65. Drifting Towers

The opening of the kitchenette door awoke Winnie. The lights came on. Winnie folded her feet closer over her face. In her mind, she glanced to see what was happening.

An exemplar had wandered into the kitchenette. He was opening drawers and cabinets one after another, seeing empty shelves. “Fucking hell,” he muttered. “The fuck is the point of these kitchens?”

He checked the fridge, nothing but a freezer section with an ice frost inches thick. The exemplar slammed it shut, sighed, and wandered out. Not once did he glance at the tortoise box.

Mentally, Winnie followed him long enough to see him going to other rooms on the floor looking for anything stored. Whether bored or hungry, he wasn’t finding what he wanted, only bothering the few civilians who now worked on this floor. Little by little, the spire was becoming a populated work center, but it seemed empty now. Her mind checked the sky outside. Night. The clock in her dorm read 11:23.

She tucked her feet closer until her scales pressed against her face. The man thoughtlessly left the light on.

…And the door open.

Hmm.

Winnie stared at it with her mind. Beyond were several halls, doors, tarmac, and a long expanse of ocean.

But still.

In her mind, Winnie plotted a path from her box. She’d have to fall off the table, then the door had a short lip she’d need to climb. Like all doors in this place, it was more of a hatch. This place may be dressed up as an office, but it was still in an aerial vessel.

But if Winnie got past that, she would then walk down the hall, past several civilians working late.

Then came several choices.

An elevator led further up the spire. Nope.

A doorway led out to the top deck. Closed, so no.

A stairwell led both up and down. Perhaps if Winnie and Helena got down to the hangar bays, they could stow away aboard a ship. Who would notice two tortoises nestled behind packages? Anywhere the ship took them would be better than here, but getting to that ship seemed damn near impossible. Multiple hallways. Endless doors. Countless soldiers coming and going in the lower levels. Anyone would stop them.

She nearly dropped the idea when someone opened the front door to the spire. It was one of the civilians. He had a wastebasket, which he used to prop it open. He circled around out of view of the door and took out a cigarette. The door was left unattended.

If the door were to close, he’d need a key card to get in. Propping it must be a minor convenience, even if it meant anyone might get in or out—even a tortoise.

Though suppose she did get out, what then? She’d be on the deck, the only place to go would be into another spire. Or down into another part of the citadel.

…Unless.

Winnie thought of when Alex threw Gilles overboard. It must be at least five hundred feet to the water below, yet she’d seen Gilles flapping his feet after striking the water.

Winnie and Helena were tortoises just as small as he was.

But could she survive from there? It was nearly a quarter mile to land.

A hell of a lot could go wrong, but this was the last time she’d ever have this chance. By tomorrow, either Sakhr or Alex would read her mind, and precautions would be taken. Punishments might be dolled out just for considering it.

So what the hell? If she truly wanted to stop the others from exploiting her power, escape was necessary. She tried not think about what Alex would do to her and Helena if they failed.

Winnie came out of her shell and eyed the cardboard wall of her box. Getting out was step one, and she’d need help.

She approached Helena. The girl was fully withdrawn inside her shell. Winnie nudged her front legs out of the way. Helena pulled in tighter.

Winnie wailed. No response. She nudged and nudged, but still nothing. Helena was wallowing, and she had every right to. After what Alex said, she probably wanted to crawl into a hole and die. But she could wallow in pity later. Winnie needed Helena to be brave like earlier.

Winnie bumped Helena hard. This got her to at least move her legs aside and look out. Winnie wailed, then looked to the wall. Conveying her desire to escape would be tricky.

Helena tucked back away. Winnie wailed again, loudly, causing Helena to wince. Eye to eye, they looked at one another. Helena snapped, pinching Winnie’s nose. Leave me alone it said. The bite smarted, but Winnie didn’t pull away. She wailed again and pushed against box wall. Helena seemed unimpressed, so Winnie pushed her. Helena stumbled. It caused her to bring out her legs to catch herself. This time when Winnie wailed, Helena wailed back. It was an exasperated fine.

This time, when Winnie went to the wall, Helena followed. They both climbed up against the cardboard. The box teetered, but not enough, so Winnie stepped onto Helena to push from higher up. This elicited an irritated hiss from Helena, but it worked. The box toppled. They spilled out. Winnie almost tumbled off the table preemptively.

…Which might have just gotten the fall over with. It was only three feet to carpeted floor, but just looking at it made Winnie imagine the night Sakhr escaped, when that tortoise fell and cracked open, insides like wet slop.

She ignored the thought and braced herself. One. Two. And over the edge she went. The carpet felt a lot harder than it looked. Winnie struck and tumbled. The pain was surprising, like a blow to the head which left her dazed, but amazingly, she landed right side up.

Helena was still at the top, looking down like a cat in a tree. Winnie mewled to her. Helena mewled back. Back and forth they went. The understanding was there. The problem was nerves, and the best coaching Winnie could give was to stand there and stare with her stupid tortoise face. In her mind, she checked on the smoker. He’d returned from his break. The gamble was how long he’d wait until his next one.

Helena moved… to turn away from the ledge. For a second, Winnie thought she was headed back to the box, but then she started backing up. She was trying to… what? Climb down? Her back legs dangled. She edged further. It was like watching a toddler descend stairs. Then all at once, she tipped. A fall, a tumble, a hissed gasp. She landed on her back, and her legs kicked pitifully.

Winnie rolled her over. Both now right side up, Winnie guided her to the door.

Next obstacle. The lip of the door. No problem. Winnie’s hind feet were long enough to push her over, although it was clumsy. She’d been a tortoise for almost a week, and even now she felt as though her limbs were protruding from cutout holes in a cardboard box, as if wearing a terrible robot costume.

They were in the hall now. Next step was to get to the front door, which meant passing offices. Her mind told her that they’d only have to pass one which was occupied. Unfortunately, the occupant was situated such that his open door was in his view. She wondered if it might be best just to wait until he went home… or wherever civilians went on the citadel to sleep. Unfortunately no telling when the smoker will leave either, or if another exemplar might come down from upstairs—

She froze.

The exemplars were upstairs—all of them, just a few stories away. Winnie tried to recall what the range was on their aura sensing. Could they pick up the tension of two souls on the spire ground floor? Her mind went up there, where offices were being converted into bunks. There were dozens of exemplars. Most were asleep. A few were playing on their computers or talked with one another. Only two were in contact with their plaques. If they sensed her, they didn’t care.

Were there any other threats she neglected to think of? Alexander was near the top floor, but he didn’t have a plaque, because for some reason Winnie didn’t care to know, he had kept her body. Sakhr had mentioned he was leaving, taking Sibyl with him. All Winnie could do was keep calm. It seemed a futile effort.

She crept beside the door leading to the office worker. The man seemed engaged in his work.

Helena nudged her and mewed. In the silent office, the noise seemed deafening to Winnie, but the office worker didn’t notice.

Winnie turned. Helena was impatient. There was no way to convey the need to be quiet, but maybe Helena was right. Waiting wasn’t going to make this better. Resolving herself, Winnie got ready. The next time the man leaned toward his screen, she bolted by the door as fast as a tortoise could bolt.

She made it across, and then the man leaned back.

Winnie wanted to yell at Helena to stop, but it was too late. Helena was already crossing, oblivious to the man. Winnie could only watch and pray.

Motion caught the man’s eye. He glanced, leaned to look past the door, but by then Helena was past. Winnie’s heart would need days to recover.

A minute later, they reached the front door, closed at the moment. Winnie had already picked out her hiding spot: the desk where a reception might greet incomers. It would be long dash to the door from there, but it was the best she could do.

Confused, Helena pawed her. Winnie tried to convey her intentions. Staring at the door, she crouched her head low and held her mouth slightly agape, as though panting. It felt like a natural way to convey the idea: wait and get ready, even though logically it made no sense to her. Helena seemed to understand though.

And so they waited. And waited.

Winnie was worrying if a smoker would come around at all when her mind finally saw an office worker get up. Same one as before. Grabbing his cigarette pack, a jacket, and his wastebasket, he headed to the front. He propped the door and disappeared to his same smoking spot.

Winnie moved. After a short dash, she tried inching underneath the hatch door. Her shell caught on the top. Okay then. Moving to where the door met the wastebasket, she tried to push it open. It was like pushing a giant. With every inch of her strength, she barely managed to widen the gap. When she turned to get out, it closed, pinning her shell against the wastebasket.

She wobbled. She pushed. Nothing.

She was stuck. So much for their great escape.

And then Helena started climbing over her. It was uncomfortable, and at the top, Helena had to tilt herself sideways to avoid getting caught herself. The attempt caused her to step all over Winnie, including her head, but she did get through. After tumbling over, she turned and pushed the door, freeing Winnie. They were both through, and now outside.

Winnie led Helena away from the door in the opposite direction of the smoker. They were nearly in the shadows when, “What the hell?”

She froze. Behind her, the smoking man had his hand on the door, but he was looking right at them. Helena stopped as well.

The man stared. Winnie hoped they were hidden, but of course not. They were on a vast, featureless tarmac. He stepped up and crouched by them.

“Huh? How the hell did you get up here?” He leaned closer. “Are you the queen’s turtles?”

No, Winnie thought, we’re tortoises. And no we’re not. Go away.

The man reached. Winnie turned and snapped at his fingers. A miss, but he yelped and recoiled. Helena hissed. Together, they plodded toward him, mouth’s agape and ready to clamp.

The man stumbled away. He hurried back inside and shut the door. Now their time was limited. Winnie scanned around with her mind. The spire they’d emerged from was near the center of the citadel. Any direction would take about the same time to reach the edge, but some edges were closer to the mainland. She picked one, and they were off.

