40. Unstoppered

“Admiral, has the drilling stopped?” Victoria asked knowing full well it had. “Admiral?”

“Yes, I’m here, ma’am. The drilling has stopped.”

“Is everyone away from the door?”

“They should be, ma’am, but if they’re drilling then they’ll eventually get through.”

“How long?”

“If they know what they’re doing, a few minutes.”

“Are your marines ready?”

“Standing by, ma’am.”

Victoria was half inclined to send them right now. No cameras could see the intruders where they were, but Josephine had to be doing worse. Possibly, she’d already passed out.

If she sent marines now and Josephine hadn’t passed out, then those marines would become more than just useless. They’d become obstacles. Victoria might send only a few marines, but without their rifles, they’d be no contest to Tan’s lucky nunchucks. It would need to be all of them.

“Admiral.” she said.

No response.


She projected her mind into the bridge. There was the layout. The officers were all at their stations. The admiral was… somewhere? She didn’t see him. And now that she thought about it, she wasn’t entirely sure what the other officers were doing either.

She she wasn’t actually seeing the room. This was just what she imagined it looked like.

Admiral,” she shouted.

No response.

“You’re not hearing me, Major?” Admiral Medina said to Tan. “You’re not taking that woman anywhere until the medics arrive. Why did you even bring her here?”

Tan continued to Not Hear Him as he scrutinized the control panels across the bridge. The other officers watched from the side where Tan had shooed them off to, although two now worked with Naema to staunch Josephine’s bleeding. No one remembered what was going on, only what they were currently doing. And people in motion tend to stay in motion.

“Are you ignoring me, Major?” Medina said.

“Jose,” Tan mumbled without glancing up.

Josephine forced her eyes to focus. She looked at the Admiral and concentrated. The angry scowl he was directing at Tan grew distant. In a minute, he would restart the same cycle of figuring everything out. It would be the third time.

“Admiral,” she said. Words were a struggle. “You need to lift… the lockdown.”

The admiral stared sternly at her, as though wondering whether to berate a bleeding captain for forgetting her rank.

“I need to get… to a hospital,” she muttered.

“We’re taking you to the medical bay. Lieutenant Cross…” he turned to address his operations officer only to find him standing in the corner with all the other officers. He frowned at them all.

Naema took over. “The doctors can’t treat her there,” she said. “They said we have to take her to the ground, so you lift the lockdown.”

Medina studied her. “Are you a civilian? What are you doing on the bridge?”

“I’m a… doctor. With the humanitarian league. Why do you have the ship on lockdown?”

“I…” He thought, though he would not remember.

“Lift it,” Naema urged. “We need to get her on a ship.”

The admiral looked at her doubtfully. He turned to his XO. “Why is this ship in lockdown?”

“I’m not sure, sir. It may be a malfunction.”

“Then lift it.”

“Hold on, sir.” That came from the communications officer. He was still in the corner, but his hand was against the ear of his headset. “We’re getting a call request direct from the queen.”

“The queen?” The admiral looked distance, as though something about that rang a bell. “Put her on.”

The operations officer approached the radio console. He hardly touched a button before Tan yanked off his headset and pushed him away. Before the officer could protest, Tan drew his revolver and fired several shots into the radio console. Its screen went black.

The report of his gun startled everyone. Two men grabbed Tan, including the communications officer, but by then it was too late. They’d already forgotten. Tan pulled away and moved to join the rest.

Naema turned back to the Admiral. “Have you stopped the lockdown yet?”

Josephine finally appeared on a security feed in Fore Sector deck 1. It was hard to miss her. Not only was Tan and Naema’s family with her, they’d recruited several other officers along the way, including two medics. Where had they come from? Who knew? Bishop had yet to recontact the bridge, or anyone, despite there being multiple means of contacting a citadel. The most frustrating part about this was that she wouldn’t be able to yell at anyone about this failure. Everyone who’d failed her would have no idea what she was talking about. She supposed this spared her from having to deal with Admiral Medina’s knowing too much—a small silver lining.

“Of course…” she muttered as she watched them select a craft in which to fly away. It was a self piloting one, not a grid ship, which trashed the idea of trapping them in a grid holding pattern.

A pity. Josephine looked barely conscious. If Victoria could only contact the marines on board, she’d win.

Bishop spoke. “I got a hold of them.”

“The bridge?”

“No. Strike room. I’ve told them to get up to the bridge and tell them to close the bay doors.”

Victoria shook her head. Bishop must not be watching the footage. Even if all the bay doors started closing right now, it’d only serve to make Josephine’s escape more thrilling.


“Yes, ma’am?”

“Look at the cameras for Fore Sector Deck One. Do you see that ship?”

“Give me a second… yes.”

“That’s them. Get the military to track it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“When they land, I want wall bots ready to deploy.”

“That’s a C-300 Corsair. They could be in the air all day.”

“Then we have time. Make arrangements. I’m giving you whatever authority you need.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This isn’t over, Bishop. Not by a long shot.”

In Victoria’s office, the lights were off and window panels covered the missing wall. It made the place a very different room, foreign and uninviting.

Helena stumbled into the dark, feeling along the wall for a switch. She thumped something. Delicate-sounding things rattled, and Winnie waited for a crash, but none came. Finally, the lights popped on.

And it was an office again, though no less inviting to Winnie.

“Come on.” Helena motioned, and Winnie stepped in. It shouldn’t have been such a momentous step, but it was. Helena was already prancing around Victoria’s desk and searching drawers. Items rolled inside each as she’d open and slam them. Helena didn’t seem to care about how much noise she was making, but then this was Victoria’s private floor. There were no cameras, nor staff, nor security—unless summoned.

“Ah hah!” Helena ducked and reemerged with a bottle. “It was at the very back, like she thinks somebody would fire her if they find it. Did you bring the glasses?”

“I thought we were taking it back to your room?”

“Nah, we’d just have to put it back later.” She reclined over the desk like a starlet upon a piano. Unstoppering the cap, she took a swig, then coughed voraciously.

“Oh God, it’s like… What is this?” She scrutinized the bottle.

Winnie laughed despite of herself. She came over to sit on Victoria’s chair, but thought better of it and perched on the edge of the desk. “Let me try.”

Helena handed her the bottle. Winnie took a whiff. “Oh, God.”

“How the hell does she drink it, right?”

“It smells like someone juiced a Christmas Tree.”

“Try it.”

Careful not to put her lips on the bottle, she poured some into her mouth. It did not taste like a Christmas tree. She coughed, spraying gin over the desk and onto Helena. Helena cackled.

“Noooo.” Winnie mopped up frantically.

“Leave it. It’s fine.”

“No. I have to clean up. This is the queen’s desk.”

“So?” Helena poured gin on its surface.

“Stop. What are you doing?” Winnie caught her. “She’s going to know we were here?”

“Are you serious?”

Winnie realized how stupid a concern that was. Of course Victoria would know. She could read minds. “No. I mean, yeah. I know she’ll know, but let’s not ruin anything.”

“And what’s she going to do about it? You’re too important to her.”

“We can still get in more trouble.” Without anything to mop up the spill, Winnie bent and sipped the gin off the table, then buffed the remainder away with her wrist.

