stairs?”

They played. Up a ladderwell, down a hall. Through a general quarters. Then up a ladderwell twice. She arrived at the base of a stairwell leading up the bridge spire.

“So at least we know it’s working,” said Winnie.

So as not to linger, Victoria kept moving past the stairwell and walked a circuit through nearby corridors.

“But why can’t I just walk up these stairs?” asked Victoria “It would take me right to him. Look with me, Winnie. I can’t see anything in the stairwell or the spire that would stop me.”

Winnie checked. Inside the bridge spire, business was as usual. Admiral Laughlin was monitoring the intercepters on route toward the Venezia. In the operations room, officers coordinated incoming and outgoing air traffic from the citadel. The staff bridge was empty. In the other control rooms, officers weren’t even watching the door. The stairwell leading down was deserted apart from a lone sergeant walking up the stairs while fumbling with loose leaf notes. He didn’t pay attention to anything around him.

“Do you see the soldier in the stairs?” asked Winnie.

“Of course I do.”

“It looks like he’s gone up those stairs a lot today. Maybe you can just go. Maybe there’s just a locked door near the top you can’t get through.”


“We’re running out of time,” Winnie said. The countdown was now sixteen minutes.

“I’m not going to go unless the dice tell me to go.” Victoria walked another hallway. “Let’s try playing the game in parts to see where it fails. Roll the dice again. Set my destination as the deck level landing of the stairwell.”

Tan rolled again. Instructions led Victoria to the end of her current hall, and then the door on the right, which led to a bathroom.

“Okay then,” Victoria said, “How about just one floor up this floor. Can we do that?”

Dice rolled. They led her back to the stairwell, then up one floor.

Victoria stopped on the landing. “Okay. Try going up another floor.”

The dice led her back down. She descended.

“So for some reason,” Victoria said. “Tan’s flair thinks we lose if I go to the deck floor of that stairwell.

Winnie scanned the stairwell thoroughly. “Do you see the security camera?” she said.

“Yes,” Victoria said. “And have you seen the hundred other security cameras I’ve passed since coming aboard? It’s not that. Try playing the Spotting Game with Tan. Center it on that floor.”

As usual, Josephine took the first turn rolling the dice. Winnie followed the resulting instructions and viewed four floors below in a shower room. Nothing. Tan’s turn. The dice pointed Winnie about six feet away. It put her mind inside the wall, close to an air duct. She glanced inside.

“…Oh,” Winnie said. That definitely counted. Tan-1, Josephine-0. Tan wins the game.

“What is it? What do you see?” Victoria asked.

“Look in the air duct.”

“Which one— Oh, I see it.”

It was a canister. Attached to it was a device with wires leading to a small box with an antenna.

“He put a bomb in his own stairwell?” Winnie asked.

“He rigged the elevators too,” said Victoria.

Winnie checked and found a bomb immediately. She’d missed them before because she’d never thought to check underneath the elevator.

“Couldn’t he bring his own spire down with that?”

“Maybe,” said Victoria. “I wouldn’t expect rational thought from a man who has a doomsday device on his watch.”

“Are those bombs remote controlled?”

“Yes,” said Victoria. “And if the dice don’t want me going in there, it means Alexander is watching me right now, and he has his finger on the trigger.”

100. Dead Man’s Switch

“Pretty nifty, huh?” said Quentin. “I guess this makes a me a mad scientist now.”

He, Alexander, and Sibyl stood around a contraption Quentin had been assembling. The final parts had come in, and crew men worked to fasten the results into place. Sparks flew as welding torches meshed lines of gooey metal together. The work noises echoed through the bowels of the Manakin engine floor.

For Alexander, this was like a trip to a foreign country. All he’d ever seen of the Manakin was its chrome spires. After years inside a dull terrarium, he felt like he was living in a fantasy novel, ruling from his cloud city. Down in the cramped bowels of the ship, the air stank of sweat and oil. Everyone was in constant turmoil. It was as though he’d traveled to the Dwarven underground.

The device itself was disappointingly plain. He’d hoped for something menacing, but what Quentin brought him looked like a repurposed septic tank.

“Was there any way you could have made this smaller?” asked Alexander.