She and Helena were walking across the open deck. Even at night, the citadel had enough light that anyone looking would plainly see them, but there was no point to stealth anymore. In her mind, she saw that civilian talking to the exemplars upstairs. When Alexander heard, he lurched from his chair. He, Christof, and several exemplars raced down the stairs.

Winnie and Helena were half way to the edge once the others got outside. The smoking man pointed out the spot near the door.

“They were here,” he said. “Looks like they walked off.”

“How long ago was this?” asked Christof.

“Two minutes?”

“And they were headed this way?” Alex pointed toward the direction the civilian had seen the tortoises heading. Good. It wasn’t the way Winnie had ultimately chosen.

“I guess so,” the man said. “They looked pretty lost to me.”

“But how did they get out? At all?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know. They were already out here when I stepped out.”

“But someone had to… nevermind. Look at me.” Alex peered at him.

The man looked back, confused. “What?”

Alex threw his hands up. “Oh. My. God. You goddamn imbecile.”

“Hey. Who the hell are you?” the man replied.

“You leave the door to the imperial spire cracked open? Unattended?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I will see you executed.”

“Listen, kid. I told you those tortoises were already out here. I was the one who reported them. They weren’t—”

“Arrest him now.” Alex said to an exemplar. “Take him to a cell upstairs.”

The exemplars seized him.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” the man said.

“I work directly with the queen. Arrest this man for violating security protocol.”

I never violated anything.”

“Let him go,” Christof said.

Alex spun to him. “This man let the tortoises out.”

“He will be reprimanded. He will not be arrested.”

Alex looked like he wanted to yell something back, but instead, “Fine. Just take him back inside.” As they carried him off, Alex turned to the remaining exemplars. “Can any of you sense the tortoises?”

“What?” one asked. “You can sense them?”

Alex gave up and slapped his hand on the man’s plaque. Winnie held her breath as he concentrated. She wasn’t certain they were out of his range.

Fortunately, he didn’t detect them. “Just split up,” he said. Pointing to one exemplar, “You go to the barracks. I want everyone on the deck.”

“You want me to wake the barracks?”

“Yes. Jesus Christ. What is wrong with you people? Get everyone. Find them. The rest of you split up. Search the deck.”

Everyone split off.

“Winnie,” said Christof. “I’d like to speak with you privately.”

“In a minute.” Alex looked around. He made up his mind which direction to check. Whether he followed the same logic as Winnie, or by chance, he headed straight for them.

Winnie just had to circle one last spire and the ledge was would be right ahead. Get over that, and live or die, they’d be free of Alex.

Christof was chasing after him. “We can’t wake the entire base. Those tortoises are supposed to be just tortoises.”

Alex didn’t slow. “We’ll say it’s for sentimental reasons.”

Only a hundred feet to go now. Winnie hurried. From the shadows of the last spire, she raced to the edge, but Helena wasn’t. She didn’t realize how little time they had left, and now Alex was in view.

Of course, Alex spotted her immediately. He sprinted. Winnie charged. He dived. She cleared the ledge.

And his hand hooked her shell.

“Hah! There.” He eased her back in. “Almost had it, didn’t you? Almost had it.” His body—Winnie’s body—was covered in scrapes from diving onto tarmac. Winnie kicked and thrashed, but her limbs reached nothing.

Alex got to his feet and secured his hold on her.

Christof walked up.

Alex held her triumphantly. “She almost got away. Almost.”

“Not quite,” Christof replied, though he didn’t seem nearly as pleased. He frowned and glanced about.

Helena had backed into the shadow of the nearest spire. At a glance, she was hidden, but one good look would spot her. If she sprinted right now…

“Where’s the other, huh?” Alex turned Winnie to look her in the eyes. She snapped them shut and pulled into her shell. Alex pinched her tail, hard. His nails dug between her scales. All she had to do was hold out long enough.

Helena must realize that the plan was. She just saw Winnie try to jump off.

While Alex pinched harder and harder, Helena crept from the shadow toward the ledge, almost into Christof’s view.

“Come on. Come on.” Alex said, pinching harder. His and Christof’s attention were on her. Helena was by their feet now. All they had to do was look down. All she had to do was take another few steps. Why wasn’t she?

“Give it up,” said Christof. “She probably already jumped.”

“No. She’s still here.” Alex even glanced up and down the edge of the deck. He neglected to look right behind his feet.

Christof didn’t. He seemed to glance right at Helena.

“Why?” Christof said. “All you need is this one. She’s the important one.”

“I need that one for this one.”

“You said yourself Paul will crack soon. It doesn’t matter. One day without farseeing won’t kill us.”

Alex spun to face him. “Because they’re mine, Christof. They belong to me. I want my things back.”

“Listen to yourself. You sound like a lunatic.”

Don’t tell me—” Alex cut short and screamed in pain. Helena had her jaw clamped about his achilles heel. Alex let go of Winnie with one hand and grabbed Helena, yet she held on like a vice. His grip on Winnie was loose. She managed to find purchase against his arm with her back legs, and she scraped hard. Hollering, he dropped Winnie. She bounced against the railing. The world spun as she tumbled.

She could only await the crack against the tarmac. Thoughts of glistening, red mess filled her mind. But she kept falling, and spinning, and falling, and everything was dark. She must have cleared the ledge. Water waited below. She pulled into her shell and braced for impact.

Then it came. The water struck harder than any blow she’d taken yet. Her entire body jolted. Every inch of her shell felt like it had splintered.

But it all came to a stop. Though her body stung. Her limbs had pins and needles from impacting both the rail and the water, but already her senses were returning. Ice cold water seeped into her as though she were made of cloth. Her body felt stiff and numb. Winnie had been so concerned about whether she could hold her breath during this trial, she’d never even considered she might freeze to death.

Lower and lower she sank. Pressure squeezed her eyes and ears. Both her skull and her shell felt as though they might implode. Death must be certain. Tortoises were never meant to dive to these depths.

Finally, her shell hit sand. She came to a rest. Winnie couldn’t bear to open her eyes, but her mind showed she was about thirty feet deep. Surrounding her were long towers of seaweed. Small fish darted among the tendrils. It was like Porto Maná, she thought—skyscrapers with tiny hoppers drifting in between. With all of their technology, they still weren’t much different from nature.

Winnie realized she was stalling. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been resting here, but it was longer than just a few errant thoughts. Her mind had grown sluggish from the cold.

Placing her legs upon the sand, she checked the direction of the shore and started moving. With her bouyancy, each step had to be a gentle push. That made progress slow going as she waded through pillars of seaweed. It was pitch black down here. Thanks to Victoria’s lessons, her power didn’t rely on light, but she still couldn’t see well. The murky water hindered her vision. She nearly missed a chasm up ahead. If she were to fall into that, she’d never get out. With all the circuitous navigation she’d already have to do, she would be lucky escape at all.

Winnie never would have been able to guide Helena down here. She’d have been blind and scared. Winnie would have had to push her along.

If Winnie hadn’t left her behind, they’d both have died down here.

She visualized the citadel deck. Alex was checking his heel for damage. Christof had gotten Helena from him, and was now holding her securely. She could have gotten away. Even though she would never have made it to shore on her own, she would have escaped from Alexander, but instead she chose to bite the person who’d threatened to put a blowtorch to her feet. Maybe she did it to give Winnie a chance to escape. Or maybe it had been a glimmer of her stubborn spite.

Whatever reason, Helena sacrificed her own freedom for Winnie. Winnie wished she could get back on that deck and be with her, but Helena wouldn’t want her to. This was Helena’s parting gift.

The citadel deck was lit up. Soldiers caught up to Christof and Alex. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, right,” said Alex. “Of course, now you get here.”

“Call off the hunt,” Christof said. “The animals have been found.”

No,” Alex shouted. “We’re not done. One of them fell over.”

The soldiers looked over the lip of the deck. From up there, it was a black void. The lights of the distant city were the only indication there was a world beyond the citadel. “You want people… to go down there?”

“No,” answered Christof. “It’s gone. Tell everyone to stand down.”

“It’s not gone,” growled Alex. “It will come up on the shore.”

One soldier winced in skepticism as he gazed over. “If the fall didn’t kill it, the crocodiles will. It’s lost.”

Winnie’s mind snapped right back to her own surroundings. Were there crocodiles down here? Her mind darted around the dark abyss around her. Even with her power, the murky water could be hiding something just paces away.

She stopped, paused, and thought. The murky water was obscuring her vision for the same reason the darkness was. It was just preventing photons from reaching her mind’s eye, which it didn’t need anyway. Just because sediment was in the water didn’t mean her omniscient power should be hindered. She visualized her surrounding. What she did next wasn’t quite peeling away the murk, but rather acknowledging it was there, and then acknowledging what was past it.

She succeeded after a few tries. It wasn’t hard since it made sense; she could already read a closed book, yet she still felt a small resistance break away as her power evolved.

…Yay.

More importantly. No predators were near her. She walked on. But by now the thought was in her head. Maybe there weren’t crocodiles, but what about sharks, or jellyfish, or barracudas? She was just a tortoise crawling along at a glacial pace. Apart from a few clusters of seaweed to hide in, she was defenseless. For the rest of her trek along the ocean floor, Winnie focused her mind around her surroundings. She’d look back on Helena once she was safe.

The shore before the beach had many hidden features: rocks, tires, and an amazing number of bottles, both plastic and glass. Her mind showed no dangers, but the last stretch of her trek took the longest. She finally broke the surface of the water and gasped. Even for having reptile lungs, her chest had been clenching.

