102. A Mottled Egg

“British authorities have declared a state of emergency after rioters stormed the Lakiran embassy in London last night” the reporter said. “These attacks come in the wake of Queen Helena’s announcement that her late mother, Victoria, may have instigated the nuclear war.”

The television switched to a shaky view of people outside a granite building. The windows were knocked out. Men and women ran in and out the front. Some climbed through broken windows. Police were on the scene, driving people away from the building with a phalanx of riot shields.

“The embassy building was not the only target. Rioters set fire to the aid stations in downtown Cambridge and other local establishments. Firefighters were unable to get through the crowds.”

Images showed burning remains of tents as rescue workers dug through the wreckage.

“Police are advising citizens to stay indoors, saying these attacks are only the beginning. Debates on Britain’s continued involvement with the Lakiran empire are expected to renew, with many ministers now arguing that Britain should secede.”

The images switched back to the newsroom. “Turmoil continues as people around the world demand that Helena reveal her sources implicating her mother’s involvement, saying that she should subject herself to a mental scan. Many are saying that the Lakiran empire has no right to remain as head of the Global Coalition, with many countries threatening to withdraw. In India, people took to the streets, burning effigies of the Queen Victoria, claiming that her crimes against humanity are the worst this world has ever seen. Even the capital city of Porto—”

Victoria shut off the television. She was alone in the wardroom apart from Liat, who guarded the door. Occasionally, an officer entered. Seeing Victoria, they’d salute, look around as though they might have left something in there, and leave. Victoria didn’t need her powers to sense their awkwardness. Despite her speech, nothing had gone back to normal. The soldiers didn’t trust her. She’d considered wiping the talk from everyone’s memory. It’d be simple. Call everyone back for another meeting, then hand-pick apart their memories, while scanning minds for any physical evidence onboard the ship she’d need to dispose of, but what was the point? She couldn’t hide world news from them, and she wouldn’t be aboard much longer.

Soon, the Venezia would pass over the South American grid. Thus would begin her operation. If all went well, she’d have her empire back come South American nightfall. As Helena, she could let Victoria take the rap for all past crimes. Only the people aboard this craft would know she was the same woman. They could not be allowed to remember that, but she would not forsake them. They’d be rewarded, even if they didn’t remember why. And she could get on with fixing this damn empire.

“Your Majesty,” said Liat. “The Captain.”

Victoria looked up as Stephano entered the wardroom.

He saluted. “We’ve made our final course adjustments, Your Majesty. We’ll be over the target location in five hours.”

Victoria nodded. She already knew.

“Have you picked a landing spot?” he asked.

“I have.” While Victoria dealt with all this announcement nonsense, she’d tasked Winnie with finding a landing spot for her, and Winnie had settled on an isolated outpost outside of Boa Vista, south of Porto Maná. Victoria had checked it over herself and was pleased. Winnie had done well.

“Then we should make final preparations.” Stephano motioned for her to come. She followed. That crisp conversation had lacked any acknowledgement of Victoria’s speech or its result, and he avoided her eyes. Was it that bad?

Soldiers throughout the ship carried on their duties. Before, they’d stare as she’d pass. Now she was invisible.

Up two floors, they reached the officer’s deck. Relative privacy from the rest of the crew.

“I’d like to readdress your plan, Your Majesty.”


“It’s foolish to go alone. My men will follow your orders. I’d be more comfortable if even two of them were going.”

“This is not an excursion that benefits from more people. I’ve already explained what Alexander has set up in the citadel’s lower levels. If he believes we’re closing in on him, he will allow it go off, hence why I will go alone. I can get close to him. A group cannot.”

“Ma’am. The marines aboard this ship are trained for this exact sort of procedure.”

“It’s not a matter of their training, Captain. I’m going to be swapping bodies. Do your men want to swap bodies with me?”

“My men have discussed it. Would they get their bodies back?”

“There’s no guarantee.”

The walked further.

“Your exemplars then.” Stephano motioned to Liat and Bishop, who walked paces behind them. “Bishop told me that’s not his original body.” He turned to Bishop. “You have no attachment to it do you?” To Victoria: “If you swapped your exemplars out for the marines on this ship, then the marines would be guaranteed to have their bodies safe once they returned to the ship. You could only take two men with you, but it would still make me feel a hell of a lot better.”

“No, Captain. I will go alone.”

“This is foolishness, ma’am.”

“Your men don’t trust me.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“Is it?” Victoria stopped in the hall outside the bridge. “Look me in the eye and tell me your crew trusts me.”

“No. They’re afraid of you, but that’s no reason to discard them. My men will follow orders. It would be a show of faith for you to—”

“Ma’am!” It was Bishop. He was looking down the corridor at a marine whose aura was all wrong. It shone with glaring anticipation. Already Bishop was putting himself between Victoria and that man.

“This is the officer’s deck, Private,” said Stephano. He wasn’t aware yet. He didn’t have a glyph card, or he would have seen the danger. Liat was pulling Victoria back when the marine made an underhanded toss.

The world slowed down. For that moment, there was only Victoria, and the small object flying through the air toward her. Everyone and everything else was just background. She knew it was a grenade even before it struck the ground, yet she watched as it bounced, rolled, and came to a stop a step from her.

It was such a small thing, like an egg, though mottled and gray. As queen, she knew of most of the weapons and equipment her military used. Maybe once or twice she’d seen a weapons demonstration where they were used, but that was as much as she knew. The wars she waged were distant things she heard of through reports—victories and losses, deaths and injuries. She only heard of these things when they mattered on a grand scale.

But here was a small piece that had gotten through for her to witness in person. For all of her powers, for all the people she commanded and all the guards who protected her, none of it meant anything in the face of this small little egg.

“Victoria!” Stephano yelled. He yanked open a side door. He and Bishop shoved her through. Liat stumbled on top of her. No, that wasn’t correct. Liat was shielding Victoria with her own body.

For such a little thing, its explosion caused every bone in Victoria’s body to rattle. Pain wracked her head. Stars filled her vision. All sound muffled. Over the ringing in her ears, she could hear yelling. And something was clicking faintly. A repulse pistol. Her mind she saw the soldier firing down the hall at them from cover.

She imagined one of those tiny flechettes piercing her legs and gut. Tearing flesh. Snapping tendons. Scraping bone. It could hit her head. Pop through her skull and every hope she’d ever had for this world would drift away.

In her mind, the soldier peered down the hall. Seeing everyone on the ground, he rushed out from cover and hurried toward Victoria, firing his weapon.

And here Victoria was cowering, waiting for someone else to fix this. In five hours she was going to take back her own empire, and this was her response to what? A single soldier?

She was acting like that girl again, the one holding that gun in quivering hands as Anton crept up the stairs toward her. That girl died that day, and she died for a reason.

“Stop,” she yelled.

It was as though a collar around the soldier’s neck snapped taut. No one disobeyed that voice. Victoria envisioned him clearly, and then she groped for memories. Carving and hacking, she took anything she could, no matter how little it related to her. There was no mercy or consideration. She disemboweled the carcass of her prey.

His gun clattered. The marine looked down at the crumpled forms before him.

Victoria kept tearing until she no longer felt the visceral sensation of taking something away. She was scraping bone now. Everything else in his mind was out of her reach.

Other soldiers charged in from farther down. They tackled the assassin. Others were at Victoria’s side, pulling Liat off her.

Blood was everywhere, the floor, her hands, the wall. It had splattered Victoria’s face and soaked into her clothes, but it wasn’t her own. Liat was staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Other men surrounded Stephano and Bishop, blocking her view. In her mind, she saw their wounds. It looked as though Bishop had thrown himself toward the grenade, the fool. Stephano at least moved, even as blood poured. In his chest, she saw his heart. Faint, but beating.

She could save him. There was a body right there. Her assassin was untouched, but men were lifting Victoria, carrying her away. She struggled with them, but they held her back. Why couldn’t they see she wasn’t hurt? Why wouldn’t they just put her on her feet? She wasn’t weak.

…She’d just froze.

The crew got the queen and their captain to the medical ward. They pieced together what happened within moments and apprehended Private Larson. He didn’t struggle as they frisked him, or when they dragged him down the corridor.

“What?” he mumbled. “What happened?” No one listened.

In the brig, they tossed him into a cell and slammed the door. A soldier who attacks his own captain and ruler, no matter the reason, was no soldier to them. He was less than human.

Yet Larson didn’t see their hatred. He stared at his own hands as though foreign and strange. He turned to them. “What just happened?” he asked. “Am I on a ship? What is this?”

The soldiers’ glares faltered.

“Why am I dressed like this?” He looked at his own uniform. The questions came quickly.

“What is this?” he yelled. He pressed against the bars. The others backed away.

“What was I doing up there? Did I hurt someone? For God sakes. Who are you people? Why won’t you talk to me? Why won’t somebody tell me what the hell is going on?!”

98. For the Best

Victoria wasn’t in the ready room when Stephano arrived, which meant she would still be in his stateroom—the other room aboard this ship she’d commandeered as her own. Between there and the ready room, she was out of sight from the crew. Her exemplars brought her her meals and sent for anyone she wished to speak to.

They had not sent for Stephano, which meant Victoria did not desire an audience. It had been improper for him to send Liat to inform the queen that he needed to speak with her, but this discussion had to be made, regardless of customs.

He waited for arrival. He didn’t mind. It gave him time to work out how best to phrase his questions. No approach seemed tactful, but then there isn’t an easy way to ask your superior if they’re responsible for mass murder.

He heard her footsteps long before she entered, giving him time to stop fidgeting. The door opened. Bishop leaned in and glanced about for a security check. Stephano made eye contact, and Bishop nodded his thanks for not making him ask. Though now he knew what Stephano wanted to discuss, and so would Victoria. Whatever tact he used, she’d see through it.

Nothing could be done about that.

Bishop ducked out. Victoria entered. In the cramped space, she sidled into her usual seat. “You wanted to see me, Captain.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for accepting my request.”

“What is this about?”

“I’m sure you’re aware that Alexander held a press conference where he made several allegations against you.”

“I am aware. Yes.”

“It’s my belief he leveled these allegations in order to undermine the chain of command aboard this ship.”

“That is my belief as well. It was an incredibly reckless move which will bring further instability to the empire.”

“You said he has a means of ensuring people’s loyalty now.”

“He does, but it does nothing for the many riots now breaking out over the globe. He’s made these allegations caring nothing for the damage it will cause the people in the meantime.”

“That may be the case,” Stephano said, “but it’s still an attack on the crew of this ship. The rumor mill has started turning. The men are asking questions. We need to address what damage his accusations may cause. So let me ask. Is there any truth to his allegations?”

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what? Why am I asking? I need to know.”

“But why? Are you going to resign if they’re true?”


“Are you going to carry out your duties differently?”

“It would affect how we handle this matter. If Alexander’s accusations are groundless, then we can inform the crew and put this matter to rest. If they’re not groundless, and he has any way of proving they’re true, then he may use that against you. If we deny the accusations, but he later provides this evidence, it would worsen the scandal. So,” he paused. “Can Alexander provide such evidence?”

“He will provide plenty of evidence. I’m sure it would all be a fabrication.”

“But could he provide actual evidence?”


“How culpable would it make you out to be?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you provide any evidence in your defense?”

“I have none with me.”

“Would you allow your exemplars to be scanned in order to put these rumors to rest with the crew?”

“No. My exemplars know too much privileged information. Simply inform your men that the rumors are false. I don’t see why they need more than that.”

“Because they deserve it.”

“Excuse me?”

“Every man and woman aboard this ship is an exile from their own country. They’re alone up here because you and I decided so. They know only what we’ve told them, which isn’t much. We’ve said nothing about our enemies, or our preparation, or even the people we risked our lives fetching for you. Half of them doubt that you even are the queen. Some are even afraid of you. Yet they still fight for you—not the empire they signed up to serve, or the people they swore to protect, but you. They deserve the truth, and not just another dismissal. So is there truth behind Alexander’s accusations?”

“Fine. Yes.”

“Did you withhold Food-Ready assemblers like he says?”

“I did. I knew the war was coming. I produced as many machines as I could and hoarded them for my own people.”

“Is that all you did?”

“I also accelerated tensions between America and Russia by placing my people into the bodies of political figureheads.”


“And I ordered the first missile launch.”

“I see.” Stephano had told himself beforehand that it wouldn’t matter what her answer would be. He was wrong. “So you caused everything…”

“Alexander will paint it that way.”

“So the Collapse wasn’t your plan B. It wasn’t because of failed peace talks. It was because you set out to deliberately scorch the world…”

“The Russians, Americans, and Chinese scorched the world.”

“But you provoked them.”

“I thought I was doing the right thing. I still think I did.”

“Your Majesty. Please explain to me how it could possibly have been the right thing.”

