114. Ignorance

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

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

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

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

“We’re expected,” Christof said.

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

“We’re here to see the queen.”

“Identification, please.”

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

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

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

“You’re getting scanned.”

“We’re in possession of privileged information.”

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

Christof’s hands tightened on his briefcase.

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

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

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

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

Josephine waved Christof and Winnie over.

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

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

Christof held up the suitcase.

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

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

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

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

“I need a word with you.”

“Madame. Where is the queen?”

“Is she okay?”

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

“She needs to make a press announcement.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie set Helena on the table.

“A turtle?” Alex asked.

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

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

105. The Sovereign Citizen

When the pod dropped from the ship, Winnie had expected to see Victoria’s hair lift about her like a halo now that she was in free fall. It didn’t happen. Apart from the initial lurch and some turbulence, the gravity inside the pod remained normal, even as the pod screamed through the atmosphere, building up an aura of burning light around it as it soared. A repulse field in the pod must have been correcting the gravity. Made sense. Winnie had seen those pods touch down on the news. If there wasn’t an internal repulse field manipulating G-force in the pods, the marines would turn to paste upon landing.

“Are you having trouble following me?” Victoria yelled over the rumbling.

“No,” said Winnie from the captain’s ready room. The others glanced at her as she seemingly spoke to no one. Josephine, Christof, and Tan sat across from her, each with glyph cards—awaiting orders, although Tan was watching a show on his tablet.

Victoria’s pod plummeted like a meteor. Already she was over Brazil. The terrain and cities grew close. Seconds before she’d have struck the earth, her pod arced to skate a quarter mile above Brazilian forests. The pod jostled. A beep sound inside, and a light came on.

The grid had picked her up.

The hidden traffic nodes beneath the earth worked in tandem to slow her momentum as much as they could before she skipped past. The timer inside the pod indicated touchdown in seconds, but Winnie still had no idea where to look ahead to. The machines knew though; that’s what mattered.

The pod changed trajectory again and careened into a field. The crash echoed like thunder, sending birds into the sky. Inside, the repulse field kept the landfall down to a shudder. Victoria’s restraints popped free. Lighting came on around a prominent button on the inside of the door. A marine would punch it and immediately be thrown into whatever hostile situation they were deployed to. Victoria took a moment to adjust her clothes and pat herself down.

Satisfied, she pushed the button. The pod hatch blew open. She daintily climbed out and looked around. She was in a field beside a highway road. Of six lanes, only one each way was maintained, the rest were crumbled. A few ancient trucks lumbered along. Overhead the highway, shuttle cars soared through the air along an invisible line.

Winnie checked where Victoria was relative to where she was going. Not too bad.

Victoria saw it too and set off in a direction. About five hundred meters ahead was a border gridport. Air shuttles touched down in lots. Throngs of luggage-toting travelers came out, where guards and signs directed them to customs and border patrol. Inside, they waited in masses for workers in a long row of kiosks to call them up to check their credentials. Brazilian police and soldiers dotted the port, and a barbed wire fence surrounded the land.

“Do you see where I’m going?”

“I see it,” said Winnie.

“Look around. Find any investigators.”

Winnie’s mind swept the area. Everything seemed normal. If anyone was investigating the landed pod, they weren’t coming from there. She widened her search. There was a nearby village. Most of the buildings were dilapidated. She gave a quick glance in a dozen or so empty buildings and determined it was a ghost town. Looking further, she saw dead forests, a few new farms, and several deserted settlements. Basically, a whole lot of nothing. To be expected at the border of the empire. If it weren’t for the grid chute passing through here, this part of the world would be returning to nature.

Winnie’s next check was Alexander. He had been in his meeting with the Indian delegates when an officer interrupted him with an alert. The military picked up an unscheduled deployment drop. A ship had been detected, and a squad sent to intercept.

“Alexander knows,” Winnie said.

“I see. There’s nothing we can do about it. Tell Rivera about the squad.”

Winnie stepped onto the bridge and shared the knowledge. Rivera nodded. The squad was expected, but Winnie didn’t like the worry she sensed in the auras of the bridge crew when she shared their trajectory.

Winnie returned to the ready room. Soon, Victoria reached the edge of the woods. A few steps further and she’d be in view of the gridport security on the landing tarmac.

“It’s time to play a game,” she said. “What gets me inside? I need a time and a direction of approach.”

Winnie nudged Tan. Reproachfully, he paused his show and looked Winnie in the eyes. She mentally pushed along Victoria’s order. From dice scattered before him, he picked several, cleared the rest, and rolled.

“East south-east side. Count to one hundred thirty-two and go.” He resumed his tablet.

Victoria tramped through the woods without any attempt at stealth. After circling the property, she waited. “Play a game of Spotters.”

Winnie got Tan’s attention again, and pushed the situation. Sighing, he slid some dice to Josephine while keeping a set for himself. Josephine rolled first. She studied her results, then looked Winnie in the eye. Winnie wouldn’t have known how to interpret the dice herself, but she saw in Josephine’s mind where to look—about forty feet up in the air. It was a complete dud of a roll, but that was expected from her.

Tan’s turn. His roll had Winnie looking deep into the gridport. She followed as best she could, and ended up in a communications room. Guards waited around a desk where a man on a phone wrote instructions down. Tan’s roll couldn’t have been random. Unfortunately, the security officer was not speaking English.

Winnie got Christof’s attention. They locked eyes, and he listened to them. Part of his contribution to this was his centuries-worth of lingual skills.

“Oh, dear,” he said.

“What is it?” Victoria said as she crunched through dead foliage.

“I have no idea what they’re saying.”

“What who is saying?” asked Victoria.

“We found some guards on a phone. They look like they’re getting new orders,” said Winnie, “but they’re speaking Spanish.”

“They’re speaking Portuguese,” Christof corrected.

“Which is a language you knew,” said Victoria.

“I did. Once. Almost a hundred and fifty years ago. They didn’t have words for airplanes or phones or repulsers. I’m not sure if… no, hold on. Okay. They’re supposed to leave and look for something. No. Someone. People. Something fell down. Yes. They’re looking for the pod.”

“Winnie,” said Victoria. “Are they soldiers or security guards?”

“They’re just guards, I think.”

“Are they shielded?”

Winnie checked over their bodies. “I don’t think so.”

“Then I want you to—”

“On it.”

Hold on. Wait until they’re gotten their orders. Then do so.”

Winnie waited. Once the man on the phone hung up, he shared his new orders to the others. Winnie mentally linked with Josephine, and he trailed off. After studying his notes, he restarted, only to trail off again. The other guards shuffled. Eventually, the man gave up and returned to work. Everyone else trickled away as though their water cooler chitchat had ended.

“Done,” said Josephine.

Prodding Tan, Winnie returned to playing Spotters. Tan won the last round, but this time Josephine and Tan found nothing. Draw.

“The place should be safe now,” Winnie said.

Victoria finished counting down and strode toward the gridport. A barbed wire fence barred her way. With no way around, Victoria climbed. At the top, she deftly stepped over the curled razor wire, getting several slashes for her effort. A security camera was trained on Victoria. Frantically, Winnie looked for the associated security room.

It was nested inside the gridport. An army officer was on duty, but someone else had come into the room to talk with him. The motion detection feature of the security system had made Victoria prominent on his screen, but neither paid attention. When Victoria’s pants snagged, she spent nearly a minute decoupling herself, rattling the chain links with every move.

Winnie held her breath. The officer’s conversation was ending. Already he was turning back to his screen. Just a glance and she’d be spotted, and like all soldiers, this man was shielded.

“Hurry,” said Winnie. “You’re on a camera.”

“I’m fine,” Victoria muttered. Victoria cleared the razor wire and climbed down the other side. The officer turned to his desk. His eyes were on his tea. After a sip, he glanced at the screen. Victoria had moved on.

“Do you know how close you just came to getting caught?” Winnie said.

“Nonsense. Trust the dice, Winnie. They’re not telling me what to do to succeed, they’re telling me whatever I need to hear so that I succeed anyway.”

“It’s still nerve wracking. What now?”

“Just keep an eye out.”

Victoria marched across tarmac and entered the gridport through a service door. She was in a terminal. Families and commuters waited for shuttles. Flight announcements sounded over speakers. Restaurants and convenience stores lined the walls, though most were closed. This gridport had been built before the Collapse. There was more traffic then.

Victoria walked through like any other traveler, though numerous cuts marred her arms and legs. She arrived at a security checkpoint and was already on the secure side. Kneeling, Victoria took from her pocket a few dice of her own, which she rolled on the floor. Winnie didn’t know the game, but timing must have been part of it, since Victoria took a seat in a nearby bench and waited. Minutes later, she marched abruptly toward the checkpoint, dropping her dice in a waste bin as she passed. After exiting the secure terminal, she turned and got into line to get right back in. A short wait later, it was her turn at the checkpoint.

A guard with a security wand said something to her in Portuguese.

Victoria replied calmly.

“He wants her passport and ticket,” Christof said for Winnie’s benefit. “She’s refusing.”

The guard repeated himself, and so did Victoria. She held out her empty palms. His eyes widened upon seeing her bloody arms. He called others over. They surrounded her. With hands resting on holstered weapons, they barked orders.

“They’re telling her to lie down,” Christof clarified.

Victoria complied. The men searched her and took her to a holding room. They spoke among each other in the other room.

“Are you listening, Christof?” Victoria asked.

Christof still had eye contact with Winnie. “I am,” Christof said. “So far everything is going to plan.”

“Translate everything said for Winnie. Keep her up to date.”

“I will do so.”

A soldier came in and sat across from Victoria. He stared her down a while, looking over the tattoos covering her wrists and neck. Victoria kept her eyes on the table.

“He’s got a glyph card in his wallet, and a shield stone around his neck,” said Winnie. “Do you see it?”

Victoria didn’t answer.

“Hello,” the guard said in Portuguese. Christof translated his words. “I am Captain Russo. I’m going to ask you some questions. First, what is your name?”

“Why have you detained me?” asked Victoria.

“You are trying to cross the border without papers or ID. Where are you trying to go?”


“Where in Colombia?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“It is my business. This is our gridport. You will answer my questions or you will be arrested.”

“On what charges?”

“Illegally crossing the border.”

“That’s nonsense,” Victoria said. “You can’t charge me for that.”

“You will find that we can. This is a serious matter. Now I’ll ask again. What is your name?”

She looked him in the eyes. “I’m not telling.”

He stared back and frowned. “Do you have a shield on you?”

“A what?”

“A shield stone. It is illegal for anyone accept military and security personnel to have a shield.”

“Are you trying read my mind? I never gave you permission.”

“We don’t need it. Do you have one?”

“You cretins already searched me. Did you find one?”

“This is a very serious matter,” he replied, irritated.

“You already said so.”

“I will ask you one more time. Do you have a shield?”

“Go to hell.”

The man stood and turned toward the door. He took one step when Victoria lunged and tackled him. He yelled and struggled, striking Victoria in the face. Blood streamed from her nose, but she kept clawing ferociously.

Suddenly she faltered. Russo shoved her off, took his baton, and clubbed her across the temple.

Other soldiers rushed in and apprehended her, but by then there was nothing to do. She was limp. Blood trickled down her face.

Winnie held her breath and watched. It had been hard to tell what had happened.