The air froze her scaled skin, but she was still alive, for now. Finally on the beach, she visualized the citadel. The deck was clear, but she didn’t believe for a minute that Alexander had gone back to sleep. She navigated the beach. The tide had created a thick line of garbage and dead seaweed. Climbing past all those obstacles, she reached crab grass beside a paved road. Beyond that was a stretch of Terracotta houses with neglected yards. Mildewy stone walkways led to sliding glass doors. Laundry lines were draped with washcloths and towels.

The neighborhood stretched on for miles. This was a district on the outskirts of Porto Maná. There was no forest or jungle to hide in, just urban sprawl.

Her hopes of escape had been so slim she hadn’t thought about what to do if it worked. Now what? Blend in? Live under a house? She wasn’t even sure what tortoises in the wild ate. Plants? Bugs?

It seemed pointless now. Alexander still had Helena. Whatever twisted plans he had would still happen, only now Winnie wasn’t there to help her anymore. Helena was on her own.

Then a sick thought occurred to her. What if Alex not only tortures her anyway, but does so knowing that Winnie will be keeping an eye on her? He could force Winnie to come back.

It was just another way this whole escape was a failure. Her friend was still captive, and Winnie had no idea how to survive.

With lack of anywhere better to go, she crossed the road to the yard of a duplex house. As soon as she reached the crabgrass on the other side, lights shined from behind her. A shuttle just landed on the beach. It’s lights and markings denoted it as military. Two exemplars got out and hurried toward the shore. One male. One female. Both had plaques.

They were close. Winnie might already have been within range of their empathy, yet their attention remained on the river.

She hurried along a pathway which took her between two connected houses. Her mind was so fixed on the exemplars behind her that she nearly missed the girl in the shadowed alley before her. The girl was young, maybe late teens, and Brazilian judging from her look. Her many tattoos clashed with her conservative summer dress. Already the girl spotted Winnie. She walked over, knelt, and scrutinized her. Winnie didn’t have time for this, so she tried to walk around. The girl merely moved to put herself in Winnie’s way. Hopefully, this girl, who reeked of cigarette smoke, didn’t see Winnie as a potential pet. When the girl got in her way again, Winnie charged with her mouth ready to clamp.

The girl batted Winnie on the nose. “Stop that.”

While Winnie was startled, the girl lifted her up. Once again, Winnie found herself struggling in vain to scrape with her legs, but this girl knew the correct way to hold a tortoise.

“Hey, kid,” came a gruff voice.

The exemplars had approached to the edge of the yard, looking right at the girl, and Winnie. After all this effort. She was going back. It’s not as though she ever had a chance. Exemplars were up and down the coast looking for her. If they hadn’t caught her tonight, they’d probably come into the city looking for her. Maybe they’d put up signs. Have you seen this tortoise? Big reward. Call the empire.

Winnie probably should have let herself get hit by a car. It would have been it’s own kind of freedom.

“You want to hand over that turtle?” the exemplar said. He holstered his plaque and held his hands out guardedly as though dealing with feral animal. The female exemplar circled to get behind the girl.

“It’s a tortoise,” the girl replied.

“Whatever. It belongs to the queen.”

“I know. Here, you can have it back.” The girl held Winnie out to the approaching female exemplar, who reached to take her.

“Wait.” The male exemplar squinted at the girl. “Kid. Look at me.”

The girl didn’t stop approaching the female exemplar.

“I said stop. Girl, are you… shielded?”

Suddenly everything moved quickly. The girl tossed Winnie to the exemplar, who startled and grabbed her. In turn, the girl grabbed the exemplar, sandwiching Winnie between them.

Winnie’s senses yanked away. There was nothing for a second, then she was falling. The world seemed to pull her down like it never had before. She bumped her head on the earth. Her limbs flailed. They had far more freedom of movement, because her shell was gone. Her skin was hot. Her senses were once again telling different stories and none of them agreed.

“What the fuck?” someone yelled. Then came two loud cracks that seemed to shake her brain. Someone gurgled.

Her eyes showed her a night sky glowing with stars. Everything was far brighter, and much more crisp.

She was human again. She would have recognized it sooner if it hadn’t taken her by surprise. She sat up. The male exemplar was laying paces from her. His chest was soaked red with blood. The girl was past him, carrying a tortoise toward the road. It was her tortoise body she’d just been inside.

With one great heave, the girl chucked the tortoise toward the street.

“No!” Winnie yelled, but it was too late. It struck the pavement with a watermelon crack. The poor thing’s limbs waggled helplessly. It’s insides now painted the asphalt. The girl walked back.

“You killed them,” Winnie said.

“I saw their minds, Winnie. There was nothing worth saving. Now get up. Others will know they’re dead.” She pulled a plaque from a holster on Winnie’s thigh and yanked the battery clip out of it. Something inside popped, and the girl tossed it aside. Winnie was still splayed out on the grass, so the girl grabbed her by the chin and looked her in the eye. “Focus, Winnie.”

Winnie recognized the girl’s demeanor. She was someone who expected you to do as she wanted and would tolerate nothing less.

“Your Majesty?” she asked. “Victoria? You’re alive?” That was obvious. Better question: “Where have you been?”

Victoria eyed her as though Winnie had just confessed to neglecting her lessons. “Do not waste our time with questions, Winnie. Get up. It’s time to go now.”

58. Port Hole Windows

Victoria had caused the war.

That’s what Paul had said. Winnie still wasn’t sure whether she believed him, though she couldn’t fathom why he would have lied about it. It would mean that the one woman who Winnie was hoping would rescue her was in fact responsible for every grief Winnie had ever suffered in the last six years. This revelation should have shocked her, like a splash of ice cold water, but so much else had happened to her that she was already numb. Whatever Victoria had or hadn’t done was irrelevant right now. Winnie needed to focus on her situation, and why her captors had come to claim her.

Sakhr’s soldiers put Winnie and the others inside a smaller box for carrying. A military transport was waiting for Sakhr in a landing zone outside the apartment. It was far from royal, but it was certainly secure. The ride was bumpy, making Winnie queazy.

It didn’t help that she was tucked inside her shell, but it was better than tolerating Alex’s gaze. Her flair told her that if she looked out, she’d still see him there, hovering over their box, wearing Winnie’s body like it had been his all along, peering down at them like a child watching ants toil.

Helena seemed to be recovering from the trauma of their situation. Out of her shell, she stared back at Alex. A human wouldn’t recognize her expression, but Winnie’s tortoise mind saw her defiance. Alex returned her gaze thoughtfully. Either Helena didn’t know that Alex was a telepath, or she was sharing with him a piece of her mind. Whatever he saw caused the corner of his lip—Winnie’s lip—to curl upward.

The other tortoise with them was Gilles’s, who meandered about the border of the box as though drunk. He was stuck in the frame of mind that your feet should be beneath you, and not off to the side.

Winnie traced the transport’s path in her mind. It was not headed back to the military base, but its destination was easy enough to guess. Northwest of Porto Maná, a gleaming citadel floated above the ocean. It was so massive and so still, it was hard to believe it hadn’t been there yesterday. People along the beaches and walkways of the city pointed and stared.

Alex’s interest in Helena waned. He looked at Winnie.

“Hey,” said Alex. “Come out.” He tapped her shell. Winnie ignored him.

“Come out. Come out. Come out.”

Picking her up, he shook her, causing her head to bump around inside her shell. When that didn’t work, he lifted her high and dropped her. Just before hitting the box, he caught her. He’d done this annoying tactic before. Every tortoise instinct inside her lurched. She couldn’t stop imagining the poor tortoise that had been dropped during Sakhr’s initial escape. It’s shell cracked like an egg, revealing slimy red. Winnie still managed to keep herself tucked away.

“Stop being rude.” Alex held her up to peer at her, but her eyes were sealed. He held his finger just before her face, as though to bop her nose.

Winnie shot her head out and snapped, managing to nip the tip of his finger. She tasted blood. Winnie had just bit her own body, but it was worth it.

Alex’s response was swift. Something punched her in the face. Then again. Alex was flicking her with this finger—hard. She swiftly retreated into her shell. Her face hurt now. Her head and neck ached from whiplash. Still worth it.

“That was a very bad thing you just did,” said Alex. “I think later you might come regret that. We have plans for you. I have plans for you. Pretty soon, you’re all going to learn that from now on, you’re all going to do exactly what I want. Tonight, maybe I’ll—”

Winnie.”

Alex looked up. Sakhr was glaring at Alex from across the transport. He was holding a hand over the microphone of his head piece. It took Winnie a moment to realize he was yelling at Alex, and not at her.

“I’m on the phone,” Sakhr said.

Alex looked sheepish. His pouty expression made Winnie’s body seem ditzy and air-headed. “Sorry.”

Sakhr returned to his phone call. Sitting near to him was Paul, handcuffed and strapped down. Paul observed Alex with an expression as though watching a drunkard publicly urinating. Meanwhile, Alex eyed Winnie while sucking his finger. Whatever he was considering, he decided against it. Shrugging, he put her back in the box.

Until now, Winnie had not heard any of these impostors refer to each other by anything but their true name. It made sickening sense that when this group could be overheard by others, such as the soldiers near the front of the transport, they’d use Winnie and Helena’s names. How much of their captives’ lives did they plan to adopt? Was Alex going to contact Winnie’s mother? God, she hoped not. Her mother would know something was wrong. She’d get suspicious and become a liability, and Winnie had no doubt what Alex would do to a liability.

The light from the transport windows dimmed as the craft swooped into one of many openings along the belly of the citadel. The opening connected to a private bay where dozens of officers awaited. The craft touched down. The doors opened. A stout Admiral shouted out to all the men, and everyone saluted as Sakhr came down the ramp.

