115. Just Privileges

All ministers and local regional heads were crammed into the Leguan staff room. They sat shoulder to shoulder along a conference table made from smaller tablecloth-covered plastic tables. Winnie sat by Helena, both because Helena begged for her to be there, and because she was technically the Head of the Exemplar Committee now that she had her body back.

“So pardon me, Your Majesty,” said a general, “If we haven’t been dealing with you these past few weeks, that means the peace work with China… it was this Alexander?”

“It was, but he was using mind control.”

“The same mind control he supposedly used on all us?”

“It’s not supposedly,” Helena said. “He was.”

“Are we still being mind controlled?”

“No. You’re not. I’m not going to use any kind of mind control.”

“Did your mother use mind control?”

“No. I don’t think she did.”

“You don’t know for sure?”

“I don’t think she had the ability. The mind-control showed up after those glyphs got out in the open.”

“But she would have?” asked another.

“I don’t know,” Helena said. “I’m not her.”

“I don’t think she would have,” Winnie interjected. “It wouldn’t have interested her. She wouldn’t have considered it actually ruling people. More controlling them.”

“But she did use mind control to assault the Manakin?”

“Out of necessity,” Helena said. “And it wasn’t an assault. She just snuck aboard to get rid of Alexander. Alexander was the one who sunk the citadel.”

“I thought you said your mother did.”

“I meant he was the one who set the bomb. My mother sank it to contain the blast.”

The men and women in the council chamber still looked confused.

“So how can we be sure that you’re really Helena?” a minister asked.

Helena opened her mouth. Closed it. With a sigh, she unhooked her necklace. Her aura came to life. “Here. Read my mind.”

Everyone reacted. “Ma’am. Put that back on. It’s not safe,” the general said.

“It’s perfectly safe.”

“The enemy can strike from anywhere.”

“I’ve already explained. Just… do you want to read my mind or not?”

She looked each person in the eyes one after another. Many averted their gaze, but most took her up on their offer. Some gaped. Other stared, eyes fixed on Helena with intensity. Others simply glanced, then nodded.

“Do you all believe me now?” she asked.

No one replied.

Eventually, a minister spoke. “Are you going to tell people what happened?”


“I’m not sure that’s wise, ma’am,” said the general. “If people learn how easily the empire was usurped—that you spent two weeks imprisoned in an animal while some maniac ran the country—it could cause panic.”

“And no one will react positively to knowing their minds have been controlled,” said another. “They’re already wary of the Exemplar Committee. This could strain their tolerance to the breaking point.”

“I know,” Helena said. “That’s why I’m going to make some changes. My mother used the exemplars to control people while keeping secrets from everyone, even me. I, however, will not be a hypocrite. I’m dissolving the Exemplar Committee.”

Everyone’s reaction was immediate.

“Your Majesty, you mustn’t do that,” an admiral said. “The Committee holds this empire together. Your mother put a lot of faith into foreign militaries enforcing her reign on their soil. If the exemplars aren’t there to ensure loyalty, rebellion will occur. Parts of this empire would secede the moment they had the chance.”

“Maybe that’s part of the problem,” Helena said. “Maybe we shouldn’t force ourselves in places we’re not welcome.”

“You’re not suggesting we relinquish control?” the admiral asked.

“We’ve already lost control of Northern Europe,” Helena countered. “Asia is in riots right now, and we don’t have any forces in India anymore.”

“But voluntarily give up control? Showing weakness like that would lead to war. Many of these countries would unite against us if they thought that they could get away with it. The exemplars and our control over food supplies are what barely hold this empire together. I understand why you want to disband the Committee. It’s a noble cause, but we just can’t right now.”

“Okay,” Helena said. She donned her shield stone. Her aura was betraying her cool, confident presentation. “But the people don’t deserve to live under the constant threat that we can read their minds while they can’t read ours. They don’t trust us anymore. That needs to change. Maybe from now on, they should have a right to demand screenings from those who control them.”

Again, her audience clambered to respond.

“You want them to read our minds?” one outspoken minister said.

“We’ve spent years reading theirs,” Helena said. “But nobody read ours. And look what happened. We’re the ones that failed them.”

“Your Majesty. Your Majesty,” a minister replied. “That’s lunacy.”

“Of course we can,” Helena replied. “Why not?”

“People would lose faith in the empire.”

“More than they already have?”