“The Collapse was inevitable. Tensions had been growing ever since the nineteen sixties. It never got better. All those years of disarmament were a farce. Time and time again we came within a single judgement call of apocalypse. I tried at first to help, but by then, the arms race had stopped being about protection. It had become an irreconcilable clash of ideals. So I jump-started it, in a controlled fashion. I went to great lengths to make sure only a limited number of missiles fired so as to ensure humanities survival.”

“For what? So you could take over? Was it just a power grab?”

“Of course not. I did it because I believed it was best for the world in the long run.”


“The world was living under the shadows of giants who brandished annihilation at one another. More than just that, Captain, society was moving backwards. Before the missiles launched, the Russians were starving from their broken government long before the winter set it. The Chinese were building dozens of new coal power plants every year while crops failed globally from runaway raising temperatures. The middle east and Africa belonged to religious extremists who reduced more and more of our civilization to a dark age. Women were nothing more than objects. Executions were vicious and public. Drug lords owned more of South America than the governments did. Slavery was reinvented under the guise of free trade. North America had devolved into a police state, controlled by its own paranoia. Its corporations were exhausting the world faster even than a world war ever could. And nearly two thirds of the worlds’ ecosystem had gone extinct. The world wasn’t just rotting, Captain, it was stuck. Society was locked in place. It’s own self-consuming machination had become self-sustaining, and every person in it either didn’t care or felt too powerless to do anything about it. Something drastic had to happen if we were to ever break course.”

“So… what? You see what you did as… tearing down the foundation to rebuild the house?”

“Essentially. I know you think what I did was wrong—”

“I think what you did was insanity. You talk like the world was a hellhole. That somehow, this constant winter starvation nightmare we’ve all been living is in some way better.”

“It’s not better yet. It’s only been six years since the Collapse. Look at how much as improved. Now that I’m in control, I can do so much more for of humanity.”

“How can you believe that? The world was not a lost cause. It had it’s problems, certainly. Thousands of them. Some got solved. Some didn’t. But what you did made everything unbelievably worse. You talk about how the ecosystem was in danger, but you destroyed it entirely. Nearly everything is extinct now. You talk about corrupt governments? The anarchy you caused paved the way for bloodthirsty warlords around the world.”

“We overthrew them.”

“And millions of innocent people suffered. Billions are dead. So what if you fix the world? There’s hardly anyone left to enjoy it.”

“I’m thinking about the endless generations to come, Captain. I know you don’t believe the world was broken, but you grew up in one of the richest neighborhoods in France. You lived in the first world everyone liked to believe in. I spent twenty years in the recesses of the world, trying to fix the problems everyone else ignored. Perhaps somewhere along the line I became jaded. Maybe it was the first time the US government tried to assassinate me because I was raising wage levels in Central America. Maybe it was when I discovered China was sending weapons to rebels in my lands just so they’d cause chaos. Or maybe it was when the drug cartels torched and butchered eight villages I helped restore, just to spite me. I saw the worst, Captain, and I saw it growing. For every piece of good I did, the world snapped back.”

“It was wrong, Victoria.”

“Maybe it was, but what’s done is done. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss where we go from here. If I don’t get my throne back from that lunatic, then all the suffering I’ve caused will be for nothing. Do you still support me?”

“If I say no, do you take this conversation out of my mind?”

“I don’t want to, Captain.”

“But you could…”

“Of course I could, but I want you to help me because you believe in me, not because I’ve programmed you. But the lunatic who sits on the throne right now wouldn’t hesitate. He is a megalomaniac who cares for nothing except himself. He’s already programming the world, but that’s not how I want to rule. I truly am trying to make this world a better place, even if I have made unforgivable mistakes. So choose, Captain. I’m not going to take your free will from you no matter how convenient that would be. Will you help me?”

No matter how earnest she was, the threat was still there. Victoria didn’t want to take Stephano’s memories, but what else could happen if he said no? It’s not like they could politely ask her to leave the ship. Certainly she wouldn’t stand to be arrested. And their lives would still be in danger from Alex all the same. His answer was clear. How he felt about it was something he would come to terms with on his time.

“I’ll help you get him off the throne.”

“I suppose that will have to do. What shall we tell your men?”

Stephano knew his crew well. Some had lost family and friends in the war. For many, their losses were what led them to join the army in the first place. They thought they were on the side that was fixing the world.

Victoria would have to tell the men something, but it couldn’t be the truth.

94. Zero Sum

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

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

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

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

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

Parrots had a wider selection.

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

She tasted one. Exactly as bad as she remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helena’s mental response was simple.


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


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

“She’s still alive?”


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

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

“But not my body?”

“No. Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s still busy, Winnie.”

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

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

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

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

“Okay, then go. Do it.”

“…Once she is free.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

“I want to talk to you about Helena.”

“What about her?”

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


“You said you would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie glared at her.

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

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

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

76. Footprints in the Snow

WaferMesh. On Winnie’s website, several of her dresses used it. Living up north after the Collapse meant year-round winter, so unless people wanted to bundle in mittens and scarves for eternity, they used WaferMesh. Several version came out over the years, and each had its own variations in warmth, texture, and durability, but they all used the same general principle: instead of using thread, it was a lattice of synthetic fiber that created air pockets within waffle like layers. It was kind of like a sponge, but texturing kept it looking like fabric. The advantage was insulation without thick layering, so if anybody wanted to show off their form in the nuclear winter, they needed WaferMesh.

Winnie liked to think that was the reason her website was popular. Her clothes used WaferMesh, which wasn’t popular with designers down south, but vital for people farther north like she was. Also, she’d customized her site so that users could specify a kind of mesh before assembling, or even use standard synthetic cotton for those people in warmer climates.

Her experience also made her particularly apt at selecting outfits for herself and Victoria as their drifter car traveled farther north. She’d wanted to pick things from her own website. The sense of familiarity would be nice, but Victoria forbid it after one glance at her modeled clothes. Instead she picked a few bottom-line no-design long sleeved articles from the core library that not even a nun could complain about.

Then Victoria turned her nose up at the colors Winnie had picked.

“I asked you if you had any preferences,” Winnie said.

“I assumed you’d pick… earth colors.” Victoria held up a pair of bright yellow leggings.

“Color is in right now. We’ll look fine.”

“I suppose it will do.” Victoria peeled off her teeshirt and worked her arms through the sleeves of a green long sleeve shirt. “Change now.”

While Winnie was off collecting the clothes from an assembler station near their current rest stop, Victoria had inputted Ottawa into the car’s guidance system. It might be below freezing outside, but the guidance said they’d be spending another three toasty hours in the car.

“Why now?” Winnie asked.

“Because we’re not taking the car from here. We’re walking the rest of the way.”

Startled, Winnie looked around their vicinity with her mind. They had stopped in a community in upstate New York. It wasn’t much different than Redding—the town the Lakirans relocated Winnie and her mother to. It was large enough to reestablish a complete school and a hospital, and an assembler station where Winnie made the clothes. Also like Redding, the Lakirans had gathered all local holdouts of nuclear winter survivors and put them here to better manage law and resources. Being anywhere else in the region was against the law, at least it had been in Redding. Many people complained about that back home, but it made sense the way the Lakirans explained it. People outside of the city were outside of the empire’s thinly spread control. The empire couldn’t police them or protect them. The only people who’d realistically want that were raiders or warlords. And North America used to have plenty of both.

This meant that the only thing around this settlement were miles of abandoned towns, broken down roads, and forests of dead trees. But if their destination had been in town, they wouldn’t need the clothes. The community was small enough that they could have walked there by now.

“How far are we going?” Winnie asked.

“A few miles. Did you get my other package?”

“This?” Winnie took out a small assembled radio pack. “What’s it for?”

“You’ll see. Change.”

In the warmth of the car, they donned insulating clothes. Victoria opened the door and ushered Winnie out. Before stepping out herself, she instructed the drifter car to begin its trip. Once the door was closed, the car lifted and silently glided out of the parking lot. All drifter cars were capable of driving themselves; it made returning rentals easy. But it was still a spooky sight for Winnie. The purpose was clear. If anyone tracked down the car, they’d be in the wrong country.

Thus began their hike. They climbed on hands and knees over a snowbank alongside the parking lot. Beyond that was a forest with two feet of snow encrusted with ice. With every other step, Winnie would crunch through into soft snow beneath. Powder would clump along the rim of her boots. Five minutes of walking and her red WaferMesh leggings were soaking through. Wet cold was creeping down her ankle.

“My socks are wet,” she said.

“Deal with it.”

“I wish you would have told me we were going to walk through snow.”

“These clothes will do fine. It’s not much farther.”

Or so Victoria said. Winnie scanned ahead. If Victoria was bee lining to their destination, which it seemed like she was, that put at least another three miles of snow slogging ahead of them. After that, an abandoned town.

Winnie occupied herself by darting her mind from building to building looking for wherever they may be going to. It didn’t take her long. Footprints in the snow ambled all about the abandoned town ahead. Some followed circuitous paths back to the community they’d traveled come from. Winnie traced the prints to a cellar door. Inside was a makeshift living arrangement for one: a floor mattress, piled wood, coolers full of assembled food supplies. The resident was a woman who sat on the mattress curled up in blankets. She was reading a book with an electric lantern which rested on a nearby cardboard box. By the bed was a wood stove with a belly full of ash. The woman would only use the stove at night, when no one would see the smoke coming from the chimney. Winnie knew this because this was exactly how she lived years ago when it was just her, her mother, and a handful of famine survivors.

This woman was hiding from the Lakirans.

“Who is she?” Winnie asked.

Victoria kept walking. “High Exemplar Liat.”

By the time they arrived, Winnie remembered what it was like to be truly and miserably cold. It hadn’t been so bad in the woods. The trees had sheltered the wind, but in the ghost town, it cut through every bit of exposed skin she had. Her cheekbones ached. Her boots were soaked through, and her legs felt like two dead slabs of meat.

Victoria stopped one block from the cellar door. She was poised as though stalking a prey. Winnie came up behind her, sniffling and shivering, too cold to care.

“Liat Delacroix!” Victoria yelled.

Inside the cellar, Liat startled. Dropping her book, she pulled a magnum pistol from behind the mattress and took aim at the door. Winnie now understood now why they hadn’t just walked in. Liat scurried to a ladder leading into the house. She was going to run for it.

Victoria sighed. “Stay where you are,” she murmured to Winnie, then proceeded forward. Liat clambered into the kitchen. Ducking low, she scurried through the living room of the dilapidated house, glancing about as though under fire. One peek out the back window revealed the backyard to be clear, so the woman burst out the back door and sprinted toward the woods.

Victoria was right there. The woman spun in surprise. The gun raised.

Drop your gun and kneel to me, Liat Delacroix.”

The magnum fell into the snow. Liat dropped to her knees. The words Victoria spoke had caused the hairs on Winnie’s neck to stand on end. They were the same words she’d used on Winnie’s mother; they had to be obeyed.

“…Your Majesty?” Liat asked.


Liat fell to her hands and crawled through the snow. She hugged Victoria’s ankles as though she’d never let them go, and she cried hysterically.

“Victoria, I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were dead. I couldn’t reach the others. Bishop said they were killing us, and then the army came after me.” She sobbed. “I didn’t know what to do. I just… I ran. I hid. I was going to—”

“Enough of this, Liat. Behave yourself.” Victoria shook Liat off her feet.

Liat smiled at this. “Sorry, Your Majesty.” She sat back on her haunches and took a deep solid breath, purging any emotional remnants. “I’m just really happy to see you.” Liat looked over Victoria’s teenage body. “How did you survive?”

“I ran out of bad luck at the last moment.”

“And Sakhr? Is he still…?”

“Yes. There is a buffoon on my throne.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“Of course I do.”

Liat nodded. “Good. I am yours if you’ll still have me. After taking orders for so long, I’d forgotten how exhausting life is figuring things out for yourself. Thank God you’re here.” She pressed her forehead to Victoria’s foot.

Victoria shook her off. “I said enough of that. Get up.”

Liat climbed to her feet. Snow caked her leggings. Winnie encroached on their little reunion. Both turned to face her.

“This is great and all,” Winnie said, “but can we go inside?”

The second floor of Liat’s hideout told a story. There were three bedrooms, a master, and two for children. In one, posters lined the walls, and a derelict computer sat at a wooden desk. Karate trophies filled a shelf—all junior level, meaningless accomplishments that would exist forever in attics and cellars after the child left home. The room spoke of a content childhood. The other bedroom was an infant’s, except that the crib had cardboard boxes in it. The room was used for storage. Winnie wondered if the reason for that was morbid, or simply because the infant grew up. Then why wasn’t the room converted to a bedroom? Maybe they didn’t have time before the Collapse.

“You’re procrastinating again,” Victoria said.

Winnie’s attention snapped back to the chore Victoria had given her. It was really just a flair exercise in disguise. Unfortunately, she was with Victoria in the master bedroom of the house, where Victoria and Liat were setting up the radio pack brought from town. Victoria’s aura sense let her know whenever Winnie procrastinated.