“Welcome aboard the HIMS Manakin, Your Highness,” the Admiral said. “Admiral Marc Laughlin, citadel captain.” He gestured to a man beside him. “This is my executive officer, Commander Antonio Benito.”

Benito nodded. To the other side of the admiral was army General Soto, or as Winnie knew him, Christof.

Sakhr nodded. “Glad to be aboard, Captain, Commander. Have all precautions been taken?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Laughlin replied. “Air traffic to and from the citadel is restricted. Whitelisting is in effect. All onboard staff have been scanned and accounted for. The reflex grid is set to full alert, and the citadel has been fully combed over.”

Sibyl had come off the shuttle escorting Paul. She murmured into Sakhr’s ear.

“I see,” Sakhr said. “Admiral, Exemplar Serrao has just informed me that there are birds nesting somewhere above us.

“Yes,” Laughlin replied. “That’s probably the family of osprey nested in the bridge spire peak.”

“I was told that the reflex grid on full alert was sensitive to block out birds.”

“Ah, yes. That’s the saying: It’ll turn the birds around. Just a saying, ma’am. We don’t set the sensitivity that high. Too many false positives.”

“Turn it up that high, Captain. I don’t want anything getting aboard without clearance.”

“Birds, ma’am?”

“Or devices the size of birds. We don’t know how enemies got into the Capital Tower. I will not take any risks.”

Laughlin nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“No birds.”

“Er… Understood, ma’am.”

“And my accommodations?”

“Yes. We’ve relocated all civilian personnel from one of the spires. It’s cleared and ready for you to move in, Your Highness.”

“Then let’s get a move on.”

The Admiral led everyone to an elevator large enough to lift a tank. It took them onto the surface of the citadel. From here, it was as though they were standing on the streets of a city. Chrome spires towered around them. Though unlike skyscrapers, they were curved. A cross section of them would be oval.

The admiral led them across the open area. It was paved, and from the marking on top of it, planes could land here, even the old kind that required runways. They stopped at a particularly wide spire, and a pair of accompanying officers opened the door for everyone else. Sakhr was the first to enter. It looked like the lobby of a computer tech company, albeit with aluminum walls, hatchways for doors, and port holes for windows. There was even a reception desk, though currently unmanned. Winnie glanced quickly at the spire floors. Each was bare and abandoned.

“This will work,” Sakhr said.

“Then this will be the new imperial spire,” the admiral replied. “Would you like me to show you the upper floors?”

“Please.”

Everyone headed in. Alex lingered outside on the deck with his box of tortoises, as did Christof.

Once they were alone, they finally acknowledged that they knew one another. They walked together. Alex led them toward the edge of the deck.

“Pretty spiffy place,” Alex said. “Had any trouble?”

“The admiral didn’t like an army general telling him what to do,” Christof replied, “but we got the job done.”

“It might make sense to get you into Laughlin’s body.”

“General is fine,” Christof said shortly.

“If you say so. It might be easier to handle the exemplars on board if we had someone in charge though.”

“The exemplars are handled. They’re remaining below deck to clear any incoming personnel. They won’t come near the imperial spire.”

“Good to hear.” Alex reached the edge. Beyond its precipice was a drop into an endless expanse of ocean far below. He set the tortoise box down.

“What are you doing?” Christof asked.

Alex scrutinized each tortoise. Winnie had her eyes closed. Helena was glaring up at him. Gilles was still figuring out his body.

Alex picked up Gilles. “I’m just…” He looked Gilles in the eye. “…Getting rid…” He stood. “…Of some dead weight.” He chucked Gilles over the edge.

Jesus.” Christof lurched as though to dive after him, but caught himself. “What in the hell, Alex?”

“Don’t need em.”

“You just threw him away?”

“Yeah. That was the caretaker.” Alex picked up the crate and headed back toward the spire. Bewildered, Christof stared after Gilles as he arced into the water far below. Winnie couldn’t help but follow in her mind, despite the gruesomeness of what was to come. Gilles struck the water with a mighty splash. The fall didn’t kill him though. His limbs thrashed as he sank into the cold, dark depths. He would drown slowly now. Winnie knew it would might take hours before death finally took a tortoise. He’d be alone and in pain, and no one he knew would ever know his fate.

Christof caught up with Alex. “Why do you even have the tortoises?”

“Sakhr’s left me in charge of them.”

Christof regarded him skeptically.

“I’m serious,” Alex said.

“And you’re just going to throw them over the edge?”

“Just that one. The others are useful.”

“Useful…”

“Yeah. This one is the flair. This one is the princess.”

“Alex. These are just children.”

“I know.”

“They haven’t done anything to us.”

“I know.”

“It’s because of them we escaped in the first place.”

“I know all this.”

“There’s no reason for them to suffer any more than they have.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“Then why are you keeping them. You don’t care about them. You don’t even know how to care about them.”

“I’ll have you know I was a tortoise for seventeen years. I learned a thing or two.”

“I know you, Alex. I know what your idea of fun is. I’ve never remarked on how you spend your free time, but these children could be important. I don’t want them suffering needlessly.”

“And I agree. These tortoises will not suffer any more than necessary.”

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

They walked to a back room in the new imperial spire. It was a kitchenette, complete with a coffee maker and small fridge, though no supplies were stocked. Alex set the box of tortoises down and faced Christof. “It means we’ve just been tossed the keys to a crumbling empire. It’s supposed to be held together by the exemplars, but they’re going to fall apart at the seams too, unless we replace them. And the one man who could help us do that has decided to make a moral stand. We need every tool in our arsenal. That might include getting these munchkins to play nice. Especially this one.”

He tapped Winnie’s shell.

“Sakhr would not approve of this,” said Christof.

“Christof…” said Alex, amused by his friend’s naivety. “Where do you think I got the idea?” He pointed to his own eyes, and then to his temple. Think about it, the gesture said. He headed toward the spire stairs.

Christof lingered, frowning after Alex.

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.

“What?”

“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.”

52. An Examination Room

“Does this mean I’m in charge of the empire now?” Sakhr asked.

“The throne passes to you, yes, but not officially,” General Soto said, “not until you undergo a coronation. The ministry will have more information about that.”

“I see.”

The medics had just finished checking Sakhr over in an examination room in Fort Leguan when General Soto had come in to address him. Sakhr had managed to keep Alexander and Christof around. They were both checked alongside him.

“However,” Soto continued, “I’m afraid that your responsibilities begin now. We haven’t yet announced your mother’s passing to the press, but we will have to soon—once the forensics team positively identifies her body. You’ll need to address the public. They need to see that they still have a leader.”

“A speech?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ve just told me my mother is dead.” Sakhr said. “And you expect me to go before the empire and tell them… what? That everything is going to be okay?”

“I understand, and I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I’m afraid we can’t put this off. Many rescue workers were there when they pulled her remains from the wreckage. The press is going to catch wind of this soon.”

“Of course.” Sakhr wondered whether he should be showing emotion. He knew practically nothing about the girl whose body he possessed, but surely she would be devastated. He supposed he could pass it off his emotionlessness as shock. He’d been through a traumatizing experience, though all he felt was hungover.

Alexander rested a hand on Sakhr’s shoulder. Sakhr resisted the urge to shrug him off. To an outside observer, Winnie was comforting her friend Helena in the loss of her mother.

“We’ll contact your mother’s speech writers,” Soto said. “All you’ll have to do is read a short script. Just a message of hope and how the empire will survive. That’s all.”

“What about the people responsible?” Alex asked.

Soto nodded. “We will need to say something as to that effect. Unfortunately, we don’t have answers right now. Just tell the world you’re okay, and that we’ll pull through. In the meantime, we need to discuss the matter of your personal safety.”

“What do you mean?”

“The people who orchestrated this attack are still out there. They managed to infiltrate the Capital Tower, one of the most secure places in the empire. Fort Leguan is not nearly as safe, especially given its recent surge of traffic. Even if we secured the camp and scanned all personnel, it’s not secure enough to my satisfaction for you.”

“Scanning the personnel?”

“Yes. So with your permission, I’d like to call the HIMS Manakin down to Porto Maná. That citadel could lock down air traffic and scan all onboard personnel. We’d have more fine grained control with security there.”

“Of course,” Sakhr said, though he had no idea what a citadel was. “What efforts are we making to catch the people responsible?”

“We’ll find out who they are. Rest assured, ma’am.”

“But we already know, don’t we? Bishop. You said he was a high exemplar.”

“Yes. There is a High Exemplar who’s last name is Bishop. We don’t know for sure that it’s the same person.”

“How many Bishops can there be?”

“I don’t know, but until we have more intelligence, we should not implicate the Exemplar Committee in a conspiracy against the throne. They were your mother’s most trusted subjects.”

“My mother’s,” Sakhr said. “Not mine. I want him arrested for treason and brought directly to me.”

“We don’t know that he was involved, Your Highness. We’re contacting the other High Exemplars now. In the meantime, there are two men in the ward who we plan to question. We believe they many have information about the attack.”

“What’s this?” Sakhr asked. “Who are these men?”

“Two other pods touched down beside the one we recovered you from. The occupants were two men who worked in Capital Tower security. We suspect they may have been involved.”

“They weren’t,” Alex said. “They just happened to bump into the marines during the whole mess.”

“Either way, both men are suffering from severe cases of radiation poisoning. We don’t expect them to survive the day. Our onsite exemplars will scan them in a few minutes.”

“But they weren’t involved,” Alex insisted.

“They might have information. And since time is a factor, and neither of them are particularly lucid, a scan will tell us whatever they know before they die.”

“We can’t trust the exemplars,” Sakhr said. “We already know one was involved in this event. Don’t use them to scan those men. Don’t use them to secure the citadel. Surely you must see the problem with that.”