“What was that?” asked one of the guards. Christof still translated the conversation for Winnie.

Russo shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know.” Bending, he picked up his shield stone, which had come loose in the fight. The other men yanked the girl to her feet. She couldn’t keep her legs beneath her.

“Get her out of here,” Russo said.

The guards either ignored or didn’t notice Russo’s sudden change in accent. The girl was taken to a holding cell, and someone called for an ambulance. The blow on her head had left her unresponsive. The excitement settled down after twenty minutes. Everyone returned to their posts. Russo pulled one of the other men aside.

“Yes, sir?”

Russo reached for his neck and yanked away the man’s shield. Surprised, the man reached to catch Russo’s wrist.

“Stop,” Russo said. The word was like a force of its own.

The guard’s hand snapped back by his side.

“Good. Listen carefully. I saw something alarming when I read that girl’s mind. I need to go to the HIMS Manakin and report this to the Exemplar Committee, and I will leave immediately. Is this clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Russo handed him back his shield. By the time he’d put it back on, he didn’t remember it falling off at all. He could hardly remember the conversation he’d just had, but he got the gist of it.

Captain Russo was headed to the citadel.

96. A Right to Know

“And then we look at this one?” The imperial marshal pointed to another camera feed. It showed hundreds of civilians walking through the Fortaleza grid terminal. Crowds weaved through each other as everyone headed to their destinations.

Alex recognized two who walked past the view like any other traveling pair. Christof had changed from his military uniform. The woman wore the same ratty clothes, because why bother changing? The police were looking out for her skin.

“And, here. This is where it happens.” The marshal switched to a feed showing the security checkpoint. Christof and Zauna got into a security line. Several guards looked right at Christof. A few moved closer, but all lost momentum. By the time the two were through, several guards were clustered close enough to snatch them, but half weren’t even watching. Only one seemed to notice; he raised his hand helplessly to catch them, but as though his depth perception were off, he didn’t come close. Afterward, he and the guards returned to work.

“And you’re saying all those guards had glyph cards?”

“In some form or another. A lot of agencies have been encouraging them, at least until regulation comes down from above.”

“And yet none of the guards stopped them…”

The marshal spoke casually. “Looks like a slip up with administration. This was pretty far from our search area. The guards weren’t on high alert for the fugitives.”

“No. Look, right there. Right. There.” Alex zoomed the feed in on a bulletin by the security checkpoint. The resolution was low, but Alex had seen enough of the wanted posters to recognize Christof and Zauna’s face. “Those are the alerts.”

“Yes.” The marshal shook his head as though he couldn’t believe it himself. “Terminal security claim they did alert them, but the guards all insist that they were never informed about the manhunt.”

“Of course they did,” because they all had their god damn memories erased. “What flight did they take?”

“They took the night shuttle to Lisbon Airport. We’re not sure where they went from there. We’re still trying to get footage sent over. Nobody remembers seeing them.” The marshal straightened. “We still got a good shot at catching them. Spain is on high alert now. Actually, the fugitives may have screwed themselves by going there. The grid only extends to Madrid. After that, they’re on roads, and our military presence is still strong there. All they’ve done is hopped to a much smaller haystack.”

The marshal continued listing possible ways Christof could try to escape. Car. Plane. Boat. Ferry. Even swimming. He never mentioned that damn orbiter plane that landed in Austria last night. Christof could have gotten there in time. Maybe the marshal had caught the same forgetful flu that was going around, or if he was just trying to mollify Alexander. The man had a shield now, so Alex couldn’t rely on his usual method of sensing bullshit.

The marshal continued. “We’ve got men headed out to Portugal now who should be there in few hours. We’ll know for sure how they left. Unless they took a connecting flight immediately, which we’re pretty sure they didn’t, then—”

“Get out,” Alex said.


“Just get the fuck out of my office.”

The marshal hesitated. It was disgusting how obviously the man wanted so much to stay and make this right. With as much Sympathy as Alex had basted him in, Alex could probably shoot him, and he’d thank Alex for the opportunity to make amends. It took all the fun out of it.

“Go. Now.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The marshal headed for the door.

Four people remained in Alex’s office. Sibyl stood behind him, Wyatt had escorted the marshal here, and one other.

“So,” said Wyatt, “looks like that memory chick got to them.”

Alex smiled thinly. Wyatt had just come closer to dying than the marshal had.

“You think she’s with Victoria now?” Wyatt asked.

“No, Wyatt. I think the memory chick helped lead them to a holiday in the Spanish countryside.”

Wyatt frowned. He wouldn’t parse the sarcasm on his own.

Yes,” Alex snapped. “She’s with Victoria.”

He’d hoped that Christof wouldn’t stoop to making a deal with that bitch, Katherine. Everything else could have been forgivable. Trying to run away with that glyph breaker girl was typical Christof, always sentimental. Even trying to kill Alex was understandable. God knows how many times they’d all wanted to kill each other over the centuries. Alex would have still executed Christof if he ever caught him, but he wouldn’t have enjoyed it much.

“If they’re all on that one ship though,” Wyatt said, “just means they’ll all die at once.”

“Wyatt. Shut up.”

“Sorry, boss.”

Except Wyatt was right. If one ship blew up, all his problems would go away, but it just wouldn’t happen. His ministry hemmed and hawed every time he mentioned nuclear weapons. They insisted on looking into non-nuclear ways of destroying the orbiter, except such a way didn’t readily exist. Repulse-propelled rockets would suffer the same problem of catching up to an orbiter that the interceptors had, and all the older jet-fuel rockets laying around weren’t sophisticated enough to stand any chance bypassing an orbiter’s defenses, so they were no good either.

It was enough to drive Alex ballistic. He’d usurped Sakhr only three days ago, and he’d already inherited the man’s same hangups.

Alex had to calm down and think. He was in control. He owned this empire. Everyone within a square mile would give their life for him. All other problems were solving themselves. Take the threats of succession from the PRC: the Chinese leaders was visiting tomorrow. Those problems would evaporate as soon as Alex saw them face to face. Those riots in India? It just happened that key players from New Delhi were arriving next week. After Victoria was gone, he’d visit all the unstable countries, one after another. He’d stand on the deck of his citadel and look down on them all with his own eyes. How could anyone riot when they adored their world leader?

Would it be time consuming? Sure. But he would only have to do it once. Soon, crowds would come from around the world to bask in his splendor. They’d bring their children. It’d become self perpetuating after a while. No more wars. No conflicts. No rebellions. There’d only be Alexander.

And it’s not like Victoria could easily attack him. Nearly everyone was shielded now. Christof had failed to take Alex’s glyph breaker, and now no one could. He kept her close now, all bundled up like a Christmas present. Not only that, but Quentin’s little project was coming along down in the lower decks. Things were far from lost. All he needed to do was to destroy Victoria as absolutely as he could. And the army boys promised those missiles would be ready in a few days at most. Orbiters were standing by with all their pilots shielded. There was one more thing he could do though. A small thing, but every edge would count.

“Wyatt,” he said.

“Yeah, boss?”

“Who’s the guy I talk to in order to make an announcement to the world? Is it one of those ministers?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Go find out.”

All the flairs onboard had lessons with Victoria today. Christof was with her right now. Last Winnie checked, Victoria was trying to convince him that he could recognize people with glyphs just as easily as he recognized people with flairs. It was slow going.

Winnie was in the ship’s mess hall, sitting with Tan as he watched the news. Before him were dice and pads of paper. He’d squint at the screen, write numbers down, watch more, roll dice, then write down more numbers. Winnie had figured out that he was paying attention to the stock prices on the news ticker rather than the actual news. She’d asked what sort of exercises Victoria had given him. His answer had been a shrug.

Winnie was also preoccupied with her own homework. Mentally, her mind was floating above the Manakin, just over the bridge spire. She could see it in its entirety, from the doorway at its base, to the cluster of antennae at its top. She floated down until her perspective was within the cluster. It was filthy here, dust and bird droppings everywhere. An osprey had built a nest out of a mix of sticks and plastic garbage. The bird seemed as much as a fixture as the antennae. Wind ruffled its feathers as it sat guarding its eggs while staring over the citadel.

Her mind moved along an access ladder toward the top floor balcony of the bridge spire. She paused before coming into view of its windows. Doing so would force her to acknowledge its interior, which she was struggling not to do. Inside the spire was nothing, she told herself. Nothing at all. She imagined a dense, opaque fog past the glass that not even she could penetrate, then floated down to the balcony.

Her power locked up. The vision lost consistency.

“You’re doing it again,” Helena thought. She sat on the table before Winnie’s meal tray.

“Yeah, I know.”

“You’re still aware of what’s past the fog. You have to learn to not think about something at all if you’re ever going to see Alex in there.”

“I know. I know.”

“Sorry, but you’ve been messing up the same way for hours. It’s frustrating to watch.”

“You don’t have to,” thought Winnie. “You can go bug Tan again.”

Helena glanced at him, then back. “No thanks. He reeks of cigarettes. Why don’t you take a break?”

“Your mother will know.”

Helena suppressed her first thought, which was “she can go fuck herself”, and composed a more reasonable response. “If you overwork yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. Take ten minutes off. Don’t even use your power. Just relax.”

“Victoria wants me practicing as much as I can.”

“She doesn’t realize that not everyone is an unfeeling robot like she is. You need to take a break.”

“Okay, fine.”

Winnie let her mind go. Relaxing, she turned her mind back to Christof’s lesson.

“No. I said stop,” thought Helena.

“I can’t even use my power?”

“No. I am forbidding you from doing anything. Or your not going to let yourself relax. Ten minutes. Go.”

With nothing to do, Winnie resorted to using her eyes. Tan was still practicing. When marines came in for their break, one sneered at the news and changed the channel. Tan calmly took a remote from his lap and changed back. It changed back and forth several times until the marine faced Tan.

“Who the fuck watches the news? Change the channel.”

“No.” Tan shook his head. He flipped back.

Glowering, the marine stepped toward him.

“He needs the news,” Winnie said. “Victoria’s orders. It’s part of his practice.”

The marine studied both of them. Tan casually watched the television. Winnie paid attention to Helena.

The soldier muttered and rejoined his group.

The news was currently on a political story.

“…Is scheduled to give an announcement in a few minutes, she’s expected to discuss her meeting yesterday with the Chinese Premier, Guo Jié.” the news anchor was saying. “Jié has already held a press conference, where he expressed his optimism for the continued Pacific coalition. He stated that while the change in Lakiran political rule may have set their alliance onto a rocky path, he’s confident in Queen Helena’s ability to lead the coalition forward.”

Winnie found herself listening out of morbid curiosity. As the anchor spoke, the screen showed Alexander shaking hands with the Chinese Premier in a press room aboard the Manakin. During the shake, they both faced toward the audience as cameras clicked. Sensing pain from Helena, she met her eyes. Helena had heard her own name. She could tell the news was talking about her impostor.

“Do you want to leave?” Winnie asked.

“No. Keep watching,” said Helena.

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve been hidden from reality too long. I’m not going to hide now just because it hurts. What are they saying?”

Winnie kept eyes with Helena while she listened.

“This news was met with mixed support from Beijing,” the anchor said. “Only last week, Guo Jié had been a leading supporter for independence. Having met with the queen, he says he now has full confidence in her abilities. Many have voiced their disapproval at Jié change in policy, saying the Chinese people would be better off if China withdrew from the Pacific coalition.”