“I’m not seeing it,” Winnie said.

“Try trying.”

That was practically Victoria’s mantra.

“Have you tried?” Winnie asked. “The atmosphere is really freakin big. Try it.”

“I don’t have to. I know where they are. Show me what you’re doing.” Victoria looked at her pointedly.

Resigned, Winnie looked her in the eye and once again put her mind hundreds of miles above them. From up there, the earth’s curves were plain to see. The glowing blue sky was an aura about its surface. She once again began scouring around looking for a single ship supposedly coasting around up there. Even if there were no obstacles to block her view, it was akin to searching for a specific mote of dust on a clean floor.

“First of all,” Victoria said, “you’re looking much too far up. Their elevation is only twenty-eight kilometers, in the ozone layer.”

“I can’t see ozone.”

“Don’t try seeing anything. Sense. You already know how to ignore obstacles in your way. This is the same idea. Looking for a small thing in a big space should not hinder your power. Ignore the distance. That ship is the only thing up here. You should be able to spread your mind over the atmosphere and sense where the ship is.”

Winnie wasn’t sure what Victoria meant, but she tried something. She’d been advancing her own power to understand it wasn’t limited like a camera. It was awareness, just like her lessons had taught her. Her point of view could be omni directional. It could split up. It could read a closed book. It could both see a wall and see through it. Surely she should be able to see a single ship surrounded by miles of nothing.

She closed her eyes and tried—spread her mind, as Victoria had put it. Why not? She imagined a bubble thirty kilometers up in the air, the same size as a bubble created by a child with a bottle of soap and a bubble wand. She expanded this bubble, slowly at first as she made sure she visualized correctly. It was soon the size of a beach ball, then a house, then a stadium. All the while, she tried to sense anywhere the bubble was disturbed. She didn’t look for it. In fact, she made a point of closing off her “camera”. She felt for it like a spider sensing tremors on its web. Once it was the size of a large island, she started to sense pressure upon the bottom of the bubble. It was the thicker atmosphere, pushing on it with its winds and turbulence. Her bubble fluttered like tissue paper, so she stiffened it and expanded it farther. It became flatter as she stretched it, and it umbrellaed over much of Canada and New England before Winnie felt another disturbance. Just like a mote of dust sticking to a bubble. Something skirting the stratosphere had caught.

It was a small ship emblazoned the HIMS Venezia. Skirting through, she counted twelve airmen, and fifteen or so marines. The captain was standing in a minuscule bridge looking over a display table showing their present course. They’d be directly overhead in about twenty minutes, which would explain Victoria’s timetable.

In a cramped ready room off the bridge was High Exemplar Bishop. Winnie had met him before all of this had started. Here he was without his plaque, though he had an assembler-grade tablet and was paging through news articles about hacked glyphs.

“You’re gathering all of your exemplars,” Winnie said.

“So you found them. Show me. How did you do it?”

Winnie met her eyes.

“By touch. Interesting. That’s not what I meant for you to do.”

“It worked.”

“It certainly did. Your power has evolved just now. I can see it.”

“We’re after Bishop, right?”

“I’m after everyone aboard that ship.”

Liat looked up from her wiring work. “Bishop is alive?”

“Yes. Is the radio set up?”

“I think so.”

“Then we’ll get started.” Victoria started tuning the portable radio’s dials.

“If you’re trying to reach them,” Winnie said, “you do see that Bishop is using the internet right now, right?”

Victoria didn’t look up from the dials. “Am I to send them an email to their imperially controlled email addresses? And you expect them to believe me?”


“Put your mind in the bridge, Winnie. Do you see the communications officer?”

Having found the ship once, Winnie was able to return immediately. “Is he the one with the huge headphones?”

“And do you see the short wave receiver frame on his dashboard?”

Winnie did. Victoria set their amateur radio to the same settings.

“Hey, you,” Victoria said. The officer didn’t react.

“Officer Malcolm Ruiz. I am addressing you.”

He hardly blinked. Victoria frowned and fiddled with the scanner.

“No. You got him,” Winnie said. Through eye contact, she conveyed how she’d been listening to the officer’s headphones.

Victoria tried again. “Listen to me, Lieutenant Ruiz. Flag down Exemplar Bishop. Put him on the comm.”

After hesitating, Ruiz opened an editor on his computer and began transcribing an abridged version of Victoria’s words.

“No. Stop that,” said Victoria. “Stop typing.”

He froze.

“Good. Now turn around in your chair. Do it.”

Hesitantly, Ruiz did so.

“Now call out to Exemplar Bishop. He’s in the other room.”

He didn’t.

“Why don’t you just tell him who you are?” asked Winnie.

“They think I’m dead, and the man already thinks this is a trick, but if this idiot would just get me Bishop…” She depressed the broadcast button again. “Call out to the high exemplar now.

Winnie felt that tingle on her neck. Officer Ruiz instinctively opened his mouth to call, yet paused.

Then, “Captain. I’m picking up a strange message on shortwave.”

Victoria pinched the bridge of her nose. Apparently her mysterious command power wasn’t perfect.

Stephano and his XO moved closer. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

“I’m not sure, sir. I think someone is trying to contact High Exemplar Bishop.”

In the other room, Bishop perked up. Thin walls it seemed. He set aside his tablet and came out.

Stephano was studying the comm officer’s console. “Shortwave, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, sir. A.M. It has to be local.”

“Is it repeating?”

“No, it’s live.”

“Let me hear it.”

“Yes, sir.” Ruiz tapped buttons. A gentle static sounded from the console.

“Was there anything more to the message?”

Victoria spoke. “No, Captain. I simply wish to speak to Bishop.”

Everyone on the bridge turned.

“Are we broadcasting, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir.”

“How are they hearing us?”

Ruiz shrugged.

Bishop walked over. “It’s the far seeing glyph, Captain. Be careful. They can see and hear all of us.”

Stephano addressed the air. “Who is this?”

“If you would please put Bishop on the comm, Captain. This is a private conversation.”

Stephano turned to Bishop. “Do you know who they are?”

Bishop shook his head. “They have to be close to Sakhr. He won’t have shared that glyph with many.”

Victoria’s eyes were narrowed. “Sakhr, Bishop? Just how many imperial secrets have you been divulging?”

Bishop stared at the comm with wide eyes. “Give me the headset, Lieutenant.”

Stephano nodded to Ruiz, who passed the headphones over. A few console taps and the conversation was private.

“Who is this?” Bishop asked.

You know who this is,” said Victoria, and there was that same undertone—the one that yanked at Winnie’s attention.

Bishop couldn’t help himself. He laughed a rich, joyful laugh.

“What have you told your men?”

“We’ve told them that we landed to pick up trusted allies,” replied Stephano. “Most of them haven’t seen you or those with you.”

“You didn’t tell them who I am?”

 Stephano took his time answering this. “No, Your Majesty. To be frank, I don’t see why they would believe me. I’m still not sure what I believe myself.”

“I can swap bodies with you again if you like.”

No! No. That’s fine. All I’m saying is I’ve decided to defer to your judgement regarding what to tell my men.”

“I see,” Victoria said. She and Captain Stephano were speaking in the captain’s ready room off the bridge. It was cramped enough that those two alone had their knees bumping together. Add in Stephano’s executive officer Rivera and High Exemplar Bishop, and the meeting was practically a telephone booth stuffing. Real-estate on a supersonic high-altitude vessel was expensive, and the ready room was only meant as a place for the captain to take calls or work privately.

As such, Winnie was not invited, not that it stopped her from listening in. Victoria’s first rule went out the window the moment Winnie learned Victoria’s plans for her daughter. She listened from her assigned rack. It used to belong to one of the marines who’d died on the Capital Tower, which put Winnie sleeping in the midst of a dozen men. Uncomfortable, but the men left her alone after she showed them her exemplar ID.

“We will tell the men,” Victoria said. “Bishop tells me that even they have those blasted hacked plaques. They’ll find out sooner rather than later. Let’s not let rumor complicate things.”

“They may not believe it?” Rivera said.

“They will. Don’t you two believe I’m the queen?”

“Yes,” Stephano said, “but we’ve been working closely with High Exemplar Bishop. It was good enough for me when he vouched for you. The crew don’t know him that well.”

“We will convince them all the same. We can’t expect them to act against the empire without knowing they’re on the correct side. They need to know that the current queen is not their ruler.”

“And who is this imposter, ma’am?” Stephano asked. “Sakhr, right? Bishop tells me he was someone you kept captive in the body of a tortoise, along with others.”

Victoria leveled a gaze at Bishop.

Bishop shrugged sheepishly. “I thought you were dead, Your Majesty.”

“He didn’t tell us enough,” Stephano added. “We’ve been trying to formulate a plan against this person, but he’s a complete unknown. What can you tell us about him?”

“He’s a two thousand year old flair.”

“…I see.”

“He was Nubian, captured at a young age by slavers and sent to Egypt, where he spent years in servitude before discovering his power. Since then, he’s been wandering the earth collecting others like him. He’s careful. He’s paranoid, and he doesn’t like to take chances. At all.”

“Ah. Hmm. And he… if he’s in your daughter’s body, you’re daughter is…”

“A hostage.”

“So alive then?”


Stephano nodded. “That complicates things.” Winnie wondered if he was taking it at face value. If he dwelled on it, he’d come to the troublesome question of: why let your daughter inherit your throne if you can live forever. If he had, he wasn’t asking, just as Victoria hadn’t volunteered the part where she started the war that caused all these problems in the first place.

“What plans did you have before I contacted you?” Victoria asked.

“We didn’t have much of a plan until recently. I believe these hacked plaques represent an opportunity. If we can get our hands on them, we’d be able to communicate the truth about Sakhr to others. Because of the mind reading, there wouldn’t be any doubt as to the veracity of our claims.”

“You would have told the world about Sakhr and body swapping?” She looked at Bishop. “And you went along with this?”

I thought you were dead.”

“I take it these are not secrets you wish divulged?” Stephano asked.

“Not unless absolutely necessary.”

“I understand, ma’am. Do you have a plan?”

“Yes, but we’ll need to pick up a few more people.”

“That’ll be a risk,” Rivera said. “Every time we land this craft, the empire might intercept us. As long as we stay at maximum speed up here, they can’t touch us. Is it possible for us to contact these other parties remotely? We have access to satellite internet. It’s spotty, but it’ll work. The empire can’t take that away from us.”

“No. These people I need to see in person. It will be a long overdue meeting.”

55. The Great Remains

High Exemplar Dosia watched through the airport windows as her shuttle lifted and arced through the air as though thrown by a giant, invisible hand. It was the only plane to take off from this airport in hours, and it was supposed to be her flight from Denver back to Porto Maná—the one she’d spent so long arguing for. The flight attendants had been baffled when once the time came, she told them to send the shuttle off without her.

“There it goes,” she muttered.

Now for a long, long car ride: United States, Mexico, Central America, Columbia, and finally to that small spot against Brazil’s northern border where Victoria had laid her claim. Her last car ride that long was before the Collapse—in her first life. She and a group of her college friends from UC Berkeley had gone on a road trip around the US to see all those great western attractions that made America America: Grand Canyon. Mt. Rushmore. Yellowstone. They must have stopped at a thousand little places to take scenic group photos with their tank tops and large-lensed sunglasses, though she and her friends had hardly paid attention to the scenery except to remark to one another how awesome it was to be out in the Great Plains with each other. Secretly, the trip was mostly for Las Vegas.

Now she’d take a second road trip, across the Great Remains. Even with her current body being no more than forty, she felt too old for it.

At the car rental, she wondered whether her credit card would be rejected. It wasn’t. Of the choices, she got a luxury self-driving drifter, and not just for the pleasure of it. Colorado’s nuclear winter had phased right into old fashioned winter, and with a car that floated half a foot off the ground, she wouldn’t have to worry about the state of the roads, many of which had suffered six years of winter since their last repaving. And she might actually get some sleep while the car took its trip.

It took her embarrassingly long to find the car in the garage. She set the destination for Porto Maná. It informed her that it would require many, many recharge stops. She accepted. It took off.

Once the car was on the road, she called Bishop back.

“I’m on my way now.”

“Not in the shuttle?”

“No. This car says three days. Are you sure about this, Bishop? Three days is a long time for mischief.”

“I know…”

“We don’t even have a plan once we’re there.”

“We’ll have one,” Bishop said. “It’s… in the oven.”

“In the oven?”

“Yes. Baking. I’m sure it will be ready once we’re all there.”

“How about this for a plan,” Dosia said. “We tell people.”

“That’ll just get those people killed. Sakhr has already disposed of a general. You think he won’t dispose of others?”

“Not if we tell everyone.”

“The public?”