“We suspect a high exemplar was involved, and only one. We’ll take into account that the exemplar’s testimony may be suspect, but we can’t afford to ignore them as a resource. Like I said, these men will be dead in a few hours.”

“Then I would like to be there. It’s in a few minutes, you say? In the infirmary?”

“Ma’am.” He spoke patiently, as though to a child. “You have more important things to attend to. The ministry is already trying to reach you. Let us conduct the investigation. We’ll keep you abreast of any developments. In the meantime, leave out any indictments from your speech.”

“Are you telling me what to do?” Sakhr asked. “I am the queen now. You are my general.”

“I’m only trying to help you, Your Highness.”

“Your Majesty.”

“Your title does not change until the coronation ceremony.”

He said it simply, just stating a fact, but to Sakhr, it said more. Perhaps, “you are not the queen yet.” Or maybe, “I know better.” Maybe the man was just clarifying the point for her, but Sakhr was certain that if Victoria had made the same demand, Soto would have obliged. To the general, Princess Helena was just a princess. Unfortunately, Sakhr didn’t have time to wait until Soto respected him.

He looked Alex in the eye. Alex glanced toward Christof. Christof nodded. All three understood each other.

“General,” Sakhr said, “I’ll let you conduct the interrogation your way, but you and I need to make something clear.” Sakhr hopped up from his hospital bed and approached Soto.

The general did not pull back at all when Sakhr reached to touch his hand. Their fingers brushed, and Sakhr flowed into his body like the release of a static charge. Before him now sat the body of Helena, who flailed in alarm. Calmly, Sakhr reached for Christof, who’s eyes widened, but didn’t resist. Sakhr entered his body, and then reached to flow back into Helena’s. The switch was done. Now for the nasty bit.

Alex circled around behind the body Soto now occupied. The thin, lithe arms of the teenage body Alexander occupied were already wrapped about Soto’s neck. Soto struggled madly. For someone suddenly evicted from his body, he was in far more control of his faculties than most. Sakhr held him down, yet Soto fought back ferociously. The infirmary bed was knocked aside.

Soon Soto went limp. Alex held on for good measure, but otherwise, the sordid affair was over.

Sakhr turned to Christof, who had stood aside during the fight. “General Soto?”

“I don’t know enough about him to maintain that facade,” Christof said. “We shouldn’t have killed him.”

“It’s fine,” Alex chirped. “I saw enough in his head. Come on, General. We’ve got work to do.”

“What about the body?” Christof asked.

“Shame, isn’t it?” Alex said. “Another man attacks the royal line just hours after the explosion. He must have been part of the conspiracy after all.”

“I don’t know if they’ll buy that.”

“Oh, they will,” Sakhr said. “We all saw it. Just as we heard of Bishop’s involvement.”

“Yes,” replied Alex. “Bishop will pay for what he’s done. Come on, General. We’ve got a lot to do, and so little time.”

51. A Strange Coffin

“Sir.” A lieutenant shouldered his way through the Leguan headquarters floor to General Soto. He waved a piece of paper. Soto, however, was still on the phone with the Air Force National Grid Control. He motioned for the lieutenant to hand over the paper.

Do not approach the deployment pods. Keep them isolated. Do not let anyone near them until High Exemplars arrive. These are Victoria’s orders.

-High Exemplar Bishop.

The officer who was chatting in his ear kept talking about the air traffic lockdown, but General Soto wasn’t listening. When there was a lull, he interrupted the speaker.

“I’ll need to call you back,” he said.

Off the phone, he faced the lieutenant. “When did this come in?”

“Just now, sir. Off the Satellite relay comm. It had imperial clearance.”

“Was there any more to the message?”

“No, sir.”

“Send a reply back. Ask him why.”

“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant skipped off.

That exemplar had been sending bizarre orders for the last hour: prepare for incoming deployment pods; do not go near them; keep them isolated; do not interfere. All the while, Bishop was in a shuttle thousands of miles away.

Exemplars didn’t officially have authority over Soto, or any military for that matter. All they ever did was ask and forget to say please. Soto could ignore them, but then they might run off and tell Mother. Every request they gave was understood to be the queen’s direct wishes. Usually, they didn’t state that fact so blatantly, yet this time Bishop had. These are Victoria’s orders.

But why?

He glanced out the headquarters windows into the Leguan landing zone. It had gone from deserted to packed within twenty-five minutes. Camp administrators were commandeering civilian landing zones across the river from Leguan. Meanwhile, fire shuttles couldn’t land at ground zero because the grid was damaged, and the city was just as overloaded, leaving rescue workers to walk as much as five miles with equipment to get to the zone. Queued ships circled overhead like vultures. Without a place to land, the grid held them in landing patterns, but now the grid’s in-air limit was maxed out. Overflow was causing emergency shuttles to ground as far out as Georgetown, which helped no one.

And right there, in the middle of the crowded landing zone lot, was a bare circle with three deployment pods launched in by one Captain Stephano. A ring of soldiers stood guard around them. These are Victoria’s orders. The pods were in detainment mode. Only someone from the outside could open them, so who was locked inside? The enemy? Whoever set off that explosion? Is that why Victoria had those pods quarantined? For all he knew, Victoria herself might be in one. He could only hope. Forty minutes ago, a shuttle left the base which was standing by to transport the queen. That same ship had just been identified in the wreckage.

A sergeant burst into the headquarters. Soto knew it would concern him even before the man beelined over.

“Sir.” He saluted. “Sergeant Caulson.”

“What is it, sergeant?”

“We’ve recovered the occupants of the escaped shuttle. There were two civilians aboard.”

“Not the queen?”

“No, sir, but one of the civilians has information about what happened. I think you need to hear this.”

Caulson led him to a mess hall where a slew of soldiers watched over a young Korean girl and a Brazilian man in his twenties.

“What’s this information?” Soto asked.

The Korean girl spoke. “It was marines, sir.”

“Marines? Lakiran Marines?”

“Yes, sir. I don’t know where they came from, but they took me and Princess Helena captive. They kept us in that shuttle. They were talking with the queen. Negotiating, I think. Then more marines showed up in those pods, and they—”

“Slow down. You’re saying Lakiran Marines took you hostage?”

“Yes, sir.”

Soto looked at the other civilian. “Is this true. Is this what you saw?”

The civilian nodded. “That’s right. I didn’t see much. I just remember a marine shooting me with one of those electrical gizmos, but it was absolutely a marine.”

Soto turned to order a private to locate one of the camp’s two onsite exemplars. Then he remembered both were at ground zero right now, using their aura sense to locate survivors beneath the rubble. A scanning would have to wait. Everything this girl said until then was suspect, or at least he hoped it was. If Lakiran marines were behind this, then his problems were only just getting started.

He faced the girl again. “Do you have any idea what caused the explosion?”

The girl stared back earnestly. “I’m not sure. I overheard someone say something about a bomb in the elevators. I don’t know who they were though. I think they were using code names. Chess pieces or something.”

Soto’s train of thought caught. “Chess pieces?”

“I think so. They called someone uh… Bishop, I think.”

The silence in the mess hall stretched on. Outside in the hall, people ran by.

“Who were they calling Bishop?” he asked.

“Someone on their radios. I’m not sure. I just remember hearing them say things like, ‘Bishop said not to hurt the princess’, or ‘Bishop wants us to stay here.'”

“Did they say anything about exemplars?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What about the princess? Where is she?”

“They took her.”

“How?”

“They shot her and put her in a pod. It took off just before the explosion.”

“They shot her?” So she was in one of those pods, and possibly bleeding out. Those same pods that High Exemplar Bishop ordered him to stay away from no matter the circumstances.

Soto didn’t have to obey a high exemplar. They might report him to the queen for insubordination, but if Victoria was dead, which seemed more likely with every passing minute, then that unspoken threat just became a pile of shit.

“Put these two in lockup,” he said.

“What?” replied the girl, shocked.

“It’s just a precaution until we can get to the bottom of this,” Soto told her. “We need to help the princess.” He motioned for the men to take them and headed away.

“Wait.” The girl was looking right at him. “She’s here? You have to take me with you.”

“No.” Soto resumed walking away.

“She’s going to think you’re with the other marines,” the girl yelled. “I thought you were. I tried to run when you guys found me. Helena was fighting for her life before they put her that pod. She might fight you. Let me be there to calm her down so she doesn’t hurt herself anymore.”

This, Soto agreed, did make sense.


There were computer screens in this strange coffin, though all but one were turned off, and Sakhr couldn’t figure out how to interact with the remaining one. It had a logo on it: ORF. Beneath it in tiny letters: Orbital Response Force. Underneath that was a paragraph explaining that he had been detained and was in transport, that he should remain calm. Farther down were the same words, but in different languages. Touching the screen did nothing, nor did banging on it, or yelling, or kicking the hatch.

It was a perfect trap for him. Complete containment without any hope of physical contact, and they could take him wherever they wanted.

He could only hope the others hadn’t been caught to. Alexander had abandoned him and locked him out of the shuttle just as the marines closed in, but he supposed it was his only choice. Sakhr had been too debilitated to do anything, much less get onboard. Alex had tried at least, which was honestly more than Sakhr would have expected from him.

Sakhr’s body ached from the electric shock. And having been forced to sit still for so long, the alcohol in his system was finally making him drowsy, despite his predicament.

After ages, he finally heard approaching voices. He sat back in the seat and pretended to be unconscious. The ruse almost certainly wouldn’t work, but why not?

A cranked handle echoed in the chamber. With a pressure equalizing pop, the hatch pulled open. Daylight poured in. Had he really been trapped in there that long?

People were near. He would wait until someone was near before grasping out. All he needed was a fingertip against a bare wrist, or a brush of a cheek.