Helena laughed again. “Did you just slurp that up? Are you going to do that will all the spilled gin?” She poured more on the desk.

“No. Stop.” She caught Helena’s hand.

“Are you going to drink that up too?”

“Do you promise to stop?”

“Okay. I’ll stop if you drink it.”

“Okay.” Winnie sipped up the gin puddle. More spilled beside her face. “No! That’s not funny.”

Helena was beside herself with laughter.

“No, seriously. I can’t drink any more,” She tried to be serious, but she was infected with Helena’s laughter. That only encouraged Helena, so the only recourse was the wrest the bottle away. They struggled, both laughing. With a yelp, Helena rolled off the table onto Winnie. They stumbled back together and crashed into the terrarium behind the desk.

A loud pop sobered them both.

On the front panel of the terrarium, a cluster of white cracks fanned out from where Winnie’s hip had struck it.

“Oh shit oh no oh no.” Winnie examined the glass panel. It was loose in its frame. Inside, Marzipan came out of his shell to peer around as though someone had just run his doorbell.

Helena snorted, then broke into peels of laughter. “Oh my God,” she said. “My mom is going to be so pissed.”

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


“We should go.”

“What? Why? Because we upset poor Marzipan? Don’t worry. It’s happy. Look at it.” Her voice took on a babying tone. “Look at you. You’re such a dumb little shit, aren’t you? Yes, you are. Yes, you are.”

Winnie forced a chuckle, but her mood was gone. “Come on. We should go now.”

“You know my mom talks to it like that. Baby talk and everything. She dotes on this thing like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Yeah. I know. I’ve seen it.”

“No.” Helena chortled. “You haven’t seen anything. I once saw her take this tortoise with her to the Founding Day’s Parade. She kept it in her lap, and I had to listen to her the whole time. Look at that crowd, Marzipan. All these people are here to see their queen. Isn’t that wonderful? Oh, look at that float. That’s supposed to be me. Oh, how special, Marzipan.

“That…” did not fit Winnie’s image of Victoria at all. “She actually talked like that?”

“It was disgusting. She smothers the little guy. Look. Look at this.” Helena pointed to the latch where the top of the terrarium would open. A padlock sealed it. “She’s paranoid of something happening to him, like rebels would take Marzipan hostage. Vacate Europe or the tortoise gets it.” She laughed. “She’d probably rather they took me.”

Winnie tried to think of something to say while Helena stared down Marzipan. If the conversation continued, she was going to fall into her funk again. And nothing Winnie said seemed to get her to leave.

But as Winnie was thinking, Helena banged on the broken pane with her fist. The web of cracks grew.

“Don’t do that,” Winnie yelled.

“What? The glass is already broken.”

“Are you trying to get in there?”

“Yeah. We’re going to break the little guy out.”

“No. Just leave him. Please, Helena. Let’s just go. Your mother is going to throw a fit.”

“She already will. Might as well let the little guy have a taste of freedom while it lasts.” She banged it a few more times.

Winnie kept expecting the pane to shatter, and for Helena to bleed profusely, but instead it crumpled inward like a fractured windshield. When it was loose enough in its frame, Helena pried it out.

“Please, Helena. Stop.”

“I’m not going to hurt him.” Helena set the pane aside. “We’re just going to have some fun.”

She reached in and grabbed Marzipan.

39. Screeching Metal

“Sometimes I wish I could run away.” Helena was lying on her bed staring at the ceiling. Her legs dangled over the side. “But I can’t. There’s no where in the world I could go. I’m trapped here.”

“Yeah,” Winnie replied.

Winnie sat beside Helena with her legs tucked under herself as best as her body-hugging dress would allow. Her cheeks burned from the bottle of vodka Helena had stashed under her bed. She could only imagine how dizzy Helena must feel. She must have take two shots for every one of Winnie’s. At least the bottle was empty.

“She wouldn’t even care that I ran away,” Helena continued. “She’d just hunt me down like a jaguar escaped from her zoo. As soon as I was home, she’d go right back to ignoring me. Except she’s not even ignoring me. She goes out of her way to avoid me. The only times she pretends to care are when she has some politician over for dinner and she needs to act like a human being. I can’t talk to her then because I have to put on a good face for the guests. As soon as the politicians are gone, so is she.”


“And what the fuck was her problem about tonight? Almost there, then something suddenly comes up. The wars are over. My mom owns the world. What could possibly be so important that she needed to backtrack all the way home? It’s not like she’s any closer to Nigeria now. She probably just blew whatever it was out of proportion. She was probably relieved when it came up. It’s bullshit.”

“Yeah.” If Winnie weren’t as drunk, she might be a better listener.

Helena sniffed. “What time is it?”

Winnie visualized the bedside clock in her dorm. “It’s after one.”

“I guess that’s… what? Ten o’clock at the charity?”

“I think so, yeah.”

“What are they doing?”

Winnie visualized. “The music is still playing, but it looks like a lot of guests have gone.”

“How much did the charity make?”

This took Winnie some scouting. She found the raffle ledger in the organizer’s room. It was closed, but that didn’t stop her anymore.

“About fourteen million.”

“Seriously?” Helena sat up. “That’s pathetic. It probably cost that much just to host the stupid thing.”

“Do you think it would have made a difference if we had decided to come late?”

“Of course not. We would have only gotten there, like, half an hour ago, and nobody cares about the queen’s daughter. My mom probably did all this on purpose to make that abundantly clear.”

“Yeah…,” said Winnie. Victoria obviously hadn’t. Whatever had come up had clearly been important. If Winnie were allowed, she would check Victoria to no doubt find her involved with some frantic situation. “It must be tough being her daughter. I wish I could help.” After weighing the idea, Winnie placed her hand on Helena’s shoulder.

Helena leaned into her until Winnie found herself hugging Helena. Helena sniffled. She leaned to fetch the Vodka bottle. It’s emptiness was another woe for her.

“Do you want to go steal some more?” Winnie asked. Against her orders, she checked the route to the restaurant on floor fifty. “It looks like nobody would stop us. Whatever’s going on has all the guards busy.”

“No, I don’t want to go downstairs.” She said despondently, but then her head lifted. “Let’s go upstairs instead.”

“To your mom’s suite?”

“To her office. I happen to know she keeps some gin in her desk. It’s her favorite bottle.”

“Your mom drinks?”

“A lot. Let’s do this. You know, since she’s so busy.”

Helena got up with surprising energy.

Winnie had little choice but to follow.

“…Wow,” Bishop said. Victoria had forgotten he was still on the line, watching the same feed as her, but her sentiment was the same.

That was fascinating. She wished she could rewind the surveillance footage to watch again. That man had deflected every single flechette. And here she was thinking his power was some nonsense about card playing or statistically significant luck, but if his power was that blatant… Good heavens, the things he should be able to do.

The sentinel might have failed, but learning that might have made it worthwhile. Josephine would soon discover that the armory was locked away. And that’s not to say that the sentinel was for nothing. It wounded Josephine. The Nigerian family wasn’t bothering to treat her wounds, but rather hoisting her along. Her head rocked from side to side, and when they found the armory locked, Josephine hardly reacted. She was barely conscious.

“Admiral,” she said.