“Yes. You are our queen because of who your mother was. That’s it. If people find out that it’s possible to switch bodies, and that Victoria was actually someone else in Victoria’s body, what does that say about your right to rule?”

Helena hesitated.

“And what about state secrets, ma’am? What would happen if the location of our nuclear arsenal became public knowledge? What’s to stop them from taking information about military operations from our head and selling them to another nation? What if they—”

“I get it,” Helena said. “So we won’t open ourselves up that entirely. All I know is that my mother was never checked by anyone, and that’s part of what caused this whole problem. And I still believe if we can read other people’s minds, they should have the right to read ours.”

“A right?” asked the general. “Your mother had a saying about rights. They’re—”

I know what my mother used to say.” Helena stopped and composed herself. “So maybe we don’t dissolve the Exemplar Committee, but there has to be more accountability. The world is changing every day. People have lost trust, and we need to earn it back.” She sighed. “I know I’m… My administration is still getting a handle on things, but I will do what’s best. Will you stand by me?”

There was silence at first. Winnie was worried no one would answer.

Then, “Of course, Your Majesty.”

It was the general. He took his shields stone from around his neck and laid it on the table. His eyes met Helena’s.

“I support you,” said a minister. She too set aside her stone and looked at Helena.

One by one each person at the table pledged their support. Whether by choice or by pressure, they all removed their shields as they did so. There was nothing to hide.

“Good,” Helena said.

“That was horrible,” Helena wailed. “I’m going to be the worst queen in the world.”

She and Winnie were sitting together in her Leguan officer’s quarters.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Winnie said.

“It was. They all think I’m an idiot.”

“No, they don’t. You’ve been in office for less than a day. Nobody expects you to know exactly what to do. It’s their job to help you learn. What’s important is that they all support you.”

“No, they don’t. They just think they do. Their heads are all messed up and they don’t even realize it. Whatever Alex did to them has rolled over onto me. Did you know the Chinese premier called me today? He said he just wanted to make sure I was all right, but I think he wanted to do phone sex with me or something. He wouldn’t stop flirting.”

“So maybe people are a little attached to you,” Winnie admitted. “You could use the advantage.”

“Yeah, because I have no idea what I’m doing. None. Everything I said in there was stupid. I was actually going to say we should stop hoarding food assembly until that guy pointed out that it’s the only thing keeping us from all out war. The biggest thing I’ve ever led was a basketball team.”

“Oh, uh… about that,” Winnie said. “Ms. Montes wants to know when we’re coming back to class.”

“I can’t,” Helena wailed. “I don’t have time for school anymore.”

“We’ll have to make time. The queen should at least have a high school education, but she says the school will work around your schedule.”

Helena thrust her head onto her pillow.

“Ms. Montes will set up tutoring for you,” Winnie continued. “And it sounds like the ministry takes care of most day to day stuff about running the empire. Although maybe not at first. Everything is hectic right now, but it should all calm down soon.”

Helena still had her face buried. “Would you like to be queen? You still have the body swapping glyph, right?”

“I’m not bossy enough, but that reminds me.” She brought out a folder from her bag. Inside were transcribed glyphs. “What are we going to do with these?”

“What are they?”

“Alex’s backup glyphs.”

Helena picked up the one on top. “This is the Sympathy glyph, isn’t it?”


“Is this the only one left?”


Helena started to tear it.

“Wait!” Winnie said. “Are you sure?”

I’m not going to use it. That’s something my mother would have done. I’m trying to prove to the world that they can trust me. I can’t do that and use this.”

“But that’s the last glyph. If it’s gone, the power is gone for good, and that power might be the only reason the ministry is giving you a chance. It might be the only reason we’re not at war right now.”

Helena gazed at the glyph for a long while. “No.” She tore it in two. “I won’t use it, and I can’t think of a reason why I would that’s not wrong. The world is better off without it.” Helena continued tearing it into tiny pieces. Afterward, she stared at the remains. “Did I just make a big mistake?”

“No,” Winnie stared with her. “You’re right. It shouldn’t exist. You’ll give people shields, and that will protect them.”

Helena looked down at the second sheet in the folder. “And this is body swapping, right?”

“It is. It’s the only glyph in existence now.”

“Should I tear it up too?”

“That’s up to you.”

“But I want to know what you think.”

Winnie shrugged. “I don’t know. What you’re holding in your hand is the secret to immortality. Sakhr lived for thousands of years because of that.”