“Helena?” someone yelled. “Helena? Are you okay?”

Someone touched him. Bare flesh, but he had recognized that voice just a moment before. It was Alexander, or rather the small Asian body he was in. Sakhr opened his eyes.

Two men dressed as medics were examining him while soldiers stood by. No weapons were pointed at him, nor was anyone restraining him.

Sakhr moved.

A medic gently stopped him. “Don’t try to get up, Your Highness.”

Your Highness? Sakhr looked around for Alexander. There he was, behind a few soldiers. He had called for Sakhr immediately upon the hatch opening, and he called him by the princess’s name. The implication was clear. These people didn’t know who he really was. Alexander was warning him to stay in his current body.

Alexander nodded in confirmation. Only Sakhr noticed. Ordinarily, he hated it when Alexander was in his head, but he was too many questions. For instance, did he need to be careful about what he said out loud?

Again, Alexander nodded.

The medics were searching over his body. Another shined a light in her eyes. “Are you hurt, ma’am?”

“No. Get off me.” Despite their insistence, Sakhr struggled to his feet and studied his surroundings.

Soldiers surrounded him in what seemed at first to be a parking lot, but it wasn’t. The markings on the pavement more resembled those on a helicopter pad, and the vehicles were strange to him. They had pegs instead of wheels, and their markings were military.

The soldiers were unloading two other pods like his which contained Sibyl and Quentin. Something was wrong with them. Both quivered and sweated. Sibyl had vomit down her front. The soldiers transported them onto stretchers.

Sakhr walked toward Alexander.

“Please, ma’am. Just come with us. We need to examine you.”

“I said I’m fine.”

This time, the medics were forceful. They pulled her toward a shuttle with medical markings. He tried to shake them off, but they wouldn’t stop.

“It’s okay, Helena,” Alexander shouted. “They’re not with the other marines. They’re not with Bishop. These people are trying to help us.”

Huh? Bishop? God damn it. What story was Sakhr supposed to go along with? What the hell was going on? Where was Victoria?

“I want to talk to my friend,” Sakhr said to the medics. Alexander ducked under the guards and darted over. They tried catching him, but a high ranking officer signaled for them to let him though. Sakhr didn’t know these foreign ranks, but the officer had to be a general or an admiral judging from his pips.

Alex hugged Sakhr. “Thank God you’re okay.”

That certainly was an act. “Yes, I’m fine. I’m fine. But what is going on here? Where’s my mother?”

Alex pulled back and looked him solemnly in the eye. “Helena. Just after Bishop’s men dragged you away, there was an explosion.”

“An explosion?” He vaguely recalled hearing it. More importantly, who the hell was Bishop? Was this someone he knew?

Alexander’s gave a minuscule headshake. So he didn’t know Bishop? Yet Alexander said the name like it should mean something.

Alex’s hidden nod was hesitant, so maybe? This must be the game he used to play with Anton, but God damn was it frustrating. So Bishop was someone Sakhr has never heard of, but this person was… what? A supposed enemy?

Nod.

“Your Highness,” this was the officer. “I’m General Soto. We need to take you to safety and look after you.”

“What happened to my mother?”

“The tower was destroyed by what we believe was a failed nuclear detonation. Her shuttle crashed trying to evacuate.”

“She’s dead?”

“I’m afraid so, ma’am. Go with these men to the hospital. We need to make sure you’re okay. As of now, you’re now the acting queen, and the empire is in a state of emergency. Your safety is our top priority.”

…Queen?

50. Noise

“…We have several eye witness reports saying there’s been some kind of explosion in the Capital Tower. We’ve heard from Marcel Acosta, who says that he was awoken by a loud bang. From his window, he saw a cloud of smoke drifting over the campus. Smoking debris was raining down. We’ve just heard Mairin who was working on walkway sanitation when she saw an explosion near the bottom of the tower. She says the tower collapsed moments later.”

“That’s right, Oscar. What we’re seeing right now is from our skyline cam. It’s dark right now, but we can see that a blanket of smoke has covered the Lakiran Campus. We’re hearing right now that the Porto Maná grid system is shutting down except for emergency and military vehicles.”

“And we’re trying… we’re trying to find out if the queen was in the Capital Tower when this happened. There’s no word yet as to what caused the explosion. Or whether this was some kind of attack. We’re trying to get someone on the ground now.”

“That’s right. There’s a lot of confusion right now. We’re trying to find out more. You can see in the footage both the military and the fire department shuttles arriving. They’re touching down at the edge of the campus. We’re not sure if they’re landing there as a security precaution, or if the grid nodes in the campus are offline.”

“We’ll try to get more information soon.”


“Sergeant Cohen, respond.”

The radio hissed white noise.

“Sergeant Cohen, are you there?”

More noise.

Captain Stephano and his Executive Officer Rivera stood behind the orbiter’s Communications officer, Lieutenant Ruiz, as he tried to get in contact with the marines on the ground.

They’d all heard the same thing. The marines had secured the queen’s daughter and cornered other hostiles. Victoria had instructed them to proceed into the building to find two more. The marines had captured them and were escorting them back to the pods.

That was when things went wrong, though no one knew for sure how.

Victoria called for an evacuation. She didn’t specify if that was for Stephano’s men. Earlier, she had told him that under no circumstances were his marines to leave without her consent. Had this been a change of plan? Unfortunately, Victoria was no longer on the line to clarify.

His marines had reported an explosion. Then something about how the tower was shaking. Stephano ordered them to get out of there.

…and that was it.

Radio silence.

“Can you reach the queen?” Rivera asked Stephano.

He hadn’t, but to make sure, Stephano took the orbiter phone and called her again. It went straight to voicemail.

“Sir?” It was his intelligence officer. “The Porto Maná grid picked up four unregistered crafts in that area. Three deployment pods which were taken to Leguan military base. The fourth is a craft registered in the queen’s name.”

“Do you know if the queen was aboard?”

“I don’t, sir. The craft was in emergency touchdown mode. The grid picked it up and transported it to a public landing zone within the city.”

Stephano glanced at the orbital map. Their ship was already outside of deployment range for that area. He turned to Ruiz. “Get me in contact with Leguan now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Leguan has already sent people to intercept,” his intelligence officer said. “Someone is arriving right now.”

“Keep trying to contact them,” he said. He prayed that Victoria was aboard that ship, but if she wasn’t, then hostages were—hostages who needed to be quarantined.


Two military shuttles glided by city skyscrapers. Their flashing lights reflected off the steel buildings. It would have woken the city at this hour, but Sergeant Caulson knew everyone was already up.

Everyone already knew.

The Capital Tower had just collapsed.

Radio chatter had reported an explosion, but no one knew whether it was from a bomb or a missile strike. Sergeant Caulson knew a little more than most. At Camp Leguan, strange orders had been coming in from one of the high exemplars. There had been some kind of invasion in the Capital Tower. If deployment pods were to arrive from there, Leguan soldiers were to keep those pods sealed until more orders came. Unfortunately, no orders ever did.

Through gaps in the city skyscrapers, the soldiers could see the empty space in the imperial campus where the tower was supposed to be. The campus itself was eerily dark. What little Caulson could see looked like a war zone. This catastrophe was the worst thing to happen since the Collapse. Though no one knew whether it was terrorists, or rebels, or some kind of horrible mistake. All Caulson really knew was that he was afraid.

Other military and municipal emergency vehicles swarmed the campus—first responders. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he’d complained about how his orders kept him from responding himself. Internally, he was glad he didn’t have a choice. Already, there were reports of radiation coming from the wreckage. People there were expected to get sick.

The shuttles slowed as they swooped down onto the landing pads at a Porto Maná grid station. There was a ritzy-looking shuttle already there, definitely the one they were here for. The doors were open. A young asian girl and a man were stepping out. The man carried a large cardboard box.

When they saw the incoming military shuttles, they ran, but there was only one staircase off the landing pad, and the military shuttles touched down in their way. Soldiers streamed out, and the two surrendered, but why did they run at all?

The soldiers pushed them to the ground. Others ran into the shuttle and cleared it.

“Is the queen in there?” he called.

“No, sir.”

Damn it. This was the last ship that got away that was still unaccounted for.

Caulson looked in the box the man had been holding. Tortoises. Later on, he would reflect at how odd that was.

He turned to the two detainees. “Where’s the queen?”

Both were too stunned to respond. The little asian girl just stared him at him, eyes wide.

He asked again. “Where is the queen?”

The girl answered. “I… we don’t know. Did she not escape?”

“This is the only ship that got out.”

Some emotion flickered over the girl’s face. “What about the other pods? The princess? What about princess Helena? Is she safe?”

“We don’t know. Who are you?”

“I’m Winnie. I live on the campus.” She gestured to the man with her. “This is… this man worked in the conservatory.”

What happened in there?”

She hesitated. “Marines. There were marines. They were making demands to the queen.”

“What?”

“If something’s happened to the queen, then you need to make sure Princess Helena is okay. The marines sent her away in a pod. She’s not safe.”

“If she was sent away by in an orbital pod, then she’ll be okay.”

“No.” The girl shook her head. “You don’t understand. It was marines taking us hostage. It was a military coup.”

The girl had to be mistaken. A military coup was the most unthinkable cause of this catastrophe, but there were bizarre things going on in the tower before the explosion. Leguan was in the dark about most of it. What orders they had were cryptic.

Whether it was a coup or not, his superiors would need to hear this as soon as possible.


“Any luck getting through?” Stephano asked Ruiz.

“No, sir. I’m just reaching the automated system. All lines are full.”

“Keep trying.”

“I will, sir, but pretty soon we’ll be out of range for a direct connection.”