Admiral Medina got back on the line. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I think it’s time to get your marines ready. The woman who was shot is the one who can erase memories. If she passes out, I want your men there.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re apprehending them, not hurting them. For her, all they need to do is put a bag over her head. If she can’t see someone, she can’t affect their mind. And I want the medical bay to prepare for her, because I will not have her die.

“Yes, ma’am.”

On screen, the fugitives talked with one another. The surveillance had no audio. The urge to project her mind to right where they were was tantalizing, but impossible so long as Naema was there. The group turned to leave when Josephine halfheartedly pointed toward a supply locker. They carried here there and put her down. The others searched inside. The camera couldn’t see, but they took something. Naema showed it to Josephine, and Josephine nodded. Was it a crate? A case? Victoria couldn’t tell. Whatever it was, Tan tucked it into his pack before she could get a good look at it. The group headed off once again.

“What was that, Admiral? What did they take?”

“We don’t know, ma’am, but that was an equipment hold. Cleaning supplies and such.”

“They’re not going to clean the deck, Admiral. As soon as they’re out of there, have somebody find out what’s missing.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Victoria watched on…

The way Naema and her mother finally settled on carrying Josephine was between them. While her mother held Josephine’s shoulders, Naema held her by her thighs so her bleeding calfs were elevated above Josephine’s head. It was awkward, but in order for their plan to work, they had to act now before the Lakirans realized what they were up to.

There were other soldiers’ about now, which made encountering another sentinel unlikely, yet Tan peeked about each corner as they went.

Unfortunately, soldiers kept interfering, most trying to help. They argued with Tan that they were going the wrong direction for the medical bay. It wouldn’t be a problem, except that Josephine was having a harder time staying focused enough to wipe their memories.

Their trek through the corridors was blending together for her. Her collar was wet with sweat. Her head ached more and more. Each minute she noted more symptoms. By now, she could hardly close her fists. Her breath was coming out in huffs, as though her lungs were going limp to push out the air, and she was certain she would vomit soon.

They arrived back at the door leading up the bridge spire. Naema and her mother set Josephine down and her mother tended to her wounds. Using torn strips from Josephine’s ruined uniform, she created gauze and applied pressure.

Tan glanced around for cameras, then set up the tool they’d taken next to the wall beside the door. It was an inner wall—likely steel or aluminum. Perhaps he’d ruin some drill bits, but oh well.

Tan got to work. The screech of tearing metal was deafening. Hopefully this would be quick.

Victoria’s mind had been visualizing the bridge, and the drilling was reverberating up from several floors below. She’d had to watch as the executive officer informed the Admiral, and the Admiral to finally put his earpiece back in before she could speak to him.

“They took a power drill, ma’am,” said Admiral Medina.

“Then send someone downstairs right now and get everyone away from that door.”

Even after her command, he hesitated, as though he hadn’t yet realized the intruders’ amazingly obvious plan. He finally issued the order, but not before wasting time to say, “Yes, ma’am.”

The Admiral sent down Lieutenant Harris, a soldier who’d happened to be in the bridge when the spire locked down. From the bridge floor, he had to descend past the Admiral’s bridge, the strike room, the air operations room, a VIP deck, and the first wardroom to finally reach the staging floor of the operations spire. With each passing floor, the reverberating screech of the power tool grew louder.

On the staging floor, two guards were posted by the door. He could hardly hear himself think with the noise.

He approached the men. “Orders from the Admiral,” he yelled. “You’re to come upstairs immediately.”

“What, sir?”

“Come upstairs.”

“We’re on post.”

“What? No. Admiral’s calling you off. He wants you out of this room.” He gestured for them to follow him.

They motioned that they couldn’t hear him. “Sorry, sir. We can’t leave,” the other said. “Captain wants us to guard this door. No one passes.”

“The admiral is calling you up. Hurry your asses.”

“The admiral?”


“What about the admiral?”

To Lieutenant Harris’s profound relief. The drilling stopped.

“The admiral is ordering you out of this room. Now move, soldiers.”

This time, they nodded and followed.

“Wait a moment,” someone said. “Don’t leave just yet.”

Harris glanced around for the voice. It sounded like a woman who was out of breath.

“Come back here,” she said.

Harris hesitated, as did the other guards. They were just going somewhere, but now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure where. Like walking into a room to fetch something and forgetting what it was.

“Who’s speaking?” he asked.

“I am,” the voice said. He looked, but did not see the small hole next to the door. It was no thicker than a pencil. “I’m… Captain Janice, and I need you to open the door.”

“The spire main door?”

“That one, yes.”

It was indeed closed, as was the side door by the auxiliary ladderwell. He knew they were closed, sealed too. But for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why.

38. The Gargoyle

Of course the door would be sealed, Josephine thought.

She and the others had headed straight toward the bridge as soon as they’d discovered the lockdown, but they’d only gotten as far as the door leading to the spire stairwell. All alternate doors were likewise sealed. When she waved their stolen card over the reader, it beeped angrily and a flashed a tiny red light.

“Is the card bad?” Naema asked.

“I think every card is going to be bad,” Josephine replied. She took a stairwell leading up to the top deck. All around her, spires rose like skyscrapers, but the one she was wanted into was the one right next to her. The admiral’s perch was near the top, but they couldn’t possibly climb the spire’s smooth steel surface.

“So what now?” Naema looked at her, eyes earnest, as did Naema’s mother and brother. Tan watched her flatly.

“I’m not sure,” Josephine said. “But we have to get into that bridge. Unless someone has some other idea.”

Everyone looked around.

Tan motioned behind himself as though he had something on his back. “We jump.” He moved as though ripping something off his chest.

Parachutes?” Josephine asked.

He shrugged. “It work.”

“We’re not far enough off the ground.”

Oni spoke. “It could still work. It’s called base jumping. We do it.”

“I am not jumping,” said Naema’s mother. She faced Josephine. “You have powers. You can use them, no?”

“I do, but I need to see my target.”

Naema pointed up the spire. “Look. There are windows.” Small hatches lined the bridge spire. “If you can look in those, you can make them forget to keep the door closed.”

“How am I supposed to get up there.”

Naema pointed to a spire across from the bridge. “We go up there and you look across.”

Josephine looked. None of the other spires were as tall as the bridge spire, but some came close. The distance between them made a wide enough gap for planes to fly though. The top deck had once been a runway before the Lakiran Air Force retired all non grid-compatible planes.

Even if Josephine could see in the spire windows through the bright blue sky reflecting off the pane, she’d be looking through two small hatch windows hundreds of feet apart. She could maybe spot one or two people before the crew caught on.

But the idea wasn’t meritless.

“It won’t work,” Josephine said, “but I think I know what will. Come on.”

“Where?” Tan asked.

“To wherever they keep guns.”

“I see them,” Bishop said.

“Which screen?” Victoria asked.

“Camera F-4C.”

Victoria tabbed through the list. That camera was in Fore Sector, Deck 4. They were headed down into the ship, and they clearly had a goal. This was near an auxiliary bay for shipping and supplies. Civilians were never allowed down there. The surveillance was because of the nature of what the citadel stored down there.

“Admiral? Do you see them?”

A click indicated Admiral Medina’s return. “Yes, Your Majesty. We see them. We think they’re heading toward the armory.”