“But we’d have to steal lives to do it. I’d be just like my mom.”

“Maybe you could be open about using it instead. What if you only took lives of people on death row or something?”

“Ew. And live in the body of some slimy, tattooed convict?”

“Maybe one day we could make mindless clones of ourselves, and we take those bodies.”

Helena regarded her.

“I don’t know,” Winnie said. “It just seems like there’s a lot of potential we could be throwing away. I could just see us eighty years from now, swallowing a dozen pills every morning and leaning on our walkers, wishing we still had this around.”

“But maybe that’s why we should destroy it,” Helena said. “Just like with Sympathy, sooner or later we’re going to be tempted. And what if it got out? Could you imagine that? Identity theft would hit a whole new level. Like, an even worse level than it’s already reached with all this mind-reading going on. Some old bad guy could break into someone’s house, tie someone up, read their mind for everything they’d ever have to know, then switch bodies and take over the other person’s life. Or worse. A person could take over a baby. Who would ever know?”

“Everything can be abused,” Winnie said, “but it still might be the most amazing power that’s ever existed. Maybe there are people out there who would want to swap bodies with each other. And I can think of a few ways swapping bodies with someone might be fun, even if just for a while.”

“But I’m still not sure it’s worth the risk.”

“What about Alex?” Winnie asked. “If you get rid of that, he’ll be in a tortoise forever.”

“So? He deserves it.”

“He doesn’t even remember what he did.”


“I’m just saying. It’s not like we’re punishing him. There’s no lesson for him to learn if he can’t remember, and what if someday we want to release him? Or imprison someone else? Every generation, more flairs are going to show up with powers we can’t even imagine. Maybe keeping the glyph around is a bad idea, but maybe one day we’ll need it.”

Helena looked despairingly at the glyph she held between her fingers, poised to tear it. “Oh, I don’t know. Every choice I make seems like it could change the world forever. I don’t want this kind of pressure. Why can’t being an queen be all about fashion like I wanted it to be?”

Winnie put the glyph back in the folder and tucked it away. “Maybe you’ve been queen enough for now. Big decisions can wait until tomorrow.” She her shield stone off from around her neck and set it beside the bed.

“What are you doing?” Helena asked.

Winnie met her gaze. Her mind returned to a place in the universe where their solar system was just speck far behind. Before her were untold galaxies of all different shapes and size, all unimaginably far away, and whatever lay beyond.

“Where do you want to go?” Winnie thought.

Helena removed her own shield stone and looked back. “Far away,” she thought.

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.”

97. Reactions

“Has anyone asked her?” a marine private asked.

“Naw. No one’s seen her. She’s holed up in the captain’s quarters,” answered another.

Oni lay on his rack listening in on the soldiers’ conversation. In the last few hours, he’d heard many like it. The soldiers didn’t talk with him or his family, but they ignored him enough that they didn’t watch their words around him. By now, he knew everything they knew.

“Has the captain talked to her?” the marines continued

“I don’t think the captain knows yet.”

“He knows. He knows everything that happens on his ship.”

“Then why hasn’t he talked to her?”

A soldier tossed a few chips into the pile to call. “I think he hasn’t talked to any of us because he knows it’s true. ”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself,” said the dealer. Another soldier called.

“Come on. Everybody already knows it’s true. Nuclear war broke out. Victoria just happened to have the one piece of technology that let her feed her people. Everybody starves but her. She takes over the world. That’s some Bond villain shit right there.”

“So she saw the Collapse coming. A lot of people did. Doesn’t mean she caused it.”

“No. She caused it. Everybody outside of the empire already knows this.”

“Bullshit. If Victoria caused the war, then she planned it like shit. Were you in Porto Maná after everything went down? LakiraLabs had to rush construction on those assemblers. We were eating canned food for almost a year. A lot of people starved.”

Turn went to Tan. Tossing in some chips, he passed the turn to the next. The soldiers let him play with them, but never as the dealer. Unlike the others, he focused on the game.

“She had to do that,” another said. “What would it look like if she already had all the assemblers she needed? Bombs drop. Winter sets in. Oh look, everybody. I just happen to have a warehouse full of these food makers.”

“She couldn’t have cause the Collapse even if she wanted. She’s just one person. Espionage on that level would have taken a huge team of people. And you think nobody on that team would have leaked that they were trying to destroy the world?”