“The satellites?”

“Unresponsive. They’re flooded with traffic. We might not be able to get through to Lakira until we come back around the planet.”

Stephano stood before the orbital map. The period for their current flight was fifteen hours per orbit. That meant nearly fourteen hours before they’d be within direct range of the capital again.

“Understood,” he said. “Keep trying.” His voice was level, but he wanted to tear the orbital map from its mounts and hurl it at someone. The intelligence officer had confirmed the worst: the Capital Tower had fallen, but he’d gotten that news over the military satellite feed, which meant every single Lakiran outpost and officer in the world found out at the same time. Leguan military base was now waist deep in a state of emergency since it was the nearest base to the capital. Even as one of the largest military bases, it was desperately understaffed for this. Military around the world was radioing in, querying about for a status report. Meanwhile Leguan was trying to organize a rescue effort.

The whole world was talking now, and no one could hear a thing—certainly not from one little orbiter currently twenty-eight miles over the Atlantic ocean. He tried several more times to contact Victoria. Voicemail every time. Intelligence coming from the military feed stated that she was not onboard that runaway ship.

How long before the people at Leguan forgot about their order to keep those hostages isolated?

“We could send a message,” Executive Officer Rivera said. “It probably stands a better chance of getting through than a voice call.”

“No one would read it,” Stephano replied. “Not in time.”

“What else can we do?”

Silence.

Rivera continued. “If we send a message to all officers at Leguan, maybe one of them will get it and pass it on. It might be worth a try.”

It might be.

Stephano straightened. He faced Ruiz. “Keep trying. Get me the moment you get through to anyone.”

“Yes, sir.”

With that, Stephano departed to his ready room off the bridge to draft a letter he knew no one would read in time.


“We’re being told we have to get back. There are reportedly high levels of radiation coming from the wreckage. Anyone not part of the rescue effort is being told to leave. All buildings adjacent to the Imperial campus have been evacuated. This stream of people that you see to my right are people leaving the scene, but no one knows where to go. People standing around in the streets. Others are crying. Nobody here knows what’s going on, Maria.”

“You say radiation? I’m not sure if we should speculate here, but is it sounds like there was some some sort of nuclear explosion. Is that… am I right? Is that possible? From what we’re hearing, the explosion was limited to the tower.”

“What military personnel I was able to talk to don’t think this was a nuclear explosion, but nobody is quite sure what to make of it. We talked to a few witnesses who say they saw military deployment pods land on the roof of the tower just moments before the explosion went off.”

“Hold on. We’re going to have to cut you off. We’re hearing now that there is a broadcast on military channels saying that the queen was aboard a shuttle that was trying to evacuate the building, but it crashed. No word yet as to whether Her Majesty Queen Victoria or her daughter are safe. We’ll let you know as soon as we hear more.”

48. Scaffolding

“Your Majesty, the military transport has docked and is awaiting your arrival.”

Victoria didn’t bother looking up. “Have it stand by.”

“And I’ve just received confirmation that the building has been evacuated of all non-security staff.

She nodded, hardly listening.

Her mind was on Quentin. Whatever it was he had planned, Alexander found it funny, and his sense of humor made her stomach churn.

Currently, Sakhr, Sibyl, and Alex were lugging an assembler down the service stairwell. It carried like an oversized couch. They had to hold it sideways to get it through doors.

Four floors down, Alex had them set it down in the rear lobby and go up for the next.

Quentin sat cross-legged before the first assembler, so involved with the tablet that he hardly noticed the others return. Victoria frequently visualized his design: pipes, or bars. They had notches at points along the length where it looked like they might fit together with one another. Some notches allowed for more angular connections.

It was scaffolding of some kind. It was taking him a while just to make that. The assembler’s local library was so bare-bones that he’d had to waste minutes piecing together low-level molecular fuse instructions just to make the metal he needed.

Victoria checked her phone. Eighteen minutes and Stephano’s men would coast in from the stratosphere, suited up and ready to go. Maybe Quentin could print the pieces in time, but he wouldn’t have time to assemble it—whatever it was.

She could move earlier…

Quentin and Christof were alone while the others were carrying the machines. She could put a team in the elevators, bring them up, and nab those two while Sakhr was away. Christof also carried their tortoise hostages. Sakhr would lose his leverage.

But it had too much chance of failure. Even if security could get a team ready in time, Sibyl would sense people coming up the elevator. Her range was substantially farther than any exemplar, and even Victoria herself. Sakhr could be up the stairs and in the lobby before the elevator doors would open.

Of course, if Victoria herself went up there, Sibyl wouldn’t sense her coming. She could destroy Quentin’s machine and be gone before they could react.

Victoria dismissed the idea. Too much risk.

She watched the others drag the second machine down the stairs. They all gasped and wheezed. Two floors down, Alex dropped his end of the machine. “Okay, forget it,” he said. “This is good enough, let’s just get it in here.” He opened the door to that floor’s lobby.

“You said this goes four floors down,” Sakhr said.

“Never mind that. We’ll just leave it here and carry the supplies down as they assemble.”

“We’re not going to be lazy. If Quentin wants these on the fifty-sixth floor, then we’ll put them there.” Sakhr lifted his end.

“I know the plan. Okay? It doesn’t need to be exactly the fifty-sixth floor. So let’s drop this off here. If Quentin says to finish, then we’ll finish, but I know he won’t.”

Sakhr frowned. “Fine.” He maneuvered his end toward the door.

Alex wiped sweat from his face…

…then when Sakhr wasn’t looking, he held his finger to his lips and shook his head at Sibyl.

She had looked like she was about to say something, but that stopped her.

So it was a ruse.

Alex wanted the machine on that floor. Sibyl could sense the falsehood of his supposed exhaustion, and he kept her from mentioning that.

Why?

What plan needed one machine on fifty-six, and another on fifty-eight?

As they navigated the doorway, Victoria’s mind jumped back to Quentin. He’d finished whatever he was designing. Now he and Christof were carrying the fuser assembler out of the room and down the hall. They dropped it off in Victoria’s servant corridor, just outside the service elevator. As they finished, Sakhr and the others returned.

Quentin looked at Alex. “You guys ready to get this one downstairs?”

Alex shook his head and rested his hands on his knees. “No. We’re done with that. We’ll just bring the materials down as they assemble.”

Quentin shrugged. “Sure. Whatever. I guess we can get them started.”

Oh, Quentin. He cannot lie, not like Alex. If Victoria had any doubts that this wasn’t exactly what Quentin wanted, Quentin dispelled them the moment he didn’t throw a fit about the others’ incompetence.

So why orient the machines like this, vertically aligned, with a floor between each?

She could only watch on…


Christof took over watching Winnie, Helena, and the other tortoise. He’d found a box to keep them in. While the jostling was nauseating, Winnie preferred Christof to Alex as a captor. He was gentle. When Helena accidentally flipped trying to peer over the lip, he righted her.

Winnie didn’t need to crane to see what was going on.

She’d watched the struggle to move the machines downstairs. Now, they stood around as Quentin hooked the tablet into the assembler and fiddled with the menu. The machine hummed.

“There we go,” he said. “Let’s go.” He headed for the stairs.

“We’re just leaving that there?” Sakhr asked.

“We’ll come back for the stuff later.”

Sakhr eyed Quentin as they descended. On the next floor, Quentin set that machine to assemble the another set of notched bars. Same with the fifty-sixth floor. Whatever he was making, he was making three of them.

Quentin led them back up to Victoria’s private suite. “All right, now the next part is a little tricky,” he said. “On the balconies, I bet we’ll find reflexors set up around the banisters.”

“What are those for?” ask Sakhr.

“Security. They push things away from the balcony: birds, bullets, would-be assassins. The nodes will be lining the rim of the balcony floors. We need as many as we can get.”

“I meant why do we need them?”

“Because I can’t assemble those things. I mean, I could. But they’re complicated. It would take me too long to design. No more questions.”

They found Victoria’s bedroom. It was filled with rich, dark woods and tapestries. There was a fireplace large enough to stand in. It had real ash beneath its grate, and a chute leading to a lonesome chimney on top of the tower. The bed had four posts at the corners with adjoining draperies for privacy. It redefined the term king-sized.

“Jesus…” Quentin eyed the decor. Everyone else looked about like guests in a museum. On the balcony, Quentin inspected the base of the guard rails. “Good. Here they are. You guys start on the other side.”

The others drifted closer, though only Alex helped. The nodes were strung together like Christmas lights. Once they’d detached a length, Quentin pried a node open.

“I need a… yeah.”

Before he could finish, Alex handed him a screwdriver. He tinkered with its insides, then popped it closed. Holding it at arms length, thrust it downward. Instead of smashing it against the floor, Quentin’s arm moved as though he were pushing his arm through a viscous fluid. His muscles strained.

“Perfect,” he said. He started on the next node.

Sakhr frowned at the device. “I don’t understand. You just unplugged those. How is it getting power?”

“They’re getting it from the fall. These are reflex nodes.” Seeing Sakhr’s confusion, Quentin continued. “Okay, do you know about the law of energy conservation?”

Sakhr nodded.

“That’s what this is. When a node generates a repulse field, it pushes everything inside that field away from itself. How much energy it expends is relative to how much mass is in the field. So a node projects into air, it doesn’t spend much energy. If something enters that field, then suddenly there’s more mass to push. More energy is expended. That’s how repulse nodes detect things, like with Stiller fields. You with me?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, so if the node pushes on something that’s at rest, it adds kinetic energy relative to the node. Electricity into kinetic energy, right? Energy is conserved. But when mass enters the field moving toward the node, the node pushes on the mass, slowing it down. It’s expending electric energy to reduce relative kinetic energy, so where is the energy going? Heat. Then one day I figured out how to optimize repulse nodes, like this.” He held up a node. “When this pushes on something such that it slows the mass relative to it, it converts the kinetic energy into electricity. That’s why these little things don’t need power, because pushing mass through their field toward the node collects energy. Then it uses that energy to push back.”