“Yeah, sure,” Quentin replied. “Give me a larger team and a few months, and I could have given you a doomsday device that fits in your pocket.” He spoke in a whisper. The ship engineers didn’t know what this mystery box was for, not that it would matter if they did. Like everyone else here, those men would probably offer to sit on the bomb and pull the trigger if they thought it would make Alex happy.

“Fact is, though,” Quentin said, “you gave me a couple days. So be happy with what you got: a three stage nuclear bomb mostly cliffed from Russian designs plus my own personal touches. The first two stages are the same, but I tweaked the fusion in the third stage for some extra fun times.”

“The antimatter?”

“Ah… I decided against the antimatter route. Too many problems, but don’t worry. This’ll be big enough for you.

“What’s it’s yield?”

“It’s not tested, but somewhere between two hundred and fifty to five hundred megatons.”

“And what’s that?”

“Take all the bombs launched during the Collapse and multiply them by… five? Or how about five thousand Hiroshimas? The global cooling effect would be worse than what the Collapse caused, but probably not five times worse since this would all go off in one place. Plus, there are a ton of other factors, but you’re still looking at some serious Mutually Assured Destruction.”

Alex nodded.

The engineers finished mounting the device. One man fumbled with a nest of wires trailing from one end.

“Oh, that’s cool, man,” Quentin said. “I’ll take care of that. Thanks, guys.” He ushered them out. Returning, he untangled cables and plugged several together. Others he attached to wall outlets.

“Um, correct me if I’m wrong,” Alex said, “but this bomb can’t be disarmed simply by unplugging it, right?”

“Nah, most of this is grounding.” He pointed out cables. “This, and this are for the monitoring the water chambers and stuff. The actual bomb part runs on its own Stiller Generator. Trust me. This is a bitch to disarm.” He shrugged. “…once it’s armed.”

“How resistant is it?”

He fished a wrist band from his pocket and handed it to Alex. Where a watch face would be was instead a miniature display. “Dead man’s switch, like we talked about. Set a time on it, like a day or two. Then you arm the bomb, and that’s it. It’ll give you warnings at an hour, ten minutes, and one minute. If you don’t reset the timer, the bomb goes off.”

“I see.” Alex explored the wrist band’s menu. “And it can’t be disarmed from this watch. Right?”

“Right. You can only reset the timer. To disarm it once it’s live, you need to disarm it here.”

“How hard is that to do?”

“It’s tricky, but I made a README file explaining how.” Quentin tapped a tablet mounted to the bomb.

“You’re joking, right?”

“No. What if something happened to me? Somebody’d have to stop it.”

Alex smiled thinly. “Perhaps you’re missing the point of this. I’m dealing with an opponent who can steal our bodies and read minds, someone who is probably watching us right now. If any of us can disarm it, so can she.”

“Don’t worry. It takes some power tools and a few hours to pull this apart.”

“Hours?” asked Alex. “More than, say… two?”

“Yeah, about that.”

Alex fiddled with the wrist band. “Two. Zero. Zero… There.” He held it up. “That’s two hours, right? Not two minutes?”

“…Uh…That’s right.”

“Great!” Alex hit a prominent red button on the wrist display. An industrial beep sounded from the massive bomb before them. It began humming. The wrist dial now showed 1:59 with small numbers in the corner counting seconds.

Quentin chuckled. “Maybe uh… maybe I didn’t explain this correctly. That countdown is not a timer to arming the bomb. It’s to detonation. You just armed the bomb.”

“Right, but this is a dead man’s switch, right? I just press this…” Alex pressed an onscreen button showing a circular arrow. The timer jumped back to two hours. “And it resets. Right. This is perfect.”

“I was thinking you’d choose a few days or maybe weeks. You have to push that button every two hours. Every. Two. Hours. Day and night. Do you plan on waking up that much?”

“Ooh, you’re right.” Alex turned to Sibyl. “How about you take over night shifts. You think you can do that?”

“Okay,” she said automatically.

“Hmm.” Alex pondered. “That’s not secure though. You’re a dumb dumb. I guess we’ll have to move you into that room off my bedroom. That way everyone has to go by me to get to you.”


Alex pondered. “Maybe I should get some guys to install a lock on the door, and I’ll have the only key.” He shrugged. “Can’t be too safe. For all we know. Victoria could coax you into leaving somehow. I hope you don’t mind being locked in.”