“She could have done it easily. Look. She’s on board now in the body of some teenager. She can swap bodies. Nobody knew about that, and you can bet your ass she had that power before the Collapse. Are her exemplar pets swapped out too? We don’t know. No one knows anything about her.”

“The exemplar’s, man. The exemplars,” said another. “Who knows how long she had glyphs before she made the exemplars. She could have been mind reading everybody, and killing off anyone who wanted to talk. She had body swapping. Who knows what secrets she still keeps?”

“I don’t buy it. We’ve all met her. Does she seem like a killer to you? A tough lady, sure. But not a killer. Not a mass murderer.”

“She wages wars, man. She’s already a mass murderer.”

“You know what I mean.”

“What I don’t get is why did this fake queen or whatever tell us all this.”

“It’s a ploy,” said the other lieutenant. Both were on duty monitoring the status of the ship’s nuclear reactor. Everything was nominal. They paid more attention to the video playing on a tablet between them.

“Look.” One soldier backed the video up.

“I would demand answers from her,” said Alexander in the video.

“See? She looks directly at the camera when she says that. It’s meant for us. Then she says that Victoria shouldn’t be heading this empire, as though she’s still alive. She meant this message for us.”

“It’s a he, by the way.”


“Alex is short for Alexander. It’s a guy.”

“Whatever. He’s trying to talk to us.”

“But it was political suicide.” The soldier took the tablet and did a search on the speech. “Look at this. Everybody on the internet is freaking out. People are asking for Helena to step down.”

“Since when does what the people want ever mattered? She’s got the armies. The Chinese have already said they’re going to stay in the empire. Everyone else is too. The only thing standing in her way is—”

His way.”

“…His way is us. He knows Victoria is here. He knows we’ll ask her if this is true.”

Has anyone asked her?”

“What’s the point?” asked Second Lieutenant Marco, the ship co-pilot. “Isn’t that woman we caught supposed to be able to erase memories? We could ask her. She could tell us she caused the war single handedly, and killed Santa Claus while she was at it. Next minute: pop. We know nothing.”

“There’s no way she’d get away with that,” replied Barnes, the pilot. “I mean, just listen to this chatter.” He raised the volume on the shortwave radio momentarily. The language was in Arabic, but the word ‘Victoria’ jumped out several times. “Nobody is not talking about it. Every time she’d take it from our memories, it’d just restart the rumor mill as soon as someone read their internet feed. But then we’d all be asking why we’re only hearing about this now.”

“Maybe she’ll erase everyone’s mind.”

“The whole world’s? I don’t think that’s how it works. If it’s true, it’s going to come out.”

“If it is true,” asked Marco. “What would you do about it?”

“I don’t know. Haven’t thought about it. Not sure I want to.” Barnes lapsed into silence a while. “I had a wife, you know. Maria. We were in Panama during the Collapse. Bombs didn’t hit there, but you know… the winter. We couldn’t get out. I mean, where’d you go, right? The starvation hit everywhere, except south, but everyone going that way was sent back.”

“She starved?”

He shook his head. “Didn’t get the chance. Bunch of teenagers thought she might have something they wanted. Stabbed her to death for an aid pack of assembled shit. Broad Daylight. Hundreds of witnesses. When I found her the next day. Her body was right where she fell. Lakira moved in two weeks later and restored order.”

“You’d blame Victoria?”

“I don’t know. I know I never would have joined the army if Maria were still alive.” He shrugged, shaking off the story. “How about you? Did you lose anyone from the war?”

“Of course I did. Everyone did,” said Tactical Officer Lucero. “What I want to know is: are we going to do anything about it even if it is her fault?”

He had several others had collected around the target evaluation console on the bridge. They spoke in a hush since Victoria was only a room away conversing with the Captain.

“It’s not a question of if,” said the flight navigator. “She did it. She started the war.”

“How can you know that?”

“You saw how much Alex hurt his position by saying that. He’d only do it if it hurt Victoria more, and it wouldn’t hurt her if the rumor weren’t true. Victoria has to be guilty.”

“All these rumors already went around years ago. Nobody cared then. Nobody will care now.”

I care. Those rumors back then were bullshit, but this is real. We’re working for the bad guy. Puts everything I’ve done these last two years into a different light.”

“It doesn’t mean everything we’ve done is bad. We’ve been building an empire.”