He pointed the node downward and dropped it. The node drifted slowly down at first, until it rotated. Then it arced and fell.

“If you have three oriented like tripod legs, they won’t tilt and fall. That’s basically how most drifting ships work. In theory, with perfect efficiency reflex nodes, they would stay floating forever once it pushed against something that doesn’t flow, like earth. Too bad nothing is ever perfect, but these are still great for gliding.”

Sakhr tensed and spun toward Quentin. “No!”

“What?”

“Is your plan to… are you building an aircraft?”

Quentin grinned broadly. “No questions.”

“Absolutely not. We are not flying on some cobbled-together gliding device.”

“I thought you said you trust me.”

“Not with this! I know how complicated flying machines are? You expect me to believe you can build one out of salvaged parts? I don’t care what your flair is. That can’t possibly work.”

“What if that is what I’m doing,” said Quentin. “Would you rather stay here?”

“Look, look.” Alex addressed Sakhr. “Sure, this isn’t the safest mode of travel. It probably doesn’t meet your standard ‘point zero zero one basis points‘ of acceptable risk. Quentin doesn’t have time to perform enough test flights to satisfy you. And sure, there’s a slight chance of instantaneous death. But since the alternative is to wait here until Victoria moves on us, what the hell?” He put his hand on Sakhr’s shoulder. “Tell you what. How bout I find you a helmet.”

Sakhr slapped away Alex’s hand. “Is this what you found so damn funny? There is no chance in hell I’ll fly out of here in a ramshackle machine.” He faced Quentin. “Change the plan.”

“What would you rather do?” asked Alex. “Blast our way through the security lobby? Fight all of her people? You think that’s safer? We need a head start, and we won’t get that walking out of here on foot. I’ve seen Quentin’s mind. What he’s building is risky, sure, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s got his power. Don’t you trust our powers?”

“This is insanity.”

“Just remember. My life is on the line too, and I agreed to this.”

“And you’re insane.”

“Maybe. Seventeen years as a leather pet can do that. Are you in?”

Sakhr scowled at him. “We’ll see.”


We’ll see, he said.

Surely Sakhr would know better than to go along with such a dumb plot. Surely his desperation hadn’t exceeded his aversion to risk. Quentin should know better too. He may have insight into physics, but that doesn’t make him a good pilot… unless the idiot considered his video game skills as experience.

This still didn’t explain why they bothered separating the assemblers.

She visualized what the machines were producing. Each had only made three or four bars that could latch together, hardly enough to build a glider for one, much less for all of them. Since Stephano would deploy in… (Victoria checked the time) six minutes. Quentin clearly thought he had more time than he actually had.

She called for Gandara. “Captain.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“If an unregistered vehicle were to leave from the tower, would the grid be able to catch it?”

“Unregistered vehicle?”

“Like a hang glider.”

“It should, ma’am. The Lakiran campus has a sensor grid starting at the eighth floor and up. Any unregistered mass greater than twenty kilograms will be snagged and delivered to a holding area.”

“Where is that?”

The military base at Leguan Island.”

“Can you arrange for the system to separate the objects and isolate them from one another?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Call the base. Have them stand by. Tell them that if the grid should deliver anything, that they are to isolate the target with wall bots and stand by. They are not to approach.

“Yes, ma’am.” He got to work.

Not that Victoria could allow it to come to that. If Quentin did try to fly off, the grid would not pick up small things, like falling tortoises. That was unacceptable.

She’d capture them all and figure out their plan later. This nonsense needed to end now.


Quentin set down the string of reflexors. “There. That’s done. Time to get the supplies.”

Sakhr stood and headed for the door.

“Not you,” Quentin said.

“What? You need help carrying the supplies upstairs, no?”

“I do.” Quentin ripped some drapes off Victoria’s bed. “So take these and go to the roof while I get the poles. We’ll put it all together up there.”

“What about those reflexor nodes?”

Quentin shrugged. “I’m taking them.”

Sakhr narrowed his eyes.

Alex came came over and took the drapes. “Stop worrying, Sakhr. I’ll be with you. Quentin will meet us on the roof.”

“I do need somebody to help me,” Quentin replied.

Alex looked around. “Sibyl, you’re wearing a strong body. Help Quentin carry the poles up. Christof, get the tortoises and come with us.”

So they split up. Quentin and Sibyl headed downstairs while Alex, Christof, and Sakhr headed to the roof.


“The marines are dropping now, Your Majesty,” Stephano said.

“There are three people on the roof. One is my daughter. You need to neutralize her immediately.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And another has a handgun, but you must not hurt her. Incapacitate, disarm, and isolate. That’s all.

“Understood.”

Victoria was micromanaging again. She couldn’t help herself. The action would start any moment, and Quentin was up to something…


Sibyl followed Quentin to the elevator lobby on Victoria’s private floor. The assembler there had produced five rods which lay in a row in the dispenser tray. Each was an arm’s length. Quentin bundled them up and wrapped the cable of reflexors around them, making sure the reflexors faced outward.

“What are you doing?” asked Sibyl.

“You’ll see,” Quentin replied. “You’ve got to promise me that if I tell you to do something, you’ll do it. Don’t hesitate. Okay?”

“Okay.” Sibyl sounded unsure.

“Good.” Having bundled the bars together, he let them drop. They lowered into the dispenser tray gently, as though the rods were trying not to make a clatter. “Let’s leave this here for a minute. And get down to the others.”

He headed for the stairs. Though Sibyl frowned in confusion, she followed.


Alex was on the roof first. He went straight to Victoria’s hopper and opened the hatch.

“The craft?” Sakhr said. “I thought we couldn’t fly this.”

“We can’t, but that’s not—”

“What are those?” Christof was pointing up.

Six black dots were rapidly approaching from the sky.

“Get inside!” Sakhr dashed for the rooftop door, but Alex caught his shirt, nearly yanking him off his feet.

The black dots expanded to become deployment pods. Each slammed onto the rooftop along the edge. Their hatches exploded outward. Marines jumped out. Each wore full covering military gear, complete with a respirator mask over their faces. They all brandished rifles.

“Inside!” Sakhr yelled.

“No. The ship. Get in the ship.” Alex pulled him toward the hatch.

The marines open fired. Barbed flechettes ricocheted off the hopper. One struck Sakhr in the side. Screaming, he crumpled.

Alex drew his security pistol fired wildly at the marines. They evaded.

Turning back, he grabbed Sakhr’s collar and pulled him toward the hopper. “Help me,” he yelled. Christof tossed the box of tortoises into the hopper and helped Alex with Sakhr.

Before they could pull him aboard, a marine fired electrified barbs at the hatch. Christof crumpled into the hopper. Sakhr fell to the platform concrete.

Alex returned fire. Two bullets punched into the marine’s reinforced armor, causing him to stumble back. Other marines approached. With Christof incapacitated, Alex couldn’t lift Sakhr fast enough. He pushed him out of the way and slammed the shuttle door closed. Inside, he frantically yanked a switch that looked like it might be a lock, but kept a constant pull on the door handle, just in case they could open it anyway.

Seconds passed. Tentatively, he let the hatch door go. When nothing happened, he scrabbled to the cockpit.

Out the window, he saw the marines dragging Sakhr toward their deployment capsules. They shoved him inside one and slammed the lid. The capsule lifted into the sky like a buoy released from the ocean bottom.

“Ta ta, old man. I never said there wasn’t risk.”

He fumbled with the dashboard. Once he’d turned the hopper on, he sat back and waited.


But what was Alexander waiting for?

Whatever it was, it had to do with whatever Quentin was doing. It made Victoria nervous.

Her mental gaze of Alex was diverted by Captain Stephano.

“They’ve rescued your daughter,” he said. “We’ve sent her off in a deployment pod. Other hostages have holed up in your shuttle.”

“Good. Leave them alone for now. Have your team proceed downstairs. There are two in the service stairwell. I want them stopped.”

“Understood, ma’am.”

She nearly hit the call end button, but stopped. “And keep my daughter isolated. No one opens her pod until I say so.”


Quentin was opening the door to the fifty-sixth floor when Sibyl snapped her head up to look at the ceiling.

“People just arrived,” she said.

“What? How many?”

“A dozen, maybe. They’re fighting. Sakhr is panicking.”

“God fucking dammit,” Quentin growled. “I needed two more minutes. That’s all. Fuck.” He glared at the door. “Fuck it. We’re still doing this. I’m not going back in a damn lizard. Come on.”

The assembler in the lobby had produced five poles, just like the others. Quentin ran past it to the service elevator. Popping a release catch along the door frame, pried open the door. “Okay. Grab those sticks in the tray and throw them down the shaft.”

“What?” said Sibyl. “Down the elevator?”

Do it now.”

Sibyl grabbed the bars. Her hands recoiled at first, but she tried again and tossed them through the door. They clattered down the shaft.

Quentin released the elevator door and ran toward the stairs. “Come on. Next ones.”

Sibyl hurried after, cradling her hands. “Why were they so hot?”

Quentin held the stairwell door open for her. As she passed, he mumbled, “Because they’re radioactive.”

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.

“Yes?”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Meaning?”

“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?”

“Probably.”

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.”

“Ma’am?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Understood.”

“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?”

“What?”

“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-sems?”

“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?”

“Okay.”

“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.”

“Explosives?”

“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?”

Now!”


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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Bishop?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”