“We can’t have them access the explosives. Have your men set up a sentinel on the armory main room and get out of there.”

“Yes, ma’am. They’re already doing that.”

“And if they can fully lock down any armaments, have them do so.”

“Yes, ma’am. Already done.”


Over the comm, the admiral was issuing orders that Victoria could barely hear. She was projecting her mind into the bridge when it occurred to her that she might be micromanaging the situation. The admiral and his men had more combat experience than her, and he understood the risks now. Should she back off?

Victoria chuckled.

She should. She wouldn’t.

The armory was simple to track down. The Air Force personnel around them didn’t seem to know there were intruders aboard. So even while the bridge was no doubt trying to figure how to capture Josephine, she was still able to stop others and ask for directions.

However, the crowd got thinner the closer they got to the armory. They were in the aft sector of this ship now, four floors below. This section was the general coming and going for supplies on and off the citadel—always busy, but each passing corridor was more deserted.

When they passed an empty mess hall with trays still covering the tables, Josephine knew the crew was up to something.

It could be a trap, but whatever the trap was, it couldn’t be lethal. The queen would not take a chance with killing her; she was certain of that. And every minute she hesitated was another minute the Lakirans had to put their own plans into action. If there was a trap, she’d deal with it.

The moment they rounded the corner to the armory, she regretted that choice.

She saw it. Even as she skidded to jump out of the way she knew it was too late. The machine had already spun its barrel toward her. She yelled to the others to get back. Then there was a click. It felt as though someone tugged at her pant leg. Her momentum carried her forward another step, bringing her weight down on that foot. That’s when the pain registered. Another click, and something tugged her other pant leg. She had already been shifting her weight onto it to ease the first pain. Now neither foot supported her weight. She hit the ground hard. Agony blossomed in both legs.

“Josephine!” Naema yelled.

Even in her pain, Josephine yelled, “Don’t come. Stay back.” She heard the other’s scuttling behind her. From the corner of her eye, it looked as though Tan had yanked Naema back, but she didn’t dare turn to confirm. Before Josephine was a sentinel drone. It hovered at shoulder height. Like wall bots, it was mostly spherical except for a few bulges, such as the three nodes along the bottom it used to remotely mount itself to the ground. Unlike wall bots, one end had a thin barrel pointing out which was trained on Josephine.

The Lakirans used to deploy these things in abandoned towns and other such restricted areas where they couldn’t afford manpower to patrol. Locals often had their own names for these devices: devil eyes, death eyes, gargoyles. People who stumble into one of these usually never knew what killed them. If they were lucky, the sentinels were calibrated to give a warning message first: get on the ground now or some such. People who didn’t comply were either dead or phenomenally lucky. These things didn’t miss.

This one had struck both her legs, shots to maim. Blood was soaking into her pant legs. In each calf, there would be a triangular hole where the flechettes had torn into her.

“Are you okay?” Naema asked. Josephine still didn’t turn. Motion set these things off. Or so she’d heard.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll live.” That was the idea, but, Lord, this pain was blinding. It creeped up her legs, filling her body. In her century and a half of life, she’d never been shot before. Were all gunshots this bad?

“Just stay back,” she said. “Don’t let it see you.”

“What do we do? We have to get you out of there.”

“No,” replied Josephine. “It’ll shoot you too.” Ever so slowly, she turned to look at them. They were crowded around the corner from the sentinel. Tan had moved in front of them to keep anyone from getting past him.

“We can’t leave you there,” Naema said. “We’ll find a rope.”

“No good,” Josephine said. It wasn’t that it would shoot the rope. It was that it would shoot her again if she started sliding along the ground, and she had two more limbs it could maim.

Though Josephine and Tan did have a prearranged plan.

“Tan…” Josephine looked at him. He gave her a flat look, knowing exactly what she wanted from him. He’d come on this trip because she’d forced him, and now she was asking him to go above and beyond. It would take months to make this up to him.

“We have to,” she said. “None of you can get me out of here. If we all stay, then we get caught. If you leave me, then they’ve separated us.”

“New plan,” he said. “We pull you out. You get shot more, but you live.”

He looked like he meant it.

“Tan, we still need to get into the armory. We can’t move past that sentinel unless you do it. I’m sorry, Tan. I know. I’m sorry, but you have to, or we lose.”

His response was long coming. He finally reached into his jacket—not for his gun, but for his cigarettes. As he smoked, Naema and the others grew anxious, but Josephine didn’t rush him. Even though she lay there bleeding, cigarettes come before stress.

When the cigarette was half done, he acted. From his pack, he brought out two pairs of steel nunchucks. After several preparatory breaths, he crouched low and stepped around the corner. Immediately, he started swinging the nunchucks before him with wild abandon. His cigarette was pursed between his lips. His head was leaned away. His eyes were squinted as though he were facing down a wind tunnel.

The sentinel spun and fired at him, three shots per second, each directed at one limb or another. Every single shot deflected off the flailing nunchucks.

Only once had Tan done this before, and that was against a soldier, not a perfectly aimed turret, but he and Josephine had practiced. Because of how radically the slight movements in his wrists translated to the spinning nunchucks, it gave his power plenty of room to work its magic. The nunchucks worked even better than a shield, so long as he didn’t think hard about how he was flailing them.

Step by step, Tan crept closer to the sentinel. His nunchucks spun haphazardly. Sometimes they tangled with each other. Sometimes Tan struck himself, but so far, he’d knocked every flechette away. They littered the floor.

Next to the sentinel now, Tan narrowed his flailing toward its general location. One nunchuck struck its spherical body. It physically shifted as though its invisible mounts bent. Another strike hit its underside. The shift upward was much more pronounced. Its repulsers could not pull it back toward the ground. A final strike landed across the barrel, denting it. It shot one more time. The flechette didn’t escape the end. Sensing the backfire, the sentinel emitted a low tone, and was still. Somewhere in the world, an email inbox just received an automated damage report.

“Okay, okay. Help me!” Josephine waved at the others. They rushed out and lifted her up. From the calf and down, her uniform pants were bloody. Just the act of lifting her to a seated position caused excruciating pain.

“Get me up,” she panted.

“You are bleeding bad,” Naema’s mother said. “You can’t move.”

“I’m sure not staying here. We’ll take care of me later.”

Between Naema and her mother, they hoisted her up. She cried out. For a moment, all the sounds in the room seemed like they were coming from far away. Her vision faded from the corners of her eyes inward. Someone was talking. It took her a moment to realize they were talking to her.

“You with us?”

“Yeah. Let’s keep moving. Take me to the armory.”

They carried her along. The door to the armory wasn’t far. It was closed. Tan tried the stolen card. Angry beeps.

Of course, she thought. If they had the foresight to know she was coming here, they’d have the foresight to seal the doors. This room was just as inaccessible as the bridge.

This trip was for nothing.

37. Strategies

Fortunately for Josephine, Naema knew exactly where her family was. When they reached the right detention center, Naema sprinted ahead while Josephine frantically wiped memories.

“Mama?” Naema pressed against the bars.

“Girl?” Naema’s mother looked up from a crowd of closely packed prisoners. Behind her, a young boy got up from where he slept. Josephine had seen the child briefly in Naema’s tent.