“Yeah? For what? If Victoria builds an empire because the world is destroyed, that’s one thing. If she blew up the world to build her empire, that’s completely different. I wouldn’t have joined the army if I’d known this.”

“We don’t know what she did,” said Navigator Tremont. “For all we know. She tried her best to stop the war, all while preparing for it in case it did happen.”

“Then why doesn’t she just say so? Victoria’s been hiding ever since the announcement.”

“We can’t just make assumptions.”

“Can’t we? That woman is not forthright about anything. She kept glyphs to herself. She hid her body snatching ability from everyone. She hasn’t told us anything we don’t absolutely have to know.”

“She has her reasons.”

“Who is Alex anyway? He obviously knows more about her than we do? All we know about him is that Victoria says he’s bad news. She never said why? Maybe he’s the good guy.”

“I think you’re all forgetting there are telepaths aboard this ship,” said Communications Officer Ruiz. “We shouldn’t be having this discussion.”

“All I’m asking is the truth. We deserve that. We’re fighting against the empire because some woman claims to be the dead queen, only she won’t tell us anything.”

The conversation broke as Executive Officer Rivera entered the bridge. Several headed back to their stations.

“What’s all this?” he asked.

“Just talking, sir,” said Lucero. “Have you heard the news?”

“Of course I’ve heard. No one will shut up about it.”

“Is the captain going to ask her?”

Everyone on the bridge looked to the exec. He glanced at everyone else. “What the captain does is none of your concerns. Get back to your work. Now.”

The huddle broke.

“But you always knew,” thought Helena.

“Yeah,” Winnie thought back.

Helena peered through Winnie’s memories, seeing the conversation Winnie had with Victoria about the deal to get Helena a body in exchange for cooperation. Helena dug back further to when Winnie was overhearing the truth from Paul, and the anger Winnie had felt thinking about how Victoria was responsible for her father’s death. Then Helena saw Winnie’s last phone conversation with her dad.

Winnie mentally recoiled.

Helena stopped. “Sorry.”

“No. It’s okay. Look.”

Helena witnessed the memory as though it were her own. She saw the announcement on the news, and Winnie’s mother trying desperately to reach her husband. Winnie shared final words with her father, knowing they would be their last, but not fully understanding why. She’d imagined her father’s final moments, screaming at the phone, then staring at the city when that final flash of white came.

“Were those actually your dad’s final moments?”

“I don’t know. I guess they might actually be.”

“And Victoria did this to you?”

“In a roundabout sort of way, yeah.”

“And you agreed to keep her secret?”

“It was her condition on her giving you a body.”

“But she killed your dad.”

“But what am I going to do about it? If I even think of rebelling, she’d know, and she’d make me forget everything. I’d rather know the truth.”

“Why didn’t she?”

“I guess because I agreed to help her anyway. If she had made me forget and I later found out, I’d probably run away before she could do it again.”

“But then—”

“Yeah. She could just find me and erase my memories again. I thought about ways I might protect myself from her. Maybe I could write down everything on a piece of paper. You know… Victoria caused the war and killed your dad. She promised to give Helena a body once she’s in control again. All the stuff she might make me forget, but then I realized she’d read my mind and see the note. Then she’d just get rid of it first.”

“What if you put it somewhere she couldn’t get to it?”

“I can’t think of anywhere. I thought maybe the admin section of my clothing website, but then she just get the password from my mind. The best plan I came up with was to use one of those ‘Last Wishes’ sites people use for when they die. You know… you send it a bunch of messages. Then if you don’t check in with it once in a while, the server emails the messages to your family. That way you sort of send messages from beyond the grave. I figured I could make an account, give it my secrets, then change the account name and password to something I don’t remember so not even I could stop it.”

“But Victoria could contact the website’s company,” said Helena.

“Exactly, or get into my email. If I were really serious, I could ask Josephine to erase my memory of making the account.”

“I thought the memories she takes have to be related to her.”

“Oh. Right. So see? Not even that works. Besides, Josephine would have to erase her own mind too, so no matter what I do, Victoria could stop it. I can only trust that she’ll keep her word, but now that now that her secret’s out, she doesn’t have a reason to.”

“Don’t worry about it so much. If I don’t get a body, I don’t get a body. Don’t let her control you because of me.”