“Think about it, Bishop. The high exemplars announce that the princess’s body has been commandeered by an imposter. We win.”

“Meanwhile, everyone loses faith in the throne. The empire crumbles, and the world returns to ruin.”

“Other than letting Sakhr keep the throne, that may be—” She cut off when her car suddenly braked. She looked about. The road she was on was old, made more of asphalt chips frozen in a stew of ice. No other cars were about. Yet her car was pulling over to the side. A banner on the navigation screen indicated that the emergency stop button was pressed.

“What’s wrong?” Bishop asked.

“My car stopped.” She tried the navigation screen. It didn’t respond to her touch.

“It’s them. Get out.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m over a mile and a half from the nearest town. I’d freeze.”

“Dosia, you can’t stay in that car.”

“Of course I can.”

“They’re coming.”

“Of course they are, but not Sakhr. It’s been…” She checked her plaque’s time. “Forty minutes since your talk with them. It has to be a subordinate coming right now. They’ll arrest me. They’ll put their hands on my plaque, and then they’ll see into my mind. The truth is on our side, Bishop.”

“And you’ll reveal everything we’ve ever done for Victoria. Do you think those soldiers will follow you then? When they know about that?”

“I know how to control my thoughts. What else am I to do? Give up? I think not. I will wait right here.” Dosia folded her hands over her plaque and waited as though at a bus stop. There was still no sign of anyone nearby, but she knew the Lakiran military. She’d go from alone to fully surrounded in seconds.

“Your mind is made up, isn’t it?”

“It is. I think. Bishop, you would do well to tell people near you what you know. Knowledge will be our weapon in this—”

The car exploded as a missile collided into it. It launched four minutes ago from a military base in West Virginia. Her destruction was so quick, her senses hadn’t even had time to relay the message of what was happening before her mind was no more. Her last thought was war, nothing else.

“Dosia?” Bishop glanced at his plaque. Still connected. “Dosia. You cut out. What did you say?” Pause. “Can you hear me?”


He checked again. The call window still showed “connected” for another second, then switched to “connecting…”. He waited, but nothing happened. Her car wasn’t moving, so it’s not like she could have entered a dead zone. Sakhr was so obviously behind this, Bishop didn’t bother considering alternatives.

He opened an application on his plaque. It allowed him to track the location of all exemplars and their current status. He searched for Dosia.

Her plaque was unresponsive. A message warned that if a signal was not received in another four minutes, her plaque, wherever it was, would destroy its internal glyphs.

Except it wouldn’t, would it? Because it was already destroyed—by a jet, a missile, or maybe some orbital weapon Bishop was unaware of. If Sakhr had simply remotely wiped her device, this application wouldn’t be trying to ping her plaque as though it should still be reachable. Dosia was dead; he was certain.

Sakhr wasn’t bothering to arrest them. He wouldn’t take a chance like that. Bishop became hyper aware that he was in an office next to a Madrid Barajas airport lounge. Just outside the door were dozens of people crowding around televisions to see what was happening to their world. Outside that were hundreds, if not thousands of people stranded from home. Would Sakhr bomb an airport just to kill one man? Perhaps instead they were watching the GPS coordinates of his plaque, waiting for him to step outside like Dosia had done.

Bishop looked up the others on his plaque. High Exemplar Stone was also unresponsive, even though his plaque had been functioning when Bishop called him twenty minutes ago. That left only Liat. He called her.

She answered. “Yes?”

“He’s killing us.”

“He’s what?”

“He’s not bothering to arrest us. Where are you right now?”

“I’m on a highway north of Syracuse. What’s happening?”

“I was just on the phone with Dosia when we got cut off. Her plaque is unresponsive. So is Stone’s.”

“But how do—hold on.”

“What?” Bishop said.

“Ahh. Just hold on a second. My car is stopping.”

Liat. Get out and run.


“Get out! Dosia’s car stopped too. There is something headed for you right now. Leave your plaque.”

“Bishop. I—”


A rustling came over the phone that Bishop hoped was her tossing the plaque aside. A distant beeping indicated that a car door was open when the engine was still engaged. It wasn’t fading. Good. That meant Liat left her plaque behind. Carrying those things was so second nature to exemplars that she might have taken it without thinking—

And then the call clicked. He looked. After a second, the call window switched to “connecting…”. He checked the exemplar application. Her plaque was listed as unresponsive: four minutes, fifty-two seconds until self termination.

He could only hope that she got far enough away. Now he needed to worry about himself. Should he run? Leave his plaque behind? A lot of people might die if he did that. Tragic, but an acceptable loss in the grand scheme of the empire.

His eyes fell on a microwave oven. In a moment of inspiration, he lunged to it, put his plaque inside, and closed the door.

Would that help? Who knew? Not him. He knew hardly anything about physics, just that microwaves were supposedly Faraday cages that should block radio signals.

At five meters away, a sensor on the plaque should lose connection with a microchip embedded under his collar bone. It would emit a loud beep after ten seconds. If a minute passed without the exemplar coming back into range, it would self-wipe.

No beep came, which mean that signal wasn’t cut. The next indicator would come at thirty seconds if the plaque had lost its GPS signal. That would be a good thing, assuming a missile wasn’t already locked in.

He really should just get away, except he had one last call he needed to make…

“According to her own testimony, Princess Helena was indeed mentally compromised,” General Soto said. “Although fortunately it seems the effect has worn off.”

“I see,” Stephano replied.

“The high exemplars have advised that Princess Helena and all other survivors from the attack be quarantined until the exemplars have had a chance to clear them. The princess has agreed to this as well. It seems she was aware at some level that she was being controlled. Her public appearance will wait until then.”

“And about the person controlling her?”

“We believe they died with the tower collapse. It coincides with their apparent loss of control over their hostages.”

“But surely this matter isn’t closed,” Stephano said.

“It certainly isn’t. However, the exemplars have taken over the case.”

“They have no further explanation as to what happened?”

“Not that they’re sharing with me, and seeing as how they’re handling this as an imperial secret, I don’t expect to learn anything else. They’ll be here in a few hours to supervise the cleanup and rescue operation, and to debrief everyone involved. They want to speak with you and anyone else you’ve talked to about this. You’re to land at Fort Leguan immediately. The flight crew will arrange landing clearance. In the meantime, you’re not to discuss the matter with anyone. Their orders.”

“The exemplars are giving orders now, sir?”

“On this matter, I’ll let them. Just get back here, Captain.”

“Understood, General.”

The called ended. Stephano stared at the call window on the display table. His XO, Rivera, sat across from him. They were together in Stephano’s miniature ready room aboard the Venezia.

“Well, how about that,” Rivera said. “Looks like it all worked itself out just perfectly.”

“With a nice little bow…” Stephano added.

Both knew the conundrum they faced. Compromised. That was the word Victoria had used. They can compromise your mind at a touch, and then you’re the enemy. For such a remarkable problem, compounded by such a national tragedy, this resolution seemed remarkably convenient. It neatly answered every single concern Stephano raised in the message he’d sent to all Leguan officers.

“Do we return?” Stephano asked.

Rivera sighed. “If we don’t, that’s certainly a definitive action. It would be treason.”

“Treason? No.” Stephano shook his head. “Insubordination? Maybe.”

“To what end? You’re not suggesting we live up here forever.”

“We could.” Orbiter class ships were famous for that capability. Between their Stiller power plant, their onboard Food-Ready assemblers, and enough redundancy with internal systems to allow inflight maintenance, Orbiters could theoretically cruise the stratosphere indefinitely. In practice, six months orbital patrol was a maximum. And any damage to the outside of the craft would require landing.

“We could,” Rivera confirmed. “We could live here together for the rest of our lives. I can’t think of a more dreary fate.”

“But why Leguan?” said Stephano. “The High Exemplars could have us land anywhere. Why have us land somewhere that might be… well, compromised?”

“Are you suggesting that Soto himself has been affected? Do you actually think there may be a conspiracy?”

“I don’t know. It seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? The government is being body-snatched.”

“What do you think we should do?”

Stephano stared at the call log. “I suppose we either report, or…”

“Or we condemn ourselves to seeing only each other for the rest of our lives.”

“Well… when you put it like that.” He sighed. “We’ll go.”

They left the ready room and returned to the ship’s bridge. Leguan had already sent up clearance. The flight was on display. “Take us there,” Stephano told the navigator.

“Aye, sir.”

The ship would be turning now. All movement involved using repulse fields to push against the thin atmosphere up here—not much to work with. That meant changes were not perceptible to human senses.

But there was an orbital display. A long line specified the ship’s cruising course over a world map. It disappeared, replaced by a shorter line arcing toward South America. Flight time was two hours, twenty-three minutes.

“Sir?” said Communications Officer Ruiz. “A message just came in for you. It’s flagged as priority.”

Nodding, Stephano checked his tablet. One new message had come in on the military airspace network through the ship’s systems. It originated from the private exemplar network. Encrypted, it prompted him for his credentials when he tried to open it.

He read the message, then did so again. Afterward, he passed his tablet to his XO. Rivera had just long enough to read that the sender was High Exemplar Bishop when Stephano addressed his navigation officer.

“Course change, Lieutenant.”

The orbiter spent nearly thirty minutes braking against the thin atmosphere before it lost enough speed to safely drop into the lower stratosphere.

It reached subsonic speeds just as it came over Spain. As soon as it had flight clearance, it came to a complete halt over a designated landing pad at Madrid Barajas Airport. It’s landing legs came out, and it touched down as gently as though sinking in water.

High Exemplar Bishop watched through the airport terminal, as did many others stranded by the international grounding. A military craft at a civilian airport was a rare sight. The hatch opened. Two soldiers came out to set up the landing stairs. Then came Stephano, followed by his XO and other officers. Bishop only knew Stephano by the rank on his sleeve. So far he’d been only a voice.

Bishop exited the terminal gate door and scurried toward Stephano, moving so hastily that several of the soldiers’ auras tensed. He didn’t care. Even though he was just a few yards from the airport, he felt exposed under the open sky, as though whatever asylum the airport granted him had just expired, and death was now on its way.

“High Exemplar?” Stephano said. “Here I am. You said you’d have—”

Bishop thrust his plaque into Stephano’s hands. Stephano nearly remarked, but then eye contact was made.

For eight long seconds, he looked into Bishop’s eyes.

Then Stephano spoke. “Everyone get back on the ship.”

“Captain?” Rivera asked.

“Now,” Stephano replied. “We’re leaving right now.”

He handed the plaque back to Bishop, who yanked the battery clip out. A loud pop came from within as Bishop tossed it aside. He followed the soldiers aboard.

53. An Airport Lounge

“This is Fort Leguan. State the purpose of your call.”

High Exemplar Bishop practically stumbled over himself lunging for the phone. After hours of call waiting and redirections, he’d nearly given up on ever getting through to someone. Apart from a single request for clarification, all of the message he’d sent to Leguan had resulted in an eerily silent response.

His phone danced in his fumbling hands as he took it off speakerphone. For one gut-wrenching second, he thought he’d hit the disconnect button.

“Hello? Yes. This is High Exemplar Bishop. I have urgent information for General Soto.”

Bishop listened in dread to what he worried was a dead line.

“I’m sorry,” the voice said. “I’m seeing here that you’re calling from an airspace reserved line.”

Still connected. Thank God. “Yes. That’s right. I was grounded at the Madrid Barajas Airport. I wasn’t able to get through on the exemplar voice channel, and this is an emergency.”

Bishop was able to contact the other exemplars without trouble, yet his private line was unable to get through to Leguan. Perhaps if the world weren’t ending all over again, someone could puzzle out why the exemplar’s supposedly priority access to military lines broke down the one time it was actually a priority. “I still need to speak with the General.”

“The General is busy. Call back on the proper networks for verification.”

“I just explained that I can’t. The exemplar channel isn’t working, and I need to speak with the general urgently.”

“We’ve had over two hundred people call during the last hour. All of them have said it’s an emergency.”

“Just tell General Soto that High Exemplar Bishop needs to speak with him urgently concerning…” He glanced at the television. Minutes ago, it had announced the safety of Princess Helena. That meant Sakhr was out of his pod. “… Concerning Princess Helena. That’s all I’m asking.”

The officer hesitated. “Wait a minute.” He put Bishop on hold. This time, Bishop kept the phone to his ear. The window of the private office the airport authority had lent him showed an airport lounge. It was packed due to the international air traffic ban. Pilots and attendants had collected about a television. The news was interviewing someone just a few blocks from the Imperial campus. Bishop couldn’t hear it from here, but it wasn’t information he needed anyway. What mattered was the story going on at Fort Leguan. That was going to decide the future of the empire. That would be what decided, God forbid, Victoria’s legacy.