“Mama, come. We’re leaving.”

The woman approached Naema. She eyed Josephine warily. “What are you saying?”

“We’re escaping,” Naema whispered. She looked to Josephine. “Do you have the keys?”

“Hold on.” Josephine said. “Look away a moment.” The other detainees were perking up. She cleansed their minds of whatever they’d heard, and they all lost interest. Only two people were going to be leaving this cell, but for a moment, Josephine imagined what would happen if she let everyone out. It would be chaos. No one would know where to go, and when the soldiers arrived, people would get hurt. It was a foolish idea, but Josephine couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if she could help them all. How many powers would she need on her side in order to stand up to the Lakirans instead of hiding from them?

She opened the cage. Two people exited. She sealed it closed. “Let’s go,” she said.

Together, they hurried to the launch bay. Naema hurriedly explained everything to her family as they went, including Josephine’s and her own power. While her mother understandably looked bewildered, she didn’t argue. She and Oni simply followed.

When they reached the nearest launch bay, something was different. The technicians weren’t preparing for incoming ships. Men weren’t loading or unloading supply shuttles. Instead people were gathered in conversational clumps as though everyone had decided to take a smoke break at once. Tan noticed this too. He made a noise somewhere between a groan and a growl.

Josephine tried taking the group to a grid-ready shuttle anyway. A cadet ran up with his arm extended.

“Hold up,” he yelled.

“We’re scheduled to leave,” Josephine said. She didn’t erase his memory quite yet, since she suspected what he was about to tell her.

“Hope it wasn’t important. The citadel is on partial lockdown. Nobody is coming or going until the higher ups give the all clear.”

The moment the shuttle touched down, Victoria strode out. Soldiers were waiting at attention for her. As she passed, they followed. One reached in the shuttle and fetched Willow. As a procession, they marched off, leaving Winnie and Helena behind. The fanfare was over.

“Bye, mom,” Helena said, long after Victoria could have heard her. Then, under her breath, “God, I hate her.”

The window to the cockpit opened. Melanie looked in. “Shall we return to the charity, Your Highness? I’m certain you’d still have time to make an appearance.”

Helena sniffed and wiped her eyes in an attempt to regain composure. “No. It would be over by the time we showed up. People would be leaving.”

“Are you sure? I’m sure if we call them, they’d keep the bidding going until you arrived.”

“What’s the fucking point? My speech was supposed to start the bidding off. It won’t even make sense if I give it at the end.”

“We’ll have time to rework the speech. I know the benefactors would love to see a royal presence.”

“They can go to hell,” Helena snapped. “I said I don’t want to do it anymore. Will you go away?”

Melanie nodded. The window closed.

After they heard Melanie exit through the pilot door and walk off, Helena finally broke down.

She cried as though there were no one there to see. Winnie sat beside her, still as a deer. She too was disappointed with missing the charity. Though unlike Helena, she at least had the benefit of seeing the results of their hard work. She’d finally found the auditorium in her head. Everything was proceeding just as planned, minus any royal presence. The decorations looked great. The staff and planners wore the outfits Winnie had designed. The style had certainly come together well. Guests chattered as dinner rounded up, and the auction had already gotten underway. Soon the staff would clear the floor for the dance.

Winnie decided it would be better to tell Helena tomorrow that all her planning wasn’t for naught. The sting of missing out would be less.

“I hate her so fucking much.” Helena’s voice was ragged.

Winnie could no longer pretend she wasn’t there. “Yeah. This really sucks. Do you want me to leave?”

Helena’s response was long coming. “No. Stay.”

“It’s confirmed,” Bishop said. “They broke the girl out.”

“Mmhmm.” Victoria had just taken her seat in the communications room of the Capital Tower. She’d commandeered the desk of Captain Gandara, the head of security in the Tower. Now she was finally ready to deal with this crisis.

Before her were several monitors which already tracked the situation aboard the HIMS Orinoco. She was within speaking distance of several officers in contact with the military around the world. And resting beside her in a cage was Willow, resting peacefully on her perch with a hood over her head. Her beak rested upon her breast. Victoria considered having someone carry Willow back up to her room, but her presence provided comfort Victoria appreciated right now.

Before her was the image that had tripped the silent alert. It showed Josephine and the other one in the corridor outside the Orinoco’s brig. They both wore military uniforms, including the cap, but the camera had gotten a good enough look at her for facial recognition software to pick her up.

And it was always her that the cameras caught. Never him. Tan, if Victoria recalled. Even in this image, he was looking to his left, conveniently obscuring his face from the camera. Every image was like that. From what little she and the high exemplars had determined of his powers, he might not be aware he was doing it.

Fortunately, Josephine was not as lucky.

“What are they doing now?” Victoria asked into the phone.

Bishop replied. “Looks like they made a stop in the detention center to break a few people out,” Bishop replied. “Probably the girl’s family.”

“Can you confirm that?”

“Trying to. They were never processed. No photos. Names are Zauna and Oni Madaki. Looking at the footage, they match the descriptions. I’m certain it’s the girl’s family. Do you have the security feed yet?”

Victoria looked over the grid of windows on one of her screens. “Yes, but I’m not seeing them anywhere.”

“That’s because they’re in Starboard Hangar, Deck One. There’s no camera in there.”

“They’re not escaping, are they?”

“No. Lockdown. No one is coming or going.”

“Is there any way for them to get out?”

“I talked to the XO. According to him, bay doors are closed. Unless they jump off the top deck, there’s no way off.”

“XO? Who’s the Commanding officer? It’s Medina something, right?”

“Admiral Nelson Medina, yes.”

“Why are you talking to his XO?”

“Medina wasn’t on the bridge when I called. He should be now.”

Victoria motioned to an officer near her. In a quick exchange, she ordered the man to get Medina on the same line. As he worked, she considered what to say. There were intruders aboard his ship, and he would have no idea how much of a threat they posed. Sharing information about their flairs would be more than she’d told anyone else in the military. In theory, if Victoria succeeded in capturing Josephine, it wouldn’t matter.

Briefly, she daydreamed about her reign once she would have the ability to prune memories. So many complications would vanish. Until now, Victoria had counted on Winnie being the key to catching Josephine, but that Naema girl complicated matters.

If Josephine escaped that ship, finding her would become even more impossible. Josephine would never leave Naema’s side.

“Bishop, Stay on the line while I talk with Medina. Bishop?”

There was a clatter on his end as he hastily put back on a headset. “I’m here. I’ll be on the line.”

“Are you still in the air? How close are you to the Orinoco?”

“A couple hours.”

“Are any other high exemplars in the area?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ll check.”

Victoria flapped her hand, even though no one could see. “No. Don’t bother. Not with that blasted girl.”

“We don’t know yet whether she’ll break our shields. She might not.”

“She will.” Victoria had never met the girl, but she had a good sense of her flair already.

There was a click on the line. “This is Admiral Medina.”

“Admiral, this is your queen. You have intruders aboard your citadel—very unusual, very dangerous intruders.”

“So I’ve heard, Your Majesty. The ship is in partial lockdown. Our marines are suiting up now.”

“Have them stand down.”

“Your Majesty?”