“I will get you a body, Helena. Stop trying to talk me out of it. Besides, she can always put me in a tortoise, so what choice do I have? I have to help Victoria no matter what she’s done. I’m stuck.”

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?

95. Far Beyond

Late that night, or what counted as night for a ship circling the earth, Winnie lay in her rack, propped on pillows. Her tablet lay wedged against the steel wall such that both she and Helena, who sat on her lap, could see it. Scattered over the bed were ignored food pellets, assembled berries, and crumbled food bars.

After much waiting, Winnie finally got some pages to load on tortoise physiology. It had taken nearly twenty minutes of back and forth as each page request went to the orbiter’s mainframe proxy, which fetched the website through a satellite internet connection. For soldiers reading and writing email back home, it was adequate. For anything else, it was crap.

“Watermelon,” Winnie said. “That’s something you can eat. It says you shouldn’t have a lot of it though. Would you like some?” She looked at Helena. “Water. Melon.”


“Okay.” Winnie read through some more. “Green leafy vegetables, but those dark kinds that nobody likes. Kale? I think that’s what these pellets are, but we could make some that actually look like kale. How about it? Kale?”

In Helena’s mind, she saw an image of a mother trying to feed a toddler baby food. The mother swerved her spoon around. “Open up for the airplane.”

The meaning was clear.

“Okay, I’ll stop,” Winnie turned off the tablet. “But you really should eat more. I know you’re still hungry.”

Confusion came from Helena’s mind.

“Hungry,” said Winnie slowly. “You are hungry.”

“I don’t feel hungry,” Helena thought. She then expressed her memory about their talk of getting Helena a body.

“Sorry. Victoria won’t do it right now, and she’s making me choose the body you get. I think it’s her way to spite me.”

In Helena’s eyes, Winnie saw that the only word she’d understood was sorry. It was what she had been expecting to hear. Helena already assumed she’d never get a body again.

But there was hope, sort of. Except Helena wasn’t understanding that. Communicating with Helena was getting frustrating.

Winnie wrestled her glyph card from her pocket. Multiple people could use the same glyphs if they held it together, but what was Helena supposed to do? Bite it?

After some thought, Winnie mashed a berry between her fingers. She cradled Helena and carefully traced the mind-reading glyph on her shell. Helena craned to see. When she couldn’t, she settled and waited. It was slow going. Each stroke took multiple dabs, but Winnie finished.

She looked Helena in the eyes and thought, “can you hear me?”

Helena could. Winnie heard her own voice in Helena’s head. Helena, however, was startled. She’d never used a mind-reading glyph before.

“Take your time,” thought Winnie. “It’s me. You’re not thinking these thoughts. I gave you the mind-reading glyph.”

“What? I uh… how do I answer? Oh.”

Helena fumbled through several of Winnie’s memories before realizing what she was doing. Thoughts would echo in Winnie’s mind, and Helena would focus on them, causing them to echo again in Winnie’s. The feedback was chaotic, but it eventually settled down.

“I think I got it,” Helena said.

“Can you understand me better?”


Then Helena had a concern about accidentally seeing Winnie’s private thoughts. It immediately brought some of her own to surface.

Helena shut her eyes.

Winnie smiled. “Take your time.”

After a while, Helena reopened them. Her surface thoughts were locked on basketball. Right behind them were her private thoughts.

“God!” Helena thought. She shut her eyes again. This time, when she opened them, she conveyed a single thought. “How do you control this?” Then eyes shut.

Winnie laughed. “Relax… Focus on my mind… Not yours.”

Helena waggled her head. Her eyes stayed closed.

Winnie waited. As flustered as Helena may be, her mind was finally off her depression. Her aura was something other than it’s usual barren haze.

Helena tried again. Mentally, she repeated the same babble. “Her mind her mind her mind her mind her mind.” Helena pilfered through Winnie’s head, picking out random childhood memories, the past few days, some Korean words Winnie knew. There was no pause to breath. Winnie hadn’t been nearly this bad when she first linked with Josephine. It helped that death was imminent then. It focused her. Afterward, while working with Josephine, if Something came up, they both ignored it. It was no big deal.

Everyone secretly believed they had the dirtiest thoughts of all. In this week alone, Winnie had seen enough dirty thoughts in the soldiers around her that she’d stopped caring. Helena just hadn’t realized yet that her thoughts couldn’t possibly be worse than those men.


Helena snapped her eyes shut.