Sibyl nodded. Her mind was so damn saturated with him, he wondered what else she would agree to. If he told her she shouldn’t risk going to sleep, he was sure she’d do it, but what if he had her chained to the wall, just in case? He probably wouldn’t even have to explain why.

“Okay…” Quentin chuckled again. He was a man laughing at a joke he didn’t get. “Alex… there is riding a lot on that watch. I’m not sure you’re quite getting this. The reset procedure is an encrypted challenge/response using a private key that’s only in that watch. If it breaks, if you lose it, if you lose reception, or anything, then there’s nothing any of us can do. I couldn’t disarm this bomb fast enough.”

“I don’t think I’ll be going far,” said Alex. “And this watch is robust, right?” Alex rapped it against the bomb.

Quentin lunged for it, caught himself, and bit his knuckles. “Don’t joke about that. I’m serious. If something happens to that watch…”

“Oh, relax. This is just until I’m good and sure Victoria is toast. It’s not like I actually want the bomb to go off, right?” Alex laughed in a way that invited Quentin to join him.

Quentin tried. “Yeah. Yeah. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

Alexander peered curiously at the wrist band. “I started this countdown, which I have to reset every two hours. If I don’t. The world gets another ice age, right?”


“Looks like I know exactly what I’m doing. What you meant to say was: I hope this a good idea.”

“Is it?”

“We’ll find out.”

96. A Right to Know

“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.

“Go. Now.”

“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.”

“Sorry, boss.”

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.

“Yeah, boss?”

“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.”

“Okay, fine.”

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.

More applause.

“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?

92. A Top Secret Project

When Quentin opened the door, Alex strode in to the hotel suite as though Quentin weren’t there.

“Uh, come on in.” Quentin glanced at the two armed exemplars who waited in the hall, then shut the door. Alex ran his hand along a sofa and rubbed non-existent dust between his fingers. His scrutiny traversed the expansive room, the rich furniture, and penthouse view before settling a contemptuous glare on Quentin.

“Is there something you need, Your Majesty?” His emphasis underlined how they both knew the woman before him wasn’t the real queen, though Alex knew he was mistaking him for Sakhr.

“I have a job for you,” Alex said.

“I’m here to serve, ma’am. What can this poor wretch do for you?”

Alex had follow up lines, but he could tell he was already pushing Quentin too much. Grinning, he threw his hands out to either side, presenting himself.

It dawned on Quentin in seconds. “…Alex?”

“Nice body, isn’t it? I think I’ll keep it.”

Quentin grinned like a buffoon. “Holy shit. It’s you! You’re in charge now?”


“What about Sakhr?”


“Nice. For how long?”

“A couple days. Been too busy to stop by until now. I had an empire to run.” Alex threw himself onto the couch.

Quentin sat opposite him. “What’s it like? Ruling the world?”

“Exhausting.” Alex rubbed his face and stretched.

“But that asshole isn’t telling you what to do anymore.”

“That’s right.”

“What changes are you going to make? Are you going to keep body swapping a secret?” His eyes lit. “Hey! You must have a body swapping glyph, don’t you?”


“You think maybe uh… we could hook me up with something other than republican soccer dad?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“What do you think? Somebody in their twenties. Calvin Klein model or something. Someone ripped.”

“Those bodies take maintenance, you know. Are you ready to start a workout routine?”

“Fuck, no,” said Quinten. “I told you. I keep the body most of the time and live it up. Then, a couple times a week you swap places with some piss-shit underling who works it out, eats all that gluten-free shit. Meanwhile, you take a cheat day in their body.”

“I suppose you could.” Alex didn’t bother re-explaining the hassles of body swapping.

“That’s why it’s so great you’re in charge now. You don’t have to keep the body-swap glyph a secret anymore. You just have to keep it to yourself. Think about it. You could have a different body for every day of the week. You could fuck someone and get both the orgasms. Just think about what orgies would feel like.”

“Yeah…” Alex said. “That all sounds great, but if people find out about body swapping, sooner or later someone will wonder whether I’m the real queen or not.”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess so. You could probably keep it under wraps then. Maybe that’s better. You could have someone swap places with a hot actress. No one would know it wasn’t her when she starts dating you.”

“I’m sure,” said Alexander. “We’ll do all this once I have time. Unfortunately, Sakhr’s has left one hell of a mess for me to clean up.”