“They’ll be no use to you. No one can come near these intruders. You need to seal the doors to the bridge spire right now. Under no circumstances can anyone be allowed to enter. If any of your men come within visual range of the targets, they will be rendered useless.”

“I see. Hold on, ma’am.”

He barked orders in the background.

“The doors are being sealed now, ma’am.”

“Good. They must stay sealed until this situation is resolved.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now listen to me carefully. I’m going to tell you what you need to know about your intruders. It will sound unbelievable, but it will be the truth. I am also telling you this under the strictest confidence.”


She described Josephine’s abilities, as well as what she knew of Tan’s and Naema’s. Though she did glaze over the technicals of how exactly they had such abilities. Admiral Medina never questioned her claims.

“So now you understand,” she finally said, “why it will be so difficult to capture this group.”

“I do.” The statement was simple and impossible to read. Victoria had her mind projected into the bridge room at the time, but even his expression was unreadable. She wished she could read his aura through Winnie’s power. As it was, she couldn’t tell whether the Admiral believed her without question, or whether he wondered if this was some elaborate lie. Either way, Victoria needed to capture Josephine today. This knowledge would eventually lead him to dangerous questions. He’d need to forget after this was done.

“If these people are as dangerous as you say,” the Admiral asked, “is it worth the risk of capturing them alive?”

She nearly answered yes, but paused. Did she need all of them alive? Naema’s family was of no use to her. Of course killing them would make controlling the girl difficult. If her family were alive, offering them hospitality might still sway them over, although Victoria doubted if Naema would be as simple to coerce as Winnie was. In that carrot and stick routine, the stick never had to come out for Winnie. Winnie only suspected a stick might even exist. This Naema girl wouldn’t be so naive. Her family would be crucial for her cooperation.

Then another thought occurred. Why bother with Naema at all? What could her power possibly be useful for if it broke glyphs? Maybe it couldn’t even be made into a glyph. In which case, her power was only useful for being used against Victoria. Josephine was the one she really wanted. If she had Naema killed, capturing Josephine would be simpler.


“Yes. We must capture them all alive.” Let’s not do anything irreversible. Not yet. “This means you cannot have anyone approach them directly. What kind of remote equipment do you have on board? Do you have wall bots?”

“No ma’am. We deploy those from orbiters.”

“Are there any nearby?”

“Are you suggesting we deploy wall bots into the citadel?”

“Surely that can be done, can’t it. Don’t we deploy wall bots inside buildings?”

“No ma’am. Their fields cause structural damage.”

“But that’s only if their fields intersect with walls. Actually, I remember years ago we used wall bots to lock down buildings.”

“Those were the earlier models, ma’am. They can’t be deployed remotely, we’d have to manually set them up.”

“That’s fine. We have time.”

“No, ma’am. I mean the orbitals won’t have them stocked for that reason. I’ll have my men see if we still have some in any military stockpiles nearby, but it’ll take time.”

“I don’t care if we have to ship them across the globe. Get them there.”

“Understood.” There was a pause before he came back.

“There’s something else we might try in the meantime, ma’am. We have sentinel drones onboard.”

“No good,” Victoria said. “Those are lethal.”

“They don’t have to be, ma’am.”

33. A Silicon Wafer

2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years

Winnie stepped off the elevator onto Victoria’s private floor. After months of lessons—two a week—she’d grown accustom to heading straight through to the office. Victoria would be tending to Marzipan and Willow or finishing up a call. Winnie would wait at the table until she finished.

Today, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Tonight was the night of the charity that she and Helena had been preparing for. They would leave shortly after dinner, threatening to cut short today’s lesson, so maybe Victoria wanted to start early, but Winnie doubted it. She’d been at school, eighth period. The front office had paged Winnie to come, where an imperial guard waited to escort her directly to the tower.

“What for?” she’d asked.

“The queen demands your presence,” and that was all he told her.

She still had her backpack and school outfit on, as the shuttle had taken her straight to the tower. When she’d asked Madeline if she were in trouble, Madeline had given her a helpless shrug. “I don’t know, sweetie. She just told us to fetch you as soon as possible. Have you done anything wrong?”

Helena and Winnie had broken into the botanical garden five nights ago. After a day of silence, she figured the guard’s scolding had been enough. Maybe not.

“You’re probably fine,” Madeline said. “With her, everything is a priority. Good luck!” Madeline had shepherded her onto the elevator and sent her up without giving Winnie a chance to reply.

Cautiously, Winnie made her way to Victoria’s office. The window wall was closed with shutters. Willow and Marzipan rested in their respective cage and terrarium. Victoria was not there.

A voice called from deeper within Victoria’s floor. “Come this way, Winnie.”

The queen had sense her aura. Winnie didn’t know its range, but she doubted she’d ever stepped foot onto this floor without Victoria knowing about it. Winnie followed the voice.

Quiet chattering made it easy to find the room. It looked like a workshop. Instead of hardwood or carpet, it had utilitarian tiles for a floor. Large crates filled the room marked with the LakiraLabs logo, each stamped “military property” in red ink. A quick glance with her mind showed machines inside of them that looked as though they were made of spare parts. They were definitely assemblers though, but their internals were strange.

Beyond them was a massive machine that dominated the back of the room. Before it, Victoria and a man sat on stools chatting. The man was perhaps in his late thirties, but well groomed and attractive. He turned on his stool and smiled wholesomely at Winnie. It was the exact same move Mr. Matthews had done when Winnie met him in the principal’s office months ago. That is what made her realize he was an exemplar before she even noticed his stark white attire It had a silver trim along the collar and cuffs that she hadn’t seen on other exemplar uniforms.

Victoria gestured to a stool. “Sit with us.”

Winnie shucked off her backpack and sat by the man.

“Winnie, I’d like you to meet High Exemplar Bishop. Bishop, this is Winnie.”

“How do you do?” Bishop said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” His smile was nonstop. She could feel him staring past her eyes. It must just be her imagination that he was reading her mind, since his plaque was resting untouched on a workbench.

“Hi.” Winnie returned the smile. She glanced over the large machinery before them. Beneath a transparent covering was an assembly line of complicated parts. Though powered on, it was idle. The only parts moving were an internal metal etcher working on a chip the size of a postage stamp, which looked to be made of plastic.

Right by Victoria was a console. On the screen was a glyph and a progress bar. Winnie didn’t recognize the glyph, but it was the same one the etchers inside the machine were making.

“What is this place, Your Majesty?” she asked.

“It’s my room of toys,” Victoria said. “They’re various things I keep out of the public eye for security. This one here…” She gestured to the massive machine behind her. “Is the assembler that creates plaques.”

Winnie looked at the console. “I didn’t know you can draw glyphs on a screen.”

“Yes, Winnie. I hope you don’t think I’ve spent all this time giving you exercises and I never experimented with my own power. Glyphs can exist on many mediums, and drawn with any tool, even electronic ones, so long as the flair I’m making a glyph of is present when I draw the final stroke.”

“Is that why I’m here?”

“Perhaps. Bishop may need it.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to give my power out.”

“Winnie, this is for an assignment I’ve given him. I will not allow him to keep it afterward. That’s if I give it to him at all. First, Bishop and I would like you to look at something for us. Bishop?”