Winnie felt her cheeks heat up.

Helena withdrew into her shell.

“Umm. No, it’s okay,” Winnie said. “You uh… don’t have to hide.” Then slowly. “Please come out.”

Helena didn’t.

All Winnie had to go on now was Helena’s aura. It had become a knot so tight and overwhelming, Winnie felt nauseous simply imagining what it felt like. Cautiously, she laid her hands on Helena’s shell, but it turned Helena’s aura darker.

“Please… It’s Okay.”

Helena’s eyes snapped open. “Take it off take it off take it off take it off!”

“The glyph? But why? I’d still be able to read your mind.”

“Don’t. Okay? Don’t read my mind.”

“But then how will I know what you’re saying?”

“Oh God, I want to diiieee.”

“Helena. I don’t care.”

“I swear. It was just a thought. I was just thinking about what would be the most embarrassing thing for you to see, and it just popped into my head. I’ve never thought stuff like that before.”

“It’s fine. The soldiers think stuff like that all the time.”

“I swear,” she mentally yelled. “I don’t!”

Winnie laughed.”It’s okay,” Winnie yelled back. “I seriously don’t care.”

“But how could you not?”

“It’s kind of flattering actually.”

“Stop! Stop making fun of me.”

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. Stop it. I—” Helena’s thought trailed off. “What’s the point? It’s not like it matters. It’s just another reason to hate my life.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not? I’m a tortoise. I’m going to be one forever. Why should anybody care what I think? They never did before. I’m a joke. I always have been. I just didn’t know it until now. So go ahead. Read my mind. I don’t care anymore. Look at what a joke my life is.”

“Your life isn’t a joke.”

“Yes, it is. I’m the princess who goes shopping and brags about how she’s going to rule. Everybody nods and laughs and puts up with her. It won’t matter. I’m nobody. No. I’m worse than nobody. My mom made me so I was a nobody on purpose. My life was just an inconvenience she put up with for her future body. It was the only thing about me of any value, and now I don’t even have that anymore.”

“We’ll get you another body?”

“From what? My mom? Why would she?”

“I made a deal with her.”

“Yeah. To get somebody else’s body. I’ll never have my own again—the one I worked so hard on. She gets to enjoy it, after everyone else is done with it. You know what? I’m glad she doesn’t get my body. It’s the best way I could have ever spite her besides killing myself. Now I can’t even do that anymore. She wouldn’t care.”

“But you’ll get a body. I know it won’t be your own. And it does kind of suck having someone else’s body. I would know.”

“But you have to pick one out for me. She did that on purpose, you know. She hopes you’ll chicken out.”

“I know, but I won’t,” Winnie thought. “I was thinking we could pick one of the exemplars Alex swapped out with his people. They’re all criminals who are already using a stolen bodies, and the original owners are dead. There’s no way Victoria will let them go free once she’s in control, so they’re practically doomed anyway. Here, look. These are some that I was thinking about.” Winnie visualized some exemplars. None were as young as Helena, and none had paid as much attention to maintaining their own bodies, but plenty were young and attractive.

But Helena wasn’t paying attention.

“Come on, Helena. Please. Look at these.”

“Why? Even if Victoria does let me have one of their bodies, which I don’t think she will, what then? I live somebody else’s life while my mother gets to live mine? I’d rather just be dead. And you know what the worst part about it is? It’d probably be for the best. I’d be a horrible ruler.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“Please. Nobody wants me to be queen. Not even you. I can see it in your head.”

“But I would.”

“You told my mom you didn’t think I was ready. You thought I was a spoiled princess who wouldn’t take it seriously. And you were right. I wanted to make you my fashion advisor. The world is in ruins and I wanted to outlaw fabrics. I would have been the worst ruler the world has ever seen.”

“Helena,” Winnie said. “Your mom killed, like, most of the world. You literally could not do worse than her.”

“What!” Helena scanned through Winnie’s mind. “Oh, wow. Yeah. I guess that’s true.” A flicker of mirth came from Helena.

“And you were a pretty good at leading the basketball team.”

“I guess that’s true. I did lead them to win nationals. And those girls were the worst. Seriously. I know nobody else cared as much as I did, and I yelled a lot, but I made them try. Those girls would have sucked if not for me.”

“I believe you.”

“Watch. Who’s going to get them to regionals now? Bridget? Please. They won’t even qualify.”