“Victoria, yes. Sakhr fumbled an attack against her. Now she’s got these two girls. One can see anywhere. The other can make anyone she sees forget anything. Do you see how that works out? Between them. She can make anyone in the world forget anything whenever she wants. I could throw a hundred ships at her and get nothing. Then I find out Sakhr hired one of our close mutual friends to assassinate me. He killed two of my men, then took a P.O.W. and scampered.”

“Oh. Those two people on the news?”

“Yes. Everyone in the world is looking for them, yet suddenly everyone is too forgetful to remember what they look like.” Sighing, he stared at the ceiling and rubbed his temples. “No orgies for me.”

The Sympathy glyph was making it’s little tugs. Each time, a little piece of Quentin’s aura chipped away. It morphed into other emotions: admiration, camaraderie, motivation. Alex had done this with a hundred others. He didn’t need to look into Quentin’s mind to know what Quentine was thinking. By this point, cabinet members had been falling over themselves with commitments and promises. They scurried for Alex in ways they never scurried for Victoria, or even their own families. Alex was the center of their lives.

Quentin would be the same.

“That sucks, man,” Quentin said. He nodded sympathetically, then his mood turned playful. “Hey. You should take your mind off it for tonight. Wanna go out on the town? I’m not still under house arrest, am I?”

Or maybe Quentin wouldn’t be the same. Alex sat up and glanced in his eyes. The idea of helping Alex hadn’t crossed his mind.

Alex laid the Sympathy on harder. “No. No house arrest. You can go. I just don’t have the time. Not with this manhunt. Meanwhile, I’m making shields as fast as I can for the military. All the higher up people are safe now. Of course, Victoria got to most of them first, so I’m having to re-explain why this one single runaway ship is so dangerous.”

Again, Quentin nodded in sympathy. And again, the sentiment only lasted a moment. “You’re giving out the shields, huh? Do I get one?”

Alex surged the Sympathy, but at this point he was getting diminishing returns. “Sorry,” Alex smiled apologetically. “Don’t have a spare one with me.”

“When do I get one?”

“We’re handing them out in order of priority. It’ll probably be a week or so.”

“Why? I’m a priority. I know a lot. I’m a flair.”

“You’re not involved with hunting Victoria down… but, if you were, that’d be a different story.”

“What do you mean?”

“I actually came down here to ask your help on a secret project of mine.”

“Me? What could I do?”

Alex shrugged. “A lot, I’d think. Remember those assemblers you used to make that makeshift bomb? I’ve been wondering what you could make if you had more time to work. What do you think?”

“I think those assemblers blew up in the tower.”

“Yes, but we found their designs in the LakiraLabs archives. We could remake them.”

“Okay. Remake them. Sounds like you don’t need me.”

“Right,” said Alex, “but once they’re made, anything you design could be assembled, right? You said those machines can make things the others can’t, like repulser nodes or heavy metals. You could make anything.”

“Not anything. Even that machine would have size limits. And any crystalline materials have to be—”

“Right. Okay. Not anything. But you could make any isotope you want in any quantity. You built a bomb in under half an hour. What could you do if you had time to think and plan? You alone could create—”

Quentin scoffed. “Hold on. Hold on. You’ve been watching too many movies. There’s always the mad scientist who invents the wild, decades-ahead-of-his-time technology, like a shrink ray or a time machine. It doesn’t work like that. Maybe one guy can come up with an idea, but real science is done in teams, over years. It takes refinement, and trial and error. Talk to the LakiraLabs scientists. You told me they all have my glyph anyway.”

Alex had pressed enough Sympathy upon him that it wasn’t affecting him anymore. Quentin’s innate laziness was defeating Alex’s mind control. It was a superpower all on its own.

Alex maintained an amiable tone. “You’re selling yourself short. I’ve seen inside your head, and theirs. Your glyph helps them a little, but you’re something else entirely. Your mind… it’s boggling. There are so many ideas floating around in there it staggers me to even glance at them. It’s enigmatic, but you make perfect sense of it. No one else is like that.”

“Sure they are.”

“You engineered a nuclear explosion in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes.”

“Technically, it was a nuclear fizzle.”

“Whatever. How about it? If you just tried, I think you’d surprise yourself.”