Nodding, Bishop took his plaque and enabled the screen. After some browsing, he brought up a map and turned it to face Winnie.

Winnie reached for it. Bishop immediately yanked it out of her reach.

“Just look,” Victoria said. “Never touch an exemplar’s plaque unless he tells you.”

“Okay. Sorry.”

He smiled. Already forgiven. “No problem,” he said, holding it out again. The map showed North Africa. Bishop zoomed in. “Are you following mentally?” he asked.


“Good. Right here.” He pointed to Port Harcourt. “Do you see the city?”


“Look around at a high view. What your looking for is the Lakiran citadel stationed there. It should be easy to find.”

It was, and Winnie didn’t need a description. She’d heard enough over the years about the legendary Lakiran floating cities. It was there, above the bay, looming near acres of ramshackle houses. Compared to the glimmering, chrome citadel, the city looked like a trash heap. It was filled with mud browns and assorted spots of color: whites for clothes lines, colored dots for beat up cars and trucks winding down broken roads, and aqua green for plastic paneling patching holes in tin can buildings.

The citadel was as though a piece of Porto Maná had been cut out and put here. Clouds of shuttles buzzed to and from it. They would disappear into slips along its hull.

“What now?”

“Go to the holding area on Deck 6.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’ll be in the hull, seven down from the top.”

Winnie tried. Her mind found a holding area of some kind. The hallways were wide. Cells along the walls were crammed with people. Nearly every person had coal black skin. Just like with the city, these people didn’t fit in compared to the citadel. Their clothes were nearly rags. Their skin was filthy. Even without a sense of smell, Winnie could only imagine the stench. These people were sick and starved. Some lingered by bars looking about for passing soldiers. They looked scared, or worried. Others sat in the back of the cells, no longer interested in the world around them. They just seemed resigned.

“What am I supposed to be looking for. When you say top, do you mean the top floor of the hull? Or the tarmac above where the towers are?”

“Here, look at me.”

He meant in the eyes—for mind reading. She didn’t want to; Winnie didn’t know this man. Yet both he and Victoria waited for her to comply. Resigned, she looked Bishop in the eye.

He perused her mind. “Go up one.”

She did so. Up here, the halls were narrow. Soldiers walked through the corridors. Some escorted cuffed prisoners.

“This is the right floor,” he said, “but you’re on the wrong side of the citadel. “There’s a detention section R. It’s the mirror of this one but on the starboard… uh, right side.”

Winnie’s mind shot through a labyrinth of tight corridors. She tried not to pay attention to what she saw. At the other end, she was in the mirror reflection of the same hallways.”

“Good,” said Bishop. “Go down the hall. Take a right. Good. Now keep going until you find cell block 5-7B.”

Winnie continued along. His instructions led her through a security checkpoint, complete with guards behind a reinforced window. They guarded a pair of doors, one after another, that they would buzz open as soldiers escorted prisoners into or out of this secure area. Past those guards were rows and rows of cell containing more inmates of similar gauntness and ethnicity.

She turned a corner and proceeded several paces down the hall, when she realized she couldn’t distinguish the numbers on the cells, or the people. Everything was there, but it was nebulous. She concentrated, but the details didn’t come. What she saw was not from her flair, but her imagination. It’s what she expected to see.

She backed up to the checkpoint. Details flooded her mind. She proceeded forward again. By the time she was in the same corridor, she had nothing but her imagination. Her power failed, and suddenly she was walking over a chasm. Like a cartoon animal, it had taken her a moment to realize it the first time, but now she recognized exactly when it happened. It was when she turned the corner.

Bishop leaned back. He looked at Victoria and nodded. Whatever was happening, they’d expected it.

“What’s going on?” Winnie asked.

Bishop turned back to her. “I’ll explain in a moment. I need you to check one other thing first. Can you clear your mind?”

Winnie played along.

“I want you to visualize the citadel again,” said Bishop, “but I want you to look at the bottom floor, near the center.”

Winnie did so. It was practically a different ship there. The halls were suffocatingly narrow. The doors were hatches. The stairs leading up and down were so steep they were more like ladders. If her mind wasn’t aware of the empty sky directly beneath the floor, she might have guessed she was looking inside a submarine. Only soldiers were down here. Grease covered and sweaty, they carried supplies, cleaned floors, and worked at panels with a dizzying number of pipes leading from them.

“What now?” she asked.

He leaned back again. “That’s it. That’s all I need.”

“She can see?” Victoria asked.

He nodded.

“What do you mean?” Winnie asked.

Bishop spoke. “We think we found another flair. She’s being held in a containment room down that corridor you can’t see.”

“Why is she there?”

“Soldiers brought her in for theft.”

“Are all those people thieves?”

“Most are just there for processing.”

Processing. He said the word as though they’d just seen rows of bored functionaries working through a rush hour line of customers renewing their passports, not the caged human beings huddled together for comfort.

Victoria spoke. “So far, every exemplar who’s come near her has had their plaque malfunction. I needed to see what affect she had on a real flair before we bring her here.”

“And you had her test it on me?”

“Don’t worry. I was nearly certain the effect would be temporary.”

Nearly certain?”

“I’m very good at what I do.”

“But what if it hadn’t come back?”

“It did, Winnie. My glyphs are notoriously easy to break. Even smudging the ink can break them permanently. At the very worst, I expected your power might have been muted for a short while.”

“You still could have warned me.”

“Would that have made you any happier when I still made you do it? Winnie, I plan to bring that girl here. Her flair would have affected you eventually, as it will me. Okay?”

“Okay…” Winnie wasn’t mollified. If she had permanently lost her power, she doubted this new flair would be coming here.

Behind Victoria, the console beeped. Victoria and Bishop turned to the machine. The progress bar had completed.

“Ah, and here we go,” Victoria said. “Winnie, you should watch this. It’s neat.”

The small chip with the glyph rolled into view on a conveyor. It entered a glass chamber. A robotic arm sprayed a thin layer of paste onto it. Another arm placed it onto a steel plate shaped to fit various installable components. Several glass tubes were already built in. The set then rolled into a covered chamber.

Victoria said. “The glyph is on a small silicon wafer. Very fragile. The paste is an explosive gel that reacts to oxygen. Now the chip goes on the plaque frame, along with a few pressure sensitive bulbs. Both have to be installed in this vacuum chamber. In there it will install a few light sensitive diodes with their own charges. Then internal radio batteries go in before sealing the whole thing and putting it inside the tablet frame.”

Moments later, a plaque rolled out. Victoria hefted it and looked it over. “The tablet part itself has several security features too. It can destroy the internal glyphs under all sorts of circumstances, such as remote wipe, battery failure, lost signal, and since each plaque is encoded to a microchip implanted in my exemplars, they can’t get too far away from it either. So you see, Winnie. I take security of my glyphs very seriously. If I gave your power to Bishop, I would maintain full control of it until it was returned.”

Will you be giving me her power, ma’am?” Bishop asked.

“I think not,” Victoria replied. “If this girl’s power affects Winnie too, there’s no point. It’d break in two minutes. You’ve no idea how easy it is to accidentally look at something just by thinking of it.”