It still hadn’t sunk in. Victoria—the woman he’d dedicated his life to serving and protecting—was dead. It had never occurred to him that this might happen some day. Technically, he was a free man now. Death was the only way to sever his contract with her, but he’d always figured it would be his death. If there were some way for him to switch places with her, so that it was his life and not hers, he’d take it. What did his life mean anyway? In the natural order of things, he should have died decades ago on a hospital bed. He was supposed to leave his son and daughter with the medical bill for months of fruitless chemotherapy. They, in turn, should have died when the Collapse came.

But none of these things happened because a handsome and powerful woman had walked into his hospital room on the last day of his old life. He had died legally—his kids had a body to mourn—but there were no burdening medical bills. These days, they lived safely in Porto Maná. The last time Bishop checked on them, he was a great grandfather now. Did this turn of events effect them? Maybe, but that was still another life. He lived for Victoria now, even if she was gone.

There was a click on the phone. “This is Soto. Who is this?”

“This is High Exemplar Bishop. I’ve been trying to get through. Have any other high exemplars contacted you yet?”

“No. Have they been trying?”

“Yes. What is the current state of the pods which deployed from the Capital Tower before the explosion?”

“They’ve been opened. The occupants have been taken to the Leguan infirmary for treatment.”

“General, you need to isolate those people from others. I understand that one of them is the queen’s daughters—”

“Yes. Something you neglected to mention in your message.”

So Soto did get that letter.

“Yes,” Bishop said. “However, the people who attacked the tower were using… exemplar technology. It’s similar to the mind-reading tech we employ. Anyone who came in contact with them will be under their control, this includes the people in those pods. This includes the queen’s daughter.”

Exemplar technology?”

“Yes, General.”

There was a long pause. “And what are you proposing I do?”

That was a fantastic question. If Victoria was dead, then the only body-swapper remaining was Sakhr. Would he fix this? Of course not. There wouldn’t be any master glyphs laying around either; Victoria would never take such a chance.

There might not be a way of fixing this. Victoria and her daughter were gone. Sakhr would be in whatever body he pleased. Only Bishop and the other High exemplars even knew who Sakhr was. So if this problem couldn’t be fixed, then what? Should he just tell the general the truth? As unbelievable as it may be?

“High Exemplar?” Soto prompted.

“Keep them isolated. That includes anyone she or the other survivers have been in contact with. Don’t let them know you’re doing it. Don’t lock them up. Just leave them alone where they are.”

“You’ll need to give me a little more to work with than that, High Exemplar. In a short while, the princess will be addressing the public. Are you suggesting I cancel that?”

Jesus, Bishop thought. How much contact have people had with Sakhr? “No. Don’t cancel that.”

“Then what do you mean she’s being controlled? Is the princess a threat or not? Do you know what happened in that tower?”

“The tower was attacked by someone capable of supplanting his mind into other people. I was in contact with Victoria leading up to the explosion. She told me that this person had targeted her daughter, and that she was no longer herself.”

Just like that, the truth was out. It felt like a betrayal, even though Victoria was dead, even though the general would have to know eventually.

“Are you saying someone has taken over the princess’s mind?”

“That is what I’m saying, yes. And this person can supplant himself into others if they come near to him. I cannot stress enough how dangerous this man is.”

“…And what do you want me to do?”

“Unfortunately he’s already out of the pod. The best thing to do is to let him think you know nothing is wrong until the high exemplars can get there. We’ll need you to arrange clearance for us. Don’t let Helena know that we’re coming. And don’t come near her. She and the others in those pods are capable of reading minds just like an exemplar.”

“The other two who were in those pods were suffering from lethal cases of radiation poisoning. I don’t think they’ll be reading any minds at all.”

“But anyone they’ve been in contact with may.”

“That’s a lot of people, High Exemplar.”

“I know, General. Just avoid them if you can. Don’t come into physical contact with anyone. High Exemplar Stone will be there soon. He’ll know who is and isn’t affected. Liat, Dosia, and I will be there tonight.”

“How many high exemplars are coming?”

“I… all four of us, General. We’ll send along our flight plans.”

“Good. Keep in contact.”

“I will. And remember. Don’t go near her or anyone else who has.”

“I understand, High Exemplar.”

The call ended.

Bishop set the phone down and stared at the desk.

General Soto had not known that there were only four High Exemplars.

Everybody knew that.

Well, everybody in the military. Or anyone who knew anything about their empire’s government. Basically, everyone who’d been around for the last six years should. They’d have to have been living under a rock to miss that fact… or in a terrarium.

And Bishop just outlined everything he knew to the general. He hoped he’d hidden his surprise when Soto made his slip, or whoever that was. Was it Sakhr? No. From what Bishop knew of him, he would still be in Helena. Sibyl? Of course not; no guile. So he was just talking to Christof or Alexander.

If General Soto was already one of them, then what hope did the high exemplars have?

He had to contact the other exemplars immediately. They were arranging flights to return to Porto Maná, but there was no chance in hell they could risk being on those planes.

He picked up his plaque and accessed the exemplar private network. Internally at least, it still worked.

Christof disconnected the phone and set it down. For a while he stared at it, avoiding glancing to where Alex sat in a leather chair opposite the desk Christof had just inherited. Not that it mattered. As agreed, he’d been looking Alex in the eyes through most of that talk. He might as well get it over with. He looked.

The feet of Alex’s teenage body barely reached the floor. It was as though Christof had brought him in under some bring-your-daughter-to-work premise.

Alex winced.

“I only said what you told me,” Christof said.

“You did…” Alex replied, “I suppose I should have mentioned there were only four high exemplars.”

“He might not have caught it,” Christof said.

Alex smiled and shook his head at how incorrigible Christof could be. Of course Bishop had caught it. Christof knew it. Alex knew it. It didn’t even deserve a response.

“You know what this really means, right?” Alex said.


“The conspiracy runs much deeper than we ever thought. It’s a shame, really. Victoria depended on her high exemplars so much. And now it turns out all four of them were involved in the coup.”

Christof said nothing.

“How deep do you think it’ll go?” Alex asked. “How many do you think were involved?”

Christof still said nothing.

“Come on, Christof. You know what we have to do. So go ahead.”

Christof picked up the phone again and dialed an internal number. It contacted an officer a few rooms away.

“Yes, General?”

“Track down the exact locations of all high exemplars.”

47. An Unspeakable Plan

Victoria called Captain Stephano.

“Your Majesty?”

“Inform your men that the targets may potentially be armed.”

“Do you know with what?”

“Explosives most likely. I’ll have more details for you before your men move in.”

“Understood.” He frowned. “Are you… in the tower right now?”

“I am.”

“I recommend you evacuate, ma’am.”

Victoria smiled patiently.

“I see no reason why you should take any such risk remaining there. Especially if this enemy has access to explosives.”

“Thank you for your concern, Captain. I’ll take it into consideration.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She disconnected him.

Bishop was still on the line. “He’s right, Your Majesty.”

“Oh, don’t you start too.”

“You can coordinate just as well from a shuttle.”

“I will not be run out of my own home by a few ruffians bumbling about in the upper floors. They won’t blow themselves up just to hurt me.”

“This is no time to be brave, ma’am. If anything should happen to you—”

“Fine. Hold on.” She motioned for Captain Gandara. “Have a craft prepared and ready to go in the shuttle bay.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Gandara got to work.

Victoria spoke to Bishop. “I’ll take it if the situation gets out of hand.”

“I suppose that will have to do. Thank you.”

The call ended, and Victoria pondered. Sakhr would have explosives soon. He didn’t know yet that they wouldn’t help him get out of the tower. Even if he managed to destroy some wall bots surrounding the tower, other wall bots would replace them before anyone could move through, but explosives did mean Sakhr might get in this control room.

She checked the time. Twenty-eight minutes until Stephano could deploy marines with old gen wall bots. When that moment came, the first one set up would lock the stairwell down. If Sakhr moved before then, it’s not like he could take Victoria by surprise. She’d be gone before any real threat came her way.

It all depended on what Quentin made with that fuser. She’d forgotten about those prototypes. Once again, Quentin was full of himself. He had not designed them. A team of dedicated scientists developed them using theoretical techniques Quentin once described. He did one percent of the work. At best. And he spoke of that Stiller generator as if it was his idea, as though power plants around the world weren’t already pushing hydrogen together years before she imprisoned him. And obviously they’d be restricted. The empire was already having problems with rebels using hacked Food-Ready assemblers to create everything from explosives to nerve gas.

But no, he thinks she shelved the prototypes because of her greed. It had nothing to with how those machines could build nuclear weapons.

Quentin had been out for only twenty minutes and he was already getting on her nerves. He always had. Her scouts found him in Michigan State College decades ago. To everyone else, he’d been an unremarkable student slowly dropping out, but her scouts saw his flair. When he actually tried, his engineering and science courses came effortlessly to him, but he rarely did. She’d offered him a job to the amazement of everyone—from the LakiraLabs hiring board to Quentin’s parents. Her idea was to give him a lab, a hefty paycheck, and a team of scientists and let him do what he wanted without tying him down with busywork. He might innovate any of endless ideas dormant in his skull.

It worked, barely. After four years of sick days, complaints, pointless projects, and a staggering number of excuses, he finally outlined something worthwhile: repulser fields. He’d claimed it took him all four years, but she saw in his mind that it took him only days.

It’d been worth it. Repulser fields changed LakiraLabs from an obscure private company into a household name. Unfortunately, Quentin’s next twelve years were a waste. He’d claim credit for every improvement on repulser fields LakiraLabs scientists ever developed just because he’d have doodled the idea once. The worst part was that she was stuck with him. A glyph of his flair only marginally affected other engineers.

Over time, he and Victoria argued more over compensation and results. He frequently accused her of stealing his invention, never caring that she had supported him, funded him, and managed the entire business his invention required. It’d nearly came as a relief when he tried to leave to “start his own company and get the credit he deserved.” Putting him in a tortoise was a weight off her mind.

Of course now he finds initiative, now that he was pitted against her.

But then spite always was the best motivator.

“Ma’am?” Captain Gandara approached her cautiously.


“The security staff keep requesting information about our situation. They want to know if they should evacuate. What should I tell them?”

That seemed to her a timid way of asking what was going on. “How many people are in the tower?”

“Just resident staff, ma’am. Forty or fifty people.”

She considered this. “Go ahead and evacuate floors eight and below. No one above that floor.” She paused. “And send people to barricade the eighth floor stairwell door. I expect our intruders may try to use explosives on it.”

He nodded and turned back to the screen. His aura swelled with frustration, but he’d survive.

She turned her thoughts back to Sakhr…

Alex and Sakhr booted up the next two fuser assemblers. The workshop room was awash with packing peanuts by the time they were done. Quentin would pull himself away from his assembler designs long enough to check that the new machines were operating correctly.

Everyone was busy when Sibyl and Christof came in.

“Something is going on outside,” Christof said. “Little things are floating around outside the tower. They’re forming a perimeter.”

“Wall bots.” Quentin spoke without looking up from his work. “They’re supposed to stop us from walking out of here, but we still can. Don’t worry. I expected this. We’ll be fine.”

“What are wall bots?” Sakhr asked.

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll see when we get there.”

“There’s more,” Sibyl added. “There are noises in the stairwell. Sounds like construction.”

“They’re reinforcing the doors,” said Sakhr, “buying time.”

“But surely we expected this,” said Christof. “If anything, this just proves that whatever she’s planning, we’ll at least have time to use the explosives first.”

“We can’t assume that,” said Sakhr. “She’s just being careful.”

“Doesn’t matter what they’re doing down there,” Quentin said. “Won’t work. Not against these explosives.” He looked up in thought. “Unless of course they’re fixing the doors with repulse bracers…” He chewed at his lip, then shrugged. “Hell. They can reinforce them all they want. We’ll just blow a hole in the floor somewhere on the ninth floor.”

Don’t say that out loud,” Christof said. “Now she knows.”

“What’s she going to do? Reinforce the entire ceiling?”

“She can plan for that though.”

“Yeah? So?” said Quentin. “Just get used to her knowing our plans. I’m not taking a vow of silence.”

Christof considered this. He turned to the others. “He’s right. Even if we get out of here, what are we going to do? We can’t hide. Can we outrun her?”

“We have hostages,” Sakhr said. “We have her daughter. We have many of her… flairs.” He seemed to dislike that word. “She can’t risk losing them, or she loses her damned glyphs.”

“But she will be watching,” replied Christof. “She’ll always be watching. Sooner or later, we’ll slip up.”

“Then we’ll find some place to go where she can’t follow.”

“Does such a place exist? You said she’s queen of the world now.”

“Nah,” said Quentin. “She just calls herself that. Half the world still fights her. There are plenty of places to go.”

Alex shook his head. “Not anymore! She owns the world now.”

“How do you know?”

He tapped his forehead. “I skimmed glimpses from our caretakers.”

“Then what do we do?” Christof said. “If she’s all powerful, do we stand a chance?”