Helena imagined the team failing under Bridget’s passive guidance. Helena knew no one would miss her pushing, but they’d learn that she was the reason for their success. She was proud about that.

But the daydream only lasted a moment. Inevitably, Helena recalled why she wasn’t leading them anymore. Each memory found their way back to her mother, or the maniacs who’d stolen her perfect body, or the helpless tortoise body she was left with. Gloom fogged over her mind until her little pocket of pride evaporated.

“Considering everything,” Helena though, “being a tortoise is the best future I could have hoped for. My mom was probably going to kill me after she took my body. No one would ever have known. From the moment I was born I was supposed to die. I just wish… you know… I just wish I’d had a chance.”

“I know.” Winnie folded her legs toward her chest, cocooning herself around Helena. “Hey. You want to see something cool?”


Winnie cleared her mind and focused. She visualized herself cradling Helena, as though looking from a small camera floating above their rack. The berthing quarters was cramped with bunkbeds with just enough room to sidle between them. From near the ceiling, Winnie could see over the bunks to all the hatches leading from the room.

“Where do you want to go?” Winnie asked.

“Me? I don’t know. Where can we go?”


“Can we leave the ship?”

Winnie focused on a tiny port window across the room. She soared through it, and the world opened up. The quarters were gone. The ship was just a tiny dot floating above the boundless expanse of the earth below them. The grayish continents were sprawled out with sapphire blue ocean stretching into the horizon. From up here, they could just make out curve of the planet.

“Oh wow,” Helena thought. “Is it always this vivid?”

“It wasn’t at first. I’ve gotten better over the months. Where to now?”

“I have no idea.” Several destinations floated through Helena’s mind: The north pole, the Asian mountains, remote islands. “I can’t decide. You pick.”

“Me? If you insist.”

Her mind turned upward, to where the blue tinge of the atmosphere turned black and the stars shown through. At a speed no human had ever gone, she soared toward space. Earth shot away behind them, its vastness becoming nothing more than a marble. And then there was the moon, as vast and monumental as the earth, but Winnie didn’t stop. Soon both were dots behind them, indistinguishable from the stars.

Still she went on. The sun became a mote. The stars shifted around them. They seemed so close now, but it was only an illusion because of her speed. She was moving faster than any particle man had ever known, and each moment she moved faster still. The stars parted. An infinite black lay beyond. Winnie glanced back to see the swirled galaxy they’d just emerged from—an unimaginable number of dots mixed together in a glittering mass. From this perspective, she was a giant overlooking it. She could reach out and touch any star. But Winnie looked back out at the dark. It took her a moment to adjust her mind to see what the human eye would not, like adjusting her vision to the dark.

And there they were—the other galaxies. Each one was so faint and far away that the light years Winnie had just spanned were nothing but the step of an ant in comparison.

“There are so many of them,” thought Helena.


“Have you been to them before?”

“A few. Where do you want to go now?”

“Can we go even further?”

“Yeah, we can.”

And so they did.

94. Zero Sum

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

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

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

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

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

Parrots had a wider selection.

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

She tasted one. Exactly as bad as she remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helena’s mental response was simple.


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


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

“She’s still alive?”


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

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

“But not my body?”

“No. Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s still busy, Winnie.”

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

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

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

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

“Okay, then go. Do it.”

“…Once she is free.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

“I want to talk to you about Helena.”

“What about her?”

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


“You said you would.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winnie glared at her.

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

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

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

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.

65. Drifting Towers

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

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

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

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

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

…And the door open.


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

But still.

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

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

Then came several choices.

An elevator led further up the spire. Nope.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so they waited. And waited.

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

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

She wobbled. She pushed. Nothing.

She was stuck. So much for their great escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long ago was this?” asked Christof.

“Two minutes?”

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

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

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

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

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

The man looked back, confused. “What?”

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

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

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

“No, I don’t.”

“I will see you executed.”

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

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

The exemplars seized him.

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

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

I never violated anything.”

“Let him go,” Christof said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want me to wake the barracks?”

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

Everyone split off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his hand hooked her shell.

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

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

Christof walked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need that one for this one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, kid,” came a gruff voice.

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

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

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

“It’s a tortoise,” the girl replied.

“Whatever. It belongs to the queen.”

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

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

The girl didn’t stop approaching the female exemplar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You killed them,” Winnie said.

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

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

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

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