The view shifted to a Chinese woman speaking rapid Mandarin before a green-screen image of Hong Kong. “The people want independence,” an accented voice-over said. “They’re in the streets. They’re marching on our cities. Retaking government buildings. And they are right. This coalition is nothing more than the Lakiran empire’s attempt to control us. We do not need it. The Lakiran’s know this. In the the past, they have done everything they could to increase dependence on them, but the we are stronger than that. We are proud.”

The news switched back to the anchor. “The queen will be meeting with members of the Chinese Republic later today. She hopes to convince them to move forward with restructuring the coalition, but many officials remain skeptical. We go now to the press conference, which is about to begin.” The screen panned to another display location. Winnie recognized it as being aboard the Manakin. Alexander was taking the podium as cameras flashed.

“Thank you all for coming today. As many of you know, the Chinese premier and I met yesterday to discuss where we go from here. I’m glad to say we share the same vision of a joint Chinese and South American union, but the coalition does need work. The Chinese people have taken issue with the current arrangement, saying that it unfairly benefits the Lakiran empire, and they’re right. When my mother established this alliance, she did so with her country’s future in mind, not the world’s. So we’ll work together to rebuild a fair coalition—one that paves the way for a better future for everyone, not just the Lakiran people.”

He continued. “My mother set out to unite the world, and she succeeded, until terrorist groups assassinated her. They struck not only at her, but at the world. That blow caused this empire to stumble. My goal is not only to reunite us, but to do so in a way she never could, because her motives were for herself. She made choices she should not have, more so than I ever realized until I took the throne.

“I will do better. I am not hoarding the powers used by the Exemplar Committee as my mother did, but have embraced introducing them to the world in a safe and secure fashion. And there will be no more lies or conspiracies.” Alex prepared himself. “I’ve recently learned of one such lie my mother perpetuated, and the people have the right to know the truth.”

The soldiers in the mess hall stopped talking. All eyes turned to the television.

“In the years leading up to the Collapse, most people feared the possibility of nuclear war. World leaders were working together to diffuse tensions between the West, Russia and the Middle East. My mother was among these leaders. She facilitated peace talks and worked hard to prevent South America from becoming embroiled in global tensions. But all the while she was preparing for the war. Her company had already designed food-ready assemblers, but she chose to withhold them from the public, knowing they would give her a greater advantage in the aftermath.”

Winnie split her attention to see if Victoria was aware of this. Victoria was still in lesson with Christof, but she abruptly silenced him. From the expression on her face, she was aware.

The speech continued. “There have been rumors that Victoria was actively encouraging the war. I don’t know if these are true. I know my mother was a driven woman, but to believe this is to believe that she was responsible for the five billion lives lost from the Collapse. Growing up, she taught me to think for the world first, and never for personal gain, which is why I don’t believe these rumors, but I must accept that she did firmly believe the war would occur, and prepared as such. If Victoria were around today, I would demand answers from her. If these allegations are true, then I think I speak on behalf of the world when I say that she should not be the one heading this empire.”

“He’s insane,” Victoria uttered under her breath.

“Who is?” Christof asked.

“But she’s not here,” Alex continued. “I am, and I am not my mother. Whoever she was, whatever her purpose, she did good in building this empire. It put the world back on its feet. I plan to continue on, but no longer will the empire engage in aggressive imperialism. No longer will our soldiers be where they’re not wanted.”

This was met with applause.

“No longer will we hoard food,” he continued. “It was Victoria’s means of controlling other nations. It will not be mine.

More applause.

“And no longer will we hoard glyphs. It was with those that she exacted complete control over her people through her exemplars. The glyphs will belong to everyone now.”

And even more applause. The audience seemed exuberant about that announcement, especially since Alex never released the glyphs. They were leaked, and the empire tried to cover it up.

Alexander held up his hands to quiet them. “I hope the empire will give me a chance to prove myself. Whether I am working to fix Victoria’s mistakes, or rebuilding this empire, I will do better. Thank you.”

Alex stepped off the stage. The audience applauded. The feed switched back to the anchors, who discussed what the queen had just revealed, but no one in the mess hall paid attention. They all discussed with each other.

“Is everything okay?” Christof asked.

“We’re done for now,” Victoria replied.

“I thought you said we had hours lef—”

“I said we’re done. Leave.”

It was clear that Christof was annoyed by that dismissal, especially without explanation, but Winnie knew he’d understand soon enough. The marines in the mess hall were already talking. As they returned to work, news of the announcement spread about the ship. Soon everyone would have the same questions.

What had Alexander been insinuating? What exactly did Victoria do?

93. Guiding Eyes

Winnie, Josephine, and Oni sat together in the Venezia mess deck. Oni fiddled with a tablet he’d printed out on the onboard assembler. He sometimes glanced at the television the other soldiers watched. Josephine and Winnie sat across from each other, staring into on another’s eyes. To an outsider, they probably seemed to be in a staring contest lasting hours.

Mentally, Winnie was watching Christof enter a grid terminal in Fortaleza, Brazil. It bustled with traffic. Families struggled to keep themselves together. Solo travelers hurried. Police manned all the exits and security points. Exemplars watched idly over traffic. Wanted posters were on the walls in every security office, as well as covering the odd pillar.

Except Josephine and Winnie had already mentally passed through the station before Christof and Zauna even parked outside. To everyone there, none of them had seen those posters before. Yet Winnie kept an eye out. All it would take was a glance and a good eye. Anyone could still spot him.

Christof got into a long line to purchase tickets. There weren’t any bulletins near him. Winnie risked looking away for a moment. Her mind was now in Fort Alston, a military base north of Sao Paulo. Hundreds of unshielded soldiers went about their duty. Winnie sought out a group she hadn’t seen before and held them in mind while staring down Josephine.

Josephine closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “How about we stop for now? Let me know if Christof needs us.”

“Victoria wants us to do this.”

“Those soldiers don’t know anything.”

“They might.”

Josephine gave her a pained glance. “Those men are exercising. How are pushups going to threaten us?”

“It can’t hurt.”

“It’s starting to.”

“We’re supposed to be buying time.”

“And if you find any soldiers doing something remotely related to us, let me know.” Josephine rested back.

Winnie scanned through the HIMS Manakin again. Thousands of people manned that ship. She didn’t bother Josephine to work their memories. A quick check showed everyone had a small stone around their neck or buried in their pocket. One briefing at a time, they were all relearning about “the terrorists in the sky” and Winnie couldn’t do a thing about it. Soon the entire army would be mentally untouchable. The Venezia could not come out of the sky again.

She brought her mind back to the travelers she was watching over. Zauna waited in a car in the parking lot. In the back seat, sitting on top of a pile of stolen goods, was Helena. She was active for once, and poking at a piece of beef jerky, not an approved tortoise diet. Winnie wanted to call and tell Zauna to stop that, but Christof had the phone. Not that it mattered, as soon as they got to a safe place in Europe, the Venezia would pick them up and Winnie would make Victoria uphold her bargain and give Helena a human body. Besides, it was good to see Helena eating again.

She returned her attention to Christof just as he stepped up to the ticket counter. Winnie got Josephine’s attention.

Christof requested tickets. The seller asked a few questions, then for ID. Christof handed one over. It was of a balding middle-aged Venezuelan that Zauna pick-pocketed yesterday. It looked like Christof only to the most glaucoma-ridden senior. The ticket man looked repeatedly from it to Christof. Winnie could sense Josephine peeling his memories away. The seller’s expression never changed, nor did Christof’s, yet the exchange took an awkward ten seconds. Finally the man handed it back as though nothing was amiss. Christof got the tickets and headed back to the parking lot.

He dialed the Venezia as he got into the car. Winnie answered part way through the first ring.

“What now?” he asked, switching the phone to speaker.

“Go. They’re already boarding.”

“Any exemplars?”

“No, but all the guards have glyph cards.”


“You’ll be fine.”

“There are posters of us everywhere.”

“I know. Just don’t look at anyone too closely. Now go.”

“Okay.” Christof moved to hang up.

“And don’t forget Helena,” Winnie yelled.

Within minutes, the three were in the station making their way to the security checkpoint. Winnie suspected they could have walked through it without stopping, but Josephine had warned against that. As it was, Christof and Zauna waited in line like everyone else. People glanced at the tortoise in Zauna’s hands. The guards eyed Christof from across the checkpoint.

Winnie didn’t dare take them out of her view. To everyone with glyph cards, Christof was practically glowing since he was a genuine flair. Several times, guards moved to intercept them. Josephine would pull memories away, and they would putter to a stop. A moment later, another would move. Josephine would repeat.

Christof and Zauna reached their shuttle, found seats, and settled in just as the doors were closing. Josephine broke eye contact, yet Winnie continued watching until the shuttle began its trip along the TransAtlantic chute. They were as good as free now.

Winnie turned her mind back to the military base and found another group of soldiers. She caught Josephine’s attention. Josephine gave her a sour look, though despite her exhaustion, they continued to work.

The rendevous point was in Austria. Getting there took Christof and Zauna over twenty-four hours aboard a drifter they stole in Portugal. Winnie was with them every step of the way. At a designated spot on a highway, she told them to pull over and walk into the dead woods.

Timing was important for this pickup. Though the imperial air force was not yet shielded, every touch down was a risk, and every minute counted. Winnie gave Captain Stephano an estimate for when the two would arrive, and he’d planned the ship’s descent, which involved circling the globe another time to lose enough speed. In the end, the ship’s loading ramp crunched into frozen mud the moment Christof came into view of the clearing. Winnie was proud of herself.

Though she might have had to hassle Christof to move faster several times so he’d arrive when he did.

A squad of marines poured out and secured the area. Winnie, Oni, Josephine, and High Exemplar Liat waited on the ramp for Christof and Zauna to approach. Victoria waited farther back inside the bay. When Zauna came through the woods and spotted her son, she rushed.

“Oni, boy.” She constricted him in a breath-stealing hug.

“Hi, Mama.”

Liat approached and smiled at Zauna, looking her in the eye.

“Who are you?” Zauna asked. “Are you the queen?”

“Me? No.” Liat stared at her a moment longer, then stepped passed her to confront Christof.

Victoria came down the ramp. “Welcome, Ms. Madaki. We will meet more formally later. Come aboard now.”

Zauna and Oni walked up the ramp together. Victoria turned her attention to Christof and Liat, who were staring each other down. Liat’s scan of Christof took longer than with Zauna. Concerned, she turned and looked at Victoria. Something passed between them telepathically, then Victoria came down the ramp to meet Christof while Liat shepherded everyone else into the Venezia.

Others couldn’t hear Victoria’s interaction with Christof, but Winnie could. Victoria stared Christof in the eye just as Liat had. Christof obligingly stared back.

“Satisfied?” he asked.

“Hardly. I can see why Liat was reluctant to let you near me. You’re harboring far too many feelings of—”


“Yes. Under other circumstances, an exemplar would have you shipped off to a detention facility.”

“Well, there’s not much we can do about it, so how about we just go aboard.”

“Actually, I can do something. I can remove those seventeen year of imprisonment if you’d like.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“So you want the memories?”

“I don’t want you messing with my mind.”

“Would you remove the memories yourself if you could?”