Winnie had never thought about Victoria having the same problems Winnie did. The idea of Victoria accidentally seeing someone naked was a strange thought, but logically, she must struggle with it too.

“Go now,” Victoria picked up the new plaque and another nearby. She handed them to Bishop. “At least we know for certain we’re dealing with a flair. I want you on your way now.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bishop rose.

“Make sure you deliver those plaques before you go to the girl.”

“Of course.” Bishop faced Winnie. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“Yeah. Same.”

They shook hands, and he departed.

After waiting until he was out of earshot, Winnie turned to Victoria.

“Is Bishop a flair?” Winnie asked.

Victoria paused. “What makes you think that?” She looked at Winnie, but Winnie did not meet her gaze.

“You had to have a flair here in order to sign that glyph right? Sara told me about how you bring her here every time you need to make a glyph of her shield flair, so the flair for that glyph must have just been here.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s him. The flair could have left before you arrived.”

“How come I’ve never met them?”

“Maybe they’re busy.”

“…busy working for you,” Winnie said, “as high exemplars. It just makes sense. Besides Sara, who’s too young to work for you, there must be at least three other flairs: telepathy, empathy, and flair sense. Mr. Matthews said you have four high exemplars, and they come here all the time, so it fits.”

“Wouldn’t that mean there should be a fourth power?” Victoria asked.

“Maybe there is. Maybe it’s one like mine that you don’t want to hand out.”

“Interesting deduction.”

“So am I right?”

“Your reasoning is sound.”

“Oh, come on. Tell me.”

“Why? It sounds like you’ve already figured it out.”


Victoria considered it. “Very well. Yes, he is a flair.”

“I thought so. What’s Bishop’s power?”

“Don’t concern yourself with that.”

“He’s the telepath, isn’t he? I could sense it.”

“I said don’t worry about it.”

“Are you going to make me a high exemplar when I’m older?”

“High exemplar? No. The current high exemplars are people I knew from before I started my empire.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“It’s not a matter of trust. I’ve read every corner of my high exemplars’ minds. It’s not trust if I don’t give them an opportunity to betray me. The problem is that you don’t trust me.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“…Said the girl who’s been avoiding eye contact with me this entire time.”

Of course she’d have noticed that. Winnie still didn’t meet her eyes.

“Is this about your botanical break and entry? I already know.”

“Yeah, I figured. I’m sorry about that.”

“Do you understand that what you did was wrong?”


“Do you plan to do it again?”


“Then that’s that. I know the guards have already scolded you.” She studied Winnie. “But that isn’t really what’s bothering you, is it?”

Winnie didn’t answer at first. She’d had something on her mind ever since she’d designed clothes with Helena days ago. Victoria was going to find out one way or another.

“You said you’ve known the high exemplars since before your empire, right?”


“So ever since you’ve made the exemplars, they’ve always had the powers your high exemplars have, right?”


“So back when the Lakirans invaded the settlement my mom and I were living in, the exemplar who scanned everyone must have had flair detection too, right? I mean, it’s not like you’d only give the flair detection to some of your exemplars. You’d want to have the best chance of finding new flairs, but that means you must have known about me years before Mr. Matthews came to Redding.”

“Okay…?” said Victoria, as though Winnie had yet to reach her point.

“That’s it? Okay?” Winnie said. “You already knew about me.”

“Yes. I did.”

“You’re not even denying it?”


“Then why didn’t you approach me then? Why’d you wait three years?”

“You’ve pieced it together so far. You tell me.”

Winnie thought again of that rifle she once owned, the one she swore she’d use… until the Lakirans took it away.

“Because I wouldn’t have come. You waited until I didn’t hate the empire so much.”

“There you go.”

“So that’s why the soldiers returned all the people you guys carted off. If I hadn’t been there, those people would still be in a detention camp, wouldn’t they.”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

“From what I’ve heard, we shouldn’t have ever seen them again. You only had them returned because you didn’t want me thinking worse about the empire. Right?”

“Honestly, Winnie, I don’t remember.”

“But it’s not just that though, is it? Northern California got way more attention than it should have. Even I noticed that. We were one of the first places to get an assembler station for the public, even though we were tiny compared to the east coast. We got food supplies right away. People on the internet say they had to wait months before any relief food came to them. Some people starved to death. If I weren’t there, you guys wouldn’t have cared about us.”

“We might have given your district preferential treatment, but it’s not as if we wouldn’t have cared. We’d treat all districts like yours if we had the resources. I am trying to help the lands I control.”

“But that was three years where the whole point was to… manipulate me into liking the empire? Helena says I’m nothing more than a flair to you. Is that true?”

“You’re doing me a disservice, Winnie. Put yourself in my position. One of your exemplars reports to you that, in one of thousands of isolated settlements, he’s found a flair with great potential, only she’s so hard set against the empire that she was prepared to kill imperial soldiers for no other purpose than to rebel. What else is there to do than to give her time to come around? You forget that all my manipulation benefited you and those close to you, and it will continue to do so. And no, you are not just a flair to me. Your flair is what got my attention, but you’re a part of my life now. If you were just a flair, I wouldn’t bother with your education.”

“I thought that was just a perk to get me to say yes.”

“Must you see an ulterior motive in everything I do? This is why you’ll never be a high exemplar.”

“Okay. I’ll stop. It’s just weird to find out you pretended not to know about me all those years.”

“I’ve explained myself, something I don’t normally do.”

“May I ask one last question?”


“What would have happened if I’d said no to coming here?”

“I would have made a counter offer. There were other ways I could have made coming here more enticing.”

“And if I still said no?”

“Are you asking would I have ever forced you to come here and train by threatening you or your family?”

“… Yeah, I guess.”

“No. I can’t force people to develop their flairs.”

“Why not?”

“Because it just doesn’t work out. Flairs have to want to learn.”

“You’ve tried?”

Victoria showed absolutely no amusement.

“I’m just asking,” Winnie said.

“Well, don’t ask such foolishness.”

“But one way or another, you would have got me here, right?”

“Yes, I would have. But again, Winnie, it’s not as sinister as you’re making it out to be. You’re a flair. The moment that was discovered, your life would change whether you wanted it to or not. There are still splinters of the European Democratic Alliance, and warlords taking advantage in places where my influence is weak. If I had left you there, word might have gotten to them that there was a flair who wasn’t under my protection. They would not have given you a choice. What they know about flairs is limited, mostly what they got from capturing and torturing my exemplars, but it’s enough to make them dangerous. I also doubt they know that forcing flairs doesn’t work. This is part of why I pretended not to know about you until the time was right. It is also why Mr. Matthews instructed you not to tell people about your flair. There are dangerous people in this world who would take advantage of you.”


“Are you quite through interrogating me?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry.”

“It’s quite all right. Come. Let’s go.” She powered the machine down and ushered Winnie back toward the front of her home. At the door to Victoria’s office, Winnie kept walking toward the elevators.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Victoria asked.


“We have a lesson.”

“But it’s not until four.”

“There’s no point in sending you back to school now, and you’re already here. Would you rather sit around for two hours?”

“But… okay. Can we not run over today? You know… if we’re starting early. I need to help Helena get ready for the charity tonight.”

“I’ll try.”

Victoria and Winnie commenced their Friday lesson. It ran over.