“She’s not all powerful,” Sakhr replied. “We’ll figure something out. We’ll… keep moving. We’ll get a ship and fly. How long can a ship fly for?”

“Actually,” Quentin patted the assember, “If we get a ship with a Stiller generator, we could fly forever. ”

“Well, we can’t anymore,” Alex said, “now that you said it out loud. She’ll make sure we never get one. We need to stop talking.”

Sakhr spoke. “We can’t avoid discussing our plans.”

“We communicate in other ways. Say… how about telepathy?”

“You’re the only telepath here.'”

“Yes, but it can work. Let’s say you come up with an idea. Instead of saying it, you convey it to me mentally. I can communicate to the others by telling them stray details. They can imagine what the plan is, and I’ll adjust their thinking by saying Yes or No. They’ll figure it out eventually. Anton and I used to do this. It takes practice, but it works, and nobody except me and the person I’m reading has any idea what I’m talking about.”

“So every plan must pass through you?” Sakhr said. “I must trust you to convey our plans to everyone? No.”

Christof pointed to the unknown tortoise in Sibyl’s hand. “Maybe he can help.”

“Who is he?” asked Sakhr.

“He’s the man Victoria stole glyph writing from. If he can make glyphs of Alex’s power, then we can all communicate telepathically.”

Alex sat up. “Wait just a minute—”

Sakhr cut him off. “We have the original glyph maker?”

“I’m certain it’s him,” said Christof.

Sakhr looked at Alex. “And you thought he wouldn’t be helpful?”

“I never said that,” replied Alex. “I said he’d be a liability. He won’t want to help us. Not on short notice anyway.”

“I see…” said Sakhr.

“Listen,” Quentin said. He chewed at his nail thoughtfully. “What if I had a plan? Would you all trust me enough to do it?”

“Do you have one?”

“I might. It’s kind of a long shot, but it might work.”

“What is it?”

Quentin didn’t answer. Instead he stared directly at Alex. They shared eye contact.

Alex burst out laughing. “Yes! I love it. We’re doing it.”

Sakhr looked from one to the other. “What? What is the plan?”

Quentin ignored Sakhr and maintained eye contact. “But answer my questions.”

Alex stared back and answered Quentin’s unspoken queries. “Yes… Yes… No, I’m pretty sure of that…” He smiled “Yes. Sakhr can promise that.”

“Promise what?” Sakhr asked, annoyed. “What is this plan?”

Alex looked at him. “It’s a plan that will work, but it’ll work better if we keep it to ourselves. We’ll talk about the promise later, but you would agree to it.”

“And I’m supposed to be content with that? Letting you make promises on my behalf? Putting my life on the line for a plan I don’t know?

“You will if you want to get out of here. I’ve seen the plan. Trust me.”

“I don’t trust you.”

Christof spoke. “And I’m not sure I’m comfortable with any plan that makes Alex laugh like that.”

“We don’t have time to be picky,” answered Alex. “I’ve seen this plan. It’s a good one. Regardless of what you all think of me, I want to get out of here too. So for once in your lives, trust that I’m right. And if not me, trust that our new friend here knows what he’s doing. Okay?”

Sakhr’s expression was somewhere between suspicion and contemplation, but he nodded. Christof and Sibyl gave their consent.

“So what do we do?” asked Sakhr.

After Alex and Quentin shared eye contact, Alex said, “First, we get these machines downstairs.”


“No questions. Let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do, and no telling how much time to do it.”

46. Sems and Clems

Sakhr and the others split up to find the other assemblers, although he made sure that everyone stayed within Sibyl’s Empath range.

Alex found a pair on his own. Before heading back, he sat down in the hall with Winnie and Helena. Alone here, he held Helena up to look her in the eyes. Winnie would have tried slipping away again while he was distracted, except that Alex had set her on the floor upside down. Every time she got close to righting herself, he’d casually pushed her back over. She had just about resigned herself to this dizzying position when Alex set Helena down and picked her up. He studied her just as he had Helena.

Telepath, Winnie remembered. She shut her eyes.

“Ooh,” Alex said. “I saw that. You know what’s going on, don’t you?”

Winnie pulled into her shell and covered her face with her feet.

He shook her. “Come on. Open up. Let’s have a look at you.”

She didn’t respond. Suddenly, she was falling. Startled, she opened her eyes and jolted. Alex caught her just before she hit the ground. His gaze immediately locked onto hers.

She covered up again.

So Alex dropped her again. This time she kept her face covered, trusting her flair to see. Alex was keeping his arms poised to catch her each time, hence she was in no real danger, even if her heart leaped each time he did it.

Then the light on the assemblers changed. Their hum stopped, then started again sounding differently. Lights around the edges were pale red. Noticing this, Alex collected Helena and Winnie and returned to the others.

Quentin, who’d remained by the first machines, was swearing and stabbing his fingers on their touch screens. All but a few buttons were gone from the menu.

“Stop.” Quentin stabbed another button. A padlock symbol in the upper right flashed.

“Stop!” Another button. “Cancel.”

Another button, another flashing padlock.

“Damnit!” He banged the machine.

The others returned.

“What’s going on?” asked Sakhr.

“The machines are reclamating.”


“They’re reclaiming assembled resources, destroying what they were making. Someone accessed the machines remotely.”

“Is there anything you can do to stop it?” asked Christof.

“Good idea. I should do that instead of banging on it uselessly. Is that what you’re saying?”

“If people are controlling this remotely,” Sakhr said, “why can’t you just disconnected it from the network?”

“Oh. My. God. You have no idea how technology works. You think the Lakiran empire would let people use these things offline? If the cloud servers disconnect you, your machine won’t even know how to assemble.”

“And you knew this could happen?” asked Sakhr.

“This is not my fault. There’s no way I could have known they’d lock the machines two minutes after we started using them.”

“You just said they have central control over them. Can’t they see what the machines are doing?”

“Yeah. If they have the server logs open and are actively looking at them. They’d have to already know we were using them first.”

Pausing, Sakhr looked along the ceiling of the hallway. “Then how did they know? I’ve seen no cameras on this floor.”

“She doesn’t need them,” Alex answered. He held up Winnie. “I took some time to look into our tiny friends. I think this little one right here is the explanation.”

“Who is that?” Sakhr asked.

“It’s the little Asian girl who so kindly lent me her body. She has the power to see and hear remotely. Haven’t seen how it works yet, but from what she knows,” he tapped Helena, “Victoria can see anything, anywhere, anytime she wants.”

“So she’s been watching us every step of the way?”


Sakhr pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered something in another language. He eventually looked up. “We need another plan then. And quickly.”

“But she’ll know what it is,” said Christof.

“I know. We’ll just have to move faster than she can react.” He looked around. “Quentin. Do you think you could make explosives from something else? Maybe from things laying about?”

“Depends on what we find.”

“Then we do that. Everyone split up and search. We’re looking for chemicals, electronics, anything that might be useful.” He sighed. “Anything at all.”

Victoria was mulling through strategies. The last time she captured Sakhr, she’d had mercenaries in hazmat suits with her. She could try that again, but if it failed, it would fail spectacularly. It would be safest if she had time to wait for her high exemplars.

Unfortunately, none of them could get here in time. She had ordinary exemplars nearby, but they had no idea who Sakhr was. More importantly, they didn’t have shields.

Victoria considered waking Sara. If that girl could draw up extra shields for her… But no. Even if that was a good idea, Victoria would need to supply Sara with a master glyph, and that just wasn’t possible right now.

That left only non-glyph solutions. It had to be military.

She called Bishop back. It rang four times.

“I’m here.”

“Have you made my arrangements?” Victoria asked.

“Standard wall bots should be arriving outside now.”

“And the orbiters?”

“That’s a little more tricky. Their flight trajectories were set so they’d be over West Europe. They’re redirecting, but it’ll take almost two hours before they can get a reliable overhead window.”

“Why so long?”

“They’re going really quickly in one direction. Now they’ll need to go just as quickly in another. To change that much speed, they’ll need to come into the lower stratosphere. It’s almost as bad as landing and taking back off. But you will have windows before that. One orbiter will pass near the capital in thirty-five minutes. He’ll have a four minute window in which to deploy. Then there’ll be another about forty minutes after that, but that orbiter won’t have old gen wall bots. It’s just a patrolling orbiter.”

“Thirty-five minutes, and then seventy-five minutes…”

“It’s bad, Your Majesty. I know. The air force doesn’t trail orbiters over the homeland that much.”

“I know…”

“The marines won’t know anything about the situation they’re going into, will they?” she asked.

“I didn’t tell them. What would you like me to say?”

She considered. “Nothing. I want to talk with whoever is in charge of the thirty-five minute orbiter.”

“Yes, ma’am. Here is the contact info.”

A chime in her phone indicated incoming information.

“Stay on the line,” she told him.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She examined the info. Captain Stephano was the CO aboard the HIMS Venezia. She called the number.

“This is Captain Stephano.”

“Captain. This is your queen.”

A pause. “How can I serve you, Your Majesty?”

“You’ve been redirected to pass over Porto Maná. I understand you’ll be ready to deploy in thirty-five minutes.”

“That’s correct, ma’am.”

“And you have old gen wall bots?’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do your men know how to use them?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what do you know of your assignment?”

“We’re to be ready to deploy onto the Capital Tower within our window, and await further instructions.”

“And here they are. There are enemy agents inside the Tower. It will be up to your men to apprehend them. Unfortunately, they have hostages, including my daughter.”

“I see.”

“High Exemplar Bishop informs me that you have nonlethal means of incapacitating targets.”

“Yes, ma’am. Our electric flechettes.”

“You’ll be using those. Under no circumstances are your men to kill anyone.”

She paused. Should she issue that order? This problem could be solved much more easily if she had a sniper shoot Sakhr before anyone came in. Then the marines wouldn’t need to do anything special. It was, after all, her refusal to kill him in the first place that allowed this to happen. Was the risk really worth the remote chance his power could be evolved further?

But then he wasn’t about to get out of Helena’s body either, and that she couldn’t kill.

Anyone. Is that clear?

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t kill anyone.”

“This includes animals.”

“Animals, ma’am?”

“They took my tortoises out of their enclosures. And I don’t…” she sighed, knowing how ridiculous this sounded, “…I don’t want them hurt. They’re important to me.”

“Understood, ma’am. We’ll look out for the tortoises.” He sounded entirely professional about it too. Victoria would remember this man.

“And there’s another complication.” She thought about how to put this. “Your men cannot come into physical contact with anyone.”


“One of the hostiles is using technology similar to that used by exemplars. They are capable of… compromising anyone they touch. Once compromised, the victim must be treated as a hostile. All of the hostages, including my daughter, have been compromised in this way.”

“If we can’t touch anyone, how are we supposed to apprehend them?”

“They require skin to skin contact. Make sure your marines are covered. Use your wall bots to section off the tower floors. Most of the hostages will not be able to compromise your men, and I can tell you which ones are dangerous and which are not, but I won’t be able to do that until the time comes. So I will need to be in contact with you and your men during the strike. Do you understand so far?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Will your deployment pods be capable of carrying away hostages after you’ve incapacitated them?”


“Then I’ll arrange for those pods to deliver to a secure location, where everyone will be quarantined and kept separated until we can sort this out. This includes your men.”


“And remember. You must treat the hostages as hostiles. Once compromised, they are effectively mind-controlled. Your men must be ready to incapacitate anyone I tell you to, even if its your own men.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Get your men ready. I’ll call you with more details soon.”

Victoria disconnected him. “Bishop? Did you get all that?”

“I did,” Bishop said.

“Then you heard about the need for quarantine. Make it happen.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bishop stayed on on the line as he worked.

Victoria focused her mind back on Sakhr…

“It’s not going to work,” Sakhr said.

“You don’t know that,” Alex said. “This is the glyph maker machine.”

They watched as Quentin worked the console to the plaque assembler. He’d opened a saved file, which displayed a glyph on the screen. The only option was to send it to the assembler, which he’d pressed. The machine hummed. A progress screen was delayed.

“But the glyph will be useless,” Sakhr replied. “If you remember, she always had to finish the glyphs. Look.” He hit the back button, returning to the displayed glyph. Picking up the stylus, he doodled across the image. “See? It’s not done. She kept bringing us up here because she needed to see us before she finished it.”

“Okay,” Quentin said, “but it might not be entirely useless. Look at those. What the hell is going on inside there?” He peered through the glass as a robotic arm applied explosive gel to the back of the silicon glyph wafer. “There’s got to be something useful we can do with this.”

He didn’t recognize what the gel was for. Winnie would have to make sure they didn’t learn that from her. That meant not letting Alex look her in the eyes.

“What about these?” Christof was standing by three crates in the workshop room, the ones labeled as military property. “Military. Might be something good in here.”