“So you think you’re better off with them. I agree. They’re an excellent lesson in humility, a reminder that you are not above answering for your sins.”

“This coming from the woman who’s murdered more of humanity that I ever could.”

Victoria glanced to see what soldiers were near. None overheard save for Winnie.

“I will leave your memories as they are, Christof,” Victoria said, “but if wish to step aboard this vessel, you will obey my word. Never mention something like that again, even if it’s just to me, or I will take those secrets from you.”


“This means you may not make eye contact with anyone onboard this ship. Can you manage that?”

“I put up with Alexander longer than you’ve been alive.”

“Good, because I’m trusting you.”

“It’s not really trust if you’re threatening to muddle my memory.”

“It is if you knew me. I said I’d forgive you, and I meant it. I know what kind of person you are, and the loyalty you showed Sakhr. You chose to come to me, which shows you have a head on your shoulders, so I’m giving you a chance. Your resentment toward me is understandable, and I will show you the courtesy of not forcing your forgiveness through memory tricks.”

“Nor will you ask for it, it seems.”

“I punished you far long enough for what little involvement you’ve had. Longer perhaps than you deserved.” She paused. “I was angry. That, Christof, is the closest to an apology you’ll get.”

“How heartfelt.”

“Again, if you knew me better, you’d know that it was. Come now, we’ve dallied for too long.” Victoria turned and headed up the ramp.

Christof followed. When he came to Winnie, he paused. She got her first good look at him without the use of her power. She’d missed how haggard he looked. He’d been on the run for over thirty hours.

“Winnie?” he asked.

She nodded.

Christof handed her a bag and marched past her into the ship.

Winnie looked inside. At the bottom, tucked into her shell and away from the world, was Helena.

89. Bargaining Chips

It took nearly an hour to get the remaining spider drones back onboard. From what Winnie could tell spying on the bridge, none of them expected that they’d have to bother. They’d optimized the spider drones’ flight path for a maximum engagement window with the enemy. The Venezia had had to slow down to get the drones back before they’d start dropping to earth with dead batteries.

Fortunately, the enemy orbiters never adjusted their course to take advantage of the Venezia’s drop in velocity. Actually they hadn’t adjusted their course at all. Onboard those ships, the crew lived out a sci-fi thriller: two dozen men were on a ship. No one knew why they were there. The disappointing ending came when ground control admitted that they didn’t know either and told them all to come home to check the mission logs.

After the spiders were aboard the Venezia, the Marines went about ship duty. The mess hall filled up. Victoria returned to the bridge. Winnie had taken to camping out in the corner of the mess hall to spy on the world while the Venezia surfed along the sky. Everything was exactly as it was before.

Though Tan was here now. He strolled in before things settled down, nodded once to Winnie as though to say, yes, we do happen to be in the same room, then settled into his own corner that gave him a good view of the break room television. He played cards with himself until the soldiers came. They all started a communal game as though Tan hadn’t spent the last few hours in the ship’s brig. Victoria must have decided he was harmless. It wasn’t as if they’d cause trouble now that they know they’re in the safest place they could possibly be.

Just an hour ago, they’d come within whispering range of death, but everything was calm now. It bothered Winnie more than the risk itself had. Marines joked while Winnie’s hands still trembled. These people were used to it. Winnie just wanted to go home.

But home was empty. The lights were off. The curtains were closed. Her mother was sitting alone at a tiki bar in Bermuda. Her colorful drink had multiple little umbrellas. Her floppy sun hat only underscored her diminutive stature. Her tropical dress matched the local fashion. Yet she couldn’t look more awkward. How could she enjoy herself when she didn’t even know the fate of her own daughter? Winnie could have died today, and her mother would never have known. She’d eventually have gone back home once her funds ran up, and she’d spend the rest of her life always wondering.

She was surrounded by beautiful beaches and happy people, and she’d never looked so lonely. Winnie wanted to call her so badly.

“Hey, You.”

Winnie looked up. Josephine stood over her.

“Hi,” said Winnie.

“We never met properly. My name is Josephine.”

“Cho Eun-Yeong, or Winnie.”

Josephine blinked. She looked over Winnie’s reddish brown hair and freckled, pale skin.

“I used to be Korean,” said Winnie.

“Oh.” Josephine sat. “Bodyswapping?”

Winnie nodded.

“You still are Korean. The body doesn’t mean much. Josephine looked herself over. “This one was Italian I think, but I’m not. Though truthfully, I’m not French anymore either. I used to have an accent. It followed me from body to body, but it faded over the years. Nowadays, everyone thinks I’m from Ohio or some place. I’m just me now. I don’t have a sense of belonging anywhere, but if you still feel that you’re Korean, then you are.”

“You knew Sakhr, then?”

“I traveled with his group for decades. Never liked them though, especially Alexander.”

“How many bodies have you had?”

Josephine counted off on her fingers. “Seven.”

“How old are you?”

“Sakhr found me in nineteen fourteen, I think. I was maybe twenty, so I’m about a hundred and fifty.”

“So you stuck with them for the immortality.”

“It was more than that. Back then, someone with a gift like ours would have been shunned, or worse. We stuck together to survive. Sakhr looked after us.”


The conversation lapsed into silence. Winnie turned her vision back to her mother.

“You’re power is to see other places, right?” asked Josephine.


“You just close your eyes and imagine it?”

“I don’t have to close my eyes, but yeah.”

“Do you think you could look into a place for me?”

Ah. This had been the classic smalltalk before the favor. “What place?”

“Sakhr captured a girl I was looking after. I think he might have taken her to a place called Ascension Island. Do you think you could see if she’s actually there?”

“I don’t know where that is.”

Josephine took out a phone. It was already showing the Atlantic ocean. “There.”

Winnie looked. “Okay, I see it,” she said.

“There’s supposed to be a military base…” she zoomed on the phone, “right there.”


“So it’s there? It’s active?”

“Yeah.” Winnie was already pouring through the buildings looking for anything like holding cells. “What does she look like?”

“She’s Nigerian. Teenager. You might have trouble seeing her though. Her power breaks glyphs when people use them near her.”

“Oh, her? She’s on the Manakin.”


“It’s the citadel where Sakhr was.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. There’s a big blindspot in the citadel’s detainment wing. She’s the only one who does that to me.”

“Can you tell if they have her mother too? She’s also Nigerian. I don’t think she’d be far.”

“I can’t really see down there that well.” Though Winnie gave it a cursory glance. She could see most of the detainment cells housing hundreds of people. No one stood out. It would take her a while to find one particular person among them, but Winnie would. She knew what it was like to have someone you care about held captive. The thought made her think of Helena.


Helena was not in that shower anymore. She was…

“I have to go.” Winnie stood and left before Josephine could reply.

Victoria had to know.

“Stop moving,” Zauna said.

“I’m trying. Egh!” Christof flinched away.

“I’m not even stitching yet. You are a child.” Zauna pulled Christof until his head was in her lap. Her grip on him was both stern yet mothering. It was a strange feeling for a five-hundred-year-old man.

Her needle broke skin on his scalp. He winced.

Her grip tightened. “Lucky man. It is only a graze. You are bleeding bad, but only blood.”


“When are these people going to call you?”

“Five minutes. Five days. No telling.”

It wasn’t the answer Zauna wanted to hear. On the flying citadel miles away, people had her daughter. From the moment that shuttle emergency landed on the beach, it was all Christof could do to convince her not to turn herself in. He’d said that Naema was better off if they didn’t have her mother to control her. Zauna hated the implication of that, and he didn’t blame her.

An hour later found them here, in the bathroom of a diner, using stolen medical supplies from a drugstore to patch up Christof’s wounds. A tortoise sat a few feet ahead of them watching their every move. Scrawled on her shell was the phone number to a prepaid assembler-produced phone Christof had procured.

His entire plan hinged on the assumption that Winnie checked back on Helena from time to time. If she didn’t, or Victoria discouraged it, then he didn’t know what to do next. The exemplars were already hunting them. They had no money and no weapons. Zauna wore the same clothes she had when she was captured, now several days overdue for a wash. Christof was obviously military, and the blood caking his hair and staining his white undershirt must be attracting attention. They’d gotten strange looks just coming into the restaurant. As soon as the news posted a bulletin on them, their problems would compound.

This is the kind of situation intrigue and politics gets you into.

The phone rang from its perch on the sink. Christof jerked. Pain seared his scalp.

“Stay still.” Zauna said

“I need to get that.”

“I finish first, then you get.”

“That phone call is our lifeline.”

“And they see us, yes? They will wait ten seconds.”

She was right that whoever it was could see them, whether Winnie or Victoria, but Zauna didn’t know what kind of woman Victoria was. Christof could imagine her hanging up the phone after two rings just because he made her wait. After all these years, he actually wasn’t sure how she would treat him. He maintained an air of urgency right up until Zauma took her hands off his head. The caller was watching after all.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hello, Christof.”

He’d never heard that voice, but he knew that tone. “Victoria.”

“What do you want?” she asked.



“Sakhr is dead. Alexander is in control.”

“I know.”

“Do you know who I have with me?”


“I want to make a deal.”


“I bring your daughter and this woman to you, and you don’t put me back in an animal, or prison, or anything like that.”

“I am not your chip!” said Zauna. “Was this your plan?”

“I see,” Victoria paused, “and you would trust me just like that.”

“Are you saying I shouldn’t?”

“No, but you don’t have a choice, do you? The hounds are coming. You’re a smart-enough fox to know they will corner you eventually, thus you are already cornered.”

Zauna was still snapping at him. “Answer me. What do you want me for?”

Christof put the phone down a moment. “You want to go to her. Trust me.”

“I want to find Josephine. I said this a thousand times. She’ll get my daughter.”

“This woman is your best chance of ever seeing your daughter again, so just hold on,” he said to her. To the phone, “Do we have a deal?”

“Hmm…” said Victoria

“Does your daughter mean that little to you?”

“I’m not saying I don’t want my daughter, or that woman. I’m just wondering why I should accept your offer at all. I could land this ship and take them from you, and neither you nor Alex could do a thing to stop me. He might shield his soldiers soon, but you’re lost and drowning. Why should I pull you up at all?” She mused upon it.

“You kept me as a pet for nearly two decades, and I wasn’t even there that night. You know damn well I tried to talk Sakhr out of it.”

“Yes. You voted no to murdering a child, but the vote passed anyway. Oh well. You did your best.”

“I could have done more. I know. I’m not innocent of what happened. But seventeen years, Victoria. Are you really not satisfied?”

“Calm down, Christof. I will give you asylum. Bring those two to me and you are forgiven.”

He gritted his teeth. It was always a goddamn power play with her. She was forgiving him. “Fine,” he said. “Where do we go from here?”

No response. It sounded as though the phone was shuffling around on their end.

“Hello?” he asked.


“Who is this?”

“It’s Winnie. I’m going to help you, but first can you put the woman on? Josephine wants to talk to her.”

88. High Alert

“Sibyl, why are you here?” yelled Christof. “Why are you in that body?”

Sibyl remained on the floor, cowering from Christof’s pointed gun. Her body was Winnie’s—which had been Alex’s. That begged the question.

“Where is Alexander?” he yelled.

“Why?” she wailed.

“Where is he?”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“What do you think?”

“You can’t hurt him.”

“He’s out of control, Sibyl. Don’t you know what he’s been doing, here, in this tower alone. The man is psychotic.”