“You came here because you want something from me, and you’re not going to give me a shield unless I help, right? That’s just like Victoria.”

And now Alex completely understood why she’d put him in a tortoise in the first place. It had nothing to do with state secrets. Alex’s hand was twitching for the repulse pistol in his jacket. Point and click, and one less freeloading fuck.

“All right, I’ll drop it,” Alex said. “I am acting like her. It’s all this stress. I’m just looking for any edge to beat Victoria.” He sighed. “You better hope I win. She knows you were the one who built the bomb that killed her.”

“I think that’s just another reason why I should get a shield now,” Quentin said. “I know the whole, ‘not enough to go around‘ excuse is bullshit. Everyone can make copies of glyphs.”

“We’re not handing out the glyphs. We may have lost the others to the wild, but I’m keeping this one secure. We’re handing out miniature plaques.”

“Miniature plaques? Can I see yours?”

“I can’t.”

“Bullshit. Come on. You’re shielded right now. Let me see.”

“I got mine injected.” Lifting his leg, he pulled his dress up enough to show a small bandage on the inside of his thigh. “Microwafer, just under the skin. Figured since I’m Victoria’s number one enemy, might as well. If I put my shield down for even a moment, she’d fry me. Everyone else gets handheld plaques since… er…” Quentin’s aura changed suddenly. All the built up attachment Alex had instilled him morphed into one emotion: lust. Alex acted natural as he lowered his skirt back down. “…since I still have to make security checks on them.”

Sitting straight, he smoothed his skirt. Quentin’s eyes were still on his legs. This wasn’t just a mild fancy Quentin felt. It was all encompassing, like a Minister’s dedication. Alex didn’t dare look him in the eye.

“Why there?” Quentin asked. “Why not in your upper arm or something?”

“I don’t want people to see the scar. Anyway, I’m afraid I must depart.” He stood.

“Wait. Are you sure you don’t want a drink or something?”

“Perhaps another time.” Alex headed toward the door.

“Wait, wait, wait. Hold on.”

Alex turned.

Quentin grimaced, uncomfortable with what he was about to do. “What’s this secret project?”

“It’s a secret.”

“Don’t fuck with me. What is it?”

“Are you going to help?”

“Let’s hear what it is first.”

Alex pretended to mull it over. “I want to build another bomb. A big one.”

“Like, what are we talking? Hiroshima? Tsar bomb? What?”


“Uh, what for? This isn’t for blowing up Victoria, is it? Because a garden-variety nuke would work.”

“No no. This isn’t about that. This is about… protection.”


“I’m up against a woman who can read and erase minds, see anywhere, switch bodies, and has an amazing resilience to death. She wants her empire back, and if I don’t kill her soon, she’s going to show up at my door. Maybe by herself, maybe with an army.”

 The cogs in Quentin’s mind were finally spinning. “You want a plan B. A final fuck you. ”

“You can see why I can’t ask the other scientists to do this.”

“They couldn’t do it anyway. They’re all stuck thinking a three-stage fusion bomb is as big as you can get. Nah… what you want is cutting edge, maybe a repulse containment field powerful enough to contain antimatter.”

“Antimatter? Those assemblers can make that?”

“Hah. No. Those prototype state-of-the-art assemblers? Bullshit. I’ll make better ones. You just can’t be afraid to smash some atoms, you know? The bomb itself, it’d have to uh… yeah, I guess it would have to be multistage too.” He rubbed his chin. “The fuel assembly might be tricky though. Oh wait, no it wouldn’t. You’d just make a lot of… no.” He chewed his nail. “Oh! The fuel wouldn’t have to be antihydrogen, obviously. Maybe sodium or something. That makes it easy. Kind of.”

“Hold on,” Alex held up his hand.

Walking back, he draped himself along the couch. Mentally, he garnered more attachment from Quentin, all of which turned to lust. Disgusting, but Alex had him. Victoria had spent years working on Quentin. She’d gotten nowhere with orders, pleads, threats, rewards, and punishments. Quentin just didn’t care enough.

But to impress a pretty girl?

After squeezing one last bit of Attachment, he pulled a shield stone from his pocket and tossed it to Quentin.

“See?” Quentin looked it over. “I knew your priorities excuse was bullshit.”

“Of course it was. Now, go on.”