“Let’s see.” Sakhr and Christof pried the lid of a crate. After they pulled away the side panels, packing peanuts flooded out. There was the same clunky machine Winnie had seen earlier that day. It seemed so long ago. In the light, she got a better idea of how it looked. It was like something teenagers might throw together in their garage. Its circuitry was housed inside what looked like a retrofitted footlocker. The reception pan stuck out side like an open car door. Every nut and bolt was plain to see.

“Quentin?” Sakhr asked. “Do you know what this is?”

Quentin looked it over. “It looks like an old assembler.”

“Do you know why it this would be military property?”

“No. It looks like it should be in a museum.” He tapped a tablet plugged into the device by USB. It lit. “It’s a modern tablet though, isn’t it.” He opened an app and paged through its menu.

“Is this something that can help us right now?” Sakhr asked.

“Probably not. It doesn’t look like it’s hooked up to the assembler cloud. Either it’s really old…”

He trailed off, frowning at a particular page. Then he grinned. “Oh my God. Seriously?”


“It’s a fuser.” Excitedly, he skirted over the assembler until finding the footlocker circuit box. He popped it open and poked through.

“What’s it do?” asked Christof.

“It’s something I designed before Victoria put me in the zoo. It’s like an assembler, except better.”

“Better how?”

Quentin flipped a switch inside the box back and forth. Nothing happened. He left, fetched a power cable from a lamp in the other room, and returned. “So most assemblers work with micro-sems inside of them, right? Once they’ve constructed a molecule, they pass it along to macro-assembly.”


“Micro Assemblers. Look. How much do you know about microfield technolog—oh, right. Grandparents.” He stripped the power cable, exposing bare copper. “Okay. Assemblers work by having billions of tiny, tiny robots that work on individual molecules. Then they push them together or tear them apart to make other molecules. Then they pass them along to bigger robots who take those molecules and make bigger chunks. Who pass them on to bigger robots, and so on, until you have robots the size of your fist that put together the final product.” He patted the assembler’s reception bin. “Got it?”


“This one is a little different. It does everything that other assemblers can do, except it also has robots that are so tiny, and so precise, that they can actually push atoms together to make different atoms.”

He attached the power cable to something inside the circuit box. “It makes the assembler a thousand times more useful. Take ordinary assemblers, right? They can make all sorts of things, literally out of thin air. It pulls its carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen from CO2 and humidity. Then it puts them together to make synthetic fabrics and foods and all sorts of stuff, but that’s it. If you want something made of iron or silicon, or any metal, you need to supply those elements to the assembler with little cartridges. This thing can make all those heavier elements from the same air. It doesn’t need anything.”

He plugged the other end of the cable into the wall. “The best part is this looks like it has a Stiller generator. Assemblers use ungodly amounts of power. This thing even more so, but it should be able to reclaim the power released whenever it pushes molecules together. It basically makes power out of humidity using the same principle that microfusion plants use. But the microassemblers in this fuse a lot more than just hydrogen. All this assembler needs…” He flipped the switch inside the circuit box again. This time, lights came. Cooling fans hummed. “…Is a little jump start.”

Quentin took up the tablet and got to work.

“If this thing is so wonderful, why is it locked in here?” asked Alex.

“Victoria is greedy,” replied Quentin. “She likes to hoard her technology. I’ll bet that even today, no market assembler can make another assembler. Even years after the war, she kept all the food-ready assemblers under contract-only release. Unauthorized use of one was a felony. And this?” Quentin tapped the machine. “She locked all my notes on fuser assemblers away. She didn’t want anyone making these. I’m surprised she built these.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised she figured out how without me. Her scientists aren’t much better than monkeys in lab coats. I made her business empire for her.”

“Can it help us?” asked Sakhr impatiently.

“I think so. It looks like it’s got a debug build of the designer. Shouldn’t need access to the assembler library. The downside? It doesn’t have access to the assembler library. I’ll have to design everything we use from scratch.”

“What can you make?”

“Anything simple.”


“Sure. I can make better ones now actually.”

“Then do that.”

Quentin got to work on the tablet. He glanced at the other two crates. “Are those other ones? You guys should probably get them booted. Did you all see what I did?”

No one responded.

“Of course not,” Quentin mumbled. “Hey. Telepath girl.”

Alex had been fiddling with his stolen sidearm. “Referring to me?”

“Eye contact right?” He stared Alex in the eye. “You can get the other machines going. Do you see what I need you to do?”

“I’m not seeing a ‘please’.”

“Alex,” Sakhr warned, “help him.”

Alex smiled winsomely at Sakhr. “Absolutely.”

44. Fault Detected

“And the orbiters are in position,” Bishop said.

Victoria nodded. “Good.”

They were now more prepared to capture Josephine when she did inevitably land. The old model wall bots those orbiters carried probably wouldn’t come up. The newer models could still deploy faster and without human interaction, but it was nice to have the alternative. Wherever Josephine landed, whether in open field or a covered building complex, the military would be ready.

Between all options at Victoria’s disposal, she couldn’t think of a way that Josephine could outwit her. Even with Tan and his erratic flying, Victoria had already won.

…or Victoria just hadn’t figured out what they were doing yet. Her mind was admittedly foggy. She glanced over at Willow. The hawk was sound asleep.

She really should do the same. Even if just to lay down for an hour, it would help. Nothing else was going on. Bishop would notify her the moment Josephine’s ship started descending, that’s if Victoria wasn’t already aware through her own constant tracking. More importantly, she couldn’t afford to be drowsy.

“I think, Bishop, I might actually turn in for a bit.”

“A good choice, Your Majesty. I will watch them. You’ll have your phone on you?”

“Yes. Regardless of whether they do something, I want you to wake me in…” She brought up her phone’s screen. There was the notification. She vaguely recalled it coming up before. Unlocking her phone, she read the message.

"Office terrarium 00:12, Nov 13th 2055: Fault detected."

For a second, her mind couldn’t make sense of those words. It just puzzled them, even though she recognized it as a warning she’d typed long ago, for a threat she hadn’t considered in ages.

She snapped into focus. Her mind was in her office at the tower top. The lights were off, but she still saw the cage. The front was caved in. Marzipan was missing. Who? Who in the hell would have let him free?

The answer came immediately, and as much as she wanted to choke the life out Helena’s skinny little neck, this wasn’t the time. That notification came almost forty minutes ago. That’s a hell of a head start. Where would Sakhr go?

Her mind jumped to the conservatory reptile section. One dead tortoise was on the walkway. Several were missing from their enclosure.

Damn it all.

Her mind raced about.

The lobby. The grounds. The shuttle bay. The rooftop. The security suites. The elevators.

The elevators.

There they were.

“Your Majesty?” Bishop asked. “When should I wake you?”

She spun to Captain Gandara. “Shut down the elevators now.”

“In… this building, Your Majesty?”


Sakhr and all his fellow escapees were in the elevator sliding down the side of the Capital Tower. It stopped, smoothly and without any jarring, and then nothing. Sibyl pressed buttons. Still nothing.

Winnie’s relief was profound. Somewhere, someone had found out. If it wasn’t Victoria, she would know soon enough.

“Well, there you go,” Alex said. “What twenty more seconds would have gotten us.”

Sakhr grunted.

“We should probably get out of the elevator,” Christof said.

“Yes. Help me.” Sakhr handed Helena to Sibyl and pried at the elevator door. Christof joined, but it wouldn’t budge. Quentin shouldered to the button panel and opened a small compartment. He flicked a switch, and the doors popped. Sakhr and Christof easily slid them open.

“Did your power tell you that?” asked Christof.

“No. My rudimentary knowledge of elevators did. How come none of you knew?”

“I don’t remember elevators having switches like that.”

“All repulse elevators do. How long were you all in tortoises?”

“Long enough,” Sakhr’s tone ended the conversation. The elevator was stopped midway between two floors. One by one, each climbed out into an office hallway.

Sakhr led them to the stairs. He started heading down.

Christof hesitated. “They’re going to have people waiting for us.”

“They may, but they won’t hurt us. Not in these bodies.”

“But they can apprehend us.”

“They won’t come near me. Victoria knows I’d just swap bodies. Therefore, they can’t come near any of us.”

Alex spoke. “Perhaps you’re forgetting about the hazmat suits they wore when they put us in tortoises in the first place.”

“I’m not forgetting,” Sakhr replied testily, “but we don’t have a choice. If we stay here, we will encounter those hazmat suits again, but they only just shut down the elevators. That means they’ve only now realized we’re loose. Our best chance of escaping is if we move right now before she organizes. Now, come along.”

He resumed down the stairs. The others followed.

Six floors down, the stairwell ended on floor eight. Sakhr tried the door. It didn’t budge.

He turned to Quentin. “Do you know this building? Is there another stairwell?”

“Yeah, but it’ll end on this floor too. It’s the security floor. Everyone coming and going gets screened here.”

“Are the doors normally locked?”

Quentin shrugged. “I don’t know. I never used the stairs before, but I wouldn’t think so. Seems like a fire hazard.”

“Can we can break this down?”

Quentin’s eyebrows raised. “Does it look like you can?”

A mere glance at its steel frame was enough to answer that.

“What about any—”

“Who’s there?” a voice yelled through the door.

Sakhr yelled back. “This is Princess Helena. Is this door supposed to be locked?” His accent was less pronounced.

“Tower’s just gone into lockdown, Your Highness. I can’t let anyone through.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Don’t know, but something. You should probably wait upstairs. It’ll be over soon.”

“But I need to get out now. Surely the lockdown doesn’t apply to me.”

“Sorry, ma’am, but the lockdown came from the queen herself. Nobody is passing, not even you.”

Sakhr glanced at the others. “Is my mother in the building?”

“She’s in the security headquarters downstairs.”

“Good to know,” Sakhr muttered. He looked at the corners of the stairwell ceiling. “Let’s assume her eyes are on us through every camera in the building.”

Winnie knew Victoria didn’t need cameras, but there was no reason to correct them.

“Quentin,” he continued, “are you sure there is no other way to the lower floors?”

“Nope. Each security floor has separate stairs and elevators. Everyone goes through the lobbies.”

“How many security floors are there?”

Quentin considered. “Just two, I think. This one, and the ground floor one.”

Christof spoke. “I remember when we first came here, we landed in some kind of garage on a higher floor.”

“The docking bay, yeah. Floor eight. That’s why security is on this floor, but now that I think about it, Victoria has a personal bay on the roof.”

“Is somebody with you?” said the voice through the door. Everyone ignored it.

“Will there be a ship we can use?”

“Maybe,” replied Quentin.

“Then let’s go.”

“Captain, is my personal hopper still on the roof?”

Victoria had already confirmed with her mind that it was, but not asking would raise questions. Winnie’s power was not public knowledge.

A guard seated at a security terminal pulled up a view of the roof. Captain Gandara peered over his shoulder. “Yes, it is, Your Majesty.”

“Is it possible for someone to steal it?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure, ma’am. Are there intruders inside the building?”


“Then we should contact the police?”

“Just answer my question. Can someone steal it?”

“I’m, uh…” Gandara looked at the officer seated at the console. “Do you know?”

The officer answered. “Possibly, Your Majesty. If someone got inside, they could boot up the craft’s systems, but it won’t let them fly anywhere without the key fob.”

“Is such a key on the imperial floors?”

“Possibly, but even if they found one, they’d be restricted to grid travel unless they had remote clearance to use the engines.”

“And who can grant clearance?”

“That’s us, ma’am. We register all non-grid flights with the military and the Lakiran Airspace Division.”

“Is there anyway around that?”

“No, ma’am. Clearance has to come through us—me, actually.”

“Very well.” That answered that concern. If Sakhr managed to get inside, at least they couldn’t fly anywhere, unless they were dumb enough to try grid travel. Then she could have LAD flag that craft and keep it indefinitely suspended in the air until she was ready to deal with them. Too bad Quentin would know better.

All this imperial hopper business did was buy her time—time she should be using.

She grabbed her phone and strode from the communications room. In a closed office, she put it to her ear.


“I’m here, ma’am. What’s going on over there?”

“Sakhr is loose.”

What? How?”

“I don’t know. We’ll sort it out later. This takes priority over Josephine.”

“Of course.”

“Right now they’re wasting time getting to my hopper. Where are the other high exemplars? Get them back here.”

“I’ll tell them, but they won’t get there for hours.”

“How are you so sure?”

“I checked when you asked earlier. Stone is in Argentina. Dosia left for Denver. Liat had to—”

“Forget it.” The timing of this unfortunate accident was infuriating. She envisioned Josephine’s craft floating miles above the Sahara. There might still be time for her afterward, but this came first.

“Get a swarm of wall bots surrounding the Capital Tower,” she said, “and have the orbiters change route. I want them over the tower as soon as possible.”

“For the old generation wall bots, ma’am?”


“They’re already at full speed in the stratosphere. It might take time before any of them can redirect enough to get over the tower.”

“Well, do it. I’ll call you back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She returned to the control room. The people there stood about.