“He knew you’d do this. He knew you’d all come after him. He’s only doing what you make him do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s just trying to hold the empire together. He doesn’t deserve to die for that. It’s you and Sakhr who keep making him do the horrible things you don’t want to.”

“Why are you defending him? You hate Alex. You’ve always hated Alex.”

“No, I haven’t. Nobody ever trusts him, and it’s not his fault. It’s his power. He’s a good person, we just never—”

“Are we talking about the same Alex? Just tell me where he is. Is he in your other body? Is that it? Is he planning to do something to Sakhr? Tell me.”

“No! I can’t.” Sibyl cringed away as though expecting him to shoot her.

Christof lowered his weapon. “God, Sibyl. I’m not… did Alexander threaten you? Is that it?”

“No. I just can’t.”

“Tell me where—” He cut himself off. This was getting nowhere. Kneeling by her, he grabbed her chin. “Look at me. Look at me.

Her eyes dodged his at first, but she slipped up. He saw her mind only for a moment before she clenched her eyes. It was enough.

Sibyl was downright infatuated with Alex. She’d been feeling guilty about how she’d treated him all these years, which as far as Christof knew, was absolute indifference. Now Alex was in her every thought.

He’d done something to her. Christof didn’t know what, but it had left her obsessed, and now she’d helped him get close to Sakhr without even considering why. However, Christof was not so juvenile. Alex had a body-swapping glyph—something Sakhr would never knowingly let him have.

“God damn it, Sibyl.” He bolted from the room, over the dead exemplars, and to the stairwell. He got as far as the security checkpoint lobby when the exemplar on guard stopped him.

“Hey,” he yelled. His hand rested on his holster. It was the man who’d flipped him off before.

“I can’t,” Christof said. “The queen is in danger.”

“What happened to you?”

Christof looked down at himself. He had forgotten that blood stained his front. “I was attacked.”

“By who?”

“I need to get to the queen right now. Let me through. This is…” He thought quickly. “As General, I’m ordering you to stand down or I will have you brought up on charges for aiding an assassination attempt against our queen.” He was sure he had his terminology wrong. This imbecile wouldn’t notice.

“Chill the fuck out,” said the exemplar.

“Let me through.”

“They know. They already caught the assassin.”


“The whole citadel is on alert. The exemplars have secured the area.”

“The exemplars?”

“The queen is fine. Now what the fuck happened to you?”

“I’m fine. I… need to go.”

“Hold on there. What happened upstairs?”

“No,” Christof said distantly. He walked around the man.

“Hey,” the exemplar called. “Hey!”

Christof was already out the door. The man would certainly report him—a blood-spattered General walking around during high alert. Christof didn’t care. Either everything would be just fine, or…

Christof ducked out of view, as up ahead two exemplars on deck were carrying a body between them from the bridge spire. They’d wrapped it in plastic. Red seeped out.

It didn’t matter what body that was. What mattered was who had possessed it when it died, and it wasn’t Alex. If Sakhr had figured out what Alex was up to, the last thing he’d do is surround himself with crooked exemplars.

Which meant Sakhr was gone.

The thought felt hollow, lacking impact. Maybe in time he could think about how his oldest friend had just died. Right now, he was in mortal danger. He’d killed two men, and Sibyl could attest to what he was doing, that’s assuming Alexander didn’t already know.

All at once, he had a plan. It spanned days. There were details to fill out, but that could come later. He started with step one.

Calmly, Christof walked to the stateroom spire. Officers in the common area saluted, even as they eyed the blood on his uniform. No one questioned it. He was a general with somewhere to go.

In his quarters, he threw off his uniform and scrubbed his hands in his miniature steel sink. The faucet pressure was on par with any flying craft with limited resources. It took ages before the water stopped running red. Blood still covered his arms and chest, but he made do wiping himself with a towel. Any minute, someone would be at his door. He mustn’t be here when that happened.

After putting on a clean uniform, he reentered his bathroom. Fenced off inside his shower was Helena, where he’d been feeding and caring for her for the past week. She was sleeping, head in her shell. Poor girl. Tyrants were fighting over her body, and the worst had won. Nothing would stop Alex from getting his hands on her now. Every time a woman got the better of him, he could never let it go. This poor girl would pay the price for what Winnie had done.

Christof picked her up and tucked her into his uniform alongside his plaque, resting her on it so that it protected her aura. Poking her head out, she looked at him. He couldn’t read her mind, and her tortoise expression was as unreadable as ever.

“It’s time for us to leave,” he said. “Stay out of sight.”

After a pause, she tucked herself further into his coat. That was confirmation enough for him. He left, down the stairs to the stateroom commons. From there, a ladderwell led him into the bowels of the citadel. The corridors were cramped. The walls were metal. This was the belly of the great behemoth that civilians never saw. He got several odd glances from soldiers as he continued down the stairs.

Deck One was where grid shuttles waited by the tube bay. He should be bluffing his way aboard a supply shuttle now, but something drove him farther down into the ship. He wasn’t sure why he had to do this. Alexander would have countless victims to come, but this one was important to him.

At Deck five, his empathy winked out.

At Deck eight, he entered the brig. From there, he walked to the same wing he’d been going to for two days now. The cadet on guard saluted when Christof approached.

Christof acknowledge him. “I’m here for her again.”

“Yes, General.” The cadet fumbled for a card key while heading toward a prison cell. “Prisoner,” he yelled. “Stand and put your arms through the slot.”

Christof heard Naema climb to her feet ponderously. Stalling was her little rebellion. He had no way of telling her how little time they had. Finally her arms stuck through the slot. The guard cuffed her, unlocked the cell door, and led her out. She looked bored, and unimpressed.

Christof stopped him as he led her toward the interview room. “I’m transporting her out.”

“What?” The guard blinked. “Nothin in the logs says anything about transfer, sir.”

“Citadel is on alert,” Christof said. “Someone attacked the queen.”

“I know, sir, but I still need clearance to move a prisoner.”

“There isn’t time for clearance. The person who attacked the queen was a flair. For safety, we’re moving all flairs off the citadel.”

“A flair?” The guard glanced at Naema, then at Christof. That was something he hadn’t know about the prisoner. “I still can’t let you take her without hearing something from above.”

“She’s not a military prisoner,” Christof explained. “The Exemplar Committee brought her in, and they’ve given me clearance to transport her out.”

The cadet grew more uncomfortable. “It should still be in the logs, sir. If I could just call up and clear this, then I could let her go. And we’re supposed to have a transport team.”

“I don’t give a shit, soldier. We don’t have time to go through regulation. The queen was just attacked. I’m getting this security risk off the citadel now. If anyone gives you shit about it, tell them to talk to General Soto, but I’m taking her now. Are we going to have a problem?”

The guard hesitated. “No, sir” He handed Christof the keys to her cuffs.

Naema was staring at the tortoise in Christof’s pocket. He yanked her along before she could remark. As they walked to the stairwell, she watched Christof curiously.

“Can you climb with those cuffs?” he asked.


“Because I need you to climb the stairs.”

“What about the elevator?”

“We’re not using it.”

“Why not?”

Because the elevators had security cameras, but this wasn’t a conversation Christof wanted to have right now.

“Just trust me.”

Naema read whatever she needed in Christof’s anxious look. “You’re my only friend, huh?”

“Let’s go.” Christof pulled her.

She held her ground. “What about my mama?”

“We don’t have time.”

“You said you’d get my mama freed.”

“I don’t think I can. All I can do is get you out of here.”

He pulled again. She didn’t budge.

“I could leave without you,” he threatened.

“I’m not leaving her here.”

For one moment, he considered heading up the stairs without her. Somebody had to have found those bodies by now. By all rights, Christof was amazed he’d gotten this far already.

But the mother was only a few rooms away in the public detainment wing. If she was still here once Naema was gone, she’d be the last scapegoat for Alex’s axe. “Fine. Just follow my lead.” He guided her as though his captive.

The detainment wing was just as he’d seen it last week—filled over capacity with masses of defeated people. The smell was worse, as though none of the cells had been cleaned since then, and it seemed more crowded. Several cadets were on guard. One was stationed at a desk before rows of cells.

Christof approached. The men saluted.

“General,” said the one at the desk.

Christof passed Naema off to a cadet. “Watch this detainee for me for a second, will you?” To the man behind the desk, he said, “I need to take one of the detainees out.”

“Sure thing, General. Do you have the paperwork?”

This again.

“No. It’s in connection with the assassination. The Exemplar Committee wants them taken up.”

“Understood, sir.” The cadet came around and headed down the hall of cells. “Just point them out.”

Christof nearly startled at how easy that had been. Though following the man, it occurred to him just how many detainees the Committee must have taken away for interviews recently.

There were several hundred people crammed in here. Christof wouldn’t have bothered looking for Zauna Madaki. Except most of these detainees were from North America, where the Manakin was last stationed. Naema’s mama was the blackest person here.

“Her.” He pointed her out.

“Detainee,” the cadet yelled. “Come forward.”

She hesitated just like her daughter, but for her, it was apprehension. She at least took this more seriously than Naema. The cadet cuffed her and took her out. At the front, Zauna spotted her daughter and moved toward her. Christof held her back.

“I’ll take them from here,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” The cadets saluted. Christof escorted the two women away. Extracting them had been so easy it bothered him. He was using up his luck.

“Who are you?” Zauna asked.

“No. Don’t talk,” he muttered. “Don’t acknowledge each other. Just go up the stairs.”

Naema did so. Christof pushed Zauna to do the same. As confused as she was, she cooperated.

Coming back up took them much longer than coming down. Each deck was a nerve-clenching crawl.

“How many floors?” Naema called down.

“Just keep going.”

On they climbed. All three were panting when Christof finally called up. “Get off here. Wait for me.”

Once he dismounted, she watched him closely. Despite Christof’s warning, Zauna clutched her daughter.

“Come.” He hurried them along. The grid bay was still. No ships glided in or out. Christof could hear their own footsteps echoing off the cavernous walls.

Lock down. Damn. Of course it would happen right after an assassination attempt, but he couldn’t stop now. Hopefully the citadel grid was still coordinating with the Porto Maná. He’d learned enough about this modern world to know that adding and removing nodes from the grid was no simple thing. It involved registration and paperwork, so maybe this lockdown wasn’t hardcoded.

He hurried toward the nearest shuttle. It looked civilian. The hatch unlocked, revealing enough room inside to walk while hunched. He ushered both of them in, handed Helena to Zauna, then turned on the shuttles menu screen. The grid was online.

Thank God. He navigated the menu, trying to figure out how to start it. He’d seen others do this. It just needed a destination, but when he went to destination, it wanted him to type something in.

“God damn it,” he murmured.

“Where are we going?” Naema asked.

“We just have to get off the citadel.”

“Then just take the last destination.”

“Where do I do that?”

She leaned and tapped the screen. On the home menu, she went to Previous, then selected the first option.

“No. That’s no good,” said Christof. “That’s a military base.”

“We won’t go there.” Naema pointed at an emergency button. “After it flies, we hit this. The shuttle will land at the closest place.”


Naema confirmed the destination and set it to go. Christof climbed in.

“Hey,” someone yelled.

Two exemplars were running up to him—a men and a woman. “Hey. Stop there.” The man grabbed the shuttle door, keeping it from closing. They both rested their hands on holstered repulse pistols. “You’re coming with us.”

“No,” said Christof. “I’m escorting these prisoners to a safe holding loc—”

“Don’t fuck with us,” said the man. “Alex wants to see you.”

That eliminated any remaining doubt Christof had. “He can wait. I’ll return when I’m—”

The man backhanded Christof across the jaw, then yanked him out.

The woman drew her pistol and brandished it toward Naema and her mother. “Get out.”

Naema shuffled out of the shuttle.

“Ah fuck,” the woman said. “You’re the plaque bitch, aren’t you?” She checked herself. “Yeah, my plaque is broken.”

The man’s face twisted. “Isn’t that just great.” He shoved Christof against the shuttle and punched him. Christof crumpled.

The man kicked him in the side. “What were you doing with her, huh? Where are you going? Alex isn’t done with her yet.”

Christof rolled in pain. Slowly, his hand crept under his coat to his gun.

“Christof, right?” the exemplar said. “That’s your name? Thought you’d kill Alex? Traitor fucks like you sicken me?”

“…Traitor?” Christof was too winded to point out the irony.

The man kicked Christof again.

“Shut your fucking mouth, shithead.” He grabbed Christof and pulled him to his feet. In the same motion, Christof drew his gun. The man caught his hand. They struggled. Within the same moment, the man kneed Christof, pressed him against the shuttle, and slammed his hand against the hatch frame, causing the gun to drop. The man pressed his own gun to the back of Christof’s head.

“You think you’re faster than me? You think you’re going to shoot me?”

Naema swung her cuffed hands at the girl, and toppled her, but the girl pulled Naema down with her.

“Naema!” Zauna move to get out of the shuttle.

“Stay where you are,” the male exemplar yelled.

Christof took advantage of the distraction to swing his arm back, hooking the man’s gun off his head just as it discharged. In older days, a deafening bang would have gone off next to Christof’s head. What he heard sounded like a stapler next to his ear. Pain erupted on the side of his scalp. Blood poured. He shoved the exemplar away. The gun scattered.

From the distance, half a dozen more exemplars were rushing toward them. There was no time to fight.

Naema was struggling on the ground. With her hands cuffed, the woman had easily gotten on top of her. Christof kicked the woman off and dragged Naema toward the shuttle. Zauna caught her too and pulled, but then the man latched onto Christof, and the woman caught Naema. Both Naema and Christof kicked and fought. Christof was in the shuttle now, but Naema was still half outside.

The man punched Christof, sending him reeling into the shuttle, then backhanded Zauna. She keeled over. Helena went flying. The man now yanked Naema away from the shuttle, but she caught the edge of its door with a death grip. They couldn’t pull her away. The shuttle lurched from their strength.

Gathering his wits, Christof clambered to Naema, but it was too late. Even if he could knock the others off of her, the incoming exemplars would catch them before he could get her in.

A look passed between him and Naema, and they both understood. With all her strength, Naema yanked the shuttle door down, and the exemplars grappling her stumbled back as though the tree root they’d been tugging had finally come loose.

Christof caught the door and closed it.

“No!” Zauna yelled. She lurched toward the door. Outside. The exemplars swarmed Naema. Several tried opening the shuttle door, including Zauna, but it was locked. The flight had begun. As the shuttle lifted, Zauna could only watch as Alexander’s henchmen dragged her daughter away.

85. Carbon Bullets

A musical tone indicated that the assembler was done. Following that, two things toppled into the dispenser tray. Christof lifted the lid and took out a gun and a box, inside which were sixteen bullets in a four by four row. He hadn’t used a gun in ages, but he remembered ammo boxes usually contained many more rounds. This was no larger than a wedding ring box. Drop down on one knee and proffer sixteen bullets—or exactly one magazine. Somehow, it was more sinister. With a hundred bullets, you were going to a shooting range. With sixteen, you had something in mind. If Christof needed more than that, something had already gone wrong.

He loaded the gun, one round at a time. It was soothing, unlike the forty fretful minutes he’d waited for assembly. At least now he had something to do, and something to study. The gun was unlike any he’d seen from his pre-tortoise days. It was shaped like a glock, but made of darker metal thick with carbon. The bullets were odd also. He wasn’t sure what they were made of, but it wasn’t copper. They were black, and each had a serial number and a QR code engraved on the bullet and the casing. No doubt they could be traced back to this assembler, this account, and this time.

If someone investigated, they’d easily find Christof, but it wouldn’t matter so long as Sakhr pardoned him. But why assemble serial numbers at all? Surely Sakhr could have gotten that waived, unless it was a built-in requirement. Or perhaps a waive would only make this business more conspiratorial. Sakhr was going to avow for this, or so he said.

Christof paused loading the weapon.

Unless Sakhr wasn’t. What if these bullets were serialized so this job would tie back to Christof? Given that Sakhr now had his master glyph, he didn’t need Christof any more than he needed Alexander. And surely he could have found anyone else more suited for this task, but Sakhr had said Alex wouldn’t trust other people near him while shielded. Except Sibyl, but like hell if she could do this.

But still.

Christof felt foolish that he’d only considered this now. There should be something he’d do for safety, such as tell someone, or leave a letter with the truth so Sakhr couldn’t dispose of him too, but then the more people who knew, the more likely Alex would find out.

Perhaps Christof was being paranoid, but that was what this life of politics and ploys bred. Given a choice, he’d preferred to trust rather than always keep up his guard. Life would be simpler, but he wasn’t naive enough to think that was possible anymore.

At this point, his decision was binary. Go upstairs and kill his old acquaintance, or leave. If he followed through, he’d have to trust in Sakhr. However, if he left, then what? He could try to explain himself to Sakhr, or he’d run away. Either way, that left Alexander. If he did dethrone Sakhr someday, Christof may have to answer to him instead.

That thought alone decided it for Christof. Maybe Sakhr was going to betray him, but Christof would take that chance. Historically, Sakhr had demonstrated loyalty to those who followed him. While Alexander… he just had that smile of his.

Christof tucked away his gun and tossed the ammunition box into a reclamator. The machine was hardly full, but he started it anyway. Some of these exemplar criminals might otherwise find the box.

Headed back down the hall, he kept his eyes forward. Even with his shield, he felt as though others could see right through him.

Up the stairs, he paused before the door. One breath, two breaths, and then he went through. This floor retained the clean, austere feel of the Committee. If someone went from security to the top floor, they’d never know about the cesspits in between.

Around the corner from Alex’s office, he paused. Guarding the door were two exemplar.


Two high exemplars.

According to his Empathy, they weren’t there, but he heard them talking. It seemed Alexander had been promoting people.

Christof approached. The exemplars had pistols holstered to their hips. They weren’t supposed to be armed. It was against their code. They were observers and interviewers, not fighters. Christof would have given anything to turn around right now, but it was too late. They saw him.

“What do you want?” one asked.

“I’m here to see High Exemplar Cho.”

“Too bad. The High Exemplar is busy.”

“The queen sent me. I have information the high exemplar needs.”

“Give it to us. We’ll pass it along.”

“No. I’m to give this information directly to him.”


“Her. I’m giving it to her. Now is she in there or not?”

“She’s in there, yeah, but she doesn’t want to be disturbed. So give us your information and we’ll pass it on.”

“I’m working under orders from—”

Fuck the queen. Give us the information now, or we’ll take it from you.”

Christof didn’t back down. “You will let me through this door, or I will report you both.”

“Ooh.” The second widened his eyes. “Gonna report us, huh? What are you going to tell her? That we’re doing our jobs?” The man stepped closer. “Why doesn’t the queen just stick to her own damn business. I don’t think that bitch understands what the high exemplar does for her. Shits like you dance around living it up while Winnie holds this empire together. Now you just come up here with more demands? How about when that girl asks for a little time to herself, she gets a little time to herself and the rest of you fucks can piss off.”

That was… oddly impassioned. It seemed as though these guys actually cared about Alex—as in loyal. This was unexpected. They might actually think about avenging Alexander.

So three murders then.

“Look,” Christof said. “Just get out of my way. I need one minute to drop something off, and I’m gone.”

“Give it to me,” he said. “I won’t read it. You can trust me.” The man smirked.

Christof sighed. “Fine.” As calmly as he could, he drew the gun and shot the man’s chest. While the other scrambled for his weapon, Christof stepped back and shot him thrice.

The first man grappled him, startling Christof. His wound hadn’t killed him, and now they struggled on the ground together. Blood spilled on Christof as they fought for the gun. He could hardly tell where the gun was pointing as their slick hands pried at each other’s.

Three more shots fired.

The exemplar went limp.

Christof pushed him off. The man rolled lifelessly aside.

Struggling to his feet, Christof clutched his chest. All he heard over the ringing in his ears was his panting breath. His hands were cold, and they wouldn’t stop shaking. Blood loss? He patted himself down. No. Adrenaline. All this blood was the other man’s.

The whole damn spire must have heard that. Scrambling to his feet. Christof burst into the next room.

Alex sat behind a massive desk centered in the office. Before him was his plaque, screen lit. He seemed minuscule in that teenage body, and so innocent when his eyes widened.

“Christof?” he stammered. “What are you doing?”

Christof raised the gun and fired. The bullet punched into the wall next to Alex’s head. Alex dove under the desk. His plaque toppled aside. Christof circled around, took aim…

…And snapped his finger away from the trigger.

83. The Burnt Smell of Plastic

When Sakhr took control of the imperial spire, he dedicated the top two floors to Alexander and and his exemplar endeavors. That was ten days ago. Since then, exemplars have been arriving at the HIMS Manakin in droves, and they’d all either undergone massive changes in personality, or were mysteriously missing. Now, every floor belonged to exemplar operations.

Sakhr had since moved to the office at the top of the bridge spire, leaving the imperial spire to become Alex’s playground. Christof had asked Sakhr what was going on up there. All Sakhr knew was that he’d come over twice a day, and Alex would have another batch of terrified men and women tied to chairs awaiting swap. Christof asked how many people there’d been in total. Maybe a hundred, Sakhr had answered.

Christof entered the ground floor of the spire. It had been converted into a security checkpoint made of portable pieces such as foldable tables or stanchions. The body scanner here would fall over if he pushed it. One jolt to the ship and everything would topple. It seemed to Christof that they must be violating some protocol by not having the structures bolted down, but then corner-cutting suited Alex’s “exemplars”.

A female exemplar waved him over to a desk. “Hello, Officer.”


“General, sure. You need to fill this out.” She handed Christof a tablet. He glanced it over. It was an entry submission form.

“…I’m General Soto,” he said. “I’m here to see High Exemplar Cho.”

She smiled blandly. “Just fill out the form, General.”

“I am expected. The queen sent me here directly.”

“Everybody fills out the form, General. Let me know when you’re done.” She went back to working at her computer, but her aura radiated a sense of smug superiority. This was probably a great job for her, he thought. She went from a prison or a detainment facility, right into a position where should could order around the same soldiers she probably resented.

He filled out the form. When he handed it back, she wasted time on her computer before taking the tablet. She scrutinized the results closely. According to her aura, this was just for fun.

Finally passing him on, she directed Christof to proceed into the checkpoint. A male exemplar manning the scanning machine was diddling back on a chair while reading a tablet. He didn’t look up when he waved for Christof to stop. “Woah there, soldier. Empty your pockets. Then step into the machine. Hands above your head. Feet on the footprints.”