“Captain,” she said. “The military will be deploying wall bots around the tower. No one will be coming or leaving. Inform whoever needs to know.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He jumped to the phone. His aura was tense and confused. She could sense how badly he wanted to ask what this was all about. Too bad for him, there was no need for him to know about Sakhr. She visualized the stairwell once again.

The group stumbled onto the roof of the Capital Tower. The sky was a dark, mud brown—polluted from city lights occupying the horizon. A steel canopy overhung the landing pad, hiding most of the sky from them. It left the roof in near shadow. Only white light from the open stairwell door outlined the hulking shadow of the queen’s personal hopper. It lay straight ahead on a raised platform. Winnie had to rely on her flair to see it in this dark. Tortoise eyes were awful.

Sakhr and Alex breathed heavily, but they were better off compared to the others. Sibyl came up clutching the handle rail with white knuckles. Quentin and Christof came moments later supporting each other. Christof had the other tortoise tucked in his shirt.

“You took your time,” Alex said.

“You’re the ones who put me in a fat-ass,” Quentin replied, wheezing, “…leave yourselves in the teenage coeds.”

“Enough.” Sakhr pointed to the ship. “Can we escape in this?”

“We need to get inside first.”

Everyone paused before the hopper. Sakhr slid his hand along the surface, feeling for something. Alex did the same farther along, so did Sibyl on the other side.

“How do you…” asked Sakhr. “Where’s the handle?”

“Are you serious?” Quentin disentangled himself from Christof, reached under the frame, and squeezed a release hatch. The shuttle yawned open. “You guys are incredible.”

It was strange for Winnie to be back here again tonight, under such incredibly different circumstances. Her own body even took the same seat as before. Only now she was sitting its lap.

Quentin and Sakhr got in the cockpit. “Are you a pilot?” Sakhr asked.

“I know the theory.” Quentin pressed a prominent button, and the cockpit lit up. A dashboard touch screen showed several options. Quentin tried to access a menuscreen named Autonav. Each time it prompted him to select a flight plan from a list, but the displayed list was empty. “Hmm.”

“Can we fly?” asked Sakhr.

“Maybe not.”

“But on the other menu, it said ‘pick destination’.”

“That was Telenav. We don’t want that.”

“What’s telenav?”

“Telenav is the grid system. The repulse nodes through the city would fly us instead of the ship’s own repulse engines.”

“What’s wrong with that? We just need to get off this tower.”

Quentin took a calming breath. “Except that they know we’re escaping. If we use Telenav, they can override our destination remotely and put us anywhere they want. Including right back on this tower.”

“Can you hotwire it somehow?”

Quentin turned to him. “Does this ship look like a Ford pickup? Maybe if we pop it into neutral and push it off the tower, the momentum will get the engines started before we hit the ground.”

“So that’s a no…”

Alex called from the back. “Did we just waste our time coming up here?”

“Have any other ideas?” Sakhr asked Quentin.

“Hey, why is this all on me? It’s not like I had time to think this out. I didn’t even know I’d be escaping today.”

“We let you out because Alex thought you could help us. Now can you, or not? We can always give your body to him.” Sakhr pointed to the mystery tortoise in Christof’s lap. “Perhaps he’ll have a better plan.”

“Jesus Christ, guys. I don’t hear any of you suggesting anything.”

Christof intervened before Sakhr could respond. “We don’t know this world like you do. Repulsers, Telenav systems… That all means nothing to us. We would have used the Telenav system if you hadn’t warned us. That’s if we weren’t still outside looking for the handle. We need you. That is why we’re turning to you.”

“Okay. Fine.” Quentin sighed. “Let’s head back down a floor. I think I’ve got an idea.”

“Then let’s go.” Sakhr stood.

Everyone headed downstairs. One floor down was Victoria’s personal suite. This brought them into her foyer, near the office containing the terrarium that started this whole mess. Sakhr gave it a lingering glance as they passed by.

“You do have an idea, yes?” he asked.

“Yes, yes.” Quentin led them to a pair of assemblers installed in the wall outside the kitchen. “Yesss. This is what I hoped for.” He brought the first out of standby and paged through the menu. “Perfect.”

“What is this?” asked Sakhr. “Some kind of computer?”

“It’s an assembler.”

“Like a 3D printer?” asked Christof.

This caused Quentin to gape at him. “Good God. You’re all a bunch of grandparents, aren’t you?”

“Will you just focus?” Sakhr replied shortly. “What can you do with this?”

“A lot.”

“Can you make weapons?” Alex asked.

“We can’t make a gun if that’s what your asking, but a lot of things can be weapons with a little knowhow. Maybe we can blow open those security doors.”

He queued a few chemicals from the Home Improvement section, then moved to the other assembler. Here he picked items from the Hobbies section, then navigated to a list of all connected assemblers nearby.

“All right. I’ve got these machines going. Looks like there are a few others downstairs. I’ll just send some items to those aaand… that should be it. Give it about ten minutes and we should have ourselves some decent grenades.”

42. In the Dark


Winnie stepped closer. “Helena? Are you all right?”

Helena stood hunched over the terrarium. In her hands, Marzipan flailed about. He hissed and made strange little cries. Something about picking him up had sent him into a panic.

“I think we should leave him alone. Helena?” Winnie tapped her.

Helena looked about, as though startled that Winnie was in the room.

“Yes?” she asked. How drunk was she?

“I think we should leave Marzipan alone, and tell somebody about this. Your mom is going to find out eventually anyway. She’d be angry if we just left Marzipan alone in a broken cage.”

“No,” Helena said. “No. We’ll take care of this. We’ll put him with Victoria’s other tortoises. That way he won’t wander off.”

“Are you feeling okay? How drunk are you?”

“Drunk?” Helena seemed to take stock of herself. “Oh damn it. I am quite drunk. That does explain it.” She looked at Winnie appraisingly. “Are you drunk?”

“Yeah. I think I might throw up.”

“Well don’t. Come. Tell me. Where are Victoria’s tortoises. We must take Marzipan there.”

“You are so drunk. Why are you calling your mom by her first name?”

Helena blinked. She looked down at herself. After a pause. “Because I’m drunk.” She chuckled. It broke the tension, and Winnie laughed too.

“Now enough dallying,” Helena said. “Let’s get to the tortoises.”

Dallying? You’re talking like an english professor.” Winnie laughed more. “And listen to yourself. You’ve suddenly got an accent.”

“Do I?”


After a pause, Helena slowly smiled. Then in unison, they both broke into peels of drunken laughter. Winnie was relieved that Helena was okay, even if she was acting strangely, and her laughter oddly manic.

Marzipan kept squirming.

“I think he’s gone out of his mind,” Winnie said.

Helena looked at him. “He’ll be fine. We just need to have a place to put him down. Come, now. To the tortoises.”

Come, now.” Winnie mimicked. She chuckled a little more, but Helena was done laughing. Winnie sobered. “We can’t. Remember? They locked us out of the garden.”

“Then how do we get in?”

“We’d have to ask one of the caretakers.”

Helena looked down at the frantic tortoise in her hands. “Very well. We’ll get the caretakers. Lead the way.”

Winnie did. The relief she felt was profound. Finally, Helena agreed to get adults involved. She and Helena would get in trouble, sure, but at least tonight’s madness would finally end.

“You what?”

“It was an accident,” Winnie said.

“What were you two doing in the queen’s office anyway?”

“We were messing around. I’m sorry. I know. We shouldn’t have been there.”

The caretaker eyed both Winnie and Helena. He’d been asleep before Winnie had knocked on his door. His eyes were bleary, and he wore a wrinkled teeshirt and boxers.

“Didn’t you two just break into the conservatory the other day with Gilles’s card?”

“We’re sorry about that too.”

“I was the one who had to clean the broken glass off the path. The reptile exhibit still smells like tequila.”

“We’re really sorry.”

The caretaker sniffed. “And you’re both drunk right now, aren’t you?”

“That is irrelevant.” Helena held up Marzipan. The tortoise still thrashed and gasped. “He needs someplace to stay for the night.”

The caretaker looked at Marzipan. The tortoise’s distress was obvious.

“I’ll have to tell the queen first,” he said.

“We can’t,” Helena said. “We mustn’t bother her right now.”

“She’s dealing with a crisis,” Winnie added.

“Look.” The caretaker rubbed his eyes. “That’s the queen’s personal pet. I’m not even supposed to go near it. None of the caretakers are. I can’t go sticking him in an enclosure without at least telling her what I’m doing. I could get fired.”

“She must not be disturbed,” Helena replied. “I will accept full responsibility for this decision.”

This startled both Winnie and the caretaker. Never had Winnie heard more mature words escape Helena’s lips.

The caretaker sighed. “Let me get dressed.”

That small ship had crossed several country lines now. Nigeria was long in its wake. Victoria had contacted several aerospace districts to tell them not to shoot down the unregistered craft. It tickled Victoria each time she did this. The people aboard that ship were doing everything they could to avoid Victoria as though she were the evil queen hunting for their hearts, and yet it was she who was saving them from their own ignorance again and again.

As she watched in her mind, the ship curved gently.

“They’re shifting direction again, Your Majesty,” said a lieutenant in the control room with her.

She nodded.

“They’re heading into Algerian airspace. Shall I notify the local air traffic?”

She nodded again. Their constant change in direction must have something to do with Tan. No one else aboard that ship would pilot it so aimlessly.

Her phone chimed.

She picked it up. One notification. She started unlocking it.

“Your Majesty.” Bishop spoke over their open connection. “The orbiters with early generation wall bots have just launched. They’ll be surfing in about an hour. Their flight paths will mean any one of them will be coasting over East Europe.”

She set her phone down. “And they can launch those wall bots remotely?”

“No, but they can put them in deployment pods with marines. They configure the wall bots on the ground. From launch, they can have the wall bots up and running within three minutes.”

“And then the marines will evacuate?”

“And then the marines will leave in the pods, yes.”


“All we need is for Josephine to stay airborne for about the forty minutes it’ll take for the orbiters to reach their flight paths. Think that’ll happen?”

She looked at the ship again in her mind. They were over the Sahara Desert right now. There wasn’t much Lakiran presence there, plenty of places for them to land and disappear, or so they’d think. That territory was practically uninhabited after six years of nuclear winter: no crowds, no obstacles, no one to get in the way. The army could quarantine entire swaths of land with wall bots and capture only their targets. Josephine would be a fool to land there.

“They will,” Victoria said. “They’ll be airborne for another few hours at least.” France? Spain? Is that where they were going?

“That’s a few hours you could use to sleep, Your Majesty.”

“It’s a few hours I could lay in bed and wonder what’s happening,” she corrected. “You’re not getting rid of me, Bishop.”

“I didn’t think I could.”

The caretaker’s flashlight emitted a dull red light. It wasn’t much to see by, but he seemed to know his way around the conservatory as though it was his own bedroom. Winnie was carrying the light however. The caretaker had taken over holding Marzipan.

“There should be one free enclosure near the back,” the caretaker was saying. “It’s supposed to be for some iguanas, but they’re not showing up until next week. We’ll put the queen’s pet in that one, give it some water, and then you two are going to tell the queen first thing tomorrow what happened.”

“We will,” Winnie said.

“And you will tell her that this was all your idea. This way.”

He guided Winnie down a path. The familiar nitrate smell filled the air. The red light revealed the enclosures.

Helena paused to look in one. “Are all of my mother’s tortoises here?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Does she keep any others privately like she does Marzipan?”

“No. These are all of them.”

“How many are here?”


“How long have they been here?”

The caretaker shrugged impatiently. “I don’t know. A while.”

“Decades, would you say?”


Helena asked no other questions. The caretaker led Winnie to an empty enclosure near the back. He stepped in and set Marzipan down. The tortoise did not calm down at all.

“Is he going to be okay?” Winnie asked.

“He’s scared right now,” the caretaker replied. “Crazy night. New environment. He should calm down in a bit.” He fetched a hose from nearby and filled a rubber-lined depression inside the enclosure to create a pool. Marzipan still thrashed as though in the throes of a seizure. He seemed like he was trying to crawl toward Winnie, but his legs weren’t working right.

“Jesus,” the caretaker said. “What’d you guys do to him?”

“We just—”

“Excuse me.” Helena approached. Winnie hadn’t noticed her wander off. “Could you look at these for a moment?”

She was holding two tortoises.

What are you doing?” the caretaker yelled. “Put them back immediately.”

“But there’s something you need to see about them. Look.” Helena set one at her feet, then handed the other toward the caretaker. He tried to snatch the tortoise away from her, but when he did, it was as though an electric shock hit him. He froze. His eyes became distant.

It was exactly how Helena had acted when she first touched Marzipan. Something had happened—something that changed Helena. Victoria had kept Marzipan separate for a reason.

Winnie had only just realized this when Helena thrust the other tortoise into her arms.

Then everything changed.