Christof filled a small basket with a wallet, an ID badge, a USB stick, and a handful of tissues. Feeding the basket onto a conveyer, he stepped into the scanning machine. Decades ago, Christof heard that metal detectors were less likely to go off if you stepped through them slowly, but technology had changed, and this wasn’t a metal detector. He still stepped delicately inside the machine.

A vertical bar spun in the tube wall.

The exemplar studied a screen out of Christof’s view. “You’ve got something in your coat?”


“Go back. Empty it. Start again.”

“It’s this.” Christof took out his shield plaque. “I’ll just show it to you.”

The exemplar frowned. “What is that?”

“It’s a plaque.” Obviously so.

“You’re, uh… not an exemplar.”

“It was specially issued to me by the queen.”

“You’ll have to leave it here.”

“No. It’s to stay with me at all times.”

“You’re not supposed to have a plaque. Only exemplars have plaques.”

“I just said it was specially issued. I’m not putting it down.”

“No one except exemplars can have glyphs inside the exemplar wing. For security.”

“Look, I don’t care what Alexander told you, or Cho, or whatever name he’s going by. And I don’t care who you all really are. I’m not forfeiting that plaque.”

Startled, the exemplar glanced around as though someone nearby might overhear. “Would you keep it the fuck down?” His tone had become less professional. “Don’t go yelling that shit out.”

“Then stop wasting my time.”

“Just leave the fucking plaque, old man.”

“No. It will self-destruct if I leave it. You should know this.”

“Okay, fine. I need you to look into my eyes.”

Christof did so.

The man studied him. After a moment, he frowned. “I uh, can’t see your mind.”

“I know. I’m shielded. That’s what my plaque is for.”

“Then put it down for a moment.”


“Jesus Christ. It’s not going to blow up. Just put it down.”


The exemplar grabbed for it. “Put the fucking plaque down, guy!”

“No. You’re not reading my mind. I have information you are not privy to. That’s why I have the damn thing in the first place.”

“I’m not supposed to let anyone in without reading their mind first.”

“Would you read High Exemplar Cho’s mind?”

“No. He’s my boss.”

She’s your boss. Keep it straight.”


“And it’s General. Not Soldier.”


“If you’re going to impersonate an exemplar, at least learn protocol.” Christof collected his things. “If you have a problem with me, take it up with the High Exemplar.”

He walked on toward the stairwell.

“Hey,” the exemplar yelled. “You forgot something.”

Christof looked. The exemplar flipped him off with both hands.

He turned back and entered the stairwell. He reached the first landing out of view before nearly collapsing.

His legs were jelly. His hand trembled, but they clenched his plaque with a death grip. If he were to drop it for a moment, a hundred exemplars would suddenly notice an aura nauseous with anxiety.

Once he’d recovered, he continued up. The top floor would be where Alexander was, but he had a quick stop to make first. At each door, he got a feel for the auras on that level. Floor ’11N’ was too packed. Floor ‘12N’ had fear among its inhabitants. That must be Alexander’s prisoner floor—spare bodies and desperate minds. Sakhr had suspected Alexander was keeping his own cache of bodies.

‘13N’ was adequately sparse. Though the state of it nearly made Christof turn right around. Anyone who came here would know that the Exemplar Committee was no longer the incorruptible beacon it was supposed to represent.

Christof walked down a curved hallway, passing office after office. Each was converted into makeshift dorms. The acrid smell of burnt plastic filled the air. Christof knew drugs well enough to guess what it was. The office dorms had window walls toward the hall, left over from its business days. Some exemplars had covered them with posters or sheets. The ones that weren’t covered showed exemplars lurking in cliques. They crowded small assembled tables covered in drinks, tech, and drugs. They eyed him like cats in a dark alley.

Sensing their auras, Christof knew he made them nervous,. He wore his clean and properly buttoned officer’s uniform as though it meant something. He walked like a soldier. Simply put, he didn’t belong here.

Their cliques were racially based, which baffled him. The only care Alexander and Sakhr made when swapping out bodies was to preserve gender. Brazilian gang members found themselves in white bodies. North American detainees had darker skin than ever before. Yet despite how arbitrary it was, there was little exception to that rule.

Christof had survived through body swapping for nearly half a millennium. Never before had it seemed so wrong. These men put drugs and alcohol in bodies that good men and women spent their lives cultivating. They enjoyed rushes only lightweights could experience. They fucked one another thinking consequences no longer existed.

This wasn’t a corrupt Exemplar Committee. The Committee was gone. All of this was just a tasteless parody.

Seeing it reaffirmed what Christof came to do.

He found an unoccupied break room. Beside a microwave and minifridge was a small assembler meant for simple food stuffs and office supplies. He tapped through the touch screen menu. Someone had hacked this to produce pharmaceuticals without a prescription key, but it would still work for his purpose.

He locked the break room door, inserted his USB stick into the machine, and navigated the menu that popped up. The machine hummed to life. Unlike a microwave, there was no window to look into, so Christof sat on the break room table and waited while his handgun assembled.

78. Your Fada

When Christof first saw the display mounted behind Sakhr’s desk, he mistook it for a collection of smaller screens, though it was actually a single surface spanning from waist to ceiling and wide enough for several to stand before it. It just happened to be displaying several small windows, each either Mobile Security drone footage or an overhead map display. Christof stepped up beside Sakhr and Sibyl and studied its displays.

They showed a building complex in Lyons, France. Glowing dots on the overhead map indicated a person. Other screens showed still images of people through apartment windows: a black family, an asian man, and a white woman with black hair. She was familiar, as though Christof had passed her on the street ages ago.

“Who is she?” Christof pointed the woman out.

“A flair.” Sakhr replied. “Victoria was tracking her before we escaped. Her name is Josephine.”

“Josephine what?”

“Just Josephine. No records. The military lost track of her in all the chaos, but a few days ago someone reported her. From what I gather, the military has tried several times to bring her in.”


Sakhr offered Christof a tablet displaying the woman’s profile. It was sparse. Her physical description was the longest section. The rest was list of her known crimes, mostly break-ins of Lakiran facilities. Then there was a brief mention about her ability to manipulate minds. No one was to approach her directly.

“This is all you know?”

“A few soldiers knew more. She makes people forget about her. It limited Victoria’s knowledge base.”

“What do you want from me?”

“With her? Nothing.” Sakhr enlarged two windows. One showed a handcuffed girl waiting in a detention room somewhere else in the citadel. The other was of a woman, probably the girl’s mother, kept in a different room. They were the same family shown in the apartment photos. “Alex caught them away from the others. They arrived here last night. Apparently, the girl is some kind of glyph breaker, a major reason Victoria couldn’t catch this Josephine. And she’s possibly the answer to our prayers for these runaway glyphs.” He turned to Christof. “I want you to interrogate her?”

“Why don’t you get Alex? Isn’t he your resident thumb screw tightener?”

“Alex left last night for China to do God-knows-what. Talk to her. Look at her power if you can.”

“When you say she breaks glyphs, do you mean breaks breaks them. Do they come back?”

“No. The glyphs remain broken.”

“So you want me to risk my power—”

Sakhr turned to Sibyl. “Tell him.”

Sibyl spoke. “She’s been on the outskirts of my range all afternoon. Every time she gets within it, my power stutters. I can’t sense anyone. But it’s fine as soon as she’s out of range again.”

“Okay, but why should my power work if yours doesn’t?”

“Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t,” Sakhr said. “I’d do it myself, except I’m carrying my master glyph. So either you do this interview, or Alex does when he gets back.” Sakhr pointed out the girl, who now fiddled with her handcuffs. She was nearly the same age as Helena, the poor girl Christof kept in his shower because there was no safer place for her.

“You or Alex,” Sakhr said. “Your choice.”

Christof had an internet glyph card with him. It failed bit by bit. Empathy shut down in the elevator down to the holding area. Auras faded away like afterimages.

Flair-vision failed in the observation room adjacent to the girl’s room. He hardly noticed since his own flair-seeing ability failed simultaneously, and that one he felt. Looking at her was like biting into an apple only to discover it was a rock. It made his teeth clench. He averted his eyes and felt the comforting sense of his own power returning. The rigid, inferior mockery of his power that his glyphs provided didn’t return.

Since getting the card, it was a pleasure discovering no one else benefited from his power quite like he did.

When Christof entered the room with the girl, she looked up, and his mind reading glyph broke, though he didn’t feel that one. He was still occupied by the rock-biting sense his own power failure.

He sat. “Naema Madaki, right?”

“Ya. Who are you?”

Soldiers were watching. It took him a moment to remember his disguise. “General Soto.”

“A general?”

“Yes. Do you know why the empire has brought you here?”

“You tell me.”

“I could list the crimes you’ve committed over the past month. They just filled me in. Theft. Escaping detainment. Disruption of exemplar duties. But, I won’t pretend we actually care about any of that. You are a flair.”

“So, what? Are you going to steal my power now?”

“No. We were hoping you would like to work with us.”

“Are you serious?” She laughed. “You attacked me. That stupid girl said she would leave my mama if I came. Then she shot me with that thing.” She lifted her shirt to show a large purplish burn. “Now you took my mama anyway. Go die.”

She crossed her arms and glowered. Christof didn’t need an empathy to see what she was hiding. Her crossed arms hid trembling hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know about the circumstances of your arrest. I first heard about you thirty minutes ago, but I answer directly to the queen, and I’m going to do everything I can to help you. Okay?”

Your Fada.”

“Listen. You need my help, because no one else here is going to care what happens to you as much as I do.”

Did her smile falter? He wasn’t sure, but he hoped so. She might sense that he being genuine.

He pressed on. “Queen Victoria searched for flairs such as yourself. In return for cooperation, she provided them with citizenship, higher education, financial compensation… whatever she could do. She looked after them. Queen Helena wants to do the same.”

“Then let my mama go.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but we can do more than that. You were living in Nigeria, right? Recently occupied. Must be poor living conditions. We can help you, and your mother, and your brother gain citizenship in this country. We’d waive your past infractions. You’d have financial security. That means no more stealing food or looking over your shoulder. You and your brother would spend your time worrying about grades and college applications.”

“And I give you my power, right?”

“This isn’t a trade, Naema. We’d be on the same side. There’d be no hostages.”

“You have my mama right now. That girl threatened to kill her.”

God damnit, Alex. “I know he… she did. That’s why she’s been taken off your case. It’s me now. No more threats.”

“So I can say no? What happens to me then?”

Christof thought back two days ago. He’d spotted a crowd of airmen and medics on the top deck carting away an unrecognizable suicide victim. He’d only found out later it was Paul.

“I don’t know,” he said. “At the end of the day, you are charged with several crimes. Unless we waive those, you’d be looking at a prison sentence. But I can’t emphasize this enough. You have something we want. Use that. Bargain with us.”

“I told you, Bonga head. Let my mama go! You think you know what I want? Must be poor living conditions in Nigeria. You people showed up and took the place over. You went to each town, lining people up, dragging them away. Then you go and arrest anyone getting more food. Now you bring tiny bits of food for us to eat and tell us to be happy. We have less now. You make us fight over fake cassava. Look how you help.”

“I know. I know, truly. But I do want to help you.”

“You’re only here cause your queen girl wants my power.”

“That is why they sent me, yes, but that’s not why I’m here.” He leaned in. “I’m here because I’m afraid of what will happen to you if you don’t cooperate.”

That reached her; he could tell. She seemed to recede into her chair. And she had no quip to follow up. For a first interview, that was all he needed, just to convey the direness of her situation.

Christof rose. “We’ll talk later. I’ll see what I can do about your mother. Have you eaten?”

She didn’t answer.

“I’ll have them bring you some food.” He looked around. “And better conditions.”

“That won’t make me believe you.”

“Wouldn’t have expected it to.”

Back in Sakhr’s office. Alexander’s young female face was prominent on the display. No matter what body he was in, Christof always recognized that same smirk.

“Interesting tactic.” Alex’s voice came over the speakers. “If you wanted a friend, I wish you’d have told me. We don’t spend time together anymore.”

“You watched that, did you?”

Sakhr interjected. “Alex contacted me while you were with the girl. I’ve brought him up to speed.”

“And then we watched the tail end of your scholarship program,” said Alex. “She’s too set against us. You’ll never get her to play nice. Give her to me, and I’ll get you that glyph.”

“No,” Christof said plainly. Both Sakhr and Sibyl glanced at him. His aura was betraying how strongly he felt about that. He needed a damn shield. “Just give me time with her.”

“My way is quicker,” Alex replied.

“I don’t think her power can even be made into a glyph. It’ll just break itself. If that’s the case, you need the girl’s cooperation if you ever want her help.”

“Not necessarily…” Alex mused.

“Let me do this my way. Let’s talk about her mother.”

“We’re not releasing her,” Sakhr said.

“She’s useless to us,” Christof argued. “and she’s not guilty of anything.”

“We’re not releasing her. She could come in useful.”

“We could always find her again,” Christof said. “The mother isn’t like this Josephine. She can’t hide.”

“Unless she’s with Josephine,” Alex said. “They’re not going to fall for my trick again. Frankly, I don’t see why we need this girl at all,” Alex said. “All she does is gum up glyphs. That’ll hurt us more than more than anyone else.”

“I want her for Victoria,” Sakhr said.

“You don’t need her. You really want a girl walking around that’ll break your master glyphs?”

Sakhr considered this.

“Hold on,” said Christof. “Let’s not damn this girl just yet. Give me time with her. What’s the harm?” He looked at Sakhr, knowing full well he was letting Sakhr reading his mind. “Please.”

Sakhr relented. “Fine. She’s yours. Any promises you make you’ll run by me first, understood.”


“Waste of time if you ask me,” Alex said.

“It won’t be your time wasted,” Sakhr said. “But I’ll need you to make Christof a plaque with a shield. You’ve got that plaque assembler up and running now, yes?”

“I guess I can,” said Alex, “but he’ll just break it if he’s going to interview the girl again.”

“That’s the idea. I want to confirm whether she’s a shield breaker.”

“Okay. I just got back. Christof, swing by the imperial spire. I’ll take you to see the assembler. It’s neat.”

“I’d rather not.”

“I need you to come.” Alex pointed to the back of his own neck. “You’ll need one of those exemplar microchips.”

“The plaque doesn’t need that security feature.”

“Let’s not get sloppy.”

“I’m not coming, Alex. Just have it sent to me.”

Alex frowned at Christof like an exasperated parent. “Are you still upset about Paul?”

Christof stared back at him.

Sakhr broke the silence. “Just have one of your men send it over, Alex.”

“You want those shady guys holding a shield? Very sloppy.”

Sakhr’s tolerance was waning. “Sibyl will pick it up. Is that acceptable?” He looked around at her.

She nodded.

Alex shrugged. “I still think Christof is being childish.”

“It’s fine,” Sakhr said. “And you’ll make a shield for me as well.”

“Sure, sure.”

Sakhr dismissed the call. He turned to Sibyl “Head over there. And be quick.”

She nodded and left.

Sakhr was alone with Christof now. He took a calming breath, then motioned for Christof to sit.

Christof did so. “Did you say Alex was in China?”

“He was following up on a possible lead regarding a flair.”

“Did he find one?”

“No. Says it was a hoax.”

“Do you believe him?”

Sakhr didn’t reply.

Christof continued. “I’m concerned about Alex. He’s been acting more and more on his own. Those exemplars of his are downright hostile to everyone else. He’s isolating himself.”

“I know…”

“He’s a problem, Sakhr. He never was before because he needed you to stay alive, but that might not be true anymore. You’ve let him on too loose of a leash.”

“I know.”

“And this whole business with—”

I know, Christof. I don’t need you to tell me all the ways Alexander is a growing liability.”

“Then why am I here?”

Sakhr stared Christof down. “Look at me.”

After centuries of living around Alex, doing so was against Christof’s habit, but he did so. Eye contact lasted until Sakhr satisfied himself with whatever he saw in Christof’s mind.

“I kept you here because I want to discuss what we’re going to do with this liability.”

“Ah,” said Christof. He understood now. The scan was a loyalty check. It was time for intrigue and politics.

Christof hated intrigue and politics

67. Custody

“Because they’re mine,” said Alex. “Sakhr gave them to me to make them cooperate.”

“You have nothing to gain from her,” replied Christof. “I don’t see why I should hand her over.”

They were arguing in Sakhr’s office while Sakhr was trying to work. They might as well have been arguing in a supply closet for all the interest Sakhr had in this conversation. Yet they kept turning to him to settle matters as though he was their parent. He was trying to attend to a multitude of issues that had come in, one being a staffing problem involving one of Victoria’s private estates along the Rio Jari down south. It seemed like a nice place: rustic, out of the way, private. He could leave for there and not tell anyone. Not the military. Not the ministers. Not Alex, or Christof, or Quentin, or anyone.

“There is plenty to gain,” Alex argued. “That girl is the far seeing one’s friend. If can get her back—”

“How? What are you going to do? Torture the friend and hope that the girl is looking?”

“That’s exactly it. Trust me. I’ve seen her mind. That girl will be watching Helena constantly.”

…Except disappearing wouldn’t work, Sakhr thought. Victoria was alive. He’d known in his gut that she was, but having Victoria rescue that girl just reasserted that Sakhr would never be safe. She was out there. She was watching. How else could she have known exactly when and where to be last night? In some ways, Sakhr was glad. She’d died too suddenly before. He and Victoria hadn’t… battled. Not to his satisfaction. Now she could witness him taking everything she’d worked so hard to build.

“This is not who we are,” Christof said. “We’ve been back in this world for a week and all we’ve done is prove exactly why Victoria locked us away to begin with.”

“First of all, her name is Katherine. Let’s not play into her make-believe. Secondly, nobody is asking you to do anything you don’t want to do, but Sakhr and I are trying to keep us alive.”

Of course, now Victoria had an edge, thanks to these bumbling cretins. She must have been watching all along, but now without the Korean, he could never stare back. There was no point in going after them. They could be in any place and in any body. Only exemplars could find her, and he sure as hell wouldn’t trust a task like that to the breed of stock Alex had been recruiting. Maybe once he had true loyalists of his own, except that was so far down the line he wouldn’t even waste time thinking about it.

If he could just get her coordinate location. Cruise missiles don’t ask questions.

How he did love having a military at his disposal.

“We don’t have time for your sentimentalism,” Alex said. “Sakhr gave the tortoises to me, not you, because he knew I’d get results.”

“And what do you have to show for it? Paul hasn’t given you his glyph, and now you’ve lost a tortoise.”

“Not my fault.”

“Either way,” Christof turned to Sakhr. “I’m keeping Helena.”

Alex turned to Sakhr too. “I’m not done. Give me the princess, and I can get the other one back.”

Sakhr could no longer pretend they weren’t there. Sibyl sat to his left, quiet, obedient. Why couldn’t the rest be like her? He reached his hand out, and she responded by offering her plaque.

Hundreds of auras bloomed to life. Officers in nearby spires focused on their duties. Faux exemplars in Sakhr’s own spire procrastinated—all of them handpicked by Alexander. Sakhr could even sense those damn osprey that no one had yet to remove from the bridge spire. He’d have to remember to talk to the admiral about that. With Victoria alive, Sakhr’s no birds policy was more important than ever.

What mattered right now were the two aura’s before him. Like fingerprints, they were wildly different, though both were housed behind bickering mouths. Also, both were being genuine. No hidden agendas today.

“Alex. Let Christof keep the girl.”

“Wait. How about this?” Alex replied. “I promise I won’t do anything to the girl for twenty-four hours. I’ll just put a sign above her threatening what I’ll do if she doesn’t come back.”

“No, Alex.”

“Forty-eight hours. The far seeing girl will come crawling back.”

“No, she won’t. She’s with Victoria, who won’t allow her. Ergo, there is no point.”

“The girl could escape her.”

“She won’t.”

“It’ll at least make it harder for them. Katherine will have to waste time making sure the girl doesn’t slip away. Come on, Sakhr. Since when do you pass up potential advantages?”

Sakhr’s response was delayed. It was a potential edge.

With his hand on Sibyl’s plaque, he could sense the effect his silence had on the two. Alex’s anticipation grew. The effect on Christof was more a pronounced dread. This was important to Christof.

“No,” Sakhr said finally. “Christof keeps the girl. We’re not subjecting a girl to mindless misery for minor gains. And she may come in useful later.”

“Thank you,” said Christof.

“You’re making a mistake,” said Alex. “You’re being weak.”

Enough, Alex.” He turned to Christof. “Do not lose that girl. Keep her alive. Keep her secure.”


“If there’s nothing else, you can go.”

Christof and Alex rose. Sakhr motioned to Alex. “You stay.”

Alex sat back down. Christof glanced at both of them while leaving. His face was neutral, but Sakhr sensed the suspicious shift in his aura. Nothing could be done about that. Alex had been right when he said Christof got caught up in sentimentalism. Sometimes sordid affairs were necessary. And Christof didn’t have the right mindset.

“So,” Alex said after Christof was gone. “You’re hogtying my work so Christof can sleep better?”

“He’s right. We never used to do these sorts of things.”

“We never had the world thrust on us before. We have enemies now.”

“That may be so,” said Sakhr. “Let Christof have this victory. I want to know where you stand with Paul.”


“Are you making progress?”


“Because from where I stand, it looks as though you’re just having your own fun. I gave him to you because I—”

“I know what you want, and I will get it.”

“I see. And once you have gotten this glyph, you plan to bring it straight to me?”

 Sakhr’s hand still rested on Sibyl’s plaque. His gaze was direct at Alex.

This wasn’t lost on Alexander. “Is someone having a case of the paranoids?”

“Do you?”

If not for the plaque, the delay in Alex’s response would have raised Sakhr’s suspicions, but his aura was much too playful, and when he spoke, he returned Sakhr’s burning gaze.

“Yes,” he said. “Once I have the glyph from Paul, I will bring it to you. Do you feel better now?”

“How much longer do you think it will take?”

“He’s on the brink. Twice he’s almost written it while in a daze. Give me another day or two. Is that good enough for you?”

“It will have to do.”

“Anything else?”

“No. No more.”

Alex rose and headed toward the door.

“Oh one last thing,” said Sakhr.

Alex looked back. “Yes?”

“Doesn’t the far seeing girl have a family?”

A smile crept onto Alex’s face. “Yes, she does.”